Happy Birthday. Any big plans for the day?
Yeah. Recovering. I got into a car accident last night. It was pretty crazy. I’m just going to chill today and probably celebrate tomorrow.
Yeah. (laughs) I’m writing my “Through the Wire” song right now. I’m going to be all right. It was a cabdriver. Cabs are crazy out here. I learned to drive out in L.A. but I’m from New York. It’s crazy. I’m cool. No big plans. I had plans to go bowling, that was it.
Speaking of “Through the Wire”, you produced “Good Night” for Kanye West’s Graduation (“Good Night appeared on the international version). What was that like for you?
Beautiful. I also had a record called “Lullaby” with Mos Def. I wrote it and produced it. Kanye loved it. I knew Kanye from before. I ran into Kanye a bunch of times and Kanye was like, ‘Man, I love the record and I want to see if I can help you with the record.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s rock and roll!’ He made it even bigger. He was like, ‘I gotta put that on this album.’ That was a good experience. He taught me a lot. He’s really a genius in his own way.
Every MC and producer out there would love to make an appearance on an album as big as Graduation. Did you ever think you could make it on Graduation?
It was actually on the original album version. When they leaked the credits on the album, it was the last song on the album. It was going to be on the U.S. album because the first song is “Good Morning”. It makes sense. It was only on the international version. I thought it was good to have because it was about him. It was specifically about his choices but it was really about how he felt. It was really an emotional song. My version was more about hip-hop. I went on and said, “To Proof, 2Pac and you don’t stop/There’s only one Scott La Rock/And ya don’t stop.” I was talking about people who died and he was talking about his grandparents and it just so happened that his mom passed away. It means that much more, I feel.
That’s cool. Mos Def appears on “Good Night” as well. It sounds as though you and Mos have a great chemistry on tracks.
Mos is my acting coach. Well, not really my acting coach but he’s been my big brother for the longest. He helped me out a lot on Def Poetry. Big Muhammad actually introduced us six-seven years ago. He’s been my big brother. My big brother was Talib’s brother. I think I’m going to do a song like that. (laughs)
What’s it like recording with Mos Def?
Mos is actually ill in the studio. He’s another renaissance-genius kind of a person. He can be 30 seconds or he can be real meticulous about stuff. I don’t know. That process wasn’t that long on “Lullaby”. He just sang a lullaby. It all depends. I’ve been in the studio plenty of times. It depends what kind of a mood he’s in. Sometimes he’ll produce and sometimes he’ll get on the drums and start playing. Mos is an artist. That’s why he records albums every five years or so. He definitely takes his time in the studio and he’s definitely someone you can learn from. He’s definitely underrated and I think people should give him more of his just due. Lyrically, he’s one of the greatest and more people should speak on it. Really, who can make a Mos Def record? He can make that record, but who else can with his style? There’s only one way about it. There’s one Mos Def.
Are you producing on Mos Def’s new album?
I think he’s like four or five songs in. I’m not really sure where he’s at with that album. I’ve been working with dead prez and writing some songs with Goapele. I did some beats with M1. I’m trying to get on that new dead prez album which should be crazy. I’ve been working with Q-Tip and working on my project. It’s been hard. I’m not a producer-producer. I can get behind the MP, but I’m more of a Puff Daddy where I’m like, ‘I like this sound. Let’s go with that.’ I want to be there for the arranging of it, but I won’t be there all day. I’m a writer and I’ve been a poet since I was 15. I’m more into writing and rapping than producing.
You’re working on a hip-hop album, have been on the Def Poetry tour and acted in ATL. Is there anything you can’t do?
I don’t see any one facet. When you get to know me, you’ll see that I’m all over the place. It’s only right that I project that to my audience.
You just released “Just Give Me the Word” where you start off by asking if the people really know about you. Do you feel as though you’re still under the radar?
Yeah. No one knows about me. There’s a lot of people who don’t know. Everyone thinks I’m Brooklyn from ATL, which I am. That was my character. I think it was so easy to go into acting because I used to be on the stage with poetry. There’s no beat. It’s just you and the stage. And I feel in poetry, you get to see who the person is. I’m writing my heart. In hip-hop, we get covered and we get helped by the beat and we get helped by the hook and we get helped by the features on the record. I feel that a lot of people don’t know that this is what I do and this is what I am. That’s why I said, “To get back to the schools/Damn homies can’t teach/Damn writers can’t read/Cheap lighters ain’t heat/How they gonna warm me up/How they gonna start me up/If you’re a Honda/I’m a fully-loaded armor truck.” I’m heavier than a lot of people think I am and now’s my time to show people that.
How does your approach to lyrics change from spoken word to hip-hop?
I’m gonna be honest with you. I think Pun was the most influential person in my life. He’s a part of our family. I grew up watching his rise. I grew up and I lived through that and the promotion of the album. He taught me how to listen to the beat and listen to the music and with spoken word, I’m listening to the rhythm of my words and my subject. I think sometimes as rappers, they want to project what they’re trying to say in their punchlines and I think with me, listening to the beat, that’s how I work. People ask me to bust a freestyle and I go in a tangent of raps because everything I write is for the song and what the beat told me. I think that’s why it became so easy for me to just jump on any beat, so when we release other songs and you hear other songs, you’re going to say, “Al Be was perfect for that beat.”
