On June 9th, Yousef Hilmy of Abou Naddara interviewed Cavalier — a Brooklyn-born, New Orleans-based rapper who just released Private Stock, one of the best hip hop releases of 2018. In a conversation that happened over Skype between Los Angeles and New Orleans, the two talked about Cavalier’s early days rapping, growing up in Brooklyn, cannabis, his new album, the inextricability of Islam and hip hop, and more.
What’s the origin of the name Cavalier?
Well mainly it was a nickname, honestly. It wasn’t that deep — it came from a friend of mine, you know, the homie I used to write rhymes with and joke around with, who was really like a brother at the time. He’s a real tall dude and he used to always be like, “you like a savvy cavalier little motherfucker.” We used to get quick quips at each other. It started like that. But I never performed under a stage name at that time. I wasn’t developed enough in my opinion or confident enough to be performing publicly. I was still kinda learning. But when I did start doing that, the whole savvy cavalier insult became a nickname and then just became Cav and I took that on and Cavalier became my stage name. But after I assumed that name, just kinda knowing…to be aware of what you call yourself. The term is an adjective but it’s also a noun. In terms of the nouns, there’s the Cavalier Poets…
And the Moors!
Exactly, exactly. That Moorish influence, I saw a really strong connection there. And I also wear my hair long…the Cavaliers wore their hair long so I just saw a lot of tie-ins and it just made sense to keep it at that point.
What’s your earliest music memory if you have one?
I never thought of that. I have a few. I mean, every artist says this — that they grew up in a musical household — but I’m from an immigrant household and it was definitely a musical one. They said that as a baby I used to sing things they played. Some of it was funny because they weren’t really songs that kids would be singing. But some of my earliest hip hop memories…I remember hearing that song “It Takes Two” by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock. I remember as a kid trying to rap along to something like that and thinking that it was cool. But I was really young, hearing that and doing that. I had a cousin, he must have been like 3…we had a little tape recorder thing and we’d try to make little baby raps, man, straight up, laughing and shit. But I remember trying to learn that Rob Base song, to the point that when I got a little bit older and could write, I wrote the lyrics down so that I could try to memorize it. So that’s one of my first hip hop memories. That and seeing music videos on TV at my babysitter’s crib, for sure. Like seeing rap videos.
What kind of rap videos?
Real New York shit, man. I feel like like Big Daddy Kane music videos or some shit like that. Real New York stuff used to come on TV. Ralph McDaniels used to have a video show, so my babysitter would play stuff like that and I looked up to them because they were older. They were kids in the culture at that time, adolescent preteens with haircuts and outfits. And I didn't even understand it, but I just thought it was so cool what they were doing. I was too young for school, but I was under their care. So it had a strong influence. Ironically, in fact, one of those brothers I know ‘till this day and a lot of people know his mom, Queen Afua. She wrote a book called Heal Thyself [for Health and Longevity]: a womb-centered nutritional based lifestyle for women. Her son is named SupaNova Slom and they kind of grew up in a Khemetic-centered community and they definitely got involved in, like, putting that through hip hop messages too. So he was a big influence on me as a kid. But I know him as an adult now and I still look at him as like a big brother, not that we're close in that way, but in my memory, you know what I’m saying?
Does that community still persist?
No, not really. I mean, Queen Afua is well known. I feel like she might have even been on Oprah with her book. If you look her up and Heal Thyself you’ll see that it’s really travelled far, especially with our parents’ and grandparents’ age group. And they had a khemetic-centered wellness center in the neighborhood that I grew up in, but I think it's since closed. I know that she's still active in that community and her son is kind of like the self-proclaimed hip hop medicine man — he has a book out about wellness in the ‘hood and he's constantly pushing Vegan lifestyle ‘cause he grew up that way, you know what I'm saying? So yeah. I don't know if the actual community, the spot that they had, is still active in Brooklyn, but they were definitely an institution in my neighborhood and community for a long time.
Do you remember when you first started collecting records?
