With more than 25 years on the hip hop scene, Brooklyn rapper Afu-Ra has seen it all. From being part of the legendary Gang Starr Foundation to his sixth solo album 'Urban Chemistry,' he established himself as one of the cult figures in the underground. Today, in 2020, his music hits as strong as it did ten or twenty years ago, and with his new record dropping just weeks ago, we caught up to discuss the writing process, the state of hip hop today, and much more.
'Urban Chemistry,' is finally out - you delivered eighteen new songs and collaborated with so many different artists from all over the world. How challenging was it to pull a project like this? How long did you work on this one?
Afu-Ra:I would say the complete process - recording and mixing the songs down, the mastering process, also on some songs we originally had a different artist, it was pretty much a year. For me, it wasn't that difficult because, my producers - Digital Cut, they were in complete control of facilitating myself, but also the other artists I worked with, for example, Lord Kossity or Keny Arkana. Basically, they group different people together. And we were able to work while we weren't together in the same studios, to fly vocals in, use the internet and make the best use of technology to create this album where we had different artists from all over the world. It would take such an extensive budget to fly everybody into the same studio. It wasn't as complicated, but in terms of making the magic, making the music sound great, I just came with a lot of time and a lot of effort.
As I said, you recruited so many different artists from all over the world. How do you choose who to work with?
Afu-Ra: Primarily, we listen to the beats, I had all of the beats first. So we listened to the tracks, and we thought about the songs and who would be a great fit on the album. Also, in terms of my connections, and the connections of my producer team, what would be, kind of, a new reality of my new record. After six solo albums, what could be a new experience. And my fanbase, I was to bring different artists from all over the world that maybe they wouldn't even know them, or expected me to work with them and display them on the album. So we also chose these artists that Kenny Arkana, Lord Kossity, or Taïro, artists that aren't conventional for the US, Brooklyn rapper to collaborate with. I wanted my album not to be predictable, and allow it to have a chance to blow people away, without them being able to say, "Oh, I know he's going to do this and I know this person is going to be on the record." It can be like a no brainer, that I do my whole album with the Gang Starr Foundation, but where's the uplifting element of opening new doors? Of opening new levels of entertainment and connecting different charisma with people who support my music? I wanted to be telling a complete story, a global story. And the only way I could do that was by working with a diverse dichotomy of artists.
On this record, you pulled something so unusual for hip hop today - you did the whole record with the same producers - Digital Cut. How did you got involved with them, and can you tell me more about the work process?
Afu-Ra: We've worked together previously - my last studio album 'Body Of The Life Force Part 2' was produced by Digital Cut. We always had a very good friendship, we have very good harmony, and the ability to work with people and actually get things done. With this amount of tracks and what we wanted to do - not only put all of the songs together but connect with different artists. Digital Cut and I also shot all the videos, went over to ten different countries, eighteen different cities around the world. To have such a goal, such an optimistic idea, and such a plan, it would only be possible for me to do it with one producer team. If I would've had eight, nine producers, it would not have been possible. When you have so many different ideas, so many different people, to manage the times, the schedules... It was already hard enough to manage myself with Lord Kossity, with Keny Arkana, with Big Shug. It's still a difficult process to complete all the videos, but in terms of the album, I did that with Digital Cut because we have an easy-going relationship, and when it's time to get in the studio and get the work done, we get it done. I also knew that X-Ray Production would be behind the project, with our sponsor Canna, who helped us facilitate a lot of the after album moves we made with the video shooting and traveling. It also put a bit of a more direct, positive pressure to get things done. And that was the main element to help us do that.
Stylistically, on 'Urban Chemistry,' you cruised through many different genres and influences. Yet, the vibe of the record is so cohesive, and nothing feels out of place. How do you think you managed to do it?
Afu-Ra: First of all, I have to give credit to Digital Cut. On all of my previous albums, from 'Body Of The Life Force,' all the way up to 'Urban Chemistry,' most of the time I picked beat by beat from different producers, wheres of this album, one producer team submitted all the beats to me. Honestly, I didn't say no to any beat. Pretty much the eighteen beats that they showed me, we used. So I could say that from the start, there already was a continuity with the musical arrangement in the styles of speech and the energies, in terms of who made the beats and how on one album all the these could fit together. And then, with songwriting, we wanted to speak about human issues and to have different views, different types of emotions.
I'm not sure how we did it, but we did it. That's the brilliance of feeling good doing things. And the people who came on board, they brought the right energy and element and the voice quality to help this album have such a gelling feeling. I'm still am very happy, and I applaud all the artists, and Digital Cut, for all the hard work. But how we did it, I don't know. We achieved what we set out to achieve. Maybe because of the "Urban Chemistry" philosophy. We tried to keep it woven in every track, so maybe that's the glue. Honestly, it's very hard to say. Even myself, when I listen back to the record, I'm still sometimes like - "Hey, how did we achieve this, song to song?" And I have one song, it's the last one on the album, it's called 'I Try.' That song is over twelve years old. It was remixed, it was rehashed. When I hear it now, I'm like - this is the reason why I did this song years ago, perhaps to be on this album. Man, I'm really happy that the album turned out the way it did.
