Underground Report: Amir Sulaiman and Rugged N Raw

posted February 28, 2009 12:00:00 AM CST | 15 comments

Amir Sulaiman is best known for his work on Def Poetry Jam. With his most famous piece being Danger garnering a lot of attention, one might consider him to be an artist filled with anger. Some may consider him an artist who focuses more on oppressive or political themes within his work. The Rochester, New York native is just a man interested in exploring all that is human and love within. Exploring the boundaries of art and what it is to be Muslim, black, Hip Hop, a lyricist, activist, writer and the list continues.

Gaining the attention of such people like Russell Simmons and Mos Def, Amir is a man with something to say. With a strong connection to his spirituality, he shares it through his creativity. Sulaiman is what some would say a modern day activist. Fighting to bring back attention to what is really going on and shed some light to this sometimes seemingly uninterested generation. His latest creation Meccan Openings deserves a listening to, especially for those looking for conscious rap with a twist.

HipHopDX: What type of artist do you consider yourself to be in the Hip Hop realmemcee, lyricist, rapper?
Amir Sulaiman:
I would say a lyricist. Thats where my comfort zone is. As a poet actually, as a poet is really where I spent most of my career. Im beginning to see myself evolve as an artist. Im starting to get outside of being a poet. Im developing outside of being an emcee. Its turning into something more holistic. Something where I can only be considered an art form, I would like to eventually be Amir the artist formerly known as.

DX: Would you say you were a poet first before you were a lyricist?
Amir Sulaiman:
I was rhyming in middle school and high school before I was doing what people would consider poetry. I was emceeing originally.

DX: A lot of people compare your voice/sound to KRS-Onehow do you feel about that?
Amir Sulaiman:
Of course every artist wants to be their own being; their own man; their own person or themselves. I personally dont hear it in myself. I hear it from other people after performing. Someone might be there and say, You know you sound like KRS-One [click to read]? What youll find with Hip Hop is that there are certain spirits in Hip Hop that are infinite or that are reoccurring. There are certain traits within Hip Hop. Im convinced that it will always be there, no matter where Hip Hop goes. I wouldnt necessarily call it the complete deal. It was something that he was translating that he was a representation of. Other artists may have taken from that what Rakim [click to read] represented and the other emcees that inherited from that same spirit whether directly or indirectly. It doesnt bother me at all in that way. I always find it pretty interesting.

DX: Who made you want to explore Hip Hop more as a lyricist?
Amir Sulaiman:
The people who I listened to early on that made me want to be dope or do this was Nas. I think that Nas - more specific early Nas, was able to make the words fall so easily. Particularly the narratives he gave. The rhymes were effortless. I remember thinking he was able to just talk and rhyme. I wanted to be able to talk and rhyme. Black Thought was a big emphasis; Andre 3000 [click to read], very early Andre. These are people I consider like masters, you know what Im saying, when I saw or heard them spit certain verses. I remember Black Thought saying [on "Concerto of the Desperado"] [click to read] The implorer, the universe explorer. Treat emcees like the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Leavin these cats open like a box of Pandora. With styles that's newer than the world order, when I hear things like that, Im like, "Wow I can do this." I feel like I can do this and do it excellently. I can do it in a way that hasnt been done before.

DX: The delivery of the songs on your album is reminiscent of The Last Poets whom youve worked withis this intentional are they inspiration for you?
Amir Sulaiman:
Its not intentional. Again, it goes back to the certain spirits that are in this art form. It was just a reference point. The artists of the early '80s to mid-'90s, the dope emcees, the good Hip Hop artists, those were the people I was thinking of. Those were the people that were particularly in my tapedeck. As I go as an artist, to carry that spirit into the new age would be an honor. It was definitely an honor to take some of what that spirit represents and to reinvent it, reinvigorate it and to capture it. It was definitely an honor to do that.

DX: Mos Defhow did you guys link up?
Amir Sulaiman:
I met him when he was promoting Black on Both Sides. He was doing in stores and stuff. His brother knew my brother. My father knew his father. I met him first originally. He was doing his album and I was doing mine. We didnt work together initially for quite some time. Between Black on Both Sides and my album there was a length of time before we collaborated. I knew our relationship would be a naturally progressing one. I knew his brother and father and other different types of associations. I would see him on the road. If he was in the city I would stop by and see him. The relationship was more of a naturally progressing one. Invariably we did collaborate on the album Like a Thief.

