The wide-ranging world of Shafiq Husayn
Over the last 25 years, Shafiq Husayn has cut a Zelig-like figure through Los Angeles hip-hop circles. The hulking producer-emcee was there at the beginning, rocking skinny jeans and Kangols and enthralled by Uncle Jamm’s Army, the DJ crew whose electro-rap parties defined the early West Coast sound.
Meeting Ice-T at an after-school jam at Crenshaw High, he soon forged a partnership with the gangsta rap godfather, producing a significant portion of his early material, including the sound effects on the infamous “Cop Killer” single that sparked nationwide boycotts and controversy.
Throughout the '90s and for much of this decade, Husayn and his partners in Sa-Ra, (Om’Mas Keith and Taz Arnold) helped lay the foundation for the neo-soul and crate-digging aesthetic of the fin de siècle underground, working with subterranean staples such as Jurassic 5, Pharoahe Monch and J Dilla. After signing to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. music imprint in 2004, label difficulties stymied Sa-Ra’s long-awaited “Black Fuzz LP,” but the group still managed to independently release two critically acclaimed efforts: "The Hollywood Recordings" and "Nuclear Evolution: The Age of Love." Working with Erykah Badu on her groundbreaking 2008 LP, “New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War,” Badu bestowed Husayn with the honor of being the only person allowed to write lyrics for her. Husayn also boasts close kinship with the vibrant Low End Theory scene, releasing an EP last year on Ras G’s Poo-Bah Records.
His latest, “Shafiq En A-Free-Ka,” might be his most fully realized work yet, an amalgam of Afro-futurist funk, Sun-Ra riffing free jazz, Watts Prophets-type spoken word and Sly Stone-influenced soul, set atop a bedrock of hip-hop beats and Kemetic philosophy (according to Husayn, the loose translation of the title means “Shafiq is in a free state of mind.”) In advance of his performance at the Plug Research Twenty Ten Show (along with live performances from Bilal, Blu and Exile and Om'Mas Keith, plus DJ sets by Daedelus, J. Rocc and Kutmah), Husayn spoke to Pop and Hiss about his storied career.
How did you first get involved with Ice-T?
I went to Crenshaw High School with DJ Bobcat and DJ Battlecat, and Uncle Jamm’s Army would come up and do the after school dances, and that’s actually where I met Ice. He obviously wasn’t going to school there, but he would go out and do jams. The New York City Spin Masters were his DJs, and they’d do shows. I started running with them, and when Ice got his first record deal for “Rhyme Pays,” they brought me in. Working with Ice, I learned how to produce, how to engineer and about music business etiquette. I learned how to pay some bills. I learned firsthand about music business politics, and that was invaluable in allowing me to stay relevant to this day. It planted the seed to keep my mind where it is now and never get too caught up in all the industry stuff.
Your album draws from a wide variety of styles and sounds. Was there a specific genesis for the project or a particular aesthetic that you were hoping to create?
This album was my stripped-down version of Shafiq’s take on world music. It can work in the urban sense in that there is beat-driven swag, and it can also go into the visual realm associated with a soundtrack, and then there are other influences. I listen to so many types of music, electronic music like Wendy Carlos and Kraftwerk, and classical music like Bach. Then there is the playing that I do with experimenting with different time signatures. You’ve got all that stuff to pull resources from, which means it doesn’t really fit into a certain sound. You can’t put it in a category.
You’ve worked extensively with Erykah Badu, and she has said that you’re the only person allowed to write for her. What’s that relationship like and how did it come about?
The Badu situation is pretty unique and special. She’s a very self-contained artist and a control freak --that’s the name of her record company. She’s the Queen Sheba of her empire, and she don’t let nothing pass through without her touching it in her own way. To allow someone to play with her baby, to share her baby, that’s big. It takes a lot for an artist like that to allow another artist to come in and allow that to happen. It shows how open she is in her freedom and her comfort level. Working with her, you can’t help but learn a lot; she’s one of our great icons, and she’s always trying to push the boundaries. She’s very peaceful and all about upliftment and family, health, science and making records. She has her way, and I’m honored that she pulled me into her world.
With 2009 coming to end, what highlights stand out for you?
I’m thankful for the critical acclaim that people gave to Sa-Ra’s “Nuclear Evolution” and my solo album. Allmusic.com voted them top albums of the year. I’m happy that Taz [Arnold] was on Comedy Central on “South Park.” I'm thankful for the progression of Sa-Ra and our crew tapping into the mainstream of America. Everybody should have a chance to hear Sa-Ra and Shafiq Husayn at least once.
Did you have any favorite records or albums from 2009?
For albums, I loved Mos Def’s “The Ecstatic,” and for books, “The Alchemist.”
What are your plans for 2010?
Sa-Ra and myself are going to do a lot touring, I’m working on a new solo album and trying to finish up Om’Mas and Taz’s solo albums. We’re going to continue to brand Sa-Ra and Shafiq Huysayn, and I’m looking to get into film scoring.
-- Jeff Weiss
Photo via Shafiq Husayn Myspace
Plug Research Twenty Ten featuring Shafiq Husayn, Bilal, Exile & DJ Day ft. Blu, Om'Mas Keith, DJ Sets from Daedelus, J Rocc and Kutmah and special guests, tonight, 8 p.m at The Echoplex, 1154 Glendale Blvd., $15.