Mike Ladd: Rebel Without a Pause

February 17th, 2005 | Category: Interviews

Mike LaddSeveral years ago, my friend Greg Sundin gave me Mike Ladd’s Welcome to the Afterfuture (Ozone, 2000). I was instantly hooked. Ladd’s spaced-out beats and intelligent wordplay push the limits of hip-hop until they break into noisy splinters. Genre distinctions can’t hold the man. He’s been performing in every possible way since age thirteen, but his body of work reflects the very best that hip-hop can be. After digesting Afterfuture, I simply had to hear more.

Knowing that this would be the case, Greg explained that Ladd’s first record (Easy Listening 4 Armageddon [Mercury, 1997]), during which a lot of the stuff for Afterfuture was recorded) was difficult to find due to record label bullshit. Finding it became a personal mission that was finally accomplished a few years, a few states, and many record stores later (and it was well worth it). Ladd hasn’t made things much easier on me since. His records have come out on several different labels and often under one-off group names (e.g., the conceptual pair The Infesticons’ Gun Hill Road [Big Dada, 2000] and The Majesticons’ Beauty Party (Big Dada, 2003) — I wish I had the space here to tell you this story), but they’re always worth the search.

His latest outings include a collaboration with pianist Vijay Iyer called In What Language? (Pi Recordings, 2003), Nostalgialator (!K7, 2004), and Negrophilia (Thirsty Ear, 2005). Where In What Language? and Negrophilia are collaborative avant-jazz explorations (the latter includes the Blue Series Continuum, as well as Vijay Iyer), Nostalgialator is more like Ladd’s older stuff: straight ahead hip-hop, but twisted with his cerebral, poetic bent.

That said, all of Ladd’s music runs along a spectrum from head-nodding to mind-expanding, and it often sits dead in the middle, bringing your dome the best of both. Whether it’s grimy boom-bap, heady jazz, or whatever else he decides to explore next, Mike Ladd always brings it rugged and rough.

Roy Christopher: Tell me about Negrophilia. What were your aims with this record and how did it all come together?

Mike Ladd: The concept has been with me for a long time. I think in a way, all of my records have touched on this topic, especially when you are a Black artist doing stuff that doesn’t make the mainstream or is esoteric, and you have to contend with a large portion of your audience being white (especially when that wasn’t your primary intended audience). That said, when Petrine Archer-Straw’s book came around, I had to read it, and it touched on at least some of the origins of the Negrophilia phenomenon, a phenomenon that has grown beyond Elvis and is as bizarre as Michael Jackson, Eminem, and Condoleezza Rice having tea and smoking stems in a drum circle in Norway.

RC: Why is that? Why is it that when Black artists create challenging Black music, their audience ends up being mostly white folks?

ML: The answer is actually pretty easy and is more of a class issue than a race issue. “Experimental music,” alternative music, underground, whatever you want to call it — music that doesn’t sell, sometimes on purpose — is hard to access. It’s hard to find at retailers and in the media — even the internet. It takes time to find it, and it usually takes a certain amount of effort to fully enjoy it. Generally speaking the people who can afford the time to pursue music this adamantly are often middle class or richer (poor, working-class white kids don’t come out in droves to see our shit either, and there is often a proportionate amount of middle-class kids of color at the shows).

For most people sitting and listening to music — especially music that takes time — is a luxury they either can’t afford or choose not to. If you bust your ass all day like most of the world does (even if you’re a yuppie who used to dig the occasional weird shit, but now has a job and a kid and has lost touch with his art friends), the last thing you want to do is come home and listen to some music that’s gonna make your head work more. What you’re making doesn’t have to be that esoteric either: With so much shit out there being pushed, it’s work for the average person to digest great music in an unclear package. On top of that, pop is further propagated by a culture that respects capital return over content in general. The culture that appreciates art that pushes boundaries is relegated to mostly bourgeois institutions, universities, etc.

That said, however, I would like to point out the gratifying experience of meeting someone at every show I have ever played that does not fit the demographic I just described, that is from the audience I love to access; it’s just that they are in small pockets spread out all over the world. It’s like a secret army.

But I don’t think you can make music these days without a deep respect for pop and the people who listen to it (I don’t care if you see it as understanding your adversary or knowing your global terrain). I actively ignored pop all through high school and college. I discovered absolutely amazing music in the process, but I missed out on some basic sensibilities that took me time to understand.

RC: Negrophilia followed pretty closely on the heels of Nostalgialator, yet these records are very different. How did you approach these different projects?

I approached them in totally different mindsets, but I can’t really explain the shit. Nostalgialator was mostly written on the road touring, and recorded in Brooklyn. I did a bunch of Negrophilia at the same time with Guillermo Brown, who is instrumental in this record — this record is as much his as it is mine. At the bidding of the record label (for reasons I still don’t know), I finished Negrophilia alone in my apartment in Paris, which was a completely different environment than I had been used to. I think the difference can really be attributed to the great players on the record: Roy Cambel, Andrew Lamb, Bruce Grant, Vijay Iyer, and my niece, Marguerite Ladd. With Guillermo as coproducer, the collaboration helped it sound so different.

The short answer is that Nostalgialator is a “Pop” record, and Negrophilia is a “Music” record.

RC: You’ve jumped around with different sounds and styles throughout your work. Do you ever wonder or worry that you make it difficult for your fans to keep up with you?

ML: Yes, I’m broke because of it. I think I probably lose fans with every record, but hopefully gain new ones too. As long as some people stick with me, I’m going to keep exploring as many facets of myself and my interests as possible.

In 2005, I think it’s pretty naive for any American to think of themselves as culturally one-dimensional. Clearly our president does, and look at how he acts. Then again, look at the skin tones of his family and it’s all shifting quickly. The racial paradoxes in Bush are predictable and Machiavellian, but they still fascinate me, and I’m interested in how they will affect the world.

Okay, that’s off the point of the question, but maybe another answer to the problem you are presenting. The thing is, if I am the package and everything you hear from me is a coherent part of that package, I am simply regurgitating the influence and experiences that have informed me for a very long time. Eight records in, I am deeply grateful to the fans that have stuck with me, for real.

RC: Is there anything you’re working on that you’d like to mention here?

ML: Doing a new band called Father Divine for ROIR Records. Very happy with the way it’s coming along. Shout out to Reg in Colorado and DJ Jun.

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