By Benjamin Leatherman
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Tomorrow night Afu-Ra will be traveling to San Francisco, where he'll be joining the High & Mighty and the Pharcyde to kick off the West Coast leg of the High Times Records Tour. (He's is the only artist held over from the East Coast tour, which also featured Smiff 'n' Wessun, Non-Phixion and Black Moon, among others.) Tonight the man's got a lot to think about: the tour; his latest album, Life Force Radio; this interview -- and now his mother, who is outside screaming into his Brooklyn apartment's intercom system as Afu-Ra tries to explain where the nearest Genovese drug store is located.
"It's next to the Dunkin' Donuts." Loud, indecipherable shouting. "Next to the Dunkin' Donuts." Even louder shouting, causing noxious, tinny speaker vibrations, like DJ Magic Mike played on a car system with a budget subwoofer. Afu-Ra repeats his directions again, without ever raising his voice.
That story is an excellent example of how Afu-Ra seems to approach everything in his life -- with a level head and an almost superhuman amount of patience. It's a good thing, too, because some of his experiences as a hip-hop artist have been a test of personal fortitude. For instance, after he dropped his first original verse on Jeru the Damaja's "Mental Stamina" back in 1994, his clenched-brain style -- rugged without being thugged -- stirred up underground hip-hop heads who became hungry for more.
But they, like the artist himself, would have to wait. While he continued to work with his mentor, Jeru, he secured his first record deal and completed his first album, Body of the Life Force, in 1998. Unfortunately, due to difficulties with his label, the album was pushed back two full years. In rock 'n' roll, a two-year delay is considered a minor inconvenience. (How long has Axl been twiddling knobs on the next Guns N' Roses album? Since he wrote "Civil War," or since the actual Civil War?) In hip-hop, however, two years can mean four albums, 10 singles, a straight-to-video movie and dismissed charges on three counts of criminal weapons possession.
Well aware of the importance of presence in hip-hop, Afu-Ra began to slowly leak singles from the album, including the DJ Premier-produced "Whirlwind Thru Cities" and "Mortal Kombat." When the album finally saw its release in 2000 -- a full six years after Afu-Ra's debut on "Mental Stamina" -- it received an underwhelming response.
"I think a lot of my fans were disappointed because the album got pushed back two times and, when they finally got it, the [four] 12-inches I'd already put out were on there," he says.
In talking about this experience, Afu-Ra is reflective, somewhat apologetic, but ultimately very positive. It helped him learn a great deal as he prepared for his follow-up, last spring's Life Force Radio.
"Working on my first album, I didn't really have a concept of how I wanted it to sound. So with the new album, I surprised myself by having a vision of how I wanted to do it, and then manifesting it . . . . I wanted to show people the [musical and personal] differences in me." And it is different, both for the artist and in its track-to-track musical progression. (Afu-Ra compares it to a radio station programmed by him.) While his gift for constructing incisive, complex lyrics remains a constant, the beats on Radio are often harder, and his delivery more aggressive.
Body was also largely a solo project -- Afu-Ra on mic and Primo on the boards. On Radio, he's supported by strong collaborations with artists including Big Daddy Kane (a D&D labelmate), RZA, the Human Orchestra, M.O.P. and the world's least-Caucasian-sounding-but-Caucasian-nonetheless R&B singer, the legendary Teena Marie. He also supplemented the production of DJ Premier with tracks by Domingo and Easy Mo Bee, who adds an uncharacteristic guitar crunch to "Hip Hop."
Fans of Body of the Life Force and early Afu-Ra singles might see the new album as a conscious effort by the MC to cut a wider commercial swath for himself. But he maintains that the wide range of styles on the album -- reggae tracks bump up against R&B and hard-core anthems -- is reflective only of his love of music and a desire to express multiple sides of himself.
"No artist has a particular style," he says. "We create how we feel. Each day is different. I want to be able to perform in front of a thugged-out crowd or R&B-type of hip-hop crowd. All of this is a part of me, but I choose to be somebody who represents hip-hop by trying to uplift people through the music and the lyrics I write."
The High Times Records Tour has been an opportunity for Afu-Ra to expose his fans and the unconverted to his range of musical influences, as well as to share a stage with artists whose styles are vastly different from his own. The Pharcyde, next to the Hieroglyphics and the Native Tongue family, are one of the original backpack hip-hop icons -- at turns insightful and goofy -- while the High & Mighty are known for their sometimes gross-out storytelling and their over-the-top side project, the Smut Peddlers. And with Afu-Ra, a devout Rastafarian and husband, the tour should provide something for everyone -- assuming they can see through the haze of thick, green smoke rising from the audience.