Ali Shaheed Muhammad

BY David DacksPublished Jul 25, 2011

Ali 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.

There's been a lot of debate over the years over the way the Ummah [production collective between Muhammad, Q Tip and J Dilla] worked together. What was the creative process like?
It was like we all had our specialty and we think and understand the same way but we're different. It was just everyone coming together with a different interpretation of the sound they found the sample in. We didn't have too many sit-down production moments. We had some but it turned out to be too many cooks as opposed to everybody working independently on three great things and they come together. Dilla was such a master. He would come in and do something and his understanding of music was scary even then. He would get things done just like that, whereas Q Tip and I we'd take our time. We'd overthink things and try to change the sounds on stuff that we found. Especially because when we first started you grab it, loop it and layer it. It got to a point where people understood what we were doing and in order for us to change and evolve we were changing the way we were chopping things up and stuff like that. We would spend a lot of time trying to really mess something up so that it had our own identity and signature on it and that's time consuming. Then Dilla came in and he understood that. I guess he studied us, but he had his own thing going on so when we linked up, whatever it took for Q Tip and I to figure things out, he knew it when we met him. So he would come in and just knock it out like that. We'd just be sitting there and go "Ah, back to the drawing board." It was a lot of fun. Obviously he left his mark in this world.

Dilla's work has been very influential in the last few years, particularly in the west coast, are you surprised it took that long for people to recognize what he was doing? Are you surprised his reputation continues to grow?
No. It's sad that he's no longer here. But am I surprised? No. He's a movement to himself. You find people that are that talented and it's just a matter of time before the rest of the world knows what's going on.

Going back to the earlier question about where the jazz is in hip-hop; he's a guy with his stuttering and interesting syncopation with the beats that's in some ways where the jazz is.
Yeah absolutely, he had such an improv element in a lot of things he would do. He would have a sound that just trips you up and comes out of nowhere but it just makes perfect sense. You have so many people trying to do that, but it's all feeling. You can program that, but with Dilla he just had a way with music, with manipulating sounds that he just took it to the ultimate level. I don't hear anyone… I don't know when that next person is going to come through that's gonna be that special.

What do you think of Flying Lotus these days?
Oh, he's dope! He's got his own thing, he's in his own zone. It would be wrong to say I don't know when another Dilla (is going to come along) ― Dilla is Dilla ― but between Flying Lotus and Onra… Flying Lotus, he's a beast. [laughs] I never met him but he's elsewhere with his music and I love it. He's not predictable. Even with the imagery with the music, it just shows you there's something really interesting going on.

Have you seen the new Tribe doc, what do you think?
I just saw it last Friday at the L.A. film festival.

Do you like it? Do you think it does Tribe justice?
I think it's decent. What I would like to have seen from it and this is one of the issues that Q Tip and I have had with the director is that we felt that ― we're perfectionists in everything we do and we understand the culture and we understand the art form, we understood ourselves and we felt the music was not ― he didn't spend enough time on the composition, on the music. Periods of music that we were pulling from was as important as the way we compiled it, what we pulled away and sampled. He would say 'I've only got 90 minutes to get it done, I gotta shorten it up." I felt there was too much time on the bickering and not enough time on the musicality of it. But other than that it's pretty fair.

Besides Tribe, you've got many different dimensions to your career. You're also cited as a pioneer in "neo-soul" with respect to working with D'Angelo.
[scrunches up face]

I take it you really don't like that term? Do you see that term as played even back then? Does it have any significance now?
I think now it's just a word to mark a moment in history. A moment in time. I didn't like the term then; I didn't even understand it. But I was just going with the flow and evolving and being adventurous enough to try different things. I don't like to repeat myself, I like to live and feel and experience things. I do really well in group settings. [With D'Angelo] the way Raphael [Saadiq] introduced me was "there's Michael, there's Marvin, there's Stevie and now there's D'Angelo." That kind of sensationalization wasn't really necessary, but for someone like Raphael Saddiq to say that… It meant something, but after he came out it was really a profound statement. Working with him was really incredible. He's another hip-hop head. So I'm very fortunate to be so explorative and it's influenced people and I hope to continue like that. Like right now, music, black music specifically is in a weird place because it's lost its ability to be vulnerable. It's so planned. There are a few people who are allowing themselves to feel and move into something interesting. But it's in such an odd state right now. You have Odd Future Kill Them All, those kids come out and makes it somewhat interesting again.

