Growing up in the Westover area of Southside, Jermain Hartsfield was different from other kids. While they enjoyed music, he was obsessed with it.
“I had a record collection when I was eight years old,” says the 51-year-old rapper and hip-hop historian best known today as JayQuan. “I’d sit and pour over the liner notes, and I knew if I saw the Mizelle brothers producing on a Blue Note record, it was worth listening to. I knew that stuff way too early – who the engineer was, the studio where it was recorded, ”
He says that when hip-hop came on the scene in 1979 with Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” it took over his life. “I immediately wanted to perform. It hit me as soon as it came out, even though my parents and their generation thought rap was a fad. My grandma hated it, and even though I loved my grandma, that just pushed me to it.”
As a member of Too Def Crew (later The First Sons), a seminal Richmond rap trio in the mold of the popular Run-DMC, Quan forged his own music history during hip-hop’s so-called ’80s golden period. The group opened local shows for Heavy D, the Jungle Brothers and UTFO at Richmond Coliseum and Arthur Ashe Center, and released a now-collectible 45 on Hopewell’s Think Tank label. “Regionally, it did very well and we got airplay [on WKIE, the first local station to feature hip-hop]. I mean, I was signing autographs as a 10th grader at Huguenot,” he recalls with a chuckle.
While he was making the music, he was also documenting it. An avowed packrat — “my wife and kids call me a hoarder” — Quan had been assembling from the earliest days a growing collection of press clippings. “The British music magazines were pretty good in documenting early rap,” he says. “But it took years for the Black media in America, like Jet and Ebony, to cover it. They totally missed the first years of the music.”
In 1995, when the internet was in its wild west days, the ECPI graduate says that he immediately recognized an informational void. “At that time, there was no social media, no YouTube, no Google. I searched for hip-hop and rap music and there were only two or three websites — and those were focused on later groups like Run D.M.C. and KRS-One.” He worried that the emerging internet would present a skewed history by “missing the beginning.”
He learned how to build web pages and began documenting the work of the earliest hip-hop performers, eventually interviewing, among many others, the pioneering likes of Spoonie G., Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five (he now serves as the latter group’s official “Minister of Information”).
“JayQuan is a gatekeeper,” says Patrick Chaplin, a.k.a. Divine, his collaborator in Too Def Crew, and a Brooklyn, N.Y. native. “I love hip hop but Jay is in love with hip-hop. He really should have been from New York, where the music started. I think being from Richmond has kept more people from knowing about him and taking his work seriously.”
While writing occasionally for Universal Music and online magazines like B Boy Document, he’s published much of his features and interviews at jay-quan.com, and eventually launched a regular podcast called The Foundation, available on Spotify. In 2017, he initiated a YouTube series called The Lessons, which he calls “video cliff notes” about the music, garnering hundreds of thousands of hits and earning rebroadcasts from Chuck D. himself on the Public Enemy leader’s Rapstation website.
Importantly, he recently became the lead content provider for Rock the Bells, LL Cool J’s hip-hop news website. This full-time writing gig marks the first time that the official historian for D.C.’s National Hip-Hop Museum has been able to give up his day job as an IT technician and concentrate full-time on hip-hop, specifically on writing his long-awaited first book, “The Evolution and De-evolution of Rap Music.”
“It takes a lot of effort to research and study early rap because the information is very scarce,” says filmmaker, DJ and longtime friend Brad Johnston, a.k.a. El Bravador, one half-of the Z Rock Crew, which hosted a landmark early ’80s hip-hop show on 1540 AM WKIE. “We’ve had a lot of originators with information who took it to the grave with them. But Jay started doing this 25 years ago and managed to talk to a lot of these guys when they were still here… he has a lot of stories that he hasn’t written about yet.”
JayQuan’s work has been sourced in books like “The Anthology of Rap” [Yale University Press] while his YouTube lessons — like an excellent overview of the rap records released in 1979 — have been used in schools, including a course on the history of hip-hop at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he has lectured. “It’s been a labor of love but I’m aware that others have profited off of it,” he says. He’s pulling most of his YouTube videos so he can relaunch them at a later date as official teaching tools, and his new Foundation Filmworks is concentrating on hip-hop documentaries.
Given how mainstream hip-hop music has become — witness this year’s Super Bowl halftime show — JayQuan still stands apart in exhaustively documenting the music’s original roots. Does that surprise him? Not really, he says.
“Old-school rap is an acquired taste. You had to be there. If you weren’t there, and you aren’t of the age that you remember it, you’ll probably say, ‘what is this?'”