If every tattoo on a man's arm tells a story, then one particular tattoo on the arm of Oklahoma City rapper Jabee tells us he is definitely old-school.
The tattoo is of a cassette tape. Ribbons of its magnetic contents stream from the media relic, up the arm of the 24-year-old rapper and into the beak of a swallow.
From fifth grade through high school, classic cassette cuts led Jabee to put pen to pad, speak up and form his own phrases.
"For hip-hop; when cassettes were being made, that's where the best hip-hop was being made," he said. "That was before rap. I'd have two cassette players: one with Ohio Players, and I'd record the five-second break. Rewind, pause and loop it and rap over that."
Jabee will welcome the release of his new album, "Blood Is the New Black," Saturday night at The Conservatory. The CD is filled with samples of older works, including James Brown and jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd. Mature sounds mingle with Jabee's spoken stories, ranging from childhood crushes on Mexican girls wearing Selena shirts the day after her death to despair he's seen on streets throughout OKC.
The rapper said he never hesitated with his previous albums, but "Blood" rings more personal, and Jabee owns up to the anxiety.
"This is all of me, how I feel, what I think. These are my flaws," he said. "This one I'm really concerned about. It's hard being vulnerable. I talk about girls, family, my brother being killed " everything that makes me."
Jabee recognizes his vulnerability, but isn't afraid of confronting reality, even if it means rapping about his place in life and driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee with a bad engine.
Despite modern trends toward crunk music or lighter hip-hop fare, Jabee shrugs off the popular party style of rap to pay homage to Tupac Shakur and other rappers who convey a starker reality in their lyrics.
"Thing was, I never dreamt of being a rapper. I just dreamt of being able to provide. A lot of rappers "¦ have no sense of provisions," he said. "It's me, me, me."
Jabee is proof that people grow faster through harsh experiences. Conversations with him are peppered with mentions of burials and death. The ghost of Jabee's brother, a 16-year-old who died six days after being shot in the head in an OKC neighborhood, lingers throughout the album, most notably on the tracks "One," "Platinum Hooks" and "Nothing."
"It could've been me," Jabee said of his brother's death. "There's been times when we got into it together. That story itself needs to be told, whether it's me saying his name or the whole life story. Just that hurt of losing someone, period " you never get over it."
For him, dealing with loss through song is essential, and in "Blood," he poses that life should be celebrated.
"We need to bring life back. Life needs to be in fashion," he said. "You can't go a year without going to three funerals. There has to be a point when you say, 'Something has to change.'"
His day job is as a church youth director, where he talks to kids straddling the boundary of school and gang life, and chronicles their struggles through lyrics in songs like "Nothing."
Openly at odds with the culture of current cool doesn't always translate to dollars in the sparse local hip-hop scene, and as he sits and anticipates the release of the new record, Jabee is openly unguarded and assailable, worried even if his own friends will show up for the release party.
"Man, people are corny," he said. "They say, 'Aww, man, I don't get off work till 10' or 'I ain't got no one to go with.' If they want to go, they'll go. And if they aren't there, I'm deleting them from my phone." " Danny Marroquin