So you like what they're doing?
I understand what they're doing. I like it. I really understand it which gives me a greater tolerance for it than some of my guys I grew up with, you know, older gentlemen, they're like "what is this shit?" but I understand it. You can't be too critical of it cause they're kids. They're a product of their environment. There's such a disconnect between the older generation ― not just in terms of music cause definitely I can speak in terms of music, but just in life, who has a balanced and a proven way of life. We're no longer of that. Maybe our parents and our parents' parents had that way of life, like you wake up, this is how you should move, this is what you do, this is what honest people do, that kind of thing. There was a sense of going to bed early, waking up early ― we're far removed from that kind of mentality so we get Odd Future Kill Them All.

I saw on your website that you had a post about the Weeknd which in a way is related. The lyrical perspective is so interesting on that album. That's vulnerable. Do you see that as a new direction perhaps?
Yes. And I don't know if every generation is supposed to get it. I see people who embrace it like crazy and others stand there and hate on it. But absolutely. I sat with them and… it blew my mind. I was sitting there watching him like an MC. He'd just open up a microphone and it all comes out. Not written. Really freestyling all the way through a song.

I didn't realize that. Freestyling, really?
Freestyling through the song. He'd sit there, hear it, put the mic on ― boom! I was sitting there like "oh my God"! I'm used to being around rappers who do stuff like that, but I've never been around a singer who's like, all the way through a song. And the words really connect. Like you would think "I sat down and wrote this out for a little bit, or maybe spent a few weeks, a month, a whole day or something." But it's just pure rawness and emotion connecting. I had challenged him saying, "You know what, don't be afraid to be more vulnerable." I have a humble spirit when I'm working with people cause I don't like it when people tell me about what I'm doing. I'm like "OK cool yeah ― I'm not done, don't talk to me, let me get there." But when I was invited to a [Weeknd] session by my friend Doc who was knocking out the project, he played me a song and I felt Abel so much I was like "don't be afraid to be more vulnerable." His instrument, his vocals ― I'm trying to find the words…

The fact that it's improvised kind of reminds me of Jamaican singjays in the early '80s. When I listened to that record I thought, there's not a whole lot of melodic variation in the singing, but now that you're saying that it's freestyle, it totally makes sense in that context.
I hope I'm not revealing his process, spilling the beans!

Was that during the [recording of the] mixtape that you were invited?
No it was afterwards, so I can only speak on what happened before my eyes. To me, it was inspiring because it opens up music to be emotional. It opens it up to break the monotony. It allows for something else to come in. You can only take that and go [with it]. A lot of people are stagnant, they go in the studio and say "What do I do?" and they don't know where to go because there's nothing out there that's really inspiring. When I grew up there were so many different bands and different creative people who were like giving you a pool to immerse yourself, going I can go this way or that way. I can be moved by Stevie and do this, I can be moved by Miles and do this. I can go here like Al Green and those guys in the south were doing, or what Parliament-Funkadelic were doing. Now, at least in hip hop ― you can't move. So I love what [The Weeknd] are doing.

As far as hip-hop these days goes, do you think that it's reached a point that even if you're not a fan of hip-hop, people instinctively relate to what hip-hop has given to music in terms of production and how things ought to sound coming out of big speakers?
Absolutely. Even in its state of being mainstream, there's still a raw element to hip-hop, that sense of angst and urgency of being edgy. My father used to say "yo, this is soul music". That word soul meant something more than just a word, more than just a brand. It's so many different styles and genres that have 'soul' in it and hip-hop is that thing. It's been with us for 30 years now. So it is influential via Jack Johnson or Lenny Kravitz or Passion Pit, there are elements of hip-hop in the music. I think that's just good for art, as we were speaking earlier about jazz and how the younger jazz musicians have been influenced by hip-hop so now it's incorporated into the music.

Do you think the converse holds true that there is more indie rock coming into the music than ever before with Kanye and others?
Absolutely! It should be that way. You should be able to be influenced by art no matter where it comes from. I don't know if it's a matter of people not knowing where else to go or that they really feel and connect [to rock music]. But I can't say that because we sampled…

Lou Reed.
Yeah! Punk music too. And it's done in a certain way, like you're digging for something really melodic in jazz that has movement and improv but it's just so right. You're doing the same thing with indie rock or punk or psychedelic rock or whatever you want to call it.

So I guess this makes it a pretty opportune time for your new projects to be coming out.
I dunno, I'm just really trying to explore. You want to put out something that's good. I think one of the things that's taking me so long is that I'm thinking about it ― some people say probably too much. But I'm a lot more in tune now with the writing aspect of pop musicality in my MCing. I've worked with so many great MCs that if I take up the microphone and take that rein, there has to be a certain amount of reverence for it. the music aspect, the production aspect I don't really care any more because I've done so many cool things that I'm not trying to appease people or match a certain sound or expectation. I don't care anymore. The writing for me, I'm trying to get it right.

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