Alice interviews Ali Shaheed Muhammad
Can I Get Whatever From Mr Muhammad??
‘Believe it or not – that is the sound of an invasion. Yes! That is the sound created by the musical invasion of…A Tribe Called Quest’
I can vividly remember the first time that my ears were aurally invaded by hip hop – the song was ‘Electric Relaxation’, and the composition of those creamy vocals, that smooth Ronnie Foster sample and the sweetly longing (but kinda hella rude at the same time) lyrics sent me into a frenzy trying to find out everything I could about A Tribe Called Quest.
All of their music is classic, and from the rawness of their first album People’s Instinctive Travels and The Paths of Rhythm through the dizzying success of The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders and more mature works Beats, Rhymes & Life and The Love Movement, Tribe have always maintained their signature playfulness and high level of consciousness with undeniably dope beats and mesmerising samples.
I wouldn’t hesitate to say that Tribe are my favourite band, and I know that a lot of hip hoppers feel the same way – I’m sure many of you reading this probably do.
Though back in the day I never dreamed I would be lucky enough to see Tribe play live, which I managed to do last summer at Rock the Bells (one of the best days of my life), let alone meet any of the members. So, you can imagine how honoured I was that the man behind so many of my favourite songs, Mr Ali Shaheed Muhammad, agreed to have a little chat around sound-checking for his deejay set at Cable last month…
Did you just get to England today?
Jeez – you feel jet-lagged at all?
No, only because I’m just thinking so much about tonight. I’ve been here so many times, so I want to do a different set tonight. Come one o clock I’ll probably be so far gone (laughs). But I’m thinking about it and that won’t allow me to feel jetlagged. Plus, I get back on a plane at eight thirty – go to the airport at six in the morning.
Yeah, in a few hours I’m going back to the airport.
Where are you flying to?
Back to New York.
Crazy. This is your second time playing in London this year – how do you find it when you come here?
There’s always a lot of love here. Just so much energy that strikes me as kinda paradoxical ‘cause I remember when we first came here as Tribe – and it was performing so it was different than a deejay set of course – and you know, you perform and people are just kind of watching you and you get a clap, and we weren’t accustomed to that from hip hop. So to see the transformation – fast forward twenty two years and it’s just like a rave for hip hop now, so, it’s real good.
Cool. And are you working on another solo project at the moment?
I am. I actually just put up a free download on my facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/AliShaheedMuhammad) for it – I’m trying to put two albums out this summer, hopefully at the same time, maybe like two/three months apart.
Both solo albums?
Yeah, but they’re different, they’re completely different.
Okay, cool. And are you working on anything with – like what’s going on with Tribe at the moment? Are there any plans to record?
No…no plans. We have a documentary (Beats, Rhymes & Life).
Yeah, I saw that online but I’m not sure when it’s out in the UK.
Yeah, I don’t know much about that either, I try to ignore it a little bit. You know, we have the documentary, but as far as like new material, the group hasn’t come together for that.
I actually saw you play (as Tribe) at the San Francisco Rock the Bells –
Which year? 2008?
2010. The one just been.
That was a good one. Was Busta Rhymes – Busta was there right?
Yeah. You guys completely – I don’t know – like owned that day really.
We owned the whole tour (laughs).
We tried to give it to them in every city.
How did it feel to be alongside such a stellar line up?
Yeah, exactly – Wu Tang, Lauryn Hill, us, Snoop Dogg – pshh come on, you know? That’s major. It’s funny, I don’t know the words to use to describe it but like aside from Lauryn Hill and I guess the guys from Wu Tang, as they’re still as soloists putting material out – but we haven’t had a record out for eleven years. We kind of felt like we know what we have, we’re aware of it, but we feel like we’re always having to prove ourselves to certain arenas, certain areas. Not with the fans, but sometimes with people who are in authority and so on, like that. But that tour in particular there was a lot of, um, preliminary (long pause) discussions. I’m trying to be nice.
Which really made us really want to go out there and deliver.
Yeah, well you really did. ( During the show not only did original fourth member Jarobi join Phife, Tip and Shaheed onstage during an extended ‘Can I Kick It?’, but Busta Rhymes stormed the stage for his verse on ‘Scenario’ – you can imagine the crowd’s reaction…) With Jarobi and Busta Rhymes was all that sort of pre-planned having people come out during the set? Or was that as spontaneous as it felt in the crowd?
(Pause) I can’t tell you.
Nah, it’s not that serious – we talk about and throw a lot of ideas out there and see what works, yeah.
Cool. Me and my friends always debate about which of the Tribe albums is our favourite – do you have a personal favourite of your own material?
No, I don’t. What’s your favourite?
Erm, I go between Peoples Instinctive and Midnight Marauders probably.
Yeah, I can never quite choose.
We don’t get that often.
Really? What do people mostly say?
People mostly say Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders, but I like the contrast between Peoples Instinctive Travels and Midnight Marauders – that’s special.
The thing about Peoples, I don’t know, it’s just got that sound. Do you know what I mean? Like you can’t put your finger on what it is about that album.
