Underground Report: Theory and El Michaels Affair

posted March 23, 2008 12:00:00 AM CDT | 4 comments

The grind of the underground is grisly at times, but even more so for female rappers who often receive criticism on both fronts: male and female. As they have to ensure their lyrical skills are up to par with their male comrades, they are also open to constant badgering about not being feminine enough or not being hard enough, or even, being too much of both. In light of March 8th and the International Womens Day, DX is pleased to catch up with Theory, a female rapper from Flint, Michigan, who uses Hip Hop as a tool to spread a message.

Her active participation in the community is at the forefront of her commitments, and this single mother/activist/rapper utilizes the art-form of rhyme to push her leading causes to the forefront of her mic. Theory was introduced to us first with the release of her debut album, Homegirls and Handgrenades, a soundtrack to Theorys views and experiences that nicely showcases her rapping capabilities. Theory sits down with DX to touch on everything from her poetic beginnings and lobbying for legislation change, to her latest EP and album projects.

HipHopDX: Who is Theory?
An emcee, a poet, a mother, a lover, a fighter and a person who is truly loving my crazy life full of music, people, politics, stories, and change.

DX: When had you been inspired to first pick up the mic and who were your earliest influences?
Its interesting because Ive always been into creating music and performance art; its just gone through so many stages. I started out singing as a child. Then, as I moved into high school and college, I really got into spoken word poetry and Hip Hop. I ended up getting involved in a group called the Neo Griot Performance Collective. It was basically a group of artists, writers, poets, emcees, dancers, and singers. We released a couple of independent albums and the group was really instrumental in my development as an artist. In 2006, I left the group and with the assistance of Mystic Melodic Music and a friend, James Anthony Jones, I released my solo album, Homegirls and Handgrenades. My musical influences are so varied that it would be impossible to list them all but I would definitely say that I am profoundly inspired by amazing female artists from MC Lyte to Amel Larriuex to KT Tunstall. My tastes are pretty diverse. But more so than any particular artists, its my family, friends and life in general that truly inspires me.

DX: Homegirls & Handgrenades was an independent venture which you distributed. How did it do?
Homegirls & Handgrenades is doing well. Since the release of the album in 2006, Ive had the opportunity to perform at venues and festivals all over the country; and everywhere I go, I get positive feedback. People really relate to themes of the album. So much of the promotion has been on some guerilla style, word-of-mouth type of stuff and its doing great.

DX: What are you working on now?
I am working on an EP side project with a producer by the name of Moonchild, and Im also working on my second album, Boundless. Stic.man of dead prez will have a feature and Im getting the opportunity to collab with some amazing up-and-coming producers and artists like Jon Connor, Venture, a hot female emcee by the name of Nuvos, Moonchild, Alumni, Bang and 10 Million Strong Productions.

One other project that Im working on is chairing the local organizing committee of the National Hip Hop Political Convention here in my hometown of Flint, Michigan, as well as running my non-profit organization, RAISE IT UP! Youth Arts and Awareness.

DX: Good stuff, congratulations. So how do you feel you have grown as an artist since your first release?
I think Homegirls and Handgrenades was the reflection of a young, female emcee who had a ton of passion and a hunger for genuine self-expression. I was definitely a woman with a story to tell; however, I feel as if now, Ive finally found my creative voice. I was experimenting and really trying to find my voice as an emcee at the time that I created H&H but now, I have no doubts about who I am as an artist, what I stand for, and what the purpose of my art is. Ive grown more comfortable in my role, in the booth, on the stage or wherever I go. I think an important thing that I learned is that I have to keep it about the art. If I ever stop focusing on that and get caught up in ego and drama, whether its mine or anybody elses, then my art will suffer as a consequence. Im focused now.

