At times hip hop can seem lofty, fantastical, even a bit unrealistic. This may strike some as strange since it is also a culture that claims to “keep it real”, often. This notion of keeping it real may work when describing the horrific, war zone-like circumstances of one’s hood, or when describing how one feels about a woman, or doesn’t feel for that matter, or when describing just how ill one is when on the mic; but keeping it real simply does not work when an artist, or the majority of artists, claims to have money, cars, street cred and the like, which he, she or they simply do not have. These unbacked claims created the title “studio gangster”, or “studio baller” is probably more apropos nowadays, which is a term of extreme disapproval toward those who perpetrate. As computers, the internet and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter make it easier and easier for artists to get their music out, and also to create a false persona, the studio gangster/baller category is adding to its numbers quickly and shows no sign of slowing.
While many rappers write songs about flaunting money, women and material goods they don’t actually have, the rest of the country is hanging by an economic thread. Most of America is getting up early in the morning, going off to work a nine to five job, returning home with enough to keep a roof over their heads, the lights on and food on the table, and are hoping to be able to do it all again tomorrow. This makes the popularity of the plethora of prosperity preaching rappers both intriguing and understandable. It is strange that we listen to fiction as the circumstances of our lives remain very real, but it is beautiful that music can somehow transport our spirit to another place for a time in order to alleviate some of life’s stresses. Can we have both?
Enter Sadat X, member of Brand Nubian, solo artist and a shining example of the Golden Era work ethic and commitment to authenticity.
TRUE: Man, such a blessing to be speaking with one of hip hop’s greats. For those who might not know why that title is fitting, who is Sadat X?
Sadat X: Sadat X is a member of Brand Nubian, um, you know I’ve been in the game for like twenty plus years now, I’ve got a new [solo] album out now called Love, Hell or Right, and, a true lover of hip hop.
TRUE: Now, music is just one way that you contribute to your community. What are some of the other ways you work in and with the community around you?
Sadat X: Well, I’ve worked in the school system in the past, I’ve also coached youth basketball teams and I ran a program one time teaching kids how to rap and to record, so you know, I am pretty much community orientated.
TRUE: Would you say that all artists bear the responsibility to “give back”?
Sadat X: Well, I wouldn’t say that all artists [must] do that, you know. You’re not obligated to do anything. You understand what I’m saying? No man is obligated to [give back] you know, that’s just something that you gotta do from your heart. I mean, everybody has got to make their own way, so I can’t fault anyone for wanting to do what they want to do, [this] is just something that I choose to do.
TRUE: In this same vein, what inspired you to do the track titled Cancer on your recently released Love, Hell or Right?
Sadat X: Sometimes in the urban community there’s not too much cancer awareness. A lot of times in the urban community people don’t have a private doctor and, you know, sometimes the public healthcare is not… people don’t want to have to a public care facility and sit for five or six hours just to see a doctor. So, a lot of times as black men, we don’t go to the doctor, you know what I’m sayin’, unless my bone is broken or if I can’t walk or I can’t breathe. [Otherwise], I’m not goin’ to the doctor. And you know, I lost a friend to bone cancer and he didn’t really find out he even had cancer until he only had a couple of months to live. I’m thinking that if there had maybe been a little more awareness, or had somebody spoke about it, that’d spark a rise in these people to go get themselves checked out.
TRUE: Now that our readers have a better understanding of who Sadat X is, let’s get into your new album. What’s the meaning behind the title, “Love, Hell or Right”?
Sadat X: In my life I’ve found that, in order for me to love, I’ve [had to go] through hell to become right. That’s like my love of hip hop: I love it, but I’ve been through hell with it at times and now I’m right, you know what I mean. As with anything you love man, you are gonna go through pitfalls to bring it back around, and that’s pretty much what [Love, Hell or Right] is about.
TRUE: What made you fall in Love with hip hop?
Sadat X: I fell in love with hip hop growing up. I was born in the Bronx man, so I’ve seen hip hop in its purest form, I seen it at damn near the beginning, and I fell in love with it through that.
TRUE: What was Hell like in hip hop?
Sadat X: Well, I came up in hip hop with Brand Nubian and some of the rough times man is like at a point when we didn’t have any albums out or when we was between deals and I was wondering how I was gonna feed myself and how I was gonna take care of myself and I [would] question, “do I really wanna do this?” I mean, during certain eras I was like, “my music is not like that, how am I gonna stand?” So that was basically my hell.
