Interview with Mike Ladd (Poet, Hip-Hop Artist, Producer)

Mike Ladd, Tuesday July 20, 2010 in the East Village at 10:30am

We began by speaking about Robert Pinksy, who Ladd studied with while attending Boston University for his Masters Degree. Mike was in town from Paris for only a week and by some serendipitous occurrence I was able to not only meet him for an interview but also attend a rehearsal for an upcoming project he is working on. Ladd has collaborated as a spoken word artist with a number of jazz musicians since his debut on the scene in the 1990’s. He is of the hip-hop generation but he remains true to the formality and importance of poetry’s history and place in music. His most recent and ongoing collaboration with pianist and composer Vijay Iyar has caused a ripple in the concept of jazz song cycle, challenging jazz audiences to think outside the boxes of melody and harmony. We spoke about the state of jazz and poetry as well as his new collaboration based off of the dreams of veterans from the Iraq/Afghanistan war as a foundation.

AA: I had a chance to speak with Robert Pinksy earlier this summer…

ML:”You’re kidding! You know he was my teacher!

AA: I know!

ML:Did he mention that or what?

AA: Vijay mentioned it actually, I saw Pinsky read at The Jazz Standard in May with Vijay, Ben Allison and Matt Wilson.

ML:I’m glad you spoke with him, he doesn’t often get understood as a jazz poet and he is.

AA: Absolutely, he has a real articulation.

ML:He’s an incredibly generous man. I had two great teachers at that school. David Ferry, who’s absolutely amazing. He’s a formalist and a translator of classics. He did a great translation of Gilgamesh. And Robert Pinsky is incredibly generous.

AA: Did you guys work on musical concepts?

ML:For me, that program was more for refinement. My real school of poetry was New York City. I was getting out of college, my 2nd to last year of school, I was suspended…long story. I started worked on the first Trans-Atlantic conference in Paris, sponsored by the Dubois Institute. Then I met three guys, Willie Perdormo, Kevin Powell and most importantly, Tony Medina. Tony Medina is probably the most generous poet/artist that I have ever met in terms of sharing his work and supporting young people. He was young then but still had a way of taking you under his wing. I was really into what Tony was doing and I was really into his support. I had been writing since I was eleven. My last year of school, I ended up meeting professor Griff. He and I really got along, he and I wanted to do a record. I was like, “I’m going down to New York, I’m gonna make a record with professor Griff, I’m gonna go to law school then I’m gonna be Barack Obama. By that point, I’d really been fashioning myself as a Marxist, Tony was…is still one of the few stanched genuine Marxists I know. I mean I haven’t see him in ten years, but you know…then two of us all get into the studio in Hempstead with professor Griff and Tony started spewing all this “die cracker die”, anti-capitalist rhetoric. Griff was like “whoa, this is a little more than what I bargained for.” We didn’t hear from him [Tony] again. I ran into him years later in the airport and it was nice to see him. That tapped me into places like The Brooklyn Moon, and that hadn’t even opened yet, this was 1992/93, Nuyorican was big, Firewater Poetics run by a guy like EJ Blackson who will remain a mystery but should always be noted. There were some amazing black poets doing stuff. There were two schools going on at that time for young black poets. There was the Dark Room Collective who went on to make very interesting stuff; a lot of them are the most successful poets and known now. Then there was the stuff going on in New York. It was almost as if the Dark Room Collective was consciously reacting against or move in a different direction in reaction to the Black Arts Movement and we had decided to follow in the “tradition” of the Black Arts Movement and of course those stratifications later on became irrelevant as people continued their craft. At that time, that’s the way it was. I was part of the highly political camp but in contact with the dark room collective. Those guys focused more on craft and I was more interested at that time in rhetoric than craft.

AA: Was one more academic?

ML:The dark room collective was way more academic. They were based out of Harvard, not the entire collective went to Harvard but they all started there. That’s where the meetings took place. I grew up between two households. My mother was a professor at Harvard and an academic in general to a certain extent; I was reacting against all that. I was certainly anti-academia in many different ways.

AA: Then you became a professor.

ML:Well you know…[wiping his brow and chuckling] There’s a sort of long tradition of all that. Anti-academics who are academics. That was the start of it all for me. These streets were my institution for poetry. I was in New York for 4 years before I went to graduate school. I wanted to go to an MFA program that was very conservative so that I could be challenged and test all these radical ideas I had learned. I wanted to get my craft down and know my craft. I was expecting much more of an adverse reaction than what I got. I sort of got “oh, this is very interesting” but it was incredibly informative and the stuff with David Ferry was incredibly informative, his Introduction to Formalism and getting to understand that world, which is something I’ve always stuck with. Something that I worked hard with David Ferry on was playing with metered work in other time signatures. What happens when you slap iambic pentameter on a 4/4 beat or a 5/7.