It was CDs. I can't say I remember the first CDs I started collecting, but I can tell you what CDs started making me feel like I needed to have them as a kid — it was Tribe Called Quest. Tribe Called Quest fucked me up as a kid, straight up! There was other acts that I thought were cool. But there's a filmmaker that I'm close with that people know named Shaka King, who’s like my big brother. I knew him when I was a kid and we kind of bonded over the whole Tribe Called Quest thing, but he took it to the next level because he was older. He’s the one who showed me that there were liner notes on these CDs, that you could see the albums that they sampled. He put me onto that, and then he also put me onto knowing that when you knew the artists that they sampled, you could look at those records and you could see the musicians who played on those records. And he was deep into it like that already and he was mad young and it left a really strong impression on me because I saw the richness of that kind of hip hop. But that Tribe Called Quest…it wasn't even the first album that they made that I got put onto. I feel like I really got put onto it by their second album, Low End Theory. That was the album I could grasp at the time as a kid. And then as I got older, I started listening to other artists that at the time I couldn’t understand when I first heard them, but then when I got older I was, like, oh, this is game changing, you know what I mean? But in terms of selecting music for myself, I think that would have started probably with Tribe Called Quest, for sure.
Can you speak on your early rap days? When did you first start to self-identify as a rapper?
Yeah, it wasn't a singular moment. It was normal for me to have hip hop activities in my daily experiences — cats freestylin’, dissing each other and shit like that. I never saw myself as a rapper, but as I started to get a little older… because Shaka put me onto Tribe Called Quest and seeing it on that level, I felt in my heart that I knew more about hip hop than my peers. I was fake elitist. I was like, yeah…”y’all don’t know about that, though.” But it made me a student of the culture. Before I even realized that I had a penchant to actually wanna write raps, I just was really a super fan like that, you know?
And I think that what started to happen is certain friendships that were key in my life became centered around hip hop, like my relationship with Shaka or with my homie that gave me my nickname Cav. We used to do a lot of rhyming and listen to music all the time. And eventually I tried to do school, you know what I mean? I definitely did. I went to high school and I tried to go to college but I just didn't complete that and instead I went up there and used the time to explore music more aside from other foolish shit that I did. But around that time I started doing freestyle battles and started getting my shit wet in that space.
As MC Cavalier? Was that the name you were going by?
I don't know if I was really using it like that, maybe on the light end because it was already a nickname with my homies. But it started like that and I had went to a couple other schools and battled a couple of heads for some little student activities — they’d have these events where they might give out cash prizes. And I was like, “oh they’re about to give out cash prizes?” To me it was like, I definitely have more jokes than this dude, you know? That’s how it started — there’s no way this dude is funnier than me. There’s no way he’s gonna make fun of me in front of a crowd.
So kind of like a battle rap style?
Yeah, it definitely started out like that. And then it was all cool in school and everything until I tried to do it in New York City one time and that's when it was a whole ‘nother level. And I seen that dude Immortal Technique. So now it’s, like, I’m all young in the game and I seen that dude Immortal Technique out here, intimidating fools. I'm in the crowd and shit watching these events and Al Sharpton has this shit called The National Action Network in NYC. And I guess there was a part of it that did events, like community type events, shit for the youth. So they had Immortal Technique come out — and he was already Immortal Technique at the time — and he was coming up to these events and had everybody on shook mode!
So I entered one of the events and that felt way more intimidating than trying to battle homies at random college campus bullshit, you know? But I did that and I made it to the finals against some kid, some rapper from Harlem or some shit who already was being shopped in the industry. And I was like, oh wow, okay. I can kind of hang with this, you know? It gave me a little bit more confidence. So I guess that's where I started taking it kinda serious. But I still hadn't decided that music was something I could pursue.
Did you have some other idea for what you might do with your life at that point?
Man, to be honest, the other parts of my life weren't going well. It was kind of like an outlet that was entertaining, fun, and something that appealed to me, but everything else wasn’t going well in a structured way. I had given up on school, a lot of things weren't really going well, and I didn't really see art as a realistic option because, you know, when you come from an immigrant household, your parents want you to do things that are traditionally successful in America. I was separating myself a bit from my family. I didn't have any recorded music, none of that type of shit. I was still just finding my way in a lot of respects, definitely on some life shit. So that's what I'm saying: it took a minute to get me rolling. I definitely went through some rough times. But that also came with some encouragement from some of my peers. There's a couple of older brothers I met along the way that if they didn't give me the opportunity to be in the studio space and to hone what I was doing, I wouldn't be here now. So ‘till this day I reach out to those cats. Anytime I'm working on a project, I send it to them because they gave me a real base to take it serious. They were more experienced than me and they took a chance to give me an opportunity and it changed my life.
