There's a Good Ladd: An Interview with Rapper and Musician Mike Ladd
In this extensive interview, Mike Ladd discusses his career in hip-hop and academia, as well as his route from punk to hip-hop and the poetry of his work.
One of hip-hop's most anomalous figures, Mike Ladd has been messing with the genre's blueprints since his much overlooked 1997 underground debut. Ladd's coming-ups in hip-hop were uncharacteristic of the typical MC. He didn't cut his teeth as rhymer in the hotspots of hip-hop's most urgent hubs. He came from the hurried and primal ragings of punk, though he himself would argue he was the movement's least enduring player.
Emerging, as well, from a literary background of poetry, Ladd would begin polishing rhymes which appropriated the flows of some of the more nuanced MCs on either coast. In this developmental learning curve, he would also nurse an unusual slide toward a dactylic brutalism. A perceptive critique by Pitchfork's Ethan P. relates Ladd's fashion of rhyme-scheme with the modernist Imagism of Ezra Pound.
Ladd's first full-length studio album, the self-produced Easy Listening 4 Armageddon, featured bassy, sedate grooves of muffled hip-hop funk. His at once lucid and trenchant raps had more in common with proto-rappers The Last Poets than they did with Chuck D and his often somnolent baritone ran commentary lines through the smoldering rhythms. The heavy, dub-lurching soul of the album's most notable track, "Kissin' Kecia", rumbles with the sampledelic moxie of a Prince Paul number, the hushed menthol cool of Ladd's street-manic poetry skimming the groove like a steady, hovering mist. On "The Tragic Mulatto is Neither", Ladd plies a beatnik stretch of Latin groove, nurturing a lush hip-hop with stylish economy; his raps here do not boast with raucous abandon but inform with quiet, probing urgency. The tempos on the album almost never vary, keeping an even pulse as the textures melt and shift around in their environment.
The flip-dime of Ladd's 1999 follow-up Welcome to the Afterfuture, now a noted classic in the hip-hop canons, inverted all of the esoteric calm of his debut to reveal the often brusque and serrated exterior that housed his philosophies. This time the beats hit harder and their often bruising distortions left adumbral impressions on the futurist landscape of hip-hop speakeasies. Ladd's particular way of bullying a groove with chest-puffing bravado and droll humor lends the album its oscillating sense of tension and release; a witty lyricism of paranoia-fuelled sentience impels the power and velocity of an MPC-generated groove.
Afterfuture's hip-hop imbroglio includes the cut-up cubist funk of "5000 Miles West of the Future" and the Bollywood-by-way-of-Bronx jumble-beat "Airwave Hysteria", the first two tracks on the album which signal the bracing avant-rap of the remaining numbers. On cuts like the thrumming "No. 1 St." and the elastic jazz-hop of "Bladerunners" (featuring Company Flow), Ladd pushes for an evocation of Fritz Lang romanticism, a steel-grey world of industrial skyscrapers and the suited and booted men of Art Deco's past. Other numbers like the glacial breakbeat jam "To the Moon's Contractor" and "Planet 10", a heavy dirge of mutant hip-hop, refer to the more notional proclivities of Ladd's art. The hard, robust swagger of "The Animist" – hip-hop drums behind the robo-jazz of sci-fi synths – finally returns the rapper to the urban playgrounds of his crumbling metropolis.
As Afterfuture unfolds like the idiom-laden medium of newsprint (of which the album's artwork color scheme indirectly references: black, white and red all over), Ladd continues to explore the lexicons of his visionary hip-hop. Amidst the dissonant storm of booming beats and Cold Crushed rhymes, he delivers speculative soliloquies with knuckled-down proficiency. It is the sound of a near-deserted city's last remaining stragglers throwing themselves a demolition party. Mostly produced by Ladd himself (who composes and produces almost all of his solo work), Welcome to the Afterfuture remains a watershed moment in underground music, a landmark work bridging the essentials of hip-hop, free jazz, electronica and the pathologies of urban culture. The album would lead the way artistically toward other more challenging endeavors Ladd would embark on in his career.
