Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Part 2: 'We Still Have The Forgotten People'
This is the second special edition of Microphone Check, the back half of an interview that put one of our hosts in the hot seat. You can listen to and read part one here. Part two alternates between light-hearted and heavy, and though it was taped in May, it is painfully relevant in the wake of nine deaths in Charleston and the continuing terrorization of black people.
ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: I think at some point there may be artists who will get fed up, and they deliberately want to use their art as a means to rock the waves a little bit. And instead of doing the status quo, they'll deliberately go out to really make a change. I think Kendrick Lamar is an example of that. I think J. Cole definitely is an example of that, in trying to shift the paradigm a little bit. Kanye West is another one.
FRANNIE KELLEY: 1000%.
KELLEY: My frustration — people step to me about this all the time. Like, "Where's the protest music in hip-hop? Where's the song about Freddie Gray? Where's all of it?" And we've talked about this before. Obviously the first answer is "Hip-hop's been talking about this for 30 years. Back off."
KELLEY: The other is: If art is a reflection, then you need to do it. You need to go try harder every day, and then somebody will make a song about it. But don't sit around and wait for somebody to make a song so that you will be validated in your views. I mean, I'm so sick of talking about hip-hop with people. I can't anymore.
MUHAMMAD: You know there are people who — yeah, like you said — been doing it. You have Oddisee. People been doing it in so many different ways. Be it "The Message" from Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five — there's so many people who have been bringing it forward in the art.
And sometimes it's not so obvious.
MUHAMMAD: Sometimes the song is written through the eyes of someone who sounds like they don't give a damn about anyone else, or society, and it really is about them — but that's not what they're saying. You have to give some sort of --
KELLEY: Listen better.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, you gotta listen. And then talk to the artist. Don't take everything at face value. It's like — most of us are smart people.
KELLEY: Yeah. Also don't listen like you're watching TV.
MUHAMMAD: Well, see, that's why I say then the music means nothing. Because then not just is the artist becomes the person that worships it but, you know, the listener. And it's like, "C'mon. Create some sort of — do —" I like what you did with the Kendrick album, where you took it and you created a — used it as a place to discuss. And I think that --
KELLEY: That was Cedric.
MUHAMMAD: Cedric, gold gold gold platinum stars to you for that because that's transformative and that's what it should be about.
KELLEY: Somebody's going to do one in Philly in June.
MUHAMMAD: Music — this is — OK. Going back to my individual challenges with music, is it good? Is it not good? Is it helpful? If you take it back to just the tribal, communal interaction with music, it was a place where people sat down in a circle and they communicated. They listened. They vibrated. And then they talked about whatever was happening, what was feeling. That talk about the feeling then became a song. That song then turned back into the conversation. And I think it was used as a way to heal and help and teach the next generation. So that's what we aspire to.
And it takes me back to the beginning of our conversation. It's why I can't lower the bar. Because I do truthfully believe that music is transformative and not necessarily in me just making music — like this discussion.
MUHAMMAD: You know?
KELLEY: Can we talk about Lucy Pearl?
KELLEY: I have so many questions.
MUHAMMAD: How much time do we have?
KELLEY: We have a really long time.
KELLEY: Sadly for you.
MUHAMMAD: Sadly for David.
KELLEY: Yeah. We can do a two-parter. It's fine.
MUHAMMAD: Nah. Let's get it in.
KELLEY: Alright. So you have, on this show, told the story of Saadiq coming to you with the idea of bringing Dawn in. And you were super pumped. How did that work? Were you guys all in the same room? Did you have a conversation about what you wanted to do with the group before you started writing?
MUHAMMAD: Yeah. Raphael talked to Dawn before. Just to kind of, I think, lay it on her what he was thinking, and she was like, "Cool." She was interested. And so I came out to L.A., and it was just for us to meet and just to stand in the room together, like have some food and just talk. And we met at Dawn's studio that she had at the time up on — I think it was it was up on Hollywood Boulevard. Or close to it.
And we talked for a minute. I don't know how long exactly. I don't remember. But it was like, "Well, the studio is just a couple doors over from this room we're sitting in so." Like, "Yeah, let's just go sit down and see what happens." Little different than what most musicians do. You just kind of catch a vibe. See what it is, what it could be. And we did the song called "Good Love." And I knew — well, the funny thing about "Good Love" is it was a song that Raphael and I had kind of fooled around with like months before, just fooled around.
