Exclusive Interview: Ab-Soul, Appointed “Genius” of TDE, Much More than Meets the (Third) Eye
I, too, wish I could see out of Haile Selassie’s eye. Or at least out of one of Ab-Soul’s light-sensitive ones.
He enters the city rocking a 3/4 baseball tee that reads TDE on the front. The back-side says “SOUL” with the number two underneath. Soul Brother #2 is one of his monikers after all. Soul Brother #1 is tatted on his forearm. What’s most fascinating about his get-up is the eye of Horus right above “SOUL;” a small but very purposeful emblem.
Soul’s thought process is patient, as he seems adamant about presenting his answers in the most accurate light. His rhymes are often complex, but his goal is simple, “I just really want to be regarded with the best players in the game. I wanna be MVP of the league. This industry is a sport in a lot of ways and I respect it as such.”
While some may be able to compare his lyrical prowess and thoughtful, poetic rhetoric to the likes of Lupe Fiasco or Nas — or practically anyone who merges hip-hop with politics, religion and historical references — Ab-Soul acknowledges his time in history. “I’m a firm believer in [that] no idea is original. I don’t think that I’m saying anything new as far as hip-hop goes or as far as culture goes,” admits the Carson, CA native.
“A lot of the things we’ve been saying, people have been saying for years … thousands of years. I have respect for the idea that being creative is being able to conceal your sources. That’s a quote from Einstein and I really believe that.”
Soul uses the term “respect” many times throughout his answers (no, it’s not some subliminal tactic to advertise the magazine in any way). It seems as though the term “respect” captures his outlook on various subjects. He doesn’t necessarily adopt any philosophy or religion, but he can respect certain ideas and add it to his Book of Soul.
“I take everything with a grain of salt. Everything that I hear I draw my conclusions from it,” he says. “I’m just not afraid to be myself. I’m not afraid to hold a conversation with a Hoover Crip or hold a conversation with a deacon or this little boy right here,” Soul explains.
He marks The Autobiography of Malcolm X as the one text that enlightened him the most. “It just taught me a lot about people, religion, society, possibilities in society, success, and things like that. From there, I’ve just been very observant about a lot of the major political figures or religious figures that we have and I’ve been keeping a close eye to [them]. It may seem transparent, but ultimately it’s very important to [draw your own conclusions].”
Soul says that he doesn’t read a lot, however, he does listen to a lot. To a K-12 literature teacher that may sound like an excuse, but Soul isn’t a fan of school either. “I like learning. I don’t like school. I don’t like controlled learning,” Soul explains.
And it makes sense, too. The whole concept of a controlled atmosphere is what Ab-Soul eagerly tries to free himself from. Hence, the title of his album, Control Systems. The 17-track opus goes beyond this generation’s desire for swagger-rap. Don’t get it twisted, it has its fair share of it, but once you peel back the first layer you’ll find lyrics that evoke a rebellious spirit with wide-eyed commentary.
On his first single “Pineal Gland,” Soul raps, “Last nigga tried to scratch the surface broke a nail/ Last nigga tried to cross the line got crucified…” Soul clearly understands the danger in crossing the boundaries of the controlled environment that we find ourselves in, but that doesn’t mean that he’ll shy away from it.
“Pineal Gland,” along with his other single “Terrorist Threats,” are two of the more thought-provoking tracks that attract like-minded thinkers into Soul’s fan-base. His choice of singles are very telling; It’s clear that he’s not entering the rap game for sales or for popularity, but for the quality of the work. And he’s not afraid of what critics or naysayers might say.
As he stays in-tuned to the political figures of today, his take on the voting process resembles that of Talib Kweli’s. When asked about what he thought of Kweli’s choice in not voting (his reasoning is that the right to vote = right to choose), Soul had this to say: “I think Talib Kweli is correct in a lot of ways, but that’s his opinion. You’ve got to form your own. You have to do your own research on the subject and draw your own conclusions.”
On wax, “Terrorist Threats” also expresses his waning faith in government. “Dear Barack, I know you just a puppet, but I’m giving you props/ You lying to the public like it ain’t nothin…” In the same breath, however, President Obama may be the lesser of the two evils in this year’s election, according to Soul. “I’m not voting myself. [However,] I wouldn’t discourage anybody to vote or get involved. Personally, if I were to vote, I wouldn’t want anybody else to be in there but Barack Obama,” explains the emcee.
It can be argued that Soul further extends the boundaries of hip-hop just as Pharrell and Kanye have in the past, and in similar ways that Danny Brown and Childish Gambino are doing now. Ab-Soul embodies the melange of a suburbia upbringing, a hip-hop career choice and a revolutionary spirit that only a few have shown the hip-hop community. “I think I represent all of them because I understand. I understand how this world places us all in separate groups, but it’s up to us to break those barriers and all come together. That’s what I’m trying to represent: unity,” he explains.
In a sense, this is what the artwork for Control Systems is all about. “It’s the Kabbalistic tree of life,” reveals Soul. “You’ll hear a lot of hearsay about it – that it’s demonic and such – but what I honestly think that it represents is all different types of forces, styles coming together as one collective unit. Taking the good with the bad, the bitter with the sweet, the light with the dark and all that comes together to make one collective unit.”
While speaking with Ab-Soul, his collective’s name Black Hippy begins to increasingly make sense. His ideology and music both strike an incredible balance. He plays the role of both teacher and student. He hates school, but loves learning. He is ultimately a product of a suburban upbringing, but he also gravitates towards “radical” leaders such as Che Guevera (who talks on imperialism on the outro of “A Rebellion”), Haile Selassie and Malcolm X. It’s not often that a hip-hop artist concludes a show with his fans fervently reciting in unison, “you have three eyes.” It’s a rare scenario that embodies the new-school fusion of education and entertainment – an image that even KRS-One might enjoy.