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Mike Ladd: Cerebral Refugee, Part 1-2

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I need a concept thats going to entertain me when Im doing the record or else Im going to get bored. Being an English teacher or a writer, I need a thesis. I need for there to be a cohesive thought.
Part 1 | Part 2

Spoken-word poet? Rapper? Alternative hip-hop producer? Sociology-minded conceptualist? Postmodernist? Mike Ladd is all of these. Ladd's 1997 debut album Easy Listening 4 Armageddon served notice that his was a major, original talent. Recent work—like his collaboration with Vijay Iyer, In What Language?, and his brand-new Thirsty Ear debut Negrophilia: the Album—stunningly demonstrate that this is a mature artist whose time has truly come. These two CDs are as much "jazz" recordings as they are anything else (I have seen Negrophilia filed in the jazz, rap, and electronica sections of three different Chicago record stores: something of an unconscious statement of Ladd's sui generis status). I spoke with Ladd about the new CD, his other numerous projects, and a great deal more.

All About Jazz: Your new CD Negrophilia: the Album is inspired by Petrine Archer-Straw's book of the same name, which is to a large extent about Paris of the 1920s and its obsession with African and black people and culture. What attracted you to this as a source material?

Mike Ladd: Well, the issue of negrophilia has been more and more prevalent in popular culture in the United States and, subsequently, global pop culture, since [the 1920s] and increasingly so in the last couple of years.

AAJ: So you see a correlation to the world's completely rabid consumption of black culture that's going on right now.

ML: Exactly. And so what attracted me to that source material is that it seemed to be attempting to find the beginnings of that obsession, at least how it manifests itself in the popular arts. What's interesting about her thesis—at least in what I got out of it—is how it's about that place where cultural exchange took place, where appropriation took place, where exploitation took place, but also where there was a give and take. And it accelerated the process of modernism. And I thought it was fascinating that her thesis said that if it wasn't for this contact zone between Africa, black America, and post-World-War-I Europe, you wouldn't have the modernism we have today.

AAJ: It's interesting to think that there was a point where something began, because that suggests that before that point, many Europeans never thought about Africans or black people at all.

ML: Well, that wouldn't be true at all; it's more that at that point, there was a certain population of white people saying, "not only is it great to think about Africa—to acknowledge Africans in our presence—but we're going to celebrate them. And that's a first. You can go back to artists representing black people in European culture all the way to the 1400s. People pop up in paintings, and as soon as there was a great deal of trade, in travel journals. Black people popped up—but they're hidden in landscapes, they're reluctantly acknowledged, and of course you have the whole noble savage [the simplistic idealization of so-called "uncivilized and "primitive peoples as being uncorrupted by civilization and therefore superior] phenomenon at the end of the nineteenth century going into the twentieth century. And then what happens in [the book] Negrophilia, in the 1920s, is the avant-garde takes that noble savage idea and tries to turn it into something else. Petrine Archer-Straw says that they fail in a lot of ways. But there is an attempt; they try to take it out of the noble savage perspective and it doesn't really work.

AAJ: I also thought that it couldn't have hurt your initial interest in the book that right on the cover is Josephine Baker, whom you mentioned in "Planet 10 on your CD Welcome to the Afterfuture—which came out before the book was even published.

ML: It's funny, also, because my mother has always been very interested in Josephine Baker and has, since she retired, written a novel that focuses on Josephine Baker's life in many ways. It's not out yet; she's still finishing it.

AAJ: The book Negrophilia itself is very much about Paris, and when I first got in touch with you to set up this interview you were in Paris; how did that feel to you?

ML: I think that was the other part of why I felt it was appropriate for me to use that book as a reference and why it was fascinating: I moved to Paris a year-and-a-half ago for strictly romantic reasons. My wife—she's half-black American, half-French—grew up in Paris; she's a product of the first jazz migration over there in the 1950s. And she has no interest in being in the United States. I was actually trying to move to Connecticut to get more space. I was looking for cheaper rent than New York. So she said "Paris, and I thought, hmmm, Bridgeport? Paris? Okay, I'll try Paris. My reasons were certainly not—I wouldn't have gone as a sort of black American continuing the expatriate experience. I feel that Paris, for those purposes—it's a little staid at this point, a little tired. It doesn't provide the same excitement it did in 1950; then you still had that clash of ancient culture with technology. And you had a pretty rough city at that time! Everyone was still really poor coming out of the Second World War. It was a city that was culturally exciting in a way that it isn't now—at least central Paris. That doesn't mean that there isn't an incredible amount of stuff going on, but I think that has more to do with the sort of global migrations that are going on. The same sort of excitement you'll find in Parisian quote-unquote immigrant neighborhoods—you'll find those in London and New York as well.


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