In 17th century Europe, doctors often wore plague masks in order to protect themselves from disease and “bad air.” Made from waxed leather, the masks resembled long, curved bird beaks, and were stuffed with a mix of dried herbs and potent oils to ward off germs. Harlem-based John Ahmed Guilford, who raps under the MC name G4 JAG, uses the image of the plague mask on his album covers as a symbolic way to inoculate him from the conformist tendencies of the modern hip-hop industry, and to guard his community from socio-economic oppression. “I represent the bottom—the people who don’t have a voice,” says Guilford, who speaks and raps in a cavernous tone. “I talk about my real life and tell stories of surviving.”
Raised in Harlem, Guilford grew up on the sound of New York artists like The Notorious BIG, The Lox, and Cam’ron’s Dipset movement. One day, while he was in the heat of a rap battle on 125th Street, Guilford saw Cam’ron and producer Swizz Beatz hopping out of a flashy car, and he became inspired by the energy they radiated. As Guilford began to take his writing more seriously, he became focused on the work of Queensbridge rappers Nas and Prodigy, whose keen narrative eye encouraged him to explore his own storytelling abilities.
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“I used to be super into trying to be the best rapper alive, bar for bar, and trying to metaphor everything and not give you a storyline. But as I progressed, I started to reflect more,” says Guilford. “Every time I step into a studio, it’s literally me talking about what I’ve been through that day. It’s more like a psychology session; it’s my moment to get feelings off my chest, and I’m putting down a lot of pain. But I gain more as an artist by reflecting on what I do every day rather than just trying to write a hit record that I think you’re going to like. This way, people attach themselves to it and it’s organic.”
The song “Zoning,” from THE SURVIVORS, begins with the bleary-eyed MC on an A train at six in the morning; his mind starts to wander, and he begins thinking about a friend who’s become estranged father from his children; then, he waxes philosophical on the karma of selling drugs. On “Dolla Makes Change,” from NOTHING WAS GIVEN, Guilford recalls days growing up “dead broke,” eating cereal three times a day, and “reflecting on the times when having nothing was everything.” On “All I Know,” the MC vows, “I’m trying to tell my story / Currently just shit I’m living / I’m working keeping my brothers out of that fuckin’ prison / I show ’em you can do more with life if you got a vision.” Then, he announces his reason for rapping: “I gave them hope when they ain’t have none / I was a voice when they ain’t have one.”
Guilford’s deep, guttural voice is the perfect complement to production that feels like it was recorded in a dank, shadowy grotto. Working with beat-makers like Flee Lord and Big French, Guilford delivers his verses over a backdrop of intense, menacing bass tones and grit-heavy snares. That foundation is embellished by subtle soul samples, giving the songs a redemptive quality that works in tandem with Guilford’s lyrics about overcoming the physical and emotional challenges of the daily grind.
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Building on those themes, Guilford also seeks to inspire day-to-day change in his community by teaching free classes on how to become a certified construction worker. It’s an initiative he put in place after noticing there was a construction boom in the city, but the people in his immediate neighborhood couldn’t get permission to pick up work. “These are people coming home from jail, these are felons who don’t have any opportunities whatsoever,” he says. “I want to reach out and give them an opportunity to provide for their family on a positive basis.”
Whether seeking to uplift listeners through his music or working to improve the fortunes of his community, Guilford relishes the challenge of leadership. “Whatever I’ve been through, I keep going,” he says. “You’ll hear my music and want to persevere. You’ll think if this guy can get through it, and it sounds like he’s going through a lot of the same things I’m going through, then I know that I can be successful as well. Just keep going.”