Putting aside his solo pursuits for a moment to create two hip-hop supergroups, Ladd spearheaded the Infesticons, the rebel-rousers of underground hip-hop, and also their arch enemies, the polished and shamelessly commercial Majesticons. Between these two groups, a fictional rivalry full of egg-headed, smirking humor was created as a response to the over-the-top marketing of the hip-hop phenomena in either quarter. The Majesticons were everything conglomerate about hip-hop and held penthouse parties with P. Diddy and the Bad Boy Entertainment crew. The Infesticons were cynical troublemakers who sought to undermine the Majesticons (and, in turn, redress hip-hop's bastardization) at any cost. The Infesticons' Gun Hill Road was released in 2000 with The Majesticons' Beauty Party following in 2003. The satire and humor went down well with critics, who championed Ladd's ability to turn what could have easily been a simple gimmick into a perspicacious comment on the marketing of an expanding subculture.
Somewhat of an extension of the experiments on 2001's Vernacular Homicide, an EP of disorderly funk, 2004's Nostalgialator found Ladd at his most explosive. No longer concerned with constructing fragments of hip-hop with algorithmic care, Ladd declared all-out war on his indefinite space of practice. Blazing through a surfeit of samples with the aggressive speed of a rogue terrorist, the rapper does a few turns on the plugged-in guitar sounds of his former punk days. Everything from the brutal, riotous breakbeat of "Afrotastic" (corroded down to a rusted scrap-metal heap) and the punked-out Bond-themed fuzz of "Black Orientalist" to the Motown electro-romp of "Housewives at Play" finds a place on this disorienting canvas of poetry and sound. Abandoned are the chancy stanzas of hip-hop flow; in their place are the shouty urgencies of punk belligerence. An album of fractured panic and lunging electronic funk, Nostalgialator would point toward the art brut jazz of Ladd's most erudite work, 2005's Negrophilia.
Inspired by the Petrine Archer-Straw book of the same name, Ladd sought to explore the trials of the African experience within 1920s Paris. The funk-in-flux sound of live drums, jazz brass, and spacey electronic noodling lends the album its highly improvised feel. Ladd's poetry centers on his discoveries of "othered" narratives discussed in Archer-Straw's book and finds a counterpoint to the restless, burbling grooves. The album was critically lauded and placed the rapper in a new sphere of artists who were of a similar abstraction in sound, but it pulled him even further from the orbit of his hip-hop roots.
Ladd's final true solo album, before he would embark on various ensemble projects with a range of diverse musicians, was Father Divine, which often saw him referring to his seminal work on Welcome to the Afterfuture. A stronger emphasis on hip-hop rhythms and heavier beats dominate much of the proceedings here. Opening number "Apt. C2" swings hard with the exulted airs of the five boroughs, the rhymes slingshotted with gasconade and power. On "Barney's Girl", the shuddering drums slide Ladd's vocals around a smooth groove of dozing funk while the loping, bluesy sway of "Black Rambo" further disturbs the elements of the rapper's genre of choice.
In the years to follow, Ladd would pick up a host of collaborators, most notably jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, for some jazz-based projects. His next release with Iyer was Still Life with Commentator, which featured a far moodier, abstract sound. Ladd's raps were now slips of poetry softly etched into the airs of electronic ambiance. Veering far off the genre maps of hip-hop, Ladd, with Iyer, explores here outré piano balladry, chorals of opera, skittering electronic beats and some Japanese recitations (courtesy of Masayasu Nakanishi). Once again, his complex and difficult work earned critical plaudits while doing little to raise his profile amongst the hip-hop community.
Ladd continued on this path, releasing Anarchist Republic of Bzzz and Holding It Down: The Veteran's Dreams Project, two works which lean heavily on his more political inclinations. Exercising all manner of lateral thinking, Ladd gave himself fully to improvisation and his live, often impromptu, performances allowed him a freer practice in music-making.
At the moment, Ladd is due for another solo project, which he has revealed is currently in the works. Two decades of song and experience has taught him the gains of wild abandon; his projects are often charged with an urgency and immediacy that refer to hip-hop's most intrinsic qualities of artistic practice: improvisation and style. Now living in Paris, France with his family, Ladd's musical exploits have put him on concerted ground with Parisian jazz troupe Arat Kilo, hip-hop producer Doc TMK and double-bassist Joëlle Léandre, all artists working a separate continuum in various genres of music. His experiences as an American expat living abroad promises yet another dimensional shift in the hip-hop landscape as he readies to put his name on yet another collection of provocative and forward-thinking music.
Can you tell me about your life growing up in Boston? What was your introduction to music like as a child?