Ive also learned that when you truly express who you are, people will support you. I cant tell you how many people come up to me and thank me for creating music that is relevant to our lives. When I get on a stage, Im not trying to be anything that Im not. Im not ballin. Im driving a 1998 Mercury Sable, working a nine-to-five during the day, grinding it out as a single mom, starting my own business, and rocking shows at night. My life is like so many others and I find that the more I express that in my art, the more it creates those connections between me and people who listen.

DX: March 8th marks the International Womens Day so Im glad to catch up with you in light of it. What are some of the obstacles you face as a female rapper?
As a female emcee, you have to fight to prove yourself. On the consumer side, many of your listeners are going to want to compare you to other female emcees, box you into some category or tell you that youre theyre favorite female rapper. On the industry side, so many people, particularly men, want to dictate what your image should be. There are definitely challenges, but what Ive been finding is that if youre good at what you do, people cant deny you. I find that as I work to perfect my craft and work to really just be real about who I am and what Im about, the less I deal with those challenges. People are starting to say that Im their favorite emcee without gender prefaces. Folks are starting to see that I can be a great performer and hold the audiences attentionwith my clothes on!

DX: What are some of the perks?
One of the perks of being a female emcee is shocking people. Many people say I dont look like an emcee, so when folks have never seen me perform before, they usually think Im going to do something different than what I actually do. I love to see their faces when they get something totally unexpected.

The other perk is really important to me. Ive had women from as young as six to as old as 76 approach me and thank me for my music because they were able to see parts of themselves in it. As a woman, a feminist, and a Hip Hop head, I often feel conflicted between my love for Hip Hop culture and the misogyny thats so rampant in it now. If Im not diligent about seeking out certain artists, I might start to believe that Hip Hop hates women. Therefore, its really important to me that my sisters know, through my music, that I love them and hip-hop loves them.

DX: Very interesting. Why do you think some female rappers grab the balls that they dont have and come across more rugged than some of the dudes in the game?
Well, for one, I think some sisters express themselves like that because thats who they truly are and I cant do anything but respect that; however, there are probably some women who do that because theyre trying to play the game. Its obvious that Hip Hop is disproportionately flooded with testosterone and most of the Hip Hop albums that are produced in the industry are marketed towards male listeners - with the exception of the singles with the R&B singers on the hook made to appeal to the female audience. As an emcee, the majority of the venues that I perform in are packed with men. If youre not comfortable with who you are and where you are as a woman, it can be intimidating and you might try to adopt a number of strategies to deal with that fear, including trying to emulate male emcees. Im comfortable with myself as an emcee and a woman. I rock mics and heels. Thats who I am.

DX: Your song Last Rider talks about the consequences of slavery, including modern-day examples of atrocities such as those occurring in Sudan and Somalia. How big of a role should hip-hop play in activism and education?
Hip Hop is such a powerful tool. This is an art that started in the basements of the ghettoes and its now a booming, global industry. Hip Hop is heard, seen, and felt all over the world. Given the fact that this powerful tool was created by some of the most oppressed and subjugated people of the world, I think its important that we use it as a means to achieve the freedom, knowledge, and understanding necessary for us to grow. Not using the Hip Hop that we created to educate and create solutions to the reallife problems that we face is like being shackled with a key that you made sitting right next to you but refusing to use the key because you made it to just be art. You think that because its art, its only meant to be gazed at. Youre not aware that it has a function that could set you free. Its that type of mentality that keeps us entertained - and enslaved.

DX: Educational Hip Hop: can it expand to the mainstream or is it destined to lurk in the underground?
Educational Hip Hop is like any other movement. The success or failure of it depends upon whether we believe its achievable or not - its that simple. I tend to live my life with an empowered approach, meaning that I believe that I create my reality. What I believe, I manifest. I think that applies on an individual and collective level. Therefore, if those of us who believe in educational Hip Hop continue to produce it and advocate for it, I can definitely see it becoming mainstream. I think there will have to be a shift of social and cultural forces that make it happen; but I believe thats possible as well. Anything is.

