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LE Newsletter - February 19, 2004

  Interview with Ali Shaheed Muhammad

I first met Ali Shaheed Muhammad
through K-Cut (Main Source) at a recording session in his New Jersey studio back in October 2003.  Initially, it was tempting to be tongue-tied around someone of his accomplishments and accolades but after a few short minutes, his warmth and sincerity made it easy not to fall prey to temporary worship.  Ali is one of those artists that is humbled and even uncomfortable by his success and notoriety.  I was catapulted from adulation of his achievements straight to respect for him as a man and musician. 

We, of course, know Ali as one of the founding members of A Tribe Called Quest, one of hip hopís most respected groups.  Sure, he is also credited with working with such artistic greats as Maxwell, Eric Benet, Janet Jackson, Angie Stone, Mos Def and DíAngelo.  But thatís not what I wanted to speak about with Ali on this day.  I want to speak about his soon-to-be-released debut solo album
, Shaheedullah and Stereotypes.  Itís an Ali Shaheed Muhammad that we are not as familiar with. 

What are you doing here in Toronto?

Iím here to work with K-OS for something that may or may not make it on his next CD.  Iím doing production, writing, whatever.  I can play a beat programmer, a producer, or whatever.  Itís just to sit in the same room and catch the vibe.

Whatís your goal in creating
Shaheedullah and Stereotypes

My goal was just to find a forum to continue to express myself and to be creative.  How it really began is that I had a couple of artists that I was trying to get signed.  But there were some obstacles in that you donít have ownership of your product with a label.  It really forced me to brainstorm about what I could do that would be different yet still empower me to be creative without having people telling me what they want from me.  Another objective was to set up a business where I could still make money.  All of sudden, it came to me - why donít you do an album? 

The doors were not opening for me to proceed in the traditional way of doing things.  The idea for an album came from not having an opportunity to do what I had always wanted which is to be creative and sit with artists and make music.  For some reason, I donít know if itís because I didnít have anything out for a time, but people in the record industry, A&Rs and executives, the shot-callers, had no faith.  When I approached them with these artists, the reaction was that they wanted it done one way and I responded ďNo. Let me just do an albumĒ.  Deciding to record an album, I have found a voice and I started writing, rapping and singing and just doing things that Iím still surprised about.  The real goal and the journey became about writing about things that were more socially relevant and being in a state of higher consciousness. 

Hip hop, I felt, was a bit too materialistic and frivolous.  I know that what a lot of people speak about is their struggle and their journey, but there comes a time when you have to look at your life, your situation and your environment and just challenge it.  So, for me, the Ali Shaheed stereotypes became a way for me to challenge myself.  The stereotypical aspect is Iím coined as this hip hop/neo soul producer.  Iím more than that. 

Did you know previously that you werenít merely your stereotype?

Always.  Thatís always been one of the reasons why any time I do something new, it is not always received well by executives or A&R people.  Some artists may have heard DíAngeloís ĎBrown Sugarí and call me to say that they want that vibe.  I would say that you canít have that vibe because that was DíAngelo and Ali in the room.  That was just that moment in time and youíre not going to capture that again.  Sometimes I would compromise and say, ok thatís what you want, let me take that and add what I think your artist is on top of that.  But they didnít want that.  Iíve always known that I love music and I want to be in the space where I can just write and create.  So, recording this album gave me the opportunity to challenge myself. 

Are there other artists that are part of this project or is solely Ali?

Actually, the artists I began this whole mission with are no longer a part of what Iím doing at all.  Itís real crazy how things happen and a whole breed of other people came into my situation and it really helped shape it.  Thereís Sy Smith, a singer, who Iíve worked with in the past.  She had a deal in 2000 with Hollywood Records and she called me to do a couple of songs for ĎPsykosoulí.  Then we lost touch with each other and reconnected for this album.  One song I recorded while I was still in Lucy Pearl - hoping to possibly bring it to the next Lucy Pearl album.  I always envisioned Stokley from Mint Condition, singing it.   I had done a remix for the Definition of a Band album but we had lost contact.
 I put the song away and then played it for someone that happens to know Stokley (even though I didnít know that).  I told her that I always dreamed of having Stokley on that track and she made a call and made that connection.  Also, I did three songs on the Fu-Schnickens first album but again we lost touch.  I saw Chip on the street one day and said letís get together.  Thereís another singer, Wallace Gary and a rapper named K from Texas.  Itís just all these different connections Ė friends of friends. 