OK. Let me take it a step back. Raphael and I have been friends for a long time, and that relationship began when Tony! Toni! Toné! asked A Tribe Called Quest to remix something off the Revivalalbum. And we met and became friends instantly. I don't remember what year that was. It was like '92, '93. So that's how long this relationship has been. So Lucy Pearl is now '99.
MUHAMMAD: So it was that long. And through the duration of that, I would fly to Sacramento all the time to hang out with Raphael and make music and vice versa. He would come to New York and would always check up on us. And we just always found ourselves in the studio, having a good time. And it was him — he played D'Angelo's demo to me.
So this song, fast-forwarding, "Good Love," was kind of one of those times we vibed out and got together. But it was just, linking with Dawn and the way that Raphael introduced it, it was brand new. And so I just felt from their chemistry, I was like, "Wow. This is special." This is going to be really good. And so from there we — it couldn't stop. It was just supposed to be, "Let's see what happens," and "Let's see what happens" turned into a week visit that turned into four months later --
KELLEY: You just didn't go home.
MUHAMMAD: I didn't go home. And just staying in her studio — we stayed in her studio for a while and cut most of the record fairly quickly.
KELLEY: Is this when you guys were going to the gym all the time?
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, that became the program because, you know, Raphael come from that school of — I don't know if it's the Berry Gordy school or what it is. But I don't know if anyone recalls but at some point every campaign of a Tony! Toni! Toné! album, Saadiq had a way different aura. He was --
I remember — I think it was at Jack The Rapper in Atlanta and the Tonys were performing. And he had this shirt on one day, and the shirt popped open and I was like, "Dagone, dude."Like, "What is that?" I mean, he was so cut up. That wasn't just — that wasn't on our rader. We did our share of push-ups and dips on the tour bus, but he just had a different vision. And then talking to him later on, he was like Earth, Wind & Fire was on it like that, too.
KELLEY: Well, they had to cause of the vests. Just saying.
MUHAMMAD: You know what? It's not just for the look. You think it becomes the look of an artist. It's like, yeah, but no. Singing and touring takes a lot of stamina — and more so for singing. Well, I shouldn't say more so, cause singing and rapping you're so exerting so much energy, depending on your style. And so there has a good amount of physical conditioning, and if not then over long term you destroy your body.
So there's that discipline aspect, you know, and it becomes physical in the spiritual sort of a connection. Even though the eye initially sees it and it becomes a sense of vanity. It's really not. It's so that, as a singer, as a musician, you have the stamina to maintain your role, your job. No different than a boxer. It's like being in shape. And that's what — as much as I have my own rendition of that in A Tribe Called Quest and tried to inspire to the team and the fam to like, "Let's just exercise."
KELLEY: Recommend some calisthenics.
KELLEY: I cannot count how many times I've been around with you, and people try to do push-ups in front of you.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, I'm over that. It's weird.
KELLEY: It's so weird.
MUHAMMAD: I got challenged on my birthday.
KELLEY: Oh yeah, I remember that.
MUHAMMAD: I was like, "This dude just came here really to see if I could do push-ups?" And --
KELLEY: Ali was in a white suit, for the record.
MUHAMMAD: I should have been on my Jay Z and just gave him a look like, "Nah. Get out of here." Like, "No. That's not going to happen." But, no. I was like, "Really? You came here for — cool. Let's go." And then, anyway.
KELLEY: Better than a selfie.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, so Raphael and I were in serious military-style training.
KELLEY: I think there's also a part of that, that taking care of yourself so that you have no — there's nothing in the way of your creativity. Like, there's nothing you can beat yourself up about. Is there anything that you do to, like, get in the zone?
MUHAMMAD: That's a good question. There was something I used to do all the time, and that was go into a room with people and that's it. Now with the — it began — I got my first cellphone in 1989.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah. But even then --
KELLEY: Was it, like, a shoebox?
MUHAMMAD: It was pretty hefty. It was the size of a brick. And — oh, man. Sorry. That just gave me a memory of Chris Lighty, may he rest in power. Cause Chris and I both got the same phone. And just the whole service of that and our pagers, it was through, man, through his daughter's mother. Her name was Joyce. And Joyce, she had the hook up on everything. Like insurance, pagers, the phone. She was a businesswoman. So I'm just thinking about that right now. It just took me back.