AA: So applying a musical sensibility to the poetry, deciding where the fall in the musical bars?

ML: Yeah, more or less. And what happens when you take established literary metered structure…take that template and put it on a musical template. Which are different. And then working with someone like Vijay who’s shifted the musical template, so now you’re not even on a western musical template. Something very ridged like iambic pentameter and slapping it on that, you get these really interesting combinations.

AA: How did you first hook up with Vijay?

ML: We met at the House of Blues in Harvard Square. That was 1997 and I was touring my first record and he was playing with a California based band called Midnight Voices. I was 27, he was 26. Then several years later he called me up to work on our first project, (“In What Langauge?” ) and in that project I wrote poems that were formalist poems mashed up on his rhythm such as Iraqi Business man is iambic pentameter.

AA: One thing worth noting is your conception of providing an overall narrative stringing together individual narrative works. It is so captivating.

ML: I have to give myself assignments. I started doing that I when I was writing on my own at school. Especially if I was working on poems, I would work on a series or a concept. I first began by trying to create a new American mythology where I would mash up colonial figures with Europa gods and have them having this discussion. Ogoons snubbing Paul Revere, calling revere a “sucka”…well maybe a little more complicated than that. And every since then, I’m kind of addicted to giving myself assignments.

AA: Structure helps you work and that is the way a lot of jazz musicians work. Poets with a jazz senility have a similar way of working in the manor of discipline. Both are also often intellectuals, which I believe may be a bridge between the two communities.

ML: Both fields have been highly disciplined fields since their inception. I guarantee you most poets at some point in their life wish they were musicians and most jazz musicians at some point wish they were poets. You hear it all the time, jazz cats will say: “man the shit you played right there, man, that was poetry” and the poet will say “man that thing you read right there man, that was jazz”. They’re always projecting their discipline on the other. And that rhetoric’s been around for a long time. They exchange is natural. It’s a historical thing, free verse and new poetry of the 20th century met with jazz at just the right moment, just when jazz beginning to break open its structure. Free verse had been around already for 50 years but it was really coming into its own so it was a natural combination.

AA: It’s beautiful how it happens that way.

ML: Yeah it’s cool.

AA: And here in particular, New York being the epicenter of it all.

ML: Well sure! The whole beat movement! New York, Chicago, San Francisco. San Francisco was very important. Those things were very popular, the underground scene. It was sort of like the natural combination of disco, reggae toasting and what people were doing before hip-hop started. There are these natural elements that were around each other and automatically fused. That fusion was actually more precise and more concise, and that’s how you get hip-hop. And that happened also because all of those art forms were new. The reason why we didn’t automatically get a new genre when poetry and jazz met is because poetry specifically had already been around for five millennia. Why poetry always remains its own entity and continues to break into the different fields it visits and shapes…poetry will always be poetry because it’s the oldest form there is, in terms of words.

AA: That’s why you consider yourself a poet before a spoken word artist.

ML: Fuck yeah, with conviction. Do you know what the top selling spoken word record is in the world? John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech. That’s spoken word! Spoken word is exactly what it says it is. Have you even seen the Grammy list for spoken word? I’m surprised Barak Obama didn’t win a spoken word award.

AA: You’ve mentioned that you were eventually excepted by the jazz community.

ML: We had been playing with jazz musicians since the early 90’s, it was all in the spirit of carrying on the Black Arts Movement. We were in New York, we were in the same venues, it was all on purpose. The Nuyorican is a Nuyorican because the Nuyorican was a Nuyorican. I’ve been in punk bands, funky bands and hip-hop bands, starting from age 14 but I don’t call myself a musicians. It took me a long time to figure out what key I was playing and that didn’t happen until I started working intensely with jazz musicians and it really didn’t kick in until I had to start gigging and was picking up jobs as an accompanist to jazz musicians and then it gets to the point where you better know your shit or at least know the same map everyones on on. Most jazz musicians who are interested in working with writers, who are involved in more the experimental traditions, like poets are open to a variety of musical forms and written forms. So they’re willing to integrate a lot of stuff, so the idea of wanting to integrate poetry and jazz has already stayed, its something that has been done. God knows it has, and not always with good results either. Some of its cliché and down right fucking terrible.

Both poetry and jazz are economically in crisis, I mean severe crisis. The music industry’s in already in crisis…The economy’s in crisis, the music industry’s in crisis, the publishing business is in crisis, and at the bottom of  all that is this shanty town called “poetry and jazz”. People are always looking for new ways to make things interesting and possibly economically viable in addition to what it means creatively. I mean these are all creative people and its naive to think that some who says “I do it just because I gotta do it” is just saying that. They do because they gotta do it but also because it works somehow. The jazz crowd was trying to tap into the hip-hop audience because they thought that would be a way to reach another market.

