10.14.2011

One-on-one with Ali Shaheed Muhammad (Part 1): "We wanted our art to stand the test of time"



(DJ/Producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad is known around the world as one-third of the legendary hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest. He was just 19 when the group released its first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, in 1990, and four more followed. He formed the production company The Ummah in the ’90s with Jay Dee and Q-Tip, and he’s worked with a wide range of artists. On October 22, he will be headlining one of the events at the 2nd Annual Our Image Film Fest when he takes the stage with the Kashmere Reunion Stage Band. I went one-on-one with him. This is Part 1)

Brother Jesse Muhammad (JM): What was that thing that first made you fall in love with the art form of hip hop? 

Ali Shaheed Muhammad (AM): Well, that’s a good question. I really got a blow out that side of my brain and really look back, but I just think it was more of what came off to me was like poetry and the movement of words that was different. Then the music that I was listening to, that I grew up on; I grew up on a lot of soul music, soul artists and it’s just like when the first time I heard a hip hop song, it was different. These words, the voice and just the movement of the voice on top of the beat, there was a drum beat really bare bones of a beat and there was this poet on top of it. There was something about it that was just like, WOW, LOVE IT!

JM: A Tribe Called Quest is considered one of the most important groups in the history of hip hop. When you all made music, when you all were in the studio putting the lyrics together, what was the main mission and aim and the impact that you wanted to have when you put that tape in the deck? What impact did you want on the listeners? 

AM: We wanted the listeners to feel the impact of everything. We wanted the lyrical content to be something that you could digest and walk away with it. We wanted the social message to weigh in without being too heavy. We wanted the beats to just kick into your gut and to stand out differently than anything else that was going on at the time. We wanted it to be so impacting that it would be as inspiring and iconic as what The Beatles were. What Jimmy Hendrix was. What Miles Davis was to music. We wanted our art to stand the test of time.


JM: Speaking of something different and dealing with the consciousness, since the era of A Tribe Called Quest and other great groups back then, do you think hip hop has evolved up until now or do you think it has gone backwards in terms of the quality of music, the elevation of consciousness, as well as the activist side of it? 

AM: I think that hip hop has evolved. As it evolves it falls somewhat into a cyclical thing that is reminiscent of what preceded it. I feel there are elements of hip hop that is similar to what it was in the early 80’s. And that’s from it being more of a braggadocious, in your face, giving you a lot of content but not really feeling for the soul. It’s just something to pass the time for the moment when the song is on; at least for the majority of hip hop, that’s mass marketed. And with the music, there is a lot of synthesized music and that also is reminiscent to me of the early part of hip hop. Probably the '83 era of hip hop, when it became synthesized.

Hip Hop is always a picture of life and what’s going on. I think that in life people are in need of something and lacking a spiritual connection to a degree. With that need and that yearning of wanting to connect, this is that thing in the elements that we are talking about and that connect is not holding true to what really ties humanity together. So there is a bit of a void and a gap but at the same time, there is more emphasis and focus on the music. The music is so hypnotizing and captivating that people often are not really paying attention to the lyrics enough to not be interested.

 So I think that is what’s pushing it. It’s more of a dance-oriented sort of art form now rather than a socially connecting, socially driving through the struggles and putting something into the music that gives hope and shows an opportunity, a way to effect and excite change. That is what is lacking but it’s evolving.

I’m pretty sure that as time continues, as mankind continues to have this sort of disconnect there is going to be an element or breed of people who will want to speak out against what seems to be in the forefront and seeming to be the leader, be it of hip hop, be it of government, infrastructure, whatever. It will come across in the music of real struggles. Like what is happening now with this march on Wall Street and how people are coming together in different cities and different communities. They’re marching for a cause but there’s no leadership. There’s no one coming up with a set plan to say,” This is where we are trying to go and this is how we are trying to get there.” But people are coming together, which is a start. I think that in hip hop, you are going to see that same kind of content. And it will evolve from where it is now.

(For more information on Ali Shaheed Muhammad visit @ http://alishaheed.com/)