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Mike Ladd: Cerebral Refugee, Part 2-2


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You can look at us as cerebral refugees in this war, because the war on terror is directed just as much at us as it those that cast the bullets.
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: Authenticity and cultural appropriation—European cultures consuming other cultures, for example—interest you. "Field Work [from the Negrophilia CD] has the line "not enough authenticity for the Afro junkie and "Airwave Hysteria from Welcome to the Afterfuture has my favorite lyric of yours: "traditional songs sung by white women in sarongs. Is anything particularly authentic anymore?

Mike Ladd: I kind of hope not! I think the question is was anything ever particularly authentic. When you really begin to study culture and trade, you learn how long there has been exchange of cultures. I mean, East Africa is half South Asian. Subsequently, the Mediterranean is half South Asian, half East African—and part Mongol. And that's going back to 300 B.C. So the exchange of cultures really, I think, cancels out any authenticity, and it's funny to be a proponent of that kind of perspective in Europe now; even in France or Paris someone can be like, "well, I'm Breton. Okay, if you're Breton you're Irish plus Spanish. So I hope we come to the realization that there is no such thing as authenticity. And to me, understanding the complexity of identity will save lives.

AAJ: I have to strongly agree.

ML: I believe that historically, we have to address the hybridity of the world.

AAJ: Initially, you were thought of as a poet, spoken-word artist, rapper: your work had to do with words. Yet you've always done recordings with no words at all: "Sam and Milli Dine Out is a new one, but "Music For Tanks from the Vernacular Homicide EP is five years old. When you record, do you approach instrumental material differently than you do something with words, with texts?

ML: I don't know. When I'm in the studio making it—which is usually my bedroom—it just comes out at that moment when I'm making a beat. I think a lot of times I am striving for something that ends up being more instrumental. I'd still like to make a completely instrumental record sometime.

AAJ: It seems that your work is heading that way.

ML: Yeah! I think it is. And maybe if you make an instrumental record, you'd include a book of texts with that and let someone else put them together: read it if they want to. I think, though, when I'm starting something it really is thought of in a haphazard sort of way. I work on a sampler; I don't think of myself as a musician because I'm not proficient enough to really play live. If I want to do even a relatively complicated keyboard piece—

AAJ: You don't have the chops.

ML: Yeah, it takes me forty-five minutes to get four bars down (laughter). So I am at the mercy of what comes out sometimes. And this is really something that Guillermo believes in: try to make the computer as organic as possible, and part of that is giving the computer more control. You bang something out, see what you get, and then take it from there. I have done it the other way, too: the Majesticons. [Beauty Party, the 2003 CD by Ladd's Majesticons project, is a sort of cutting yet affectionate parody of mainstream, big-money hip-hop and r&b; it's also peopled with an Afromythic set of characters reminiscent of Parliament/Funkadelic.] When I did that record everything was deliberate—because I wanted to learn how to make a pop record.

AAJ: Yes, Majesticons was your attempt to do your own sell-out commercial record—in a sense.

ML: (laughing) Yes, well, I sabotaged that. But it came out of getting sick of always being categorized with people who were just being weird for the sake of being weird.

AAJ: Underground hip-hop.

ML: Yeah. I guess I am artistically conservative in that I feel you should be able to draw before you can paint. For me, here I am using an MPC-3000 [sequencer-sampler]—which is made for making pop music, really. I mean, it's got a click-track; you really can't do something in 29/6.

AAJ: But it does 4/4 fine. No problem.

ML: Now, you can do some weird time signatures on it, but it is made for one thing. So I thought, let me just see if I can at least—draw. That was my impetus for [Majesticons].

AAJ: Tell me about In What Language?, your collaboration with [jazz composer/keyboard player] Vijay Iyer. I know it was a commissioned piece.

ML: Originally Iyer and I met in '97; he was playing with a band called Midnight Voices and I was promoting my first record. We just sort of hit it off. I guess he moved to New York shortly after that. He's just an incredibly accomplished musician. He had gotten the attention of a very large orientalist organization called the Asia Society. So they approached him, and he approached me. We were given a sum of money that gave us the ability to really explore whatever we wanted.

