Following a decade of groundbreaking work, the Quannum Projects crew has reached iconic status in the world of underground hip hop. Maybe it's time the artists got their own superhero cartoon. Let's see, DJ Shadow could be the sensei master, posing riddles about the universe by manipulating his massive collection of vinyl. Blackalicious MC Gift of Gab could be the nerdy guy who conquers his addictions with verbal acumen, while his producer pal Chief Xcel could be the magician who makes block-rocking beats out of thin air. Rapper Lyrics Born might be a funk-master love machine, and the Lifesavas could serve as a bunch of youngsters high on weed, women, and song. That leaves only Lateef the Truth Speaker. He'd be, well, huh. That's a tough one. Maybe he'd be the brother from another planet, the family member people hear about but rarely hear from. Yeah, that's it. He'd be the great unknown.
See, Lateef hasn't put out a release of his own since 1996's much-lauded The Wreckoning 12-inch. Sure, in the late '90s he produced music as half of Latyrx (with Born) and Maroons (with Xcel), but there's been nothing major since, save for a slew of guest spots. Lately, Lateef's profile has been lower than a roach's ass.
All that's about to change, however. This month, Lateef and Xcel release their first full disc as Maroons, a minialbum called Ambush. The nine-song record is the pair's attempt to update the classic, mid-'80s hip hop vibe — hard-hitting, thought-provoking, and booty-dipping — with a mix of live and sampled instrumentation. But what it's really going to do is shine a much-deserved spotlight on Lateef's dynamic flow and tough-guy spirituality.
“For me, a great record is a record you can use in your life,” says Lateef, seated in Xcel's carefully maintained South Oakland studio. “After your boss chewed you out for some shit that was his fault, you can put that song on, and by the time you get home you're chillin'. And you're going to kick it with your lady, and you can put it on again, and you're having a real good time. Just being able to augment your reality, challenge you, and make you think, if you want it. That's what we talked about with Ambush, what we wanted it to be.”
Oakland native Lateef (né Lateef Daumont) and Berkeley's Xcel (né Xavier Mosley) started off with simpler aims. When they met in the early '90s while attending UC Davis along with the rest of the Quannum crew, the two merely wanted to lay down some cool tunes. Lateef and Xcel shared a similar worldview, having both come from highly progressive families, played varsity sports (Xcel was All-State in football), loved the same “golden age” hip hop artists, and been, in Lateef's words, “the biggest knuckleheads when we were younger.” But while they admit some of those early demos were interesting, they didn't get serious as a duo until 1997, after both men had relocated to the East Bay.
One of the first songs the pair worked on was “Best of Me,” which also turned out to be the last track they finished for Ambush. “People ask me how long it takes to do a song, and now I tell them, 'It can happen in a day or it can take seven years,'” says Xcel with a grin.
Eventually, the two began putting together a character-based concept album they called Ashé (which is both Yoruban for “essential life force” and Swahili for “amen”). “In working on that record, we came to the realization that while it shows the breadth of what we can do, it'd be nice to have a record that preceded that record and really entrenched the listener in what we do,” says Lateef.
The duo also wanted to make a short release similar to revered hip hop LPs like Public Enemy's Yo! Bum Rush the Show and Eric B & Rakim's Paid in Full. “We talked about how a good short record beats a mediocre long record,” Lateef says. “Ambush is the same length as [Michael Jackson's] Off the Wall.”
“Not that we're comparing our record to Off the Wall,” Xcel says, eliciting guffaws from Lateef. “But we were also coming off very long records. [Blackalicious' 2002 CD] Blazing Arrow was an exhausting process, very intense. I wanted to do something in a classic sense.”
This isn't to say that Ambush is simplistic. While Xcel's Maroons productions may be more straightforward than his Blackalicious ones, they're still intricate and multilayered. Xcel wanted to achieve something akin to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, in which the former Fugee seamlessly blended live parts and sampled beats. To that end, he recorded a number of exceptional players, including East Bay keyboardist Herve Salters, guitarist/bassist Teke Underdue, flutist Ronald Stallings, guitarist Sebastian Martel, vocalists Ledisi and Joyo Velarde, and cellist/ string arranger Vincent Segal.
But while Ambush's musical beds are quite visceral — as jazzy and elastic as A Tribe Called Quest's (“Don't Stop”), as thornily funky as Gil Scott-Heron's (“If”), as rough-and-tumble as Da Lench Mob's (“Lester Hayes”) — they're never showy, instead placing the focus squarely on Lateef.
For his part, Lateef gobbles up the spotlight as if it were a caviar-stuffed Twinkie. He comes off like a combination of Chuck D and Flava Flav — a professor who's equally happy ranting as he is raging. Whether attacking George Bush's warmongering ways on “If” or comparing himself to the former Oakland Raiders defender who was known for vicious hits and big pimping on “Lester Hayes,” Lateef rips lines with intensity and focus. Many MCs might prove annoying when proposing to take listeners on a “journey of learnin',” but Lateef's brand of spirituality (try “Your soul releases when chillin' with your peeps/ And sharing your theory of the universe thesis” from the gorgeous “Beautiful One”) is so down-to-earth that it's hard to scoff at. Perhaps the best explanation of Lateef's ideals is this stanza from “365,” the duo's self-proclaimed definition song: “Get a notebook, a pen, a beat, and I'm right/ A stage, a DJ, a crowd, and one mike/ A beautiful woman to love the whole night/ Shit, you're talking heaven on Earth, take that for what it's worth, the b-boys dream.”
“I think people just want to hear your testimony,” the MC explains. “They want to hear what your experience is, they want to identify with that, learn from it, or learn from what's not there.”
Rappers all over the world could learn a lot from Lateef's flow. (Fatboy Slim liked it enough to use Lateef on two songs on his new LP, Palookaville, one of which is the record's upcoming second single.) Much like his rhymes, his raps are both tough and laid-back, with a fluid tone that's always on beat. Gift of Gab may be more of a lyrical gymnast and Lyrics Born more of a verbal chameleon, but Lateef is more of a communicator — someone you want to listen to or hang out with.
“There's a certain conscious edge that's more straightforward than the other [Quannum MCs],” Lateef says. “The stuff we do is very in your face, not subliminal at all.”
“There's less abstractions,” Xcel adds.
“We're all from the 'hood,” Lateef says. “The barbershop talk is still very much a part of our experience.”
Ambush — and Ashé, which is scheduled for release on Quannum this time next year — should elevate Lateef to the heights of Mos Def and Talib Qweli, conscious rappers who can talk tough when the time is right. Maybe there's a cartoon character for Lateef after all: that of a hip hop warrior with a talisman in one hand and a 40-ouncer in the other.