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Ali Shaheed Muhammad: On Life and The Low End Theory

Angelika Beener
Contributing Writer
angelikabeener[at]gmail.com / @alternate_takes

This past September marked the anniversaries of some of the most pivotal music of my generation. It has been twenty years since Nirvana shook up the pop culture macrocosm with their momentous Nevermind album, turning indie rock into a mainstream phenomenon. Pearl Jam has also reached the double-decade landmark with their album Ten, which was released just a couple weeks before. Growing up in the 90s, thirty-something music junkies like myself revel in these musical milestones, not simply for the nostalgia, but because of the actual genius of these ground-breaking stalwarts. However, there is one group whose essentiality matches that of their rocker contemporaries. Twenty years ago, A Tribe Called Quest released The Low End Theory. Hip hop would never be the same.

The Low End Theory was released on the same day as Nirvana's Nevermind in September, 1991. The similarities between these pioneering groups are quite noteworthy. Both bands were impressively polished and keenly focused before landing any big deals. Both bands released solid debut albums that helped build an eager following, and both bands subsequently blew the figurative roof off of the musical stratosphere with their sophomore follow-ups. Ultimately, both bands changed the way music could be perceived by melding aesthetics that had not been imagined previously. A Tribe Called Quest is undoubtedly the most innovative and musical hip hop group of the 1990s, and arguably of all time. Their heavy jazz influence would aggressively gift intricate harmonies, warm chord changes, and rare grooves to the genre. While the Marsalis camp pushed straight ahead jazz into mainstream relevance once again in the 80s, the early 90s would serve jazz to the collective young, black community by melding more jazz-funk/jazz-soul leaning music with hip hop. Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues set off the decade with a major motion picture about the life of a modern day jazz musician, (with the help of Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, Robert Hurst, Jeff "Tain" Watts and Terence Blanchard as the actual band). The movie's soundtrack included a jazz history lesson wrapped in rap, performed by the late emcee Guru of Gang Starr, who foretold accurately, in the last line of the last verse... “The 90s will be the decade of a ‘Jazz Thing.’”

Now let’s flip to the first line of the first song off of The Low End Theory, where A Tribe Called Quest unabashedly coined themselves on “Excursions”. With pristine diction and his signature cadence, Q-Tip flows over a lone, fat, hard-grooving bass line about his father drawing correlations between hip hop and bebop. Fresh out of the gate, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad were making a loud and clear statement that jazz was an integral part of their musical identities. I sat down with DJ/Producer Muhammad about their recording milestone, their recent documentary, and got some backstory on their love affair with jazz. “My introduction [to jazz] came from Q-Tip, really,” credits Muhammad. It wasn’t a hard sell for the Brooklyn native, who is a self-proclaimed musical sponge. Muhammad grew up listening to a myriad of black music: Blue Magic, Earth Wind and Fire, Teddy Pendergrass, Kool and the Gang, Parliament, Slave, and his mother’s personal favorite, The Spinners. Additionally, his uncle, to whom Muhammad was very close, was a bassist, and exposed him to the live local music scene. Jazz was just a heartbeat away and the progression was a natural one.

“There were a couple of other groups that were sampling jazz at that time,” adds Muhammad in terms of exposure. “Gang Starr, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, Main Source, and even prior to us (at that point, we were the newer generation of hip hop), you had Stetsasonic, who called themselves The Hip Hop Band. This is before The Roots, but they were sampling jazz, and they even had a song called 'Talking All That Jazz', which was a very historic moment in hip hop, [because] certain artists were not embracing what the artists were doing at that time by sampling jazz. It was frowned upon. You have Marley Marl, who was also a legendary, iconic producer, and someone whose footsteps we wanted to follow; and he sampled soul and jazz. So, there were a couple of people who introduced it, but I think the way that we delivered it was in such a way that had not really been done... in that capacity, in that manner, in that sound.”

Q-Tip, Phife, and Muhammad's mixture of adventurous lyrics, rambunctious personae, hard beats and high-level musicality certainly set A Tribe Called Quest apart. “One of the things that I think contributed to the success of The Low End Theory was actually the last single from People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and that was 'Can I Kick It?'," recalls Muhammad. "[That song] pretty much opened the doors of love from MTV and they really embraced us with that video. It was sort of quirky. The director had just done some cool things that I don’t think had been done [previously], and he kind of continued it with the videos from Low End Theory. He was pretty advanced in his thinking. But in any event, that album pretty much, I guess, had given us this sort of alternative hip hop kind of stroking that MTV liked at the time, which was a pretty big thing at that time. It allowed for your video to be in heavy rotation and at that time, videos, in some sense, were dictating the popularity of artists and bands. You know, we had kind of left off with that alternative style, but yet still hard with the drums [on] ‘Can I Kick It?’. And we had come back with an album that wasn’t as...bohemian as the first album. It was actually a lot harder. So I think at that time, MTV was still willing to be a supporter of the record and I think the record just spoke for itself. The strong artwork on the cover...and we just took our position and stood strong and the music just fell into people’s hearts the right way and the rest is history.”

