Underground Report: Elzhi and Hasan Salaam
As the east coast battles to regain its mark in the genre in which the mid, west and south have forced even the hardest of New Yorks fans to look elsewhere for hits (think of the recent success of Kanye West, Lil Wayne and The Game), Detroit is not giving up with or without Eminem. Elzhi is a prime example of such a champ, dedicated to creating quality music, which is more than evident on The Preface, his debut album that just hit stores and is already having the pessimists in the genre think twice about moaning and groaning about Hip Hop and its current status. Much of the albums success can be attributed to Elzhis conceptual thought patterns, his ear for samples and experimentation, and chemistry with producer Black Milk. HipHopDX sits down with Elzhi to get into his latest creation, his lessons from SV and home of the Motor City.
Elzhi: What's happening?
HipHopDx: Maxing and relaxing. I want to get into The Preface [click to read] off bat; I bumping it last night, and I'm pleasantly impressed.
E: That's what's up; that's what's good. If you like that, the next one [laughing]I'm really trying to take it down with the next one.
DX: Already back in the lab?
E: I'm working on a mixtape with DJ House Shoes called Elmatic. It's basically the tribute to the classic album, [Nas'] Illmatic. We're basically gonna do the whole album over with additional cuts at the end. Just something we're gonna put out there at the end of the year. And after that I'm gonna be working hard on a record - I already hollered at Phonte [click to read] and he said he was down with getting on a track; and I'm trying to reach out to Raekwon [click to read]I'm really trying to blow this next one out.
DX: The Preface is receiving encouraging reviews so far. What was your intention with it?
E: To basically let people know that I have an identity aside from what you may hear me do or what you may see me do with Slum Village. I've been doing it for a minute, had projects just on the Internet. My first EP was put on the Internet a minute ago, me and DJ House Shoes did an EP called an Out of Focus EP and people knew me from that. And then from there you had Welcome 2 Detroit, and I was on there, on a J Dilla record, a song called "Come Get It" [click to read]. "Then from there you heard me on the S, but a lot of people know me from the S, just being SV, but they don't know me as a solo emcee."
The Preface is really the beginning of the tale. It's at the beginning and it's letting you know what's going down before it actually happens. Once this hits and has the snowball effect, I'm just gonna keep letting it go; I'm gonna keep flooding the game with music and really taking it to the next level.
DX: The chemistry with Black Milk is great evident throughout the album. What is it about him that brings out a better emcee in you?
E: Honestly, when I get a track, the track speaks to me in ways through rhythm and colors. When I hear music, I be getting to picture colors. I may hear a horn and a horn may sound like yellow, or depending on how it was played it may have a yellow with a dark undertone or it may be a bright yellow; it may be a dull yellow. Just using that as an example, I see colors in every instrument when I hear music. It's all about what the beat does and Black Milk [click to read] got that fire; he's next in line. He's really killing them now but besides that point, that's what brings out the best in me, the producer. No matter who it is, as long as they got that heat, and the beat is sounding right, I'm gonna translate it to the people that are listening.
DX: You're a fan of sampling
E: Yeah. I'm a fan of all that. You're gonna hear sampling, you're gonna hear live instrumentation. I really wanna show people that once again, I'm not just like the hot 16 artist. I can definitely do that but I'm so much more than that. I've done had my fare share of open mics, and battles, and taking cats out and trying to prove myself and okay, everybody know that EL can rap but can he make an album? All that coincides with each other: the lyrics, the msic and the way it's arranged.
DX: Any specific decade or genre you prefer in samples?
E: No there's not. I've done rapped over The Police. Shit, I've done rapped over Barry White; I've done rapped over Jimi Hendrix
DX: Have you tried Ace of Base?
