“Why can’t we be political using trap music?” The Black Opera on Shattering Hip-Hop Stereotypes.
By J. Edward Keyes
Since 2011, the Black Opera have been crafting the kind of hip-hop albums that pay no regard to styles or cliques. 2011’s Overture was built on a foundation of classic, dusky, boom-bap, but they quickly steered away from that niche, evolving to include trap and tribal music and the more jagged edges of the avant garde. Their music is endlessly inventive, shape-shifting with ease but still feeling like pieces of a connected whole. Their lyrics operate in much the same way — “Villains” is a harrowing depiction of gang violence — with a chilling video to match — while “The Queen of Hearts” is a woozy, swirling love song. The group are comfortable with each, and what stands out the most about their music is how, no matter what their milieu, the group seems dead set on pushing the art form forward. They are one of the most fascinating and forward-thinking groups in hip-hop, and we’re thrilled to welcome them to the Drip family. In honor of their arrival, we talked with Black Opera members Jamall Bufford and Magestik Legend about the trap of “conscious hip-hop,” and why unity is so difficult to achieve.
Just to get us started, I was wondering if you could tell me a little about the first record that changed your life.
Jamall Bufford: As far as hip-hop, when I heard MC Breed’s “Ain’t No Future in Your Frontin’,” I fell in love with it. What really pushed it over the edge for me is when I found out that he was from Flint, Michigan. I thought, “This is dope, and he’s from the same state as me. He’s really doin’ it.” I was very young. I didn’t think I was going to be a rapper at that time, but that’s what made me fall in love with the art form. But the artist who actually changed my life — and this probably applies to about 10 million people — was Michael Jackson. He was a superstar. And seeing him dance — you know, I could dance a little bit — I feel like that was my first introduction to hip-hop.
Magestik Legend: [starts laughing] “I could dance a little bit.”
JB: I could! [mock offended] Is that hilarious to you, Jesse? I used to win competitions! Doing Michael Jackson impersonations, actually. I’ll dig up the photos one day — I think my mom has them.
ML: I might have to turn those into a Drake meme. [laughs] For me, it was a couple of moments. I never planned on making music. My dad used to be a jazz drummer, but he didn’t tell me, because he didn’t want me to be a musician. Both of my parents are teachers, so I couldn’t listen to anything with cuss words in it. So all I had was Will Smith and Audio Two — and when I say Will Smith and Audio Two, I mean like one or two songs. It was that, Whitney Houston, Gerald Levert and Heavy D.
The music that I fell in love with was at my cousin’s crib. My cousin had all of the Yo! and Word Up Magazines, and she was listening to Naughty by Nature, Salt ‘N’ Pepa — she had everything. So that was my hip-hop heaven. The two songs that I fell in love with first were Slick Rick “Children’s Story” and LL Cool J, “I’m Bad.” When I went over there, it was like Christmas. I used to try to “record” the songs in my ear and listen to them in my head the whole ride home. I would even say the words over different beats, trying to remember them.
As far as becoming a musician — I wrote poetry in middle school. I wasn’t quite dancing on stage, like Buff, but I was doing operettas, doing plays. That started making me think, “Damn, maybe I do want to do something creative.” The group Kriss Kross were my age at the time, and I thought this was my big chance to show my parents that kids can be into hip-hop and it can be positive — it doesn‘t have to be a whole bunch of cussing. Basically, I was trying to use Kriss Kross to sneak in hip-hop into my house. I fell in love with Kriss Kross, and I was always trying to preach for them — trying to find ways to use them to explain hip-hop to my parents.
Long story short, I got my Meek Mill on very early when I realized they weren’t writing their own lyrics. It was culture shock for me. I wrote poetry, so in my mind, I was a writer. I respected the poet. So when I found out that they weren’t writing their stuff, the first rap I ever wrote was a battle rap for Kriss Kross. And it was real serious, man. I had a whole plan: I was going to get backstage and battle them on the spot. I was so heartbroken, that was the funny thing. I was getting my Meek Mill on, but I was emotional like Drake: “Man, I can’t believe it, you guys got me out here looking crazy.” I ended up just recording it on my karaoke machine, and that’s basically what started my rap career.
JB: So operettas and plays were cool but impersonating Michael Jackson wasn’t? [laughs]
ML: I didn’t say operettas and plays were cool! [laughs]
Do you remember your first time in public behind the microphone?
JB: My first show was in High School, with my then-crew the Athletic Mic League — at that time, we were known as the Anonymous Clique. It was me, Tres Styles and the band that Mayer Hawthorne was in at the time, the Astro Pimps. Mayer Hawthorne played bass. We played a High School talent show, and me and Tres put du-rags over our faces. We did this for a couple of reasons: One, we thought it was cool. Ghostface was obviously an influence — he came out rocking the mask at first. Two, we were the Anonymous Clique — we were the only rappers who wanted to be non-famous [laughs]. And we were shy — we were nervous, so we didn’t really want people to see us on stage.
