February 19, 2004
Interview with Ali Shaheed Muhammad
I first met Ali Shaheed Muhammad
(Main Source) at a recording session in his New Jersey studio back in October 2003.
Initially, it was tempting to be tongue-tied around someone of his
accomplishments and accolades but after a few short minutes, his warmth and
sincerity made it easy not to fall prey to temporary worship. Ali is one of
those artists that is humbled and even uncomfortable by his success and
notoriety. I was catapulted from adulation of his achievements straight to
respect for him as a man and musician.
We, of course, know Ali as one of the founding members of
Tribe Called Quest, one of hip hopís most respected groups.
Sure, he is also credited with working with such artistic greats as
Maxwell, Eric Benet, Janet Jackson, Angie Stone,
Mos Def and DíAngelo.
But thatís not what I wanted to speak about with Ali on this day. I want to
speak about his soon-to-be-released debut solo album,
Shaheedullah and Stereotypes. Itís an Ali Shaheed
Muhammad that we are not as familiar with.
What are you doing here in Toronto?
Iím here to work with K-OS
for something that may or may not make it on his next
CD. Iím doing production, writing, whatever. I can play a beat programmer,
a producer, or whatever. Itís just to sit in the same room and catch the
Whatís your goal
Shaheedullah and Stereotypes?
My goal was just to find a forum to continue to express myself
and to be creative. How it really began is that I had a couple of artists
that I was trying to get signed. But there were some obstacles in that you
donít have ownership of your product with a label. It really forced me to
brainstorm about what I could do that would be different yet still empower
me to be creative without having people telling me what they want from me.
Another objective was to set up a business where I could still make money.
All of sudden, it came to me - why donít you do an album?
The doors were not opening for me to proceed in the traditional way of doing
things. The idea for an album came from not having an opportunity to do
what I had always wanted which is to be creative and sit with artists and
make music. For some reason, I donít know if itís because I didnít have
anything out for a time, but people in the record industry, A&Rs and
executives, the shot-callers, had no faith. When I approached them with
these artists, the reaction was that they wanted it done one way and I
responded ďNo. Let me just do an albumĒ. Deciding to record an album, I
have found a voice and I started writing, rapping and singing and just doing
things that Iím still surprised about. The real goal and the journey became
about writing about things that were more socially relevant and being in a
state of higher consciousness.
Hip hop, I felt, was a bit too materialistic and frivolous. I know that
what a lot of people speak about is their struggle and their journey, but
there comes a time when you have to look at your life, your situation and
your environment and just challenge it. So, for me, the Ali Shaheed
stereotypes became a way for me to challenge myself. The stereotypical
aspect is Iím coined as this hip hop/neo soul producer. Iím more than
Did you know previously that you werenít
merely your stereotype?
Always. Thatís always been one of the reasons why any time I do
something new, it is not always received well by executives or A&R people.
Some artists may have heard DíAngeloís ĎBrown
Sugarí and call me to say that they want that vibe. I would say
that you canít have that vibe because that was DíAngelo and Ali in the
room. That was just that moment in time and youíre not going to capture
that again. Sometimes I would compromise and say, ok thatís what you want,
let me take that and add what I think your artist is on top of that. But
they didnít want that. Iíve always known that I love music and I want to be
in the space where I can just write and create. So, recording this album
gave me the opportunity to challenge myself.
Are there other artists that are part of this
project or is solely Ali?
Actually, the artists I began this whole mission with are no
a part of what Iím doing at all. Itís real crazy how things happen and a
whole breed of other people came into my situation and it really helped
shape it. Thereís Sy Smith, a
singer, who Iíve worked with in the past. She had a deal in 2000 with
Hollywood Records and she called me to do a couple of songs for ĎPsykosoulí.
Then we lost touch with each other and reconnected for this album. One song
I recorded while I was still in Lucy Pearl - hoping to possibly bring it to
the next Lucy Pearl album. I always envisioned
Mint Condition, singing it.
