Ali Shaheed Mohammed (A Tribe Called Quest)

Hip Hop Icon Series

card_aliAli Shaheed is a former member of the hip hop pioneering group A Tribe Called Quest, down with the Native Tongue Movement and a former member of R&B crew Lucy Pearl. With Tribe Shaheed served primarily as the DJ as well as producer collaborating with Q-tip to help define Tribe’s unique sound. Along with Tip and J Dilla they formed “The Ummah” production team producing various Tribe cuts as well as tracks for Faith Evans, Mos Def, and D’Angelo.

Halftime: So what’s up with the Tribe reunion? You guys recorded ‘I.C.U. (Doin It)’ and then it was just like it’s on again then someone else is like its not happening. Are you guys coming back or what?

AS: That song was trying to set it off having Tribe come back on the Violator album, but that song was really the extent of it. Nothing beyond that ever occurred. So publicly it seems like it’s on and off because there are a lot of rumors saying yo their doing this and doing that and we were not active at all. That one song was as far as it went. Right now we have about five shows lined up that we’re doing just to let our fans know we love them back but as far as an album there is nothing happening.

Halftime: Do you think these live performances might get the juices flowing and spark something? I mean how did it feel to be back in the studio together after so long?

AS: Well for that one song the way it went down wasn’t the traditional way we do things. For me it was no experience I wasn’t even there at the session so I can’t even put mines on there like that. But as far as the live performances are concerned we’ve only had one show so far and it was such an emotional event. It definitely felt good to be out on stage and see that people are really loving you and not only singing the obvious single songs but we performed some album cuts we never performed before and people were singing it. That was a feeling that can’t be explained. So you never know the live performances and the love we receive from it may spark everyone to rethink the situation further. We’ve talked about another record internally but nothing beyond talk. So what I have been doing since I left Lucy Pearl was working on this Shaheed Allah album.

Marcus: That’s what I want to know. What happened with Lucy Pearl man ya’ll was funky! What’s really good?

Jbutters: Yea, I hear they are back together now but you aren’t in it?

Marcus: It’s not the same.

AS: Yea, what’s really good? We put together what I felt was a great album. The idea came together from Raphael, D’Angelo and I working together. We used to say it would be hot if we did a group together and at the time that everyone was contractually able to do it D was like yo I can’t do it because I’m about to put out this Voodoo record and I want to focus on that. So Raphael and I wanted to continue making music together and putting it out there so Raphael came up with an idea of adding Dawn Robinson in and that’s how it came to be. Through the course of doing that Lucy Pearl was signed to Raphael’s label and there were certain business issues that were incorrect. That was one of the reasons Dawn became somewhat frustrated by the situation and later on so did I. After I left I really can’t say what happened with Lucy Pearl.

Jbutters: I was reading this article where Dawn was saying she got kicked out the group but it seems like you see where she was going with those kinds of issues looming. What happened with her exit because it seemed like she tried to pit it on both of ya’ll?

AS: What happened with her exit was we were about to go on tour to Europe and this was supposed to be our European run. The night before we left she said that’s it for her and that she was going to record her solo record. It was always planned for her to go record her solo record, but she said that’s it for me. So it was like we have an album that we still need to promote so do Raphael and I call it quits right here or do we keep going because this was an idea we had for like four years. He was thinking of a few different singers and we talked to a couple people and the person we winded up dealing with came. We didn’t tell Dawn that Joy was stepping in because we felt we didn’t need to tell her because she told us that she was done. I guess maybe what she meant to say was I’m not trying to be out the group but I need to move on. But what she communicated was after such and such date it’s done it’s a wrap. So to me that’s sounds like I’m finished. I saw that article too how she said she found out she was replaced when she read it. I don’t understand why she said that when she was in the room, her manager was in the room, and Raphael and I were there and all heard what she said so go figure.

Jbutters: In that same article she said how she was gonna write a book about Raphael Saadiq’s ego problems and all of that. It’s like damn you have such talented musicians why does all this stuff get in the way.