I grew up between my mother's and my 'aunt's' home. Both lived in Cambridge, MA. My mother is an academic and an administrator and lived in a nice middle class neighborhood. Dinners consisted of conversations with fellow black academics, in the late '70s and '80s; those were some heady conversations. My auntie C took care of other people's homes, her six kids, and kids like myself, what with single moms who were working all the time. It was much more of a working poor environment. Conversations were amongst us kids; we spoke about music, sports and the eldest in the house, Dean, would often have something profound to say about what was on TV during dinner, usually the news. Knowing the two homes intimately shaped my class consciousness from an early age.
Breakfast at Auntie C's: WILD played on the radio. At the time, it was the only black radio station in Boston. It was AM, a certain quality of extra lo-fi sound with too much treble that I remember fondly. While watching TV in the afternoons/evenings (anything from the Electric Company through to Barney Miller), my cousin would play Parliament, Kool & the Gang, etc. in the room just above the TV, so it was like a low pass filter. I just got the drum and the bass. I could feel it in the floor while I watched TV so, like most kids in a similar situation, you start engaging in involuntary mixing. Fading the drum and bass in and out with the TV.
Mom played WGBH every morning, Morning Pro Musica. It started with birds in the forest at six or seven in the morning and kicked into classical music. The DJ, Robert J. Lurtsema, had this deep mid-Atlantic voice – his name says it all, really. In the evenings, my mother's playlist was Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, George McCrae, Jimmy Cliff, The Missa Luba, Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain, and Keith Jarrett's Koln Concert. She used to take me to a lot of concerts (all this is between the ages of three and ten) Sometimes it was to see Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles but often it was to free rehearsals of the Boston Symphony Orchestra or some pretty difficult jazz. She would always elbow me when I started falling asleep. It was always a first name/last name I was prepared to sleep through: "Tonight we're going to hear some Johannes Brahms or Cecil Taylor,"; a first name/last making music that would put me in a daze I as I tried to understand and eventually fell asleep. After a series of these concerts, one night she asked me if I wanted to go hear another first name/name last name. This time I had an option so I was like 'Naah, no thanks'. It was Bob Marley. At least Bob Marley's Live! was on heavy rotation after that night.
When I started making my own choices, I was listening heavily to Emerson College's WERS. At that time they played reggae in the late afternoon, rap in the evening and punk rock at night. I would record as much as I could. "The Message" was the first rap I memorized. Rap honestly did feel like an explosion. One year we were listening to Diana Ross' "Upside Down" and Queen's "We Will Rock You" and the next year kids were breaking in the streets. That's what it felt like at least. When I started altering my mind with various drugs I remember Eric B & Rakim's "Check Out My Melody" being the first rap track that took me where I wanted to go. When I was digging through my mother's vinyl and discovered Sly and the Family Stone's "Sex Machine" and eventually Funkadelic's "Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow", it was a wrap.
Your earliest forays into music were playing in punk bands during the '80s. You played bass. What were those times and experiences like?
I was a terrible bass player (can't even say bassist). We had a band called Uncle Fester. We put out a 7". To this day I'm positive the original bassist replayed my takes and was too nice to tell me.
Your family comes from an academic background, and you would later get your graduate degree in poetry. This would find its way into your music, particularly your debut album. What were your earliest experiments in poetry like, prior to music?
Yeah, like I said above, it was a heady environment at my mom's. By the time I was ten, my mother was dean of students at Hillary Clinton's Alma matter, no small feat for a Black woman in 1980. Listening to her and her friends, there was a sense of responsibility and pressure to continue to forward the race. A pretty common narrative. My mother would read me novels when I was little, everything from Toni Morrison to John Irving. From when I was tiny I'd go see a poet named Brother Blue. When I was 11, I had to do a project on Langston Hughes and recite his poems. I think I was trying to write something between Hughes and Brother Blue for a long time. But for the most part, I kept my poetry quiet. I never thought it was very cool. My first day of high school, three other kids and I started making fun of beat-poets doing bad imitations. They became my best friends in that school (kinda telling; I'm still dong bad imitations).
Around the time you were playing in punk bands, hip-hop had found a wider platform beyond just a subculture on the East Coast. So there was the merge of both your punk influences/background and the influences of hip-hop. How did you begin your work in hip-hop? Which artists captured your imagination and helped set you on your way?
