Photo credit: Courtesy of the artist
Statik Selektah, the producer who's made collaborative albums with Action Bronson, Freddie Gibbs and Saigon, and the DJ who's spun for Q-Tip, Nas and Joey Bada$$, put out his fifth solo project this month. Except it's not really solo. Three dozen rappers recorded verses for his tracks and the result, called Extended Play, is boisterous and crowded. NPR Music's First Listen series describes the songs he makes as "functional, real-deal records that sound like the triumphant persistence of New York, the strains of nostalgia in a sunny day, parents telling their kids to quit running around and be easy. Then he invites mentally tough, rigorous thinkers raised on competition to perform over them."
He spoke to Microphone Check hosts Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Frannie Kelley about his early days in the business, a regular work week for him and his mother's favorite rapper.
ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: First of all, I do want to say that I'm really excited that you're our first. We're breaking the cherry.
I heard that if you were to play hip-hop for an alien, or someone from outer space, one of the songs that you pick would be a Public Enemy song to represent all of hip-hop to that alien. Thinking about everything that you do, I sincerely feel that if I had to play something for an alien that represented hip-hop, it would be anything from Statik Selektah.
STATIK SELEKTAH: Wow, that means a lot, man.
MUHAMMAD: And I say that because when it comes to the body of work and the representation, you have so much music out there, that you get a full scope of the art form.
SELEKTAH: Thank you, man. That's what I shoot for.
MUHAMMAD: So I'm really happy that you're up here.
SELEKTAH: Good lookin', good lookin'.
FRANNIE KELLEY: How do you guys know each other?
SELEKTAH: I actually DJ'd for Q-Tip, and you know, obviously, he [Muhammad]'s been DJing for Q-Tip 20 years longer than me. So basically, when Q-Tip was doing solo shows, I was DJing for him. And, actually, even before that, I was the house DJ on The Tribe Called Quest tour in 2006. So we just got cool during that tour. That was, like, a 40-city tour. And after that, whenever Rock The Bells or something would come around, I'd do Tip's set and then it would turn into Tribe's song. They'd be sharing turntables for a lot of shows.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah. We go back a little bit.
SELEKTAH: Six, seven years.
MUHAMMAD: I want to go back to the beginning of your world, your love affair with hip-hop a little bit, though. I always thought you were from New York. Like you carried that New York swag.
SELEKTAH: Nah. This is my 10th anniversary, so I'm a New Yorker now.
KELLEY: That's the rule, right?
MUHAMMAD: Alright, so it's official. Welcome.
SELEKTAH: Thank you.
MUHAMMAD: But for everyone who doesn't know, could you explain your background?
SELEKTAH: Yeah, I grew up in a city — it's called Lawrence, Massachusetts. It's about half an hour north of Boston. When my parents got divorced, I moved to New Hampshire because my father worked up there.
So I was kind of taken out of an urban environment — where it was mostly Latino, and the talent shows would be people break-dancing and rapping — to a suburban area where hip-hop wasn't even really popping yet. When that happened, I think it really became that much stronger of a love to me because I was — when you lose something that was always there, it got me into it even more and more.
And that's when I started DJing and and really studying — literally. I'd be in class with the Rap Pages in between my history book, like really just studying it and doing it every day. I kinda gave my childhood to hip-hop, literally. I didn't go to parties in high school. All I did — well, I was DJing parties in high school. I wasn't the kid that went off and did drugs. All I did was scratch, and beat juggle and do DJ battles. My mother used to stop me from going to DJ battles. I'd like cry, get really upset.
MUHAMMAD: How old were you?
SELEKTAH: I started radio, actually, when I was 13. I started DJing when I was 13 but later in that year, I started a high school station at Phillips Academy. I didn't actually go there, but it was in the town I went to high school in. So literally, within six months of DJing, they started mailing me records; it was crazy.
MUHAMMAD: How was life in New Hampshire?
SELEKTAH: It was, um, definitely slow. I mean — Hampton Beach was like, 10 minutes away. So in the summertime, by the time I was like 14, 15, I was DJing all the clubs. I would go every weekend — you know, as long as I was home by like 1:30, my mom was cool.
MUHAMMAD: So are you creating your own community of hip-hoppers?
SELEKTAH: Yeah, absolutely. There's a whole crew up there still doing it, like a whole little scene.
MUHAMMAD: You go from DJing, to then what?
