“My vocal tone doesn’t really mesh well with lighter, poppy music,” rapper Sareem Poems maintains. “I believe music should be felt and heard. I like some of what’s been going on in hip-hop. But… hip-hop should not feel like R&B. Having someone sing a hook or adding instrumentation is beautiful. Taking all of what hip-hop was built on out of the music, then calling it hip-hop is not hip-hop. It’s something I’ll never be able to do.”
With his thunderous baritone rumbling across the terrains of his soulfully-steeped hip-hop, Sareem often angles for the more robust grooves of the genre. His intense bass upon bass approach is his brand of hip-hop’s most identifiable trait, though his profile amongst the hip-hop community remains rather low. The decidedly gospel filter with which he forces out a poetry of urban spiritualism has set audiences on either side of a preferential divide. But those keyed into the heavy swing of a hard loping groove can appreciate the pleasure-seeking vibes in his work.
Sareem first cut his teeth as an artist, performing as a member of Californian hip-hop group LA Symphony in the late ’90s. Then known as Sharlok Poems, he would spend the better part of the early ’00s putting together demos for a solo album called Left (2002). “My goal was to put more of what I listened to into the music,” Sareem says of his debut. “Native Tongues, poetry, jazz, R&B. When writing, I steer clear of listening to hip-hop so I don’t subconsciously take on what I’m hearing.” While still playing within the conventions of hip-hop, he managed to turn out some unusual sounds that owed much to the burbling textures of underground electronica. Synth-rubbed numbers like the album’s title-track opened up channels that allowed the rapper to explore more influences outside of hip-hop’s perimeters.
The Movement followed in 2004 after a meeting with The Procussions (whose member Stro Elliot would later join The Roots). Widening the gamut of styles opened up new dimensions of sound that only furthered his reach on the disparate influences that have since shown up in his work. Examining topics such as absentee fathers and the routine doldrums of 20-something life, the album’s influences referenced a range of artists including The Roots, Esthero, Aesop Rock and El-P.
Burrowing even deeper into the bass-entrenched grooves he explored on his previous albums, Sareem offered audiences what remains his heaviest and most stately declamation of hip-hop with Blooming Sounds (2007). Throbbing hard with his trademark booming bravado, Blooming Sounds redirected all of the more off-handed experiments of his last two LPs into a densely compressed package of rumbling, boulder-shouldering beats. Pumped to bursting with the curvatures of his sonorous poetry and intensely bassy beats, numbers like “See It”, “Feels Good” and “Special Delivery” exploded from the bass bins with newfound creative force. “I worked with the now-defunct label Hip Hop Is Music, which was owned and run by Braille of Light Headed,” he says. “[Braille’s] approach was for me to pick beats that appealed to me, without knowing who produced the track. So I ended up working with a lot of great producers that I have never met.
“I also selected a few tracks from Stro Elliot on my own. This album was the beginning of my new norm. I wrote 80 percent of the album before recording anything. In the past sitting on songs too long proved to make me indecisive.” Sareem’s greatest asset on this album was Stro Elliot, a producer, rapper and musician in his own right who just also happens to be the latest member of The Roots. While Elliot is but only one in a handful of producers who have since laid down work for the Michigan-based rapper, he has supplied Sareem with the kind challenging rhythms and textures that would persuade The Roots into bringing him aboard as an official member.
Sareem’s newfound approach to songwriting generated much of the material that would appear on his fourth solo LP, 2009’s Black and Read All Over, an album of choppy, sci-fi hip-hop funk, full of backward loops, zinging bells and jalopy rhythms that came courtesy of some of hip-hop’s more off-the-wall producers. It’s the album that expanded Sareem’s music beyond the insular circle of listeners who had been following him since his debut. Produced by Oddisee (Homeboy Sandman) and Theory Hazit (Redman), Black and Read All Over pitches wildly from influence to influence. What really congeals the sounds, however, is the overall flexibility and electricity of the beats; Sareem’s baritone raps and the touchpaper production combine to create a smoldering bomb of combustible funk. “I owe the scattered influences to my taste in music,” Sareem says. “I listen to everything except country and death metal. Theory Hazit had to deal with my ear candy ideas, phone calls and emails about adding weird sounds here and there. He produced the entire album outside of two tracks by Oddisee. That wouldn’t have happened without Mello Music Group [the indie hip-hop label that has put out works by Kool Keith, Peter Rock, and Oddisee].”
Notable numbers like the tin-pan slam of “See What Happens” and the piano-storming blues of “Tell It” sidle up to the more outré grooves like “Impossible”, an electrical hip-hop jam flushed with galactic synths and featuring a sage, fatherly rhyme by Stro Elliot. The album’s single, “Lower the Boom”, a chugging, mechanical beat of railway rhythms, would afford the rapper some exposure outside of his cultish fanbase. “I think the appeal of “Lower the Boom” is what I like to call the ‘pirate chant'”, he explains of the single’s repetitious, round-the-twist chorus vocals. “It played in my head over and over again. [And then, on top of that], straightforward rap verses over a driving bass-heavy beat, with that classic head nod factor.”