That's beautiful. So let’s skip a little forward to your latest album Private Stock, which has been on repeat for me, man. It's one of my favorite records of the year and I think a really good continuation from your previous records, Chief and LemOnade EP. You start the album off with a sample: “lemonade, lemonade, freshly made in the shade.” It creates a clear link between the LemOnade EP and this project, almost as if you're passing the baton and turning the page to the next chapter. Can you unpack what lemonade means to you as a motif? It's turning something sour into something sweet. But what else is it?
You nailed this spot on. It’s definitely about making do with situations that may seem negative or may seem challenging, and taking that and turning it into something that you can work with. The LemOnade EP was most certainly that as a piece of art but also as a benchmark in my life. And Private Stock originally was going to be just B-sides of things that didn't make it on LemOnade. Some of the songs on Private Stock are just as old or older than the songs on LemOnade. Some of them. So I didn't really intend for it to be its own full on project like that, at first. It was going to be B-sides, almost like a Lost Tapes. But the more I started getting into it and just other changes in my life, I started seeing it unfold into something else and the logic behind it was: if LemOnade is what I cooked up with Iman [Omari], this is that special batch, this is the private stock, this is what we distilled and what we made but that we kept for ourselves.
The rare shit.
Yeah, the rare shit, and we’re gonna save that for those who was really fucking with us because LemOnade was really a gamble for that whole project. So that's where Private Stock started. But then it just blossomed into a whole thing.
After that, the record moves into the song “Open Season” and we hear a clip of Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson addressing the House floor after the murder of Walter Scott in North Charleston. He says “it feels like open season on black men in America. And I'm outraged.” And he proceeds to lay out an urgent critique of the awful record of gun violence and police brutality in this country, especially on men of color. This crisis has fallen on deaf ears and despite outrage from many of us, these problems continue to exist at large. So it's very powerful for your first bars on this record to be “they huntin’ out in the open baby.”
I think a lot of your writing and work leading up to this record has been political just by virtue of the context and the logic that underlies your rhymes, but Private Stock goes a step further. It’s definitely your most overtly political record. I wanted to ask you: how do you account for the political moment in your art, especially in a Trump era where we've expected there to be more political music and instead just gotten a bunch of escapist, mindless shit?
That's a really good question, man, to be honest, ‘cause like: that statement was made in the record after the songs were made. The “Open Season” song…I hadn't heard his commentary yet. The song predates his commentary actually, you know? Being in New Orleans, the song came to me as a response in general to what was already happening. Black men and men of color in constant scrutiny and war with the police departments nationwide. It kind of came to me as a full thought. It wasn't even just about the police and law enforcement in mass incarceration as much as it is about…
Exactly. The attack on the culture. And the spirit, because I'm trying to ease people into accepting the spirit world into they regular world, you know? So when the concept of “Open Season” came to me, it was about how everything is happening now in the open, almost like ritual. It's not just that they're hunting oppressed people, it’s that they’re ritualizing our death. And that it’s so in front of our face that we watch it on TV now and, to me, it’s one of the many rituals that we watch. And at the same time, we critique the rituals and the traditions of others.
Especially since Trump's been elected, a lot of what you're saying about things being out in the open — the disgrace of our politics, the disgrace of our representatives, the backdoor shady dealings — that's come to the fore in an extreme way, whereas before there was some kind of presidential civility with someone like Obama who was still a war criminal at the end of the day if you want to look into it, but who carried himself with a certain savoir faire, a kind of composure that downplayed that violence. But Trump’s like “yeah, we are hunting out in the open.”
Trump is like the flagrant foul, you know what I’m saying? Because the play’s already happening. It’s like a coach setting up a play to change the course of the game. The play ends with someone committing the flagrant foul, but the whole movement on the court was set up for that moment. I mean, it's not like the player just rogue, randomly… like the coach told him to do that, but the other players are in the know too. So Obama's on the court with all of that, to me.
Like this song, all of that shit… I didn't even know Trump was running when I made that music. This happens with our art a lot. We put these things in our art responding and then by the time the art comes out and the people digest it, they're like, “wow, you’re making this commentary about what’s going on,” but it’s like nah, it preceded that. It’s catching up to the reality, which is now starting to coalesce with the art. That's all that's happening. So I can't even take credit in that way for making a political statement because I wasn't making a political statement. I was making a statement against spiritual warfare. That's what I was making a statement about, and then trying to relate it to you on the street level. I didn't know even know Trump was running, none of that shit. They was already murdering us at that point. Or just little shit — watch award shows, TV, everything was becoming ritualized. So, to me, the whole idea was like, “oh they're doing that out in the open?” Then I'm doing me out in the open.
