Photo credit: Courtesy of Top Dawg Entertainment
Ab-Soul, the most philosophical member of the by now vaunted Top Dawg Entertainment, met Microphone Check hosts Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Frannie Kelley in Los Angeles two weeks before the release of his latest album, called These Days ... After only one listen to the album, the three of them had a conversation about Ab's high expectations of his audience and what he's trying to make for them.
"I've learned the bulk of what I know from hip-hop music. You understand what I'm saying? Like I learned — from listening to hip-hop music, I learned about things that I would soon learn about as an adult, from listening to it as a child," he says. "That's what I got from hip-hop, and so I just want to give that right back."
ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: Ab-Soul in the building. What up, man?
AB-SOUL: What's the good word, brother?
MUHAMMAD: I'm so happy to be talking to you cause we saw each other — I don't know how many months ago that was — was that like six months ago?
AB-SOUL: Word, yeah, word.
AB-SOUL: And it is an honor. It's an honor, brother.
FRANNIE KELLEY: Where did you guys meet?
AB-SOUL: Where were we at? SX?
MUHAMMAD: No, no, no. Before that it was at LPR.
MUHAMMAD: For the ScHoolboy joint.
AB-SOUL: Yeah, that's right.
KELLEY: Oh, that's right. It was your birthday.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, it was your birthday.
AB-SOUL: Oh yeah! Exactly, yeah. For sure, for sure. Yeah, I remember that.
MUHAMMAD: And we talked about you coming here. I wanted to make it happen right then and there. I was like, "Could we get you up here tomorrow?"
AB-SOUL: Word. You gotta have something to talk about.
AB-SOUL: You gotta have something to talk about. I don't like to move without direction.
MUHAMMAD: Me either. I stay quiet because I'm like, "What's the point?" But you have a lot to talk about I think. People want to talk to you. But I respect the position. You got These Days, though, so we here.
AB-SOUL: We are here. We are here. These Days. June 24th, you feel me? TDE.
KELLEY: It's a lot to talk about on that album.
AB-SOUL: Yeah, yeah. I cover a lot. I cover a whole lot.
KELLEY: Do you feel like you did what you wanted to do with it?
AB-SOUL: Absolutely, absolutely. You know, I had turned it in at the top of the year, so this extra time just gave me extra time to, you know, seal the deal, you feel me?
KELLEY: What were you doing with that extra time?
AB-SOUL: Just adding a few extra songs.
AB-SOUL: Just cleaning everything up, expounding a bit, elaborating.
KELLEY: It's very open and earnest.
AB-SOUL: Yeah. I mean, I try to be that. A lot of my favorite artists embody that so I try to give that back, you know what I mean? That's what I got from hip-hop. I just want to kick that back if I can.
KELLEY: Like who specifically?
AB-SOUL: I won't even be cliche and say, like, Jay Z and Nas, I'll take you to like even KRS-One, you know, hip-hop intelligent movement, that type of thing. Who was the one said that hip-hop was like the black CNN? It's just these things — like a lot of the early artists, you know, Rakim, you know he called himself the God, then, and so we hear it now and I think a lot of people of my generation might think that this is new, you get what I'm saying? So I mean, I just try to, you know, I'm just trying to restore the feeling.
MUHAMMAD: Have you ever met Rakim?
AB-SOUL: No, I haven't met Rakim personally, but I met his son. His son actually called into a radio — I forgot which radio station I was at but he called in while I was doing the interview and it was dope. That was super dope. I'm sure I'll catch Rakim slipping one day though, for sure.
KELLEY: That's the second time today that Chuck D has come up. And I know he's on Twitter a lot right now talking about black radio and everything. I mean, it's pretty shocking that somebody would go at him and not think that everybody would know exactly who he was messing with.
AB-SOUL: What is black radio?
KELLEY: Well, I think that's part of the debate right now.
AB-SOUL: Got you.
KELLEY: But mostly, you know, hip-hop, R&B, quote unquote urban.
AB-SOUL: Urban, got you.
AB-SOUL: Got you. But I mean, it's all subjective. I think that's what also makes it so cool, so fun, you know what I mean? It's subjective. I can't please everybody. I'm not gonna say that's impossible, but it's very highly unlikely that you please everybody.
KELLEY: Yeah. But what do you also say on the album? You don't even have that many haters?
AB-SOUL: Well, yeah, just in terms — that line was just in terms of my circle of friends.
KELLEY: Oh, OK.
AB-SOUL: In my circle of friends, you know, we'd be here without a doubt. Then I guess I would say "too many" cause it might be a couple, a few deceivers in my presence, but for the most part, you know, I've had the opportunity to move around with guys that I've grew up with from the sandbox, pretty much. Fortunately for me.
KELLEY: To me, the album is very like — so we've spoken to a lot of the guys that you work with and everybody seems to have a plan, like a three-album plan.
KELLEY: But Control System was not part of your trilogy and this feels even further removed from the plan.
KELLEY: Is that all a bad feeling, or is there any good feeling about the plan not progressing the way that you thought it would?
AB-SOUL: Oh no, I mean, I'm enjoying every step. And you know, my series I guess that you're talking about would be Longterm.
AB-SOUL: And Longterm is my series that I came up with when I first decided to become an artist. And it's supposed to be four parts. And the Longterm 4 should be my last album.
KELLEY: Oh, OK.