DX: Is there a common bond because you guys share the same religious beliefs?
Amir Sulaiman
: Yeah, Im sure thats part of it. Thats not apart of the grounds on which we met. He is definitely my brother on that level also. When were together we talk about everything from politics, religion and music and so forth. We speak on the spirit of Islam as well.

DX: Speaking of Islam, how does your religion affect your music? Has there been any backlash on your choice to pursue music within your religion?
Amir Sulaiman:
Music, particularly the way that it is in our culture is absolutely necessary. It is absolutely necessary for human beings, whomever they are, particularly Muslims to be able to express oneself using music. Music is one of the original human art forms. Music and religion are important. Music is a way to connect people and express oneself to people of that belief. Through the clothes, the food, the way they marry, the way they bury the dead and definitely music. It is one of the ways of knowing people and getting through to them. I believe in music as a representation of our belief and our people.

DX: What would you say youre bringing to the table with your current album Meccan Openings as opposed to the first one Like a Thief in the Night?
Amir Sulaiman:
This is just a further progression into me as a whole human being. My art is a self exploration in getting more into the essence of who I am and seeking to be. It is more sincere and more genuine. It is reaching more towards actual sincerity. This is by far the most important goal or objective when Im creating art. The question Im always asking myself over and over again is am I being sincere? With that question I ask, is this the most excellent way I can express this sincerity? Wherever I am intellectually or emotionally or spiritually seeking to create in that spirit without fail, without facts I want to create something within the spirit that I have now. The album itself is exploding. This album I was working with one producer whom was my brother. This album was created after my brother and I went on Hajj (pilgrimage). We went to Mecca making the holy pilgrimage. When I went to Mecca I didnt go thinking that when I came back I would make an album. I was thinking when I get back Im going to write about this experience as a human being. I want to write about it as a way to uncover the Hajj the pilgrimage. I have never seen anything like this before in my life. It was absolutely transformative. It wasnt just me who experienced this feeling. If you meet people in general who have made the pilgrimage before, you will hear that it is not something that you go to and come back the same person. It is, I dare say, absolutely impossible to go and come back the same person.

My brother and I went. When we went we met people who were planning for years to even a lifetime to make their way out at least once before they die. Some people have come here to die. They have worked their whole life to get to this point. You see people that drove there from Russia. Youll see people who came there on horseback or camelback. Everyone is the same. Everyone is wearing something similar to two cotton towels almost; one on your bottom and one on your top. Everyone just floods together. Everyone is leveled out. You could be sitting next to the king of Jordan and on the other side of you there could be a poor person from Indonesia. You wouldnt be able to tell the difference. There is no congregation of human beings bigger than Hajj. Were talking four, five to six million people every year coming to do one thing. This is unheard of. This creation of the Hajj is very special. The creation that came after is very special. We had worked together before my brother and I. We were e-mailing ideas back and forth to each other and brainstorming. The next thing we knew there were ten joints created. The theme that was playing out in all of them was of self discovery, the inhalation of the ego, of awakening evolved. Thats when we started to say that we should treat these tracks as an album.

DX: Your album has a lot of deep material that you really have to listen to more than once to even try and grasp where youre coming from. On Cant Get Enough you say so much love sometimes it makes me hostile what do you mean by that?
Amir Sulaiman:
I only write love poetry. Even at a time when I am most known for my poem "Danger," or poetry that people would consider political or oppressive. The love for myself, the love for my people, my love for when its good, when its real; sometimes it can be so strong that offenses to it, to what I love, makes me hostile. Sometimes in my art it can come off as, Wow Amir hates this or Amir hates so-and-so." Sometimes love can get so intense that it can feel like its going to burst. It can make my heart hurt within my chest and it feels like its going to erupt sometimes. Its a very intense love. For example my song I Love You from the album Like a Thief, the hook is just I love you, I love you, I love you. I then say, So how do I feel about those who destroy you, those who exploit you, those who name call you, those who want to humiliate you, rape you? If I love you and its known, than how do I feel about people who want these things done? Thats what I mean when I say, So much love sometimes it makes me hostile. Sometimes I feel like its so filled up in my heart its literally going to erupt.