TRUE: What does it feel like to be Right (in hip hop) now?
Sadat X: Being right is just basically knowing myself, knowing my past, knowing my lane, knowing that I can put something out, I can go to these places and do shows, I can go to Europe and perform… So, that was my right period, knowing that I do got fans that told me, “yo, stick with what you’re doin’ and we’ll support you.”
TRUE: What’s your personal favorite track off of the album?
Sadat X: Well I don’t have a personal favorite. It’s like my kids man, it’s like my songs are my kids and I’d never pit one against the other, you know. I’m fond of the Cancer track, I’m fond of the track with Pharoahe Monch simply because I’ve been waiting to work with him for a while, I’m fond of the track with AG, you know, because AG’s my man and we kinda grew up together, I’m fond of the track with Mysonne and D.O.T. because D.O.T. is one of the kids that I coached in basketball and to see him come from then to rapping now was a proud achievement [for me].
TRUE: Speaking of features, your 2011 album was titled No Features and Love, Hell or Right is full of phenomenal features, why the drastically different approaches?
Sadat X: Just changing it up, not bein’ monotonous. On that album, No Features, I wanted to do an album with no features and with this album I chose to get people on it. You know, a lot of people try to put rocket science into rap man, on that album I wanted to do an album that was just me and this album I wanted to do features, as simple as that, no method to it, that’s just how I wanted to do it.
TRUE: You have an almost untouchable catalogue, clocking 6 albums with Brand Nubian and nine as a solo artist, putting in work for over twenty-five years. What makes Love, Hell or Right distinct from the rest of your work?
Sadat X: Well, I feel that this is grown man rap, you know. A lot of times you want to do something for the kids, for the youth; I did that already. I’ve been doing stuff for the youth and now I’m gonna leave that for some of the rappers that’s coming up, some of these young rappers; it’s their turn to do something for the youth. My thing right now is I’m doing something for the people that came up with me, the people that are mature too, that pay bills, that don’t live with their momma, that have kids to raise – that’s who this album is for.
TRUE: On the album, you cover a wide range of topics, from social commentary on tracks like Plan Of Attack, to gettin’ with girls on tracks like The Location. What unifies a body of work that spans such a broad range of topics?
Sadat X: It’s just my life man, and [the album covers] everything, the good and the bad. I have never claimed to be a saint, you know what I’m sayin’, I’ve done bad things in my life – things I’m not proud of, things that, If I had it to do again, that I probably wouldn’t do, but I’ve done great things too – I’ve worked with gangs, I’ve worked within the community, and that’s basically life. In life, every man has his vices and every man has done things that they wish they hadn’t done and every man has things he’s proud of [accomplishing] too. I try to accomplish all of that with this album.
TRUE: Can you take us back to one of your fondest memories in the studio, or conversations with someone you were working with, that took place during the creation of Love, Hell or Right?
I must not have asked the question clearly, so fate stepped in and we get to hear about an invaluable moment in hip hop history, followed by the answer to my original question.
Sadat X: One instance is when I did the song Come On with Biggie. We both were actually there while Lord Finesse was makin’ the beat you know, and uh, Lil Cease was there, Puff was there, my man Mark Da Spark was there, and just the energy of us collaborating and being there together puttin’ down the track together as opposed to somebody sending me the beat then I did my verse and emailed it, and then Biggie did his verse and emailed it and they put it together like that. You know, that was a good record, ‘cause he was actually there and I got to be there and I saw the process go from start to [finish].
I dwell in the moment for a second and then clarify, asking if there was a similar moment during the creation of Love, Hell or Right.
Sadat X: Well, let me think. Working with Roc Marciano, he’s on the come up man and I really wanted to collab and get down with him man, and it was just good to finally connect and do that. And also with N.O.R.E. – I did a track called The Location with N.O.R.E. and just to see him come up; I remember when I was first coming up and I was on tour at one point with me, Akinyele, and Xzibit and Akinyele was bringin’ N.O.R.E. on the road – that’s when N.O.R.E. was first coming out – and to see his growth and [who] he’s become since then was also good.
TRUE: What lasting statement – you know, this is a time when we have to be saying something, I think – do you hope Love, Hell or Right leaves with your listeners?