AB-SOUL: The title alone speaks for itself: Longterm. If you look it up, it's a term of considerably 10 years, you know what I'm saying, where you thinking long-term. So everything that happens, all of the hurdles and the potholes or whatnot, are all necessary for the long-term goal, you see what I'm saying. So I wouldn't tell you that — I wouldn't say that everything is not happening according to plan, you know. I think everything is going according to plan. You're gonna have a few surprises here and there, but for the most part, we seem to be, we seem to be touching a lot of people and really being accepted and recepted by a lot of people. So it seems like a positive thing, completely.
MUHAMMAD: When you were coming up, were you surrounded by people who then wholly embraced your vision or your way of communicating?
AB-SOUL: In general?
MUHAMMAD: In terms of music community.
AB-SOUL: I mean, I'm a people person. I'm kind of cool everywhere I go, you know what I mean, for the most part. And for the things that I say, I kind of know how to say 'em to whom I say it to, if you — does that make sense? I could chop it up with my homie that's a criminal and I could talk to Obama, who's the president, too. I got questions for both of 'em and I could talk to 'em both in their dialect, do you see what I'm saying?
MUHAMMAD: Yeah. I think it's clear — I think what I'm getting at is that the community you know, with TDE, you guys are such a force.
MUHAMMAD: And it was quiet before your force was revealed. It was revealed within your community; you knew what was gonna happen, where you guys were going, what you were building, you know. But in terms of the outside world, they weren't privy to that yet, you know?
MUHAMMAD: And whatever was going on around that time, I don't know. Obviously it didn't affect you guys, but maybe it did in the way that it inspired and pushed you guys to really just be like, you know, like, "This is our stuff and this is the way we're crafting our art." I don't know.
AB-SOUL: No, I think I understand what you saying. What's very important to note is that we're actually — those are really my brothers. Like, I slept on the floor with them, you get what I'm saying? We all sat in the studio together and tried to figure it out together.
I probably stepped foot in that studio in '06 for the first time. So if you could imagine that type of time, us — we grew up together, in a sense. So everything that's happening now is only a byproduct of that. And I mean, if you think about that time, we were conditioned for everything that might happen. 'Cause you gotta think, the age that we live in — this is the Internet age. I mean, we see how the media works, we see how, you know, celebrities are treated.
And I grew up in a record shop. So I watched eight-tracks come, and 45s come, and 12-inches and then cassettes come and I watched the whole — I watched the transition. It's always gonna change, but now we have even more of that extensive information. I could look, I could hop online and type in hip-hop and get the whole history of hip-hop at the click of a button.
I just feel like we studied. We're highly conditioned for this, if I would have to say. It's not no type of pressure. I'm so proud. I'm very proud of them and I'm proud of what we've done, you know what I mean. I hope we can continue.
KELLEY: Just in that vain, on "Stigmata," you talk about Steve Jobs taking your grandfather's job and it was your job.
KELLEY: What's the next step?
AB-SOUL: Like I said, I worked in a record shop and my grandpa owned it.
AB-SOUL: And that's physical distribution.
AB-SOUL: When iTunes dropped, that was the transition from CD to MP3. Not — I won't say when iTunes dropped.
KELLEY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Singles ...
AB-SOUL: But you know, Napsters and your file-sharing programs came. Steve Jobs created iTunes to where we could actually, you could sell your music digitally. So that revolution — if you could imagine me — you know, my mom ran it, it was a family-owned business, I'm there every day after school. And I'm trying to rap.
You can only imagine my mom looking at me trying to rap, and we're going out of business. You get what I'm saying? So right when the record shop came to an end — Magic Disc Music, shout-out to Magic Disc Music — right when it came to an end, Murs took me out on tour.
AB-SOUL: And then I dropped my project Longterm Mentality on iTunes. So I was rewarded, still. We got to still stay in the music and we still selling records, still, you feel what I'm saying? It's still possible when we thought, you know, just in the physical land that it was over. So that's what that line would imply.
MUHAMMAD: So much of your music is so deep. It's like, where do you go? Because there are things that I think are somewhat literal, and then there's things that have so much layer and depth to it. It's the equivalent of, you know, going to a university or having like a whole bunch of — a library of things that you have to — or are told you should — study and look, read up on, before you can have an understanding of what this whole thing is that we're living in.
AB-SOUL: Yeah. I mean, yeah. I just like to talk about it. I like to reason, you know what I mean? I like to ask questions. I like to talk about it — everything. This world is a big place.
MUHAMMAD: What inspires you outside of maybe the obvious of just living and breathing. Like what's the purpose you get from making music or stepping up to a microphone?
AB-SOUL: I think it's simply that — I could probably honestly tell you that I've learned the bulk of what I know from hip-hop music. You understand what I'm saying? Like I learned — from listening to hip-hop music, I learned about things that I would soon learn about as an adult, from listening to it as a child. And that's just amazing to me; that's just remarkable.
So I want to give that back. I want somebody to feel like that made me feel. Like, "What does that mean? What did he mean by that? It sounded like he said it like I should have known what it meant." Like, "I'm late." You get what I'm saying? That's what I got from hip-hop, and so I just want to give that right back.
MUHAMMAD: Do your fans come up to you and have real in-depth conversations? Like they're clear on —
AB-SOUL: Yeah, all the time.
MUHAMMAD: Like, "I so get it."
AB-SOUL: All the time.