SELEKTAH: I actually started producing before I started DJing. I was making pause-tapes, just looping break-beats and adding layers — they weren't good.
I basically wasn't good at making beats 'til like, 2006. I was forced to really get into it. Actually, earlier than that, like 2004. My whole thing was mixtapes; that's all I cared about — DJing, parties. And it got to the point where I couldn't do mixtapes because the music got so — all the New York artists started making down-south stuff, and that was never my vibe. It just forced me, literally, to make my own fake remixes and out them out, and that just got more and more serious to the point where I did my first album.
MUHAMMAD: How did you form the relationships with all the people you work with? Because you work with a lot of people.
SELEKTAH: A lot of it started from radio, because I was doing — you know, when I lived in Boston from 2000-2004, I did Hot 97, I did 88.9. But I was on Hot 97 like six days a week at one point. So I've had every artist come through, from Mobb Deep to Method Man to Ghostface. I would meet everybody just from them coming through the station.
And then the mixtape came — helped that out, to the point to where I got my first album. And I'll never forget one of the coolest phone calls I ever got was — I answer the phone and I'm like, "Who's this?" and he's like, "Free" and I was like, "Free who?" and he was like, "Freeway." I didn't even know him and he was like, "I heard you're doing an album. I want on it." And that's when I was like, "Alright, I'm doing something right."
Everybody else, I was chasing for verses; I even paid a couple people. And at that point, people started calling me and I was like, alright. Something's working. I think there's a group of artists, like Bun B and Styles and Jada and MOP. All these people, they all appreciate what I do as far as for the boom bap aspect. But there's not too many cats in my generation that are really holding that down.
MUHAMMAD: That's true. I think that's what is most impressive, and why playing anything from anyone of your albums, just all of them, to the alien would be important. Because the style you make, it's consistent with the roots of hip-hop, at least what is considered the golden era of hip-hop. But it's still relevant and fresh — it's so soulful, everything that you're doing. It's not monotonous; it just moves. Everything has its own kind of sound, but it's still this fiber that just rolls through that's consistent feel good hip-hop.
SELEKTAH: I think that all comes from the DJ aspect. I mean, obviously you DJ'ed first — all the greatest hip-hop producers were DJs first.
KELLEY: Because you know what people want to hear, want to feel?
SELEKTAH: I mean the backbone of hip-hop is looping with two turntables, and that turned into sampler looping. But at the end of the day, when you're constructing a record, it's all about how the DJ's going to play it. You can tell when it's a producer that — that never DJed, because they make the records all different.
KELLEY: How is it different?
SELEKTAH: The way the beat drops, the way the first verse comes in, the way — just the beginning of the song and the end of the song. It's so important, because the DJ will take it — the first word of the song, you want to bring that back. It's like, if it doesn't come in right, you didn't produce the record right.
MUHAMMAD: So you have a new album, Extended Play. I want to talk about that a little bit, but because you work with so many people — you have how many solo records?
SELEKTAH: This is my fifth solo studio album, but I have two EPs I put out. And then I've done complete albums with, ya know, Saigon, Strongarm Steady, so many people.
MUHAMMAD: You got a lot of collaboration. In the short frame, when was the release of your first record?
SELEKTAH: November 2007.
MUHAMMAD: 2007-2013, you got a lot of records. You know, the other thing — why I'm really happy to have you up here — is because your time. I don't know how you divide your time, and you're really inspiring. You still have your DJ show on Shade 45, producing your solo records, collaborations, you're producing for other people — where do you find the time? Like, how do you do this?
SELEKTAH: The crazy part is you left out the thing that takes up most my time is touring. I'm on tour, like, almost every day. Basically, I do everything on my laptop now. There was a time when I was just in the studio, making everything on the computer, but it's like I'm never home now. So I have to do everything on the laptop.
MUHAMMAD: So, do you have a vault of music that's just there? I would say no because you have soo...
SELEKTAH: Much stuff that's not out?
SELEKTAH: Oh, I probably got a thousand songs that aren't out. Literally. Everyone from like — I got probably 20 Joell Ortiz records, a bunch of Bun B records — I mean, obviously my own camp, Termanology, Reks and all them. I got a record with Tribe on it that I don't even think Q-tip and Phife know that they did with Consequence. And I got it in my computer, but it's never coming out. I got a couple joints that's not produced.
MUHAMMAD: Can you just run through your typical week?
