Mike Ladd: Cerebral Refugee, Part 2-2

Paul Olson By

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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.
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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].

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