Lateef the Truthspeaker has longevity that most artists would kill for. His story begins in 1992 with the founding of the Quannum Projects collective, the Bay Area’s foremost collection of hip-hop artists. Alongside DJ Shadow, Blackalicious and Lyrics Born (who collaborated with Lateef as the duo Latyrx for the classic The Album), Lateef has brought the world some of hip-hop’s most unique sounds for nearly 20 years, along the way influencing some of the biggest artists in the game.
Not content to rest on his laurels, Lateef has designs on making 2011 his biggest year yet. He’s already finished Firewire, a full-length solo album, to be released in October, with a mixtape and tour in support. A Latyrx reunion looms as well, 14 years after The Album first dropped, with a tour and an album beckoning in the coming months. And all the while, Lateef continues to evolve, preoccupied by an abiding desire to make music that perfectly fits the now.
It was in that state of mind that we found Lateef, preparing for the next few months of touring and the release of his album. Check out “Testimony”, the first single off Firewire here, and then check after the jump to see the entirety of the interview, in which Lateef talks to RESPECT. about his entirely unexpected new album, the state of the Bay Area music scene, and what being a “conscious” rapper really means.
Max Jones: So you’ve got the new album, Firewire coming out, this fall. Can you tell us a little about that?
Lateef: Well, I’ve got the record, I made it. You know, it was kind of a work-in-progress in the sense that I had been working on another record, Crowd Rockers, that got caught up in negotiations and never came out. So beginning of this year, I was like, I wanna do another record that is me right now. I went and found these cats out here called Somehow At Sea that were doing some stuff that was interesting to me, musically. So I hooked up with them, and of course, you know, I called in the homies. So I have DJ Shadow, [Dan the] Automator, Chief Xcel [of Blackalicious], those guys are on there, but Somehow At Sea produced most of it. I just went in, I tried to make a record that I would like, and I would enjoy to listen to. And I tried to make sure that I gave people different sides of me, a little bit of the stuff that I do when I sing, a lot of the stuff that I do when I rap, and I tried to give people some stuff that would give them an idea of who I am as a person.
So does that have a release date?
October 11th, that’s what my label is telling me. The record is definitely mixed and mastered, so I don’t see why it wouldn’t?
So it’s not gonna be like Dr. Dre, where it’s five years from now we’re still waiting for Detox?
Oh, I wish [laughing]. I wish it was like Dr. Dre.
So what’s the west coast like right now, musically? There seem to be all sorts of people, whether it’s someone like you or an artist like Kreayshawn coming out of Oakland as well.
Is she from Oakland or is she from San Francisco?
I don’t know, she says she’s from Oakland…she looks like she’s from San Francisco.
I see in her videos, she’s all in San Francisco. I’ll say this about the Bay Area, in general, not even just Oakland, it’s all kinds out here. You’ll find the über, über hip-hop historian, the super technical rapper, and then you’ll find the same place that spawned Digital Underground, Tupac, and Hieroglyphics, has spawned Too $hort, E-40, the Hyphy movement as a whole. Not only that, but if you look at the DJs out here, Invisible Scratch Pickles, Mixmaster Mike, that’s the Bay Area. The Bay Area is extremely multi-faceted, multi-cultural, you never know what you’re gonna get, it’s just all kinds. The dude from the Pack [ed. note: Thank You Based God]. It’s crazy when you live here, too, because you see it, and you’ll be like, “yeah, I know that dude”, and it can be anybody.
But more power to [Kreayshawn]. Her stuff is like, tongue-in-cheeky, and getting a little bit better, which is to be expected at her age. That’s Bay Area hip-hop though, West Coast hip-hop is a whole other story. West Coast hip-hop, when you get down into L.A., I’m finding that L.A. has a little bit of a skill movement going on, with the Odd Future guys. There are a couple of cats I’ve heard that are coming out of L.A. that are actually spitters, you know? To me it was kind of a logical progression of like, the “Good Life”, and when I say that I mean, in the sense of skill, and be yourself, be original. Which is a big, both west coast and L.A. thing, don’t sound like other people.
Speaking of being original, I heard the track you were on with George Clinton [“Everything is Fine” with Gift of Gab and Lyrics Born as well], and that’s like the most original dude in the world. What was doing that song like?
When I went in there, they had shot a bunch of footage of him doing the part, and it was crazy! Obviously, he’s older now, but he’s totally like, he was in there just freestyling, singing. It was crazy because you’d expect somebody like that to be like, “okay, I’m gonna do my old thing.” But he was just, not, he was coming up with new shit on the spot. That was pretty fresh, to be a legend and still trying to search for your new thing. He could’ve just done some old thing and been like, “there you go, pay me”.