AS: No matter what type of situation you are dealing with people and their personalities. There are certain people that will cast aside all of their personal feelings to go get money or to realize the goal whether it’s to get money or to make music. There are certain personalities that can do that and some that can’t. For me I understood the gripes that Dawn had. The stuff that she was beefing about I was clear on it. It wasn’t rocket science. I understood completely where she was coming from and I identified with her. I just had a different way of expressing it. After she left the group, I spent two years of my life trying to work it out it and it came to a point for me where I was frustrated as well. Pookie Records has to answer to Lucy Pearl about certain things that are going down. Pookie Records had no answer and really Pookie Records is only two people, Raphael and his assistant. It came to the point where I’m seeing that the business is not right and our personal relationship is about to be affected by it so I opted to leave.

Marcus: Where did the name Lucy Pearl come from?

AS: That’s just Raphael. It just came out. We were just sitting there trying to come up with a name and everyone had all kinds of ideas and Raphael said Lucy Pearl. I think some of it is an homage Raphael paid toward his southern roots and the other half I don’t know what he thinks about sometimes. He said it and no one said no but no one said yes either. It was just like hmmm. So we lived with it for a week and it was really just everyone around us who was just like Lucy Pearl. It kinda like attached itself after he said it.

Jbutters: I wanted to jump back on the Tribe thing for a minute. What are your feelings on a tribe reunion? And if you’re for it what do you feel needs to be in place for it to actually happen?

AS: I’m somewhat conflicted because I respect the Tribe Called Quest legacy and I wouldn’t want to tarnish what we’ve established. I think you get to the point where people’s expectations are so high that it’s almost unachievable. I don’t know if you guys are into X-games but you could see a border do the sickest trick on the planet and then next year he comes with something else but you don’t feel like ‘˜Ooooh!’ That part of me would rather leave it alone rather than compete with that. On the flip side of it I know where I am musically right now. I love where I am. I know what I hear in my head and where I’m trying to go, I know where Kamaal is and I know where Phife is and I think we would make a really ill album. It’s just a matter of timing and us really answering the question of whether this is what we need to do. Obviously we’re not there yet because we haven’t made any decisions. At this point I’m just focusing on my solo career and Kamaal is focusing on his. Phife is the flag holder for real. He’s been saying in all his interviews that he doesn’t want to do another solo until we do another Tribe album.

Jbutters: I got a few questions from fans and it touches on what you were saying in terms of where you are musically. The first is how hard is it for you to combat people’s perceptions of where your music should be (i.e. sounding like Lucy Purl or Tribe) versus the direction that your music is taking you now?

AS: There are a small amount of people that will be resistant to me doing anything other than what they have known of me. But I think the masses of people who happen to like what I do know that I engage myself in something different. Obviously, A Tribe Called Quest was different than anything else going on out there. Lucy Purl was different than A Tribe Called Quest and is still different than anything in R&B to this day. I think that people know I’m always going to take the music elsewhere and challenge it. I think people have been supportive of it and I think going forward that people will continue to be. I’m sure there will be naysayers because that comes with anything that you do. In the beginning with Tribe people hated us. They booed us and threw beer at us on stage. It takes a while for people to separate from the norm of what they know and allow something new to penetrate their soul. I make my music without even thinking about any type of listener. I just try to do me and that’s where the stereotypes aspect from the title of my album comes from. I don’t want people to stereotype me into just being a DJ or just a jazzy hip hop producer. I want to be seen as a musician. I think the fans will appreciate that and embrace that and I believe I’ve recorded an album that you can listen to from top to bottom. I haven’t heard too many people say they skipped past more than three songs. I think that’s a really good accomplishment and it shows that people listening aren’t boxing me into the past.

Jbutters: I read a couple of interviews and you were saying some labels were acting funny when you were shopping the idea of you doing a solo album. What kind of comments were you getting when you were telling people about your idea?

