(AllHipHop Features) Malik Yusef is a man of many talents. The Chicago raised performer serves as director of Arts and Culture for Hip Hop Caucus as well as a spoken word artist, songwriter, and producer.
This year alone Yusef contributed his artistic gifts to musical recordings from a couple of the most celebrated names in the industry.
The 5-time Grammy winner worked with Kanye West on The Life Of Pablo, and he co-wrote Beyoncé’s “Sandcastles” off Lemonade.
In addition, Yusef was a featured guest on Vic Mensa’s “Free Love” along with Le1f, Halsey, and Lil B. The LGBT rights anthem was crafted as a response to the tragic shooting in Orlando on June 12, and the song has collected 400,000 plays on SoundCloud in just 16 days.
I connected with Malik a few weeks ago to discuss the creation of Mensa’s “Free Love” song.
We also talked about homophobia in Hip Hop, the practice of writing in the music business, and more. Read part 1 of our conversation below.
Can you talk about how the song came together?
Vic, that’s my brother, so we’re always talking about everything. He was telling me about one of his family members identifying as bisexual or queer.
We were just talking about how mainstream America wants to act like that group of people doesn't exist like so many other groups of people. Even though a great number of them have been coming out as homosexual or bisexual - the ones actually fighting against marriage equality.
We just got into how you should be free to love whoever you want to as long as you ain’t hurting nobody. We got to writing the concept with free love as the theme. I got back to Chicago, and we got to working on it.
We were working hard to get Lil B involved. He was going to name his album I’m Gay as a “so what?” to the system, even though ["Free Love"] is not really about that. It’s about encouraging people, not so much about anti-system.
Speaking of Lil B, when he decided to name his project I’m Gay, he did get a lot of backlash. That was five or six years ago. Do you think the response from the Hip Hop community has changed since then?
Not really. I think Hip Hop as a sport is going to be heterosexual male oriented which is why I think our song is so valuable. Because we’re heterosexual men that are speaking about an issue that does not affect us heterosexuals.
I think that’s why people gravitated to the song. We put Le1f on there who is an openly gay rapper. He has 5,000 songs about being gay and pierced that veil.
We deliberated on whether to put that in the lyrics or not. We talked about how homophobic Hip Hop is, but it’s art. And it doesn’t have to be all-encompassing. Your art doesn’t have to be all-encompassing. Your lifestyle has to be all-encompassing, but your art does not.
I don’t think we have to do that. I think we miss the point when we try to make everybody be on the same page. We’re talking about respect here. We’re talking about getting out of the way and letting them do their thing, and you do your thing. As long as their thing is not damaging you directly, then it’s fine.
There’s been this political discussion in this country surrounding the idea of advocating for LGBT rights versus the idea of people having religious freedom against homosexuality. In your opinion, how can we as a society recognize those two viewpoints?
If your religion, no matter what it is, says that homosexuality is wrong, then you don’t have to be homosexual. But you can’t apply your religion to somebody else. If you don’t like gay marriage, then don’t get gay married.
Your religion only matters in your house. How you conduct yourself matters when you’re out in the streets and how you treat other people. So if your religion says two men or two women shouldn’t sleep together, and if you follow your religion, then don’t do it.
I was looking at the comments on Vic’s SoundCloud, and the majority of the comments were positive. What has been the response from people you know in the industry?
[laughs] A lot of people were just like, “Why did y’all make a song like that?” I was like, “Because we’re grown, motherf-cker! We can do what the f-ck we want to do!”
Again, we were very careful about not making the song be against any person and not against Hip Hop. Now Hip Hop can be misogynistic and homophobic at times, but it’s art though. Let’s put it back in the art and keep it there.
I don’t get offended when I see a picture of a white Jesus, and I know damn well there was no white man with an Egyptian momma living in Africa two thousand years ago. I know that, but it’s art. I know that’s not Jesus. It’s artistic interpretation, so I don’t get into that bullsh-t.
People say, “Y’all could’ve made a song about anything else.” Yeah, and we’re going to make songs about other stuff too. How about that? How about we’re going to keep making songs?
In "Sandcastles,” Beyoncé sang the word “b-tch” while talking to her man. It was the female persona that said, “B-tch, I scratched out your name and your face.”
People were like, "That’s a harsh statement to call a man a b-tch." Yeah, that’s a harsh statement. It’s a harsh reality. So people are going to take exception to anything. No matter what you do, somebody ain’t going to like it, so do what you like.
Vic is working on his album now. Are you guys working on more tracks together?
Hell yeah. I worked on a song on the [There's Alot Going On] EP, and we’re working on the album right now. We’re working on the “16 Shots” video as we’re talking.
I wanted to ask you about some of your other work. You mentioned Beyoncé’s “Sandcastles.” Listening to that song, it comes off as extremely personal. What was your particular contribution to the song?
I actually have the original. It was May 16, 2013. I was driving in my car listening to some music. My daughter had just turned four. She was in the backseat, and you can hear it in the voicemail. It might come out eventually.
I came up with the chorus, verse, and the melody. That’s the artist I am. I’m always in my mind thinking of melodies. I can’t stop. It’s almost like a disease of sort. There’s always melodies and words flowing out of me almost non-stop.
There has been a lot of discussion, particularly in Hip Hop, over the last year about co-writing and ghostwriting. Do you think the general public has an accurate understanding of the writing process when it comes to making music?
They do not. We accept it in Jazz, Rock, Pop, and Gospel. But in Hip Hop we don’t, because Hip Hop seems a bit as a gladiatorial event. It seems a bit personal. People feel uncomfortable when they know those aren’t fully your thoughts or words.
It’s been that way forever. It’s one of those hidden things in Hip Hop that we don’t speak of - people helping you write. Rhymefest and Kanye helped me write my verse on “Crack Music.” Some of the most poignant parts of “Crack Music” were from Rhymefest and Kanye West.
People say, “Malik writes for Kanye.” I don’t write for Kanye. I write with Kanye. I don’t write for Vic. I write with Vic. Cause Vic can do it by himself. Kanye can do it by himself too. They allow me [to co-write].
Watch the video for Vic Mensa's "There's Alot Going On Below."