E: [Laughs] I mean I ain't never rapped over Ace of Base, but if somebody can pull that beat off and create it in a way where it's hot like that, I'm all on it, it don't even matter. It's crazy that you say that 'cause I had a song on this CD that leaked out called Europass and on it I had a song called "Audio Cinematic." And people was kind of tripping off of that sample like, "Damn, why did they sample such and such for 'Audio Cinematic'?" Like something was wrong with it. And I'm like, "Man ain't nothing wrong with that." But I'm eclectic though. So I keep forgetting that certain people that's in the Hip Hop community may not listen to The Police, may not listen to Duran Duran. But that's an era that I enjoy man, as well as the Motown era so it don't matter what genre of music it is as long as someone can create a hot if they can take Kenny Rogers and flip it, I'm on it.
DX: I'm with you. What inspired the "Transitional Joint"? Great insight on your end
E: Real track. And basically that's what the track said to me but at the same time I kind of pulled thoughts and feelings from what I felt and what other people were going through, and just kind of put it in a pot and mixed it up like gumbo. But off rip, that's what I heard from the record: sounds like somebody was going through a transitional. They were bitter at one point and now they're brought back to life. And from there it was like, "Hmmhow can I make this song come to life?" I'm gonna take my experiences and other peoples' as well and there you have it.
DX: Talk to me about the scene in Detroit. It's current state, Eminem's disappearance, etc.
E: The Detroit scene at one point in time was booming. I can recall me battling in the lunch room thinking like, "Man these cats is wack as hell out here man, wasn't nobody seeing me." And I'm like I wanna go to New York 'cause I knew they had talent from the music I was hearing. And then one day I actually went out to this place called the Hip Hop Shop. And when I went out there it just changed my life. It showed me there were people out in the city just like me that was taking this rap to another level and giving it 110%. And you see cats like Eminem, you see cats like Royce Da 5'9", Obie Trice, everybody before they got big at these spots. It was just crazy, I was a part of that scene too. But the wild part about it now is, it's not a scene anymore. I mean you got certain spots that's trying to re-open  but there's no more open minds. The open minds are gone. I remember seeing Em when he was getting big and had moved units, went platinum and all that and he was still up in Andrew's Hall. But he wasn't on the dance floor, he was on top 'cause he just enjoyed the moment; he enjoyed being there. We have nothing like that now.
DX: What has changed?
E: The industry has changed; technology has changed. It's like a domino effect. Everything trickles down. We talk about this all the time like the Internet: it's the gift and the curse. you can be sitting on your chair and say something that affects somebody all the way across the side of the earth and be heard. That's cool but then at the same time they [artists] may come out with projects that may end up getting leaked out and this and that and certain people may want to download ain't nothing wrong with downloading but these artists need their support. So before it got extremely bad, I've seen some of the best artists protesting like, "Please buy these records, please, if you don't I may have to switch up doing what I do to get this money." It started off like that; and then I've seen some of the best rappers leave the underground Hip Hop - or just that middle ground kind of sound - and just go straight to the mainstream. And then you have the fans like, "What happened to such and such boom boom boom?". But in actuality, this is the job.
DX: Good point. Slum Village is known for their experimentation and unique sound aura. What have you learned from the entire experience?
E: So much; so much. For one, I've learned not to put all your eggs in one basket. For two, just the experience of making the Slum Village records taught me how to make lemonade out of lemons. It also taught me different ways and different techniques to actually record a song. And it also taught me what to look out for later on in my career as far as how to conduct business properly and what to look out for in contracts and the whole nine. So I took a real course, it felt like I was in school and I'm still in school. We're about to put out this next record and probably sign with Kochbut man, it's really been a journey, just going around the world and being able to rock an international crowd. Learning how to do that, learning how to pour the energy from the crowd and push it back to the audience just the whole nine. Life experience and I'm still learning.
DX: What's going on with the S and the V?
E: It's a lot of projects in the works. We're supposed to do a project where we're rapping over Dilla's beats but that got held up. It's a little technical difficulty popping off in the background with certain little projects but we still plan on doing all these projects that we said we're gonna do. But we're working on a new album now and we just got in a studio to do a few cuts for this album so it's looking out to be great.
DX: How do you keep focused on one project? Or are you doing multiple projects at the same time?