And this wouldnít have evolved if you had chosen to produce what the labels wanted you to.

Yeah, EXACTLY.  From not having a road map for what I wanted to do, the whole experience became its own road map.  Everyoneís contribution makes sense Ė in that itís speaking to the whole overall tone of what I wanted to deal with.  K has a song called ďFamilyĒ and he talks about the relationship of a father and a son.  When a father chastises a son, the son has no understanding or idea why.  But later on when he grows up, he gets it.  And then K talks about his sister and sibling rivalry Ė and then he says a line something about seeing the eyes of the mother and father within them.  Love your blood because when sheís gone, there wonít be anything left BUT you two.  You donít hear that message in hip hop so again, everything just became itís own. 

What do you want people to remember you for? 

Iíve always feared someone asking me that question.  Youíre the first person to ask me that and Iíve always feared that question.  I donít really know the answer to that.  If anything, just remember that I believe in God.  And that the Creator exists and thereís a reason and meaning for all this.  Thatís just how I strive to live my life Ė to be a part of that and to make sure that we remember that thereís a connection between us all. 

I was just saying to K-OS earlier when he was talking about different American west coast rappers and east coast rappers and how someone in particular did a song together that he didnít expect.  I said that we have to do things like that Ė someone has to stand up and show our similarities because we spend too much time talking about our differences.  And when we do that, we stay separated.  For me, Iím just trying to honour and obey the Creator and trying to bridge some gaps in humanity.  So, what do I want to be remembered for?  I donít really want to be remembered.  I just want people to be on that same vibe.  We spend too much time stomping one another out Ė verbally and backbiting on other people.  We are all going to go through hard things in our lives.  You may forget that when youíre talking about someone and then when you go through it, youíre going to wish that someone offered you compassion.  Being Muslim, you really strive to be humble every moment and we may not always be, but when youíre talking about a soul that may not be here, it should be something to do with that.  For me, Iím just trying to get to heaven.  Thatís where the name of my production company comes from Ė Garden Seeker - trying to get to the gardens of paradise.  I want anyone around me to be part of that.  This life is not permanent and there is more to come and I want to be there.

If you could work with any artist (living or past), who would they be?

I saw when I was watching the Grammys last week that Elliott Smith had passed away.  When I saw that my face just dropped.  I had always wanted to work with him.  I know that people were saying that his music was dark.  But his energy was definitely felt.  It felt like life to me.  Yes, there was a darkness and Iím always attracted to dark chords anyway and he would play these chords and Iíd be like Ďwhoaí.  He kind of reminded me of the Beatles to some degree with some of his structure and Iím a Beatles fan so that was the immediate connection but then there was a deeper part of it that was just so dark.  And what he was writing about Ė I connected with it.  I think the album was called ĎXOí and thatís the first album that Iíve heard on him.  I know he has a lot more material.  Wish list?  Definitely Elliott Smith.  Anyone else?  Thatís such a difficult question.  Thereís so many people past and present that are inspirational to me.  I may not necessarily want to work with some people.  Like a Marvin Gaye or something like that.  Maybe not to do music with him but just to talk to the brother.  Obviously, he had seen some things in his life.  There are also so many up and coming kids. 

I would like to sit and talk with 50 Cent.  Not because heís the thing right now but I think that heís gone through some things in his life.  The way that he presents himself in interviews, heís a very intelligent person.  I would like to talk to him about other things in life because I think heís in a position, as Tupac was, to really empower the youth and those that are struggling.  They can identify with that struggle even though they may not have lived it.  I think that sometimes when people have grown up the way that heís grown up, thereís a mentality that comes through which is not always positive.  Unfortunately, when you grow up on the streets, you get frustrated because your heart is pure and good and youíre trying to choose that righteous path but due to all these other obstacles, it gets you to the point of frustration and then it turns into rage.  Then that rage can lead you down the wrong alley.  So, thatís why I would like to talk to 50 because I know heís talking to kids who identify with him.  As Pac was in a position to not let the rage get the best of him, it did.  I would not want to see that happen to 50 or any other solider out there.  Weíre all making music.  That means weíre trying to express ourselves and better the lives of our families.  I donít care if you are the grimiest, dirtiest of persons.  If your intention is to better the life of your family, then thereís so much good within you.  So, itís just a matter of whether youíre going to let your environment dictate your choices. 