Sadat X: Well I just want people to know the album is grown man music, it’s good music you know, it’s written from the heart you understand, I took my time when I wrote it. You know with me man, as opposed to making songs about a million dollars, or Maybach cars and this and that, you know, I rock public transportation a lot of the time. I just want people to know that there’s nothing wrong with having an honorable nine to five profession. I want them to understand that the majority of this country works. You know, you have a small minority of people who are fortunate enough to come into money or are doing something where they are getting extraordinary amounts of money. You know, most of this country works, is blue collar, nine to five. And I want people to realize it’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with working a nine to five, coming home to have a steak and a beer with your wife and kissing your baby, that’s a great thing.
TRUE: The game has changed a lot since you began releasing albums in the late 80’s, early 90’s. What are some positive changes you have seen and what are some negative changes you have seen in our culture?
Sadat X: A lot [of changes] center around the computer, and technology. Um, when we first came out, there wasn’t really no internet yet and all this computer stuff. When you went to perform, you know, and you went and people anticipated seeing you after they had been imagining what you were gonna do, you know, and how you were gonna do it, your game had to be solid, your stage game and everything. The computer’s a great tool for reaching out and everything, but [it] has created what I call computer gangsters and now you can, uh, you can create a persona right in the crib. You can make yourself a gansta rapper in the crib, you can record in the crib, you can make a video and throw it out there right from the crib, you know what I mean, and people don’t really know what you are. That’s why I feel that a lot of these kids that’s coming up now have lost the middle part, the apprenticeship part, the part of just going to the studio and learning. Knowing how to count bars, learning to create songs, especially knowing how to put on a good stage show. If you notice in rap nowadays, most of the people putting on the best stage shows are those who have been doing it for a minute. Meaning that they came up in the era when you had to perform, you see, I came up in an era and I saw groups perform, when I was young, there wasn’t no video for Cold Crush, I just had the cassette tape and I just had to imagine in my mind how they would be so that when I would finally get a chance to see the Cold Crush Brothers, and to actually see the stage performance and position of Grandmaster Caz and as I watched I was like “I knew it was gonna be like this”. And you know nowadays some of these kids, they get a song, so that’s three or four minutes, they go somewhere and get a twenty minute track for that one song and they do that one song. But now, you don’t know enough to capture the crowd, to draw them [in] for the rest of the time. You see, MC means master of ceremonies, mic controller, that meant back in the days you might’ve had no record, but how they came on and controlled the crowd was it right there. Now some of these kids don’t know how to control the crowd. Also, when you go to perform in a city, you supposed to know something about that city, some of the rappers that’s in that city, some of the places to eat, you know what I’m saying. I pride myself on doing that. When I come to Chicago, I know [the names of the local high schools], I know that there’s a Harold’s to eat at, I know there’s Greek Town, I know Common, Rhymefest, these dudes is from Chicago. I want to embrace the whole city when I come to places and I feel like sometimes that’s lost on some of the artists nowadays.
TRUE: Along those very same lines, which qualities make it possible to have a career in hip hop for over two decades?
Sadat X: What I see a lot of now is, I see a lot burnout emcees. They pick two or three people each year that’s in the soup. Maybe this year it’ll be ASAP Rocky and Lil B, they in the soup for this year. Other years it might’ve been Soulja Boy, this or that… In rap, there’s the rap bubble. There’s like thirty people that’s inside the rap bubble, maybe fifty, and you have a bunch of people outside the rap bubble that’s trying to get in. Then you got dudes outside the rap bubble that don’t care about the rap bubble, they making their own lane, you know. When I came up, I loved KRS-One, I love Tribe, I love De La Soul, Kool G Rap, I loved all those dudes, but I didn’t want to be those dudes. I wanted to be myself, and I think sometimes that’s lost today and that’s a major [issue]. You know, nowadays there’s nothing really unique with rap no more. When I was comin’ up, rap was like a boutique, now rap is like the mall. I tell people listen, everybody knows somebody now that’s involved with rap – either producing, rhyming, got an artist they are promoting, everybody knows somebody. So, nowadays, you have got to have something to separate yourself. A lot of kids they run up on me, they rhyme and I say, “If I put your name in a bag and I shake it around with the rest of these names, and I pull it out, what’s gonna make you different from this dude?” You understand what I’m saying? I feel like uniqueness, voice quality, how you can control a crowd, lyrical content, believability, those are things that separate now because you get a lot of cats that come out for a year or two and then they flame out. They may make a lot of good records, but not classics, you know what I mean. A lot of these records out now, they’re good records for the moment, but I wonder, ten years from now, will people be playing these songs? Understand, there’s a lot of songs being made now, but very few classics.
