Firewire: Interview w/ Lateef The Truthspeaker

(Lateef at one point was the most vicious MC around, especially on songs like “The Wreckoning” (produced by DJ Shadow) an aggressively dark track where he details the decomposing body of a dead MC on the second verse. It was unlike anything then (or now really) as him and Solesides aka Quannum took over the West Coast. Here’s a recent talk I did for URB with Lateef, one of the most creative and genuine dudes who’s built quite the career over the last couple decades– DM)

“21 Gun Salute” ft. Lateef and Headnodic (Production by DJ Platurn)”

Hailing from the West Coast’s Quannum Projects (home to DJ Shadow, Blackalicious, Tommy Guerrero, Pigeon John, etc.) Lateef The Truthspeaker is a longtime MC with deep histories that precede him. As half of Latyrx (with Lyrics Born, half of Mighty Underdogs (with Gift Of Gab) and half of The Maroons (with Chief Xcel) there hasn’t been a shortage of output from the Oakland native. What is noteworthy is that, after all these years, after all the tours, all revered tracks, and a Grammy to boot, Lateef finally debuted with a long-awaited solo album, this year’s Firewire.

“I’m very happy with it” he says of the new album. “I always try to keep busy but it was nice to finally focus on just my own songs.” Lateef’s focus has been what’s driven him and his crew since they were college-aged kids in the early ‘90s when they were known as Solesides. It’s this early work that catapulted their subsequent careers, a body of work that ranks amongst the best West Coast has ever offered. And while “Lateef” translates as “gentle” in Arabic, Lateef the Truthspeaker is a vicious MC with a catalogue that precedes him. Here, we talk with this son of Black Panthers about work ahead in both political and musical realms, touching on some history, the time he battled Murs, the forming of Latyrx, old recordings and interesting new ones.

You’ve been doing this for awhile. Why so long for a complete solo project?
Been busy! It’s not like I haven’t put anything out- Latyrx (The Album & Muzappers), Maroons (Lateef & The Chief), The Mighty Underdogs (Droppin Science Fiction & The Prelude), Ahead Of The Curve (With Z-Trip), as well as tons of mixtapes and features (not to mention “Wonderful Night” with Fatboy Slim which was nominated for a Grammy). I just try to keep busy, and actually found the time and space to really focus and execute my own vision. I’m very happy with it.

How was finally working solo and how do you think it affected the final product?
I think I was really able to take some risks and stretch out as an artist. A lot of producers I work with can be very focused on their vision of what they would like me to do artistically, and on both FIREWIRE and the “Truth @ Sea” mixtape, I was able to follow my instincts and create from a very pure place.

You did a track dedicated to Oakland. Tell folks who don’t know about your hometown.
Oakland is great. It is one of the most diverse places on the planet, and that goes from separate ethnicities, to every ethnicity wrapped up in one person. There is an intense hodgepodge of cultures and opinions, and yet everyone, for the most part, seems to get along. Outside of the shootings. But there is a very real element to the people in Oakland that is specific and identifiable, and that is what I love about the city. The people.

What’s your outlook on Occupy Oakland?
Mishandled. The occupy movement in general is a difficult creature for politicians to deal with. It’s kinda like a positive, physical incarnation of an internet troll crossed with a griever. You can’t react aggressively to it, or it wins, and you lose. It’s coordinated, but decentralized so attempts to squelch it just result in the people returning. And attempts by an establishment to confront or harass it cost TONS of money in what is a useless attack that spends taxpayer dollars and alienates political leaders from their voting public. Because you can’t close schools and justify spending 2.4 million to evict Occupiers…and have it not work. The Occupy movement is also peaceful, so any aggression towards it makes you instantly look like a bully with an agenda to protect the rich. Ultimately the movement is a sign of civil unrest with the imbalance of wealth and power in the United States, and until that’s addressed, there’s not really a cure. And that is gonna take a LOT to address.

Tell folks a bit about your parents’ history with the Black Panthers. Did your parent’s activism affect your outlook?
My parents were both in the Black Panther party. When I was younger, I can remember “Auntie Angela” Davis coming to birthday parties. It was never a big deal. I think it informs the way I receive information and think about the world- and I think it’s one of the reasons Hip-hop spoke to me at such an early age- but mostly, I think it makes me comfortable with speaking my mind and not shying away from subjects that some other MC’s wont touch. With a 10 foot pole.

Talk the issues attributed with the “Red Hot + Riot” release and what people should take away from it.
That AIDS is real and awareness around it needs to improve. I don’t think that it is a groundbreaking or new idea, but it can never be stressed enough. The disease is no longer confined to any specific group of people, and it needs to be dealt with on the World, National, Community and Personal levels. Get tested. Support research and aid to underserved communities and countries. Let’s try to be bigger than the disease. And it’s also a good record, by the way. Just Sayin’.

Let’s move on and talk a bit about your history. When and how did Solesides begin?
A bunch of college kids, fresh out of high school, get the crazy idea that they are gonna start a record label. Seriously. That was it. And not everybody was even IN college.