DX: Where would you like to be placed in the hip hop world? Would you be content being just an underground artist?
Amir Sulaiman:
I dont have an objective to being underground. Im more and more seeking the concept of what it is to be a human being. In that way, if Im successful in that, it would translate to more human beings liking what I do. It would mean more human beings being able to identify with what Im doing. Not just hip hop fans. Not just black people. Not just Muslim people. Im not seeking to tap into what it means to be Muslim. Im not seeking to only tap into what it means to be American. Im not seeking to tap into what it means to be black. Im seeking into the human spirit of what it means to be a human being. In that way, that would be popular. That would be pop. I wouldnt consider myself right now a pop artist. What Im seeking right now is kind of more human being. The closer I get to that, the closer I feel like Im getting to the success of my art. In no way am I seeking to confirm myself as an underground artist or a mainstream one. Im seeking to keep myself in the spirit of God.

Rapper Rugged N Raw is apart of the New York City competitive underground scene. With a style that is definitely all his own, he leaves no choice but to intrigue someone enough to take a listen. Going on stage in suspenders and a messy fro, this guy is definitely confidant enough with his capabilities. Watching a performance of his you will also find that he his definitely a character who can hold his own lyrically.

Rugged N Raw
is not just a lyricist, but, he produces as well. Working closely with other talented underground artists and DJ Static, who has worked with Rakim and Talib Kweli, the rapper has created a total of six albums. Many underground enthusiasts claiming his last album Another Level to be one of the better works within the genre. Being able to be funny and a witty storyteller at the same time is a talent that Rugged possesses and it shows on his current album Truth Serum. Why not take a minute to see why during this recession its okay to be Broke and Proud.

HipHopDX: Did you get your name from the group EPMDS song "Rugged and Raw"?
Rugged N Raw:
Not at all. Im not even genius enough to come up with my own name. A kid in high school actually came up with it. I used to rap about some really raunchy subject matter and I also had a full grown beard, which is more than most 16 year-olds. Therefore the kids I used to freestyle with called me "Rugged N Raw."

DX: How do you describe your style on stage and your fashion to go with it as well?
Rugged N Raw:
The whole suspenders thing was done as a joke. I was doing a show in Newark and nobody dresses like that out in Newark, probably not even for work. I did it just to be funny. It ended up coming across really well. I was actually about to be single at the time. My ex and I werent vibing too well, so I was preparing in advance. I made sure to get some Axe body spray ready and prepare to win. It worked and everyone thought it was cool, so I just stuck with it. I made adjustments to my style by making it sloppy and gave it this whole wild crazy character to match. When I get on stage its really not a concentrated effort. I just really like being on stage and any independent artist will tell you that theres so much other stuff going on. You are busy trying to be seen and heard that it can take some of the fun out of it. The only pure things left are when youre making a song and when youre performing it. I make sure to have all of the fun I can while Im actually up there.

DX: Broke and Proud is a hilarious song and especially fitting during this recession. What are some creative ways youve tried to make money or are currently trying to get cash?
Rugged N Raw:
The obvious and non creative way is the whole 9-5 routine. Im slowly but surely trying to get my pool game up. This way I can beat a bunch of drunken people out of their money. I think that would be pretty cool. Im always looking around on the floor. I found $30 on floor once on the way to work. That bought my lunch for a few days. Other than that thats pretty much it. Im not really a betting man. If youre nice to people they will definitely hook you up with some food, which is every bit as good as money.

DX: What was your inspiration for broke and proud? Is it because youre an independent artist and youre trying to make it in the industry? Were you trying to call out fakers who act like they got it but they dont?
Rugged N Raw:
The whole idea actually started off about two-and-a-half to three years ago. Me and Hasan [Salaam] [click to read] had come up with similar ideas. The whole concept and what we were working on was actually to a completely different beat. It had gotten lost and we never pursued it. I took another stab at the idea later on. It was something I wanted to do because after a while everyone was talking about the same thing. I get money. If you really do get money, than by all means talk about that because thats what you know. I just think more people were doing it because it sounded cool as opposed to thats how they lived. I just wanted to do something for people that were into beats and trying to dance, but at the same time get some substance.