Even if it’s a Just Blaze or a Kanye beat and I can’t hear it and I can’t have a conversation with it, then I’m not going to get on that beat. A lot of people will have that problem and they’ll just jump on anything. That’s what I do with my music. I speak with the beat. It’s almost like a conversation and the world is just eavesdropping on my conversation with the beat.
Big Pun also had that talent where he could do anything over a beat. What was it like hanging out with Pun?
It was the most craziest thing ever. First of all, you couldn’t just go to sleep around him ever. If you went to sleep because you were tired and exhausted and he woke up before you, there would be an ice cold bucket of water in your face like, ‘Blaow!’ He was the type of person that would snap on his mom. He was the type of person where he was just amazing. He was like a big kid. He was able to enjoy every day of his life.
That’s one person where when he passed, it was hard because it’s hard not to hear him and it’s hard not to hear his voice and there’s that separation. But every day, he celebrated his life, wherever he was. He was that type of person where he was just amazing.
The funny thing is he never went to high school. He dropped out of junior high school. And you would never guess that listening to his music. But he used to read to us encyclopedias. The man was a genius. The more I come in this game, I want to push his story as much as I can because he was a genius. He didn’t start rapping until he was 19 years-old. He was a boxer and he started rapping at 19 and became famous in five years. His come-up was amazing. He was just the most amazing person you could meet because he showed love to everyone and he showed love to this day and I thank God that he was alive. It was one of the best things I could have in my life to see him as a young man.
That’s dope. From listening to your music, you spit with a confidence that’s rare in up-and-coming artists.
Confidence is not always in what you say but in how you say it, right? Yeah. That’s basically that in a nutshell. I was always taught that music is music. It’s not a job. I think you can hear when it becomes a job and on the radio when it becomes like, ‘Okay, I need to make this single. Get that R&B singer that’s hot right now and put her in the booth and I’m going to do these three verses.’
You know when it’s a job and it’s not a job to me. I don’t need it to breathe. It’s not even about making it big. There’s a million things I could do to put food on my family’s plate. I’ll invent something like the next bike or something. This is not the only way I can do it.
If we sat here and we went over pouring cereal, it becomes easy to you because you’ve done it your whole life, since you were a kid. If we look at it like this is what you do and this is what you are, when they tell me to perform, I can. I’m able to be at my excellence because I’m just being. I think that’s the movement. This is who we are. This is why my new CD is called Future because tomorrow is tomorrow. I’m going to live in the future. This is the future right here. I’m just being. There’s no two ways about it. You’re not going to get anything different. You’re not going to be like, ‘I missed that first album when he was like this and now he’s like that.’ You’re not going to get that. I’m just being me. That’s what’s missing in the game. I hate to be cliché like that, but I got a lot of records that speak on relationships because I’m always going through something in a relationship. I got a song called “I Love You (But I’d Love You More If We Weren’t Together)”. This album is just me being and how can I affect everyone else’s being? It’s about music. They call it self-esteem for a reason. It’s you. I’m cool with it. I’m pretty confident in me and the mic.
How’s your debut album Walkman coming?
Walkman is amazing. Right now we’re dropping this CD called The Future. It has a freestyle with The Game and I have amazing records on there. I’m introducing my group Saks Fif. It’s a little prelude to Walkman. Walkman is just something out of this world. We got Goapele on there. I did a song called “Weary” that Stevie Wonder got on. Walkman is so musical.
I got a song called “My People” that’s featuring a whole bunch of the old-school poets like the Last Poets. It’s one of those records where you’re going to go like, ‘Oh, man! I love the feeling of it.’ You’ll smile when you hear this album because it’s funny and it’s colorful and it’s relaxed and it’s confident.
Walkman has been an amazing project to make. I’m excited for you guys to listen to it because I listen to it every day. And the Future CD that’s coming out, it’s amazing because it’s everything that I’ve done in the last two years that I wanted to say but couldn’t say because it wasn’t fitting with Walkman. Walkman, musically, sonically, is so beautiful and Future is just so raw. I want to send you a copy as soon as we’re done with the artwork. It’s just so raw. I can’t wait for that to come out. Some songs on Future are on Walkman.
What was it like recording with Stevie Wonder?
It was a crazy situation. Jared Lee, who is an amazing producer, he has produced a lot of my album. It’s actually him and Khao, who works with T.I. Khao is like my big brother. He’s the executive producer of the album. Jared Lee produces for Macy Gray. Macy Gray was getting on a song and it was, like, 2:00 in the morning. She initially wanted Elton John on the record and we were like, ‘Come on, get out of here. You’re not going to call Elton John up!’ She calls Elton John up and he was out of town. She said she would get Stevie! We were bugging. Sure enough, Stevie walked through the door, started playing the keys and jumped on it. It’s a work in progress because he has to come back. I’m taking my time with Walkman. It’s a process. It’s a beautiful thing.