E: See That's the thing; that's one of the things I learned. When it moves you, do it. Music is like a bottle a CD is like a bottle. What you wanna do is trap that feeling in that bottle and that's your project. We want to make sure we trap the feeling inside of the music and make it come off right.
Still staying on the east coast, and still in the vibe for conceptual and meaningful joints, HipHopDX heads over to New Jersey to chop it up with Hasan Salaam whose album, Children of God, a follow-up from his debut Paradise Lost (2005) is scheduled to drop early September. With his mind on a mission to deliberately decipher topics from politics to race, the emcee and youth worker offers Hip Hop fans that staple were oh so hungry for: insightful lyrics over bangin beats - and a voice deep enough to make Barry White jealous.
He is intelligent enough to speak the language of your reason and approachable enough to relate to your deepest confessions. As Salaam offers a possible explanation for the misogyny in Hip Hop, DX inquires upon the Children of God (sharply featuring Masta Ace, DJ GI Joe and Rugged N Raw), emceeing and Islam, and the connection between The Uprock and The Downrock.
HipHopDX: Salaam Hasan. Brief introduction for those still sleeping?
Hasan Salaam: Peace, this is Hasan Salaam. I got into Hip Hop when I was like three years old as far as writing, 11 years old, 12 years old. My goals with Hip Hop are in sha Allah to be able to add on to the struggle music thats been here from my people for 500 years; and one day that it helps us to getting free. On the business aspect of things, one day Im gonna open up a couple of centers built for the youth in Jersey. After school programs, basketball, chess, philosophy; just a spot kids can go, be safe and educate themselves. Thats my ultimate goal.
DX: How difficult or easy it is to be pushing through the Jersey/New Yorks Hip Hop scene, which doesnt seem to be having any particular direction at this moment?
HS: Everybody and their mama raps right now. [Laughs] Outside of New York and New Jersey, I definitely see more support from people who arent emcees, just the listeners and the supporters. But the good thing about being in New York and New Jersey is there are mad venues here. Any day I can be just like Ima go out, Im a perform tonight and I can make that happen. And within all of that, you definitely find a lot of people that are talented, that have a real love for Hip Hop - its got its pluses and its minuses.
DX: Tell us about your upcoming album, Children of God.
HS: Children of God is basically my response - I work with kids now and Im really just tired of hearing them refer to themselves as nigga and bitch before anything else. Im a firm believer that the creator, the most high, Allah whatever you want refer to the most high as exists in all of us. And were learning as we go along. This is my second album; its a lot of my experiences, a lot of what Ive been through and what Ive seen, and how its lead me to where I am with my life.
DX: Any particular concepts/themes?
HS: The main thing on the album is just that no matter how bad things get, no matter what we might be involved in, what we might do, Allah is still with us. We still have the ability and we still have the means to make things better and try to better our lives - and not only better our own personal lives but better the lives of the people in our community and the world. We definitely are in serious times. Were still persecuted in America and all over the world. If were still our own worst enemies and we keep referring to ourselves as all kinds of crazy things, were never gonna be able to rise above the situation were in and were just gonna stay stuck in it; and were gonna be complaining about the same thing 500 years from now.
DX: The production on the joint caters to your voice and flow really well. Some of the tracks, like The Downrock, are commercially friendly - was that intentional?
HS: Well it wasnt made to be more commercially acceptable; everything on there is made to be good Hip Hop; good music. The Downrock joint, me and RNR, we just wanted to see what would happen if we put both of our production styles together. Im real into melody and RNR is known for his drum patterns. We wanted to see what would happen and thats the track that came out of it. Im a do me regardless, thats why I said on that joint Industry cats doing coke and a smile, thinking Ill ever be switching my style. I can rock over anything; I love Hip Hop, I love rocking a party, I love rocking a show but Im still gonna be myself and bring the message that I want to bring to everything.
But the overall production, I just wanted to step it up because a lot of people have said to me before the production was alright on the last one, but they felt at times that the lyrics or my voice would overpower certain joints. I want to be able to compete with the people that are supposed to be on top. Im tired of people saying Yo, this artist is trash but his beats are hot so I listen to him.