But I would turn it off. Not that many people had cellphones anyway, so there weren't that many intrusions. But we would go in the studio, turn the pagers off, and just be there in that moment. And I miss that. Cause in trying to do that, I try to instill that sort of, "OK. I'm recording." And for some reason — I guess maybe because I don't have an assistant — it just doesn't work out for me. It's like, I'm taking care of all these things for the unit. So my — but it worked for me, because then I can focus and get a lot more done musically.
KELLEY: When you give your phone to somebody else?
MUHAMMAD: When I turn everything off and it's just like, you're there in the moment.
MUHAMMAD: I think you have to be completely there and not distracted. Perfect example: you could be on the phone with someone and then — cause I do this all the time and I'm finding lately I need to stop. When I'm the phone and just simply looking at a text message or reading email, it's like you're listening to the conversation and you're like, "Yeah," and you're catching key words to make it so that you can respond, so you are kind of there but you really are not. And so even something as basic as a telephone call doesn't get the undivided attention. And it could be a crucial conversation or it might not be. But again, still, we're just not committed.
And so, being in the studio, when you have those sort of distractions — the one thing that annoys a creative person is disturbance. Because — my good friend Doc McKinney put it this way: he said it's like being in a dream where it's the best the dream you ever had, and then someone disturbs you and wakes you up. And you're just wanting to be able to close your eyes, just for a moment, to get right back to that. And you will never ever be in that place, that feeling.
And so it is that way when you're creating. One little disturbance, that idea is disconnected. And even though you may be able to be like, "What was I thinking again? This chord. That --" You may be able to catch it, but to be in the zone, you won't ever be able to go back to that. So turning everything off is important to me. I don't require people to do it, because I'm not Phil Spector.
MUHAMMAD: Not yet. And besides my balding head won't let me get that --
KELLEY: I wasn't going to say it.
MUHAMMAD: My balding head won't let me get that wicked 'fro. If I could get that 'fro going, it might be mayhem in the studio. Cellphones, everything off. Everything. Clothes off. Everything. Want nothing to disturb this singing, rapping, playing piano, bass playing, drumming.
KELLEY: So I have been in a number of studios, and I find them very stressful. You love them. But as somebody who's observing, there is so much at stake. As somebody who's rented studios for people, that kind of thing, I'm thinking of the dollars. I'm also thinking about deadlines. I hate deadlines more than anything. And you're just worried about the mix of people and who's communicating with who and who's, like, f****** up the vibe and who just — it's all about ego management — but not in a negative way. People's real hearts and wallets are on the line here. And I always — and then plus I'm just contact high almost all the time, and there's, like, free liquor everywhere. And I get so concerned — I just get stressed out. And then if you're lucky, there's a moment when it happens, and you can't predict it. You can't really influence it, though you try. Can you talk about that feeling of stakes is high, in terms of not wanting to be disturbed and what you could lose if it slips away?
MUHAMMAD: I think that some of what you mentioned, it's sort of the unspoken obvious. Like, you know that — OK. There's two sides, two positions. There's the position of this is your first recording deal and so you're mindful about everything. For example, back in the day when we used to use two-inch — and I think Tip said something, "I paid about a buck for the Ampex steel." He's talking about the Ampex Reel-To-Reel 456, to be specific. Like, you think about even just the cost of the tape.
MUHAMMAD: It's critical. When you have a bit of success and a little more of a budget to play with, you might not be as — it may not be as much in the forefront of your mind, but it's there somewhere.
I have never gone in thinking the meter is running — too much. Because if you do that, you're not allowing yourself to just melt into the moment. I'm not saying that I'm not aware. I am. But — well, because I have my own studio and recording facilities now, you don't really think about that. But when — and working on other people's projects and other people's budgets where I know, "I could spend this artist's budget, and it's not coming out of my pocket so it's cool." I've never done that. I try to get projects in under budget. Because it just helps the artist. And I know that from seeing my own ledger and going, "We did what? We ate how much? We spent — what was done in phone calls in the studio? Are you kidding me? How did that happen?" So for the newer artists I try to be mindful of their budgets.
But again, it's just, try to go in there and make the magic. And you talking about the contact high and the drinks; I mean, people have their rituals and creating that comfortable space — because if you're super comfortable, I think you can communicate in a way without any blocks. If you're not comfortable, then that energy is brought into the room. If you have some exterior conversation with a loved one or something, those things that's brought into the room that can help or it can hurt. So you want to try and just create as much of a neutral environment as possible.
So I've never been stressed in the studio.
