Madeleine Byrne: Let’s start off by thinking about the album title, The Reflecting Sea: Welcome to a New Philosophy, all of this sounds pretty lofty, what are you talking about there?
Raw Poetic: The title is taken from the song ‘Freedom funk chant’, there’s a line in it where I say, ‘The sea reflects the reflecting sea’ that was basically saying how a lot of things in life mirror each other from the past to the future. I felt like the album even though we are going in new directions, it had a play on a lot of our traditions, where both Damu (the Fudgemunk) and I come from so it’s a new way to approach a lot of things we’ve already gone through.
MB: It’s interesting this idea of ‘the reflecting sea’, as there’s an Alice Coltrane record that has a really similar title (Reflection On Creation And Space, A Five Year View, Impulse! 1973) were you wanting to connect your work with, say, artists from the ‘70s?
Raw Poetic: You know what that never crossed my mind, Alice Coltrane … John Coltrane’s wife.
Raw Poetic: My uncle was taught by John Coltrane, so as I say a lot of things kind of end up mirroring each other, it just kind of does that sometimes.
MB: We’ll talk about your uncle (Archie Shepp) and his influence on your work a bit later on, coming back to your work with Damu, I saw you worked together last year, right?
Raw Poetic: It was an album he did, I appeared on a song …
(To read an interesting article and interview on Raw Poetic’s career and verses on ‘Openings’ go to ‘I trust few with my narration’: Raw Poetic dissects his ‘Openings’ verse' by Gino Sorcinelli published in Medium June 9, 2017)
MB: How can you compare the work you’ve done on this record and previous projects, thinking about the sound of the music and how you position yourself within it?
Raw Poetic: I think Damu and I had more of a collective gathering in terms of putting this album out, in terms of our musical styles. Damu is the producer, he put the soundscape together but on this one I played a lot of the guitar and I also wanted to challenge myself in terms of what I’d done on my solo records and bring it to this one. It was a practice that took many years of going back and listening to it, it was a new approach for both of us. If you compare it to 'Hole Up' where he gave me the beat and I rapped over it and that was it: I was the rapper, he was the DJ with this one it was more of a musical approach for both of us.
MB: You can hear the difference, this release has more depth sure. Is it a mix of live instrumentation and sampling on the record?
Raw Poetic: ‘Hole Up’ was very boom bap, going back to basics this is who we are and we’re from. It was more an introduction. Damu and I have known each other since we were young, but that was the first time anyone had heard us do something together, ‘cause I was always working with my band, Panacea for the most part, so when we did that it was like a jolt. But with this one it is more about maturity having built up over the years, like let’s be a two-man band on this.
MB: You mentioned you play guitar on some of the tracks, I’m interested in the way Damu recreates the sound of a band (even if it isn’t a band) in his music, on The Reflecting Sea was it sampled or mainly live performance that’s sampled, could you talk through the process in terms of the music?
Raw Poetic: As for the music, I can’t exactly say what Damu does, I know he does a mix of both sampling and playing his own instruments, where he does that is a kind of a mystery. I kind of like to leave it that way, so I never really ask him.
Sometimes I might play through the whole song and then he takes chunks of it – I was sampling myself a lot of the time also.
MB: For example, ‘Freedom Funk Chant’ that’s an amazing song, it’s got a lot of depth and interest to it could you talk to me about that song in terms of the music? You say a lot of the album was a collaboration, what was the process for that song, were you given a beat, or did you create it together?
Raw Poetic: That one he gave me part of the beat, that was one where I heard a lot of different chords I could add to it and then we talked about how I should approach the lyrics, a lot of my older stuff was me just speaking poetry, so here Damu was like, ‘Yo, can you put some poetry on this?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah ok, I’ll put the poetry here and maybe a guitar riff, chords under that.’ When I started doing the chorus it sounded like a chant, that’s where I got the title from. I keep saying, ‘Freedom da funk da funk’ (sings it) so it’s a chant and it gives it this warm, tribal feeling to the song that I like. We just went in that direction.
I’m the kind of person where normally everything is done within a couple of hours, with that one I did it all in a couple of hours, ‘cause once you capture the zone you have to act on that moment, you know and then I played the guitar track. The process of putting the whole thing together that’s where Damu really shines; he took it and put all the pieces where they needed to be, but all the lyrics were done within the day. I’m pretty sure Damu plays the drums on that one also and possibly also the bassline.
