By David DacksAli Shaheed Muhammad is into his third decade of beats, rhymes and life. He'll always be associated with A Tribe Called Quest, who are back in the news as the subject of a new documentary. Muhammad helped hip-hop evolve and his work influenced soul sounds of today thanks to his productions for D'Angelo and Lucy Pearl. He continues to explore new directions in rhythm; his first solo album Shaheedullah and Stereotypes (2004) saw him picking up the mic for the first time and getting into more up-tempo dance territory. He's trying to finish work on two new solo records but admits they're still a little ways off. Exclaim! caught up with him at the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival where we hung out on a bench outside the club he was due to DJ at several hours later.
Did you think when Tribe was starting to work with jazz samples that you'd end up playing jazz festivals"? No. This isn't my first jazz festival, there's one in New York and there was one last year in Halifax. The first time I got booked to one I thought it was kind of strange, but then it's like, duh, we sampled jazz...
What do you think of the role of jazz in contemporary hip-hop? I think that it's got to a point where a lot of younger jazz artists are obviously influenced by hip-hop. That's an interesting mix. I've heard that Tribe is an influence on a lot of jazz musicians.
What about jazz on hip-hop as opposed to hip-hop on jazz? There's still a younger generation who are, as we were in Tribe, digging in the crates looking for music of the '60s and trying to find those inspirational songs. I don't know if it's the right thing to say to keep what we were doing alive or they're doing their own thing. But I don't think it's as mainstream as Gangstarr, Pete Rock, Tribe, De La Soul and groups like that were making. There's still definitely an influence of jazz on hip-hop; more so underground.
Production wise, you've gone through a lot of technological changes over the years, from turntable collages to dedicated samplers to digital audio. It's almost like learning your craft over and over again. Was there any technological leap you found particularly difficult? Not really. I grew up around electronic instruments. To me, the turntable is an electronic device. At the same time I had access to drum machines and keyboards through my uncle; then track recorders into computers. At an early age I was messing with computers more than most hip-hop musicians. So for me I haven't gone through a period where anything's been difficult, thanks to my uncle who taught me how to DJ. He was always progressive with the technology; he would teach me programs. I was always around him just watching him. I understood the basic technique for moving stuff around so as technology evolved I've just been going with it. What's more difficult is stepping outside of the digital electronic way of making music and actually picking up an instrument. I bought a bass. And that was more challenging than anything else: raw fingers, not knowing how to hold it. Bob Power, who was Tribe's engineer, he's a guitar player. He said "here's how you hold it, I'll teach you finger exercises" and that whole thing was mind blowing. I keep saying if I ever get a good amount of quiet time that I want to learn to play cello. It's a very warm instrument. The tone of the cello and the movement; I don't know what is, I love it so much.
What's the role of the DJ in hip-hop nowadays? That's a good question.
Cause DJs used to be more important than MCs. In certain aspects, they still are. DJs, when it comes to parties ― people still have parties. That's what I'm playing tonight. The DJ still has the relationship with the people I believe. I don't know to call the DJ the ambassadors or what but we still are connecting the dots, getting the good stuff and passing it on to the people. DJs still have relevance even with the technology that elevates the DJ beyond being a selector. DJs always had this one man show when you get into the turntablism of it and doing the tricks, but now with the technology with Ableton, you can take your DJ set to some other plateau. With the same basic elements at the beginning of hip-hop ― scratching and going back and forth ― now you're adding five other loops on top of that or time signature triggers that will juggle differently.