Filed under: BK All Day,Features,Interviews,Steady Bootleggin',Where Are They Now?
Written by: Intifada
By Idris Intifada
By the mid to late-’90s, the hip-hop landscape became a Staten Island garbage dump filled with the shards of tossed out CDs, rather than the block party, powered by the streetlight, next to a burnout building in the South Bronx. This isn’t a diss to the Wu, but a description of the environmental disaster eating away at the rugged grains of Shaolin like erosion.
Tricia Rose argued that Soundscans for hip-hop were always off, because b-boys and b-girls were always dubbing the hood’s copy of the newest release. That was the ’80s, it was supposedly all golden in those days. A decade later, it was all plastic; the jagged plastic debris of compact disc refuse. The record industry began producing an even greater abundance of CDs that found their way into the landfills in the forgotten borough, rather than into listener’s boom-boxes for dubbing.
Instead of contributing to the ecological crisis, Siah broke with the then popular double-CD-packed-with-filler-plus-elaborate-packaging trend and released a 12-inch vinyl single with a small logo of two microphones being “fondled” like testicles on the label. Contrary to the endlessly gift-wrapped CD that only sparks when placed in a microwave, listening to the “Repetition”/”Pyrite” single reveals the complex layers that compose the enigmatic MC from Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. More importantly, anyone who gets a hold of this record would never send it on the path to a heap on the island of Staten but cherish the music like Ghost does his Wallo’s.
Idris: What have you been up to in the past couple of years?
Siah: Making music, going to school, teaching; a variety of things. I just sort of drifted away from the hip-hop scene in probably 2000/2001. I tried to make a little push as an independent artist by putting together a demo but I didn’t really push hard. The people who were really interested in what I had been doing from the mid to late ’90s didn’t step up and say “yeah, we want to give you a budget and we want you to make a record.” So, I didn’t push that hard because my interests were turning in different directions and such. Essentially, I went on to pursue a master’s degrees, I studied abroad, and now I work teaching Middle Eastern politics and international relations. I kept my hands involved in music, but I drifted more from producing and rhyming in the hip-hop vein to playing the piano, learning different genres of music. For example, right now I’m playing in a student Tango ensemble, the music of Piazzolla. I kept myself stimulated with music but I moved away from hip-hop generally speaking.
There seems to be an element of fantasy in your rhymes. Was that a conscious decision? Where does that come from?
I was a voracious reader as a child. My mother in particular and my father as well encouraged this pursuit. So I made up a lot of fantasy adventures. From a very early stage I was reading King Arthur and all that stuff. But in the years immediately prior to taking up rhyming as a real serious pursuit, I had read a lot of Dragonlance books, the entire series. Now when I think about it, as a kid, I was raised on all of L. Frank Baum’s book. He had twenty something books, not only The Wizard of Oz. Chronicles of Narnia. All that stuff. I ate that stuff up. I wasn’t really a fan of science fiction but I was a fan of the fantasy adventure; the knights, the magic, the elves. It was really more interesting than most of what was happening in school. So, it definitely had an impact, particularly when I look back, on a song like “A Day Like Any Other [on Siah and Yeshua Da Poed’s The Visualz EP],” which tries to conjure up, in an updated New York City context, this sort of fantasy world. Definitely fantasy has been an element of my approach to writing lyrics, synthesized with the other element, which is the reality of growing up in New York City.
That’s interesting because most rappers gravitate towards science fiction maybe because of the dense urban environment, where you gravitated towards fantasy.
Yeah, that’s a good point. I was never really interested in the future. It’s the present and the past that interest me. Fantasy can be associated more with an imagined past than a future, even though, usually the frame of time is not our own. They don’t necessarily set themselves up as sometime in the distant past on the Earth. Rather, the worlds in fantasy books are alternative worlds.
The actual metaphor, in your words ‘is better for traveling quick’. Is your writing style linked with fantasy? In your style and form is it similar to the content?
You are saying how do I perceive the act of writing lyrics and what did they accomplish for me? In other words, are you asking if they accomplish a way of creating a fantasy landscape and such?
Certainly. I got to a point, I think, where saying clever things with words and making clever puns, I grew angry with. I grew frustrated with this sort of easy wordplay. It’s not that hard to come up with a clever pun. I always was maybe searching for something more than that. For me what was more significant -but for someone else might be less- was to establish connections via language to other abstract ideas, other places, other things, outer space or whatever it might be. In a sense it was a vehicle for transporting myself. I don’t know if you picked up the anthology [The Visualz Anthology released by Traffic Ent. Group] yet?
Yeah, I try and keep up with everything that gets released from you two.