MB: He performs the percussion parts in a lot of his songs, doesn't he?
Raw Poetic: A lot of them he does, but he’s also a traditionalist … The beauty of what he does is that it’s hard to decipher whether it’s a sample or not, you got to understand sampling for us and being where we’re from – East Coast kids – the sound of the sample is a big thing. If you can mimic that sound live and the person can’t tell you’ve kind of accomplished something, ‘cause you don’t have to worry about it being stolen by anybody else but it still has that feel, that Old School sound from the early 90s and 80s, you know, but you made it. It’s a fun game.
MB: With the title, that choice of the word ‘freedom’ that word is so full of meaning, it’s the classic word in terms of Black musical traditions in the US, isn’t it?
Raw Poetic: Yeah, yeah, definitely. That’s one thing I always vibe with in general. When I hear that song, I always keep my mother and father in mind who were in the Black Panther Party, so it was always an idea that was big in our household, this constant fight for freedom, especially the times we live in now with a racist pig running our country now. These words matter probably now more than ever.
‘Freedom Funk’ is kind of like stay active, stay hyped about what you feel and march towards that goal; it’s for everyone.
MB: What does freedom mean to you as an artist?
Raw Poetic: I think freedom means a lot of things; one is being able to be whoever you are without judgment, (but it’s also) the freedom to live a life that is worth living, for everyone. (It’s the) freedom of anybody to be able to step up and be accepted for who they are, without judgment. Being treated equally, which is something that (pauses) I don’t know if I have ever really experienced, you know, am I treated as equal in this country I live in? I live in Virginia and there are a lot of white people, and Asians and Black people and everything else, but I know there are so many things I’ve experienced from police brutality, to seeing what happens with my brothers and things to do with my family …
So, what is freedom to me, it’s something I strive for but it’s not something I have truly experienced. (This is why) it’s not something that I can truly answer even for myself. I think it’s something we’re still fighting for. It’s one of those things (pauses) where, I think, when you find that you’ve almost reached freedom you realise how far it still is.
MB: You mentioned you live in Virginia, which part?
Raw Poetic: I live in Arlington, Virginia right outside of DC.
MB: What kind of place is Arlington it’s a military town, isn’t it?
Raw Poetic: Yeah there’s a lot of military around here. It’s a nice town, I like Arlington but just for instance, just to give an example, about two months ago I was coming back home, and I noticed a police car following me, so I think to myself I got to go to a bright spot to make sure nothing happens.
Now, I’m 6’5, 250 pounds - not a small guy – but me, being a Black man in America I know that there is trouble when a cop is following me, as soon as I pull up the cops surround me and start questioning me about somebody being robbed. Now fortunately a lot of people around knew me, so they came out in my defence. I’ve had guns put to my head five times by police. I do not have any criminal record - that’s what I mean when I say I don’t necessarily know what true freedom is because this is something I always have to think about when I step outside the door; and it’s (something) that a lot of other people don’t have to think about.
MB: Virginia has an awful history in terms of race relations: to take just one example, I was reading some articles (see: ‘Prince Edward County’s Long Shadow of Segregation’ by Kristen Green, The Atlantic, August 1 2015 and also ‘The Forgotten School in Brown vs Board of Education' by Emily Richmond, also in The Atlantic May 16, 2014) about how the government defunded then shut down all the public schools for black and white children from 1959 for five years to avoid desegregating them. What's it like there now?
Raw Poetic: I work in the school system. I know that they are trying re-district the lines so some of the kids in the poorer areas don’t go to the same schools as kids in the richer areas, that bothers me a lot because I think you learn more when you are surrounded by kids from different cultures and backgrounds. I think that’s when you find a lot of people who don’t think they are prejudiced are, they haven’t really been tested with it. I think this area is very liberal, but once you branch out Virginia is very segregated. Even the people around here they’re segregated but they don’t realise they’re doing it, I think it’s a conversation that needs to happen, when that conversation doesn’t happen you have people like Trump.
MB: People get a little bit lazy, I think.
Raw Poetic: Yeah, they get complacent and then get shocked by what they see.
MB: Or embarrassed.
Raw Poetic: (laughs)
MB: I really believe that, I think a lot of time when (white) people express shock, it’s embarrassment more than anything else.