Big Influences in junior high and high school, only listing what was in heavy rotation. Dancehall/reggae: Yellowman, Charlie Chaplin, Captian Sinbad, LKJ, Sister Nancy, Steel Pulse, Culture (International Herb was the first reggae record I bought on my own, I was 12. (The first record I ever bought was Elton John when I was eight but we don't have to talk about that) and Peter Tosh and Bob Marley. Ska was big in Cambridge, so the Specials and English Beat also got a lot of play. Punk: The Freeze, Channel Three, Catholic Discipline, the whole Decline of Wester Civilization soundtrack, The Punk and Disorderly compilations and, of course, Black Flag, Minor Threat and Bad Brains. I used to run cross country races. If I had "I against I" in my Walkman, I usually placed pretty well. Rap/hip-hop: Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, Redhead Kingpin, Run DMC, Eric B & Rakim, Special Ed, Ed OG & the Bull Dogs, Just Ice and, of course, Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy. That was definitely high school. Then that bled into Paris, Kool G Rap, EPMD and Digital Underground. In my freshman year in college, I was already looking for something more bugged out/psychedelic, especially because Funkadelic (over Parliament) was probably still my favorite artist at the time. So when De La Soul came out, I was happy (Posdnuos is one of my all-time favorite emcees), but it wasn't till I heard Divine Styler that I was satisfied.
After much of your explorations in music from the '80s, you released Easy Listening 4 Armageddon in 1997. This was an album built from a series of samples and assembled in a very lo-fi way, fueled by the two primary influences of hip-hop and poetry. Can you discuss the writing and recording of your debut?
During the late '80s, in addition to the music above, I was really obsessed with the '70s, the way kids ten years ago couldn't let go of the '80s. There was a lot of great R&B of the '80s that I missed out on because I was digging the '70s crates. Shit, I almost slept on Prince, but luckily my mother took a girlfriend and me to see Purple Rain and at 14 years old the band the Time got heavy rotation, and so did the Prince number "Lady Cab Driver". But the five records that really influenced my debut album were Sonny Sharrock's Ask the Ages, Rotary Connection's Songs (and everything else Charles Stepney had touched), Pharoah Sanders' Thembi, ESG's 1991 self-titled album, Archie Shepp's Fire Music. I had just met Company Flow and had been hanging out with Priest and Beans of Antipop Consortium and rapper Rob Sonic (of Hail Mary Mallon) for years by then. I was getting a Masters in Poetry at Boston University when I was making my debut so I would teach and take classes from Monday through Thursday morning in Boston and then record down at Ozone Studios run by Amaechi Uzoigwe who was my manager until I left the States.
Ozone was important; Company Flow came through there, and that bond between Amaechi and EL-P continues to this day with Run the Jewels. But Antipop Consortium and Rob Sonic were there; this cat Native Sun did a compilation called Eargazims there, other friends of EL's, this great Emcee BMS, Saul Williams came through – this was all before Definitive Jux (EL-P's independent label), around 96-97. The guys who worked with Amaechi, Brett, Vassos, Mark Feggins, and Engineers Jeff Cordero and Walker Bernard. I'll never forget when I finished mixing that record (I always seemed to be cramming to make the spring deadline and would be doing the final mix when the Grammys were on) Brett came in and said: "Congratulations, now comes the hard part." He was talking about selling it. The best sentence I ever heard and advice I never really took.
I consider myself very lucky to still be eating off of music with the little amount of self-promotion I've done. I don't take that privilege lightly. I've paid a price for it but I like the peace I get in return. Its 20 years this year since Easy Listening 4 Armageddon dropped, so I'll ramble a bit more. Two people instrumental to that record were Dennis Kelly, my first engineer, and Bruce Grant. Both were electronic music gurus from the early '80s. Dennis used to work for Moog and he sold me my EMS synthesizer and brought me down that rabbit hole. Bruce was a master of tape loops. He used to play five Walkmans running through a mixer. We played live together for years. Both he and Jeff Cordero have passed on now. I had gone to Hampshire and had my first hip-hop crew with Damian Roskill and Seth Boyd, who was tight with Kut Masta Kurt before he moved to LA. Damian was tight with J Mascis (from Dinosaur Jr.). This was western MA in 1989-92, so there was this crazy mix of hip-hop fans and indie rock fans. I read a lot of tape op issues on the can. New Radiant Storm King were friends and a big influence six years later as well. All that to say when Scratchie Records (part of Mercury) picked up my album, it was a good fit. Jeremy Freeman was/is good people; I however didn't trust record companies where that "Independent as Fuck" vibe, as EL-P put it, was in the air.
