Los Angeles–based MC/producer Shafiq Husayn excavates metropolis beats with a third-eye acumen. He swirls above like a large hunting bird and sees down to the city's earth-crust root-mind. In 1990, Husayn was tapped by Ice-T to produce Original Gangster; from there, he went on to work with J Dilla, Questlove, N*E*R*D, Talib Kweli, Jay Electronica, and others. After digesting a CD of Dilla beats around the mid-'90s, Husayn, Om'Mas Keith, and Taz Arnold formed Sa-Ra Creative Partners, yielding two albums. This coming July, Husayn will release his latest full-length, titled The L∞P, featuring Flying Lotus, Breezy Lovejoy, Erykah Badu, Hiatus Kaiyote, Bilal, Thundercat, and more. A cut from the album, called "Twelve," is available now. Husayn spoke from his LA home, his voice low and eased. When he laughs, he fully laughs.
Your lead-up to The L∞P, Pre-Alignment Vol. 1, is amazing. You've got a couple more things coming out before the album, right?
Thank you. Pre-Alignment was beats I had in my drive, for the beat heads. Next up will be Alignment, then there will be Enlightenment. Right after that, the album comes out. I have a movie that's broken up into three eight-minute acts, playing on the theme of The L∞p. The story is basically about me being sent to Earth to change the planet's frequency back to love. Some things have turned to hate—one reason being that music, which comes from the throne, has been contaminated, so to speak. My mission is to bring the love back. I'm working with a guy from Seattle, actually, on the footage—Sam Davis, he's a beat producer. We wrote the script and have some animation blended in with the real world. It's sort of Pink Floyd's The Wall meets Yellow Submarine meets Electric Company [laughs].
Where did you learn about music and production?
I never had any formal training. I'd say my musical education came from my grandmother, my mother, and my father, by default of them just being music lovers, always playing music in the house. Through hiphop, I started off as a DJ. I was always digging and searching for records, particularly break beats, and I discovered all kinds of different music that way.
You work with different people in different roles. How do you dial into those roles?
I turn myself into a student and initiate myself into someone's school of thought, so I can understand where they're coming from.
What goes into being a student that way?
Long conversations. Hanging out. Going to movies. Smoking herb. I saw Pan's Labyrinth with Erykah, Mad Lib, and another friend, high on mushrooms, at a small theater in Silver Lake [laughs]. Then we went to a little Korean bar and sat in the back and talked about it. That's how I get initiated into people's schools.
What did y'all think of Pan's Labyrinth, in the altered state? The torture scene must have been intense.
Oh yeah. We talked about how we saw ourselves in the different characters. Each character represented a personality. Everybody has a tyrant in them; everybody has a benevolent side. It was very graphic. I loved how it was a period piece too, taking place in 1944 Spain, five years after their civil war. I knew Erykah before that, and I'd say that conversations about the movie may have lead to other thoughts that influenced us later in the creative process.
You wrote lyrics for Erykah. What went into that for you? Where did you pull words from, how did they arrive?
Everyday life. I like to play with words. I'm into etymology of words and root words. A lot of words we use, we don't realize they come from another language. Take the word chemistry—the root word, khem, pertains to the people that inhabited Egypt. Also, alchemy. Or you can go chem-history, or my story [laughs]. Erykah would hear me say stuff like this and just laugh, then somewhere in the writing session, we would figure it out and incorporate it. [Starts singing] Brenda done died with no name/Nickel bag coke to the brain./Will they ever find the vaccine?/Shitty, damn, damn, baby, bang./Rich man got the double barrel/Po' man got his back to the door./Code white stands for trouble./Shots from the po-po. Blau, blau.
What's your go-to gear? What do you find yourself using to make your music?
Oooh, good question. I'd say from '94 up until last year, it was the MPC3000, as far as sequencing goes. Then I was introduced to Ableton and Maschine and Reason and Logic. It all changed my outlook on production; it doesn't confine you. Before, you would have to stop and play the sample—with Maschine and Ableton, you never really have to stop. And what I love about not stopping is that it puts you into the realm of live music. There are infinite possibilities of what you can do on the fly, both live and in the studio. I play with live musicians and incorporated a lot of horns on this album. I haven't abandoned any of my old techniques, but these new formats really fuse the technology with the analog.
When I say the name Questlove, what's the first thing that comes to mind?
Philadelphia, New Year's Eve, 2005. Sa-Ra was onstage, and we had J*Davey and Thundercat. Quest had us come perform with the Roots. It was huge. I admire their organization—they were doing great things then already, but I can see why they're highly successful.
They dominated urban radio in the early 2000s. Their drumbeats are so prominent. You listen to those tracks, and they're so drum-heavy—it just pulled people into the sound.
J Dilla. The holy one.
J Dilla came to my house [laughs]. I had Jesus at my house. Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, and Confucius came to my house wrapped up in J Dilla. We smoked, ate, listened to beats, made beats, wrote rhymes, talked about hiphop and family. We recorded "Thrilla" at the house. It was a series. He spent like three days there.
What did you learn from how he makes music?