Raw Poetic: Yeah, I agree.
MB: We’re not that ignorant ... You said in your family, your parents were members of the Black Panther Party, is that correct?
Raw Poetic: Yes, my mother and my father.
MB: What kinds of political messages did they give you when you were growing up? You were talking before about freedom, the call for freedom, could you locate that a bit more in terms of the specific messages you received?
Raw Poetic: Well, with my mom she sent me to a lot of Pan-African schools when I was a kid. I remember when I was young the MOVE movement in Philadelphia was a very big thing because it was right down the street from us. Mayor W. Wilson Goode dropped a bomb on those people and he was a Black man, so she was very disturbed by that kind of stuff, she always talked about having knowledge of self and representing your people in a certain manner.
It’s not something I broadcast, but the word ni**a is not a word I put in my songs, unless I’m trying to make a point about it, not that I have any issue with anyone who’s different, but my mom always taught me when you represent yourself on the main stage you have to remember that you are representing your people. I’m not offended by the word, but I want people to understand that we are more than that, it’s more about representing our culture.
MB: One thing that interests me here is that when you look at the pivotal figures in Black music in the 70s the word ‘freedom’ operated on lots of different levels for them; freedom from racist systems, but also personal freedom, individual freedom, mystical and spiritual freedom …
Raw Poetic: Yeah, in terms of spiritual and mystical freedom, I like to create music that feels like it does not have boundaries. I also like to live my life without boundaries. Nowadays you can step outside of race, you can talk about sexual freedom and gender freedom. I think there are so many lines and demarcations for everyone, sometimes you just want to get away from it. Musically I’m always talking about freedom, full expression.
A lot of people (referring to The Reflecting Sea) are like, I’ve never heard a hip-hop album like this and I’m like I don’t necessarily want it to be a typical ‘hip-hop album.’ Hip-hop started out like, we don’t have instruments but we’re just going to make music and even if they say it’s not music, we know it is music. We’re going to take music from all different parts of the world and make our own music from it. That was hip-hop.
Then it became, a thing like, ‘Nah man you’ve got to have a 4/4 beat and a boom bap sound, that shit you’re doing is not hip-hop.’ But when you think about the music it’s supposed to be about social freedom. …
MB: One of the defining qualities of Damu’s music and as you know I’m a big fan of Vignettes is its energy. His music is full of life. ‘Freedom Funk Chant’ is the same for me, it’s really vibrant, what do you think about this comment about the high-energy aspect of his music?
Raw Poetic: I think within the past few years Damu has hit on a level I’ve never seen him do before, I haven’t seen many people do, maybe aside from J Dilla. That’s just my opinion, to start to reach a point where these aren’t just beats anymore, it’s almost theatrical. Just like you sit down to watch a movie, you can sit down and watch a Damu album, it’s like your ears are doing the watching for you and the mind goes some place. If you listen to a Damu album there’s so much going on and there’s so much character with it.
MB: You said that you became friends when you were pretty young, right?
Raw Poetic: Yeah, I’m a little older than him, I was 21 he was 17, so he was a teenager, I’d just reached my 20s. Sometimes with my band … we were like Spinal Tap we could never keep a drummer, so sometimes Damu would come in and he would either play samples, or real drums for our live set. He was always around, we always worked together he and I were super-cool, but he was working with Flex Mathews – another one of his MCs – and then he started Redef (Redefinition Records) with one of his friends.
One day the guys at Redef caught up with me and asked me to do some work with one of his producers and I’ve been with them ever since.
I then asked Raw Poetic to speak about two of his songs, ‘Super’ from the Kev Brown-produced Concentrated Maneuvers (Redefinition Records, 2014) and the self-produced ‘Suitors’.
Raw Poetic: (laughs) The song is called ‘Super’ when we were shooting the video it’s a battle-oriented song and I’m not really into battling anybody, so we just stepped up, let’s put some weird crazy shit in the video and see what people make out of it. It was fun watching people make different meanings out of it, but it was just having fun. There was a horse head, so I was like, ‘Yeah, let me battle the horse, you know what I mean, whatever you know.’ I think it was a kind of mockery when people get into that battle mode they’re kind of like superman with it, with real grimy lyrics.
MB: It’s a good song, different – you know with a Damu record the vocals are submerged, here they’re very present. The Kev Brown aesthetic is very classic, it’s very pure.
