Describing what an "underground" artist is in 2015 feels like more of a genre indicator than whether or not that artist has any corporate ties. Underground artists headline major festivals now and perform on network television late night talk shows. It's rare to find artists who choose not to align themselves with some sort of major backing. One artist that does come to mind is Baltimore's Labtekwon -- an over-twenty-year veteran in the rap game who chooses to remain free of pressure to please the masses. Over the span of his career, he's released thirty albums, all of which take on different musical identities; He's Sun Ra-like in his relentless outpouring of substantial material. When I first stumbled across his work a few years ago, it was a task to get into it. I came up on songs like "The Truth About Population Control", which taught me a great deal but wasn't delivered in a way I was used to. I had to be warmed up to it.
At the end of last year, we happened to be speaking on the same panel in Baltimore (The Exchange) which explored reasons why Baltimore's rap scene was still so divided. From that, I started to appreciate Labtekwon's music much more and recently got a chance to pick his brain as we strolled through Downtown Baltimore:
With your work, you often challenge what the general concept of rap is by using it as a tool for a broader agenda rather than to just make quality music. Do you see rap, at this point and in its 40 year existence, as the best way a person of color can get a point across?
Labtekwon: My music is an element of Hip Hop culture and Hip Hop culture is actually a means to bring forth knowledge, wisdom, understanding, freedom, justice and equality to all the human families of the planet Earth. As an EMCEE, my focus is on the art of Emceeing and the evolution of the craft of Emceeing. As a Black man with a divine purpose, everything in my life connects to my purpose. So my art is a reflection of my mind and spirit. A glass can only spill what it's filled with. I get my point across in rap, books, lectures in the academy, scholarly research, mentoring, community action and daily life. Art is whatever the artist makes it to be and however the patron of that art interprets it. I mastered rhyming when I was 16, but I am constantly growing as a man of substance. I am a master of my art form, and I am also a master of my own divine purpose. Form follows function.
I'm gonna be real with you, when I first came across your music about five years ago, I didn't appreciate it enough to sit with it. And not because of its content but more because of your delivery. Do you run into a disconnect with listeners on a regular basis? Does it even matter to you?
I make music for those who love the art of Emceeing and I have been blessed to maintain an audience without trying to please casual listeners. I keep it a trillion always: as an Emcee my main concern is advancing the art of Emceeing. I represent the vanguard of Hip Hop culture and to be honest: everybody isn't really interested in Hip Hop culture. It's a way of life for those of us who have chosen Hip Hop culture, whether it's Graf artists, deejays, dancers, Emcees, or those that build community. My friends that do Graf art in BMoor often share a similar view about how the layman may enjoy a piece in Graffiti Alley, but those layman don't truly know what they are looking at. But for those of us committed to the culture of Hip Hop and it's art forms: we seek to please those WITHIN the culture, rather than those outside of the culture. I am not an entertainer: I am a practitioner of the art of Emceeing. It's just like a saxophonist or pianist: some folks like a little sax and piano here and there, but they aren't truly trying to listen to Bird and Monk. I always make the metaphor of food and art: McDonald's has a large consumer base, and most of those folks who frequent McDonald's don't really care about gourmet cuisine. In terms of what I do as an artist, most folks only know McDonald's value meals: my art is gourmet vegan cuisine. To each his own.
Following and researching your work, you give an alternate perception of what I'd normally think of what a rapper, or really any artist should do to pursue a career. My idea of the come-up is feeding the street, digitally establishing yourself, doing shows and building a platform to release increasingly recognized work. But I'd be stupid to not acknowledge that the process I just listed is something I've been programmed to believe. I view your work as more, though. It's almost an oral history; a collection of essential teachings. Your work has always felt more rooted in community-building to me. Can you speak to that? Like, how many of us are pursuing success that is genuine to our being and purpose?
Most folks don't truly understand the difference between art, entertainment and the art/music business. I maintain my vocation as an Emcee at the vanguard of Hip Hop culture, regardless of the themes I cover in my work. But I am not trying to be a "reality star" and I am not in the business of YouTube views or trying to give away free music. I sell products that uplift the minds and souls of those who support through their patronage.
In terms of the business of music and art; my classic vinyl had sold from from anywhere from $100 to $500 a 12 inch. I have classic CDs that have sold for $400. I make art and quality art appreciates with value. For those who appreciate the art of emceeing, I always have a market for my products. I collect sneakers and I always know when a new pair of Foamposites will be released, but Nike never does commercials or ad campaigns for Foamposites. Yet Foamposites always sell and they appreciate with value when they resell on EBay. My musical products are like Foamposites. But my craft isn't monolithic, I do many different things and according to each project the content and styles vary. The last few years I chose to emphasize substance based content and 21st century style. I am an Emcee and every album I make is more like a novel or a movie.
