Your new album Ali’Yah is out and the title means “to ascend” in Hebrew. How do you try to apply that concept to your daily life?
It is who I am as a person and Judaism is my faith so it’s all wired in to who I am as a person and faith-wise, at least, and also, it’s what I do. I’m ascending. And the reason why I named it that it’s also used when someone migrates home. What I likened my album to was making Ali’Yah and ascending to a holy place and putting forth good music and expression in songs. That’s where I got the whole idea from.
Did you accomplish what you wanted to on Ali’Yah?
Absolutely. I was able to really sit down. I wanted the record label to be happy and it can be played anywhere by anybody. I didn’t want to get too spiritual on it because I wanted it to be simple and straight to the point because that’s the kind of guy I am. Sometimes it’s unnecessary to be weaving around and saying extra bars. I’m showing some lyrical ability but I also want points to be made and I want it to hit home for people and I think I was able to accomplish that with this record.
What kind of conversations do you want Ali’Yah to inspire with people after they hear the record?
I want it to spark conversations of community and unity. Especially where I’m at, there’s a lot of death going on within the community and with really, really young kids. And they’re dying and it’s hard because I’m in the middle of it. I work with the youth and I’m seeing this happen over and over again. My sister was 13 when she was shot in her leg at a party and her friend was shot in the head. It’s hard because it hits home. I think if we can get people to start looking at stuff like that, we’re responsible for our community and we need to be a filter for our community. I’m talking about the adults and the media, for that matter. We need to start thinking about the way we’re raising our children and what we’re promoting. If this is a conversation in barber shops and other places, then I think I’ve accomplished what I wanted to.
How does your faith and work within the community affect the music you make?
It’s all wired in. I just did an interview the other day and I finally got to perform my songs accapella and then after I did an accapella, people were saying they didn’t know how spiritual those songs were until you could hear them without the music and then you hear it in a different setting. I think it’s very simple but at the same time it’s very spiritual and there’s meaning behind it and it’s food for thought and I think that what I do on the side definitely makes me a community person. My record has a lot of “we” in it. “We did,” “we.” And that’s how I feel.
I didn’t notice any curses on Ali’Yah. Was that intentional?
Absolutely that was intentional. My first record did have curses on it and one record that was going to go on this did have curses on it but I rewrote it. I was kind of on the fence with some things and what I was going to do creatively and I knew I couldn’t go back because I was changing so much as a person. One of the things I encountered a lot on my last record was that I would go out and I would go to other shows and I would meet people and they would say that I was a really nice guy and they got all of that from listening to my last record and now the conversations that you get backstage is the same guy you’re going to get on the CD and to me, that’s important. That’s intentionally. And I don’t curse outside the studio, at least anymore, so I’m not going to do it inside of the studio. That was intentional without it being intentional. I had to take it out and be myself, basically.
You talked about your dreams on “Wake Up.” What do you want to accomplish in this game as a relatively new artist?
One thing I want to accomplish is awareness as an artist. It’s there but I’m not necessarily taking shots at people to be taking shots. Hopefully if I can do anything I can inspire some up-and-coming artists and show them that I can switch direction and still make an impact and still make good music. I can be aware, socially, and I just wanted to start saying something. As a hip-hop community, we’re not saying nothing and I wanted to be honest with you. I don’t even listen to rap. I can’t do it. There’s nothing I can play for my daughter and I can’t listen to it. I think there’s a lot of people out there who won’t listen to the music because there’s not enough there. It’s too shallow and it’s all been done over and over again.
If you don’t listen to the music, why still do it, especially if you’re not finding inspiration inside the game?
When I first started working in this record I had a lot of inspiration. I was inspired by guys like Common and Pharoahe Monch and Little Brother and a lot of my inspiration came from R&B like Raphael Siddiq. If you look at my album, I have a lot of soul hooks because that’s what I want to listen to. I’m a producer too and I produced on this. And I don’t have to necessarily listen to rap to keep it going. And this is my last record, as a matter of fact. I’m going into the ministry full time after this record. This is the last time I’m touching a mic. Hopefully the voice that comes forward, hopefully I can pass this on to other artists and that something can be kept up. And it’s not necessarily my call either. It’s a divine call and I do have to step away.
It doesn’t sound like a publicity stunt the way you’re saying it.
Yeah. And the reason why is because I’ve learned to become more comfortable with that decision, which as I said wasn’t my decision. I’ve understood that rapping, what I do, it is not a gift. It is a tool. It is a tool and what the real gift is is what’s behind the music. I’m able to put words in motion and paint pictures that put you in my seat and I’m able to paint pictures with what I say and it’s a great gift that a lot of us possess as rappers, but the tool doesn’t have to be the same tool. You can use a different tool. Some people use spoken word and some people are ministers or are speakers. Dr. Martin Luther King probably could have rapped if he had been born later on.
I’m not necessarily quitting, because I hate the word “quitting,” but it’s a transition and transitioning to a different tool and quite possibly to a different audience.
On a song like “Yah Have Mercy,” you talk about the rap game not being very good. Do you think rappers take responsibility for what they’re saying and their messages?