KELLEY: Have you ever been stressed, period?
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, man, I'm stressed — I don't know. Yeah. Of course. I want to say I'm stressed now. But, you know.
KELLEY: Yeah. You look real stressed out.
MUHAMMAD: You just try to — I want to live long, so I try to manage that stress. Be like, "Go somewhere. Go somewhere, this trouble that you're upon me."
KELLEY: Did Tribe have any rituals?
MUHAMMAD: Taking the conversation to the lounge. That's mandatory.
KELLEY: Just the three or four of you?
MUHAMMAD: Yeah. I mean, it could be — it didn't have to be. At times it was just that. Like, we'd excuse people to just go hang out in the lounge. But there're times when — I don't know. You gotta find that moment where it's like, "Cool. We going to talk for five minutes here and disrupt the whatever's happening." Cause you're human beings. You're not a machine.
And then there are times where it becomes counterproductive. So it's like — Bob Power would just say, "Guys." Just like that. "Guys." And you knew exactly what was coming. "Guys." With a look that meant, "Get the eff out." Other than that, no, we really didn't have any rituals. It was — we knew what we were coming there for: the playland and the experimental place and a place to just figure things out.
At some point, way later in the game, if you were napping, it probably was not good for you if you were taking a nap.
KELLEY: Why? What would you do?
MUHAMMAD: I don't know. It was just this unspoken — this is the first time I'm speaking about it. But there would be throat clearing or maybe a suggestion when you just kind of open your eyes from the nap, "Hey maybe you want to go to the next room. Maybe you want to go home."
KELLEY: There's always somebody sleeping in the studio. Everywhere.
MUHAMMAD: I know I caught plenty of Zs in the studio. So it was just like, "Oh. Maybe I should find the energy" — and I'm not a coffee drinker. But I understood that later on, that — I guess it depends on who you working with. Cause some people, it doesn't bother them. It's like, yo, everyone's working who knows how many hours — 16, 20 hours --
KELLEY: And on what schedule.
MUHAMMAD: And on what schedule.
KELLEY: What time zone are you really in?
MUHAMMAD: You definitely want people to come to the studio energetic and like, "Yo. We here to get it in." But at the same time, you have to be a human being about it. And it's like, "OK. If you're tired, maybe this isn't the day for you. Maybe you just need a nap." Some people — I'm great. Give me a two-hour nap. I wake up. You get the next 30 hours out of me.
KELLEY: That's ridiculous.
MUHAMMAD: That's the trade-off. "Let me get this nap. And we good to go." Some people it's like, you can't get that nap, and then magic is not realized.
KELLEY: I'm a real big fan of the half hour nap. Really works.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah. I'm a believer in the nap. I don't care what it is. 15 minutes. Five hours. If you know someone's going to come back and come to work.
But yeah, we didn't really have any — come in and have, like, Nag Champa blowing, candles lit up everywhere, and all that business that some people do. No rituals.
KELLEY: Got it. So do you think that Q-Tip gets too much credit for Tribe?
KELLEY: Do you think that you get too little?
KELLEY: Really? I think you get too little. But you've never been super clear.
MUHAMMAD: When Q-Tip asked me to join the group back when I was 15, I was in this other group — don't even remember the name. But with my boy, he went by the name of Gucci. 15. '85. And I sensed that there was something — Q-Tip and I were friends — but I sensed there was something really special about him. And there were a couple of crews in the school trying to do their thing. And at Murry Bergtraum there used to be this talent show, so there were other rappers and DJ crews and — but it was something about Tip and Jarobi that I felt this was — I had not met Phife at the time he had approached me. I saw — Jarobi had beatboxed for Q-Tip in one of these talent shows. And so — I don't know. I just felt there was something really special about him. And he asked me to do a mixtape as my audition for the group. I did and I guess he liked it. And so --
KELLEY: Who has that now?
MUHAMMAD: I don't know.
So from there, he'd come to Brooklyn and my uncle had studio equipment. Uncle Mike. Famous Uncle Mike. And We started carving out what everyone now knows to be A Tribe Called Quest. And when he asked me and I knew, the only thing that I said that I wanted from this was to be able to care of myself, my family, and for the people who cut the checks know who I am. Everyone else, I wasn't in it for that.
So when it comes to credit, I'm not there for credit. If I were, I would be a madman right now, like beating my chest on some look-at-me. But I know what I've done, and I know the things that I've done cannot be quantified. So I'm at peace because I knew when I came into this, it was a matter of the people who cut the checks. Cause those who cut the checks matter to me more than the people arguing about credit and what this person does.
