I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of shitty hip-hop. The devolving trends of recycled misogyny and cartoonish, ridiculous materialism in hip-hop that fuel a crumbling industry have kept me from doing anything more than ride the ‘seek’ button through the radio waves for years. There is a nearly-untapped world of quality hip-hop in the “underground” scene, a place where assertive, socially conscious rhymes meet diverse musical influence. It’s a place that deserves a hell of a lot more attention than it gets.
Crown City Rockers are among the best and brightest of today’s hip-hop scene, bringing a melting pot of soul, funk-laced grooves and old-school inflected rhymes to the table. 5 Gold Stars, their follow up to 2004’s Earthtones, is due to hit later this year. We caught up with Crown City MC Raashan Ahmad to discuss Crown City, his solo project The Push (out May 20th), and the inconvenience of revolution.
Antiquiet: What’s up Raashad, what’s the latest with Crown City Rockers?
Raashan Ahmad: Hey man, good to talk to you. We actually just finished recording the bulk of the next Crown City record, and luckily, after Earthtones came out we got a lot of different angles of love, people that are willing to help us. The album that we just recorded is kind of the realization of a lot of things that we’ve been trying to do but never had the capacity… mostly because of studio limitations. The way we recorded mostly in the past, and even some of this album… was literally on the road, in the van. We’d get out, Max would record a break, you know, a 2-track, and then we’d get in the thing and Kat would play keys on it and Ethan (aka Headnodic, bassist and producer) would play bass. Put up pillows and a mic and I’m in the back seat doin’ my thing. So that was kind of the beauty of it, ’cause the limitations kept it fresh in a way. But at the same time, we were never able to fully realize what was in our heads. So this time, we actually did, and now that it’s done we’re getting really excited for it to hit. I’m proud of myself and everyone in the crew. I can’t wait for people to hear this record.
Antiquiet: Tell me about your solo album, The Push.
Raashan Ahmad: That’s a whole other scenario. I’ve been with Crown City for almost eight years now. And before that, I was always rockin off the drum machine, turntables and such. And just as an MC growing up in hip-hop, I need that too. So The Push is… just a kind of “boom boom khhhh boom boomboom khhhh” beat, literally just me rapping about everything from the birth of my son to the death of my mom to giving thanks to… just homegirls and homeboys, and different trials and tribulations on a super, super personal side of me. It’s definitely a different shade, and that’s kind of the beauty of the crew. Kat, Max and Ethan, they have a project called Plate, Fork, Knife, Spoon which is all just them rockin out instrumentally…
Antiquiet: You did a track on that, right?
Raashan Ahmad: Yeah, yeah, I got a joint on that, and they’re on my album too. It’s all in the crew. So yeah, The Push is that. The label picked it up, and it’s coming out in a month or so. I’m really super excited about it, but it’s really personal, man. It’s almost hard to listen to some of the songs, ’cause they really choke me up.
Antiquiet: You’re known for your soulful, socially conscious lyrics. Where did that direction come from?
Raashan Ahmad: Honestly man, I think it was just the hip-hop that I listened to growing up. The music that just kind of hit me. It was something that just spoke to my body and my soul. I remember seeing KRS-One a long time ago and he just did this a capella jam that was really tight, and I was like “oh, snap,” cause people were dancing, too. I didn’t want to just be one of those cats that just became preachy, and you couldn’t really party to their music. I wanted to combine those and make sure that after you leave the show or after you listen to the album, after the second or third or fourth time you’ll come out with something else from it. And plus, the world needs it, man. I think we need a balance in music, a balance in hip-hop. There’s a whole lot on the other side, so I wanna definitely be one of the cats to create the other balance, to see what we can do to come together and grow.
Antiquiet: The story of how you got into rapping is a good one.
Raashan Ahmad: Yeah, man, I started out as part of a dance crew growin’ up in LA, the same time The Pharcyde was dancing and The Black Eyed Peas and so on. I remember one night we drove from my house in Pasadena all the way out, like super far out to this one spot for an audition to open up for House Of Pain. And when we got there they were like “Oh, you guys are a dance crew? Nah, nah, we’re lookin’ for rappers.” And we were like, “Oh, yeah, we rap, hold up, let us get our tape out the car real quick.” And we went out to the car and looked at each other like, “Alright, who’s gonna rap?” There were four of us. One of the cats was like “I’ll be the DJ,” and one of the guys just wanted to be a dancer, and I knew a rap and my homie knew a rap, so we got out this breakdancing tape we used to listen to called Street Beats, and it was just a bunch of electro beats and shit. So we just took it inside and rapped. The verse that I had was actually my older brother’s verse, ’cause he rapped, and I’d see him so many times spittin’ the same rhyme around the house. We didn’t get the gig, but we almost did. And ever since then I was like yo, this is dope, I’m feelin’ this. That was the first time I really MC’d.