AS: The most frequent comment that I’ve gotten is there is no radio record on here. I’m like I understand what you guys mean when you say radio but I’ve been fortunate to have never made a song that was typical of radio throughout my career. So the day that I start doing that it’s a problem. So the fact that they told me that I was like thank you. Radio happens to play what I make and that’s the difference. It’s just shocking to know that you can achieve certain things in your career and you’ll still have people put up blocks and not really understand. And even if they don’t understand be smart enough to realize this person has a track record and if I don’t agree with where they are going musically they are going to bring my label a certain amount of cash. I’m a musician but I’m also a business person as well. I think about the budget. I’m the cat you want to bank on because I’m not gonna get stupid with a record budget. Another comment I heard was your music sounds like an artist development type of thing and the music industry is changing. So I’m like you guys don’t believe in developing artists? Don’t you think that’s what establishes long careers as opposed to these short term things where the artist is done after two albums? Unfortunately, that’s where a lot of record executives’ minds were. Not anymore though, now they are realizing they may need to take it back to artist development but I’m grateful that people responded to me in that way because it gave me the faith to go the independent route. I started Garden Seeker productions and took it from a production company to a label. I partnered up with intelligent people from Ryko and Penalty who understood where I was trying to go. Now I’m strictly independent and I don’t have people saying any of that negative stuff. It’s a beautiful thing.

Jbutters: Just looking back at what Tip said about Industry Rule #4080, I would have assumed you would have gone independent from the jump. Where do you envision Garden Seeker productions going?

AS: As far as being independent sooner what stopped me was that I thought that I could partner up with a label and cultivate the deal where I would have a sense of independence. I think that was another problem for them. They were like we aren’t trying to do those deals anymore. I thought that most of the major labels would look at my resume and I’d be able to get a major distributor and be an independent company within that distribution. It didn’t happen and I guess you have to have some things happen to start thinking about what would be your alternative. Then I started thinking I can do this myself why didn’t I think of that a long time ago. The lack of opportunity sometimes keeps you from thinking of certain things. As far as what I seek to do with Garden Seeker Productions is to have a label where Industry rule #4080 doesn’t exist. It’s a label established by a person who has seen a lot in the industry and has a mass education from working as an A&R for Quincy Jones’ label to dealing with Jive. As difficult of a company Jive was it was a great company to work with because they were completely independent. Twenty years from the start to the finish of the company the man who founded it sold it for three billion dollars. And he was a bass player. He wasn’t some penny pinching, number checking dude. The difference between he and I is that I’m not gonna pigeonhole my artists. I’m going to help cultivate their careers and make sure that they benefit on a financial level in addition to making great songs. I want to make sure that when it’s all said and done they can eat from what they’ve done as opposed to me owning what they’ve done.

Jbutters: Do you think the independent philosophy could ever be applied to Tribe?

AS: That is actually my hopes and dreams. One of my goals for Garden Seeker productions is to make it so successful that I can buy Tribe out of its last album commitment with Jive records. If that doesn’t occur then we’d have to do one last album or however than pans out but I’ve been talking independent for the past three years. If we do it let’s do it so we can honor our commitment and Tribe can finally own itself on A Tribe Called Quest label. I don’t think everybody is there yet though.

Jbutters: What are you looking for in terms of talent and is there any way for an up and coming artist to get at you with their material or for you to take on an apprentice producer?

AS: That’s dope. As my situation grows that’s [having an apprentice] something I want to do. It’s important for people in my position to look back to those trying to come up and mentor them. It’s something I wish I had and it will be something I’ll be opening myself up to. As far as artists presenting their material they can contact me at www.gardenseekerproductions.com. We’ll check out what they send and converse through email and the whole nine. Unfortunately, I’m not in the space where I can have an apprenticeship happening but god willing in a year we could get it going on like that because I think that’s needed.

Marcus: Who are some artists who have heavily influenced your production?

AS: That could be any artist from the past to the present. It could be someone like Clara Hill, J-Live, Stevie Wonder or Steve Arrigton. There are so many different resources of inspiration from Radiohead to Lil Jon. I just appreciate music and I try to keep an open mind when I listen to it. As far as hip hop is concerned I think there is too much of a negative imagery but I appreciate it be it current or old music. The Four Tops or whoever, as long as it’s not the Spinners.

Marcus: What! You don’t like the Spinners? Oh my god man, come on.

AS: Haha, that’s an internal thing that Q-Tip and Phife got going with me because my mom used to run The Spinners. It’s just certain pieces of music that parents run that you’re like if I hear that one more time. That and Teddy Pendergrass. I used to hide under my pillow trying to escape from The Spinners and Pendergrass. As I got older I appreciate their music.

