An unknown entity in many hip-hop quarters (despite his prolificacy), Raashan Ahmad has been game in trying all sorts of odds and ends to get to his means – which, in this case, is an emotionally-wrought and funkified form of rap. Ahmad, the former MC of hip-hop collective Crown City Rockers, introduced himself as a viable rapper independent of major-label constrictions with his solo debut The Push in 2008.
Ingeniously designed by a host of hotly-tipped producers, The Push gave Ahmad an electric platform to showcase his breathless, passionate rhymes. Full of pumped up, bass-heavy jams, the rapper's debut made little waves across the mainstream, but an impressionable dent in hip-hop's underground. The optimism continued on 2010's For What You've Lost (2010), in which a shinier brand of funk cohorts with sharper-edged hip-hop share their talents. Vibrant pop hooks, jazz horns and live percussion coalesce on numbers like "Sunshine", "Beautiful Ugly" and "Pain on Black".
Still prowling the margins of larger success, Ahmad's convivial nature would see him through a slew of collaborations including France's DJ Wax Tailor, earning him a healthy amount of face time on televised live shows, performing alongside the DJ. Still looking to make his mark beyond the insular circles of hip-hop's underground, Ahmad plugged away touring and recording, traveling the globe and picking up collaborative prospects and influences along the way.
Then along came 2012's Soul Power (given a limited reissued release in 2019), which injects '70s soul funk into the electronica-inspired hip-hop, boasting appearances by the likes of Aceyalone. At once a soothing meditation on Afrocentric musics as well as a club-friendly crowd-pleaser, the album aptly showcases Ahmad's ability to explore the roots of hip-hop with sincere passion while expanding its perimeters with musical experiment.
Photo by Raashan Ahmad (Press photo: Courtesy of the Artist)
Always keeping abreast in the global sturm und drang, the rapper would keep his poet's eye on the pressing issues of war, famine, and poverty, penning numbers rife with drama and strained soul for the politically-edged Ceremony (2013). Alternating between folky, intimate musings and heavy hip-hop plods, Ceremony would lead the artist (after a nearly six-year hiatus from releasing solo material) toward the varied stylistic brew that is his latest, 2019's The Sun.
Ahmad brings his irrepressible charisma to this short set of Afrobeat-influenced hip-hop (eight cuts in all). The Sun, the rapper's fifth studio album, bristles with a kind of energy that isn't urban but rather subtropic, interpolating these influences into his music as deftly as a practiced musician should. Ahmad's gift of verse works the friction of a bard's heart, his concern always the message and never unnecessary flights of fancy rhyme.
His even greater gift is an ear for melody and rhythm. The Sun sports a deliciously chunky groove, most notable in the percussive romp of "No" and the Afro-pop bounce of "I Got Life", the album's two heart-pounding numbers of djembe-drum cool. Elsewhere, Ahmad investigates a lusher marque of his soul-searching funk; "The Day the Sun Came" features nouvelle chanson maven Keren Ann in a turn that has the rapper trading his spoken word for her throaty croons.
He extends that reach on the Pharoah Sanders-inspired "Pain Away", slipping Farfisa funk and free jazz into the throb of the heaving hip-hop. Full of sun indeed, and always proliferating a triumphant and joyful noise, Ahmad's latest effort is the paradise of white-sand beaches, best appreciated in the thickest of winters.
Describe your childhood, please.
My childhood was great. I moved a lot, but grew up on the west coast in L.A. with summers on the east coast in New Jersey. My dad was a DJ, so the house was filled with music. Funk, soul, and jazz was a staple in my house and outside hip-hop was happening among the beautiful community and the gangs and crack epidemic that permeated the time.
At what age did hip-hop capture your imagination and how did that happen?
Hip-hop seemed to be always there. I can't remember a time really where my imagination wasn't captured by hip-hop, although I can safely say being a little kid driving in my aunt's car with her blasting Eric B & Rakim's album Paid in Full was a moment I remember being fully excited and present. A more conscious love would come later when a bunch of hip-hop albums revolved around Africa medallions and black consciousness.
This would break the spell of school systems that had taught me black peoples history began at slavery. I stood taller and so did my friends. That was revolutionary.
You came to prominence as part of the Crown City Rockers collective. How did you all come together? What are your memories of your experiences working in that collective?
Most of the band members went to the Berkeley college of music in Boston where we met and formed. Through jam sessions throughout the city we formed with a love for exploring where our differences would meet musically. I joined the band (initially called Mission) through my friend and amazing MC, Moe Pope, who asked me to join the band.
It was one of the best experiences, not only in music but in life. Working with musicians, I learned so much about songwriting and melody and arrangement, not to mention the live show aspect. We toured so much and have countless stories of all things. We stopped playing together as frequently but all remain really close friends.