SELEKTAH: Mondays, I usually stay home and just try to get my regular life together, whether it's personal, chores or errands or whatever — that's usually what I spend Monday on. But it depends. And then Tuesday is like non-stop — you know, studio, I usually go out. Tuesday night's a good night to go out in New York, so I usually go out — like politic or whatever. Same thing on Wednesday, I'm usually in the studio. I'm talking about when I'm not on tour. Thursdays, forget about it. I usually set up meetings all day and then Shade 45 at night, and then I usually DJ after that. Fridays can be a mix. I mean, it depends really; there's just so many random gigs.
MUHAMMAD: I'm just trying to find out — yeah, how do you find the time to make music? And at the output that you're doing? And not even the output — the quality.
SELEKTAH: Just late night, man. Everything's late night. Crack a bottle and just chill. For real. Even when I'm on the bus, though. Because I'm on tour with Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era — we just bug out and make music. We'll wake up and be like, "What're you doing?" One room in the tour bus, someone be making a beat. The next room, we're recording in a bunk. They're all kids, like 17, 18 years old. So they have — they're not jaded at all.
You go on tour with a well-known artist and they'll be like, "Nah, I'm not trying to record, I'm on tour. I need rest, blah blah blah." These kids will not even sleep and just record, record, record. And they'll try to show up to each other like, who got the best verse, who made the best beat. And it's inspiring.
MUHAMMAD: What's your greatest highlight in everything that you've done, from 13 to dreaming to being on a radio station to everything that you've done? What's your greatest highlight up to this day?
SELEKTAH: That's a hard one. I always said touring with Tribe was one of my — I always had — like that was my favorite times. Touring with Nas. Me personally — one of the first placements I ever got was KRS-One. And I want to kick myself sometimes, cause when people ask who I produce for, I forget a lot of the old records I did. It's like, KRS-One should be at the top of my list — that's KRS-One, you know what I mean? We get too caught up in — when I say we, I mean me — a lot of people, I think, get caught up in the hype of what's hot at the time. They forget about why we started this in the first place. I always try to credit the legends, whether or not they're still doing what they used to.
KELLEY: Do you ever worry that we're calcifying — we're nostalgic all the time?
SELEKTAH: No. I think — obviously I try to keep, like, a '90s kind of sound alive, cause I think that's when the boom bap golden age was. And I think now that's becoming a whole different genre inside hip-hop. Because you got the Dirty South sound, you got '80s. They used to call old school Grandmaster Flash and all that — that was old school. And then through time I watched certain people — I remember, I was on a tour bus one time and the bus driver's son came on. And we were listening to Biggie, and he was like, "Y'all listening to that old school!" And at the time I was like, "How you calling Biggie old school?" But then I thought about it — to a kid born in '92, '93, Biggie was — he came out the same time the kid did.
I think hip-hop's turned into different genres, like there's literally just '90s parties. I get booked across the world, just to do a '90s Dilla set. It's a whole different thing now – the way people dress. And now with Joey and Action Bronson and so many of these new kinds coming out, it's like, they're keeping that — it's like a whole new movement. It's crazy.
MUHAMMAD: What is your biggest disappointment?
SELEKTAH: In my career? Or in hip-hop?
MUHAMMAD: In hip-hop.
SELEKTAH: Really, to me, probably the downfall of — the way that Gang Starr ended was one of the biggest disappointments to me. I idolized them. Premier is like my big brother now; DJed for Guru before he passed away. And I watched that dissolve in front of my eyes. And I know so much that obviously the public doesn't know, but I watched that. To me, that was like — you look at someone like Gang Starr and they're supposed to be untouchable. The same way you look at a Wu-Tang, or it's sad when you see Mobb Deep fighting, or even Naughty By Nature now. That might be my biggest disappointment in hip-hop — the way that group's don't know how to keep problems internal.
And even Tribe Called Quest — no disrespect. It's some sad moments there, man.
MUHAMMAD: So how do you take — or do you — take from those things you find are disappointing to build on with what you're doing?
SELEKTAH: I just always try to keep personal things between me and people — at least in my camp — off of social networks and off of web sites. It's hard, because you can't control everybody. I never want to tarnish what I've done, but it could happen to anyone.
MUHAMMAD: Absolutely. So, that's important. Anyone out there listening, in the world of hip-hop, keep your personal business off the social networks. It really is harder to — it's a challenge to overcome your differences without that.