Raw Poetic: Yeah it is. It’s very back to the roots of the culture with it, I really like that. It was fun. I think a lot of people haven’t really heard the battle side of me, I’ve been in a lot of rap battles starting out as an MC, so I think I wanted to showcase that side.
MB: And ‘Suitors’ I can’t remember the producer …
Raw Poetic: I made that beat, it was me and my cousin MarsV. That version where I rapped on that, I played every instrument on that. I do albums where I play every instrument also, it’s going to be on an album of Raw Poetic/MarsV called Paging Planet Earth.
MB: it’s got a definite mystical twist again. The title is interesting to me.
Raw Poetic: It was called ‘Suitors,’ I think on the hook I sing ‘Something in your eyes are part of me/Something in your eyes are parting me’(sings). It’s talking about being a suitor for an older spirit, you know, trying to represent your history and how you got to dress it up. Don’t come looking, you know, you got to play the part to represent your people that’s why I called it ‘Suitors.’ I just thought the beat was kind of smooth when I made it, so I was just like aight, (laughs) suitors you got to look your best when you do this stuff.
It was kind of like travelling through time, you’re almost guiding some from time so you’re the suitor, let me take your hand and take you on a journey …
MB: From memory there’s almost like a double dimension to the lyrics, it’s as if it’s a love-song-plus it echoes a ‘collective’ as you say, connecting with the history. Do you feel it has a double-edge to it?
Raw Poetic: Totally, totally. That was a conscious decision for that one, it is a love song and a journey. You know, I mean, when you fall in love with somebody you can’t just get to know them on the surface you’ve got to get to know the inner person that makes them tick. It plays on both of those parts of it.
Interview with Archie Shepp, UNESCO Paris, 2016
MB: Let’s move on now to speak about your incredible uncle, Archie Shepp, what kind of relationship do you have with him, are you very close?
Raw Poetic: Uncle Archie calls me probably once every other month, because he knows we’re both musicians in the industry. We’re close like that, I mean he’s a legend, I’m a rapper (laughs) so he’s on a totally different plane to the one I’m on, but we’re close. He’s family, we all know each other. I can call him up if he’s not touring, he’ll share different pointers with me about the industry and how to go about it. We talked about doing a song together before, but you know he’s a busy guy, so we never got around to doing it. We did a song together a while back called ‘Back in the world again’ my cousin had it on tape, but I don’t know what he did with it.
He came to my house, I was living in this rinky dink apartment like I always am, it had no heat and it was in the dead of winter and he came over and he played the sax for like 15 minutes over a track, myself and MarsV had made. It was amazing, like at the time we were like 19/20 years-old so I don’t know what we did with it (laughs). Either MarsV has it, or it’s gone.
MB: He’s done some work with MCs here in France and did a show recently, he’s almost 80 I think, isn’t he?
Raw Poetic: Yeah, he’s up there, my mom is turning 65 soon and he’s about thirteen years older so he’s got to be pushing 80, yeah.
MB: You said you’ve talked about the industry with him, has he shared anything about his musical philosophy or the way he interprets music with you?
Raw Poetic: (pauses) Not really, the funny thing is that my grandfather played the banjo, his father, he played the sax, of course, then there’s me, my cousin Marlon, my cousin Jerry, my cousin Edward, there are just so many of us who are musicians, I think it’s true for my family, and for Archie the goal is to be yourself, make your own lane and move ahead with it.
MB: Some time back I was going to write about different jazz greats and how they (and their career) represent a quality and for me, Archie Shepp, represents the spirit of freedom. When you look at his career it’s defined by the fact that he is constantly taking risks, throughout the '60s and '70s he pretty much every year put out a record that was completely different from the previous one, often radically different.
What do you think about this idea suggesting that Archie Shepp as a musician is someone whose work represents freedom?
Raw Poetic: Yeah, I think it’s linked to him coming where he’s from, Brickyard Philadelphia which is a small section which only Philadelphians know of and I think that he was able to pursue his ideas … Basically when you take a part of a city that is ignored by its neighbouring communities, the ideas and the creativity of the people within it are woodshedded. That’s what I think happened in the Brickyard.