Jbutters: My brother used to be like that with Prince. I used to really hate Prince. To this day I still really don’t mess with him at all.

AS: That’s a heavy one to miss out on but I feel you though.

Marcus: What’s the wildest thing you’ve encountered throughout your time in the music business?

AS: There are several things. I remember getting kicked out of the hotel that us and the Geto Boys were in. We had a show together and the hotel was maybe 500 yards from the venue. The Geto Boys..

Jbutters: That’s kinda crazy that ya’ll were even together. That wouldn’t even happen right now.

AS: Yea, I don’t remember who put it together but it worked out because there were Tribe fans and Geto Boys fans. At that point the Geto Boys were ridiculously large. This was before ‘My Mind’s Playin’ Tricks on Me.’ They got down and had invited people to the hotel. The hotel people got really angry and called the police. They were like if we catch anybody in the hall ya’ll are getting kicked out. I forgot why my dumb self was out of the room. I shouldn’t say dumb because I had never had my rights embarked upon like that before. I’m paying money in here and not just for one room either. I came out and the police were like you’re out of here and I said for what? They said disturbing the peace and we got kicked out of the hotel. Another memorable one was the very first Source awards. I think we won group of the year and as we were about to give our thank yous somebody kicked in some Tupac music and he came running out and started performing. It looked mad disrespectful like I can’t believe what I’m seeing. It was so bad the crowd was booing. This was right after midnight Mauraders.

Jbutters: Right, I remember hearing about this.

AS: Then Pac got angry and was like New York don’t got love for Cali? It was a bad situation. Some of the brothers from the ZULU nation took offense to it and they got up there like F the west coast. It was just a bad moment for hip hop. Afterwards everybody was just ready to fight. Pac went down to the Palladium and we went down there. I went and spoke to Pac and said what was that all about and he said what are you talking about? I said we were about to give our acceptance speech and he was like someone just cued him onstage and I went and did my performance. He was like I had no idea what was going on and we apologized. He was a Tribe fan and mentioned us on his album. Unfortunately, that was a pivotal moment because at that moment people from the west coast were like why is New York booing? Not too long after Pac went on his venturing of saying that he wasn’t checking for New York. The interesting thing is my tour manager was running the event and when Pac’s music went on she called over the radio asking who set off that DAT and the radio went dead. We still to this day don’t know who did that. It’s amazing how a misunderstanding could escalate to something major. It was a lot of hatred between the coasts over someone accidentally pressing a button. I tell that story because that can happen in any situation. It can be a misunderstanding and from a misunderstanding bodies are dropped.

Jbutters: I want to get the flip side of Marcus’ question what were some of the best things you’ve been apart of during your career where you couldn’t believe you were apart of it?

AS: I don’t know if I can reflect like that. I don’t know that’s a tough one. You stumped me with that one.

Marcus: I can tell you. Back in the late 80s and early 90s how you were apart of the positive movement and the way ya’ll dressed being humble with no gold chains. When people think about Native Tongues it was a revolutionary time and you were a significant part of. It influenced me to be a positive person because positive was in. That’s like the only time in my life I saw mad black people hollering about peace all the time.

AS: That’s heavy man. I feel where you coming from but its hard for me to look at myself as affecting change like that when it’s your everyday. It’s almost like looking at yourself in the mirror everyday where you don’t notice the changes but someone else will be like damn you look different.

Jbutters: Speaking of the Native Tongue Movement how did that all fall apart?

AS: I don’t know if anything specific went down. As far as Tribe was concerned we were the last ones out of Jungle Brothers and De la to put a record out. We went from hanging out in those guys’ sessions to having our own sessions. I think because everyone was busy recording all the hanging out stuff started to die off. It wasn’t because cats didn’t want to hang out for us we were working. We realized that as much fun as we had going out to clubs and stuff we had an opportunity to fulfill a dream. We also took our music making really seriously to the point where we stopped hanging out. Instead of hanging out we were in the studio working non-stop to the frustration of our manager. We were in the studio so much we refused to go on tour. So we weren’t around and then I think certain people got jealous because we were reaching more success than others. Then it was just a natural order of growing up and growing apart. I certainly hope that because we weren’t Native Tongues in the light that positivity in hip hop died. I don’t think so because there are so many products of the Native Tongue Movement. With Black on Both Sides, Mos Def raised the flag high. As far as major labels are concerned the marketing dollar isn’t there.

