Interview with Lateef The Truthspeaker (Latyrx) | By Jason Fullerton
Back in 1995, Bay Area rap was at the big-ballin’ peak of the mobb music craze, LA was chronically gripped in a G-funk indo smoke haze, Atlanta was enjoying its Southernplayalistic days, and NYC was entering a shiny-suit phase. There was no frame of reference for two lyrical emcees experimenting with the tonality and resonance of rhyme patterns. This was uncharted territory.
“Latyrx” was a syllabic tour de force which began with two dissonant voices, one gruff and bassy, the other higher-pitched and treble, both hella fluid. It transformed into a harmonic convergence of doubled verses simultaneously assaulting eardrums. Undeniably, it was great albeit different. Latyrx’ first and thusfar, only, full-length, 1997′s Latyrx: The Album, while 1998′s Muzappers Re-Mixes EP spawned one of the only feminist-affirming club bangers in Hip-Hop history, “Lady Don’t Tek No.”
Though Latyrx never officially broke up, after Muzappers, both members followed their chosen paths to considerable solo success. Yet no matter how much acclaim each attained individually, the notion of someday making another Latyrx record was always present.
16 years after the release of Latyrx: the Album, LB and Lateef have finally answered the prayers of long-starved fans who have begged, pleaded and, by now, tweeted about the possibilities of a reunion. Featuring a long list of producers and special guests, The Second Album credits read like a modern day music festival. Artists and friends from groups and collectives ranging from tUnE yArDs, Anticon and Future People to Blackalicious, The Decemberists and Living Colour have all jumped on board to help create one of the most highly anticipated independent records of all time.
What Latyrx brings to the table is a technical difficulty level rare these days in Hip-Hop and matched only by a few groups in the genre’s entire history: Run-DMC, Jurassic 5, Blackstar, Freestyle Fellowship. Their challenging, intricate back-and forth arrangements evoke a lyrical version of bebop, with layer upon layer of rhythmic syncopation and vocal patterning constantly pushing the envelope.
Check out what Lateef had to say below…
Who were some of your major musical influences growing up in the Bay Area?
Well from an early age I would have to say it would be Stevie Wonder, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, I would say Prince, Michael Jackson. I would say Herbie Hancock, Afrika Bambaataa, early Mix Master Spade stuff, yeah, I mean tons of people.
Am I correct in saying your mother and father were involved in the Black Panther movement?
Yes they were! My mother was a medic and my father was a security guy.
So did this have a significant impact on you as an artist? Was it influential in your decision to create music?
The first kinda musical memory I have is at a Black Panther Rally that I went to with my parents and I was listening to the music and I was like “Daddy the music is so great” and my Dad was like “Yeah but you got to listen to the message son! It’s the message that’s important.” So for the next four years I would just listen intently to the lyrics of songs so ever since then I’ve been able to memorise songs like really really fast. In that sense yeah, definitely in terms of political consciousness. I think that most of the groups that come out of the Bay Area… The Bay Area doesn’t frown on political content, so I think a lot of the groups that come out of the Bay Area don’t have a problem being political if they feel like it or want to. Even some of the more gangster-ish stuff like Too Short, E-40, they don’t mind talking about political stuff if they want to talk about it, so I think that kind of mentality comes out of the Bay Area in general, not just the Black Panther folks like Tupac or whoever.
Your debut in the music industry was Blackalicious’ “Deep In The Jungle” from their Melodica LP, in 1994 if I’m correct.
Wow, it was [Lateef laughs].
Yeah? So how did you come to make the connection with Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel?
That’s hilarious. I think your the first person that’s asked me that on this whole press release. I went to high school in Oakland, CA, with pretty much all of the Hiero guys, a lot of the Living Legends guys too and when I went to college I was 17 years old. I went to UC Davis and while I was there I went down to the radio station a guy named Jeff Chang was down there and Jazbo, Jeff Chang would go on to write what is probably the definitive Hip-Hop history book.
“Can’t Stop Won’t Stop”, is a fantastic book, I couldn’t recommend it enough to any Hip-Hop fan.
Exactly and Jazbo was a guy over at MTV, he had some influence over there. Anyway, they were down there and doing the radio show and they linked me up with Gift of Gab and we went and freestyled for the whole of the first night we met, for like an un-godly amount of hours. I also met Lyrcis Born down there and DJ Shadow was running around down there from time-to-time, Chief Xcel as well, so Jeff Chang was kind of the one who pulled us together, like hey this is a crew here, these are the bones of a crew. So he got us together and we did the hit, done the bank job, na I’m kidding [Lateef laughs jokingly]. So we just kind of got together and we just started making music together and everybody was just on the same page and we really started to craft our own sound from really early on. Shadow already done a bunch of work, not a bunch but a good amount and I think both the working ethos and digging for records and that kind of tenacity for the tenants of Hip-Hop, being very good at what you did, being professional about it and being meticulous and technical about what it was your were doing wether is was lyrically or music wise influenced us greatly. We didn’t have a lot of money so getting into the studio you had to have your lyrics down because we didn’t have a lot of hours [Lateef laughs as he continues to speak] to record to. So that’s how it was, we all met up and we just did it.