AA: We then turn to such hip-hop producers who sample jazz records…

ML: They hit the CTI catalogue hard! Bob James, that dude is gaping! They really hit that catalogue hard. That was the late 80’s early 90’s and since then it just grew into this jazz fetish. Stones Throw [record label] is based on that. And that’s what’s interesting too in terms of hip-hop and jazz… how the cultures generationally hit. You got jazz players and hip-hop kids. So you got the jazz musician then you get the offspring who is Nas. And on the same level and you get jazz heads who have these kids who are these hip-hop heads. Everything that their parents did with jazz, they did with hip-hop. A lot of us think may think “ I will never be able to fully prove my blackness by being black because I’m not black but I will prove my blackness by knowing everything there is to know about this particular art form that I’m in love with”. That’s my social take on it but in their reality they really love it and just want to be accepted and the way you get accepted is how any fan goes about it, know everything, know as much as you can about that subject.

[We then turned towards chatting about his more recent medium of expression, using the theater. Stage presentations of poetic works]

ML: I really got into the medium of the theater with our [Vijay] first project. “Still Life With Commentator” and “In What Language?” were both much more theatrical than the more recent project will be. This one will be more of a musical presentation. “Still Life With Commentator” was essentially an opera and it left me feeling uncomfortable. I am more comfortable in a musical venue so we’re approaching it more from that, from the realms we know. We’re interested in reaching out to the veteran’s community and the non-veterans community with is everyone. We want to create another pathway for the dialogue between veteran and non-veteran, which is going to continue for the memory of this war, which isn’t even fucking over yet…its 10 years deep…well 7 years deep. It’s only been not cool to go to war for the first time in human history on such a large scale, since Vietnam.

The largest peace protetst in the history of humanity was for this war. In terms of one moment, one 48-hour period. Of course, as Greg Tate pointed, “then everyone went home” and the war went on and nobody was prosecuted. But I still think that’s a really important moment. There’s a lot being done. It’s one of those subjects where it gets saturated, so its important to find new acngels. Which is wy I thought that working with dreams would be an interesting way and a common ground that both veterans and non veterans share, everyone has dreams. In those realities, the “you had to be there” factor is muted. Every dream has an equal amount of intensity whne you’re in that subconscious or unconscious world.

AA: Has working on this project changed your scope on this war or reaffirmed your perspective?

ML: Everyone is supposed to support the troops no mater what right? A lot of people on the left have dealt with that by deciding that nobody is there by choice., that everyone s there for economic reasons. Its much more complicated than that. Nearly everyone that I’ve interviewed has said wanted to be a solider since they were a little girl or a little boy. Shit, I wanted to be a solider when I was a boy. It’s facing those realities that people aren’t born politically corrected. Some of this “going to war” stuff is a real impulse that people have and of course its something that we’ve had for centuries.

AA: What is the connection between academia’s role in the music and the jazz/poetry connection and some of the underground archival labels like Stones Throw.

ML: Academia can threaten art forms but in some ways in absolutely vital. Collecting and keeping art forms and not just that but giving it out…and all these other labels that find them and give them out again. Its huge!

AA: I recently heard a Madlib [producer] mix tape of music he ripped from India.

ML: Yeah yeah…I did that shit first, ok!? [laughs] Take that off the tape! In terms of jazz and poetry is “Conjur”, which is Taj Mahal and Ishmael Reed. If you ever make it to Paris, you gotta interview David Murray. David’s probably been working with jazz and poetry consistently longer than a lot of people. There are other jazz musicians who write poetry, Oliver Lake. Then there’s the Nicki Giovanni records, have you heard those? She does readings with gospel choirs. Those are some classic examples.

AA: Have you had a chance to work with [Amiri] Baraka at all?

ML: Yeah, he’s always been around and been real generous to the whole scene. Vijay played with Baraka for a long time. The black poetry movement of the early 90’s/late 80’s was a direct continuation of the tradition of the black arts movmenemt. There were The New Black Panthers, Asha Vendeli, Ras Baraka, Tony Medina, Willy Perdomo, Carl Hancock Rux, Amanther Corbell, LaTasha Nevada Diggs, Edwin Torezm…these were the key players. Another great resource is Bob Holman.

AA: I’ve already interviewed him. Im so happy were able to meet via Julian [Jones]. I kept running into Julian at various events so finally I asked if I could interview him. And low and behold he led me to you.

ML: Then you’re like: “Holy shit! You’re Ted Jones’ grandson!”

AA: Exactly, then I was like: “Holy shit you’re going to introduce me to Mike Ladd!” This is how things happen.

ML: That’s the one thing I miss about living here, things just happen.

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