DX: Thats great, a very positive outlook. You also seem to practice what you teach. Talk to us about your participation in the Fight to Protect our Children.
Im working on organizing a march in Jackson, Ohio on April 11th. The march is to work to get a law changed in Ohio that didnt protect a little girl who was repeatedly raped on the school van. According to this law, the school and van drivers are not responsible for what happens to children on school vans or churches. They are only responsible for getting them to and from school safely. Therefore, if your child is raped, molested, sodomized or abused in any kind of way on a bus in Ohio, you have no recourse. I and some other committed folks have been working really closely with Bernadine Wade, the mother of a seven-year-old girl with special needs who was a victim of this kind of treatment. Not only did she have to endure this abuse but the school district was totally dismissive of the incident, even though the teenage boy who sexually assaulted the little girl admitted to his crime. It is so obvious to me that the schools decision to not accept accountability had a lot to do with gender, race, class and other factors. And Ms. Wades daughter wasnt the only child affected by this crazy law. Other victims have had their cases thrown out of court because Ohio law does not protect them. We are going to march but thats not all were going to do. We want to help Ms. Wade find a lawyer who is willing to fight to protect children. We want to get the other cases organized so that they can file a class action lawsuit. We want to get the law changed and show Ms. Wades daughter that adults will stand beside her and make sure that she is heard. Thats what were supposed to do. If anyone wants to learn more about the case, check out the page [by clicking here...] or e-mail me [by clicking here...].

DX: Powerful. You have a son. I recall him being the youngest volunteer to plant trees at a local community event in Michigan. Is he following in your footsteps with rhyming also?
Yeah, Masai is definitely a musical child. Hes been around it all his life. He started in a music class when he was a toddler and will be having his first piano lesson later this month. Masai likes to do his emcee thing, definitely. But he also likes to make music. I could see him being a producer, too. However, ultimately, I want him to do whatever he wants to do. If he wants to go into music, Ill support him and if he doesnt, Ill support him.

If music is art and art is innovation then one is surely to appreciate artistic development in the soulfully-funky sounds of the El Michaels Affair, a band of Brooklyn-based musicians who orchestrate themselves to move with the wind while creating melodic sounds only conceivable through the collective use of instruments.

Known for their contribution to Fallin off the Reel (2006) a collection of 7 put out by Truth & Soul Records, a label which Leon Michaels and his partner Jeff Silverman founded in 2003. The album features El Michaels rendition of Wu-Tang Clans C.R.E.A.M. and Glaciers of Ice, creating a hot buzz for El Michaels in the world of underground Hip Hop. Two years later, the release of Fallin off the Reel Vol. 2 appears, another promised production featuring every 45 single released from Truth & Soul. El Michaels Affair contributes to the poignant gem with four tracks including PJs, featuring Raekwon. As the buzz for El Michaels continues to increase with their latest remix of Amy Winehouses Back to Black - as well as their work with Ghostface and Just Blaze - Leon Michaels chops it up with DX to discuss the bands approach to arrangement, active listening in the underground, and the collaboration that led them to Puerto Rico (complete with a Youtube link below).

HipHopDX: Who is El Michaels Affair?
It is a collective of musicians that are involved in Truth & Soul Records, started by myself and a bass player, a friend of mine Nick Movshon, who I grew up with and played in a band called The Mighty Imperials.

DX: How many band members are in the Affair?
Well, when we play live, its usually about eight people eight to ten.

DX: And where did the name come from?
Well, my last name is Michaelsand originally...I dont even know how the name started. Originally, we put out a 12 single in 2001; and it was on Soul Fire Records at the time and the head of Soul Fire Records came up with the name.

DX: Truth & Soul is not a typical label. What makes it different?
Well, the thing about Truth & Soul is that its not a traditional music label in a sense that we go out and we find bands to recordmore like theres a group of musicians that are involved, as well as engineers and artists and things of that nature, and all the music really comes from the same source; and then well get singers to come in andso its different projects with several groups of people so theres El Michaels Affair, theres Bronx River Parkway which is like a Latin - we went down to Puerto Rico and collaborated with a bunch of older Puerto Rican musiciansand then theres a band called The Expressions and thats kind of a Soul, type of thing.