I love his focus (50) and you can tell heís a hard worker.  His struggle is so many othersí struggle and I understand heís living his life and heís young and heís got to go through his thing.  He would be someone Iíd like to get with but not to work with but just to talk to.  Sometimes youngsters need Ė and Iím not an old dude Ė but sometimes we need that community.  Thatís another thing that Islam has taught me.  You need that community to keep you in line.  Itís not that youíre a hater or a critic. 

One of my boys said to me a couple of days ago, Black people are in a position now where we embrace failure.  When he said that, I almost dropped the phone because that is exactly what we do.  We embrace the failures of being broke, of not getting opportunities and all these other different things.   It comes out now as glorifying jewellery and champagne drinking and all these wild things Ė for some people thatís a lifestyle, thatís what they love to do.  But overall, for it to be placed in the face of the kids like that, itís excessive.  Anything that you do excessively is not good.  Growing up to be that, is what is celebrated and thatís a failure.  There arenít any more real leaders.  You canít tell me that so-and-so in the hood is a leader because theyíre balling Ė yo, I donít want to hear that.  If that person flips and turns their life around, then yeah, letís talk on that aspect.  What it took for that person to get through it.  I know we all have different struggles and different ways of learning lifeís lessons Ė thatís the beauty of life.  We all have different struggles.  Are we going to identify with that personís struggles?  Yes, but if that person is glorifying their ignorance, then someone has to say hey, hold up. 

Do you feel that hip hop has taken that turn?  That it started out as a vent to elevate consciousness and awareness and it seems to have taken another turn?

I think that hip hop always reflects life so even when there was a conscious and an aware mind state, there were still people who were left behind.  Thatís the same thing with evolving from slavery or evolving from the Martin Luther Kings.  When you have a good majority of the country supporting civil rights and equality, thereís still little corners within America where the message is not being heard, or felt or lived.  So, same thing with hip hop.  Youíve got Public Enemy and so many other conscious groups and hip hop seems to have this wonderful glowy, light feeling about it.  But thereís still people who are struggling in Tennessee or New Orleans or Los Angeles.  That wave of consciousness has not hit them.  So, do I think that hip hop has taken a darker turn?  Nah, I just think that hip hop is always a reflection of life.  But thatís why I feel like if Iím aware and the Creatorís given me an ounce of knowledge, then I need to share that and put that out there.  And thatís not to say anything negative against 50 or anyone elseís struggles, itís just to say, yo, we are alike.  We really are. 

And itís about what spin you take on it Ė either youíre celebrating failure or youíre speaking on the positive aspect of what youíve learned. 


Who are some of your favourite Canadian artists?  And do you notice any difference in Canadian hip hop?

Not to be biased right now, Iím going to say I love K-OS, not just because weíre working on something.  I think what he represents is what has been a fear of American rappers and that is - going against the grain.  I donít think he sets out to go against the grain, he sets out to completely express himself.  I know for a fact that thereís a lot of talented rappers that go outside of just being a rapper and theyíre musicians but they wonít allow themselves to go there because thatís not the thing to do.  Theyíre not going to sell any records so they stay away from it and itís saddening.  I like Saukrates because heís just hip hop to me.  Thereís no difference that heís a Canadian rapper.  Itís just hip hop.  I love Kardinal (imitates Kardinalís voice and accent).  I tried to get Kardinal on a joint with me but it just didnít work out.  Iím not too versed on many other Canadian hip hop artists though. 

Our interview was cut at that point as Ali had to get back to his studio work with K-OS at Blacksmith studios.  Aliís talent will shine on us in an innovative style that exhibits evolvement as a man and as an artist Ė always striving to reinvent himself.  Look for the release of his debut CD later this year.  I will keep you posted!