I mean, he’s like last of the dying breed, coming from a background of people like Coltrane and Davis, he was really pushing the boundaries, I think when people look at his catalogue they’ll realise how they were blessed to have someone like him creating music that challenges the ears of the masses for so many decades now. I think a lot of people still are catching on to Archie.
MB: Coltrane is of course extremely important, but with Coltrane there is a kind of through-line, but with Archie Shepp it’s constantly changing, constantly.
Raw Poetic: Yeah, I agree.
MB: I was looking again at his discography in the 60s-70s and the amounts of albums that he’s putting out then it was just phenomenal.
Raw Poetic: Yeah, I think it’s something with him looking at his discography and his track record, he says you got to follow through, saying you have the creativity you shouldn’t hold on to it. That’s something I did learn from him.
MB: What about the links between Shepp and hip-hop, I mean a record like Attica Blues …
Raw Poetic: Attica Blues, yeah.
MB: It’s such a rich album, politically, musically, but listening to it you can hear that it has deeply influenced hip-hop culture, what do you think about that?
Raw Poetic: I think Attica Blues is definitely one of my favourite records of his, if not my favourite. I like that one so much because every song to me goes in so many different places, the one with the little girl singing (‘Quiet Dawn’) to the one that’s extreme funk ‘Attica Blues’, another part there’s an older man singing ‘Steam’. It almost has a 40s vibe, someone smoking a cigarette and drinking whiskey.
There are so many different places that album goes, hip-hop is doing the same thing because it is sampling those jazz greats. Lot of times when you sample people you’re taking a little piece of their soul and putting it somewhere else and that’s what I think he did with Attica Blues. The types of artists he chose to work with on that album, it has so many different elements of soul music, it gives you the same all-around feel that hip-hop gives you.
When speaking to someone who hasn’t heard of him I say listen to Attica Blues and watch all the places you go with that album.
MB: And Fire Music .. there are so many other albums to talk about as well, with Attica Blues it always struck me that if you put it side by side with Common’s Like water for chocolate you can see that there is the same conceptual logic, you’ve got interludes then songs then pieces of music; Archie Shepp wouldn’t have called them interludes, of course, is this something you could comment on? It seems that there are links in terms of the construction of the record has influenced hip-hop artists as well.
Raw Poetic: I think if you look at it that way, he was probably on to something before hip-hop was doing it, when you look at a lot of his records there are a lot of skits and interludes that help form the project, and his was just naturally on to that. But it did have a kind of wave to it, a kind of sea of emotion that runs through the whole record, so you never get bored with it, it never stagnated. I think hip-hop does that a lot too, probably not as musically as he did it though. The way hip-hop does it, like Common’s Like water for chocolate with someone talking, I love that on the first song when it breaks into the African rhythm at the end of the song (‘Time Travelin’ – a tribute to Fela Kuti) and it’s like really cool, I felt like that album is going there, but Archie took it there.
Again, people are still up to what he was doing and that’s like a 30-year-old album we’re talking about, maybe more.
MB: It’s older, it’s from 72.
Raw Poetic: Like 40 years, 50 years it’s like crazy he was doing it back then and I think we’re still catching that wave and also the way he tied it together, he is creating the landscape, like Damu and it’s not something you hear that often.
MB: One last question about Archie Shepp, Attica Blues of course is deeply political. Because of its title and link to the Attica Prison riots of 1971, but there’s also an argument to be made that this kind of music that is bringing in different voices, sometimes voices that seem to have an apparent reason to be there etc is something political in and of itself. What kind of politics do you think is there in this music, explicit and implicit?
Raw Poetic: (It’s important) to talk about where he’s from to understand where his politics come from, he’s coming from the Civil Rights movement, and (pauses) this is stuff that was going on, I can’t say too much stuff about family history. But it’s not just political, there were things going on in terms of the social and economic disadvantage that Black people face and where he’s from; things that women went through that are never talked about in the inner-city communities. Things we’ve watched our mothers go through, there’s a lot of stuff he touches on. I know this because he is my mom’s older brother and I know she went through it, if you want to know more about it she wrote a book (The Keystone by Anita J. Moore) that talks about what Black women went through in those days and what they saw their mothers go through and what Black men went through also.
Our grandfather was the son of an undertaker. He used to wash the bodies of dead Black men who were hung and lynched from trees, so that’s where we’re from. I feel that when you hear the music of Archie Shepp, you hear the closest version of that narrative you’re going to get.