DX: What vision did you and your partner Jeff Silverman have for the label?
The label is kind of heading in a certain direction just because weve been doing a lot of remixes for Major label stuff, which is cool. And then as far as the music goes, we usually just get inspired by some records and its never really a set plan as far as where the musics gonna go. It changes up as it happens.

DX: Fallin off the Reel Vol. 2. Some dope joints on there, including the one with Raekwon. How did that partnership first come about?
Leon: Scion
s doing his theories of concert, live bands with hip-hop acts and so they did this stuff with Raekwon. Originally it was supposed to be Slick Rick, but I think he wanted too much money. And we did it with Raekwon; we did one show two years ago - three years ago, in New York. And it went really well so we started putting more shows together and started bringing in more members of Wu-Tang. And then eventually that 12 was originally a promotional-only 12 for Scion that they paid forso we just put it out. Scion kind of hooked the whole thing up and the relationship was good so we just kept on working together.

DX: How does the band go about arrangement?
For the most part well have some sort of concept of a record that were listening to, that we want to check out - kind of emulating a certain sound. And well get three or four musicians in, including myself and Jeff, and the way we do things is more like building upon the track rather than one person sitting down and composing the track by themselves from start to finish. Its more of a collective thing.

DX: So there isnt one person arranging everything?
Well, I mean, me and Jeff do most of the arranging. Jeff does all the engineering and me and him do the production; and a lot of the arranging as far as the strings and the horns, Ill do. But the general ideas, the very basic idea, will come as a group thing.

DX: Why do you think its easier to introduce the element of Jazz and Funk to the underground level of Hip Hop as opposed to the mainstream?
People who actively listen to underground Hip Hop, usually theres an understanding of records and where the music is coming from and that sort of thing, rather than it just being Hip Hop. So what were doing basically, for the most part, is making music that sounds like the music that gets sampled. I think people who listen to [underground] Hip Hop have more respect for where the music is coming from and actually listening to the music rather than just you know, listening to whats popular so

DX: Universal asked Truth & Soul Records to remix Amys Love is a Losing Game. Who worked on that piece?
That was actually myself and Jeff for the most part. And then there was an engineer who helped us with that. But we kept that one very simple. There werent too many additions involved in that one.

DX: Were you guys nervous when approached with the project?
Yeah, I mean kind of. That record, I like that record. The Winehouse album, not all of it, but to me, that was the best song on the record. So it was like Fuck, out of all the songs to remix this one I actually like. So we just flipped it, tried to take it likeand also its not like were gonna do another soul take on that; we had to take it somewhere else I thought it came out good.

DX: Me too. What did you think of Salaam Remi and Mark Ronsons work on the album?
Not too high on Salaam Remi stuff; but Ronson stuff is good. He just turned up the base, drums and snare and called it his own production butI dont know how much I want to get into that.

DX: As much as you want to. [Laughs]
[Laughs] I dont know, I mean, I give him credit. That records pretty good.

DX: It is. Whats up with the current projects and collaborations?
We did some other remix for Universal. Last night we finished up this remix for a remix series they did. We remixed Diana Ross new song, which came out awesome. What else do we have? We wrote a song for that girl Adele. Shes got a record out in England right now, its huge. Shes getting a lot of press. I dont know if you guys notice over here but shes huge in England. We wrote the song. Our production didnt make the record. Its really dirty; that record sounds really clean

DX: What else?
Leon: Ghostface
sampled us. That was a good one. He sampled El Michaels Affair, this song called Shaky Dog. And we just did a project with Just Blaze. I havent heard what hes done with it, but we did a live Soul track for him which was supposed to be used for that Saigon record so I guess he cut it up and did something with it but I havent heard it yet.

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