Malik Ameer Crumpler 2022 / Photo: Anaïs Pourrouquet
Malik Ameer Crumpler 2022 / Photo: Anaïs Pourrouquet

Big Dada Kane: An Interview with Poet-Rapper Malik Ameer Crumpler

Bestriding boundaries between hip-hop, poetry, and surrealism, poet-musician Malik Ameer Crumpler forges a strange and compelling work that is utterly and uniquely his own.

Hip-Hop Rhyme and Bukowski-Like Narratives

Drapetomania was your first album, recorded at 19 years of age. How did you manage to get into a recording studio then? What are your memories of recording that album? Also, the lyrics on the album are extremely political – so many ideas for someone so young at 19!

Everyone in my creative and activist environment was obsessed with developing our own rules for exploring our minds fearlessly, avoiding all musical and lyrical standards in hopes to find some sort of fusion in all of our adolescent confusion, in order to arrive at our own sound and voice. I mean, there was no way to compete with all the brilliant rappers and innovative producers of that era, so we were into our own thing, i.e., being ourselves and impressing one another. I guess our initial aim was to apply Hesse’s philosophy from The Glass Bead Game to our lyrical and musical experimentation i.e., spiritually-minded music.

Everyone in the Unseen was fascinated with and committed to extending our loops to make unusual sound-patterns full of existential rage and dread, weird chords, odd melodies, and odd-meter phrases. As for the recording, we were attempting to shorten the distance between all the genres we loved. By abstractly collaging and quilting them together, we hoped to sound like no one else. All in all, it was a fun fiasco. So, with the Unseen (Alex Foster AKA Akiba, Marco Santiago, Erick Iheme and myself), each had our own Tascam or Fostex 4-track personal studios. Since recording our previous album (and first attempt at this jam band fusion boom-bap thing), The Nightmare, we’d upgraded to a Sony 8-track, in hopes to achieve a more accessible mix.

We recorded and mixed the album ourselves, in our bedrooms, garages, and attics. That DIY sound was the mark of broke amateurs back then, so it really wound up being a nightmare for the mastering engineer with Drapetomania, because we didn’t have the proper equipment or budget to get a professional mix. Luckily, the mastering folks at Hip Hop Infinity made it sound a thousand times better than it initially did. One of my favorite memories about recording that album was hanging out brainstorming and recording with Akiba, the main producer, composer, arranger, and pianist whom I’d already made six tapes with prior to Drapetomania.

By 2000, Alex was a sophomore at the Berkeley School of Music in Boston, so he’d send beat tapes to me in Oakland, via snail mail, until he came back home for the holidays. Then we’d stay up all night recording in our rooms, with the sole objective of making the weirdest music we could imagine. We really wanted to explore what it meant to us, to sound like no one else, even at the expense of being unlistenable. We’d settled into that state of mind because of all the artists we were studying – everyone from Bartok and Stravinsky to Miles Davis, Björk, and Brian Eno. We were also studying world politics and especially failed revolutions. So, in a political science class taught by Dr. Robert C. Smith at SFSU, I’d got the title for the album from a lecture he gave on 8th-century terms for describing the psychological diseases afflicting runaway slaves.

Long story short, Drapetomania was the conclusion to The Nightmare, which was our previous album that our group, then called the Aware, gave away for free through online forum boards, at gigs, and at rallies in the Bay. Our favorite form of distribution in 2000 was through online forum boards, such as Slam Jamz, Hip Hop Infinity, Ukhh, Okay Player, and Ugsmag, and to whoever directly messaged me on the forum boards for a copy. We’d also give away CDs at campus protests, rallies, and fundraisers organized by La Raza, as well as Anti-Police Brutality and Stop the Violence rallies. So, the lyrics are the inevitable result of being deeply involved in that hyper-political activism atmosphere in the Bay at that time.

Also doing this period, everyone I was running around with was studying tons of VHS tapes from the library and studying documentaries on composers, painters, musicians, writers, philosophers, activists, and all those political and artistic renegades. The Cuba Educational Program, taught and led by Felix Kury, allowed us to study Latino philosophy, history, and poetry. In the Black Students Union, we were studying with Obenga and T’shaka, reading all those inspiring Afrikaans diaspora writers from Marcus Garvey and Steve Biko to Schwaller De Lubicz and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Everyone I was around was doing serious activism, protesting, fundraising, and studying all those rebellion narratives, so all that data inevitably seeped into everything we thought and wrote about. Plus, we were super hyped back then, pre-911, protesting COINTELPRO, the prison industrial complex, George Bush’s election theft from Al Gore, and basically rebelling against all the same things that, unfortunately, young folks in the States are still protesting now. So, the urgency to change the political reality of our world was a daily obligation.