So was it from this initial meeting that yourself and Lyrics Born came together which eventually lead to Latyrx and your critically acclaimed debut The Album in 1997?
At first both Lyrics Born and I were doing solo stuff which is some of the reason why that first [Latyrx] album has a couple of solo songs on it. Those songs were generally recorded prior to us deciding to do the Latryx album. Blackalicious was already pretty deep off into their first Melodica EP. At that time it was much more organic in terms of we would just do songs. Hey I got the beat, I thought you’d be good on it, here’s the beat, write to it, record it, ah that was great, we’ll just keep that song, on to the next song. It was a lot more organic and then at some point after I put out my single me and I think Jeff Chang also again and Chief Xcel suggested me and Lyrics Born do a record together, especially after the song “Latyrx”. All of them, DJ Shadow, Gab, Jazbo, Xcel, Jeff, everybody thought that song was unlike anything else they had ever heard and that that chemistry was special and we should do a record together. So me and LB thought okay, well let’s see what happens, we started working on stuff and it turned out that it worked. From that I think we really did develop a unique chemistry that has stood the test of time in terms of how it is we write and create songs as well.
As you mentioned before, the Bay Area has it’s fair share of gangster rap. Back in ’95 it was dominated by the G Funk sound and a whole plethora of gangster rappers. Did you and Lyrics Born always find it important to take a more alternative route when you both started making music?
So… I feel like… personally… The gangster rap that comes out of the Bay Area is probably, with the exception of some of the stuff that comes out of the south, the most creative gangster stuff. I think that Bun B and some of those guys that invented a lot of the trap music, those guys are pretty dope, they’re really creative. But I feel like when you get into E-40, Clyde Carson & The Team, Too Short, Rappin’ 4-Tay and the stuff he was doing melodically back in the day before that was really popular, Mac Dre, Cougnut of Ill Mannered Playas, you may not have even heard of them they were pretty underground. Tthere was a guy called Cougnut who could rap his ass off. One of the things to me about the Bay Area, is the gangster rap scene, a lot of those cats can do just that, they can rap their ass off. Their style is very singular, specific and unique. F.A.B. not super gangster but Fabby, we’re talking about a guy who freestyled with Freestyle Fellowship guys. F.A.B. is one of the best freestyle rappers that I have ever seen and he’s like a turf cat.
I mean you would need to be good if you’re going to hang with Freestyle Fellowship, those guys are above par!
Yeah! And this dude Fabby is on par with those dudes! He is very very good and he has a little bit of a different dimension to him in terms of his ability to rock crowds and stuff. He came out with me when we did the DJ Shadow tour and I felt right around that time he also stepped his game up to another level and recently I’ve seen him do phenomenally as well. But that’s just another example of another turf guy who has an exemplarily skill set regardless of genre and I think that’s the case with a lot of the Bay Area gangster stuff. I think that’s why it has such long legs not-to-mention, people don’t really talk about it a lot but the Bay Area “gangster” scene informs a lot of the other popular music in this country. From E-40’s slanguage he uses, that is commonly adopted by Snoop Dogg to the general vibe of a lot of the stuff that Drake has admitted he loves to listen to. I mean I think that is one of the reasons that gangster rap out here is as large as it is, having said that, the Bay Area is also one of the biggest launching grounds for underground/independent Hip-Hop as-well-as fantastic turntablism. People out here just like to make music I guess [Lateef laughs]. I think the lack of industry also helps. There’s no huge labels and everybody kind of does it independently and have to love what they’re doing to keep doing it and if they’ve been doing it for that long then they’re probably half way decent at it.
Is this one of the main reasons you started the Latyramid label with Lyrics Born?
Yeah, it’s exactly why. Nowadays with the general collapse of labels in the US, there’s not a lot of reason or need for a record label as much as a distribution deal. So we set up our own label and continued to do it independently.
I know you and Lyrics Born have been playing a lot of pretty cool festivals recently. Things like the Wintersalt Festival, Google’s Summer Concert Series and I believe you were the first Hip-Hop act to play there?
Also things such as HITRECORD At The Movies with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. How did these opportunities arise to play such unique festivals?
