Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s hip hop highs & lows

Ahead of tonight’s DJ set at Tokyo, hip hop mainstay Ali Shaheed Muhammad spoke to Cult MTL about making new solo work, being influential, learning from J Dilla, feeling out the bass, crafting a solid DJ set and “Buggin’ Out.”

Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Photo by Travis Huggett

If you were old enough to get into Tokyo club 15 years ago, you might remember early weeklies there like Bounce, where A Tribe Called Quest DJ/production partner Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s beats and his cohorts rhymes kept pushin’ along in step with his hip hop contemporaries Primo, Pete Rock and a now sadly departed guy we still called “Jay Dee.”

Whether you are just now old enough to enter Tokyo, or perhaps have grown too mature to entertain the idea of returning, you should know two things.

First, the club’s 15th anniversary DJ series brings the legendary Shaheed to town tonight, for five bucks, mere months after the equally iconic ?uestlove packed the place out to music lovers of every stripe. And second, if it weren’t for cats like that, hip hop may not have remained worth loving all these years.

I had the great privilege to speak to Muhammad early last week, and with new music steady coming and a sophomore solo record on the way, to follow 2004’s Shaheedullah and Stereotypes, he’s still marauding for his ears, first.

Darcy MacDonald:  So first off man, what’s good Ali, what’s new? How’s it going?
Ali Shaheed Muhammad: Life is good. New year, you know, so looking forward to some wonderful change. (I’m) putting out some new music this year and still working on that new music to put out, so that’s what I’m doin’.

DM: Do you put some emphasis on that, the beginning of a new year? Do you make resolutions, or try to look at it like a clean slate?
ASM: Not really! (laughing) Every day is an opportunity to make change and do something wonderful so I don’t really stress the new year thing, but it’s a new year, so I acknowledge it.

DM: And in terms of that new music, what have you got on the go? If I’m to believe Wikipedia, there has been some delay on a new project.
ASM: That’s funny, I have no idea what Wikipedia says. I don’t even know who writes that stuff up. Certainly no one closely related to me, or my project or my business, so go figure. But I did some production for an artist called ZZ Ward, and she’s kinda like this bluesy, R&B/pop artist, and I have a song on her record. And I have a song coming out on John Legend’s record that I co-produced with my boy from Toronto, his name is Doc (McKinney). You guys may know Doc from Esthero and the Weeknd and stuff like that. I have a song on the Weeknd too but I don’t know when that’s comin’ out. And just workin’ on my solo record, that’s what my main focus is right now.

DM: How was that experience collaborating with the Weeknd?
ASM: It was cool. It was before he blew up, so you know, it was cool to be on the inside of what was about to jump off. He’s a very talented artist, so I had a good time working with him, and Doc.

DM: So what’s next, solo-wise, for you, though? I don’t wanna… it’s been nine years man!
ASM: Yeah, it’s been a long time! (laughs) So many people have put out five albums since my last. But you know, I’m just trying to get it right, really, for me. It is somewhat a departure from Shaheedullah and Stereotypes. Musically, it’s a little bit more aggressive and street-sounding. But I’m still this melodic, jazzy type of musician and melodic music isn’t really popular in hip hop right now. So I dunno, (I’m) just caught in a way of remaining myself and still relating to the newer upcoming generation of music lovers.

DM: I read a recent-ish interview you had with Exclaim! where you said you kinda trip when you hear that Tribe influences upcoming jazz musicians today. I grew up in that time when jazz players started to turn to you and say, “Oh man, hip hop does this!”
ASM: You can see that’s evident on the last record from Robert Glasper. The Black Radio album pretty much is an example of the influence, you know, but just translated differently.

DM: The way that the hip hop world is working now, do you see the access that people have to technology as a gift or curse? Do you think that producers are ever gonna be put to the test again? ‘Cause right now there’s so much hot garbage, it’s ridiculous.
ASM: Yeah, I think that producers are still put to the test, it’s just that the type of songs that kinda get pushed to the forefront of the mainstream don’t seem like they are challenged, and seem to be very cookie-cutter. I mean, you know, it’s so formulaic. But there’s always a movement of musicians and people who go through different things in life and are not moved by what’s going on on the popular end of things, and they don’t really get caught up or concerned, they’re just experiencing, and documenting that by recording it. That’s across all genres.