MUHAMMAD: What does that turn into? For example, someone comes up to you and they'll ask you — I mean, I'm fascinated by a lot. You said, "We run this world, price in a Pharaoh pyramid?" I was just trying to write as I heard it.
AB-SOUL: Word. I said, "When doves cry, s—- gets serious / You'll feel like a prince in Pharaoh's pyramid. Scheme."
MUHAMMAD: That's what you said.
MUHAMMAD: Why'd you say that?
AB-SOUL: Well, I mean, obvious wordplay upon Prince and "When Doves Cry."
MUHAMMAD: "It was a scheme."
AB-SOUL: And "it was a scheme." I mean, it's just a lot. It's a lot. I couldn't, I couldn't even — you feel me.
KELLEY: That's the headline on this interview.
AB-SOUL: And that's what I'm saying. It's kinda like you could use your imagination.
AB-SOUL: But you know, you should be able to directly catch some sort of word association or something. You should catch something. And you can take it as deep as you want. You can go into the deep end if you want or you could, you know, stay on the shallow end, too.
MUHAMMAD: I mean, you just placed it out there. I was like, "Brilliant. Smart." From an MC perspective, you gotta sprinkle things and do things like that. Sometimes there's so specific of a purpose — you know like you choose a word because it lands with something. "I'm really saying this because I need you to open up this little section, you know, and I'm not gonna take you all the way there, but just enough for you to be like, 'Hmm.'"
MUHAMMAD: In that particular song, you say, "She can't wait to get rid of me." Who is she?
AB-SOUL: Uh ...
AB-SOUL: Life, yeah, I'm sorry, yeah. "Maybe I'm just a dreamer / Life is but a dream and I will never leave her / but I bet she can't wait to get rid of me."
MUHAMMAD: Why'd you say that?
AB-SOUL: What if I told you I don't know.
MUHAMMAD: I'd believe you. But it's just so deep.
AB-SOUL: Exactly. I think I said that to provoke that thought. Like what, "What if life is a girl?" I love to provoke thought. Just think about it. But at the same time, you know, I'm trying to figure it out with you; I don't know. I'm not trying to act like — you know what I mean?
MUHAMMAD: I always got that from your music. It's not an apologetic position. It's always been a state of, "I know some s—-."
MUHAMMAD: "And I'm tripping up on some stuff. I'm stumbling on some stuff, figuring out some stuff. I deliberate — I know cause I know."
AB-SOUL: Right. What do you think about it?
AB-SOUL: This is what I — now how do you feel about this?
MUHAMMAD: From me being, you know, older than you, and having such admiration for your art and your crew — your generation and what we kind of left you guys with, in a sense ... It's just, you want to leave people with something better, and it seems like we didn't leave you guys with much that's better.
There's things that you realize on your own, and that's with every generation, but you try to leave something better so that they know, like, "I can cling to this dream and take it to this next thing." It seems like you guys are creating your own destinies without anything wholesome.
AB-SOUL: No, yeah, I feel you.
MUHAMMAD: I hear that and I'm just like, "What the hell?" And, "Where do you go?" Like, "Where does the next generation go?" Where does the next Ab-Soul fan who's like, "I am connecting" — like," I get it" — the same way you learned about things through hip-hop and they're learning about things through you, I'm like, "Where does this go?"
AB-SOUL: Well, what I would say first to that — first and foremost, you gotta remember, you know, hip-hop is amongst the youngest genres of music anyway. Like is hip-hop 100 years old? You know what I'm saying?
KELLEY: It's 40.
AB-SOUL: 40. So, in that right, in respect to all of the other genres that had came before, we sample that, in rap. In that right, we're still trying to figure it out, really.
MUHAMMAD: Do you feel that maybe you guys weren't given much?
AB-SOUL: I think we — I think everyone is given everything that they need to do what they need to do.
KELLEY: Are you asking from an artistic perspective, or not?
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, definitely from an artistic perspective.
AB-SOUL: That, but even what I said, period: I think we all have all of the tools already to do what we need to do, what we would like to do. It's just up to us, you know what I mean. It's up to you how bad you want to do that thing. I think all the tools are here to do it, though.
MUHAMMAD: So people can't make excuses.
AB-SOUL: Right. You feel me? When I first started rapping, it was fun — I was trying to mock Twista. Then I really wanted to, you know, I couldn't really do that, exactly. That's his one-of-a-kind thing that he does. So I start trying to find my own style. Then you can rhyme good and you can do that. You got punchlines, you got metaphors, you tight. You like, "I'm tight," you know? "I'm so tight that, I'm so ill that, I'm so dope that." Then, after you do that a million times over, you gonna ask yourself, "OK, so what are we gonna talk about?"
You just want to be dope and ill at that point. You want to stop saying it; you want to really lead by example, instead of just giving examples, you understand what I'm saying? And I just think that's what, if I had to — I think that's what we do. I want to hear new words and new things in the popular or, you know, the black music, the urban music. I want to hear a few more words. Seems like I'm hearing the same words. And this is just in terms of what we would call popular, urban music — whatever that means. But I feel like the range of subject matter isn't far. It just seems to go from the studio to the strip club.
MUHAMMAD: So in your album, it seems like the front part of it was kind of like girls, drugs. And then it got really beyond that, which made me really happy.
MUHAMMAD: But this is just my first listen, you know. And I don't like really talking about a body of work just off of one listen.
