AUSTIN, Texas — Oklahoma City rapper Jabee took an emotional scar from his childhood and turned it into gold.
Jabee, who performed three sets at this month's South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, is celebrating the release of “Stephanie,” his new single produced by alternative hip-hop star El-P, with an all-ages show at 9 p.m. Saturday at the Conservatory, 8911 N Western. The first 20 fans through the door will receive gold vinyl copies of the single with original artwork by local artist Michael Anderson etched into the B-side.
But this golden moment in the emcee's career was made possible by an emotional setback. “Stephanie” was originally called “Super Ugly,” and it came from an insult hurled at Jabee by a middle school crush.
“When I was 11 years old, I liked this girl named Stephanie, and she called me ugly,” Jabee said while taking a break outside the 512, the Sixth Street bar that was ground zero for this year's Buffalo Lounge, the annual SXSW showcase for Oklahoma artists. “I think I've been carrying around that bitterness since I was 11. I wanted to tell a story, so I wrote a song like I was 11 years old but with the mind that I have now, so I could tell her who I would become and what I would be doing.”
Jabee had the subject and the verses ready to go, but he needed someone to put it all together. Since his teens, Jabee had been a fan of El-P, the rapper, producer and founder of the Definitive Jux label, and when asked during interviews what his dream collaboration would be, Jabee always mentioned El-P.
After a few years of casual talk, Jabee sent El-P an instant message, formally asking him to produce a single.
“I said, ‘If I don't ask, I'll never know: would you consider doing a track with me?' He said, ‘Let's do it,' and I promise you that I was thinking, ‘This can't be for real.'”
El-P sent Jabee a backing track he created during sessions for Killer Mike's acclaimed 2012 album, “R.A.P. Music,” but had ultimately set aside.
In turn, Jabee asked his friend, North Carolina-based soul singer Carlitta Durand, to write a chorus for the song.
“She wrote an amazing hook,” Jabee said. “I sent El-P the vocals for that, and he changed it all — he made it a real song and went over and above what I asked. He mixed it and mastered it for me, a kid from Oklahoma City.”
El-P suggested that he rename the song “Stephanie,” which helped give the song more emotional resonance for Jabee. Then, Jabee found a way to use the Steven Jones-directed video, which included a bullying scene, to do some good for current 11-year-olds facing difficult social situations. After Taft Middle School teacher Emily Ray saw the video, she invited Jabee to speak at a March 8 school assembly.
Jabee talked to the Taft students about the many forms that bullying can take and how to deal with the issue.
Nowadays, the bad memories and big dreams of Jabee's childhood are coming together, thanks to El-P and the growing buzz around “Stephanie.”
“I'm just trying to work hard and be good at this rap thing,” Jabee said. “But I'm living my dream now. My dream, as a 15-year-old kid, was to work with El-P.”