The dope thing was that he didn't come to the house as a producer, he came to the house as an MC. It was dope to sit there and just write with him—listening to beats, coming up with rhymes. It felt like I was in high school with my first rhyme crew. We transported back to how it felt when we first fell in love with hiphop. It solidified everything about why I was doing what I was doing. Not to take away from all the other great people I've worked with, but working with him was confirmation. Like going to spend the night at your friend's house, and both of y'all collect Hot Wheels cars. You know when you get over there, he's gonna show you this, and you're gonna show him that. You're gonna be up all night [laughs].
As you make music now, how does that connection with Dilla still inform you?
I'd say I pay closer attention to the aesthetics of the music now. When you're making music, there's a point where it is mindless. Like with Ableton. Well, Ableton is infinite because the mind is infinite, but to have equipment to facilitate that is another thing. With your mind, there's no ceiling. Especially nowadays, with so many cross-genres, it's an open playing field. Now I look at it all as a blank canvas. There's not really the pure hiphop artist anymore, or pure rock 'n' roll—you have hybrid artists and groups. If Dilla was still here, I'm quite sure you'd see another evolution of him.
You mentioned aesthetic. Define aesthetic.
Careful study. Attention to minor details that other people may not be listening for. Figuring out the space a writer or artist was coming from, or what they were trying to express. It might be in fun, or they may be taking a stab at someone. You can reach the mentality of where that person was at. When you see a painting, don't you wanna know what was on that painter's mind?
What's a tangible representation of that aesthetic?
A book by Paulo Coelho called The Alchemist. It's a very detailed depiction of how one is to find themselves. The main character is a boy who went searching; he goes through things. In the end, he finds what he was supposed to find, which was himself. That's a close examination. Studying ourselves, paying attention to detail.
Ice was the first person to hire me to produce. I knew him. My group at the time, Nile Kings, were signed to Ice's Rhyme Syndicate label. We had a 12" out called Dropping Bombs. Ice was always a big advocate for our group. I was going to Compton College and playing football, and I had a decision to make—whether to do more school after graduating. At some point I almost became homeless, so Ice's producer, Afrika Islam, let me stay at his place when he went to Japan for three months. Ice came by looking for Is, and I was in there working on music. He heard some of the tracks and was like, "What'choo doing with that?" Then he said, "Come to the studio with me." And that was that. I got into the music industry and ended up producing "New Jack Hustler" with DJ Aladdin, and then we went on to produce 12 songs on the OG album.
What did you learn from working with Ice-T?
I learned the music industry and how to manage money while making money. Business 101. I learned how to mix records. I learned how to finish a project.
What have you been studying lately?
I've been learning about different cultures. Human civilization. Learning the key thing that put people into slavery. My nationality is Moorish American, what they call black or colored people. These names were given to us by the slaveholders in 1774. That right there is a big thing to me because in my immediate household, I was never really taught about my nationality. We were always taught that we came from slaves. Our heroes, born of slaves—Booker T. Washington, born of a slave. But I wanted to know, what was before the slavery? Slavery sounds like it's a punishment, but before punishment, there's grace. What were the conditions then?
Once I came to an understanding with that, it made me look at other cultures and see the importance of honoring. Honoring your forefathers and foremothers. It's not just taking out the trash for your mom or your dad, it's a whole lot deeper than that. It made me appreciate other cultures and how they've kept that honoring intact. Then I look at the situation with us, so-called black people—why are we the only people on the planet that don't have a nationality? We can't say African Americans because Africa's a continent, which is made up of nations. That's what I wanted to understand. We were made so we can know each other and appreciate each other. That's where I'm at—no lines, no boundaries. We're all one. We're on one planet, so let's figure it out. You need a little time out? Go to your cubbyhole, take a break, and when you come back, come back to the table with peace.
Have you been paying attention to Kim Jong-un and North Korea? The threat of war. I wish I knew more. Kim Jong-un's like, "Hey, you have nuclear weapons, who are you to tell me I can't have them? I wanna play too." Everyone seems afraid of what he might do. But he just wants a seat at the table, I guess.
Yeah, I been following it, and—this is not me speaking radical or agitated, it's just me speaking the truth—we're the only ones on record to have actually used nuclear weapons against someone. If anything, people fear us because we've already used it.
What position did you play in football?
I was a running back. Did some backup quarterback. Started off as a strong safety my first year, then they switched me in the first couple games to running back. Our team was short-manned, so most of the players had to play two positions.
You had running-back moves. Your music's the same way. Now it all makes sense. How did you approach the game? Did you have a nickname?
Coming from defense, I had that hitter mentality. I would run through the holes looking to hit somebody. I was pretty fast for my size, and would use that to my advantage, breaking through arm tackles. I had some spinoff moves. They called me Bo Jackson because when someone tried to tackle me, I'd hit them first. I'd absorb the hit, and start to go down, so they'd let up, then I'd break out of the tackle.
What's some music you've had your ears on lately?
I like what's going on up there with Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction. I'd love to make some music with them someday. I like Flying Lotus, the Gaslamp Killer, Breezy Lovejoy, Strong Arm Steady, Om'Mas Keith, Odd Future, Hiatus Kaiyote, the Art Don't Sleep. There's so much good stuff out there.