One-on-one with Ali Shaheed Muhammad (Part 2):"There was something in our element of music that connected."

(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 2

Brother Jesse Muhammad (BJ): Being a Muslim, you know Islam has been a target in this country and the world, particularly after 9/11. I noticed how A Tribe Called Quest’s music just cut across whether class, race, and religion. I wanted to know behind the scenes, how people were able to accept you as a Muslim and as well as a musician in the hip hop industry? And the second part is, how did you personally witness the culture of Islam influence hip hop over the years?

Ali Shaheed (AS): The thing about us is that we try to (in our music) relate. Some things are common ground. That’s the true beauty of True Islam when you take the time to go beyond what is given on the surface or what one may find in a book here or there or maybe in a conversation here or there. When you really begin to understand Islam and even as it was introduced to the world by our Prophet (Peace be Upon Him), you find that it was a matter of a common ground, common understanding. And so that’s always been the process of our music, in a sense, keeping it simple, not being so heavy that you are beating people over the head, it’s just weighted down and it’s like, “oohhh I can’t relate.” People are able to relate because we talked about things that everyone has experienced, it doesn’t matter your race or genre. Music was your mainstay. There was something in our element of music that connected.

As far as how Islam has impacted, if you even look at Rakim or groups like the Wu Tang Clan that, even though those guys are Five Percenters, they came from an Islamic base. So there are certain principles, fundamental principles, in Islam that come across in the music. Like when Rakim says “Fish is one of my favorite dishes”, you know there is a reason for a line like that. Even in what we have put out, in the Beats, Rhymes and Life Album, it was a shift but I think it was a matter of living life a little bit, understanding a little bit more, and having the faculties to know how to say something that was really relevant.  But in a way that it could be received without being too heavy.

BJ: On October 22nd, you’re coming to our city, Houston, Texas to be a part of the 2nd Annual Our Image Arts and Festival. I hear you are going to be rocking the stage with members of the old legendary Kashmere Stage Band. So tell me about that upcoming event and what should the crowd be in store for?

AS: I am sure it will be good music for sure. I love sampling music that’s melodic, that’s drum driven and just a funky driving sort of a sound over a period and other sounds that was heavily sampled by other hip hop groups. I don’t know how it will all come together but we hope to make it special and just the celebration of the Kashmere Stage Band, considering that there’s a documentary out there on their lives as a band. I guess it’s just the coming together of that time period with the time period that I come from. 

Even in what is happening now, especially in Houston. It has been a strong, and still is a strong movement of live music and I think with an element of hip hop, how it’s infiltrated the now side of jazz music, the now side of R&B, making this nice hybrid of sound. I think that it’ll be a culmination of that, come October 22nd.

BJ: Speaking of which, the Kashmere Band was in that recent documentary that you stated, “Thundersoul.” Now you all had a documentary that was made. Do you think that documentary captured the essence of your group?

AS: I think that it was fair. I don’t think it completely captured the essence. I think there’re parts of it where it was beginning to, then it sort of strayed into a different story. But there was an attempt to capture that essence of it.

BJ: I am constantly checking you out on Twitter. You DJ’ing a lot, still got a lot going on. I just have to ask you, for the record, who in hip hop right now actually impresses you either in production or lyrics?

AS: I love Black Milk Productions. I love 9th Wonders Production. I love Flying Lotus although what he turns into is somewhat abstract but it’s for me still in the realm of hip hop. Those are my go to guys. I like Kendrick Lamar a lot. I think lyrically he’s dope and he’s like “in your face” as an MC. There’s another artist I’m about to sign and his name is Ja Poet. I think he also, like Kendrick Lamar, is painting pictures that are simplistic and challenging the status quo in the approach of topics and from a more human, vulnerable kind of way. There’re a few artists out there.

BJ: And what other projects do your fans have to look forward to from you? Any new albums? Are you planning to write a book?

AS:  No, I talked about writing a book about ten years ago. I don’t know. There’s a lot of things I really want to go to the grave with, you know, take that up with The Creator, certain things that I feel would be better left in my mind. I’m certainly working on another solo record and was planning to be finished in July/August but I am not, but I am getting close to it. For the record, hopefully before 2012 and the Ja Poet album.  I’m about to roll up my sleeves and put my everything into him as an artist because I really believe in him. There may have been maybe only three other artists that I have come in contact with that have given me a really strong feeling and the other two artists went on. The ones I worked on to be really successful were D’Angelo and Bilal.  I feel that way about Ja Poet. That’s what it’s about to be for me.

BJ: Well Brother, thank you for your time and we are looking forward to receiving you in H-Town on October 22nd.

AS: I look forward to being there as always. There’s always love in H-Town. It’s going to be something. So please come on down, come have fun with us, rock with us, we’ll enjoy your company.

BJ: Peace.

AS: Peace.

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

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