The Push is your solo debut. I feel this album did a lot for you, in terms of establishing who you are as a hip-hop artist. It took your music to a more roots-based hip-hop, though it was still a very contemporary work. Tell me about writing and recording that album, and its particular sound.
That album started as more of a journal. I had moved to L.A. and, with the rest of my crew in Oakland, I was just writing in more isolation than I had in previous years. Even with the live band, I always held a deep love for traditional hip-hop and the elements of the culture which includes turntablism.
Adding on to that, it was the first time I alone was to be in charge of picking beats for an entire project. With me dealing with the death of my mom, the killing of a good friend, the birth of my son and more, a lot came out in that album. I'm still really proud of my growth as a writer on that project.
Soul Power and Ceremony explore more soul and funk elements. It didn't exactly return you to your work in Crown City Rockers, but with these albums you were trading on a lot of '70s R&B sounds. Tell me about this development in your work on these two albums.
Absolutely. I thought of Soul Power as more of a mixtape than an official album. It was released during the height of the mixtape era and it felt really freeing to get to just rapping without the pressure of having it be an official project. I gathered beats and made that pretty quickly.
Ceremony, on the other hand, was a more conscious approach to making my "long" album. I had so many ideas I wanted to express on that album and it was the start of a shift in thinking and creating. I had a bigger part in producing that album. I went from previously just getting beats to having a hand in how the tracks were arranged and additional instruments added over the beats. It was the beginning of me thinking bigger as far as getting the sounds in my head out into my music.
For What You've Lost is your most accessible work to date. It features appearances from Aloe Blacc, Gift of Gab and Count Bass D. What does this particular album mean to you?
After The Push, I toured the States heavily but it was hard to see a viable way for me to make music my career anymore. On my last tour for that I album, I did a show in my hometown of Oakland and not one person showed up. I quit music that night and the following morning DJ Moar from France emailed to ask if I wanted to tour in France. That tour and the audience I didn't know existed changed everything for me.
DJ Moar asked about putting out my next album and with that momentum I created For What You've Lost. It's a celebration and a sadness that fills that project. Also, a lot of excitement in discovering a new way to think about not only making music but touring and being well-received internationally. I toured Japan, Australia, Europe, Brazil ,and more from that project and all that traveling around the world expanded how I thought about everything.
Photo by Raashan Ahmad (Press photo: Courtesy of the Artist)
Your latest The Sun is probably your most adventurous, in that, you look toward influences outside the American continent. How did you go about parlaying the sound and culture of Africa into this album? Was it in your travels that you met the other players on the album?
It was traveling and experiencing so much of the music that made this album. The year leading up to that album, I went on tour all around the world with the French producer Wax Tailor and I learned so much watching him and seeing different cultures.
Add to that going to Africa, where I ended up DJing at the first afropunk festival in Senegal, which again really changed so much for me. The rhythms and sounds and melodies just spoke to me so much. I wanted to figure out how to fuse all that I was experiencing, to create something unique in my experience as a b-boy who ended up traveling the world through hip-hop and, along the way, picked up some new "samples".
You worked with French pop singer Keren Ann on The Sun. How did you get to working with her?
We did a show together in Paris and after the show she invited me to a performance she had the next night. Since then, I've performed at her shows and she sat in on mine as well. We just became fast friends. It was all really natural. Plus, I just appreciate her musicality and humanness. She's the best.
You are a prolific artist, working as a recording artist for close to two decades now. But your work isn't as well known in the US as it is in Europe. Why do you think Europe "gets" your music in a way that the US doesn't always?
I really have no idea. I've thought a bunch about that but I'm not sure what it is. I'm just grateful that anyone anywhere gives my music a listen and I'm thankful I've been able to support myself and family doing music.
You often find yourself recording on smaller independent labels. Have you been courted by the majors? What are your ideas on writing and recording on a larger platform?
I have never been approached by a larger label. I think whatever works for the artist and whatever is best for the art to be created is the way to go. I do dream about what I could create if I had all the resources, though…
If you are touring the album for The Sun, I'm interested in the live set-up. What does the live band look like, since it has co many cultural influences?
I am touring and it's so much fun! [Note: This email interview was conducted in February 2020 -- just before the pandemic shutdown.] The band changes if I'm doing clubs or festivals but always has a core of drums, horns and keys. The way I look at it is through the lens of hip-hop. Anything can be sampled but the thread comes from the artists presenting it. I change the show because I love the challenge and stay excited about expressing. But at its core, with all its influences, it's hip-hop. Beautiful, dynamic, multicultural, soulful, truthful, vulnerable, hip-hop.