You've been promoting the B.O.P (Black On Purpose) for the past few months. It leaves a lot of room for interpretation so what was your vision when establishing it?
Well, it's a 25 song double album...The album title is an abstract, "(B.O.P.) The Theology of Timing: Tehuti and the Het Heru Cult" is really explaining the theme of the album and the styles on the album.
"(B.O.P.)" is an acronym and a double entendre; Black On Purpose speaks to the paradigm of Black Consciousness developed over the last 200 years by David Walker, William Blyden, Marcus Garvey, The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Franz Fanon and Steven Bantu Biko. I cover themes as it relates to asserting Blackness as a willful decision, rather than a random circumstance.
(B.O.P) also refers to the evolution of Jazz known as "Bop" or "Bebop", which emphasized deconstructed melodies and improvisation, this is a focal point of many of the styles of my delivery on this album as well. The flows I use are designed to show the evolution of Emceeing beyond the redundant formats we used in the 80s that rappers are stuck doing in 2015.
The "The Theology of Timing" portion of the title is a double entendres as well. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad did a series of speeches called "The Theology of Time: knowing the time and what must be done." For me, knowing the time and what must be done in that time is what separates a child from an adult. "The Theology of Timing" in the artistic context represents my perspective of rhythm as a sacred science and how melody and tone convey and accentuate rhythm. This album ranges in tempo from 80bpm to 270 bpm and time signatures that range from 4/4, 6/8 or even 7/12. I show what the art of Emceeing looks like in 2015 and timing is central to that purpose.
The "Tehuti and the Het Heru Cult" portion of the title explains my motivation for doing the album. Tehuti is the Scribe of the Ntr (Gods) from the pantheon of deities in the Nile Valley civilization of Kemet. Tehuti is the founder of language and the sciences, and he is married to MAAT: who is the embodiment of truth and justice. As an Emcee, I am a high priest in the order of Tehuti; with language and tone as my tool. I am also married to truth and justice in my craft.
In the Nile Valley civilization of Kemet; Het Heru is the mother of the omniverse and the source of all material existence. Het Heru is also the patron of music, art, dance and joy. She is the Supreme Black wombman.
My album is designed to touch the souls of Black folks thru the art of Emceeing and also to honor and stimulate the Black wombman through rhythm, tone and language.
What musical direction did you challenge yourself to go in with the project?
Mainly what I sought to do was channel Fela Kuti, Charlie Parker and Al Green through the art of Emceeing.
I wanna talk about my favorite song on the project, "Time Check". You question the encouragement of black youths protesting because of the prison industrial system's power at this point. So is your issue exclusively with those who push people to protest or is it also with those who choose to protest? I ask that because most people marching in the streets are coming from a good place, in my experiences. And even though it may not make a significant dent in white supremacy, it can provoke those affected by it to somehow involve themselves in liberation. Do you see value in that?
It's 2015 and those who don't learn from the past are doomed to fail in the present. A lot of folks are just regurgitating the past because they didn't learn anything from the past. It's like repeating 10th grade for 50 years. Folks don't use rotary phones anymore because they respect the evolution of technology; I am saying that we need to respect the evolution of the Black Human Rights Movement in real time.
If you aren't willing to transform in this larger rites of passage: you will face the fate of the dinosaurs. Liberation is not an event: it is a process that begins with a state of mind. Liberation is the Theology of Time: we must know the time and what must be done in that time.
"The American ideal of racial progress is based on by how fast I become white," is a quote by James Baldwin that you recited during "Time Check". I read Paulo Friere's Pedagogy Of The Oppressed a few months back and it spent a great deal on our idea of progression, in that, the white man's success is what is base ours on. Where do you see that being exercised most in music right now?
Some people just want to get rich and be famous, and they see entertainment as a means to that end. The harsh reality of America/capitalism/white supremacy is that you most likely won't be rich and famous as an entertainer unless white folks say so.
For an artist such as myself: I am FREE from having to please anyone beyond the Creator, so my art is liberated/liberating and my inner peace is priceless. I Self Lord And Master, and anything less than that is a personal hell. I choose heaven on Earth and I seek that for my people and all the Human families as well.
You always speak on how we have a skewed view of progression. You think the world is actually more stagnant than people realize?