Oh sure, cool. Specifically, there are a couple songs there I did called ‘Hairy Bird Intro’ and ‘[Hairy Bird] Reprieve.’ I had a vision for doing this whole suite, an electronic beat and lyrical suite. A suite, in classical music, is a set of pieces. Usually there will be more than two. So clearly, I never really created a suite. I had this vision of telling a story but in a very abstract and tripped out way. I have an intro and reprieve but there is no actual centerpiece, to exist between that frame. It’s kind of like this little oddity. But the point is, I think in those two songs, I took this idea of metaphor as a vehicle for establishing connections with the abstract and fantastic world, while also addressing real emotions and themes- that’s where I took that really to the place that I wanted. The first one I never released but the second, the reprieve, was circulating on a demo. I guess we didn’t shop it too much but nobody really leaped out and said, ‘Hey, we want to do something with this and we love it and we want to hear more things like this.’
Are there copies of the demo?
All the songs from the demo, with the exception of maybe one or two, are on the Anthology. I think every single cut has been released but one.
On “No Soles Dopest Opus” there is an allusion to Robert Frost. I have read other poetry you have written. What poets influence you?
There is no conscious allusion to Robert Frost on ‘No Soles Dopest Opus’. There are certainly poets that have influenced me over time. It’s been a progression over time. I can’t tell you who was influencing me at that moment. There are definitely some poets that resonate with me. Certainly Walt Whitman is someone I really have always loved. Rabindranath Tagore, the famous Indian poet of the early 20th century, who won the Nobel Prize. Reading him in translation, you always have to ask yourself, what is it really like in Bengali? But at the same time, the renderings that I have in English are satisfying, for me. So it’s Tagore via his translator. Those are two people who really recur for me as poets. And I love Edgar Allen Poe. I definitely have been moved by Langston Hughe’s poetry.
I don’t actively seek out new poetry right now. Things that come my way, I’m interested in them but it’s tough. I guess, I lean more towards to instrumental music and focus more on that craft. This is not to say I’ve tuned out poets at this point, but I’m less keen on knowing who’s who in the world of poetry. It’s a kind of closed off world. There are Hip-hop artists as poets, and then poets who wrote for the page, which is a very different consideration, but with both it’s hard to keep up.
Do you see similarity between the poetry read and the lyrics you wrote?
I don’t know. Anyone who is seeking to convey those ideas through verse, there is going to be something common to their approach. I transfer things from the poets of the page to the poets of hip-hop era. I can’t speak to exactly what they are. But one thing I can tell you is that hip-hop is very structured over a common time 4/4 beat, so even if you want to experiment, so to speak, and place your accents in different places and begin your premier line in different places, you still are sort of constrained by common timing. For poetry on the page, I was never really interested in metered verse, I was really more interested in free verse. But I have definitely acquired a greater appreciation for metered verse over time.
You probably don’t remember this but around 2000 or 2001, but I asked who you sampled on your 12-inch. You posted on message board on Yeshua’s site and you told me it was Arvo Part. I’ve been listening to him ever since.
My friend John Adler, one of the producers of the original record, put me on to Arvo Part. He’s an awesome composer.
Is there a lot of classical music you are into?
Yeah, I definitely love classical music. Classical is one of the genres that I pay great attention to. My collection is broad. But in terms of classical music, Claude Debussy is my favorite. I really worked on learning his piano music pretty intensively just because I find it to be very beautiful. I’m at a point right now where I’m looking for something more contemporary because he died in 1918. He’s still grounded in an old world era, even though his music is revolutionary. So I’m always looking for something of interest at the moment. Ástor Piazzolla, the Argentinean classically trained composer and sort of Tango guru, his music is what I’m focused on right now. I’m working on how to play Piazzolla’s music, the piano parts in an ensemble. Debussy, Ravel…I love the French, for music I love the French.
So like Erik Satie?
Satie definitely. Satie, Ravel, and Debussy are the big guys and then Faure, of course. I try and keep an open mind but it’s really hard to keep up, again. There is so much out there. I’m not saying I’m conservative in terms of opening up to new composers and new pieces. It’s just that when I know that I like something, it’s better than going to a record store and spending hundred dollars on a bunch of CDs that you may not like, or going online and doing the same thing. I get sick of some of the music that I listen to but at least I know that I like it, right?
In terms of jazz samples in the production of that record, I’m lead to believe that you are mostly into Bop era and West Coast stuff?