Well we were requested for most of them to be honest. We also did Outside Lands a couple years ago and that was awesome. But generally speaking we were either requested or we were presented by our booking agent. With Joseph Gordon-Levitt he was actually a fan of ours and he reached out to us when he had one of his HITRECORD Joe variety things that he does here in San Francisco and he asked us to come out and it was awesome. I don’t know if you have ever seen or heard of the things that he does but they are awesome.
Yeah we I’ve been on the HITRECORD website and I’ve seen some footage from his performances and the festivals he puts on, competitions he hosts for up-and-comers, it’s pretty cool.
Yeah. The live aspect of it is crazy. Obviously we perform so there’s a live music element at one point and the crowd goes crazy and there’s this interactive aspect of it were they answer questions, going on in live time, then things like somebody will be reading a poem while there’s something showing going on in the back stream. It’s a very interesting kind of new-age variety thing.
Do you think things like this are the future of live performing rather than just your standard kind of gig? Do these things need to happen more often?
After going to that thing I was like wow. I kind of felt in some ways it was so far ahead of the curve it was kind of like hmm, this is like ten years from now I can see this happening more often. The other thing about those shows is obviously that he is able to do it because he is a big enough personality were he can just put it on Facebook and Twitter and people are going to come. I mean that show was at least 75 percent woman. If you were going to pitch this yourself you would have to create a following and let people know what it is because even right now with me describing it as a new age digital variety show doesn’t really communicate what it is, it’s much more. So I don’t know if there’s really enough familiarity with it yet for it to work but it’s definitely a possibility that to a certain extent it’s a future of some type of live show, he almost created a little live sub genre.
Since you and Lyrics Born made your debut with Latyrx, it’s been something like 16 years.
Yeah something really long like that.
Since then you both have worked on numerous solo projects, written books, played festivals, toured the world, and most recently you have released the DISCONNECTION EP late last year. With all this being said what can we expect from Latyrx’s aptly titled The Second Album?
I think that were as the EP was a little bit more straight up the middle, like when we did the first album there was a Muzapper’s EP that was also a lot more straight up the middle. The Second Album will be like the first album in the way it’ll be a little more eclectic and hopefully creatively push a lot of the boundaries of not just Hip-Hop but of music in general or of what previous ideas were. I think conceptually we tried some new stuff and hopefully just generally pushed ourselves creatively and hopefully helped push art in some way.
I know you have the likes of Busdriver, Jel of Anticon, Gift Of Gab, Corey Glover of Living Color among others on the new album and you were talking about being eclectic and pushing boundaries. Do you feel having individuals like these helps the album in this way and gives it more diversity?
I think it does. I would say on this album it definitely did. The stuff that we did with Merrill from tUnE yArDs, those songs “Watershed Moment” & “Deliberate Jibberish”, especially the latter definitely are different songs and I felt that “Deliberate Jibberish”… there are no drums in that song, she made the beat almost completely, with the exception of one baseline synth, everything she did she did vocally. The song is in some kind of weird time like the beat loops after 9 measures every time, hopefully you don’t notice because there’s no real change in the rhythm of our rapping, it sounds like it’s in 4-4 but it’s not. Those kind of music nerdy things as-well-as the creative aspect of the song and the difference in it make it so that I think it pushes just what your thoughts are on what’s possible.
I have been fortunate enough to hear The Second Album already and it does just that, pushes boundaries. I seen your Kickstarter campaign a while ago, and just for people who haven’t seen it yet can you briefly explain the reasons behind it?
The Kickstarter campaign we kind of just kicked off so we could bring the music so we could just bring the music to everybody. Again, doing it independently there’s just tons of cost and we wanted to see if we could reach out to the fans and connect with them on the live merit and on the very grassroots idea of hey, we want you to come to the shows, we want to make this happen. Essentially on Kickstarter it’s buy tickets. All of the perks on it are all things like get the album, get tickets to come to our show and just do it here in one shot, vinyl and stuff like that as well. All the perks are all geared around you have the stuff and when we coming to town we’re going to come out and we’re going to celebrate this together and we’re going to have a good time.
I can kind of relate to you being out here in Scotland it’s pretty damn hard to see a lot of the independent acts I’d like to, again because of the costs of getting over here etc.
Yeah that’s exactly the case especially in Scotland because getting up to Glasgow and stuff like that for festivals to foot the bill, it can be tough.
That’s exactly were I’m from!
It’s an awesome place by the way! I love that city.
I’m glad one of us likes it… [Both myself & Lateef had to compose ourselves before continuing]. Is there anything else we can expect from yourself or Lyrics Born in the near future?
We’re both working on projects as we speak. I don’t want to let anything out the bag to early but we’re both working on further solo stuff and depending on how it goes we may work on another Latyrx thing in the near future.