MUHAMMAD: But my initial feeling of it was like, "Wow." On the top of it, it was that, but then you — maybe I'm wrong — but then there was this reveal that was — there's a lot to the record, man.
AB-SOUL: Well, yeah, like, you're talking the intro, "God's Reign?"
MUHAMMAD: Just the intro on — I want to say like the first two, three songs or something like that — it just had like this theme that was seemingly reoccurring pertaining to —
AB-SOUL: Well, I took my time with it.
AB-SOUL: I took my time with it. I mean, I tried to make it as cohesive as possible but I didn't want to make it too — I didn't want to make it Control System Part 2, if that makes sense. But I mean, I always like to thread things together. It's got to sound good, it's got to flow well. I always put these things in mind.
KELLEY: The top of the album to me is, that's when there are all those songs that are technically one song but they sound like two songs.
KELLEY: Like stitched together. We hear that happening, I think, more often over the past few years.
KELLEY: Where does that come from?
AB-SOUL: Yeah, cause I had recorded, I guess, so many songs, probably about — I won't say so many songs — I probably recorded about 20, 25 songs for the project. And Top Dawg, my boss, he was trying to cut it; he was saying it don't need to be so long. "You gonna bore people. So if you chop this down to like 14 or 15 songs ..." So I just tried to —
KELLEY: So you got around that.
AB-SOUL: Right. I tried to wiggle around that best as I could, because I felt strongly about the records, of course. I guess it just worked out. It worked out that way.
KELLEY: I think the variety works out really well. I think the sequencing is real tight.
AB-SOUL: Right and that's one of my main things, in general, with all my bodies of work: I just try to touch as many bases as possible, try to touch as many hands as possible, you feel what I'm saying? Just broaden the range, the horizon.
MUHAMMAD: What was with the Puffy endorsement?
KELLEY: Is that Q — a shout to Q?
AB-SOUL: Yeah, it was kind of like that. I guess that's going to the two-part song. That was me putting Puffy and Puffy on the same track.
AB-SOUL: You feel what I'm saying? That was super tight to me and I mean, who else better to let the world know that I'm eating than Dr. Combs?
MUHAMMAD: Dr. Combs!
AB-SOUL: You feel me?
MUHAMMAD: Well, that's what I meant by there's — the front part of the album to me just seemed like it was kinda going towards that, and then later on it kind of departed away from that. And I don't think you have anything to prove. I mean, I've never felt that. I think your artistry, period, it is what it is. It's sharp. Accept it or not, whatever. But in hearing that, I was like, "Oh, OK. I'm not mad at that," but I was really happy when you got past that part.
KELLEY: I think there's some feeling among the faithful that — or a question, wondering what TDE is gonna do about the radio, about black radio in particular — like what's gonna be the root? I heard a lot of people say, about good kid, like, "There's no hit on here — what's gonna happen?" And then he made it a hit.
AB-SOUL: "Swimming Pools" was a hit.
AB-SOUL: He had a couple hits on there. "Poetic Justice" was a hit.
KELLEY: I'm saying people doubted it cause they didn't sound like a hit, you know, or a hit at the time.
AB-SOUL: Well, I mean, yeah, that happens a lot.
KELLEY: Of course.
AB-SOUL: That happens a lot. You hear a song one time, you see a movie one time, it's the same concept. But I think I can speak for all of us when I say we're not really too worried about the radio.
AB-SOUL: Just from being outside, it seems like more people are listening to music, their personal playlists on their phones. That's the wave we seem to be riding.
KELLEY: OK. Like on YouTube? Or Spotify?
AB-SOUL: I mean, all kinds of different avenues. I don't want to — pick your poison. But yeah, I feel like that's where we are with it, rather than people tuning into the radio more so.
KELLEY: It feels like radio came around to you guys.
AB-SOUL: Right. That type of thing.
KELLEY: I think that that was a little bit of a surprise to people, that the feeling was, "Oh, the kids don't want to have to think too hard. The kids don't want it to be dense or wordy or whatever."
KELLEY: How did you know that — how did you know to have higher expectations for your audience?
AB-SOUL: Because, like I said, I'm a people person. Like, I know people. I know people. I talk to a lot of people. We been around the world.
KELLEY: Did you go to Japan when Kendrick went with Em?
AB-SOUL: Nah, I haven't been out the country. I've only went to — I've only been to Canada and Amsterdam so far.
Danny Brown gave this great, great analogy that I like to use. He said like, "If your dog gets sick, you have to mix the medicine with its food. You can't just give the dog the medicine, it's not gonna like it. You have to mix it with the food."
KELLEY: Yeah he told us that: "Put the pill in the pudding."
AB-SOUL: Right, yeah, right. That guy is crazy. But anyway, I think that's the best analogy I could use for what I try to do. Because I'm not — I mean, who am I, too, at the same time? Who am I to even say that I'm giving you medicine?
KELLEY: Who is anybody?
AB-SOUL: Right, that type of thing. One of my nicknames is YMF. Can I curse?
AB-SOUL: Young Mind F—-. Cause I think I figured out that's what I do and I'm seeing a lot of comments saying, "Yo, I'm mind-f—-ed." When I come up with some of these lines, I feel the same way. So maybe I also have another purpose, to just, to mind boggle a bit, you know what I mean? Hey, you never know.
KELLEY: Then can we talk about "Sapiosexual?"
KELLEY: Look who heard the album.
