A teacher rather than a hustler, Jason Harris isn't what most people think of when they envision Memphis rap. Though Harris can be found some nights on stage performing with the local hip-hop collective Iron Mic Coalition or with his three-man group Kontrast, he spends his days at Whitehaven High School where he works as an assistant football coach and health/P.E. teacher. (Though Harris says the real subject he teaches is "the art of following directions.")
As someone who works with teenagers on a daily basis, Harris doesn't buy the arguments of cultural apologists who claim rap music is "just entertainment" and thus shouldn't be held responsible for its influence.
"They eat that stuff up," Harris says of the kids he teaches and their love of rap music. "Whatever they hear and see on TV, that's what they want to be. If folks say they aren't responsible [they're kidding themselves]."
Harris has rapped about his unusual relationship to this key rap audience before, charmingly on Kontrast's would-be hit "Thirteens," which features the lyric: "Substitute teaching and these dudes out here rapping with their crews/They didn't know Mr. Harris had flow/So I had to go and spit a little just to let 'em know."
But the kids were a key influence on Harris' latest project, a solo concept album called Da Hater: Hating in Its Finest Hour, in which he embraces the alleged negativity of "hating" (i.e., being critical of others, especially other rappers) in both serious and comic ways. ("The Hater's who I be," Harris raps. "If anybody's raining on your parade, best believe it's me.")
Harris says "hater" is a label he sometimes gets from the teens who resent his attempt at imparting structure and discipline into their lives.
"Up at the school house, I try to make the kids do things, and they say, 'Coach, you're a hater,'" Harris says. "But everybody talks about hating now. I kept hearing people say, 'They're hating on me this, they're hating on me that.' So I decided I wanted to be the one everybody's talking about. I want to be the hater. Except I'm gonna admit to it. I'm not going to be two-faced about it. I'm not gonna halfway hate. I'm gonna do it 100 percent.
"Yeah, I'm a hater," Harris says with a chuckle. "That's what I do. It's not just an album and a concept. It's a way of life."
On Da Hater, Harris names names, directing his hate at well-known hip-hop stars such as Mike Jones, G-Unit, Lil' Kim, and Kanye West. But he also aims locally, taking a shot at Memphis rap kingpins Three 6 Mafia: "So praise the M-Town crunk reppers," he says of Three 6. "Been rapping for 20 years and ain't got no better (HATE!)."
But while Harris has plenty of serious things to say on Da Hater -- "I ain't scared, I'm horrified" is his reaction to the content of rap music that glorifies drug or gang culture -- he also takes comic pokes at targets such as his fans (who don't make enough noise at shows), his Kontrast partner and Hater producer Empee (who doesn't like to perform live), his Iron Mic Coalition comrades (half of whom smoke too much weed), and even his own mother (who's too rude to waiters when they eat out). He also sarcastically embraces such villains as racist baseball pitcher John Rocker and Fox News blowhard Bill O'Reilly.
Produced by Empee with cuts from Iron Mic DJ Capital A, Da Hater is similar to previous Iron Mic-related recordings in that it isn't as immediately bracing as more mainstream rap records, but it gets better with each listen. It won't get the airplay of a Three 6 Mafia or Yo Gotti, but it's definitely worth seeking out. For more information on Harris, see MySpace.com/JasonDaHater.
Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Friday, July 14th, for Tom Waits' August 4th concert at The Orpheum. As near as we can tell, this is the cult-fave songwriter's first public Memphis performance in more than 20 years. Tickets are $79 and $58.50 and are being sold only through the Internet and phone via Ticketmaster, not through the Orpheum box office. For more information, see Orpheum-Memphis.com. And good luck.