How did Latyrx form? What is your personal favorite Latyrx track? How was making that?
Latyrx formed out of the song “Latyrx” which was featured on my very first single “The Wreckoning” way back in the Neolithic period. Both tracks were produced by DJ Shadow, who happened to be in the middle of creating a genre at the time (later known as “Trip Hop”). The song “Latyrx” was considered by many to be groundbreaking, and the chemistry that was immediately evident led to myself and Lyrics Born (the other half of Latyrx) working on more songs together and blending the solo projects we had been working on individually into one, juggernaut of an album. I think both the Album and the EP (Muzappers) have held up very well over the years.

How was the experience with the Fatboy Slim track?
Amazing. Norman is one of the nicest, most genuine, fairest, easy going people I have ever met in this business. He is incredibly generous, and more talented than a lot of people give him credit for (which is saying something- because people DO give him a lot of credit). I consider him a good friend.

The experience of working together, and the level of exposure and success the project brought, was something I hadn’t really experienced before. It was, indeed, “another level.” It led to my first appearance on the David Letterman show, the Conan O’brien show, and attending the Grammys as a nominee. Heady stuff. And the aplomb with which FBS handled it helped me to stay grounded and take it in stride without losing focus on the importance of continuing to create and hone my craft.

One of your most revered tracks is “The Wreckoning”. Talk about the making of that.
Well, DJ Shadow got me that beat, and I just really tried to harness what I felt like was the subtle menace of the track. I wanted to make a battle-type song, but I wanted it to be intelligent and have a theme (something I’m still a bit of a stickler for in battle songs made for a record). The idea of a kind of cinematic, almost creepy coroner-like explanation of how an MC had been killed in a battle- and then taking it farther and exploring the post mortem process came to me while I was at work one day, and the song kind of wrote itself. Oddly, while still (I think) a great listen, the song is very difficult to perform live. It’s too slow, and cerebral. The crowd is mesmerized, but they kinda stop moving. I usually perform he “Live 45” version, if I’m gonna do it live.

You’ve been working with other artists for a long time. What is your approach to battling? It’s almost the opposite of collaboration; just you and your opponent. Tell us about those days.
Those were the days. I feel like it’s becoming a lost art. I always just felt like it was important to come into any battle with an array of written rhymes, so that you had a safety, and then stay in the moment and watch and study your opponent for weaknesses you could exploit to win the crowd. Because make no mistake, when you are battling, the crowd decides the winner. Still, it’s important to lock in, and make sure you hit a good zone, and most importantly hit the punch lines hard so that your opponent feels them. If done correctly, that can shatter their confidence, and then the battle is over.

To this day though, I think Myka 9 and Aceyalone are maybe the best off the head. Myself, Gab, Lyrics Born, Mista Fab, Mos, Jean Grey, Pharoah, some of the Heiro guys, and a few others are really good- and anyone can catch fire at any given time- but Myka & Acey…I’ve just seen them go unconscious and spit stuff you couldn’t believe wasn’t written. I’d put either of ‘em up against whoever is on top of the TOP 40 charts right now. Of course, that probably goes for everybody I just listed, so…

What’s your most memorable battle?
Probably Murs on Sproul plaza at Cal Berkeley in, like, 2000. Murs was battling everyone back then, and we went a few rounds. Everyone I saw for a while afterwards on campus told me I ate him, but I’ve heard some folks say it was a tie, and heard third hand of people saying he won. Battles are subjective things, so, unless there is a judge or something, sometimes you get varied stories about the outcome. To be fair, I would say Murs has grown by leaps and bounds since back then, and is now a real monster, especially with his writtens. Some of his album work is just phenomenal. And that’s the thing, we’re not enemies of anything. I always respected the fact he even wanted to battle. That’s the part that is lost though, now. People feel like they have so much to loose nowadays that they don’t want to risk a battle. Drake taking an L in public battling Myka 9 is just…his PR people would never let that happen. And the SHOULDN’T ever let that happen.

Who would you say are your top 5 MCs?
All time? Tough. I’ll give you my top 10 most influential in no particular order. 1) KRS One. 2) Rakim. 3) Big Daddy Kane. 4) Posdnuos. 5) Ice Cube. 6) Q Tip 7) MF DOOM. 8) Slick Rick. 9) DOC. 10) Freestyle Fellowship. All of Them. Honorable mention: Brand Nubian, Public Enemy, X Clan, Special Ed, WHODINI, LL COOL J, Digital Underground (w/ Tupac!), Heiro, Craig G, Black Thought, Jay Z, Snoop, Mix Master Spade. All of Them.

Last words for new and old listeners?
I hope that you enjoy the FIREWIRE record! It’s a snapshot of where I’m at, right now, creatively. Tomorrow I might be somewhere else (I hope so, that’s what growing as an artist is all about). In fact, I know I will be somewhere else, as myself and Lyrics Born have begun working on a new Latyrx record. Already we’ve managed to create a bunch of songs that are unlike anything I’ve ever heard or done. The song we did with Cut Chemist is insanely original. I’m not sure I even understand it. And I helped make it. Nuts.


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