Jern Eye is that rare Golden State MC whose influence is equal parts Northern and Southern California. He lives near Lake Merritt in Oakland and works at True Clothing on Haight Street in S.F., but was raised in northeast Los Angeles. As a preteen, he fell under the gangsta rap spells of Eazy-E and Ice Cube before learning to appreciate Native Tongues affiliates like Del tha Funkee Homosapien when he got older. "I would say I'm equally influenced by Hieroglyphics and N.W.A.," says the rapper, whose given name is Francis Rodriguez. "L.A. was really important in developing my craft and art, and the Bay kept it inspired."
After forming a group called Lunar Heights with fellow MC Spear of the Nation following their graduation from high school, the pair moved to Oakland in 2000, seeking a shot of creative adrenaline. "I wanted to be in a place that was new and different," Rodriguez says. "I would visit frequently, and the environment really kept me open and inspired."
The result has been a decade-long hip-hop odyssey, with Lunar Heights touring with the Pharcyde and Crown City Rockers and Rodriguez releasing a pair of Jern Eye solo albums. His latest, Vision, is a slice of golden-era rap that melts down Rodriguez' left-coastal influences into a compulsively listenable work. Featuring nationally known producers and MCs Guilty Simpson and Jake One, as well as standout Bay Area associates Zion I and Keelay & Zaire, Vision centers on Rodriguez' steady, overachieving flow. It's as accessible as it is substantive. The music is composed mainly of stripped-down soul and jazz samples, and reworkings — often nostalgic and mostly gentle — in the vein of beatmaker 9th Wonder.
Rodriguez describes the album as an enormously personal work that reflects his emotional development and some recent strife he has endured. In 2008, he turned 30 and broke up with his girlfriend of six years, but says the separation was the least of his problems. He found it more difficult to deal with criticism of his music. Though he admits the reviews for his 2006 debut, Authentic Vintage, were mostly positive, he says a handful of critics and former collaborators talked "shit on the blogs" about his music and threw him into a tailspin. "Every artist is going to be vulnerable," he says. "I'm finding peace with myself, learning to confront my own insecurities and emotions. I've come to accept what I can and can't control."
He won't go into details about the alleged disses, but hints at them on Vision in tracks like "Something's Wrong." "Pushing me down, when I felt like standing up/Dissing my sound, hoping I would give it up," he starts, before adding: "Been about your image/I don't really care, since back then we lived it/Buzzed off the word of mouth, now you wanna doubt/ ... Now you're talking your shit, flapping your lips/In real life, you's a bitch."
The fury Rodriguez expresses through his music is in stark contrast to his ultrareserved manner. He speaks calmly and slowly, rarely becomes animated, and is difficult to draw out. He insists that his Filipino heritage has little bearing on his work ("I don't think I have to wave a flag to rep the Philippines"), and is ambivalent about technological changes that have most everyone else in the music industry worried ("I think the game is healthy").
This makes Rodriguez somewhat of an anomaly. He's an MC who actually lets his music do the talking. But he has clearly hit his creative peak, and if he insists on maintaining a Native Tongues–like level of tolerance in conversation, it's nice to know that he's breathing N.W.A.-style fire in his rhymes.