A Tribe Called Quest - interviewFirst published on Lifelounge.com
DJ, producer, vocalist and musician, Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest (and Lucy Pearl and The Ummah) has worked with everybody from Dilla to Snoop, yet he remains grounded and humble. Katie Olsen spoke with the charming polymath about hip hop, Dilla, and who Bonita Applebum really is.
Ali? How are you?
I’m pretty good. You just caught me in the middle of recording.
No! It’s OK, no worries. Take your time, I didn’t say that to be – as a means of pressure. I just have to switch my brain over. [laughs]
OK, well that could be good if I have you with half a brain, because I’m so nervous that I won’t be functioning on a full brain for sure.
Oh, don’t be nervous. I did not mean to put pressure on, don’t be nervous.
It’s not what you said. It’s just that – you know, Tribe was so important to me growing up, and still is, and so was Lucy Pearl; ‘Don’t Mess With My Man’ was totally my jam when I was seventeen.
Thank you so much, thank you.
You said that you were in the middle of recording, anything you can let us in on?
I am presently working on an alternative group called The Kanyu Tree signed to Sony. I hope their record will be released late this year. I am also working on two solo records.
I read in an interview with Phife quite a while ago that Q-Tip said of the Tribe break-up “We’ve said everything we have to say.” I was wondering how difficult it was for you guys to decide that, to think there was no further to go.
You know, I think that at that time period there was...we had done a lot, you know? And we had gone from being teenagers in high school with this dream and idea – to make music and be this group – to actually seeing our dream come true. We had been together for about fourteen years, I think. I think based on individual growth and aspirations, that at that time I guess he felt that was it. Hindsight is 20/20 and I think that there were other ambitions that were not really – I’m gonna say ambitions and desires, that were not really spoken to the group - I guess, guarded for unknown reasons.
A Tribe Called Quest - 'Award Tour'
As you said, you all went on to do a bunch of other things, you worked with the best in the business. Is there anybody that you would still like to collaborate with?
Ah, that’s such a big question. [laughs] Yes, there is. That’s such a huge question. I think that as a musician you always have ideas for a multitude of people and some of those people are sort of like a fantasy and some of those people actually come to fruition. But to actually sit here and name names? I'm the type of person that, I want to work with anyone who is open-minded. I’m still a DJ from Brooklyn in my mind.
So, you say you’re just a DJ from Brooklyn, but you’re a DJ, producer, a vocalist, you can play keys, guitar – is there anything that you’re really bad at?
[Laughs] Ahh! That is the best question I’ve ever been asked in my entire career. That is funny. [laughs] Wow. I’m sure there is a multitude of things that I’m really bad at.
And you can’t think of any, can you?
No! I can think of, you know, a scroll full of things, but there’s a vulnerability in answering that question. No, I will say that I have challenges with breaking the ice in conversation sometimes.
You seem to be doing fine with that. You guys have been in the hip hop game for a very long time. Hip hop has gone through a lot of changes, apparently we’re in the Ice Age – rhyming about flashy cars and expensive cognac – do you think that hip hop needs to go through these stages to grow? Is it partly art imitating life?
I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s art imitating life, I think that hip hop has always been the voice of the inner-city, the struggle of the people, and it started off like that, and it still is. I think if you go back there were always MCs bragging on how much better of an MC they were over the other person, or what kind of good outfit or shoes they were wearing. Even Run DMC, Run said “I drive a Caddie / you be fixing a Ford” – you know? So I think hip hop has always had an element of that bragging. And that’s what has made hip hop so incredible; because you come from struggle, such an uphill battle and you can achieve so much by tapping into your pain and trying to express your pain to others, not especially to make change, but some people do it just for the sake of expression. I think there are always going to be elements of, people being frivolous with it. At times people don’t take it seriously. But there is always going to be a group of people who understand the origin, the roots of hip hop and who will make sure they maintain that integrity.
I read in another interview with you when you said you're often stereotyped as a hip hop and neo-soul producer, you said "I’m so much more than that”. Is it difficult to be categorised by writers and corporates?
When I’m in my own head, or with other musicians and we’re just sharing ideas and there’s this energy or writing and being creative, those stereotypes are the furthest thing from my mind. However, I am a person who, I think by nature and how my mother raised me, always goes outside of the box. It’s not challenging, it doesn’t bother me, it’s just, the only way that it’s going to change is to do what’s inside of me and to push the barriers. I think that’s one of the things that made A Tribe Called Quest so iconic – it’s that we have an identity that was really different to what was going on when we came out. You know, people in hip hop looked at us – the old school generation looked at us like, “Yo! These cats are weirdos!” [laughs] But we were persistent and we stayed true to ourselves. I’m still like that to this day, I stay true to who I am. I think it’s human nature to want to be embraced and loved by everyone, but it’s not realistic.
I like that. You've collaborated with Dilla, Snoop, Dawn Robinson, the Jungle Brothers...if you could create your own super-group, who would you include?
Dilla is so missed. I’ve been in two super-groups that didn’t go the distance, I dread the idea of another break up. Will you settle for a super-soloist?
Absolutely. Do you have a Tribe song that’s a favourite, or that you love to perform?
'Steve Biko' is one of my favorite songs to perform. Those horns at the top says it all. Australia, you with?
A Tribe Called Quest - 'Bonita Applebum'
Definitely. ‘Bonita Applebum’ was rumoured to be about a girl at your high school, right? Does she know that she’s the subject of one of hip hop’s most loved songs?
Have you seen all the girls that have named themselves Bonita Applebum on Twitter and MySpace? I am sure she is one in the lot. Will the real Bonita please stand up? When she does ask her when can we get put on.
A TRIBE CALLED QUEST - AUSTRALIAN TOUR 2010
Wednesday 11th August at Hordern Pavilion, Sydney.
Thursday 12th August at Festival Hall, Melbourne
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