That's a perfect segue to my next question. You immediately contrast that “hunted out in the open” with a line about “puffin’ out in the open.” I was wondering about the freedom to smoke weed in public and about the ways in which you stress the healing properties of cannabis in your work. You've mentioned in another interview that your 2014 album Chief is about changing the context of marijuana beyond escapism. And in the rollout for the Private Stock album, you had a 4/20 listening event in LA debuting a strain. So how does cannabis fall into all of this?
I’m smoking right now, to be honest. It's a tricky game with me with that, you know what I'm saying? I have a deep history with that, as a lot of us do. But how I portray that is very specific. And that's on purpose. I don't show marijuana in my music videos. I talk about weed but I don't do the gratuitous weed shit because, you know, I got homies that really got they life fucked up over this stuff. And don't get me wrong, I definitely indulge, but I'm also trying to just throw a reminder in the air.
Private Stock has this bar motif to it and that’s me nodding at New Orleans and its prohibition era thing. But that's us now too because we're exiting the prohibition era of cannabis. We're in the middle of the project. Prohibition is not over. So this could be on par with the 1920s..we’re hitting that kind of mirror in society. We're reflecting back on the highlight of American society, which is the 1920s and all of that. That's kind of when American society was at its climax. We’ve been on the decline since then, really, so we’re looking back at that shit now. That's why Trump is our president. So now we in the prohibition era…it’s the same shit. We in the prohibition era, we dealing with Jim Crow, same shit.
Where I'm about to take it, though…I don't know if everyone's going to wanna happily go to where I start take some of this marijuana dialogue. Because the subtext is that the escapism is real. That's why I don't shit on it. It's real. It's a symptom of the shit, right? Whether it's dope or weed. So there's that part, but there's also the part of, like, we’re self-medicating or we're dealing with trauma. We’re excessively indulging in marijuana, myself included. That part of it is not shown, so that's why I can't show the weed right now in the music videos and all of that, because heads is already doing that, going super hard. Even the super young artists are telling the kids: “yo, smoke weed heavy.” And that's affecting this prohibition dialogue. Then you got this super hippie mindset that’s like, “oh, it's a cure all.” And nothing is a cure all. I'm about to take it there because I feel like I got to — it’s the most honest conversation I can have about what I’m doing. I mean, the weed is there, though. It’s in Private Stock, it’s in Chief…
It’s definitely in Chief. There’s more of the philosophy and spirituality of it in Chief. At the end of the day, though, what's the breakdown of this strain? Is it a hybrid, an OG?
The LA installment of that experiment, let’s say: that was a partnership between me, a delivery service, and a farm. And they allowed me to have input on what type of notes I preferred, what type of strain, and we did a collaborative Private Stock brand strain. But it’s a strain that already exists that I was pushing — it’s a Forbidden Fruit strain. It has a passion fruit taste, it’s aromatic, it has notes that I like. I like cherry-based strains, I like hybrids. So it was kind of a 50/50 hybrid. It’s the type of strain you can light up that has an incense type of aroma, with good flavor and a nice high to it. So that was what that collaboration was.
But the concept is beyond that specific strain. Like the way I feel, I should be able to show up in any community and if we really breaking bread, we could break bread with the private stock, with the real shit. But it’s a different era, man. This weed shit is so crazy. If you take anybody who smoke weed and you ask them like, “Yo, think about the people that you smoke weed with in your life, right?” A lot of them are people that you would never even fucking talk to sometimes. But over weed, you know, you have a joint or something, you in college, you encounter all these types of people, right? But we be scared to pray together. So this shit is so crazy.
Word. I want to ask you about your ongoing collaboration with producer, DJ, singer Iman Omari. I was lucky enough to catch that B. Cool Aid show in LA where you previewed the record, and it was really dope to see you perform it with him on stage because the chemistry there was so real, with the ad libs and the mix…
Oh yeah. Heads don’t know! With Iman, he be like Rick Ross with me on the stage. He be doing my ad libs, all of that shit. That’s on purpose, man. I mean all of this shit is on purpose, bro. I can't even stress that enough. That's where we're going with it. Like everything is on fucking purpose. Excuse my language but, you know, even with Iman being there, that's a nod. We’re really diving. We really students of this shit, with this jazz shit, with this hip hop shit, with the overlap.
With him, it's multifaceted because he's taking it right now to this dance space. But even his music is already..Iman’s roots are in jazz vocals. But anyway, him being on stage is part of that DJ/MC, that attack, you know? That Guru, DJ Premier, Buckshot and Evil D. Like we're going to come up here and shut it down real quick.