AAJ: That's a good commission.

ML: It was great! Really, really great. So this happened in the spring of 2001. We knew we wanted to do something about the importance of airports and the global realities of people of color. And Vijay came across an email by an Iranian filmmaker named Jafar Panahi [who was detained by INS officials, locked in a cell, and deported back to Hong Kong handcuffed], and we realized that that was a good starting point: some of the injustice that people are experiencing within airports and just—what does an airport mean? And of course September 11th came around that changed the context of everything. Well, it didn't really change the context, but—

AAJ: It upped the ante.

ML: Exactly. It turned up the volume.

AAJ: It at least doubled it.

ML: It went up to eleven. So then the piece started to write itself, in a way. I was able to travel to almost every major airport in the United States and Europe, just also because I was gigging with other bands and stuff, or with my own band—so I'd end up in those airports. So I'd show up at the airport six hours, seven hours early.

AAJ: Oh god, what a sacrifice for art.

ML: (laughter) Yeah, but then of course you end up like, "hey, I kind of like it here. You get addicted to the food court.

AAJ: Well, you can get used to anything.

ML: Exactly. That's what's terrifying.

AAJ: And it's a really neutral location.

ML: Well, that's—that's what we looked at.

AAJ: Actually, in your liner notes to the In What Language? CD you say "the airport is not a neutral place." I meant neutral meaning uniform; they look similar to each other.

ML: Yes, and that uniform quality is on purpose, I think. And what they become are these sort of demilitarized zones. What started out to be a literally neutral, world's-fair type atmosphere, and a place where western culture could show off their achievements—and also just promote optimism in every way—

AAJ: Possibility.

ML: Exactly. "This is flight, as close as we can get to the heavens. But now the reality of the airport is actually someplace under hypersurveillance; it's really militarized. It's the front line for this War on Terror, which is a war on feeling that has no beginning and no end. And no borders. You can look at us as cerebral refugees in this war, because the war on terror is directed just as much at us as it those that cast the bullets. [The airport]'s the place where we can be enveloped in the combat of that war. And because it was selected as the stage of conflict; that whole selection is fascinating. So the [In What Language?] project takes that as a backdrop, and really begins to look at what we were talking about earlier, in terms of these new, working-class global realities. Global cultural realities. And understanding the place of people of color in a global society. So I interviewed people of color in airports and then also where I was living in the Bronx, which was an incredibly diverse community. A large Jamaican population, a large Yemeni population, a large Korean population, a large Irish population and a large Dominican and Puerto Rican population—all living on one block. So I was also able to use that as source material and see how a block like that also functions as an extension of the [airport] terminal: it's still the same come-and-go. People like [novelist] Don DeLillo have already written about cities becoming terminals.

AAJ: These voices of these characters, then, on the individual songs: do they all represent someone, a real human being, you spoke to?

ML: It really depends. The majority of them are composites of different people; I changed everybody a little bit for two reasons. Primarily to—well, one person who influenced me greatly was [playwright/performance artist] Anna Deavere Smith. I had worked in proximity to her when I did a project for the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, which she started at Harvard. She was gracious enough to invite me to do a project there. So I got to see how she worked up close, and it wasn't what I wanted to do—but it was incredibly helpful as an approach. I wanted to make it clear that I was more of a filter and to acknowledge that filtering. What I was doing was different; she does a documentarian thing with folks where she's sort of quoting them verbatim, and I wanted these poems [in In What Language?] to be poems. More poems than characters.

AAJ: Well, you are a writer.

ML: Yeah. That's the one thing I say I definitely am.

AAJ: Writers do research, but that doesn't mean that they have to report exactly what they hear. They're writing things. On this CD, your lyrics are acted out, as it were, by other vocalists. Was that the first time you'd ever experienced that?

ML: Yeah. Aside from Majesticons, but I did those two [Beauty Party and In What Language?] at the same time. And it was two completely different contexts, but to hear someone else deliver my words was the most exciting thing; I loved it. I'd like to do more of that. With the In What Language? project, we've done sixteen, seventeen shows.