Well, the "world" is a construct of the human mind, so there are many versions of the "world." In terms of the world that has been created by capitalism/white supremacy: everything is moving smoothly according to the plan. But as far as the world for Black folks and the human family as a whole: there is definitely a state of stagnancy and even regression. I see folks trying to make an analysis of the current problems faced by non-white people, and the perspectives aren't even as informed and cohesive as what brothers like David Walker had manifest in 1826 in his work titled "The Appeal." Folks have made entertainers and corporate propaganda/mass media the foundation of their world views and in doing so, even the folks that seek to "change the world" are only sustaining the world of capitalism/white supremacy with reactionary behavior and shallow ideologies. Folks have social media and more convenient technology, but it's like Jalal Mansur Nuriddin said: "new hairdo: same mind."
We make fools famous and we run from sages. So there is less psychological evolution in 2015 than there was in 1975. Of course this is all by design by those who rule this world of capitalism/white supremacy. There are open enemies of TRUE knowledge, wisdom, understanding, freedom, justice and equality; and those people are functioning to diminish the progress that was gained from 1865 to 1965, which in fact was moderate progress in reality.
Combine that with the fact that the best minds of our people are marginalized, while the best minds of the oppressors are given complete autonomy and you have a state of stagnancy in the collective of non-white people and the human family as a whole. My version of the 21st century doesn't include the SAMO shit from the 19th and 20th century: eating meat, smoking, assimilation, materialism, misinformation, etc... We should be evolved mentally, spiritually and physically based on every step of real problem progress we have already made as a collective and this progress will be evidenced in our daily habits and how we raise our children.
You told me that you're not into traveling that much. Why? Isn't that essential to spreading your message?
I am a recording artist and a filmmaker, so my art reaches people without me being in the same room with them. I have released over 30 albums and over 100 short films, documentaries and music videos and that has allowed me to reach people globally much faster than I could ever physically travel. This type of work offers posterity and a way for people to let what I do sink in more than a 30 minute concert. I have written two books in the last 3 years, which is another way for me to create a legacy that will last for generations and reach more people with my divine purpose. Also, I was naive growing up in BMoor because I thought that my experience with rap outside of my city would be similar to BMoor, but once I did my first 28 city North American tour, I realized how racist America is and it turned me off to touring. Also, I hate sausage parties. A lot of the underground Hip Hop circuit is basically dudes standing around looking at the stage while you perform; that is corny to me. I like seeing females balance out the males, because that's the culture I grew up in. The goal was always to touch the Black woman's soul with the musical craft; hence my album has the subtitle "Tehuti and the Het Heru Cult." For me, art is really just a tribute to the creative power of the womb, which is the highest form of creation for all human beings. So I need to rock stages where sisters can bear witness. At this point I'm only interested in the east coast and HBCUs, I will only travel beyond that for VERY LARGE sums of money, I'm not pressed at all to travel.
Earlier you mentioned that you learned about people actually buying melanin which is fucking crazy. What was your reaction when you first found out?
First thing I thought was "SAMO shit"; first they sold Black people now they just wanna sell the Black from our people....Yeah man, melanin is on the market for about $350 an ounce. Melanin is a valuable chemical in the epidermis and neurologically, so I wasn't surprised they were selling it. But my concern was where are they really getting it from?
Like I said: they ain't satisfied with stealing our Black bodies and grafting our Black souls. Now they just want the Black out of us completely.
Who are some of your favorite new artists in Baltimore? Are they inspiring you?
I dig Only and his new album "Lapis Necklace" on Ankh Ba Records; he has the best freshmen Hip Hop album of the 21st century hands down. Elon is the best singer I have heard in this decade, he is a brilliant musician and I am very excited to work with him on his 1st album release coming out on Ankh Ba Records in 2016. I would say I am inspired by divine purpose 24/7, so I don't really get personal inspiration from other artists. I'm deep in my own journey, so it's more internal for me. But because I am internally inspired; I have a motivation to help others develop their own internal inspiration and divine purpose. My father Doc Soul Stirrer mentored many musicians here in Baltimore during the 50's and 60's, so I am tuned with his legacy of mentoring and the rites of passage.
How has the city changed since your childhood (like all the spots you were telling us about, etc) and do you think it's headed in the right direction?
BMoor has always been dope/wack and I think that's true now, but just in different ways. The thing I miss the most is after hours parties that end at 6-7 AM. I also miss events where people actually came to LISTEN to music and dance, now it's more of an open mic/show culture. People don't know how to act if they ain't on a stage, I miss the jams where we would sweat out our clothes, dancing and learning new music from DJ's that really educated listeners with new musical experiences and classic music equally.
Ironically, I think BMoor is safer than it was when I was younger, but now there are more out-of-towners trying to front like they run shit culturally. So there are trade offs, mostly because of gentrification. I think the main problems of poverty, weak city government and genocide are still the same, but opportunity for investment and development have increased. It's bitter sweet like its always been.
Follow Labtekwon on Twitter, @Labtekwon, and listen to B.O.P The Theology of Timing: Tehuti and the Het Heru Cult