Mmhhm. It’s so, so…we were like virgins. It’s like if you can capture, pull out the physical, chemical make-up of like your dreams coming true, you know, and it’s happening, all these things, and at the same time you’re a teenager and there’s that aspect of it. If you could extract that and sell it – it would be euphoric for all ages, all time periods you know. So that’s kind of what was in that album, ‘cause we were living our dreams. And we knew that even at that time there were so many adversities for us to overcome. You know, coming with this brand new sound and it was different than what was going on in the hip hop climate at the time. So yeah, that album’s really special.
Yeah, and I was wondering how you feel that your production style has sort of developed since then? Do you still have the same approach that you’ve always had, sourcing samples and that sort of thing?
Yeah, it’s the same approach, just different technologies, different tools, but it is always the idea of having this raw sound. I know how to play instruments now, so even if it’s like ‘alright, I’m gonna pick up that bass’, it’s still like ‘how can I make this bass sound like that old record?’. So I still have that deejay/ beat-maker/ sampler approach to making music and trying to find the simplicity, but I tend to go towards more melodic things, something that is very just soulfully melodic, just hypnotising, and feeling. You know, so – and I don’t always hit the mark – but yeah the approach is still the same.
Cool. And what music are you listening to at the moment?
Ooooh. I’m, um, because I’m recording I kind of tune things out. I listen to things strictly I guess to sample, you know as an inspiration, and still ‘cause I’m deejay-ing and you do that. But I don’t think that I have purchased anything in a while that I have sat with and just put it on repeat. And I tend, when I’m in recorder mode, to try not to because other peoples’ ideas get into what you’re doing, and that’s the purpose to be inspired, but sometimes it can be too much. But I’m always buying new music though.
Yeah. So it’s not like I’m not listening, but I’m just not listening. (laughs)
Know what I mean?
Like trying to not be influenced too much by it?
Yeah. And I think that this digital age that we live in too, kinda, because you can get so much content in such a short amount of time. I don’t know if other people were having this experience, but like I used to have an album as a kid and would live with it for five years, you know, just play it over and over and over. And I’m finding that I’m not having that sort of a connection.
With downloadable music?
Yeah, because it’s just like you listen to it and then… I find also that, like I purchase a lot of music every day, and I’ll be somewhere in the store or something and I’ll hear a song and I’m like ‘what is that song?’ You know, and you have the applications on your phone where you can detect the song and I’m like ‘What? I bought that like four years ago??’ You know, that sort of thing has happened. I wish I could give you some names.
Yeah – I find, I don’t know, with most music you have to listen to it enough times that you really get to know it.
And when music is just so disposable you listen to it once and if you don’t feel it, people don’t tend to re-listen to it, and I think that kind of stops you engaging with it. I prefer to buy cds and records and all that.
Yeah – do you still collect vinyl?
Yeah. Amazon and I have a strong relationship and it’s not good.
So, it’s a really dysfunctional relationship when it comes to the finances. Cause it’s so easy, you know? You go into a record store and you’ll limit yourself, like you’re digging, do your subtotal and you’re like ‘nah I gotta put this back’. But when I’m at home I can just click and click, click, click, click, click, click…and I’m like ‘what the hell did I just do?’
And, I thought I was gonna stop for a while because I had to move recently and it’s not cool moving all – you don’t realise how many things you have until it’s time to move, then you’re like ‘I gotta get rid of all this stuff – how did I acquire all these things?’ And my records are, like my records and my studio equipment is probably eighty-five per cent of my possessions, so…
Wow. But it’s harder to part with as well, music and stuff that you’ve collected over a long period of time, you don’t want to let go of it.
It is – it’s a challenge. And I’m trying to stop. What I really would like to do is to hire an intern to just digitalise everything and then sell it. But then as I was planning to do that one of my old engineers, actually Dave Kennedy who mixed The Love Movement album, and he was like ‘don’t do that! Your vinyl is real. Digital is just zeros and ones that will just fade off of a hard drive one day and you’ll be really upset.’ And I knew that, but it was just the way he said it I was like ‘oh man, I can’t get rid of my records – it’s real!’
Yeah. Tonight – are you playing records?
Traktor and Serato I go between. Back and forth between both of them.
Cool. And um, I don’t know if you actually like it that much, but (reaches into bag and pulls out a carton of juice) I bought you some Fruit Punch to say thanks for taking the time to chat.
(Laughs) ‘Ali had the Fruit Punch’. That’s cute – thank you.
It’s like my favourite hip hop music video. (I Left My Wallet In El Segundo)
This looks so ghetto – where’d you get this from?
Ha, I live in South-East London so….
Forty-nine pence – ‘The taste of the Caribbean’, I’m like ‘where did they import this from?’ They didn’t make this here in London did they? This is funny, I wish everyone could see back home.
It is outta the London ghetto.
Wait, wait, wait – it is made in the UK. It just has such straight ghetto-fied, looks like this is worth five pence…
Car’s here? Cool – is that everything you need?
Yeah, thank you so much.
Later on that evening it really went down underneath London Bridge – Livin Proof’s Rags and The Last Skeptik working the crowd into a hyped up ruckus before Ali Shaheed stepped up to serve the room. The party was truly live; hip hop beats, lethal b-boy outbreaks on the dance-floor and one of the world’s very best music producers smashing it behind the decks. ‘Strong like a bomb, quick like a comet – can I get whatever from Mr Muhammad??’
Keep up to speed on Mr Muhammad’s music and activities by checking out: http://alishaheed.com/