Jbutters: I want to talk a little about the album you’re putting out now that you’re actually rapping on. Since when did you decide that you were gonna start rapping? Is this something that you were known to do in the studio and just never put it down?

AS: I think when we were doing ‘Skypager’ on the Low End Theory I wrote a rhyme like yo let me get on this track and Tip heard me and was like nah, nah, naaaah. He didn’t say you should do anything but touch the mic but that’s how that nah felt. It was brutal. It was a cool no but I’m telling you he wrote a novel in that nah. So I just left it alone. And then when we were finishing up the Lucy Purl record, Raphael had did this hip hop beat and he was like Shaheed I want you to write a rhyme for me real quick. I was like aiight. I wrote like four bars and then I started freestyling with the next two lines and it was just wack. We were just fooling around anyway but that was really it. When I was thirteen I dreamt of being a rapper but for some reason I never pursued it. I used to always have a problem with writing four lines and stopping. That wasn’t just for hip hop it was anything like the song ‘Good Love’. I wrote four lines, Raphael was like keep writing but I was like I’m stuck. I felt writing wasn’t for me. Although when I was fourteen I got a scholarship to go to Phillips Exeter based on my writing but it was just something I never fully pursued. But when I sat down to do this record it just all kinda came together. I guess that’s what the creator had planned. I felt like if I’m gonna be rapping now I approached it like a producer. I was harder on myself than probably any other producer would be and that’s just cuz I know what I like to hear. It was definitely an exercise for me and singing is just a whole other can of worms. I’m nervous about that because I’m no singer and I’m just trying to vibe my way to something. I really hope that people just receive what I’m doing. I know it’s a shock for a lot of people. I played it for people and they were like whose that right there and I’d be like it’s somebody I’ve been working with and they were like oh that’s kinda hot I like that. So far I’ve gotten good feedback on it.

Jbutters: It is pretty weird because I told somebody today that you were rhyming on the record and they were like Ali Shaheed? I never even heard him say anything. I was like yea he’s on five or six tracks.

AS: I didn’t want it to be goofy. If I’m gonna do it I want people to understand this is not a game. This is a serious movement and I took my time with it. There are cats that have been doing this for thirteen years and I’m just now starting. So I know I have a lot of growing and I’m embracing that.

Jbutters: I was reading about how you and Tip helped each other by introducing each other to different types of music. I remember you saying he introduced you to a lot of jazz records. How did you each influence each other as artists?

AS: I don’t know how I influenced him but I know how he influenced me. We liked the same records when it came to George Clinton, Earth, Wind, & Fire to anything except for the Spinners. We liked the same one hit wonders and so many other things, but when it came to jazz he had been exposed to it and I was not. He influenced me by playing certain records and showing me this and that. His approach to making music is dope. I learned a lot from being around him.

Jbutters: How was his approach different from yours at the time?

AS: He would purposely go out looking for something real different. I don’t know if I really went to look for something majorly different. It’s kinda hard to explain. Whatever I learned from him I learned it and now we think alike when it comes to making music now. I go for that different sound now but I’m trying to think of something different that he would do. Like he would just take a kick and spin it backwards. Something out of place that nobody would even think about doing. He was just doing abstract things. But I don’t know how I’ve influenced him you’d have to ask him that.

Jbutters: Were you guys of equal skill when it came to production when you came together?

AS: He used to make pause tapes and I used to sample because my uncle had a sampler. He would find a loop’¦oh man this is so old school. Haha. He would find a loop and get it right dub it onto another tape and bump it back until he had a long song. For me I was around studio equipment. I had drum machines, a keyboard and four tracks. We had two different approaches. I had more of a programmer’s approach and he just had more of a feeling approach.

Jbutters: I did an interview with Hi-Tek recently and he said he learned things by doing what he thought you guys were doing. He said he thought Tribe was chopping everything so he learned how to chop but then it turned out ya’ll were just finding really ill loops. Its funny how people try to emulate you and by doing so learn their own abilities.

