Photo: Edwige Hamben

There’s a Good Ladd: An Interview with Rapper and Musician Mike Ladd

n 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 that 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-ofBronx 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 reble-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 that 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.