The best thing about this album, though, was performing songs from Drapetomania in the streets, university salons, and Bembe’s of Cuba with the Cuban education program crew, during early 2002. That month-long experience exploring Cuba, hanging out with Cubans, giving and listening to speeches, and studying at Universidad Habana, accelerated my appreciation and obsession with uncompromising creative, political and spiritual expression. Immediately, I realized my previous style on Drapetomania wouldn’t work for where I needed to go creatively because all that screaming was not only exhausting to perform, it limited the diverse narratives and emotional intensity I planned to traverse during the inner-cosmos of performance.

Lastly, handing out CDs and t-shirts every day with my man, Daniel Sanchez of Nopal Apparel in Cancun and Cuba while performing with some fascinating musicians at jam sessions, really expanded my scope of the possibility of soulful collaborations that seamlessly merged so-called genres within music and poetry.

You’ve recorded so many projects – too many to mention. But another of your works is the Nothing Better to Do album, recorded with the Madmen. The influences pull more from jazz and funk and the rhymes lean toward spoken word more than the hip-hop lyricism of Drapetomania. It’s also a more minimal affair compared to the heaviness of Drapetomania. Tell me about your work on this album.

Nothing Better to Do began in 2004 when I was bed-ridden for a month and a half after accidentally being set on fire at a picnic. While I was healing up from the burns, my friends would come by the house and we’d watch old European films and Live bootlegs from our funk and free jazz heroes. After about three weeks of lying in bed and doing therapy, I could sit up at my computer again and that’s when Jonathan Finlayson, Roopa Singh, Otayo Dubb, Erick Iheme, Valentino Pelizzer, Mike Aaberg, and David Michel Ruddy would come by and nudge me back into recording, which was also therapeutic.

Prior to that album, I’d made an album called Sanctified, which was dealing with the musical, political, and spiritual ideas I learned in Cuba. It was an attempt to collaborate with and blend all the diverse musicians, vocalists, and poetry communities that I was gigging and jamming with in the Bay Area since getting back from Cuba.

Since 2000, I’d been gigging with Bayonics, rapping, singing, and playing keyboards in that 12-piece band that mixed all that incredible Central and South American music with hip-hop, salsa, mariachi, funk, Afrobeat, and classical marching band music. So, while healing [from burns] in 2004, Jonathan Finlayson and Max Tucker came back to the Bay for the summer from New School in Manhattan, and invited me to come to New York to do some gigs with their Prince cover band. As soon as I could walk again, I moved to New York, and we started rehearsing and doing gigs all over downtown Manhattan.

One night at Don Hills, the audience wasn’t feeling my word-dense lyrical style, so Surya Botofasina leaned over from his organ and convinced me to say less and rely more on the hook, slogans, and unpredictable commentaries in the pocket, like James Brown and George Clinton. Since I couldn’t sing worth a dime back then, we only did the Prince covers where Prince either spoke or rapped, and the lady background singers (à la Vanity and Apollonia) sang the difficult parts. Then we’d do our originals. We recorded most of that album in my Dominican room on 144th and Broadway in the sweltering humidity of a Harlem summer by overdubbing one musician at a time (the room was too small to fit more than one musician and myself at a time). My landlord wasn’t into screaming in her house, so we all developed a super-quiet headphone funk (a la Cody Chesnutt style). By then, everyone in New York was super P-Funked or Princed out.

My man, Francis Starlight, was the most exciting back then in that realm. He was so sharp at presenting the deep funked-out Prince, Paul Simon, and Talking Heads traditions that we left it to him and his brilliant band and we got deeper into our own thing, as did he with all that inspiring music he’s still making. But yeah, Francis’ music and live gigs were inspiring a lot of us back then. As for the Madmen, even after the band broke up and stopped gigging (most of the band joined Francis & the Lights), we were so addicted to studying in the museums and galleries together in Manhattan that we started trying to make music that felt like abstract avant-garde art to us. Almost every day we were in the MoMA, the Met, the Whitney, the Gagosian, and all those squat galleries in Williamsburg, Dumbo, Bushwick, and so on, attempting to figure out how to make the music sound the way abstract expressionist paintings looked and felt to us. So, all that eventually led to my obsession with developing a vocal style that bridged the poems, the raps, the musicality, and the space between the strokes that we saw in de Kooning’s and Bearden’s art.