Your second album, Welcome to the Afterfuture, is the work for which you are most recognized. It's considered a key work in hip-hop which absorbs all the traditions of rap, poetry (beat poetry) and spoken word seamlessly into a singular volume of music. I heard somewhere that you basically used much of the discarded loops from your first album for Afterfuture; the beats and loops on Afterfuture, however, are heavily compressed and distorted to create a dense, booming wall of sound. As well, the album seems split into two segments, with the first half being driven by heavy beats and bass and much of the second half focused on atmosphere, namely, ambient electronic noodling. The album also features political allegories to discuss issues of social unrest. Can you go into some detail about building and creating this album, both in its lyrical and musical content? How do you think Afterfuture has developed in its significance to the rest of your work since its 1999 release?
I'm sure this is said all the time, but your first record is hard to beat because you've been writing it all your life, so there's 20 plus years of ideas packed in there. In my case, that bled into the second record. I had taken all the heavy beats out of the first record (hence the "Easy Listening" in the title). Cat's used to come up to me and say, "Yo, my girl really loves your record." I took that as an insult! That's how misguided the underground hip-hop scene could be. Nah, I won't even blame it on that – it was my dumbass. But I was like 'Fuck it, I want to get the heads listening.' Terrible idea, but it is still my favorite record that I've made.
The outtakes that made their way on the album were made while I was in grad school in Boston. I was living with Jeff Cordero, who was one of those geniuses that can learn any instrument in a day. I had this giant Akai 4 track and I would watch him go nuts on that and learn a lot. I moved to back to New York after the year of school. I initially moved in with EL-P in Brooklyn. Back then he had a modest mixing board, an ASR, and that was about it. I'd wake up and he'd already be banging away on a sample on the keyboard, looping it manually and nodding his head like was the best shit ever, but the initial sample would often sound like garbage – atrocious garbage. I'd go out get something to eat, come back and the track would be blazing. That would get me shook enough to get to work. The record didn't really take shape till I moved to the Bronx though. Fred Ones had lived with my cousin Canaan and DJ Preservation was in Brooklyn. He moved up to the Bronx and built a studio in his apartment, so we all followed. Rob Sonic and I moved across the Street and Preservation moved upstairs. The friends I was hanging out with then made that whole thing work in addition to the guys mentioned above there was Dah-1, Yazeed, Omar and his kid Joey, and Eric Okafu who played bass on my first tour. Fred was the principal engineer and basically co-producer. I had these ideas that were out there and sometimes corny and they would rein it in. I never trusted an engineer the way I trust Fred. That's saying a lot because I worked with Scotty Hard after and that man deserves every legend that floats around him.
Nostalgialator saw a return to your punk influences, though you were still working from a primary base of hip-hop. You sing on this album in addition to the rhyming and spoken word elements. It's also the album which alternately experiments with conventional and highly abstract rhythms. When I listen to this album, I can sense the widening of those experimental perimeters, but I also hear a lot of frustration; it's one of your most abrasive records. What was going on at the time when you were recording Nostalgialator?
The frustration you hear is (just to put things in chronological order): Right after Welcome to the Afterfuture, I was approached by Big Dada (Ninja Tune's hip-hop division) and I did the Infesticons album (late 2000). Vijay Iyer reached out to me that same year, and we started working on In What Language (2001). Somewhere in there, I put out the EP Vernacular Homicide and then in '03 I did the Majesticons record and for a lot of that time I was still adjusting at Long Island University (where I was an adjunct professor) and touring. I remember the dean of the English department leaving a message on my phone during the middle of the semester: "Mike, somebody told me you are in Scotland. Please tell me you're not in Scotland." I'd covered my bases, and he was pretty understanding. In '96 I was hospitalized for drugs, and by November 2001 I was finally in recovery and have been so since. Anyway, none of this is an excuse for an admittedly disjointed record, but frustration is definitely the adjective.
But two things really stood out for me at that time:
One: Me in the process of moving. I had just put my record collection, toys and gear into a blank white van to ship to France as I was moving in with my future wife. Suddenly I wasn't in the Bronx anymore. I wasn't really living near my friends who had provided such valuable feedback. I was either on tour or in this nuts-love bubble with my now wife in Paris, couch-surfing on my old couch – but it wasn't my place anymore.
Two: Underground hip-hop in crisis
Negrophilia was inspired by the book by Petrine Archer-Straw and focuses heavily on jazz influences. It is also an extension of the themes in Archer-Straw's book, detailing the history of appropriation of black culture in Paris in the earlier part of the 20th century. The album marked a clear deviation from much of your material and would set you on a path that had you exploring more jazz elements in your work. I know you are also a professor of English/literature. How much of your work as a professor dictated the direction you took on this album?