Twenty years worth.

While by the 1990s, artists were proving that hip hop had staying power, there are not many groups who have evoked sentimentality, relevance, and a continued sense of modernism the way A Tribe Called Quest has. Perhaps, it’s for this reason which they were the subject of a recent documentary, Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, the first of it’s kind on a hip hop band, directed by Michael Rappaport. We learn a lot about the band, on both personal and creative fronts. Musically, you definitely come to understand the universality which jazz offers to any musical amalgamation. The best example would be The Low End Theory’s “Verses From the Abstract”, which features bass legend Ron Carter, who gets a closing shout out from Q-Tip right along with Pete Rock, Special Ed, and Big Daddy Kane. A Tribe Called Quest had an ingenious way of creating a platform which was devoid of generational or cultural hierarchy, framing instead, an incessant, streamed portrayal of black culture. On bringing Mr. Carter on board, Muhammad explains, “The whole idea of having Ron Carter playing on the record came from Q-Tip. He just has a style of playing that is perfect, and I think Q-Tip admired that. And as he does, [he would] come up with an idea of like, ‘You know what would be cool? If we do this, that, such and such.’ He came up with the idea, and that happened to be one of the ideas that really stuck and he was adamant about it. One phone call from one A&R, one musician and engineer, and this person, an affiliate... and next thing you know he shows up with his bass! And like the professional who a lot of those jazz greats are, you give the charts, that’s all they need, they read the chart, say, ‘Where do you want me to play?’ look it over, ‘OK, play here?’, do it, and then they’re out [laughs]. No hanging out, no vibing, talking and kicking it... just real quick. We were just like, 'Wow, he’s here,' like little puppies [laughs], and so we were really excited about him being there and grateful that he loaned himself to this project.”

But hip hop wouldn’t be hip hop without a little drama, right? Muhammad says curiously, “I found out later on through this journalist, I think a European journalist... he said, ‘Ron Carter seems to be not too thrilled with you guys because he played on one song and apparently he’s all over the record,’ and we were like, ‘What?’ No. He played on ‘Versus From the Abstract’, and that’s the song he’s on. Some people thought we had sampled his bass and twisted it up and chopped it up and put it on several other songs, and I think maybe he even got that idea. Now, I have not spoken to Mr. Carter since, so I don’t know if that’s true, or just some crazy rumor that a journalist started but needless to say, he laid his signature slides down on ‘Versus From the Abstract’, and it was pretty dope having him on there.”

This golden era of hip-hop set an unyielding precedent for die-hard fans like myself who are now frustrated with the state of today’s mainstream so-called hip hop. I asked Muhammad about his thoughts on the turns the genre has made, especially as of late. In his careful and thoughtful fashion, he’s quiet for a while before he responds.

“When you look at the so-called R&B charts, they’ve merged hip hop and R&B together so…this time in hip hop reminds me of the 80s; mostly 80s pop music,” he starts. “A lot of groups like The Family, or songs like ‘99 Luftballoons’, and all these synthy Euro-pop bands. That’s what a lot of the hip-hop reminds me of now. I think it lacks a bit of soul. It lacks warmth. It lacks something that you can cling to. I can’t speak for everyone else, but my love affair with music just comes from hearing what an artist is doing and being able to connect with them, and with their story and I understand the story of most of the rappers these days, but it’s so self-indulgent. It’s not really talking about anything that connects us as human beings. Even the music is just so cold. Like, I love chords and chord progressions. There don’t have to be any vocals there...like jazz music. It just grabs your soul, and I feel like in popular black music right now, there aren’t so many groups in the forefront who have that kind of pull.” He ponders a while longer, before finally concluding, “I guess hip hop is always a reflection of life...I say that a lot. And right now, I think people are cold. They’re going through a lot. They’re suffering. We’re suffering...but we’re so disconnected from what I believe, is a spiritual connection. When you have an absence of God in your life and the Creator, then everything goes cold. Your soul just becomes dark, [and] you may not know why. We’re in this vacuum just existing, soulless. So it’s coming out in the music.”

Muhammad’s astute summation is rooted in both his Islamic faith and his experience in the music business, which he has often intertwined, creatively. Before releasing his 2004 solo project Shaheedullah and Stereotypes, an album which addressed head-on, his experiences being an American muslim post 9/11 and the core values of his Islamic faith, he was an intrinsic part of the necessitous and fecund neo-soul genre, which was sparked by a collaboration with the demiurgic D’Angelo on Brown Sugar.