You said this crazy thing in a Bandcamp interview that has stayed with me since I read it: “Iman has what I call a signature break. He almost created his own breakbeat in a way. He has a specific bop in his beats, the way he's programming or the way he’s playing the drums on them.” I really believe that's true because that break is present all throughout Private Stock, in addition to the trademark snare Iman uses which has that specific resonance. And then there’s also all those dusty psychedelic samples in the songs that you two have become known for. You’re telling me new information about Private Stock coming out of the LemOnade sessions, but how did you guys approach the instrumentals on this record once you decided that you were going to take it to be a full LP?
Well you know what: a lot of these producers that I’m around — especially Vibe Music Collective, or (Quelle [Chris] or Iman, any of these dudes in the beat culture that’s popular and the real deal — a lot of these dudes make a shitload of beats, you see what I'm saying? I'm not writing songs at the speed that…Iman can make a hip hop beat in a minute. I'll choose these beats. We spend a lot of time together and and now at this point, I've probably made more songs with Quelle and Iman than I have with anybody ever — shit that people never even heard, shit that we lost. So, you know, Iman might have a beat, or I give Iman samples sometimes. Like the “Go Brooklyn” shit is based off a whole conversation him and I had about “Go Brooklyn”, that specific soundbite in the beat, because it's twice on the record on purpose. Anyway, with Iman and the beat shit, it's not like, “we're going to build this record and these are the beats.”
For LemOnade and some of these beats, they were originally all for separate projects with Quelle and Moruf and Iman, all four of us together. It was to the point where we would stay with each other and try to work on these songs but it just never really panned out. Some of them didn't get finished. Me and Quelle started being like, fuck that, I’m going to take this one and this one, you know what I mean? Some ended up on others, some ended up on mine. But with me, by the time I'm bringing them back around to Iman, he's like, “damn, I was so over that beat,” but now he's like, “now I'm hearing this song you got on it though and it's like something totally else now.” And then he'll go back in there. Iman’s not a beatmaker, he’s really a producer. So now that I did that, now he's going to go back in there and tidy it up, mold the beat around me.
You relocated from Brooklyn to New Orleans in 2015 with Iman, right? That's a similar move that my favorite rapper Yasiin Bey had made as well, being a Brooklyn cat that migrated to New Orleans. He was working with Mannie Fresh and shit. What inspired the move and how would you describe the impact of living in New Orleans on your life and art, just in terms of the rhythm and the soul of that place, you know?
Oh, man. Well, Quelle, me, and Iman were already chasing each other around our respective cities to spend more time together and make music or create more opportunities for the music we were recording. Quelle’s signed, so he already had projects out in rotation. For Iman, “Energy” was traveling. So when we started artistically linking, I was still riding the coattails of the album I did with Quelle called Niggas is Men. Point being, Iman was in LA, Quelle was in the West Coast at one point, and I was still living in New York, so we were coast to coast. Like I would be at their crib or Iman’s crib, they would be at my crib. And Iman’s manager at the time moved to New Orleans right around the same time that Solange and Saint Heron Records had put “Energy” on their vinyl release. So that was the first artist community that we knew of in New Orleans, and it just kind of all gelled. Iman went out there, and within the first two weeks of him coming up there, they had me come out to stay with them and I stayed for two months. And then Quelle even came during part of that. And so during that time, some of those songs were made that ended up on LemOnade and/or Private Stock.
But yeah, New Orleans. In terms of transitioning here, that was definitely Iman’s idea to be honest, man. After that first visit in 2014, I moved out here the top of 2015 and it was life changing.. I wouldn't have made those projects if I hadn't lived there, at all. And what people don't know is Iman’s last album, Ihy, was made out here too. That was made in New Orleans. It came out so much later just because it was held up contractually, but once he got the green light to put it out on his own, that's what he did. But by that point, he had already moved back to Los Angeles. That album, Higher Loops, Ihy, LemOnade, and Private Stock — all were made in New Orleans. That’s what people don’t know.
Quelle Chris arranged Private Stock. What did that entail?