So 2012 is the 20th Anniversary of the Quannum Projects. How big is that?
That is crazy. It’s especially crazy when you consider how many of us are still around. When we came out it was us and Wu-Tang, were the two groups making records.
Well did you ever imagine so many of the people you were involved with then would become so influential in hip-hop?
It’s nuts, man. Consider that we recorded most of that stuff at Dan the Automator’s place, way back, and this dude is the guy who produced the first Gorillaz record. We were blessed enough to come up in a time when, well, I’ve performed with a lot of my heroes. And I’ve heard them say, “hey man, I like your stuff.” Wow. Anybody from like, Chuck D, to KRS-One bigging us up on records, you know, Sadat X and the Brand Nubian guys, and they were all, “man, I like your stuff” and I was like, “are you shitting me?”. Just all of my heroes growing up, we’ve been blessed enough to perform with them and perform with people that are on their way up. We’ve been around long enough that we’ve seen people come, hit their apex, and then vanish. It’s crazy, it’s been quite the ride.
I also find it interesting to see how all of us, as core artists, myself, Lyrics Born, DJ Shadow, Chief Xcel, Gift of Gab, how everyone has had their own successes that are unparalleled. I mean, Shadow had Entroducing….., that’s like the iconic album. Then you think about Blazing Arrow and Nia from Blackalicious when they were signed to MCA, and they were about as close to the middle as any Quannum artist has come, like a hip-hop star. During that time they were spoken of in the same breath as Talib Kweli and Mos Def and Common, it was the same conversation. And then you think about Lyrics Born, outside of the Far East Movement, who I don’t think really compare skillwise, he has sold the most records of any Asian-American record artist, ever! At least in hip-hop or modern music, and he’s been doing it for 20 years.
You know, I had my own little accolades, I think I’m only one in the group that’s had songs that were nominated for Grammys. And then, as far as performing, we’ve all had our moments when we’ve been like “wow, this is a lot of fucking people!”.
So do you guys have anything in the pipeline for a celebration?
Yeah, we’re talking about it, trying to see where everybody’s gonna be at. I know me and Lyrics Born are working on a mixtape, and we’re talking about an album, a new album together, so that’ll probably be coming out next year. The mixtape will probably be out around the same time as my album, and I’m gonna have a mixtape before my album as well. So I have a lot of music coming out right now. Then, Lyrics Born and I are doing a Latyrx tour, that’s kind of like a warm-up right before my record comes out. We started out doing a show with these guys Jazz Mafia, they asked for Latyrx to do the show, and it was crazy.
That kind of kicked us in the ass, like we need to do this again. ‘Cause the thing about the Latyrx stuff is that that shit is hella hard, like that was difficult! All of the trades, and all of the timing and all that stuff, we were rehearsing it at one point and somebody said to us, one of the managers who hadn’t seen us perform together, was like “oh, if you guys mess up, it’s no problem, nobody’ll notice.” And we were like, “No. This shit fucks up, it’s a fucking trainwreck.” It’s all so intertwined in the other person, saying the other line, and as soon as one person gets off the whole rhythm and cadence of the song is off. It’s got to be über-tight. We’re rehearsing now, we’ve been going over stuff. We’re doing Outside Lands [the Bay Area music festival] with a full band, and then we’re gonna be going on tour, and then I’ll come off that tour and do some solo touring, then we’re gonna do some more touring together as well.
How do you feel about the “conscious rapper” label? A lot of the artists the Quannum guys are compared to seem to fit that sort of category.
As somebody that grew up in hip-hop, I always felt like that was just hip-hop. De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, that stuff wasn’t really called “conscious” hip-hop until there was like, a big gangster rap movement to compare it to. I don’t know if gangster rap is like hip-hop now? Or is it still gangster?
Is it sort of like, we were here first, they should be the ones to wear the label?
I feel like it’s kind of like, techno versus trance versus house versus electro, you know what I mean? In a certain way it’s just semantics. I know for a fact, some cats that you would think are “conscious” are probably more gangster than a lot of gangster cats. I remember some of these cats, when the “conscious” stuff was at its height, I ran into some of these dudes, like the dude from Freestyle Fellowship, Self Jupiter, that dude has been in and out of the clink his whole life! And he’s a big dude, he wasn’t in for like, armed robbery, you know what I mean? And he’s “conscious” rap. So at a certain point, you’re like, “oh this is gangster rap” from a dude that’s 17-years-old, but this guy who does “conscious” rap is a hardened criminal…but a really nice guy, if you ever meet me! He’s mad cool.
