Ali Shaheed Muhammad Talks Working On NPR’s “Microphone Check” + Interviewing J. Cole & Rick Ross
In the final portion of AllHipHop.com's exclusive interview with Ali Saheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, the rapper/producer gives details about his other gig as co-host of NPR's Microphone Check. Ali works alongside veteran music journalist Frannie Kelley for the Hip Hop centered radio program.
Microphone Check focuses on providing in-depth coverage of Hip Hop performers, rap releases, and major events by interviewing the artists and behind-the-scenes personalities directly influencing the culture. Past shows have included conversations with Pusha T, Bun B, Schoolboy Q, Nas, Pete Rock, Andre 3000, Ab-Soul, Run The Jewels, and The Underachievers.
AllHipHop.com asks Ali Shaheed about the impact his quarter century worth of experience in the recording industry has had on his transition from musician to media figure. The Brooklyn bred virtuoso also shares his experience speaking with two of the most recent Microphone Check guests - J. Cole and Rick Ross.
[ALSO READ: Ali Shaheed Muhammad Talks A Tribe Called Quest & Lucy Pearl Anniversaries + Lil Wayne, Nas & Big Boi Joining The Zulu Nation]
You’re an artist, but you’re also a media figure with NPR. How does your experience as a recording artist impact your role with Microphone Check?
It’s interesting, because I never saw myself as a social commentator or to some degree a journalist. Developing Microphone Check with Frannie Kelley, clearly that’s the position - taking and bringing the news aspect of making music as an artist to the forefront.
I’m a very good listener. My usual role in conversations is to listen and absorb what a person is saying and not necessarily have to embellish the conversation. Just having a natural conversation in an interview setting is different for me, but I also know that from my experience I think there are times where certain questions are not asked. It’s the monotony of going to one interview, then the next interview, and the next interview, and they all ask the same questions.
Knowing that there’s a lot more depth to artists and the life of making music, rhymes, beats - it takes a certain amount of thought space to do that and there are a lot of layers underneath that. So I try to approach it from that perspective. But the challenge for me is that I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. I’m a very diplomatic person, and I’m always open-minded. I respect an artist’s right to express, whatever it is, no matter how ridiculous. I respect the depth within yourself wants to do that and call it music.
I may not necessarily agree with the thing that one has packaged as art, but I do have an open mind enough to respect that. Also, knowing that I’m a producer - and one that a lot of people respect - it's kind of hard for me to go in on certain people. I have wanted to really challenge some of the people that we’ve interview.
I think that’s my own journey - figuring out which role I’m wholly representing with Microphone Check. Is it strictly just Ali? Or is it everything that I’ve brought with me in my 25 year legacy of making music? I’m open to all feedback, anyone out there who may read this story.
Understand first that I’m a well-balanced person, and I’m not out there to be malicious. That’s never going to be my approach. But if anyone has any advice on how to balance not wanting to ruffle people’s feathers - out of the respect I have for artists - at the same time putting them on the hot seat if need be, I’m all ears.
I listened to the recent J. Cole show. I enjoyed it.
I enjoyed it as well. J. Cole has a lot to say. He’s an open book which I really like. Sometimes there’s a reserve aspect - I’m sure you know that - when interviewing people. Not a lot of people are an open book, but J. Cole is. He’s nice to speak with.
I would think the artists have a certain level of respect for where you’re coming from as an interviewer, because like you said, you have such a musical legacy.
They do, and they say that. I’m grateful that they have accepted me in that regards, because there are some people who don’t care who you are or what you’ve done. For the most part, most people do.
I’m also careful in not taking that for granted. At the same time, in front of the scenes and behind the scenes, I’m known as a very upstanding person. So when you have that and people know you, they know when you’re asking something it's being held to higher caliber, and they’re not going to take it personally.
But then it can also be, "you’re so righteous, you’re judgmental." I don’t want to come off in a judgmental way. Only because I'm an artist myself, and I understand that as an artist sometimes you are just messing up in life. Sometimes you know you’re messing up and you don’t care. Sometimes you don’t know, and you’re trying to figure it out, live your dream, be expressive, and have no rules.
You think you can move through Earth a certain way, and then you figure out - like when a child touches something hot, “That burned me. Now I know not to do that again." It’s no different with artists in a mature, grown person state.
I know that when I’m speaking to people. I come from an element where a lot of rappers come from. I know there’s a lack of opportunity that’s been shown to them from childhood.
Take Rick Ross specifically. I know in interviewing him that he speaks about his surroundings and what he saw. In sitting with him, I may have wanted to dissect the images and lyrics a little bit. I didn’t, because I understand the element.
But case in point, at the end of the conversation I had with him I asked him a question in terms of "giving the content and who’s listening to you, there’s usually two ways for a person living that lifestyle - either jail or early death. So you tell me what’s an alternative to that?" That was a unique way of me understanding the complexities of his pop persona, what his music does for certain people and what it does for other people. But also understanding he’s an artist and not to critique him.
So when it comes to NPR, that’s my internal challenge. I’m trying to figure out - as Microphone Check continues to grow - how I find my voice. I take a lot of directives from Frannie as well, because she is very passionate about the art form and what is represented.
It’s an interesting position for me, and I hope that we represent the culture in a balanced way, and artists are able to voice who they are on the inside in a way that no one else has been able to connect with them. That’s the ultimate goal for me with Microphone Check.
What else can we expect from you in 2015?
Certainly, this record with Adrian Younge is something that I’m very excited about. My solo record - I’m getting excited about it. [laughs] Merna and I are doing more stuff. There’s a lot more production in the pipeline.
I was a little bit active in 2014. I have this Milosh ["Stacks Are High"] remix out right now. I’m crossing a lot of genres. I’m switching it up, and I hope in 2015 to do a lot more.
[ALSO READ: Ali Shaheed Muhammad Talks “CPR” Single, Donating To The Eric Garner Fund + Joint Project With Adrian Younge]
Read part 1 of AllHipHop.com’s exclusive interview with Ali Shaheed Muhammad here.
Read part 2 of AllHipHop.com’s exclusive interview with Ali Shaheed Muhammad here.