It seems like, from what I’ve been hearing from projects and things to come, people are trying to take this look back to the golden era of hip hop and make music that’s somewhat influenced and based off it, but in terms of it being sincere… I don’t hear a lotta sincerity, so it’s just kinda like this throwback, retro feel and it’s not gonna last. But there are some things that I think are sincere, and that’ll shine through.

DM: It’s true, there’s nothing like hearing that half-assed, one-loop beat from kids who picked up hip hop six months ago, like “I’m makin’ jazzy hip hop!” I mean it’s nice to hear the spirit of that, but you just hope that people learn from it. That said, people who become truly devoted to a craft are gonna get back to the root of it.
ASM: Yeah, but you know, just look at the history of mankind. There’s some of us who are really interested in what happened 40, 50 years ago, or 200, 2,000 years. And there’s some people who take a slight interest but it doesn’t really become the blueprint of how to live in the now. I mean, that’s just how we are as humans. The best thing is just to be guided in spirit by seeking what is good, what is truthful, and through that comes the sincerity of expression. And that is the type of music that is long-lasting.

DM: On the topic of long-lasting music, at this time of year talk comes around to J Dilla [who passed in early February of 2006 and whose life and music have since been commemorated annually by the faithful around the globe]. I wanted to ask you, with specific respect to the Ummah relationship, what do you think you picked up from him, and vice versa, and with Tip in there? What do you think you guys all imparted to each other? It had to be a mutual learning experience, in all working together.
ASM: Yeah, absolutely! It’s kinda hard, you know, I don’t wanna speak for the Late Great — I can’t speak to how we impacted or influenced Dilla.

But for me, he opened my vision to taking a certain song that I may have felt was not really sample-able —that’s not really a word — but music that I would not necessarily sample, based off of maybe some vocals, or certain things that were on top of it.

Q-Tip and I would chop songs up, but the way Dilla chopped things up, he would take an open, you know, one note, from one section, where maybe the previous section was filled with vocals, and just replace it. So he had a way of slicing things up that pretty much became a style in hip hop sampling: it’s called chop. And that pretty much opened up my eyes to what could be done in manipulating songs and sounds a bit further.

The way that we would layer his drums — I like the way he found a lotta air and space in his stuff. Really, just that part of it influenced me so much.

DM: I always think of it as the way he made shit move.
ASM:  Yeah, you know, we had this syncopated kinda style of shifting like, basslines for example; instead of just landing on the quarter note, we’d shift stuff back and forward. And the way we shifted it may have been eye-opening, for him, but then he took the whole shift thing to a different level of moving notes and swinging. The way he moved the timing just opened up the dynamic of space.

Talking to jazz drummers — and more specifically, I’ll reference Chris Dave — if you’ve ever seen Chris Dave play, he has a drum-machine, syncopated style of playing, but it’s not a drum machine. And I think a lotta that had to do with the way that Dilla was moving his hi-hats and how he quantized the kicks against the hi-hats. Like, a lotta people program and they keep everything on the full 16th note or a 16th with a triplet, and it’s a very mechanical, you know, rock band, drum-machine setting. You could do a quarter note, a half note, whatever, but mostly the 16th note. Dilla would push it, and I don’t know what the measurement is, the number in it — it had a rigidity and a stiffness, but there was a looseness outside of the mechanics of the drum machine.

DM: Having tried to learn Tribe basslines over time, Ron Carter lines have a certain trickiness to them, and some of those Dilla tracks are hella tough. I heard that you picked up bass at some point, and I had read that (ATCQ sound engineer) Bob Power got you on your feet. So how’s it going with the bass?
ASM: I mean, it’s good when you’re playing, and when you’re not playing and you feel outta touch, then you see some incredible bassist, you’re just like, “Oh my God, I’m so sloppy!” It’s always been a challenge for me because I’m more of a writer, and my process of learning has always been as a DJ/programmer. So you know, I play just to get it right. It would be the same as if I’m looking for a groove in a record to sample, and I find the right groove and I’m adding other things around it. So if you need like, eight good seconds of a nice little pocket, call me, I’m that dude!