I had done a remix for the
Definition of a Band album but we had lost contact.
the song away and then played it for someone that happens to know
Stokley (even though I didnít know that). I told
her that I always dreamed
of having Stokley on that track and
she made a call and made that connection. Also, I did
three songs on the Fu-Schnickens
first album but again we lost touch. I saw
on the street one day and said letís get together. Thereís another singer,
Wallace Gary and a rapper named
K from Texas. Itís just all these
different connections Ė friends of friends.
And this wouldnít have evolved if you had
chosen to produce what the labels wanted you to.
Yeah, EXACTLY. From not having a road map for what I wanted to do, the
whole experience became its own road map. Everyoneís contribution makes
sense Ė in that itís speaking to the whole overall tone of what I wanted to
deal with. K has a song called ďFamilyĒ and he talks about the relationship
of a father and a son. When a father chastises a son, the son has no
understanding or idea why. But later on when he grows up, he gets it. And
then K talks about his sister and sibling rivalry Ė and then he says a line
something about seeing the eyes of the mother and father within them. Love
your blood because when sheís gone, there wonít be anything left BUT you
two. You donít hear that message in hip hop so again, everything just
became itís own.
What do you want people to remember you for?
Iíve always feared someone asking me that question. Youíre the
first person to ask me that and Iíve always feared that question. I donít
really know the answer to that. If anything, just remember that I believe
in God. And that the Creator exists and
thereís a reason and meaning for all this. Thatís just how I strive to live
my life Ė to be a part of that and to make sure that we remember that
thereís a connection between us all.
I was just saying to K-OS earlier when he was talking about different
American west coast rappers and east coast rappers and how someone in
particular did a song together that he didnít expect. I said that we have
to do things like that Ė someone has to stand up and show our similarities
because we spend too much time talking about our differences. And when we
do that, we stay separated. For me, Iím just trying to honour and obey the
Creator and trying to bridge some gaps in humanity. So, what do I want to
be remembered for? I donít really want to be remembered. I just want
people to be on that same vibe. We spend too much time stomping one another
out Ė verbally and backbiting on other people. We are all going to go
through hard things in our lives. You may forget that when youíre talking
about someone and then when you go through it, youíre going to wish that
someone offered you compassion. Being Muslim, you really strive to be
humble every moment and we may not always be, but when youíre talking about
a soul that may not be here, it should be something to do with that. For
me, Iím just trying to get to heaven. Thatís where the name of my
production company comes from Ė Garden Seeker - trying to get to the gardens
of paradise. I want anyone around me to be part of that. This life is not
permanent and there is more to come and I want to be there.
If you could work with any artist (living or
past), who would they be?
I saw when I was watching the Grammys last week that
Elliott Smith had passed
away. When I saw that my face just dropped. I had always wanted to work
with him. I know that people were saying that his music was dark. But his
energy was definitely felt. It felt like life to me. Yes, there was a
darkness and Iím always attracted to dark chords anyway and he would play
these chords and Iíd be like Ďwhoaí. He kind of reminded me of the Beatles
to some degree with some of his structure and Iím a Beatles fan so that was
the immediate connection but then there was a deeper part of it that was
just so dark. And what he was writing about Ė I connected with it. I think
the album was called ĎXOí and thatís the first album that Iíve heard on
him. I know he has a lot more material. Wish list? Definitely Elliott
Smith. Anyone else? Thatís such a difficult question. Thereís so many
people past and present that are inspirational to me. I may not necessarily
want to work with some people. Like a Marvin
Gaye or something like that. Maybe not to do music with him but
just to talk to the brother. Obviously, he had seen some things in his
life. There are also so many up and coming kids.
I would like to sit and talk with 50 Cent.
Not because heís the thing right now but I
think that heís gone through some things in his life. The way that he
presents himself in interviews, heís a very intelligent person. I would
like to talk to him about other things in life because I think heís in a
position, as Tupac was, to really
empower the youth and those that are struggling. They can identify with
that struggle even though they may not have lived it. I think that
sometimes when people have grown up the way that heís grown up, thereís a
mentality that comes through which is not always positive. Unfortunately,
when you grow up on the streets, you get frustrated because your heart is
pure and good and youíre trying to choose that righteous path but due to all
these other obstacles, it gets you to the point of frustration and then it
turns into rage. Then that rage can lead you down the wrong alley. So,
thatís why I would like to talk to 50 because I know heís talking to kids
who identify with him. As Pac was in a position to not let the rage get the
best of him, it
did. I would not want to see that happen to 50 or any other solider out
there. Weíre all making music. That means weíre trying to express
ourselves and better the lives of our families. I donít care if you are the
grimiest, dirtiest of persons. If your intention is to better the life of
your family, then thereís so much good within you. So, itís just a matter
of whether youíre going to let your environment dictate your choices.