Niggas is Men is a real benchmark of me and Quelle’s friendship, our creative partnership. We were living together at that time and we did that entire album ourselves, like we recorded that in my bedroom. We were shooting the videos ourselves, shooting each other. It was a real raw project like that on purpose, just like fulfilling our need to create and do that. And through that, I think what we recognized is that we like to create worlds that people can fall into. So when it comes to arranging the record, he gets that about what I'm doing. So it’s very fluid, but he also has more audio engineering experience than I do so I can communicate to him what I want. I tell him what to put in there because a lot of those sound clips are from my life, but Quelle is going to put them in there right and he knows me. People think those clips are from movies and shit, but those are moments in my life! Those aren’t from no movies, those aren’t from youtube clips. I mean, sometimes we'll use some of that, but most times, the most memorable clips, those are real fucking moments.
A powerful theme in the song “Open Season” is a sense of being from somewhere — a specific time and place — and having a very intimate knowledge of that place but also being aware of the dangers of nostalgia. As a nomad or traveling man, that place will always be a part of you no matter where you go. You take it with you. I think one of the most poignant bars on the album is on that track when you say:
“I’m from that ‘mama cooking while she blow a stoge era, I’m from that Brooklyn that’s Polo and Guess All Weather. But I can’t romanticize it like “if only then”, time folds like roti skin.”
What was it like growing up in your Brooklyn? What did you learn from that “Polo and Guess All Weather” Brooklyn?
I mean shit, it's still me. In my most recent photos on instagram, the shit we shooting for “Go Brooklyn,” that shit everybody's wearing? That’s all my shit. That’s all my collection.
Hell yeah. Reminds me of your line from your song “Brain on Droogs”: “still rocking ‘Lo that I copped in the 90s, but it’s something about the timing.”
Yeah, exactly man. And it's like I said, everybody's talking about being woke and shit, but we're trying to even remember how to do that. So, like, we're like looking back as a society as all these extremes are happening right now, you know what I'm saying? The shit that becomes retro. This is where we're at right now. There's documentaries now about the Ralph Lauren culture in hip hop. Complex just put one out called “Horsepower” and I think Vice did a special on it too.
People been doing specials on Dapper Dan…
The code to all of those shits, though, if you really peep what’s going on, is the reverse validation. Dapper Dan, he wasn't praised when he was doing that.
They raided him!
Exactly. And the same thing with these lo-life heads, right? They're criminals. You go into Macy's or other stores now, those exploding ink tags and all of that shit. That's the product of that movement, right? Their shoplifting movement.
So these are the criminalized black and brown men of that time that I looked up to as a kid in the 90s. But now that these corporations require that validation to make bread, now it's like, “oh nah, Dapper Dan, yeah we got you.” He’s an old man now! Oh, word? Black and brown culture is what’s making this shit profitable? Okay, cool. So Ralph Lauren does the 25 year re-issue. That’s what I’m saying about the life catching up to the art. I took those Polo Snow Beach pictures, I didn't even know Ralph Lauren was going to reissue the Snow Beach jacket. I didn't even know — people thought I did that on purpose.
On your prophetic shit. What's the neighborhood you grew up in Brooklyn like now? How bad has it been gentrified?
Check this out. You remember how recently on the internet there was a story about a corner store that became like a bar-cafe and they were marketing like, “come get your 40 ounces and take instagram photos by the bullet holes” right? Yo, that's right down the block from where I grew up! In that same neighborhood in the news, more recently than that, there’s this black dude who was pulled up on and murdered by the police and they realized he was mentally ill. He was rolling up on people with like an umbrella handle or something like that or a little piece of pipe in his hand and he was running up on people, kind of scaring them. And people in the neighborhood called the police and the police rolled up and instantly jumped out and opened fire and killed him.
Now, the debate that was raised about it was about people not knowing your neighbors anymore. Locals in the neighborhood knew the dude and knew that he was recently mentally ill, but like the new hipsters in the neighborhood didn't know that and they were the ones who called the police. Now, I seen the tape of him, he does look wild, but the conversation is about not knowing who’s around you anymore. This is the same neighborhood. So that's the neighborhood I'm from. That's all I can say about how gentrified it is. It’s that layered.
Wow, that’s a really powerful way of painting that picture.
So you got some other collaborators on this record. You’ve got Moruf, BillzEgypt, and the wonderful Georgia Anne Muldrow. How did these collaborations come about? And can you describe your label Vibe Music Collective?
Everyone on the record with the exception of Georgia is or was on the active Vibe Music Collective Roster. So when when the project started to become an album, I kind of secretly wanted to see if I could do that, like make this involved of a project with these other characters and voices.