Yeah it seems like a label that exists purely for journalists to use. I can’t think of any artist who would say, “I don’t think of myself as conscious”.
Right, I’m an unconscious rapper. I definitely feel like it’s even a way to discredit whoever the rapper is, no matter what side of the bridge they’re on. Like you can say, “this dude is gangster rap, but he’s not really a gangster” or you can be like, “this guy’s a “conscious” rapper or he’s not really that conscious”. Once you’re able to get into one of those pigeonholes, you don’t even have to listen to music even.
I don’t mind it, though. Grouping me with Common, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, no I don’t mind [laughing].
Well, it works out, doesn’t it? It seems like bad rappers don’t typically get called conscious rappers.
You know what’s funny? Shitty conscious rappers end up getting tagged as “underground” rappers. Once you’re successful, you’re just “conscious”. You know what you don’t hear about anymore either? Backpack rappers. I figured out why: nobody carries backpacks anymore! They all have their iPad or iPhone, there’s no need for the backpack. You don’t need to have a bunch of rapping books, just put it in your iNotes. It’s another pigeonhole and we’ve lost it!
I could write this story so much easier if I could still call someone a backpacker.
He’s a computer rapper.
So you have anything the fans need to hear?
I hope they enjoy the record, and I hope they can use the record, I hope it sticks with them. I hope they can use it to get to work, or get through a workout at the gym, or get across-town, however you use music, I hope that my record is able to be utilized in that way.
I’ll tell you this, the record is different. Most of the people that have heard it agree. Most people have told me, “I know it’s you so I know not know what to expect”, but then they hear it and they’re like, “it’s not what I expected.” [laughing].
When you say it’s not what they expected, do you mean lyrically? The production? Your flow different?
I think sonically it’s just not quite what people expected. I think it does a lot of different things, lyrically and otherwise. What I’ve noticed already from people in terms of their reaction, the people who like the whole album are people who are really into music right now, they’re up on all of this shit, Odd Future and Toro Y Moi, they love Little Dragon, they’re just open to all music right now. But I find that in American people are just not as into music anymore, they like a few things. I think that’s because for so long music was essentially free, and it still kind of is, that it lost a lot of its value.
So you’re one of those that’s up on everything?
Yeah, I listen to all kinds of shit. Like right now I’m listening to the new Little Dragon record, before that I was listening to the new Foo Fighters record, the new Roots record before that. Toro Y Moi stays in my shit always, I go back to that from time to time. But I listen to everything. Kanye’s shit, I always laugh at the fact that 808s and Heartbreak, everybody hated that record when it came out and then every R&B song that came out has sounded like it [laughing]. What is this? Everybody just hates this record and then makes their shit exactly like it.
I like 808s and Heartbreak more than I liked his last one, I thought [My Beautiful] Dark Twisted Fantasy was good, and it definitely showed some growth, from a personal standpoint. In 808s and Heartbreak, everything was the woman’s issue [laughing], everything was being blamed on the woman, and on the new one, it was more, “I’m partially responsible for this. He got realistic at some point about exactly who the asshole is…like if it keeps on failing, maybe some of it is your fault.
I listen to all kinds of shit, I listen to a lot of the Odd Future stuff. And when I say that I mean I listen to everything. I listen to your boy the Creator and I listen to Frank Ocean, I like both of them. But that’s kind of the school I’m from, we listen to everything. I listen to reggae, I still pick up reggae mixtapes and bump ‘em.
I think it plays into the environment out there in the Bay Area, you gotta listen to everything.
Yeah, and I’ll tell you what, I’m not super retro-rapper, I’m not like “oh man, the old days were so good I just wanna do a record like 1992.” One of my records a couple years ago was Santogold, I thought that was fucking awesome, especially some of the remixes. Like I’m into a lot of shit that to me is like the future, that’s where I wanted to take my record. I didn’t want to make some shit that was old, I wanted to make some shit that I want to listen to now.
At the same time, I know that a lot of the people that are my fans, they do want to hear that shit. They need to know that I’m rapping, just kind of on a personal level. So there is that stuff, and if you listen to the record, that itch gets scratched first. But as you get into it there’s shit on that record that you’re gonna be like “I’ve never heard anything like this from anybody in his whole camp”. Except for maybe Shadow, because he does all kinds of shit. His shit be all over the place.
Many thanks to Lateef for taking the time out to talk with us, and everybody be sure to pick up Firewire October 11th.
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