Like you said, did quite a lot of traveling for this record and made videos for every song, visiting eighteen cities in ten countries. What motivated you to go into so challenging, and can you tell me more about the project?
Afu-Ra: So, the album is called 'Urban Chemistry,' and it features over eighteen different guest artists and vocalists, so, the story of 'Urban Chemistry' is in each area and each place in the world. And when we speak about urban, we don't mean poor, we don't mean that it's coming from poverty. We just mean that that's the area of the settings where different artists are from and the different levels of spirituality and chemistry of creativity where it could come from. So, once we had the plate of this album, we thought of how magnificent would it be to present it to my fan base, to the world. The album where every song has a video, I think only Mariah Carey or very few artists have done that. Let alone hip hop artists.
So we had our sponsor Canna who were definitely behind the project, 'cause we go everywhere around the world and bring their name with us, as well as with the videos you might see a Canna logo. We helped marketing their products, and they helped us do this. I haven't had an album, since 'Body Of The Life Force' where people were like - wow! So, meeting Digital Cut, we said that if we're going to come out together, we wanted this album to have the "Wow" factor. Okay, people may still love 'Body Of The Life Force' as their favorite album from me. However, the respect and the impact we make with this album, we want it to be - "Wow! When Afu-Ra released his 'Urban Chemistry' album, he really went everywhere he could go to bring us a magnificent project and tell the story of each song, the different urban chemistry, and the different urban environment." That was the idea. We still have one or two videos to complete, but we will get it done in some way.
I know that the album has been out only for a couple of weeks now, but are you happy with the feedback so far?
Afu-Ra: Sometimes I'm happier, and sometimes I'm not as happy as I should be. Then, on the other side, I get a lot of great reviews, but sometimes, I can see certain tracks have like 50-50 response. But ultimately, I feel that I'm getting a great response. On one or two, I don't want to say high priority websites or publications, I'm getting like a 50%+ rating on the album, which is good to me. If anybody can rate an album and say it's 50% great, that's a lot better than a lot of albums. So ultimately, I'm happy with the support I'm getting. I'm happy with the feedback. Actually, I'm happy that I'm getting feedback. I was feeling for a moment that, maybe because I released the records purely independently, I wasn't getting any feedback for releases like 'Revolution,' or the release Jeru and Big Shug.
I was starting to feel as if, not that people forgot about me, but as if, the internet world felt my projects didn't deserve or did need any feedback given to them. But I was wrong. Maybe it's by when you are with the label, and at least an independent label, and they are connected to the different channels, you able to be seen and able to be heard. Your project is able to be viewed by more people, thus more replies, more responses, more criticism, more feedback can come in. So I'm happy that I decided to work with X-Ray Productions and Canna because they definitely helped my project. I have visibility around the world, and I wouldn't have been able to do that myself. I don't have the brains for it. I don't have the mechanisms for it. I don't have the people with me to do it. And it's a huge difference between being totally independent and being independent on the independent label, to be on the mini-major. It's a huge difference in terms of the levels your project can be seen and heard. I'm happy to be in the place that I'm at right now.
So, do you have any plans on taking the album on the road and come on tour, once this coronavirus crisis comes down?
Afu-Ra: It is a very good question. Actually, as of right now, I have two shows lined up, one in Switzerland, in a little town called Gladus, and in Bogota, Columbia. Both of them should be in the next two weeks from now. And as it looks, hopefully, the stars will align, and allow me to do it, and I will just walk with my protective mask and return to my family safely. But honestly, if the coronavirus restricts the travel, for everybody to be leaving the different countries, then I'm going to have to just stay focused and continue to promote the album. If nobody's touring, if nobody's doing shows, everybody's going to be glued to the internet and the news and what's going on. So now, I guess it's my time to really rev up my promo angle or at least to be active on my social media and talk to the people out there. So when the tour doors re-open or open back up, they'll be awaiting and ready for the 'Urban Chemistry' tour. And I can't wait.
You have been on the scene for more than 25 years, and pretty much saw it all. What do you see as the biggest change in the scene and the genre itself over the years?
Afu-Ra: It's hard to say. I mean, in terms of music, it has always been changing and it's forever evolving. Actually, as of right now, if we go all the way back to when I released my first 12'', 'Whirlwind Thru Cities,' I could say the hugest change is that the internet and the social media conglomerate linkage, promoting albums or promoting any types of products has taken over. For example, right now, there's such a level of cyber popularity where you can have people with huge popularity in social media. However, I'm a rap artist. I tour around the world. I might never see them on any posters in Scandinavia or Germany or France or Spain or Canada or wherever. But when I go to social media, they have all these millions and hundreds of thousands of views.
So I could see, from the days in the past to now, there's this cyber kind of profiling, and kind of class system, that has separated a lot of different entities, from artists to products to normal, everyday people. And like I said, that's the hugest change I can see that has gone on in the music. Well, that cyber platform or the cyber level of popularity and the class system is now affecting the artists, their livelihood, how they make money, how many shows they can actually have, who work with them, how their career can continue. Because, people are using social media, cyber platforms and numbers to differentiate which artist is good or not, wanted or not wanted. I'm going to say that's the hugest change that I've seen, and it's an actual fact.