Jazz-wise, I love Charles Mingus. I love John Coltrane. But really what I listened to the most as a kid and around the time of the recordings was Clifford Brown / Max Roach Quintet. The way I think about Clifford Brown is that he wasn’t quite at the level of Dizzy Gillespie in terms of technical virtuosity but he had a tone like Miles Davis and was more technically capable than Miles. So had he not died in a car accident in his 20s, he would have gone on to stand alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis as one of the greatest trumpeters ever. I listened to Max Roach as a young man and it is amazing what he did with rhythm. It always struck me that, for example, those guys when they were writing and arranging their music for studio recordings they didn’t necessarily look to see what the latest bop quintet was doing by way of arrangement. Rather they would study Igor Stravinsky’s scores and kind of integrate this into their own jazz ethos and their understanding of their craft and create something that was really special with only five instruments. Max Roach and Clifford Brown were my main focus in jazz. And definitely a lot of other things as well, Dizzy Gillespie, I never really got too into Charlie Parker. Charles Mingus of course [I liked], and then Coltrane as I said.
It’s interesting because most hip-hop producers are into ’70s soul jazz but you are firmly in bop.
Definitely, but at the same time, in the terms of sampling, it’s whatever is right. All the CTI catalogue, which I guess qualifies as soul jazz, certainly that’s ripe for sampling. But in terms of what I would listen to not with the eye towards looping necessarily, even though I would ultimately loop some things, is more ’50s and ’60s jazz.
The song “A Long Night” in Arabic, Hebrew and English, how did that come together?
I always wanted to do a song in Arabic, Hebrew and English. It was always a goal of mine but it was not accessible to me because of my facility with the languages and just because I didn’t feel compelled at that time to bring it into reality. I was sitting in Washington, D.C. at my piano and my buddy called me up in New Rochelle and was like “I got this studio xxx, I got it for x amount of time, come up and let’s do some music together. I’m going to film some documentary in Israel in the West Bank and I need some music to show the people there.” I was like “Alright, I’ll come up and do a song but I want it to be this kind of song and I want it to be in different languages.” I didn’t know what the precise concept would be yet. So he agreed, and I went up for a weekend and we knocked out the song. In order to write the lyrics I had to collaborate closely, just in that weekend, with a Palestinian friend of mine in Washington and an Israeli friend of mine in Israel. I was on the phone with them constantly kind of vetting the lyrics with them. I know Arabic and I know Hebrew but I don’t know Palestinian dialect and my Hebrew is not good enough to be convincing. So, I worked with my friends, my father weighed in on it, the mother and father of my friend in D.C. weighed in on it, to construct this sort of narrative, which seemed to be emerging as I was creating it. The idea was to relate an account of the conflict but from a variety of different perspectives over laid upon one and other, without any necessary conclusion emerging from it, just trying to say what it is as it exists. I didn’t have a concept of what the song was going to be until that weekend was over and I had consulted with my friends. Because essentially I approached friends and family and I said, “Tell me what you want to say in this song.” And they said what they would say about the situation if they had a voice to broadcast their perspective. And so, sure enough, that’s really what it was.
The lyrics were a big collaboration. We weren’t so crazy about the music we recorded that weekend, So, I took it back into the studio in Brooklyn and wrote some new music. We got some professional performers on Middle Eastern instruments in the New York City area, who really laced it up and made it sound awesome. I got my friend Sara to sing a verse of ancient Arabic poetry in the chorus. I got my sister to sing the Hebrew rendering of those lyrics in the chorus as well. It was a real sort of family and friends effort. As soon as it was done, my intention was entirely to post it on the web for free and not to sell it. Just to put it out there. We have not made any money from that, it was just to raise awareness and gain interest.
I know you studied foreign relations in the Middle East, what’s your stance on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?
I think it’s pretty tragic. I really hope that there is a peaceful resolution. You have a lot of intransigent leadership and even when you have leaders that are willing to compromise, I think the hardest flanks of each society make it difficult for a compromise to be achieved. I think, everybody, for a long time, had seen the broad outline of what a compromise can look like, in terms of giving up territory and making other concessions on either side. But, it’s very difficult to achieve that right now. There isn’t much hope among the populations themselves. So, I don’t spend as much time teaching and dwelling on this in a scholarly capacity, just because I know it’s such a difficult issue. Personally, I definitely think about it a lot and I’m hoping for something good to happen. Though, right now, I’m not positive that we have anything great on the horizon.
Tell me about the paper on the web written by you and one of your professors.
Yes Francis Fukuyama, a wonderful man who took me under his wing, and with whom I collaborated on an essay. We wanted to provide a fresh perspective on the conflict between radical Islamism and the United States.
Although, there maybe Western roots in “radical Islam”, in the paper, I don’t agree with the conclusion that the West is a model for the Middle East to strive for.