I love his focus (50) and you can tell heís a hard worker. His struggle is
so many othersí struggle and I understand heís living his life and heís
young and heís got to go through his thing. He would be someone Iíd like to
get with but not to work with but just to talk to. Sometimes youngsters
need Ė and Iím not an old dude Ė but sometimes we need that community.
Thatís another thing that Islam has taught me. You need that community to
keep you in line. Itís not that youíre a hater or a critic.
One of my boys said to me a couple of days ago, Black people are in a
position now where we embrace failure. When he said that, I almost dropped
the phone because that is exactly what we do. We embrace the failures of
being broke, of not getting opportunities and all these other different
things. It comes out now as glorifying jewellery and champagne drinking
and all these wild things Ė for some people thatís a lifestyle, thatís what
they love to do. But overall, for it to be placed in the face of the kids
like that, itís excessive. Anything that you do excessively is not good.
Growing up to be that, is what is celebrated and thatís a failure. There
arenít any more real leaders. You canít tell me that so-and-so in the hood
is a leader because theyíre balling Ė yo, I donít want to hear that. If
that person flips and turns their life around, then yeah, letís talk on that
aspect. What it took for that person to get through it. I know we all have
different struggles and different ways of learning lifeís lessons Ė thatís
the beauty of life. We all have different struggles. Are we going to
identify with that personís struggles? Yes, but if that person is
glorifying their ignorance, then someone has to say hey, hold up.
Do you feel that hip hop has taken that
turn? That it started out as a vent to elevate consciousness and awareness
and it seems to have taken another turn?
I think that hip hop always reflects life so even when there was
a conscious and an aware mind state, there were still people who were left
behind. Thatís the same thing with evolving from slavery or evolving from
the Martin Luther Kings. When you have a good majority of the country
supporting civil rights and equality, thereís still little corners within
America where the message is not being heard, or felt or lived. So, same
thing with hip hop. Youíve got Public Enemy and so many other conscious
groups and hip hop seems to have this wonderful glowy, light feeling about
it. But thereís still people who are struggling in Tennessee or New Orleans
or Los Angeles. That wave of consciousness has not hit them. So, do I
think that hip hop has taken a darker turn? Nah, I just think that hip hop
is always a reflection of life. But thatís why I feel like if Iím aware and
the Creatorís given me an ounce of knowledge, then I need to share that and
put that out there. And thatís not to say anything negative against 50 or
anyone elseís struggles, itís just to say, yo, we are alike. We really
And itís about what spin you take on it Ė
either youíre celebrating failure or youíre speaking on the positive aspect
of what youíve learned.
Who are some of your favourite
Canadian artists? And do you notice any difference in Canadian hip hop?
Not to be biased right now, Iím going to say I love
K-OS, not just because weíre working
on something. I think what he represents is what has been a fear of
American rappers and that is - going against the grain. I donít think he
sets out to go against the grain, he sets out to completely express
himself. I know for a fact that thereís a lot of talented rappers that go
outside of just being a rapper and theyíre musicians but they wonít allow
themselves to go there because thatís not the thing to do. Theyíre not
going to sell any records so they stay away from it and itís saddening. I
because heís just hip hop to me. Thereís no difference that heís
a Canadian rapper. Itís just hip hop. I love
Kardinal (imitates Kardinalís voice
and accent). I tried to get Kardinal on a joint with me but it just didnít
work out. Iím not too versed on many other Canadian hip hop artists
Our interview was cut at that point as Ali had to get back to his studio
with K-OS at Blacksmith studios. Aliís talent will shine on us in an
innovative style that exhibits evolvement as a man and as an artist Ė always
striving to reinvent himself. Look for the release of his debut CD later
this year. I will keep you posted!