Your music has often been describer as an underground hip hop or conscious hip hop to highlight the fact that your lyrics actually have a message. How did we get to the point that something like that has to be highlighted, instead of being the most normal thing in hip hop music?
Afu-Ra: Yeah, you're right. I mean hip hop, if you look at it, it definitely is conscious. It's conscious on many different things. Some hip hop is conscious about going to the party and having fun and, you know, spinning your girl around on the dance floor. Then sometimes, hip hop consciousness is on how my style is in fashion and how it relates and culturally tells my story. That's also a part of hip hop. I guess, because of the dichotomy of the different consciousnesses that's explained and showed in hip hop music, when it comes to the music that I choose to do, I always approach my songwriting from a mental upliftment perspective. You know, the different songs that I do... For example, I've had a song where I wrote about weed. It was a song I did for the High Times. They had a compilation album. So even though I was rapping, I will say about intoxicating yourself through the means of marijuana, it was about mental upliftment at the same time. It wasn't so much portraying the marijuana as a hero, but portraying our mind and our brain, the mental capacity, and the mental abilities to be above all.
My first lyrics were "Influential, scientifical power/My mental violence will shower." I've always been an artist that wanted to display the mind, display the brain, what the brain can do, how the brain is the supreme orchestrator of all things. The brain is connected to the universal consciousness, which actually is the brain that our brain is able to do all things through. This is the level that I'm on through my music, and I guess it's maybe why people might speak about this or I might speak about myself from that perspective. I'm an artist, I want to input a level of consciousness in hip hop. Because there's such a dichotomy of different consciousness shared in hip hop music, in the end, I want to be recognized and I want to be noticed. So I guess that's my way of showing - "Well, here I am!" By telling my story the best way I can.
I was way too young and way too East-European to catch even the small part of everything that was going on around the Gang Starr Foundation. How did you get involved? How did you get together, and what was the main force that pushed you to create something so influential that lasts for so long?
Afu-Ra: Wow. That's a very good question. Ultimately, it has to go to Guru. Rest in peace, my big brother. Guru had a dream that he took from building with Big Shug in Boston. He left Boston while Big Shug was in jail, and came to New York to explore his success in the music industry, having a record contract. Through that, Jeru the Damaja, he was my close friend and still is my friend, at the time, I would say the late eighties, he was around the neighborhood, proclaiming that he's going to have a record deal. He wants to be a hip hop superstar, and so on and so on. So it just happened that, through mutual friends, Guru connected with Jeru and I was Jeru's homie. And when he went to the studio or here and there, a lot of times I went with him. So, through that relationship with Jeru, now Guru lands his record deal in New York City, and teams up with DJ Premier. He found him in Texas to a mixtape solicitation. Sometimes labels find different DJs or different artists to work with different artists. Basically, the label, kind of, paired DJ Premier up with Guru to create this Gang Starr group, because Guru was already coming with the Gang Starr name.
Now you had a label step in and do what labels do - manufacturing the process of the Gang Starr as we know it, as DJ Premier and Guru. And through Guru, Jeru met DJ Premiere, and after the success DJ Premier had with Guru on 'Daily Operation' album, he produced Jeru's first single 'Come Clean.' I wasn't a part of it, but I was part of the process, being Jeru's homie while it happened. Then after the success he had, of course, Gang Starr Foundation continued to have successes, now I'm brought into the picture as his friend. His first single was a huge hit, we went on tour, so now I'm part of this group of guys because I was his friend. So, he has a huge success with 'Come Clean,' of course, Gang Starr had their success, and now other members like Group Home and Big Shug who came out of jail and rejoined his own longtime friend Guru became a part of the Gang Starr Foundation. So Gang Starr Foundation, kind of, came together through the coagulation, or the meshing of all the different artists like Jeru the Demaja, or myself, or Group Home, or Big Shug. We all had that connection to Guru in some way.
And Guru being this Renaissance man, one of the few Renaissance men in hip hop music, is the glue that glues everything together. He was the approval for the hip hop community to keep their eyes on Jeru or Afu-Ra, or Group Home, or Big Shug, because we had that linkage working with DJ Premier, the master of the Gang Starr sound and the creator of a style of hip hop production. Our success lies in the lines of that story of DJ Premier being the God of hip hop music, whatever people might say. Even myself, there are many things DJ Premier has done that I didn't like. I'm talking about music, creatively. As well as other members of the Gang Starr Foundation. However, DJ Premier created a style of hip hop production, and Guru was one of the first Renaissance men of hip hop, educated, college graduated, but chose to be a rapper because he was so in love with the rap culture. So now, the Gang Starr Foundation members like myself and Jeru, Group Home, Big Shug, our success is built along with that story. I think is magnificent, and I'm proud to say that my first steps in music were because of Jeru. And later, I met Guru and DJ Premier, and I'm very happy, very pleased, and proud that I can say that.