AB-SOUL: What an excellent segue. That was an excellent segue. Yeah, "Sapiosexual." Do you want tell the people what a sapiosexual is, for those who don't know?
KELLEY: A mindf—-er.
AB-SOUL: I mean, you want to be more specific? OK, I got you. Don't trip.
AB-SOUL: Attracted to intelligence.
KELLEY: OK, that's funny. I would have said it differently.
AB-SOUL: Yeah, right. Aroused by intelligence.
KELLEY: Right, right.
AB-SOUL: That's what a sapiosexual, is by definition.
KELLEY: Intelligence, specifically? OK. Cause what I got from the song was that it was like being attracted to somebody regardless of the physical.
AB-SOUL: Oh! Well, nah. I'm glad you got that in there, too, but it really — it was a very intricate way of getting at a woman, like, you know, pursuing a woman. I was trying to use words that you probably wouldn't use talking to a woman for the first time. But even still, you know, I'm no dummy. I know a few words, you get what I'm saying? These things that I'm telling you, they might feel good, type thing, you know? But yeah, that's just what that is. Shout out to J. Cole.
KELLEY: We've heard it all before. I like that that's part of you enlightening the world is giving better game.
AB-SOUL: Yeah, for sure.
KELLEY: It's appreciated.
AB-SOUL: Yeah, cause that's what I got from it, literally. I honestly can probably say that I learned most of what I know from hip-hop music, from rap music. I could probably honestly tell you that.
KELLEY: To me the songs that are, sort of, fused together — and then the end of, I think it's "World Runners" when it sounds like you guys are in the studio just f—-ing around — it sounds a little bit like your process is exposed. I mean, it's sort of artfully exposed. But is that on purpose? And what really is your process?
AB-SOUL: Well, I don't have one, really.
AB-SOUL: I kind of just let everything come and go. I'm not a studio rat.
KELLEY: You're not?
AB-SOUL: Not a studio rat. I don't just, like, sit in the studio all day. Like, "I'm in here grinding. Finna knock out 20 joints right now, in an hour." I'm not him. I take my time. I think about it, and I go and lay it down and record it when it's time. But I'm not — I mean, my process, it can be as simple as that skit — f—-ing around in the studio with the homies. We could come up with a great idea that way, or it could be something that I was sitting on on my own, in my own mind.
MUHAMMAD: Do you construct the sound a little bit? In terms of saying, like you hearing or feeling, and it's just like, "I want, maybe, chords to go in this direction."
AB-SOUL: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I do all of that — all of the arrangement. I sit down with Ali and we make it sound hot, you feel me?
KELLEY: It's funny cause whenever you shout him out, I think it's him for a split second.
MUHAMMAD: This is my dream. Every time I hear it, I'm like, "Man, I really wish I was in the room! I think I could help."
AB-SOUL: Hey, man, it's never too late. It's never too late.
MUHAMMAD: What is that chemistry like between you and Ali?
AB-SOUL: That's my little brother. That's my little big brother, you know what I'm saying. We clash heads. We get it done though, you know, we get it done. I'm real meticulous, he's real meticulous and we work together and get it done.
MUHAMMAD: Does he push you in the sense of communicating something is not as effective as you may think it is? Or is it that he has a real trust and faith in your path and your journey so he just lets you go with it?
AB-SOUL: In that right, you know, I was probably recording music a lot longer than Ali was. He respects me in that right. Ali is the engineer. I recorded most of my album at Mac Miller's house. And so I go, I lay it down, I put it all together and then I send it to him to make sure, you know, to mix and make sure the sounds are right. But before I turn it into him, I try to do everything that I would like to hear done on it, so he can just do his thing after, you feel what I'm saying?
AB-SOUL: Cause you gotta think, he's the engineer for all of us. It's not like he's — he doesn't have that much time. And we are expanding, but right now, you know, that's my go-to guy.
MUHAMMAD: That's what I'm thinking, is that everyone kind of has — there's certain similarities, but things really stand out as different, you know. So it's just like having the sensibilities of understanding where you're trying to go with something and a particular sound.
AB-SOUL: Yeah, for sure.
MUHAMMAD: Just wondering if he — we had a lot of faith in our engineer who would say, "I get where you're going, but I think you should probably just go in this direction." We'd be like, "Nah, that's totally not it." But then we'd be like, "Well, maybe you were right about it."
AB-SOUL: Yeah. That's why I'm saying I take my time. At this point in my life and my career, I know what's hot, you know what I'm saying? Like, I just know. I know what's dope.
MUHAMMAD: Why were you recording at Mac Miller's?
AB-SOUL: He has a great, great house. Have you seen the show?
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, I've been up there.
AB-SOUL: He has an excellent house.
MUHAMMAD: I've been to the house.
AB-SOUL: Yeah — and you know what, as a matter of fact, I'm sorry, Ali!
AB-SOUL: He told me to say what's up to you! I just got off the phone with him. He heard I was coming up here.
AB-SOUL: Told me to say what's up to you. He said you would —
MUHAMMAD: I'ma hit him up.
AB-SOUL: Hit me with some great questions.
MUHAMMAD: I feel like I'm not doing that. I'm not hitting you with the great questions cause I'm just like —
AB-SOUL: Nah, honestly, these — you guys in comparison to, you know, all of the typical blogger questions, this is cool.
MUHAMMAD: Well, it's a conversation. I really admire your work, and have been, and it's just with this new album, I was just, I'm still kind of like —
KELLEY: You caught us off guard.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, I'm so caught off guard. In a good way, but I'm just like — it's so much and it's a trip, man.
