Beats, Rhymes and Life after Tribe
“For an introvert like myself there aren’t many low points. I like solitude and quiet,” said Ali Shaheed Muhammad — DJ, rapper, producer and former one third of A Tribe Called Quest.
Speaking of the departure from the group dynamic to which he became accustomed during the era of Tribe, he added, “But I do miss traveling with the crew.”
Prior to a DJ set played at Toronto’s Cheval nightclub on Saturday as a part of Canadian Music Week, Muhammad took time for an intimate conversation with The Cord at his downtown hotel.
Muhammad wasted no time expressing his love for fans north of the border.
“There has always been a great amount of love and support for A Tribe Called Quest, the Native Tongues movement and what I’ve done outside of Tribe with D’Angelo, Lucy Pearl and a bunch of other people I’ve worked with. It’s really like a second home to me. I’m here a lot. There’s always love and I just love being here.”
The conversation took a more serious turn, as Muhammad addressed 2011’s Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, a documentary that reveals the heartbreaking unraveling of one of raps most influential and enduring groups.
“I think there are a lot of fans who’ve seen the film and miss the group. They are reminded about what it was that made them fall in love with A Tribe Called Quest. And then there are some people who don’t really want see that beef and bickering part of it,” said Muhammad, referring to the deterioration of the relationship between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, the legendary lyricists who made up the other two parts of Tribe.
“It’s actually opened up the door to a new generation of hip hop lovers who maybe are fans of what Young Money is doing, or what Roc-a-Fella is doing right now, people who are in the forefront of hip hop now at the mainstream level. But then you’ve got this interesting documentary that has brought some sort of an awareness and education for people who might not have heard of A Tribe Called Quest “
When asked about who he considers to be among the greatest MCs, Muhammad paused for a moment, considering.
“I’m in the hot seat now.”
“I love Slick Rick, I think he’s a great storyteller. I love Chuck D because he’s extremely poetic and he’s kind of like a teacher.”
Paying homage to a rapper still considered mainstream today, he continued, “I love Jay-Z because he encompasses what I believe makes up this thing about MCs being so in your face and edgy — you know the bad boy image — but at the same time there’s more than what’s on the surface.”
The self-proclaimed introvert has a calm way about him. His artistry radiates from deep within and what you’re met with on the surface is warmth. This was most clearly felt as he broached the subject of religion, a conversation that revealed the devout Muslim’s greatest passion: God.
“I’m just going to put this out there, God is the greatest MC,” said Muhammad.
“When it comes to the Arabic of the Qur’an, the way it reads is very rhythmic. One word will have ten to twenty different meanings, attached to a vowel, which has a meaning and a consonant, which has a meaning within the structure of the word. And it rhymes.”
Speaking of the state of the hip-hop game today, Muhammad returned to the topic of God, saying, “It speaks about that in the Qur’an, how we are formed from a clot and how it grows. That was our origin to where we are now and we’ve gone through thousand of years, different periods and experiences and changes and I don’t know where we began in civilization to where we are now. It may be unrecognizable. Or maybe very recognizable.
“We were maybe a community that started out as a handful and now we’re billions of humans on the earth. It feels like that in hip hop. You had a few MCs and now you have too many damn MCs, who all have a different purpose; to entertain, to share their life experience or their frustration against the system or to just be goofy.”
An hour later, Muhammad prepared to begin his DJ set at Cheval. As he got behind the mic all traces of the introvert he claims to be disappeared in an instant.
He hyped up the crowd — effortlessly engaging them with his easy way. “How many of you are here tonight because I’m here tonight?” he asked. The drunken roar of the crowd was affirmation enough.
“I’ve been here five minutes and I’ve had people asking, ‘Am I going to hear some Chris Brown? Am I going to hear some Rihanna?’ If you want to hear some Rihanna, go out, get in a cab, drive around for fifteen minutes and I promise you will. But you won’t here.”
He then launched into his set, which would continue late into the night. It was a lot of Biggie Smalls, a little bit of Jay.
He’s a Brooklyn boy, after all.