AAJ: Yes, you just did one last weekend?

ML: Yeah, in Amherst. And then in Philadelphia.

AAJ: You managed to get pretty much everyone from the CD, didn't you?

ML: Everybody except [vocalist] Ajay Naidu and Dana Leong, who's a great trombone and cello player. Those were the only two personnel changes.

AAJ: The liner notes to the CD give the impression of having a division between musical composition and lyrical content: the lyrical content being supplied by you and the music from Vijay. Were the divisions really that distinct?

ML: No, it was a real back-and-forth to try to make a cohesive project. What we did have was an intention of [making] something that would work well together but that you could also dismantle. So ideally, you can take the texts home and appreciate them in a completely different space and get just as much out of it as you would with the music. Or you could find an instrumental copy [of the music alone] and take that and get just as much out of the project. Also, in terms of what I was trying to do with my verse in terms of the music—there are only three pieces that I give myself a passing grade for: "Taking Back the Airplane, "De Gaulle, and "Plastic Bag. Those are the three where I actually finally figured out how to make something that wasn't hip-hop, that wasn't spoken-word, that would still be very strong textually and land exactly where I wanted in the music so that you're hearing a poem with music but you feel like you're hearing a song.

AAJ: I'm glad you mentioned one of those songs, because I have to tell you that I am completely nuts about the tune "De Gaulle. Allison Easter's vocal on that really knocks me out.

ML: She's bad. You know, she worked for [performance artist/vocalist] Meredith Monk for a long time.

AAJ: Oh, I didn't know that; that actually makes sense to me. Did you do a lot of the drum programming for these tracks?

ML: The way those tracks worked is that Vijay has this very sophisticated rhythm structure that he uses. So I tried (laughter)—and then he'd be like, "let me do it. So he'd come in and do just the rough programs so the actual rhythm was there. Then I would work sounds and then stick in a few polyrhythms here and there, where he permitted, and just create the overall aesthetic sound of it.

AAJ: There's just something about that CD: the overall sound of it. I am so impressed with how successfully the drum parts go with the rest of the music.

ML: That's his rhythm structure. He's got this one [time signature] that's, like, twelve—but it's really twelve-and-a-half. It's just crazy.

AAJ: You've already told me about some of your collaborators—Vijay Iyer, Guillermo Brown—but tell me about Bruce Grant, who's credited with tape loops on quite a few of your albums going back for years.

ML: Bruce Grant is an old, old friend and in some ways a mentor. We started working together when I moved to New York in 1993 or '92. He used to hang out at the Fez—[poet] Bob Holman ran this thing called Rap Meets Poetry at the Fez, and everyone was there: that's where [hip-hop collective] Antipop [Consortium] met each other. This was even before [spoken-word performer] Saul Williams came to New York. [The Roots' human beatbox] Rahzel used to be down there, doing beatbox stuff. One of those classic New York situations, a bunch of people there doing some pretty cutting-edge stuff—and there was this guy Bruce who was working with another guy. They had had an electronics band back in the early eighties—I think once they opened up for Devo. Bruce just makes tape loops from, say, old answering machine tape cassettes. He makes tape loops out of those and runs ten of those on Walkmans into a mixer. He's this fifty-year-old guy, looks like a Vietnam veteran—but that's from his own personal Vietnam.

AAJ: Just analog cassette tapes?

ML: Yeah! He'll just run those—and he's got his own band called Huge Voodoo. He's had that band for years. They put out a record on a Japanese label. It's wild because it's really all done with tape loops.

AAJ: What's your next project?

ML: Well, I have to do the last in the Infesticons/Majesticons series. So I'm working on that. And Vijay and I are collaborating on a new project called Still Life with Commentator which I can't really explain yet. Well, I can: it has to do with sort of looking beyond the media, actually understanding the media as something like—the weather. Something that is completely a part of our environment and then getting beyond that. And trying to also understand ourselves as cerebral refugees. So we're working on that together. I just finished a project for ROIR Records called Father Divine, which is just another fake band I came up with.

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