AB-SOUL: Right, and I been removed. Like, my last project was Control System. I didn't even — I don't think I even got to listen to Control System on Beats by Dre products, you understand what I'm saying? So you gotta think about that first.
KELLEY: Think about that!
AB-SOUL: Think about that, first, you know what I'm saying? This came out before Beats by Dre products. This is after, you know, Ali mixed good kid m.A.A.d city. After Ali mixed Oxymoron. He has all kinds of tricks up his sleeve right now. And it's all kind of science and technology that they're coming up with every day for these type of things. And so I let him do that and I stay over here and try to compose and let him worry about all the science. Frequencies and all that cool s—-.
MUHAMMAD: I felt a way about even the frequencies. I was like, "These poor little NPR speakers can't even handle this right now."
KELLEY: Stop throwing shade!
MUHAMMAD: I'm not. I'm just stating. Maybe it's a little too strong for the systems they designed —
KELLEY: Maybe we'll get some new speakers.
MUHAMMAD: They need to, you know, open up the range a little bit. But there was just so much in the record, just from the sonic of it, just from the stuff that you were talking about. I wish I had another day to listen, at least, you know, to sit with the record to really have this proper conversation with you.
AB-SOUL: I feel you.
MUHAMMAD: There's so much movement in it and —
KELLEY: Yeah, I thought of that word also.
AB-SOUL: Absolutely. And once again, like I said, every time I put together a project, I try to have something for everybody. I try to have a sound for everybody. In this album in particular, I called it These Days to blatantly try to capture the sound of these days, you know, last two years since I been missing. So this is —
KELLEY: Is that why you got a Mustard beat on there? Is it a Mustard beat?
AB-SOUL: Yeah, that wasn't Mustard, but that was Dnyc3, from League of Starz. But nah, shout-out to Mustard, too, you know, that's my guy, too. Shout out to YG. They doing real good. We supposed to be getting in real soon. So everything is good, man. It's a great feeling. It's a great feeling.
MUHAMMAD: I tried to take little notes when I was listening — and I don't know why I wrote this, cause I don't even remember the song — but for "Dub Sac (My Bucket)" I wrote, "Who is this song made for?"
AB-SOUL: Who is it made for?
AB-SOUL: It was made for — well, all in all, that's a song for my hood, Carson. That's a song for my city. Carson, Calif., first and foremost and, or, Del Amo, my section of the city. Carson is still, the whole city is — we're not Compton, we're not Long Beach, you understand what I'm saying? That type of thing. The foundation of it was for that. I'm from Carson, I'm not from Compton. Get it right. I'm not from L.A., I'm from L.A. County. Get it right. And the song that just —
KELLEY: "Treat the booth like a urinal."
AB-SOUL: Right, yeah. That's just some great imagery, right.
KELLEY: You're also kind of like marking your territory.
AB-SOUL: Yeah, see? See, the mind can just, it can travel so far; you can take it anywhere you want. But I was gone say, too, that the song is about progression. It's simply about progression. "I had a dub sac in my bucket rollin' round like f—- it / Now I got an oz in the Benz still rollin' round like f—- it." It's just about progression, but still the same. When I was buying a dub sac, I had wished I could buy a ounce, you understand what I'm saying? So I haven't really changed, I'm just able to get the ounce now, type thing. All in all, that's what it — I hope it wasn't taken as a weed tune.
MUHAMMAD: No. I mean, for those who, that's where they are in life, I suppose — but I felt like that song was really a strong song.
MUHAMMAD: You know, for people who don't know that there's an opportunity out there for you. Often certain communities are not shown that there's a way, you know, you're not given that way. So I just thought that that was an interesting song. That's why I'm like, "Who did you make that song for?"
AB-SOUL: Right, yeah, for real. That was for the homies. Yeah, I guess I made that for the homies. I shouted out a lot of my homies at the end.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah. You say you left the trail for in case — what did you say? "I left a trail in case I gotta go back." And I just thought that that was —
AB-SOUL: Oh, that actually was not me. That was actually your man.
MUHAMMAD: Punch said? Yo, I thought that was a powerful line.
AB-SOUL: That was a very powerful line. That whole verse is very powerful. When you get a chance, you probably want to — that's probably one of them verses on the album.
KELLEY: Yeah, it really is.
AB-SOUL: Shout out to President Punch.
MUHAMMAD: I thought I was gonna see his face today.
AB-SOUL: Right. No, no he picks and chooses as he pleases.
MUHAMMAD: It's all good.
KELLEY: What is that Jay song? It's not — something announcement?
AB-SOUL: "Public Service Announcement."
KELLEY: It's a similar song. He says a similar thing about staying the same. He's still the same guy.
AB-SOUL: Oh, right, type thing. Or even a better Jay Z line would be like, you know, "N——s look at your chains, say you changed like you worked that hard to stay the same," you know what I'm saying.
I think a lot of hip-hop artists — just cause it started free, in a circle, have this idea of, when you involve money or business, it's not that anymore, for a lot of people. But like we say, it's only, what, 40 years old. So we're gonna figure it out. We'll figure it out. It's gonna move around; it's gonna do flips. It's gonna go here; it's gonna go there.
MUHAMMAD: Does the money get in the way of the art?