I’m able to do a lot of things that other people aren’t able to do. I’m blessed that Q-Tip can call me up and tell me what he thinks of my record and I’m blessed to have people around me like that. I’m maximizing that. I show up though. If you get on a track with me, let’s see what happens. M1 is on “You Can Get It” and we just went in on it. I’m real fortunate to have a lot of blessings in my life like that.
What do you think got you in the position you’re in?
I think you can’t be scared of life and you can’t be afraid of death. I think it was no fear that got me here. In doing ATL, I had to jump on the plane to audition. I’ve known Chris Robinson since I was 15. He sort of rediscovered me at Def Poetry and he said he had this project that would be perfect for me. I still had to jump on that plane. Talented people expect things too much. You have to go forward and you have to grind. I was on the train doing poetry, like, ‘Listen to this new poem I got.’ New York City is one of the roughest crowds! (laughs) Especially in rush hour! If I can do that, I think I can do anything.
The Bronx is one of my biggest motivators. It’s such a desolate place. This is what drove me. There’s nothing but bricks and walls. It’s all buildings. There’s not a lot of homes in the Bronx and there’s no grass. That’s why in “You Can Get It” I said, “It’s like the ground don’t give a fuck.” It’s just a desolate place and we made hip-hop out of that. So I think anything beautiful can be created in an ugly moment and I look at it like that. Once I feel that I’m stuck, I start pushing hard and we’ll see what happens. We’ll see what happens.
How will Walkman come out once it’s finished?
Robot is the Future. Robot. Chris Robinson has a film company called Robot Films and he also has a clothing company called Robot. We’re looking to team up together for this joint for our label called Robot Sound Company. It’s very reminiscent of a friend he lost, a cousin. He initially started the label. He’s actually in the movie ATL. He passed away right after the movie was done. So Chris let it go for awhile. And it’s always been my dream to work with Chris because he gave me my first job twice, as a kid and in ATL. We’re going to put it out ourselves.
Visually, he’s a genius. What he does with the camera is beautiful. And everything that I do with my songs is visual because everything means something to the song. So we might drop a video to every song. What’s going to stop us but us? And movies. So we’re coming for movies and we’re coming for music videos. It’s only right. We’re trying to do a movie with my group Saks Fif like Grease. So out of nowhere with our characters we bust into songs so you can see how it’s played out.
I believe the future of music is visual. I believe radio is done. From what I’ve been hearing, everybody is pretty upset with the radio. It’s a new wave. Everybody wants to see something. Show me something. Show me what you got. That’s what we’re going to do. Robot is the Future in ’08.
Where are you trying to take your acting career?
I want to take roles that I believe in. ATL is a good movie. To some extent, nobody dies. It’s not some cool nigga shit. It’s not some shit that you can’t be proud of and you can’t watch with your kids and you can’t watch with your family. To some degree, you get to see a side of Black people that you don’t get to see and I want to make those types of films as much as I can. You can walk out of the movie and say that it was worth it and you were able to take something home from it because it resonated with you.
Belly is a great movie, but how many of us are walking into the club with people getting shot? Not too many people are doing that. But like in ATL, I have an uncle who put his name on the cereal box. It’s very real, just like my music. My movie selection is just like my music selection. It’s all art, right?
How did you get down with dead prez and People’s Army?
M1 has been just as much of an influence as Mos Def. He’s been in my day-to-day. When I get time with M1, that’s beautiful. But he’s been mostly in my day-to-day. He’s been the type of dude I can call on the phone. He’s like, ‘Relax!’ He’s the type of person where it’s always been family. We always wanted to make a song together and we did and we loved it. We’ve been rocking together for three or four years. He plans on taking me to Africa on tour with him this year.
And you know what the craziest thing is? On Big Pun’s album, they did an interlude that I wanted to remake and they produced it! It was “The Rain”. They produced that. It was right. It felt right. It just felt right to be around them. And we share some of the same values of wanting freedom and wanting a better understanding of who we are as a people so we can get to a different place, because this is bullshit, right, to some extent?
There’s some people who have never left the Bronx, ever! They say it’s too dangerous to go to Brooklyn because they’ll get shot. We’re living in a state of emergency and a state of fear. Everybody’s so scared to lose their jobs and this is stuff that never comes out in the records because it’s too vulnerable. They’re too scared. You’re fearing your life and you’re living with your back against the wall. I come from that slum and he heard that and he embraced that and he taught me how to harness that and to be a poet with it so that people would not be scared anymore and so that they could have some confidence and they could live.
What’s the next move for Al Be?
The next move is right now is Future. It’s the Future CD. I want everybody to get a chance to hear that. And Robot. Everything we do with Robot. Robot is the Future. We also got a documentary, Spit, that we did on spoken word and poetry. Robot is the Future, so watch out.
What do you want to say to everybody?
Oh, man, Robot is the Future! That’s it, right there, in a nutshell. We’re going to show you something amazing in these upcoming years. And I do want to say to the young rappers out there, it starts with you. If you really want to change something, move your pen and change something. But if you want things to stay the same, then be like everyone else.