Well I wouldn’t necessarily characterize it that way. Politically, I do agree with Francis Fukuyama’s thesis, that so far, the best of a series of imperfect arrangements that human beings have arrived at, for structuring their societies, and empowering the members of any societies is liberal democracy as practiced and originated in the Western world and now spread about elsewhere. In that basic kernel of truth, I concur wholeheartedly that liberal democracy is a necessary component for broader success in Middle Eastern economies, societies, and political systems. But, full modeling after and cultural mirroring of the Western world—I don’t think that it’s possible, constructive and I don’t think that one has to mirror the Western world culturally in order to arrive at a successful and vibrant liberal democracy. There are many different paths to this ultimate goal. The question of how culture relates to this process is complicated and contested question as it to how.
So you think liberal democracy is independent of culture?
It’s a difficult question. I don’t know if I have the tools to really answer it. But I can say that, to a certain extent, I think, in essence it can be. Where a decision is made by a political leadership and a population is brought on board with it, then yes. There are many different configurations that we can look at. Japanese society modernized and established liberal democracy. Many societies in Europe, the United States, and many societies in Latin America are great examples. India is a great example of a vibrant democracy. India is a billion strong, the question is often posed, is it a real democracy in India or not? I believe it is and it holds fast. There are many problems in India, no question, so much poverty still and so much inequality. India is a democracy, where you have the peaceful handover of power from parties of rival ideological agendas.
That is one thing that I have taken from Francis Fukayama. I respect him as a person and as a man but apart from his analytical capacity, which is something to emulate in terms of how to organize one’s thought, it is his belief in the power and validity of this model of ordering societies and governments. I say that, despite the failed program of the United States to impose liberal democracy in Iraq one should not just say “throw the baby out with the bath water.” Just because it was a flawed policy to impose democracy on Iraq doesn’t mean that democracy in the non-Western world is not something to aspire to.
Ok, let’s lighten it up. You say “hella fit” in several records. What’s up with that?
I think I was just getting excited by West Coast slang. So “fit” meaning “capable”. So I’m “hella fit.” I was always looking for new slang terms when I’d get bored with the local offerings.
Do you still hang out with Yeshua?
We see each sometimes, not as much as we used to, of course, because now we live in different parts of the borough. But, we definitely keep up, even when we were not putting this re-release together. I was out of New York for many years. I’ve only been back a year and a half.
How do you like being back?
I love it. I unfortunately have to depart pretty soon again. But, New York is my home base.
How do you think growing up on the beach [Brighton Beach, Brooklyn] influenced your writing? It seems like the imagery of the beach made your writing similar to Requiem for a Dream or another Hubert Selby novel.
Exactly, it’s huge. For someone who wants to be expressive and has a need to express himself, it’s a potent vehicle and metaphor and it’s an experience that’s intimately lived. If I grew up at the foot of a mountain and I was a poet or a lyricist, I’m sure that experience would pervade my work. It’s important in and of itself because there is nothing like the ocean. There is something special about being raised near an ocean. In a philosophical sense, it is definitely humbling, if one allows oneself to be humbled by this and not fixated by the big city and all it has to offer. So, yes that experience pervades my thinking, my work, and my music, absolutely.
You went to the Middle East to study Arabic, how was that?
I did, I lived in Egypt for a year and I lived in Morocco for a summer. So, that was a great experience and a wonderful time. I learned a lot about Middle Eastern music when I was there. I had the chance to play Middle Eastern percussion in a few ensembles, very informally, as a stand in among more professional musicians. It was definitely a great experience to immerse myself in North African culture and Egyptian culture, and I definitely have plans to travel there again.
What do you think of rap today? Are there any rappers you like today?
I definitely like Mos Def, most of the time. I like him both as an actor and a rapper, especially in the movie Something the Lord Made. I occasionally turn on the radio and here some Jay-Z material I like. Honestly, I have fallen out of the loop, and prefer to put on the music from the late ‘80s and ’90s; Nas, Brand Nubian, A Tribe Called Quest in particular, De La Soul’s first few albums. It’s not just that I drifted away from hip-hop, it’s that I’ve had a hard time keeping up with music as it’s coming out across the board. There is so much to listen to and there is such a history of music to explore, that I spend more time digging through that history than keeping up with the Joneses’.
Check out Siah and Yeshua Da Poed’s The Visual Anthology released by Traffic Entertainment Group.
Siah – ‘Repetition’
Siah – ‘Pyrite’
Siah & Yeshua – ‘No Soles Dopest Opus’
Arvo Part – ‘Fratres for Cello and Piano’
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