TRUE: You work with a lot of thorough artists who have impressive resumes. Are there any up and comers you have your ear to and would like to work with in the future – both producers and emcees?
Sadat X: I mean, well, there’s certain dudes that catch my ear. Like there’s a young [guy] coming out of New York now named Joey Bada$$, he catches my ear. Um, I like some of Tyler the Creator’s stuff, he’s pretty much weird, but I like that though. He’s different, you understand what I’m saying. He didn’t go the route that everybody else went, he went a different route, his own odd route, which is a good route. Now he stands on his own. I like stuff like that. I would really like to see if I could collaborate with Lil B and how that would come out because we are like A and Z, me and him. I have nothin’ in common with him, he has nothin’ in common with me, but if we made a jam together I’d like to see how that’d come out.
TRUE: Well, you’ve touched on this quite a bit implicitly, but do you have any explicit words of wisdom for those new in the game?
Sadat X: Well, a lot of the older rappers will claim that these young kids aren’t making real records and this and that, well these are the real records for their times. My daughter’s twenty years old, and these are the artists she’s listening to and who am I to say that this is not real music they’re making, my daughter seems to love it and the rest of the people her age seem to love it, so what’s not real about it? You know, I would just tell these young rappers comin’ up, “do what you do, you understand what I’m sayin’, but try to be, uh, try to be different with it, try to be unique with it. One thing I’m not liking, a trend with these young kids, is this violence that they’re throwing back and forth man. 17, 18, 19 years old is a very impressionable age. With the computer now, and seeing this stuff and going out and doing certain things behind these rappers now and shooting each other and getting into stuff like that, I would just say, “you on on the wave of the greatest technological era ever and, if you’re gonna use the technology, use it for good. Don’t use it to bang, because 17, 18, 19, you guys are leading these high school kids and they are the ones going out and doing these [violent] things. Just be aware of that. Your words mean a lot.”
TRUE: Speaking of words meaning a lot, and being influential, where can readers catch Sadat X performing Love, Hell or Right, or cop the album?
Sadat X: You can find the album, Love, Hell or Right on iTunes, at Amazon or at 682 Records to get a physical copy. I’m on Twitter @SadatX, I’m doin’ features, I work with whoever, you know what I’m sayin’. One thing I’ve learned in traveling the world is I judge people on their own merit, I got white dudes that’s my man, black dudes, Asian dudes, Spanish dudes. I love people man, I’m a people person man, if you’re a good person, I’m gonna get with you. Just hit me at @SadatX on Twitter or Derek Murphy on Facebook and you never know man, I check my stuff regularly, and I’ll give you a reply. Also, I’m doing some shows out here in Chicago, I’ll be doing some stuff in Boston and I’ll be announcing an East Coast tour that will hopefully then move the the Mid West and then out to the West Coast. And like I said, If there’s any promoters out there that want to book me, just hit me at BrandNu7@gmail.com and I’m ready to go.
TRUE: Any last thoughts for the culture?
Sadat X: Yeah man, I just want to let you all know, let’s start embracing some of our veterans man. Hip hop is the only genre of music that’s ready to retire somebody. You know what I’m saying, the Rolling Stones and groups like that, those guys are hailed as heroes and the Dave Matthews Band, those guys have been doing [music] for years man, and they’re still good and they’re still getting love. Hip hop, being that it’s a [relatively] new form of music when compared to other forms of music, we are still finding categories and sub-genres, you know, so don’t be so quick to retire some of these guys man. No doubt.
Sadat X and his contemporaries who helped to define and solidify hip hop in her late teens/early twenties, by and large, share a work ethic and love for the art that is rarely matched by those new to the game. These qualities have helped to define and preserve terms like boom bap, true school, and Golden Era which represent a palpable authenticity in the culture, an authenticity marked most vividly by a line stating “real recognize real”. Those who know in hip hop recognize Sadat X, and Brand Nubian, as pivotal characters in hip hop’s story and it is our job to share that story so that early retirement is just as ridiculous an idea for Sadat X, Jeru tha Damaja, Large Pro, Talib Kweli, etc. as it is for Mick Jagger, Dave Matthews, Al Green, Fleetwood Mac and The Who.
Peace and Love,