Iman started Vibe Music Collective. I feel like he’s learned hard lessons in the music industry at a young age and understood the importance of owning your own platform. Owning what you create, you know what I mean? So he started Vibe Music Collective and it was very underground, he just did it. He just went and did it, like legit created the company first and then slowly built it out from there. And I think Iman is the type of person that…and this is something with Quelle and I too: we’re fans of this shit first! Vibes are felt, they’re kind of undefined. So when we see unique talent, those kinds of artists that have that special thing that they do that’s so them, I think Iman is attracted to that as a producer.
So Vibe Music Collective started in that spirit, I feel like, and then over time started to become more specifically defined, like an affiliation in terms of collective. There's definitely a collective sound. Some of it was identified with Boiler Room, a set that we did. We saw it in the sense that we were like-minded artists and we used to get up and follow each other around and collaborate. But I think Boiler Room saw that it was a wave. And that kind of led to even the Ihy album, which is Iman maestro-ing a lot of his collaborators. JaVonté has his own song on that album! It’s a whole vibe. Showing you that this is not just a singular moment or a singular artist; this is a whole wave of sound. That’s how it spawned.
Transitioning into the visuals: so far, you've released two short films for “Holla Kid” and “Open Season”, which you made with Vashni Korin. Can you tell me about your relationship with her. How'd you guys come up with the treatments and the video concept, and also what was the actual recording process like?
Well, when I first met Vashni she was doing mostly photography. And at the time I was already working on LemOnade. So there was another photographer named Kalada Halliday, who on instagram goes by Proper Perspective. He’s a Brooklyn-based street photographer who took a lot of the photos around LemOnade. So what I started realizing was that I was connecting with photographers in a certain way. And I feel like some of my music was connecting with them. But also what I was seeking visually, even in terms of video: I needed people that had a photographer’s background in terms of shot selection and understanding how to evoke certain feelings, you know? I kinda wanted to see which photographers could transition to motion. And Vashni at the time was down for that. So the first videos that she directed were experiments with her and I. Some of them were the first videos she ever did.
But these treatments…I’m writing all of these treatments because to me they're all part of the album. So by the time Vashni gets the video from me it’s already written out, but now, as a photographer, she’ll take the reins from that. She’s a really talented director. She already has a documentary out that she’s done. And to me, it's always either documentary or narrative, and so I feel like we had a unique opportunity for our skill sets to line up in that way. And she was really down to be pushed in that way. Also there's a balance in the storytelling. There's certain things with her: her eye, her touch, and her exposition on the story through the visual narrative. I like to collaborate with people who are going to take the creation and then create something more, you know? And that's what she does. She’s doing all the shot-listing, she's doing all the directing. By the time we get to the shooting and all of that, I’m hands off because I have enough trust with her to be responsible with the message and how it's portrayed. She's creating now at that point.
Dope. I want to ask you about your prose style, which has always been very interesting to me. From the first time I heard your lyrics, they felt like truth. You have a very abstract pen. It seems like you visualize these songs as movies in your head but then your style is also very writerly at the same time. You paint a portrait of an interior life without being solipsistic. You incorporate different languages, worldviews; the writing is ancient and contemporary; you mix high and low subject matter in a very unique way. One example of that is on “Holla Kid” where you rap:
“I’m on my Don Dada shit, Tribe of Dan, Damballah Pitch black Mamba, hiss, triple stage consciousness, All that shit and a bag of Utz Vintage Can of St. Ides with a Spanish, fly platitudes”
So you're clearly taking the craziest, abstract, elevated shit and then grounding it in quotidian imagery. And the pocket you have is pure jazz, you really live in the beat. What do you make of your own writing? How do you describe it to other people when they ask?
A lot of people been asking me “what’s your style like”? And to be honest, you know what I've been doing? Seriously, swear to God. I'll just recite whatever bullshit spotify or some publication said about me that sounded nice. One, I’m not going to say I take myself so seriously to be, like, “yo man, I'm in the crib, like man, I'm the illest writer.” Sometimes there's torment, sometimes it's extremely fluid, you know what I mean? And I feel like if I over-analyze it, it takes away from it to some degree. But I try to be present in what’s going on with the writing. I appreciate you and taking that from it, because there is the aspect of, like, how do you say that? How do you communicate this to people rhythmically? And that’s what jazz musicians do.
Can you speak on the Islamic references in your work? There’s a lot of them on this record. When you were previewing the songs at the LA show, I obviously hadn't heard any of those bars, so me and my homie Ibrahim were freaking out when you’d say something about the Hand of Fatima or Khadijah, dropping all these Sufi references. How does Islam affect your worldview and your art and where does that influence come from?