AS: That’s the invention of hip hop. Everybody didn’t know how to play instruments or even know cats in a band. It’s like let me take this drum loop here and I got two records of it and I’m gonna flip it. That’s how hip hop evolved. I remember hearing U2 say the same thing, that they knew how to play their instruments but not how to play the music they were influenced by. So they were like this is our attempt at that.

Marcus: What’s your favorite Tribe record and why?

AS: That’s an easy one cuz I don’t have a favorite.

Jbutters: Ahhhh come on

AS: I know that sounds like a copout answer but I really don’t have a favorite Tribe record. I love them all because it’s almost like a journal of my life. Its so many different instances of my life that I reflect upon and they all have certain special meaning to me. So I can’t isolate one as being my favorite moment. Even some of the darkest things that have occurred to me in my life are still meaningful to me.

Jbutters: Out of the music that you’ve produced is there a moment you are most proud of?

AS: Yea, this joint on my album called ‘From DJs to Musicians.’ My uncle taught me how to DJ. When I was little he played in a couple of bands and occasionally took his nephew. I don’t know if it was because of babysitter obligations or what but he would take me to some spots he was playing. He is like my biggest musical influence and on that song we got to rock together. That’s him playing bass on that song. That song is special to me because I got to sit with the person who got me started in the whole thing.

Jbutters: I know you have to go so we’ll run through that last questions. Is it relax yourself girl please settle down?

AS: Yup, that’s it.

Jbutters: What do you think of Q-Tip’s album that got recorded but never released?

AS: I thought Kamaal the Abstract was incredible. It was genius. I love the fact that he let the music breathe. There was instrumentation and solos as opposed to being strictly verse-chorus-bridge-fadeout. He let the instruments play and I love that. I like the fact that he stood out and did something adverse to hip hop and different from what everyone knows of him. So I thought it was a fabulous album. He has another one now that’s about to be released. It’s on the same vibe. I think he took it a step back for those who felt like he went too far but the idea of it is still the same. It’s edgy and I love it. I’m a fan and I love that brother.

Jbutters: And the last question, knowing that you are a devout Muslim have you been affected by any anti Muslim backlash as a result of the war in Iraq and do you have any reviews on that conflict that you are willing to share?

AS: Yea, I get it anytime I cross the border. People don’t want to let me back into the country I was born in because they are unsure of certain things. To me that type of discrimination is no different than what I’ve been receiving as a black man walking in certain areas in America. Besides that I can’t say anyone has done it to my face beyond the custom agents. The one time I experienced something wasn’t because I was Muslim. I think it was three days after the terrorist attacks and I was on the New Jersey side looking across the water at where the Trade Center used to be and there were these two Latinos. They were a little intoxicated. They were having a conversation and they walked up to me and said, ‘˜Yo bro ain’t that f’ed up over there?’ I was like yea that’s pretty bad and he was like we need to kill all of them Muslims. He was like look at that. I said yea that’s messed up and whoever committed such atrocity against humanity should be punished but how can you make a blanket statement like that. He was like do you support that? And I was like nah but how do you say we need to kill all of them? I was like I understand your pain but your country and people were raped and invaded upon by Europeans. They oppressed your ancestors and continue to oppress people to this day. So, I’m sure you have some disliking for that. You may be a couple hundred years removed from that but I’m sure somewhere within you have a problem with it. What took place is basically a product of that. Because something as devastating as September 11th happened does not mean now you go and flip on an entire group of people because you feel they are all associated with that. I was like I’m gonna leave you with that because I was getting angry. That was really the only thing and they didn’t know I was Muslim so he didn’t understand where I was coming from other than I was the only person at that immediate moment not saying let’s get them. I was really trying to let him know, as a Muslim and one of understanding, an African-American and descendent of Native Americans, I could really be on some hatred mission right now but I’m not. You have to be at a place of understanding and once we try to understand one another we could make some accomplishments. That really was where subliminally in some areas and blatantly where some of my lyrics come from. It’s the struggle of the Muslim in America.

Date: March 10, 2006