Antiquiet: What does freestyling mean to you?
Raashan Ahmad: When I first moved to Boston, before I met everybody, that was literally my morning, noon and night. Wakin’ up, I lived with two other cats who rapped, all we did was freestyle, walking down the street freestyle, into the store freestyle, on the train freestyle, just freestyle freestyle freestylin’. I think it’s a foundation of me as an MC and the same goes for a lot of MCs. I think it’s important, and it’s refreshing, man. When I’m happy or sad or anything in between, I’ll throw on an instrumental and just go, man. I don’t actually do it as much as I used to with other people, which I think is the true nature of it. It really cracks when it’s with somebody else, you know?
Antiquiet: That collaborative energy, feeding off one another…
Raashan Ahmad: Yeah, that’s when it really cracks. But I need it. That’s my heart.
Antiquiet: Your dad was your main musical influence, right?
Raashan Ahmad: Yeah. When we lived in mid-city LA, and my dad used to get tapes from his friend from New Jersey, and on weekends he used to turn off all the radios and the TV in the house and do what he called “programming.” He’d put on these tapes and these old records, this old 70’s soul, funk and jazz. And he had a microphone, and he’d be like, (booming voice) “Broadcasting live, from Los Angeles, California… MRD radio…” (laughs) And he’d be on the mic randomly throughout the entire day. It was great.
Antiquiet: When did you decide a music career was something you wanted to pursue?
Raashan Ahmad: After I moved to Boston and really grew as an MC, I came back to LA and wasn’t really doin’ much. I was kinda in it but not really. I wasn’t putting my heart into it. But meanwhile, the cats from Crown City in Boston were calling me, like “Dude, you need to come back, we got these shows lined up,” and so on. Between their phone calls and the beats they were playing me, I just realized that I was always taught to follow my passion first. And I was in school, I went to almost every community college in the LA area, and nothing ever stuck. Music, hip-hop and this whole culture is the only thing that really, really speaks to my soul. So I just got on a Greyhound and said alright, I’m just gonna grind hard and I’m gonna do my best. And at the very least I’ll be able to say that I really tried hard and gave it my most. Once I got on the bus, man, that was it.
Antiquiet: Let’s talk about the lyrics in Fight real quick.
Raashan Ahmad: Yeah, that’s actually on my solo record, The Push. That’s another one that makes me think that I should just be standing naked on the album cover. I really just expose all of myself on the record. But that song right there, I remember writing it, yeah. We were overseas for a while, and when we came back I stopped at a newspaper stand at the airport. I grabbed a paper and read all the headlines, and it was just fuckin’ awful. Just awful shit happening, dude. It made my eyes well up and my fists clenched at the same time.
Antiquiet: In Fight, you touch on everything from George Bush to the ludicrous war on drugs. Our country’s hemorrhaging with scandal and corruption, and it’s an epidemic that you don’t really always realize you’re in the depths of until you take a step back.
Raashan Ahmad: It’s scary. I think you hit the nail on the head with what you said about stepping back from it. When I come home to LA, I can taste the air, it’s like, “aww shit, it’s smoggy out here.” But when you live here, you don’t really notice. It’s part of your daily life.
Politically, it’s so deep right now, how many layers of corruption and injustice there are. It’s maddening, and it takes me to a point all the time where I’m like, what the hell can I do? How do I make some sort of a difference? As a musician, songs like that will hopefully help wake up some of the folks and we can collaborate and join together and do something positive. It’s maddening though, there’s so many levels of it that we’re not even seeing because of the powers that put the blinders in place.
Antiquiet: It’s so hard to educate people though, because times have changed quite a bit from the days of peace and love and putting flowers down the barrels of a soldier’s rifle. Maybe it was a more poetic time, a time when people felt like they were fighting for something pure and defined, but now there’s just such a saturation of information, of lies and propaganda between the internet and the rest of the media.