Like, I was just in Winnipeg and having a discussion with DJs about some things that they were trying to get answers to. And it was pertaining to Dilla, and I'm like, "Wow. I had no idea that this is what people really thought." And I'm just like, "Don't you guys got better things to do with yourself and your time than to kind of argue over" — the man, may he rest in peace. He's not here. And the information is so inaccurate it doesn't matter. Like, if I correct it right now, what does that do? His art is his art. It stands. My art's my art.
When I say the people who cut the checks matter, I in no way am diminishing anyone that has any love or regard for A Tribe Called Quest or anything that I've done. I'm not saying that. I'm saying, when I go into a meeting, I am good for the money. That simple. I show up. I get the job done.
Now, there's a lot I don't do, because it comes with that other stuff that disrupts the soul and the spirit. And so making certain type of songs, I could do, but then — I want to love the songs when it's over. And I don't want to look at it and go, "Man, this song really hurt the culture. Yeah, I made 100 million off of it but, man, it killed the culture. Oh, well. Cool. I'm on my yacht. I don't care." And I know a lot of people are good like that, but I'm just not one of those people.
So in terms of credit, I know. The people cut the checks for what I need, it matters. And that's all the credit I need.
KELLEY: Do you have any regrets?
MUHAMMAD: Nah. Not when it comes to anything related to the group. That's not true. I do have one. Only one that I can think of.
I don't remember what year this was, but this is when P. Diddy aka Puff Daddy or Puff, Sean Combs, had booked us to perform for a Howard Homecoming. And the equipment was not right as stipulated by our contract. I think in that particular situation the turntables were brought in from some homeboy who did not do a good job at maintaining his tools like a fine DJ should, and it was not working.
And it pissed me off. Cause my team, we're professional. We come to do the job, and we have these requirements. It's real simple. It's written down. And it wasn't Puffy's fault, but he was the promoter, so whomever he hired to handle that situation didn't handle it to the point that I said, "I'm not performing, and you gotta pay me." And I think it kind of was messed up, the way it happened, because it was — everything for that show was so just unorganized.
KELLEY: Was Puff still in school?
MUHAMMAD: I don't think Puff was still in school. I think Puff was on his way to being Puff, I believe.
And it was just, "Yo. The stuff's not working. In our contract, it should be working. You're wasting our time." The lighting was just — everything was just — I don't know if he was a starting promoter or whatever the deal was, but it just wasn't up to par to the contract. And so I kept to the contract, "Pay me," and we left. And I think we should've done that show.
MUHAMMAD: Why? Because as you learn later on, I think that was — that was a teachable moment for me: it's that it's not always about the condition. And even though the conditions, according to the contract, it's there and you want everyone to live up to their agreement. There are times where you have to let the promoter know like, "Take this as seriously as I take it." And, "I'm here. I'm here. That means a lot. And you're not honoring your agreement. Done. I'm out."
But there are times when all that's down, it's messed up, but the fans don't know that. They don't know what's going on behind closed doors, and they came there to see you. So that was the one moment — and, again, it, for me, it taught me a lot. We had done shows before where a promoter didn't have their stuff together. Thus the song called "Rap Promoter." I mean, that song came — those were real emotions in that song. Matter of fact, Raphael still jokes about the line "Chemical Bank" cause he never heard Chemical Bank and was like, "What's a Chemical Bank?"
So for those New Yorkers who know what a Chemical Bank was, some organization that doesn't exist anymore. But anyway, we had performed in places that were even less equipped than that particular event, but that one, I think I was just really, really upset. And I had pretty much had it up — I was at my limit with dealing with people that didn't have their stuff together.
KELLEY: It happens.
MUHAMMAD: It happens. I regret it, because, you know, there was at that time some admiration for Puffy already, but it was just like, "Dagone. I don't want to do it to you, but maybe this will be the moment for you to get your organization in order." So that's my one regret. Not performing. Because the fans came there. I think Nice & Smooth was on that show. I don't remember who else.
KELLEY: Man. It really is the Mecca.
MUHAMMAD: So that's it.
KELLEY: Well, to me sometimes when you — when you were telling that story, I was thinking a little bit about your position here at NPR and doing something even though — what's the diplomatic way to say this? It's pretty clear that — well, that's not even fair. I don't know that the organization gets what you're giving them. They don't get what you're giving them. But you continue to do this with me. You do more and more. We're like — no signs of slowing down.