This record was my commentary on my move to Paris and Archer-Straw's book was a blessing during that move. I wanted to be clear that I did not move to Paris for artistic purposes, in the tradition of Wright, Baldwin, Dexter Gordon, Baker, etc...If I were following in their great tradition in 2004 or now, I would have moved to Lagos, Sao Paulo, Mumbai, Johannesburg, etc. What made Paris so exciting in the early/mid 20th century was this intense combustion of old world methods colliding into brand new technologies. Back then the City of Light still had open sewage in some neighborhoods. That combustion is happening in the cities mentioned above and elsewhere now. As well, being my mother's son dictated the direction of this album; she is probably why I taught as well.
Father Divine would be the last album recorded individually as a solo artist and under your own name before you would record joint efforts with Vijay Iyer and other artists. Father Divine sees a return to the stronger hip-hop leanings of Afterfuture. It's not exactly a "party record", but it seems a step toward a more hedonistic variance of hip-hop. What are some things you can say about this final album recorded as a solo work?
Well, I had been working with Vijay since 2000 and that influence had been insinuating itself since Nostalgialator and Ambrose Akamuse and Dana Leong played horns on Nostalgialator. I also did a solo EP in 2012 called Kids and Animals and in 2010 I did the last Infesticons Record. Father Divine was the first record I really made 100% in France. I worked with an engineer named Gymkhana (Fernando Ferer) and, like Fred Ones, Scotty Hard and Dennis Kelley, he also functioned as co-producer/sounding board. My band up until then had been Jaleel Bunton on guitar and Damali Young on drums. We had been touring a fair amount and I was thinking about stuff I liked to play live. That had been the impetus for Nostalgialator as well. But I think I was more settled in the idea by Father Divine. I also wanted to return to some of the vibe of my first two records. To be honest, making records in France was not easy at that point because I did not have the same band of ears. I missed the critical listeners that were my friends in NY. Back there I'd make beats in the Bronx all day, go across the street and play them for Rob, Fred and whoever was at the studio, then bike downtown, play them for Duane and Daniel Giviens at Other Music, then go to Max Fish or Vaugn and play them for whoever would listen to my headphones there. That could be Jaleel, Shannon, Beans, Creature or EL-P. I had this crazy set of listeners whose musical tastes I trusted. In France I didn't have that and I didn't really foster that because instead of going out a lot I was learning how to be a husband and a father. So I had Gymkhana. And that was it, with one exception: Dave Stzanke (aka Tahiti Boy) replaced Jaleel when he went to join TV on the Radio. He was the most positive dude in Paris and he was a big help as well. Somehow, with all those changes, I was pretty happy with how that record turned out. Making a record on the ROIR label was inspiring in its own right and Lucas who was running it was very cool throughout the deal.
Following Father Divine, there is a whole stretch where you collaborated with numerous artists. You also moved to Paris from the States. You made series of albums, including Still Life With Commentator, Anarchist Republic of Bzzz and Holding it Down: The Veteran's Dream Project. These albums edge away from your work in hip-hop toward more abstract designs, usually with jazz. As you continue to explore these roads in music (moving further away from your previous hip-hop influences), what are your thoughts and ideas about how hip-hop is developing with other artists?
Yeah, so I started slipping in the jazz hole deep when I moved to Paris. It made sense at the time. I was married, had a kid, and when we did the shows with Vijay, they were these big operatic affairs with sets etc... I am the Librettist on those projects. It made me feel like my Master's degree was paying off. Good food and hotels make a difference. It also allowed me to expand creatively and I was thinking about what type of venues and music I wanted to be playing when I was 70. I figure I might as well start laying the groundwork for some of that now, even if I return to more electronic stuff in the interim. Of course, those are not always the conditions and that's where the charm wears off.
The principal issue is I decided to put my family above all else. In France I was able to still make a living doing all kinds of different projects and keep my family the priority. I'm not sure if I could have remained so diverse in the states. I've done some pretty kooky shit since moving here and there was even a time when I lost my compass for good and bad music; that was surreal. I had been such a music snob growing up. Then I moved to a country where the bigot in me decided all the music sucked and like all bigotry it eventually led me to being lost at sea (French children's songs can do a number on you though). But for all the stuff I did that didn't sweep me off my feet, I have had some incredible music experiences here. Amazing improvised music. I've played with David Murray here, and I got to play with Archie Shepp several times and work on his film about Attica Blues. There is a long list of esoteric stuff I've done here that I'm proud of and a short list that I wish never happened. You can find both on YouTube, I'm sure.