Raashan Ahmad: Yeah, and people are at the point where they’re like, “Hey I need to pay my light bill, dog. What are you talking about, revolution?” or “Oh that’s cool, but I got things to handle. I got bills.” That’s one thing where a lot of cats like Dead Prez or, like, Common or Mos Def or Talib Kweli or a lot of these cats that I really respect, they put these messages into these beats that people are dancing to anyway. It needs to hit the common man, not just the revolutionary cat that’s ready to put on the bandana and throw the rock. The cat that’s at work, in his cubicle and he’s got the music playing, that’s the guy it needs to connect with. Those are the messages that just need to infiltrate the fabric of our culture and our society, so it’s not just hitting the cats that already know, but the cats that just wanna go dance or hear good music.
When I heard Fight the Power, that was just a dope beat, a dope song. And when I heard Fuck The Police, I was like yo, that shit is raw. And I went into it naïve, but after hearing it, it made me want to empower myself and ask more questions, like why are there liquor stores and gun stores in the ghetto everywhere? It just made me open up, and that’s exactly what’s so beautiful about music. That’s what I want to do, to open that conversation up for someone who maybe doesn’t consider themselves any kind of revolutionary.
Antiquiet: Right, the lyrics can create a productive dialogue rather than cultivating the greed-based mentality and trendy, competitive materialism that’s been the mainstream moneymaker in hip-hop for what feels like forever now.
Raashan Ahmad: It’s sad that there can be such an element of positivity and uplifting activism that’s so ignored by the mainstream. Especially at this particular point in time, where people should be having intelligent conversations about issues that affect each and every one of us, like the real stakes and identities in the upcoming election. Instead, we reduce something like the Democratic race to a symbolic tug of war between misogyny and racism. It may as well be a pay-per-view cage match.
It’s one of those things, man, where I have this inner fight. I’m telling myself, just go ahead and believe, just believe it, it’s all gonna be good. But it can’t be good, because the politicians, the entire system is corrupt. Trying not to just be overwhelmed by it all I think is a struggle we all face. When I look at the Democratic race at face value, it’s inspiring that people are actually voting for this dude. It’s inspiring, his message is inspiring. It’s funny though, there are so many different cats into the election this time around. I was talking to Pep Love [from Heiroglyphics] the other day, me and him were just going at it, ranting about superdelegates and shit. It’s so great man, because these conversations, these dialogues that are taking place among cats that normally would say nah, I don’t fuck with politics. People looking up, looking around and if nothing else, understanding the basic elements of how government or even the electoral process works. This election is opening up dialogue, and it’s exciting for that reason.
Antiquiet: Right. When you’ve got an interesting, inspiring set of choices, you don’t need multimillion dollar Rock The Vote and Vote Or Die campaigns.
Raashan Ahmad: Yeah, exactly. Think of how many people know what delegates and caucuses are who didn’t understand it at all last year. When people look up from the ground and look around, that’s always a good thing. With the issue of race and gender and old school versus new school, you don’t have to sell that. People will react.
Antiquiet: History’s definitely being made.
Raashan Ahmad: Yeah it is. I’m on CNN all the time, I’m hooked.
Antiquiet: Do you and Pep Love have any history?
Raashan Ahmad: I’ve known Pep for a minute, and every once in a while he’ll call me up like, “Yo, you wanna come DJ for a minute?” We’ve done a bunch of shows where I’d DJ for him and be his hype man, just on some fun shit, you know? I’m actually doing a mixtape right now with a gang of cats like Gift Of Gab and Zion to cats you probably never heard of like Native Guns, and Pep’s gonna be on there too. We’ve both been on like Zion I mixtapes and all that, so yeah. But Pep’s a spitter, man. He’s one of those cats that really inspired me. I hear him rap and I’m just like “Ohhh damn!” clutching my chest and shit. As an MC, man, he does it for me. He’s such a spitter.
WATCH THE VIDEO FOR B-BOY:
After the interview I sent Raashan a tie-up message, asking what music he was into right now. Moments later, this hit my inbox:
Wow what a question…
Blu And Exile!!!
Teedra Moses (dope R&B)
Kat Ouano (Natural Phenomenon is dope!!!!)
J Dilla (Donuts… still on rotation)
it seriously could go on a long time… :)
Random songs from lots of people… I have lots of mixes of stuff I dig also…
Thanks again bro!
So far I’ve checked out Blue And Exile and Alice Smith, and trust me, they’re worth a listen. Kat Ouano rocks the keys with Crown City, and her solo record is beautiful. Give these names a chance after you check out Crown City Rockers.