But then in terms of stretching out and having a whole command and knowledge of the theory and the movement of bass, it’s been a challenge because my learning was always limited by my way of making records, and not playing with bands. You know, if you’re jamming, you’re gonna make a lot more mistakes, figure out some other things and move it around. I play and practice but my playing and practice is always from writing and recording it vs. sitting down and saying, you know, lemme learn the major scale, or what have you. I bought my bass in, what was it, 1993? But I’m only now really getting into the scales and how wonderful it is knowing a scale, and knowing which scale goes with which chords and how you can move it around.

DM: As you learn, are you like, “Oh, that scale is what I have always liked doing in this type of way,” do you find yourself kinda intrinsically knowing some of the stuff already?
ASM: I’m like a kid, still, when I figure (things out). It’s like a lightbulb goes off in my head and I’m like, “Ah, cool, yeah!” But I can play by ear. The thing that I’ve always worked on, and this is the one area of my producer side that has helped my bass playing: I always had a thing for the bass. And you know, ghost notes are really important. You don’t hear it, but you hear it.

And that’s all a matter of rhythm and being able to swing and do certain things. So I would hear that, just in listening to records — this is when I first started, before I ever picked up the bass — and I would try to mimic those notes on a keyboard bass. So I had an awareness that there was something different happening in what maybe just appeared to be a full note. When I learned to play bass — and Bob was definitely instrumental in showing me how to hold it, he gave me exercises and stuff like that — I was able to pick that up that up and add that into my playing. How do I say this? It’s like, every musician has their own signature, and no matter how much of a master you are on your instrument, when someone else writes a song, it’s their signature, they own it. You can kinda play it similar-to, but you’re never gonna hit it that on.

DM: So what are you gonna do in your DJ set here? What can we expect and we gonna kick it?
ASM: Me, I just like to play good music! This is the challenge that I come up against for a lotta my DJ sets: because I was in a group like A Tribe Called Quest that a lotta people have a lotta love for, that also was almost 20 years ago. It’s old school. So there’s that challenge. Also, I was in the group Lucy Pearl, so there’s the R&B side, then the more progressive, challenging, cross-genre style of music. So a lotta people that are educated on my music come out for a full music experience. But then there are people who (just want) Tribe. They’re purists in that way and they only wanna hear that sorta thing. But you know, I’m a DJ. I think I have excellent taste in music. So I don’t do requests! You got requests, you better go outside to your car and call up the DJ on the radio station and make your request there. But understand though: I like bodies on the dance floor — I like people movin’, which means you gotta create a dance tempo. So that’s what you can expect. People usually have a good time when I’m on the decks, and Montreal is always a great time with people showing a lotta love.

DM: I gotta ask you this, and I’m sure eight million people have asked you this, but please gimme something: “I am not an invalid although I used to smoke the weed out” — come on, why would you say you “had to be out”?
ASM: Because I never smoked marijuana, ever, in 42 years of life.

DM: So that’s literal, that line?
ASM: Yeah. ‘Cause it wasn’t my thing. It’s like, so many musicians are smokers, so it’s not like I’m in a corner or over by myself. If you come to my studio, you can’t smoke. You can go outside or whatever, but you can’t smoke in the studio, that’s me. But in terms of that time, when we were making that album, that’s just Q-Tip’s way of being funny, and calling out the members and how our personalities were. And so that’s true, that wasn’t my thing.

DM: It is a self-explanatory line, you’re right, but when I said “literal,” I meant on Tip’s part like that, exactly.
ASM: People don’t ask me about that, so it’s funny that you asked me that.

DM: That’s gotta be – I swear to God that’s just a classic rap line that gets stuck in my head! Just to think, that’s this classic line where your name goes through somebody’s head, all these rap fans, how many times a day!
ASM:  That is funny. I swear to God no one has ever asked me that before. That’s awesome.

DM: That is awesome. Let’s leave it on that then, man. It has been an absolute pleasure. I’m sure you speak to fan/journalists all the time, so thank you for your time, and everything you’ve done for this music.

ASM: Thank you, and I look forward to hitting the Tokyo club! Fifteen years in business, that’s a big thing for any night club, so I am looking forward to helping them celebrate, and yeah — bring your dancing shoes! ■

DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad spins with residents Truspin and Goldenchild at Tokyo (3709 St-Laurent) tonight, Friday, Jan. 18, 10 p.m., $5

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