SELEKTAH: And I learned that, not even with artists, with, like, girls too, relationships, with all that. I keep all that — you won't see me tweeting about my girlfriend. It's opening up a lane for people to sabotage you, you know what I mean? And it could be a dude just talking trash to her, or it could be someone trying to set you up. We live in a crazy world. So keep anything personal on your own.
MUHAMMAD: Absolutely. So you've done this album with Jared?
SELEKTAH: Jared Evan. We just put out the album Boom Bap & Blues. That's on Showoff Records. He's not signed to me, but whatever his next step is, I'll definitely be involved.
MUHAMMAD: Is that a record you two have done together?
SELEKTAH: Yeah, I produced the whole thing.
MUHAMMAD: I've been wondering for a while if you would ever get off into — it's hard for me to even classify that as strictly R&B — I love the title by the way, because it's perfect to what you do. A lot of your music is so soulful. It's elaborate arrangements. You thinking about working with anymore singers?
SELEKTAH: Yeah, absolutely. I'd love to.
MUHAMMAD: Full albums?
SELEKTAH: I've worked with Goapele, I've worked with Josh Xantus. I'm a huge D'Angelo fan. I would love to work with him.
KELLEY: Is there anything different about your process?
SELEKTAH: Not really, and that's why I love it. One of the things that Premier did in the late '90s that really got my attention was he can work with D'Angelo, or Janet Jackson, or Christina Aguilera, and keep his foundation when he does. It's DJ Premier, but it's a great record. That's what I'm trying to do. I'm not trying to step out and use all kinds of different drums and all. I'm trying to keep my drum sound. I'm trying to keep the way I compress things. As long as it's my sound, I'm all with it. I'll do a rock record. I'll do whatever, I just want it to be my sound.
MUHAMMAD: Do you have a message to the up-and-coming school?
SELEKTAH: Just do you, man. I mean, I see so many producers — there's a couple cats in particular that I watched, that I was like, "Damn, they got a dope sound." And the bigger they got, they just, like, kinda watered it down and started doing what was on the radio. And that takes away their whole identity. Just stay in your lane.
Whatever you want to do today, don't change that years from now. I mean, if you want to change — if your taste changes, that's cool. But don't do it because you think you're gonna make more money, or because you think hip-hop's changing, or the radio. Just stick to what — it's all about having your own lane.
MUHAMMAD: Are there any words that you live by? Or anything that you want to pass along?
SELEKTAH: My mother always says, "You are who you – " she got two quotes. One of them is, "You're only who you are when no one's looking." And the second one is, "Two people –" and this is funny too, cause a lot of my friends deal with a lot of — get locked up and stuff like that — but "Two dudes are in a jail cell, and one's looking at — they see the mud outside and the fence — and the other one sees the clear blue sky." You gotta decide what way you're gonna go with it. No matter what your predicament is, one day you're gonna have to make a choice.
KELLEY: Does your mom listen to your music?
SELEKTAH: Absolutely. She comes to all my shows in Boston. She comes to New York once in a while. But she's definitely, she checks out everything I do.
KELLEY: She's a head? Does she have a favorite rapper?
SELEKTAH: You know what's funny? I just met him last week. Her favorite — one of her favorite songs from when I was a kid is Nine "Whatchu Want?," when he's like, "with my names up in lights N-I-N-E." He came on my show last week, and I posted on Facebook, and she commented. She's like, "That's my song!" And it's weird, cause I met every rapper, and I didn't meet him until last week. That's bugged out.
MUHAMMAD: Extended Play. Why the title, Extended Play?
SELEKTAH: I actually came up with the title when I was real sick. I was going to the hospital a lot. And I was trying to think of a name for my new album. Extended Play means so much to me because it's an extension on life for me. Because I've been trying to eat a little bit healthier and drink a little bit less. It's hard.
But beyond that, it's Extended Play for the sound, like what we were talking about. Trying to keep that alive, the foundation of hip-hop. Really it's just the sound. And the music that comes out today, I think a lot of it is very — next week it's considered old. I don't want that to happen. I want it to get extended play more than what's going on right now.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah. You're the beginning of a whole lot of things that happen here at Microphone Check, man.
SELEKTAH: I'm proud to be part of it.
MUHAMMAD: You're so humble, by the way. For somebody who's accomplished so much, every time I see you it's so respectful. You've been like that from day one. Appreciate you.
SELEKTAH: Vice versa.