DX: With six albums under your belt including the recent onewho was your favorite artist to work with?
Rugged N Raw:
Youre trying to get me in a lot of trouble. Everyone I worked with I know personally. If I were to tell you I would not only be incorrect, but, I would lose a lot of friends thanks to you. Honestly, I really cant just pick one. I liked working with everyone for different reasons. I liked working with Hasan because we been working a lot together. Even though we dont sound the same or go about things exactly the same way, were in this for the same purpose. I feel like whenever I work on a track with him I dont have to try to hard. It just makes sense. Theres always a common ground. I like working with Haiku because thats just a real raw spitter. I always liked rhyming that way so it was long overdue. I like working with Homeboy Sandman [click to read] because he is definitely a very unique individual. Its someone that takes the trait on pretty much 24 hours like myself. I think with everybody there is definitely a common ground. Working on the songs it wasnt tough. I really cant pick one over the other. I like working with everybody equally.

DX: I read that you shared a stage with some pretty prominent people in the industry. Who was someone you shared a stage with and was just in awe about it?
Rugged N Raw:
Being able to open a show for Rakim was really fun. I got to meet him a few years ago. He was sitting inside this store called Mannys. Its an electronic store that is really popular. He was just sitting down and very humble. Its just something about not only him as an entertainer but just his persona. Somebody that iconic and being able to open up a stage for him was incredible. The Pharoahe Monch show as well. Pharoahe Monch is probably one of the most underrated cats out there to me. That was really dope. Being able to share a stage with those people is great. I think it is also important to learn from them. After I rock I make sure to watch them rock and just learn something.

DX: You created three albums all in one yearhow did that work out?
Rugged N Raw:
One album was just an instrumental joint I did with one of my producers, DJ Static. The album was all movie and television theme songs. A lot of those beats we had sitting around already from when we did Battle of the Producer. The other album was just songs that didnt quite make the cut on other CDs. The only album I really had to sit down and concentrate on was Another Level. The other two were easy to put together.

DX: The album Truth Serum is pretty sick. Why did you call it Truth Serum? Which track is your favorite?
Rugged N Raw:
Its called Truth Serum because I think every track on there represents exactly who I am. Some might argue that you have some real raunchy punch lines type of tracks in there. To me, everybody is contradictory by nature. Some days you want to be real civil. Some days youre gonna be introspective. Some days you just walk down the street and you dont care. Youre gonna just mean mug the person next to you even though they didnt do anything wrong. I wanted to make the whole Superman and Clark Kent in the same album. As far as a favorite track it kind of depends on the day.

The one track that a lot of people have hit me up about is a song called "Lifes Purpose." It was really monumental for me because the subject matter in there I have always been scared to talk about. Sometimes there is only so much you want the public to know. Theres only but so much you want scrutinized by other people. It took me a while to be able to muster up the courage to write that and share it with people. Whats so dope about that is there are people who come up to me after a show and they might say I lost a relative a while back, or even bring up the whole abortion issue thats brought up in the second verse. Its a really tough situation and people dont just talk about that stuff. They see that you went through the same thing and it makes it easier for people to just talk and build with you on a human being level. I have to say out of all the tracks, even though I listen to that one the least, thats the one Im most proud of.

DX: Speaking of the song "Lifes Purpose," did your mother or girlfriend involved in the situation ever listen to the song?
Rugged N Raw:
I definitely gave my mom a copy of the album. I dont know if that song was listened to yet. Honestly I was just too scared to sit there and say check this out. Not everything on there weve talked about. That will take me a little longer to have that conversation. As for my ex-girlfriend listening to itI really dont know if shes listened to it yet. Again, that is another situation where I didnt even tell anybody about it for a few months. It was only a select few people that really knew about it. It was just one of those things that I just really wanted to share with people. People will know who the artist behind the music really is. Thats the difference between an artist that is here today and gone tomorrow. One that a bunch of people can gravitate to and relate to has more potential to stay around. I just wanted to do it to let people know its alright to express yourself. Theres plenty other people going through the same thing you are.

DX: Why should people want to take time out and check you out?
Rugged N Raw:
Theres nothing else like it. Down to the subject matter, even though there are a lot of different stories out there, I think I look at things from an angle that is in front of everybody. I look at things that are right there, but, no one talks about it. Ill talk about the everyday stuff. People have really good days and people have really bad days. Most of the time lifes not so much of a rollercoaster. I like to bring out the everyday stuff that goes on with people. When people want to come out of their fantasy world Ill be right there.

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