Shaheed was introduced to the prodigious singer and multi-instrumentalist by his friend, mentor, and subsequent Lucy Pearl musical bandmate, Raphael Saadiq. “[Raphael] worked with D’Angelo, and wrote and produced ‘Lady’ and Saadiq is like an older brother to me,” says Muhammad. “Every time he came to New York, he would look me up, and one time he said, ‘I have to play something for you,’ and he played me D’Angelo. Once that happened, if we were in New York, we were together. Or, we would go to Raphael’s house in Sacramento and just record just for fun. Not with the intention of really doing anything with it, but then it was like this stuff is really good, we should do something with it.” Lucy Pearl, Muhammad’s second band, was originally formulated with Saadiq and D’Angelo in mind as the other two-thirds. Though timing did not allow (D’Angelo was in the middle of recording his masterpiece, Voodoo), Lucy Pearl did release a string of danceable hits, adding singer Dawn Robinson (previously of girl-power R&B group, En Vogue) to the mix.

Nowadays, Muhammad is knee-deep in his solo career, working simultaneously on three separate projects, and continuing on his never-ending quest to hone his skills as a musician. “As a kid DJ’ing, sampling, and looking for records, you just look for the best pieces, open loops, elements and parts that you can piece or put together, and now I don’t have to rely on that,” says Muhammad. “I can play a chord progression on a guitar. Sonically, I know how to make my drums sound like something that was played in 1960 compressed a hundred times over and put on vinyl. I know how to do that with a live set, so it’s like I’m really buzzing right now. I’m real happy, because I’m like, all this stuff sounds like a sample and it’s not.” Suitable on drums, bass and piano, Muhammad has just one of his long-term sights on learning the cello. “There’s still so much I don’t know, as far as theory. I want to be able to have that sort of understanding, that connection with music,” he says.

Muhammad’s tremendous respect for and admiration of jazz has obviously helped shape his career, but it also continues to be a source of inspiration. “With Tribe sampling jazz music, it definitely brought this turn around and I think this new love affair for jazz again,” he says. “There was this period -- and I mean no disrespect to the legends and the greats who have paved the way, and are still staying true to the spirit of the genre -- but there was this point where the face of jazz was very pop [with] smooth jazz, and Kenny G, and that was the thing, and I think that things were getting light. And here we come sampling the era and the period that was, for us, very progressive and it pretty much defined the...how should I say this... it defined the good conscious and the bad conscious of a person but put it to music. You know like, the mid to late 60s and early 70s period of jazz was really mean, and I think a lot of it had to do with the struggle, the civil rights movement, drugs, you know all these things... free love, and really taking a departure from that period of jazz that came before. Jazz musicians were really breaking off from sticking behind one strong front person and beginning to find their own voices, and individualities and it was a really rebellious things to do. So that period of jazz is what we gravitated toward and we just felt it. And by reintroducing it, but in our own way and adding our own little twist, I think it brought a greater interest back and what ultimately had come from that was this next generation of jazz musicians who grew up on hip hop, who also grew up listening to jazz. You know, you have guys like Robert Glasper who is clearly throwing it in your face [with] the stuff he’s doing, you know, covers on hip hop songs but with his twist on it. But you can hear even some of the spirits of Ahmad Jamal, like you hear all these things, but there is still a rawness and an edginess to it, and the same element that makes hip hop so loved is that element of, ‘I don’t care what you think, I’m not trying to impress you.’ Robert does it really well. You [also] have Kendrick Scott, Brian Blade, Marcus Strickland, Chris Dave... there’s so many bad guys out there. I love seeing these guys play because it makes me feel like I’m in that, or of that era, when Miles was around or Max Roach...when those guys were coming of age and really leaving their mark on the art form, and on the critics, and the journalists and all that, and making the genre special, you know? I feel like I’m in that period when I’m seeing these guys play. And this is far from the lull point, this is like the beginning of what is, for lack of a better expression, starting some shit. And I think it’s beautiful! I think it’s so beautiful."

The contention that sometimes exists between jazz authoritarians and hip hop artists is an ironic kind for A Tribe Called Quest, who transfigured the genre specifically by marrying the two. "For all those people who were hating on hip hop, you know, the purists...at some point it’s like you know, we really gotta turn that around," asserts Muhammad. We all come from the same place, and we have the same struggle and damn anyone for frowning upon the of growth of a culture, the musicians, the art form. So I think you can definitely look back to the 1990s era of hip hip and say it really changed the mood or spirit of jazz. For anyone who says something different, they’re just fronters...they’re haters.”