You live is Paris now; how do you view the music that is being made in Paris (hip-hop or otherwise), and what kind of influences are you picking up there in your own work? What new works do you have coming up in the future?
I live in central Paris because my wife has had a place there for decades, but I didn't feel really comfortable living in Paris until I got a studio in Saint-Denis. It's a suburb that feels like Brooklyn and the Bronx mashed up in a small space. It's a neighborhood that reveals the truly international nature of Paris that makes it interesting in the same way that London, NY, LA, Sao Paolo, etc. is interesting because everybody is there. I need a kind of environmental mixtape to be inspired (like most artists these days, I assume). Saint-Denis has that. When I made Welcome to the Afterfuture and the first two Majesticons records in the Bronx, the noise outside is what fuelled those records. My upstairs neighbor played nothing but Jay Z; downstairs was a Mexican Evangelical church with screaming sermons, my neighbors blasted everything from merengue, salsa, dancehall, reggaeton and house to Hot 97 through my window. I needed all that. Saint-Denis doesn't have all that, but it's got the latest from Algeria, West Africa, and the Antilles mixed with the French version of Hot 97 playing somewhere, and I need that. I live off overheard radio as much as digging in crates. Soundcloud and Spotify still itch but that's where the crates are these days. I like DJs and local ads.
You've explored your own narrative of hip-hop over these last 20 years or so and have experimented with many influences inside and out of hip-hop. But there has been much evolution within the genre in these last years. What are your opinions of how the millennial generation has developed hip-hop, particularly with what is called "trap" music now? Do you think hip-hop music and its culture is in a healthy place right now?
The main reason I started making records was because no one I knew of had made the record I wanted to hear. That's changed. This question puts me in a Rip Van Winkle wormhole. The last time I really hung out with Dante (Yasiin Bey/Mos Def) was the first time Odd Future played in NY. One of my best friends DJ Preservation called me and said "Dante said if Mike is in town, call him. If anybody is gonna like this band it's him." The show was in the basement of Webster Hall, I think. Downstairs it was probably 50 kids in front who knew what was up. The rest of the room was industry (last time I saw music critic Jon Caramonica was at that show). The show was typical out of control mayhem: a million kids on stage, Earl Sweatshirt not there, bad sound, etc. But Tyler, the Creator didn't fuck up once. In the middle of all the mess, he cut through like a razor. That was a long time ago now. Light years worth of stuff has come and gone. A lot of it I missed. Some stuff I've caught, which I loved.
I always listen to my friends the most. Rebelmatic, Run the Jewels, Rob Sonic, DJ Preservation and his Dr. Yen Lo collaboration with KA, anything Fred Ones is up to, Saul Williams, the Antipop Consortium crew (M. Sayyid, High Priest and Beans), French rapper Casey, La Canaille, Omega Moon, Vijay, Kassa Overall, Tyshawn Sorey, No Surrender, Jim Kelly, Tai Allen, Suede Jenkins; it's a long list. I wore out that first Death Grips record hard and am doing the same with Moor Mother Goddess now, Ho99o9, Gaika and Denzel Curly. And also, all the guys that Busdriver has been working with or is around; Open Mike Eagle and Milo, in particular. Open Mike Eagle's song "95 Radios" – I keep going back to that track. There's also Westside Gunn, Ratking, King Krule, Yves Tumor, Livity Sound. Often I get overwhelmed and I go back to the radio, Hot 97, WBUR (heavy NPR), Guerrilla Grooves Radio and then mostly I use one of those apps that links you to radio stations all over the world. I'll type in a random country and genre and surf stations. In terms of trap music, anytime hip-hop has been claimed by the South I've been happy.
Most of my mom's side of the family is from North Carolina. That side has always influenced my music from the first record ("Off the Coast of Okrakoke" and "Tragic Mulatto is Neither") My musical North Carolina/D.C. experience was church and blues to an extent. Anytime hip-hop goes deep to its origins, I've been into it. I think it was David Banner that was like "I'm from Mississippi, the place where your mama left etc…" I like that turn. I've always been a huge DJ Screw fan, so from crunk to trap to whatever's next, I always find something in that. Solange didn't have those Master P quotes on her record just to be cute. Like any big trend, there is a lot that becomes unlistenable and there's always subject matter that's a billion percent unproductive. But when someone can cut through correctly with nothing more than an 808 and what is essentially a series of haiku and say something that makes millions of people bounce, it's worth paying attention to. More than I have, in fact.