KELLEY: Why are you doing this?
MUHAMMAD: Because, first, I have to give credit where credit's due. To Ms. Lisa Salvatore, I said it; it was through that email that really cracked the window of a a-ha moment for me.
KELLEY: OK. So I'll tell the story one more time.
MUHAMMAD: I can't tell the story again.
KELLEY: I'll tell it.
MUHAMMAD: No. Why? Yo. You know what?
MUHAMMAD: Did we do that on Washington Post?
KELLEY: Yeah, we — I don't know if they even ran it. The point is the story is --
MUHAMMAD: We didn't talk about this on Microphone Check ever?
KELLEY: I don't think so.
MUHAMMAD: I feel like we have.
KELLEY: I don't think that we did.
MUHAMMAD: I'ma see who's really down. I'm going to urge some people if they really want to know maybe on some other episode I may have — I'm not going through that again.
KELLEY: Alright. Fine. It's on the Internet. That's fine.
MUHAMMAD: I think maybe — see, if I'ma be a journalist about it, I have to go through the — you know, set it up. And then let the people — but on the artistic note, which I'm sitting in the artist chair today ...
MUHAMMAD: So anyway --
MUHAMMAD: — cracked the window, and it was an a-ha moment of what was missing at NPR in my opinion. And knowing how far hip-hop has come and all of the challenges that has existed from the beginning into how far it is come, but still knowing that there are — there's more work to be done. And realizing that this was a platform to, I think, open up — or give the listener an insider's sort of a view into music.
And early on we discussed maybe talking about samples, for an example, and just how some of the songs — perfect example: I played Sylvia Robinson's [ed. Ali misspoke, he meant Sylvia Striplin] — oh, what's the song called. Something — "Can't Keep Turning Me Away" or something like that. Which Junior M.A.F.I.A. used for "Get Money." And it's just like — it's a break that people by now know, but some people still don't know it. So I just dropped it in my gig in Winnipeg and everybody went in to singing "Get Money," but then when her vocal came in I was just like — that feeling made me feel so good.
So it's that sort of a thing that you and I had talked about, giving a insider's education on hip-hop.
KELLEY: The putting people on feeling.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, putting people on, and seeing how one thing spawns something else that connects and all this. So that was kind of like the early inception that we kind of played around with. But I saw that there was more of a story that's not being told. And as much as there — the personalities, superstars, characters, whatever you want to call them, there's so much information that is known, especially with Twitter, Facebook, TMZ. We know everything about everyone all the time. And at the same time, we still don't know anything about them.
KELLEY: Oh yeah, we have a lot of false information.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah. And seeing that hip-hop still matters and it being from the streets and it being the story of the forgotten people and that there's a huge platform like NPR that's not commercial, that doesn't have any agendas attached to a shareholder or some idea of one individual, whatever, you know, the things that happens in corporations. From a media perspective, to persuade an ideology amongst the people, I know that NPR wasn't that. So knowing that we still have the forgotten people and you have a platform that amplifies and is just a platform to expose, I thought, "Let me roll my sleeves up and still do the work."
And maybe not so from a 19-year-old who's trying to instill some pride in that kid who's labelled as a square because they — well, not even 19. 15-year-old. Who's labelled as a square because they're not piling into the environmental conditions of like, for an example, being in a gang. Or maybe they are in a gang and they feel that there's more to their life, but they don't know how to get to that point. Or to that kid who is told they're not going to be anything but they have a magnificent way of viewing life and putting words together in a colorful way. Or that young lady who is being told constantly she's a hoe or she's a b****, and putting out music that shows how much of a queen she is, how much of a leader she is. I'm not doing that as a 19-year-old, and I don't know how many 40 — god willing will make it to see 45 — are even doing it at that age. But the work that still needs — the work still needs to be done. And so I keep going because I think what we're doing here is good.
And even through the challenges of whether people here know what they have by me being a part of it — and not just me but yourself because you are so driven and have so much passion for this — so whether they know it or not, it matters. It matters in a behind-the-closed-doors — like I was saying to Earl in that interview, that there's certain things that you definitely want to wild out and just get crazy out of frustration, but then that's a behind-the-closed-doors, boardroom kind of conversation. But I think that we're doing a lot of good work.
