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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Now, the story of rapper Bigg Jus, who is definitely not making gangster rap.

(Soundbite of rap music)

Mr. BIGG JUS (Rapper): (Rapping) Yeah, fear for to make my escape. Can't handle your (unintelligible). Whip out the parking brake. Here come baby Newnan, pushing a brand new smoke pearl order union, performing precision tuning.

CHADWICK: The latest album by Bigg Jus is "Poor People's Day." NPR's Christopher Johnson reports that Jus uses the term underground to describe his anti-commercial sound.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON reporting:

It's easy, sometimes, to forget that rap is just part of a wider hip-hop culture. That culture also includes break dancing, DJ artistry, and graffiti. Hip-hop's visual art is so important to some rappers, they put their graffiti name right after their stage moniker.

Mr. BIGG JUS: My name is Bigg Jus Lune TNS, born and raised Queens, New York.

JOHNSON: Bigg Jus was spray painting his graffiti pseudonym, Lune TNS, across New York subway cars before he ever wrote a rhyme or gripped a microphone. But in the early '80s, the city's tunnels and bridges were more than a canvas. For Jus, they were also his home.

Mr. BIGG JUS: I'm a ward of the state, basically. And I tried to avoid that by basically living on the streets of New York. But I was doing it at an impossibly young age.

JOHNSON: Jus, born Justin Ingleton, was orphaned when he was about four, and a family took him in. He's not sure who they were, or how they got custody of him. He does recall a household full of all sorts of abuses. So, before he'd become a teenager, Jus ran away. New York City streets, he figured, couldn't be worse than his violent, explosive home life.

Mr. BIGG JUS: Riding on the trains, actually, more or less kind of helped me stay alive, because it allowed me to navigate through the city and find the safest and the worst parts.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BIGG JUS: And I used to go back and forth to both, basically, just so I can kind of get infused with what the reality of life, which smacks you in the face when you're a homeless 12-year-old.

JOHNSON: As an adult, Jus rapped about his childhood home and homelessness in the song dedicated to PEO.

(Soundbite of song, "Dedication to PEO" by Bigg Jus)

Mr. BiGG JUS: (Rapping) I used to gauge the holidays (unintelligible) the second week of January, things were the rough. It happened once or twice, (unintelligible). Finding it was no problem, you know, yo, yo, get the (censored) out. Eleven p.m., six inches and falling, ain't nobody else. There's (unintelligible) through the block, (unintelligible) the people in those old halfway houses...

JOHNSON: Life on the streets gave Jus a rugged and immutable sense of self-determination. It also gave him intimate exposure to rap, which was coming of age as Jus was entering his late teens. In the early '90s, he went from fan to musician, teaming up with two other New York area artists and forming the group Company Flow.

Mr. BIGG JUS: We all just had an intense love for hip-hop, to the point that we all had a perfect ideal of what that would be, and we slaved at it to basically make these records, to get it out.

JOHNSON: Early in the trio's career, Company Flow championed a fierce artistic independence that made them heroes among hip-hop fans who were already weary or rap's then fledgling commercialism.

Company Flow's first album, Funcrusher Plus, is today a hip-hop classic, packed with indie-rap anthems.

(Soundbite of rap music)

COMPANY FLOW (Rap Group): (Rapping) ...the classic underground of the urban masters, the great (unintelligible) (censored) with. I strike a match for you two dollar M.C.'s that can't burn, this is for your own concern. I burn images and retinas for all you (censored) fake it. You put down (unintelligible), that's what (unintelligible) penetrate it. Complex closer to explode off of impact, when it (unintelligible) to that, you just go boogie, man, you damaged fact...

JOHNSON: Company Flow's indie epic was Serious Unto Death. When their record label, Raucous, sought to team up with the majors, the group disbanded. Jus headed south to Atlanta, where he ran his own, now defunct, record company, Subverse Music.

Last year, Jus and Producer/D.J. G Man joined to create the album, Poor People's Day. On the new record, Jus rhymes about serious topics, like global debt relief, and his critique of the Iraq war. That's uncommon fare for commercial rap, often preoccupied with material success, and just having a good time. The new album's jagged rhythms and offbeat political raps make it destined to dodge big time air play. Jus isn't at all bothered.

(Soundbite of song, "Poor People's Day" by Big Jus)

Mr. BIGG JUS: (Rapping) This is poor people's day. Misery, conflict, and hardship...

Mr. BIGG JUS: I'm an M.C. I deal with work flippage, basically, all the day long, and I have the opportunity to actually say something poppy, radio friendly, I guess, but there are too many other pressing issues. I mean, we've only got certain countries that's doing well. The majority of us ain't so I'm not going to sit here and rhyme about watches or jewelry or anything else. Them days is pretty much over.

(Soundbite of song, "Poor People's Day" by Big Jus)

Mr. BIGG JUS: (Rapping) Be able to bail your country by (unintelligible) your energy reserve, while property is spreading like wildfire. You got an (unintelligible) debt of compounded interest. Disease, pollution, prostitution, and child labor, billions living in depression every day...

JOHNSON: Today, Big Jus the rapper is using the same lessons he learned on the city streets to defend his artistic freedom. He demands total say-so in all his projects, including an upcoming Company Flow reunion. Jus says being able to make music as he sees fit trumps the financial lure of a major label contract.

Mr. BIGG JUS: It's not economics for me. The word is what's most important right at this point in time for me. I exist through this, I exist through love, and I only present that to others, and I have fun doing it.

JOHNSON: Christopher Johnson, NPR News.

(Soundbite of rap music)

Mr. BIGG JUS: (Rapping) Police is (unintelligible) coward individuals who need make (unintelligible) keep quiet...

CHADWICK: There's more music by Big Jus at our website, npr.org.

(Soundbite of rap music)

Mr. BIGG JUS: (Rapping) (unintelligible) till your corporate control (unintelligible). So, while your graces do remain, yo, we (unintelligible), we sent it over, remain, pump up with the volume...

CHADWICK: And there's more to come on DAY TO DAY.

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