AB-SOUL: It can. It can. Fortunately for me, I'm not a money collector. Fortunately for me. I'm not from the projects or anything, like I said, I'm from Carson, Calif. There was always food in my refrigerator, you see what I'm saying? I genuinely do this more for the respect, more of the privilege to have a voice that somebody will listen to, being somebody that somebody could look up to, somebody with a testimony, somebody who could help out, who could put you up on game.
MUHAMMAD: Who's putting you up on game now? That's there?
AB-SOUL: I'm a sponge — I learn from everybody. Me and Punch were probably the tightest, as far, in the creative process. Just bouncing around how we — the different concepts I throw around, how we sequence it. He's probably the one that I discuss, with that, the most.
But all in all, I'm just saying, I like to talk to my homies. Like, my real friends that, like you say, that listen to urban music. Like listen to black — you get what I'm saying? I holla at them. I listen to what they like to listen to. I want to connect with people. I want to know, too. I want know it all, you feel what I'm saying? I want to be able to walk everywhere.
MUHAMMAD: I think I'm asking cause you say that you learned from hip-hop, everything you've learned is from hip-hop so — not counting your brothers, cause you guys are all fierce and sharp as I don't know what.
AB-SOUL: That'd be like, that's overkill. We'll leave them out.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, leave that university out.
MUHAMMAD: The rest of them that's out there — radio or not — who do you feel is giving something that you can walk away from, with the art form? You, specifically?
AB-SOUL: Of course I really admire Jay Z, probably the most. I probably admire Jay the most. Nas. Eminem. I haven't got to meet him in the flesh yet, but I've had great conversations through text with Jay Electronica — he's a very wise man. Me and Lupe are real close. A lot of the guys that have been here, a lot of the guys that I've been fans of, have just been giving me good game. You know, they've been here before, they've paved the way. Everybody seems to be open to let me know what's cracking, you know, how they moving over here at such and such label. "Is it cool or what you think?" Everybody's welcoming us with open arms.
MUHAMMAD: You say a line about something to the point of not having to have a contract or something like that?
MUHAMMAD: Do you recall the line you said?
AB-SOUL: Yeah, I think it's, "I told dude, 'Dog, I don't even need to read the contract.'"
MUHAMMAD: No, you said something like, oh man. You said, "Don't write rhymes, why should I have to sign paper?" That's what you said.
AB-SOUL: Oh, yeah. Yeah, "I don't even write rhymes, I really shouldn't have to sign paper."
MUHAMMAD: Were you talking about the contract, or any recording contract?
AB-SOUL: Right. That was in regards to that. I guess I got two lines about the contract then. That's crazy. Probably he ain't even heard that verse yet. Damn. Ha, ha, ha. Yeah, and that's just me, you know what I'm saying?
MUHAMMAD: No, and I feel that and that's — you say that that's just you. I think it's very clear you have this free spirit of walking the, whatever, universe you want to call it, earth or whatever.
MUHAMMAD: Soul, exactly. And I just thought that that was — I didn't take it as a jab at the label. I just took it as openly like, as in your spirit, your embodiment or whatever, like that's how strong you moving.
AB-SOUL: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I stand alone. I wanted to be a rapper, I wanted to be here before I knew any of you, you know what I'm saying? Before I met Top Dawg, I knew I wanted to be here. It's that type of drive, it's that type of ambition.
MUHAMMAD: So where you taking us, man? Cause you know stuff we don't know.
AB-SOUL: I promise you, bro, I ain't saying nothing — I ain't saying nothing Canibus probably ain't said twice.
KELLEY: We tweeted — we told our fans, our followers on Twitter, that we were gonna talk to you and somebody was like, "Please ask him what is his favorite Canibus album," and since you've mentioned him —
AB-SOUL: Oh, his best one was the first one, Can-I-Bus. For sure. Absolute — without question, Can-I-Bus. Without question.
MUHAMMAD: Do you get anything from performing, aside from the creative aspect?
AB-SOUL: Absolutely. That's all energy. And see, that's another example of what you doing here. You get to have — when I speak, I speak in terms of me being powerful, highly powerful, God-like. And so when you have a lot of people in one room quoting these words in unison, you get what I'm saying, you will feel that electricity. And I feel like when I'm saying these words and the people have the opportunity to say it back to me, they can feel that powerful for a second, as well. They can leave maybe with some of that electricity, you get what I'm saying? It's a opportunity to show people the power and harmony, simply. The power in moving as a unit, moving in unison. You know, "Everybody wave." That's all harmony. That's a large part of what music is. I'm trying to re-instill that.
MUHAMMAD: How do you bring that sort of energy that's established in that environment?
AB-SOUL: I mean, when you have it. You have it. We're all just big bundles of light, for sure. We're all big batteries of electricity.
MUHAMMAD: How do you channel that back into the studio after the performance? That energy that's — that movement, that feeling.
AB-SOUL: Well, let's see, I guess that's where, you see, I'm not that rapper. If I just performed, I'm not about to go to the studio. Unless it's an emergency, right? Obama needs a verse, I gotta go get that done, you feel what I'm saying?
This is second nature to me. I've been rapping since I was 12 years old. These things just come to me at this — it's second nature at this time. I can't really describe a process or a channeling issue. I mean, I could sit here and write you a rap. I can't really explain that no more. I don't know. You feel what I'm saying? After a while, it's kinda like taking a piss I think. After you got it, you got it, you know what I'm saying?