And another thing that I learned in my musical journey, I had this program on — I don't remember if it started, if it began — it began on XM, and then XM and Sirius came together. And they were not paying their mix show DJs. So it was kind of like, "Well, you get to rock out here on our extraterrestrial radio platform, and you should feel so —" What's the word?
MUHAMMAD: "You should feel so grateful that you have this platform. Therefore, now you can use it, and hopefully it'll catapult other areas of your career. But but but! You can't — you can not promote yourself or your website, because that would be advertising of which our listeners don't pay for. This is not commercial radio." Yeah, you see that look on your face.
KELLEY: It's a look of confusion.
MUHAMMAD: So then you're not paying your mix show DJs and they can't promote themselves, but they can come and work on the plantation and help build up this whatever. So I was in that, and I'm not a dummy. Before I even started working — I use the word "working" there loosely — I'm into stocks and buying stocks, so I used to pay attention to XM stock and Sirius stock. And then when they merged, it was even more brutal. It just helped my conversation for the people who were hustling — and I will say that, they were hustling the mix show DJs.
Like, "Ali, we're going to pay you, but you have to understand for other situations —" and not only are they going to pay me, but what they were offering was such a joke — and was saying to me some of the other — and I love when people do this. "Well, you have this superstar DJ --" I mean, superstar DJs, who still now probably — I'd like to think by now that they stayed in it enough that they're getting paid now. But I know they were not getting paid, and I'm talking like --
KELLEY: Actually paid.
MUHAMMAD: No, I'm talking about the people who we hold up as, like, legendary in the music business, especially up at that point in time, who's still there. So they weren't really getting paid the way they were supposed to get paid. And so — I know I'm winded about everything but this is really — it means a lot to me, so bear with me. And so they were saying, "Well, this person is OK with it. And this person is OK with it. So why are you being a problem?" And I'm like, "Because you pay Oprah Winfrey $100 million. I don't know what you pay Bruce Springsteen. Your stock at the time --" I don't know, was like three something. I'm like — and this is at the time of — what did we just go through? — a recession. I'm like, "GM is about to fold. You get new subscribers every time a new car goes out for whatever your arrangement is with the car manufacturers. How many of those are getting — so how many subscribers, new subscribers, do you --" Like, this is my level of conversation with these people.
And I'm like, "So what are you saying to me? I'm clear on where the numbers fall. So you pay Oprah 100 milli. Howard Stern 100 milli. Bruce Springsteen has his own channel. I don't know what you pay him. We on this hip-hop side of things aren't getting anything. And I'm sure the subscriber-ship is really good. And you're not paying anyone. You don't see a problem with that?" They couldn't say anything to me.
So I won't forget — it was the last conference call that I was on, and Afrika Bambaataa was on there. And I was listening to Bam and just knowing that he was on there. And I asked myself the question of — I knew then I wanted to leave. I was like, "I'm not messing with them anymore." And I demanded that they pay the mix show DJs, and they do better. Not by me, cause I didn't care; I was OK. You know, I'm OK with the money I make from my records. But just the principle. It was even like, "Cool. You can take a huge lump of a salary that you would pay me and pay the mix show DJs. I'm open to that." But there was nothing they were paying me. And they're not paying these guys.
So I said, "If Bambaataa's going to be here, he's a pioneer of hip-hop. How you not going to stick around?" And I was like, "Cause, man, they getting over on us. And I can't do it." So I walked away from that. I felt great about walking away from that. And seeing what XM, excuse me, SiriusXM, has turned into now. I don't know how much has changed. I know that they're — where they're still trading to this day. I think they're still in the $3, $2-3 range. I know it doesn't mean anything, but to them it means something. And these satellites cost billions of dollars to put up in there and they giving everybody else $100 million, but they not taking care of us?
So anyway, I digress to say the work needs to be done. And even though there are challenges here, I believe that — I was just saying this to DJ Flipout — it's not really always about — cause he was asking me the same thing about getting credit and being paid this. And I was like, "Sometimes it's not about just that. It does matter in that moment and frame of time. But it's a matter of what you do in that moment and frame of time that will make the difference later on, and that later on might not be in your lifetime." I remember Chef Roy Choi, who — a very popular chef and a good friend of mine — had even said that, even in his making of his food and the process and the things that he's doing to, in a sense, give good food away to people, hopefully what he does in this moment will matter 100 years from now, maybe not necessarily now. And I view my life the same way.