Leaning on the bluesy gospel influences that have marked the works of luminaries like Chance the Rapper and earlier hip-hop notables Arrested Development, Sareem infuses his work with the metaphysic ideologies of Afro-spiritualism. The songs on the album cover topics like love, poverty, and racial struggle.
“The themes on the record come from past times and now,” the rapper says. “The hatred, self-destructive behaviors, racial and religious divide that we see now was also here before. It wasn’t as popular and newsworthy as it is now. This is where the album title came from, Black and Read All Over. As a black man, no matter where I was, all over the country I felt that I was read the same way: violent, morally poor, a threat, etc. So a lot of the songs are a reflection of the self; what I feel, see and hear, so to speak, while feeling like a book that the majority felt free to label, based on my cover (the color of my skin) without ever reading a page.”
Sareem would follow up with the blues-wrangling Dirty Words (with fellow musician Dust) and the lushly ethereal Beautiful Noise, which featured the more laid-back textures of R&B. Dirty Words (2011), the indigo blue to Blooming Sounds’ golden radiance, is his grittiest work to date. Here on this album Sareem finds, in his booming vox, a perfect sponsor. Charged with the explosive energy of a live impromptu performance, these studio recordings bristle with the skronk of James Brown soul. Sareem lays down detonative lines along the coarsely cut grooves, exchanging rhymes with Arrested Development’s Speech, flexing his larynx muscles against the brewing rhythms and spinning gospel soul on the head of the musical pin.
In 2015, he would turn the other side of the coin to reveal the empyreal heights that was Beautiful Noise, his collaboration with producer Ess Be. Beautiful Noise is far more ambient than Sareem’s other works. The beats, at times, are pushed to the peripheries, with the synths filling out the expanses of the sonic space. The album also boasts a stronger sense of melody. “From the writing side, Beautiful Noise is a conversation over beats,” he says. “It’s me talking through my story and through the stories of others, stories that may not want to talk to you. I chose the more mellow production, so people would focus on what’s being and said and hopefully connect to it. Ess Be put together the perfect soundtrack, in my opinion.”
Sareem’s most recent effort is A Pond Apart, a transatlantic work between himself and French beatmaker Terem. It features more of the rapper’s philosophizing, his rhymes this time backed by the experimental textures of Euro-influenced hip-hop. “Before I started writing for this project, I listened to a lot of what I call classic and organic hip-hop: Mos Def, Black Star, OutKast, The Roots, Common, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Souls of Mischief, The Pharcyde, etc.,” Sareem reveals. “During my binge, I realized how much this era of music moved me. I wanted to approach this project that way, while at the same time allowing Terem to be himself production-wise.”
Ideas of time-space continuums are explored in the clockwork rhythms of single “Tic Toc”; Terem’s version, the album’s original, is reciprocated with a remix by Stro Elliot, featuring Elliot’s signature strolling boom-bap production. “Get Up” employs a seductive shuffle of Africana percussion to carve a heavy groove in the desolate soundscape of ghostly synths. Sareem’s musings on the album seem to project into a near but out-of-reach future, transcending the limits of the real-time dramas that each of these songs detail.
“The state of the world has created a desire for me to be more conscious and cautious,” he reflects. “Conscious of what’s going on in my community, cautious of how I move and carry myself. Reaching to grab something that an officer of the law has requested me to grab is more likely to end with me being shot in front of my wife and sons and turned into a snuff film than it is in simply being asked to step out of the car. “Tears” [a track off of A Pond Apart] is weighted in the question of what would you do. I can’t imagine what the black families of those nine people shot in the Charleston Church felt and still feel today. The sad part is their loved ones’ names are just people to the world. How can you feel something for someone without a name? [According to some media sources and certain sectors of the public] Dylann Roof is not to be seen as a terrorist; he is a troubled, young white man that loves guns, swastikas, and Hitler.”
In interim of recording full albums, Sareem continues to polish his rhymes for any number of projects. His latest, a one-off single with Ess Be called “Dance for the Dead”, continues to explore the conduit of his various influences, mining ’80s new wave as much as it does dubstep. The single is a sampling of what Sareem’s upcoming album has to offer. Otherwise, he’s firing on all cylinders on the home front, busy with his parental duties, where at home he is better known by his real name, Sharron Solo Brooks. His nom de plume, designed by his poet’s hand, is an extended invention of everything he has become since his childhood years.
“Sharlok [his earlier stage name] was a mash up of my birth name, Sharron Solo Brooks,” he reveals. “I loved poetry and detective shows growing up. So that’s where ‘Sharlok Poems’ came from. The first name change to just ‘Poems’ was the result of misspellings [of ‘Sharlok’] and personal life changes. My band in those days, LA Symphony, was slowing down at the time. So I wanted to start fresh. The name ‘Poems’ proved to be the wrong choice. Doing a Google search for ‘Poems’, the artist, didn’t give very good results. So ‘Sareem’ popped into my head. I did a search for ‘Sareem’, nothing came up, and there you have it. I kept the ‘Poems’ on the end – and here we are.”