Islamic references. Yeah man, that's been in my music since I've been making it. If you're from the East Coast or you're from a certain part of the United States and you listen to hip hop, you can’t deny that the spiritual base of hip hop had an Islamic center. That's not an accident. That's not an accident because of the timing of where certain communities were, that kind of post civil rights, black liberation movements. You've got the dismantling of this and all of that...
You can't escape it. Islam is so central to the black experience in America.
Exactly. A lot of urban communities turned to Islam in some fashion, whether it was like a street repackaging or whatever. And I don't get into those debates about which forms of Islam are valid. I don't get into none of that shit because, to me, that is the same as when Christians do that, you know what I mean? It's the same shit. So like, I'm not going to get into that with people, but what you have to understand is that Islam is a vehicle for a spiritual base for a lot of urban Black and Brown communities. And hip hop is a direct product of that. All this slang that we be be using, half the shit that we be doing, has its roots in Islam.
And Arabic too by extension. Using akh for brother…
Yup, all day.
For some reason, in a lot of the discourse post 9/11, we’ve been flooded with perspectives on Islam that pin it as foreign when Islam is as indigenous to American soil as anything else. The first Muslims in America were slaves.
Thomas Jefferson had a Quran that he kept. Even in the 1910s and the early 20s, emissaries were coming from the Middle East to spread Islam in these urban communities. Newark, New Jersey, Trenton, Detroit. This wasn't accidental. They knew people were going to receive Islam. You can read essays on this. Shit’s deep too because some of them were coming with the mystical shit. And you see the influence of that on other black groups trying to carve out a different type of American identity, like Noble Drew Ali and all of that. The reason he was prime to that is because he was on the East Coast when these dudes were coming over here from these Middle Eastern countries and putting black men onto Islam in that way. That’s what was circulating and that helped inspire these other movements, these offshoots that would not have happened if Islam didn't put that out there like that.
It's a liberation theology.
Yup. So in some form or fashion you're encountering something that's centered around Muslim or Moslem beliefs and in hip hop that's the main vehicle for that. So that's why I'm always nodding at that. And it's also reminding people right now that an attack on that is an attack on us.
But it's also really New York too man. It’s a really New York thing. That’s what gentrification is lowkey erasing. It’s not just the whole concept of your neighborhood being rezoned and rebuilt and all of that. The fact that young men are growing up with these Arabic words in their normal colloquial speech…that’s off the proximity of who’s functioning in their neighborhoods in New York. It's the kids from the Yemeni Bodegas that go to junior high school with you, you know? It gets deep like that. So, you know, New York is a little bit different with that. At least, it was more so like that. So that's what I'm trying to remind people: this is a space where everyone’s supposed to find branches ‘cause it’s in there like that.
That's powerful. Last question. On your website you're selling a Collector’s Edition USB with all your albums, videos, and other exclusive content. It’s a gold bar USB that also has a rechargeable hot coil flameless lighter. How'd that come about?
It's related to the spiritual shit, man. Art had a function. So when you asked about Islam in the music, that's because hip hop had a spiritual base. Every art form has a spiritual base, right? Like how the blues has a spiritual base. When you remove your spiritual base from the art, the art doesn't have any function, it’s just commodity at that point. So only the rich have access to it. I like functional art. Functional art brings it back to the original essence. So like no matter what culture you in… that's why there's no drawings of God in the mosque, right? But where's the art? The art is in the architecture, it’s in the language, it’s in the prayer room, it’s on the carpet. But you don't know the artist who made it. You just experience the art functionally because it has a function to help you hit that state of mind to do what you're supposed to do in the mosque. Or if you go buy a West African fertility statue, you don't really know the person who made the statue. That dude in that village that makes the statue; he makes the fertility statues for everybody who needs them. So the art has a function. The hot coil for that specific album particularly too is, like, all right, here's a relic, but it’s functional. I'm telling you about this weed shit or whatever, but you can actually light your shit with my album! And everyone’s like I got these bars, right? Well, here’s a bar for you. There’s only a certain amount of them, so as there's less of them, their value in theory should go up and they have.
That’s fire. Imma have to cop one. That wraps up my questions! Thank you so much for your time, Cav. I appreciate you taking the time out to talk with me and hope your music continues to reach more and more people.
I appreciate it, man. Much love, man. Thank you so much, Yousef. Peace.