I traveled a lot when I was young. I lived in India for a year when I was 16. I lived in Zimbabwe for a stint when I was 19. I was always expecting the next wave of great music to come from somewhere else. Now it seems like everything comes from everywhere all at once. Maybe that's better. We know we are in a post-leadership era; maybe we are also a post-arts movement. How do I feel about hip-hop as a whole? That's like asking about the weather around the globe; some places it's sunny, some places it sucks.
There is a huge theatrical element to your music, which I think stems from your performance poetry beginnings. It makes me wonder if you've ever considered a step outside of your musical perimeters into other mediums like film and television? Have you ever been considered for roles in film? Have you thought about such a transition?
I've done several more out of necessity than for a passion for acting. It comes relatively easy to me, or easy enough for me to do the job when asked. But being a professional actor would be a whole other can of worms. I had a slightly Victorian view of acting and looked down on it a bit until I did a TV pilot. TV and film is crazy because there is all this down time and then suddenly you have to be on. Watching people change gears so flawlessly is pretty impressive. I've been in three theatrical productions all with some hip-hop element, so it hasn't been much of a stretch. I had the honor of performing Sekou Sundiata's play Blessing the Boats. It was with Carl Hancock Rux and Will Power. We did a small run in LA and NY, which was fun. The director was the mind-blowing Rhodessa Jones, the sister of Bill T. Jones. The woman is timeless. The first day of rehearsal began with handstands – she doing them, us trying and failing.
Can you discuss what your academic engagements are like as a professor of English? I imagine such a profession to be quite a serious and rigid one, something incredibly different from your work as a music artist, which is all about improvisation, creative abandonment, and a certain recklessness...Can you describe the creative proclivities of your academic profession?
Unfortunately, I haven't taught at the university level since 2010 or so. I still do workshops in high schools every once in a while. Mostly in the Paris suburbs. Teaching is like DJing in the sense that the more researched and prepared you are beforehand, the more fluid you can be during the class. Of course, that's true for just about any profession or skill.
There are also very strong literary influences and references in your music. Can you discuss a little some of the books that have influenced you in the past as well as ones you are currently reading that have captured your interest and imagination?
At the moment, Duriel Harris, LaTasha Diggs, Tyehimba Jess and Paul Beatty, Paul Beatty, Paul Beatty. Many of my literary heroes are people my age, some of them I was lucky enough to know at some point in my life. When I did Welcome to the Afterfuture, I was reading Colson Whitehead, Paul Beatty, Kevin Young and Sharan Strange, so their content all slipped into that record, along with older heroes Bob Kaufman and Ishmael Reed. They are always with me actually. Easy Listening 4 Armageddon was all about Jayne Cortez for me – the song "Kissin' Kecia" is a serious bite off of one of her poems. Tony Medina, Tony Medina, Tony Medina and Diggs, Diggs, Diggs.
How important is the visual component of music for you? Are you in any way engaged in the visual aesthetics of creating your music?
I have had a lot of problems with that. I had such specific ideas for a long time that I was never able to relinquish control to someone else nor have the skill myself like Priest and M. Sayyid from Antipop Consortium to directly apply my aesthetic in that way. It's come about in album covers. But with videos, I had to let go completely. It took me years. That's why there are so few.
Do you have any plans to revert to recording entirely solo under your own name as you first did 20 years ago? If you had to work exclusively from a solitary point with just you and your instruments without anyone's contribution and input today, what do you think that album would sound like 20 years on since your solo debut?
Yes, I'm in the middle of recording three EPs right now. When my ego is out of control, I can get a little Kool Keith and feel like I did everything before everybody else. Obviously, that's not at all the case, but I did get enough ideas across before anyone else did. Some folks came through with the same or similar ideas later but with much better execution and, frankly, the adage is true: "It's not about who had the idea first, it's about who did it best." The one advantage of doing it first or being one of the first is: I feel if I put out a record now and it sounded like a bunch stuff people know, I feel like I already did a version of that somewhere so I wouldn't be ripping anyone off. So we'll see. I've written two graphic novels that I'm still polishing. One I wrote in 2012 called The Indelible Stench of Mr. 4, which follows a fictional character through the Black American Experience in the Soviet Union between 1922 and 1943. The other is called Fat Dracula. Both those graphic novels have music that goes with them. Also in 2012 I did a show of chopped & screwed sea shanties. There is a record for that which needs to be finished as well. Focus, focus, focus while hustling to feed my family. Some people are better at it than others. But it will get done.