Musically, the musicians were always center stage, so I needed to be more like an abstract instrument lyrically and vocally, instead of figuratively, which was difficult. Then I started going to workshops at the Jazz Gallery downtown, hosted by Henry Threadgill, Roy Hargrove, and Steve Coleman. I went to everyone I heard about. I was ravenously studying their approach to composition, practice, spontaneous creation, and improvisation. Those workshops are where I decided to specifically attempt to phrase in my raps and poems the way Threadgill, Hemphill, Ayler, and all those incredible saxophonists played.

I didn’t want to copy them, I just wanted to narrate as they did. So, my vocal style on Nothing Better to Do comes from me desperately trying to phrase things like all those impeccable musicians I was hanging out with, like Milford Graves, William Parker, and Muhal Richard Abrams. I was obsessed with all of them then and, as always, the Don Cherry, Duke Ellington, and Charles Mingus albums, where they read poetry or talked chants along with their compositions. We also wanted Nothing Better to Do, to sound like our live gigs, so saying less and letting the music speak more to achieve creative cohesion was the main intention, or as Henry Threadgill used to say in a workshop: “In pursuit of ensemble”.

What were your ideas going into the recording of Sanctified?

At first, everyone involved in recording Sanctified just wanted to make this album sound better sonically, in terms of mixing, mastering, and vocal delivery. The home studio computer recording revolution had just really hit in late 2002, so almost everyone, except die-hard audiophiles were switching over to computer recording. Also, I started recording any and every musician that was into our aesthetic that I’d meet at jam sessions and gigs all over the Bay, so we had more diversity in musicianship, which gave us a more unpredictable sound than the previous album.

There is a heavier emphasis on the bottom end of Sanctified.

All that came from hundreds of remixing sessions with Valentino Pellizzer, Daniel Sanchez, CoDeez, and Mike Tiger clowning my thin mixes whenever we’d A-B tracks in the car (on road trips to gigs, etc.) or in different studios. I’m enchanted with the possibilities of the bass as a frequency and at that time, my man (and one of my favorite drummers, composers, and producers), Valentino Pelizzer had an exciting approach to really getting dramatic bass effects, so he was the one who really got that enormous BOOOOOOOMING bass on “The Other’s Side” and “Dharma Playground” and a couple of others on there. We loved rattling trunks!

Also, the equipment we were using, that first version of the Motif 6, had an enormous, almost endless, sub-bass that we used to use with dramatic effect at Bayonics gigs, which I loved triggering and watching the audience, look around like, “What the hell was that?” A lot of Sanctified is attempting to set up a Jim Jarmusch kinda sonic movie vibe, with unpredictable sonic surprises, like that bass booming, or the heavy odd-meter joints.

While there are still political-edged songs, there are some lighter moments that cross over into “party tracks” – something normally a little outside of what you usually do in music. Drapetomania was the home-listening album and Sanctified is the “stepping out/sound system” album. What are your thoughts on the differences between albums and the progression?

Those party tracks came from the joy of gigging around the Bay and partying with the audience. Since that period, I accepted that I preferred partying on stage with the audience, rather than protesting and screaming. So, the party tracks are one’s I’d added to my stage gigs, to give the crowd and myself some fun and breathe. The few gigs I did with Drapetomania proved to me that being angry and desperately screaming on stage is mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausting, not only in the performance but for the crowd too (perhaps most of all). Also, I was always out partying and grooving with the musicians and poets, rappers, and artists at that time, so it was just honest and natural that we share that side of our personality and lifestyle in our music. Plus, I always loved the party tracks in music but had difficulty making my own because I didn’t have the technical chops to do so until I got Bayonics, whose sets were all about nonstop party music from all over the planet, originals and covers. So, I got more exposure to how to do it with them and let those experiences guide me.

The differences between those albums are exactly what you mentioned. We made Drapetomania isolated, frustrated, and angry as hell with everything in the world, so as 19-year-old demented experimentalists, we never planned on performing any of that, or really having it listened to beyond our small circle of weird friends and a minuscule number of forum board online supporters. But after we got out there and into the Bay Area community of artists and audiences, I noticed that there was more to what I wanted to express than political, historical anguish, horror, torment, and spiritual stress. I wanted to share joy/ funk/ fun with folks too.

I was finally having fun with fellow artists and the audiences. So, yeah, it’s like you said, Sanctified is that stepping-out album. It’s from the perspective of the cat who leaves Socrates’ Allegory of the Cave. Once I got out of the cave, that light was too inspiring to ever go back in. Or maybe, it was just the difference between a frustrated 19-year-old activist’s experience and a 21-year-old wilding out and having a great time at and after the protest. Honestly, I felt embraced and thus embraced my community and was thoroughly enjoying not feeling ostracized and isolated. We were literally getting it in, daily!