No, not for the most part, if I could just generalize it. No, I don’t think they are taking responsibility and if they are, they’re taking the wrong kind of responsibility. It’s kind of this thing where everybody, they make music and they’re making negative music and then they want to be responsible in the sense of living up to what they said and it’s like, ‘Wow.’ You want to create this picture so much that you become this person that you’re rapping about. You’re rapping about this negativity and now you have to be responsible enough to have a gun on you every time because you said that and people are going to test you. If you call that a sense of responsibility, I guess, but as a whole, man, I don’t think people are really looking at it and we don’t own up to it. We always blame somebody else’s parents. We blame other parents for the stuff we put out there and how we go out there and make ourselves look like fools, man. I think we do have to start living up to it.
If you could change something in the game today, what would it be?
For one, on a personal level, I would give a guy like Nas some better A&R’s to pick some beats. He’s an extraordinary talent but I think Nas can’t pick beats to save his life. Aside from that, I think I would just sort of make it cool to be a good person because this whole “swag” thing got way out of control. I bought into it and I was doing it for the sake that everybody else was doing it, but it’s given people false hope. I was explaining to someone the other day that a lot of us, as African-Americans, what we’ve done is we’ve taken, because we had hardship and we grew up in a way where it was probably less desired, what we did was we took that same thing that kept us down and we glorified it in order to make ourselves feel good and make us feel like we’re not at the bottom of the barrel and I think that as time went on, we glorified it more and more and more and now the levels of excellency with these kids, their desired goal is to reach this negative reward system, this game of looking like this, sounding like that and acting like that and really, you don’t realize that none of that is relevant outside of maybe our neighborhood and I think that’s what I’d change. I’d change the overall message of music and the perception where people don’t want to listen to it if it’s rap because they think they know what it’s about already.
What’s the last thing you’ve seen in the game that’s embarrassed you?
It’s hard, man. Almost every song that comes on Clear Channel Radio. I don’t know. I’m trying to think, man. I don’t know who. Soulja Boy and that whole entire crew…I’ve been hearing a lot about the Drake guy and I think he’s a talented guy. I’m not too familiar with him so I can’t say too much but he’s having a lot of influence right now. Lil’ Wayne, I think he got a lot of credit and I think he’s pretty horrible. I think guys like Drake, he has a lot of influence right now and he’s pretty young in the game and he could go left or right and hopefully he takes some responsibility and starts saying some things because he’s definitely making noise.
Both of your parents were MCs in Seattle back in the day. What did they teach you about rap?
Not much, honesty, man. My father is now actually a doctor, a theologian professor and teaches on systematic theology and Christian ethics. He’s probably not too helpful these days as far as the rap music goes but he enjoys what I do, at least. And my mom, she’s passed on now but I heard a bunch of stories about when they were younger.
As far as Vitamin, he is my Mr. Miyagi. He’s one of the most talented people I know. His understanding of music and his ear is incredible. He’s not only a rapper and producer but he’s an engineer. He can mix and he’s a DJ. He has an understanding of music and I’ve become like him where I don’t really care about the industry. But putting forth good music and loving that and nurturing that and making something that is undeniably correct and mechanically correct, he is the guy in that way. He’s taught me almost everything I know.
He’s like family. And we actually do have family ties. We can’t just not be around each other. Me and D are definitely still close. And it was tough working with him because he don’t take no slack from me. It’s more than music. If the studio’s dirty then you’re going to hear it from D. It was like having an extra dad or uncle down your throat. But in the end it all worked out. He’s a wonderful guy to be around because he’s a very gentle person. He’s very knowledgeable beyond the music and he’s very, very smart. Sometimes he can forget some stuff but other than that, he’s a great guy to even be around because he’s not going to hold back. There’s some guys at his level where they kind of hold back and they shelter themselves from sharing knowledge in the game but he’s not that kind of guy. He’s like, ‘If I got it, you got it.’
I used to live outside of Portland so I know the scene out there is not huge but it’s definitely coming up. Do you feel the same way?
Northwest hip-hop, today, I think it’s on the move, man. I think it’s rising. We don’t sell them some crap up here. We want the guys that are really saying something. Certain A-list artists are not going to do good up here. We’ll take the C’s and the B’s and the D’s because we are about music up here. People think we won’t break out. Maybe. It’s not for us to be in the spotlight but to be in the underground circuit and to make the music that people are going to hear for years and not the music that people are going to hear for the next three months. I think we’re moving in that direction. Of course Blue Scholars are making that noise right now and Common Market and Saturday Nights and Champagne Champagne. There are a few guys out here and they’re doing their thing and I’m really excited to be a part of the city. I think it’s fascinating and I think it’s a great time for Seattle hip-hop.
What are you going to do to make sure Ali’Yah does as well as it can before you leave the game?
I’m out doing shows and interviews with guys like yourself. I’m always staying busy as much as I can. I’m not out on Friday nights so I’m not going to be out passing out flyers and selling CDs and that sort of thing because I got a tight schedule and I work and I have a family and our ministry. I got a lot of things on the table but my therapy is performing for a crowd. That is my love and that is my joy. And I also have the CD that we’re just now finishing up so that will be able to follow up after Ali’Yah. We’ll have that available pretty soon.