HS: There are powerful political intros on the album including one on native religion and one on the usage of the N word. How do they assist in your overall intention for the album?
DX: Thats like when you write a paper, and you write your thesis statement - thats kind of like the thesis right there. Originally, this was gonna be a mixtape but I decided I dont want to rhyme over other peoples beats no more. So it fits better within the storyline. A lot of people were like, Why you gonna put God in the title, people are gonna be scared. But its funny - you put nigger into something, you put gun, you put bitch, seems like people will gravitate to it.
DX: Why do you think that is?
HS: Weve become accustomed. We view ourselves in that way. We almost expect to be called that. On some level its the shock value of it; on he other levels its the main purchasers of this music are Caucasian so its cool to them to be like, Whats up my nigga? [Laughs] Its attractive in that kind of aspect. When people talk about the devil, they say, That was the most beautiful angel, or the brightest angel or some shit like that. Not to even take that in the literal sense of it but usually, doing wrong is very attractive. You get a rush when youre on the block hustling; you get a rush when you steal from somebody; and thats where I think it comes from a lot of self-hatred.
DX: The track Suga replenishes the positive outlook on women thats desperately missing from Hip Hop. Why did you choose to opt out of disrespecting females even though many rappers excuse misogyny with What I rap is what I see?
HS: I kind of wrote that joint as like my dream womanI wrote that song a while ago. And it was just kind of like what would be everything that I would want in a woman and what I would be to that woman and what she would be to me, and how wed help one another. I heard that beat, my man Impact made it and I was always a fan of the original from Curtis Mayfield - and I know he wrote the original for his daughter. And I was like Im grown up now, what would I expect from a woman as my equal?
DX: Why is the negativity against women so prevalent?
HS: Hip Hop is like a microcosm of how we are right now; society-wise, women are put down. So within Hip Hop, that shit sells. Sex sells faster than anything else  everybody want to sell that. If somebody just got a half-naked woman in the video most people might not even listen to the video, theyre just gonna have it on mute and watch. I know mad people that just got BET on mute; not even listening to the song, but you still know the artists name
The actual misogyny of everything I think is because subconsciously, black men in this country are very marginalized  they view us physically strong but mentally weak. Within the society itself, look at whats going on. When you get shot 50 times dont nothing happen. I aint never heard of police shooting up a white kid 50 times  ultimately in these situations, its come out in such a way that a man doesnt feel like a man look at situations like men beating on their women of any color or class. A lot of the times itll be like Oh, I got fired from a job so I hit my wife. One has nothing to do with the other but thats the closest person to you and thats the only situation where you feel you have some kind of power. Thats one of the main ways it comes out. Like, Let me put down a black woman; a black woman has less of a voice than I do so at least shes not gonna fire back
DX: Great analysis. Is there a connection between The Uprock and The Downrock?
HS: Yeah those are supposed to just rock togetherIt was kind of my dedication to the people. The b-boy was the firstthe b-boy was exploited. Now its the emcee thats exploited most by mainstream culture. But back in the day they used to have break dancers in the McDonalds commercials they still do but then even more. And then they tried to kind of make it seem like This isnt relevant anymore so were not gonna push this it. Ive always loved break dancing; its the one thing I cant do. I can deejay a little bit, I can throw my tag up here and there, and I can rhyme; but I tried break dancing once and I messed up my whole shit. [Laughs]
DX: Is it difficult to be a Muslim and an emcee at the same time?
HS: Its a lot [more] difficult to be a Muslim in this day and time where we live regardless of your profession and your talents.
DX: Im asking because theres perhaps more exposure to drugs, alcohol, women?
HS: Ive been exposed to that stuff my whole life. [Laughs] I dont think Im exposed to it just because Im an emcee. The last show that we did I usually carry my chess with me because Im big ass chess fiend and I was joking with my man like, We were breaking all these stereotypes of what we supposed to be doing backstage. We supposed to be sitting here with weed and women - but were here playing chess.
Hasan Salaam's CD is for sale [click here].