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This will certainly not be the first alert to emerge from the press this year regarding the odd sort of jazz/hip hop revivalism happening right now. From the Thirsty Ear catalogue of collaborations to Us3's new album, from the Blue Note series and the reggae-soaked ensembles such as Rhythm & Sound to the Soul Jazz label, it is once again time for everyone to merge and dance. There are growing numbers of skilled, multi-form musicians to accomodate the growing number of dance music fans in a non-dance music kind of way, and Mike Ladd is no exception. Ladd's latest album, Negrophilia, profoundly demonstrates his ability to invigorate even the most rigid body, and I tossed him a few questions about it, via email, that he kindly found some time to answer.
The word "negrophilia" comes from the French "negrophilie," which means a love for black culture. Mike Ladd's latest, released earlier this year on Thirsty Ear, adopted its name from that term. "Being Black-American, I can go as far as I please," Ladd states, elaborating on the power of the word by saying "shade plays a significant role in black American culture, but it is not as distinct as in other countries, South Africa for example."
Initially known to be offensive, etymologically speaking, the word negrophilia has come to take on a positive meaning. But Mike Ladd has a different story to tell us about: "Anyone who is offended by the title needs to kick back and relax with a dictionary. Negrophila simply means an intense or obsessive love of black culture." For clarification, he adds that "the word was coined when Africans were still commonly referred to as negroes, hence negrophilia."
In 2000, freelance art historian and curator Petrine Archer-Straw, based in Jamaica, published Negrophilia, Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s, a book that has definitely influenced Mike Ladd. Citing his appreciation for the text, Ladd marvels at how the author "explores some of the origins of the obsession many whites have with cultures of the African Diaspora. It is a phenomena that has fascinated and often, but not always, infuriated me."
When composing the record that would come to share the name of Archer-Straw's work, the Cambridge, MA-born musician tried to "bend the rules of the computer as much as possible; sometimes we used mistakes the computer made while arranging the samples." In an attempt to make the process less rigid, Ladd says he would "try and add as much chaos as I can to working with computers." There's an obvious notion of rhythm coming out of this entire album, but one notable tracks is "The French Dig Latinos, Too."
And what about the lyrics? "I try and use lyrics more and more sparingly," Ladd confesses. Indeed, the words he does use in his songs are of a hightened relevance because of the times they are absent. Only four of Negrophilia's eleven tracks have lyrics, and it is that absence that creates their need and ultimately gives them their power. Ladd agrees, adding, "also I don't want to just pound words down people's ears just for the sake of talking. No filler."
Augmented by a plethora of instruments including keyboards, drums, winds, trumpet, and tape loops, the album also has a Marguerite Ladd credited on sampled composition. Curious, I ask Ladd if that is his wife, but he indicates that I have missed the target. "Marguerite is my niece. I sampled the performance of her freshman year composition at New England Conservatory of Music."
Aside from his sibling's child and a friend, Allison Dean, every other sampled source came from the Negrophelia recording sessions with Ladd, Roy Campbell, Andrew Lamb, Vijay Iyer and Guillermo Brown. Always a worthy element to keep an eye on, the artwork, which Ladd describes as being "fantastic," was done by Anfgelbert Miller. Ladd explains that the thing written on the cover means "up to the beholder."
From his formative years when playing with garage bands, Ladd's experience has been centered around progression. "I had a ball, I could hardly play an instrument- still can't- but I had a great time," he recalls. And of course, winning the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Slam and having his text published was "important to my career as a teacher, as is all published work." But Ladd misses the classroom and resents not having been teaching in schools since 2001. He can, of course, take comfort in knowing that his music is a tool for instruction as well.
In 2000 Ladd started a trilogy for the Big Dada imprint with Gun Hill Road, the second part being called Beauty Party and released three years later. "It's a real struggle with real sides, thus they have to have real bands. This shit is so real," Ladd exclaims. He recorded those albums for the Big Dada imprint under a different moniker each time; first it was the Infesticons and then the Majesticons. "The last one will probably be the Domesticons, what with the kid and all," he jokes about his newborn son.
Although his music is currently must-listen, Ladd is no overnight newcomer. In the world of hip hop his connections go as far as to include spoken-word prophets like Saul Williams and El-P, the latter being one of the most prominent rap artists of recent memory. From the jazz side, Guillermo E. Brown and Vijay Iyer, Ladd says, are "the only two I have worked with closely." The impact of Brown and Iyer upon Negrophelia should not be discounted, Ladd having "learned a tremendous amount about music and space and timing" from the two.
When it comes to the revisionist talk of "jazz/hip hop revivalism" that preceded this interview, Mike Ladd wouldn't be so quick to call it is a new thing. As he points out, "they have been trying to merge the two [jazz and hip hop] overtly since before the first Red Hot and Blue record. They keep forgetting they are already merged. It may not be obvious how they are merged but that's what makes the connection so strong."
Creating a lyrical universe that somehow manages to blend Bollywood and Jay-Z, LA and Taipei, Beyonce and Hannibal, Man Ray and Duchamp in what feels like a melting pot of genres and influences, Mike Ladd has found a brand new joy in life: "right now I'm learning how to be a father to a two-day-old boy." OK, we are done here. Maybe it's time to change diapers. SEE ALSO: www.thirstyear.com
Currently living on the south bank of the Tagus river, in Portugal, Helder Gomes is a working class hero. He is a journalist for the local radio station Rádio Nova Anten. In his spare time, he skates and watches many odd movies. He is in love with the French nouvelle vague, and the Danish/Swedish invasion. He writes for a number of publications, on the Internet or otherwise, notably the underground Portuguese magazine Mondo Bizarre, and the Jazz Review website. He is also the news collector and a staff witer for the adorable Lost at Sea. Oh, and there is also the Coffee Breakz radio show that he tries to host every Saturday.
See other articles by Helder Gomes.
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