So what we do here at Microphone Check I hope will be the opening to something that will be greater. So that when someone who has had the sort of career that I've had walk through the door, that those who are the decision makers and the ones cutting the checks will know it, and treat it accordingly.
But also I hope that even through this level that the listener will understand what moves an artist like an Earl Sweatshirt, what moves an artist like an Amber London. How an E-40 can talk about how he helped, through his relationship with his uncle and his knowledge and experience, grow two empires from Master P, from his own.
Hopefully those little seeds will be enough that that 14-year-old or 15-year-old — even a parent right now: you're 25 and you may have a child when you're 29, 31. And you're a fan of hip-hop and you're going to whatever university, but you understand — you identify with the plight of the forgotten people. That they will be the carrier of the information that's going to help their child turn something around in humanity. Cause it is bigger than hip-hop. That's it.
KELLEY: Mm-hmm. I think there's — I mean, I think that we do this for the same reasons. I don't know that you know how much you've given me, given me a space to figure this out, to make something. And to make something — because of just logistical, structural, whatever, whatever — away from everybody else. There are negative reasons that that has happened, but it has happened. And we have, basically, privacy. And to not make anything according to traditional metrics, but also comparisons across the industry. And I feel that we are shielded in some ways from artists' criticism. I don't feel that we've given anybody anything to feel any type of way about. Maybe that's our next chapter. But, no.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, we might have to rock the boat a little bit. I've never been good at getting on people's nerves, and from the little quotes I read it's like, "You're not doing enough in your life if you're not making someone angry." And I'm like, "Man. But my life — I seem to help people get somewhere, so am I not? Should I be more aggressive?" That's the way my inside voice sounds. "But, but." I'm sorry. What were you saying though?
MUHAMMAD: Yeah. Maybe we should get some people angry, and then people will pay attention to us.
KELLEY: I mean — I want to look at the questions from the Twitter or whatever. But I think we sort of touched on most of them.
MUHAMMAD: Got some tweets.
KELLEY: Yeah, we did.
MUHAMMAD: Some tweets I've not answered.
KELLEY: Nah, I feel like we did actually. I mean, people want you to talk about ISIS, but I'm not going to ask you about ISIS. So there.
MUHAMMAD: I could talk about it if you want.
KELLEY: I don't care. I guess that's it. I mean, what I mean when I talk about what you've given me, it's permission to care about the things that I care about in a public way. Not that — well, I was going to say not that I need it --
MUHAMMAD: That's what I was thinking. I was like, "Who am I?"
KELLEY: Except that I'm not a musician. And I'm a little white girl from the suburbs. Kind of. That's another story. And I have figured out a way to make enough money that I'm comfortable, and part of that is cause my parents paid for college, so I don't have that debt.
But I think that that needing permission, or feeling like you need permission, is a thing that goes past the white listenership of black music or white consumers of black culture and to everybody who is baseline insecure and not sure if they can handle any type of responsibility, but needs to act now. Needs to get up everyday and try harder.
To me, that's what hip-hop does. That almost everything of what is happening within it — subtext, context, the actual words and sounds — it is there for you no matter who you are. And then people come in and put up all these different roadblocks, so that they can't access that information. And what I hope that we can do with the NPR platform, the public radio stations, is to just say, "No. Here." But, now, also, "Time to go. Let's f****** go." I don't really understand what everybody's waiting for.
MUHAMMAD: Oooh. Well, yeah. I certainly don't need to give you permission to do anything. I ride with you, Frannie, because you are the people, you of the people. And you struggle with the people; you fight for the people. You're a voice for the people. As am I.
And just by what you said: "Time to act right now." That sense of urgency is not inside of everyone. As you said before, people just waiting for someone else to get up and do something. But you're not cut like that. You're not cut from that. And so I ride with you because I understand what that feels like, and I'm happy that we're on this journey together.
Don't quite know what will come of it, but I don't really think about it. You go hard. I go hard. And as long as we stay true to ourselves and what we're doing, then I think things will be as they're meant to be.
MUHAMMAD: I mean, it is frustrating, and you want more action. Absolutely. More resources. But you don't want to run at a pace that you passing people, and then they can't keep up. So --
KELLEY: I just don't want — it feels like something really bad has to happen for people to act, and I don't want the bad thing to happen.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah. That's life, though. That is — like now you really on some metaphysical kind of — that's life. And sometimes that is exactly what it takes to wake people up and to bring people together.
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