MUHAMMAD: I was just wondering if you take, that energy, that spirit, that you've put out there and you want to effect people in a certain way — I wonder, a year later, two years later, is there an instance or a situation from that energy, that you bring back to your —
AB-SOUL: Well, no. I try to walk with that energy at all times. On or off stage. "I hope you can feel it," type thing. In terms of that, like that's on or off stage. I'm a big — I'm light. I'm a big bundle of light, energy. And I reserve it and I appreciate it. I don't take it for granted, you know. I use it for the greater good.
KELLEY: I'm reading this book by Samuel A. Floyd, Jr. He's a renowned academic at University of Chicago. It's called The Power of Black Music. But I was thinking about it a lot when we were listening to the album last night and one of the things he talks about is — a different writer that came up with this term "musicking" — but it's about how music making is constant and a song is not complete until it's received by the listener. And then they flip it or use it.
KELLEY: I mean the root of what he's talking about, why he's talking about the power of black music is the concept of the ring that comes out of African music, which is everybody being together, making music together and also that that can sort of happen at any time.
KELLEY: And that's what I was thinking about at the end of "World Runners" when it's just the studio and you guys f—-ing around. Because I actually was in that studio a few years ago. I interviewed all you guys, and it kind of happened. It kind of happened. There are these spaces, maybe, I guess, where people who know each other can make music like they're just talking to each other, you know?
AB-SOUL: Right. Or, I mean, consider two heads are better than one. You consider that, if four of us are focused on one thing, we should see result — you should see some sort of result. It's just the harmony in it, like for example, have you ever seen Avatar?
AB-SOUL: Have you seen the movie Avatar? So at the end, when they made him official, when they took his human body and made him into his official Avatar body, the process was them having to sing and move together in unison in, I guess what would be a prayer-type situation. This is just a movie, but it's a great example of how all — if we move together in unison and harmony, the power that it has. I just think that's a great example. And I know he didn't just, you know, pull that idea out of his a—. I know that.
MUHAMMAD: There's an organization called OneBeat and they have this program where they take — I believe it's 32 musicians from all over the world — people from the corners of the Himalayas, people don't speak the same language, they play a weird instrument, it could be something that look like this, the rope like this. It's an instrument that causes vibrations, sound, energy, whatever. They bring 'em together to come here to the U.S., and the thing is to have this sort of communication just through music expression, especially those who are chosen don't speak the same language.
And one of the exercises that they do — the first exercise when everyone's new, like school, first day of school everyone's just uncomfortable looking at each other — the first thing that they do is they stand everyone in a circle and then they make everyone touch the next person.
And it's just like this whole thing. It's a matter of how fast everyone, how fast you can do that and then it creates this energy and this rhythm. It's just a simple, just touching you, you know. And it breaks down this, this barrier that was existing. And I just thought that in seeing the end result of how they had these walls and these barriers 'til the end of the program, which I think is just a four-week program, how they all will get together and make this music together — again, not speaking the same language.
AB-SOUL: Right, not speaking. Yeah, for real.
MUHAMMAD: But just going off of that circle of energy and coming together and no longer being strangers. Just going with the energy.
AB-SOUL: Right. Just feeling the vibe. One of my homies is married, he's married to a girl who speaks French, like he's married to her. She can't — he met her and they got married and they don't even speak each other's language. And they're very happy together, you feel what I'm saying? So I think maybe we're — this guy is younger than me, keep it in mind. I think we're pushing towards that type of feeling out the vibe, for real. Less talking. I think we are pushing towards something more like that.
MUHAMMAD: I've never been to any of your shows. I want to know what does it look like. I'm feel like I'm missing out right now. What does it look like?
AB-SOUL: We have a lot of fun out there, you know.
MUHAMMAD: What kind of fun?
AB-SOUL: It's the soul section.
MUHAMMAD: I saw you perform with ScHoolboy, you was just — it was your birthday. That was the first and only time I saw you step on stage.
AB-SOUL: Right. I mean, I put on a pretty good show.
KELLEY: I saw you guys a couple years ago.
AB-SOUL: I'm waiting to perform these new joints, though. Like, I've been performing the same songs for quite a long time so I'm ready to throw in this new lineup. Maybe we get a little bit more bounce if they got the right speakers for me, you know what I'm saying.
KELLEY: I saw you and it was one of the most pleasant concert-going experiences of my entire life.
AB-SOUL: Thank you.
KELLEY: Must have been a couple years ago and I guess Kendrick was headlining. People were really getting to know those songs. But they were also nice to each other. Like people get out of the way and let you walk and not spill your drink and everything.
AB-SOUL: Real talk. That's the type of crowd that we're bringing out. I mean, fortunately, luckily.
KELLEY: Yeah. What's your — we're gonna have to wrap up real quick — but what do you most want to have happen this year, 2014?
AB-SOUL: Yeah. I don't know. You gotta remember, you gotta remember, my series is Longterm. So tomorrow, tomorrow is too close.
AB-SOUL: You feel me? This year, the end of this year is too close. But I mean, I guess the, I should definitely be able to go to Europe now, right? I should be able to go out of the country this time. Go out and touch more of the world, for sure — run more of the world, run around more of the world for sure. Absolutely.
KELLEY: Nice. I hope that that happens.
AB-SOUL: Yes, me too.
KELLEY: Thank you so much for taking this time.
AB-SOUL: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it. It's an honor. It was an honor. Thank you.