ML: That was probably the main reason!
JB: We killed it though! The crowd loved it. It was like a mystery. There were rumors that we were going to be rapping at the talent show, so people were guessing who was on stage. I think even though our faces were covered, they kind of knew who we were…
ML: Wasn’t that a good time, when rap was edgy and rebellious and mysterious? There would be only one rapper at the talent show, and everybody would want to see it because it was such an amazing feat? It was almost like a fight between two arch nemeses after school — “Oh snap, they’re gonna rap?” Today it’s like, “Please, stop rapping. Go away.”
My first time behind the mic was also in High School, and it was me and my bro Nick Speed. He was already in a crew called the 9 To 5 Crew. I became a part of it, and turned them into the 9 To 5 Colony. We were coming up in Detroit, and our options were either job, or job. The main thing we were thinking about in 9th or 10th grade was, “I ain’t trying to work at the plant. I want to do music for a living.” Unfortunately, we went to a school where rap was outlawed. We’d get suspended for rapping in front of a locker — too many negroes standing in a circle, you know what I mean? But we were doing hip-hop — Leaders of the New School, Tribe, Native Tongues. They thought we were 2Pac.
Our school had a variety show, and they allowed us to rap, but they wouldn’t let us use our beats. They were like, “You have to choose one — either you’re going to do spoken word acapella, or you’re gonna do a beat presentation with no rap.” So there we were in the middle of the gym, both sides of the bleachers are full. Everybody’s there, and everybody’s like, “Oh snap they’re going to rap!” The idea we came up with to get around the rule was that we were going to make people clap, so we could rap to it. That was our plan.
Here’s the funny thing about kids and clapping: they can’t clap and listen at the same time. So they’d be going: Clap! Clap! Clap! And then as soon as we start rapping, it would go: Clap [long pause] Clap [longer pause] Clap… [laughs] They would try to listen, and their hands would be going in slow motion. It was horrendous, man. I got through the rap, Speed got through his rap, but we just realized, “This is a bad idea.” We had to fight so hard to rap, and I think that helped our independent hustle. The kids now have Ableton Live and ProTools in the school — it would have been great to grow up with that. They don’t even get how blessed they are.
One of the things I wanted to talk to you about is the fact that you guys typically get labeled “conscious hip-hop,” which has always struck me as something of a two-edged sword. I was wondering how you felt about that designation.
JB: No rapper likes that. I think we embrace it, but we also embrace other ways people describe us. Someone like Common or Kweli gets called “Conscious”, and they’ll quickly be like “I ain’t conscious!” We accept it, it’s part of what we do, but we also make music about going out to the club and having fun.
ML: I think Nina Simone said something to the effect of, “How can I be an artist and not reflect the times?” I don’t think we go into music thinking, “Let’s make some political music. Let’s get our Dead Prez on.” There’s just so many things that are happening right now that it seeps into the music. You can’t keep the noise out. We do so many different types of music — we do music about having sex with girls [laughs], we do music about rhyming, we do spacey stuff. But there’s so many horrible things going on in the world, it’s impossible for us to be artists and not reflect that
JB: It’s not a conscious thing where we say, “We have to make something about the president,” or “We have to make a song about gun control or police brutality.” It’s more that we are a reflection of the times. I always thought it was interesting that there’s this weird onus on hip-hop artists to have some kind of political content to their music. No one puts that kind of obligation on, I don’t know, Coldplay or whoever. But with hip-hop, it’s almost like in order to be taken seriously by some people, you’re asleep on the job if your music isn’t political in some way. It’s held to a standard that no other genre really is.
I always thought it was interesting that there’s this weird onus on hip-hop artists to have some kind of political content to their music. No one puts that kind of obligation on, I don’t know, Coldplay or whoever. But with hip-hop, it’s almost like in order to be taken seriously by some people, you’re falling down on the job if your music isn’t political in some way. It’s held to a standard that no other genre really is.
ML: Here’s my question: Why can’t we be political using trap music, but you can listen to Future and be like, “I like this beat, I just wish he was saying something better.” How can you call yourself a boom-bap hip-hop head if you don’t know that the style of trap production came from ‘80s hip-hop? We’ve always touched on so many different styles, but somebody will hear something, and they’ll say, “Oh, y’all used the hi-hat? The hi-hat’s too fast. I can’t nod my head to that. What would 9th Wonder do?”
Or let’s just say we weren’t so “political” or so “conscious.” I think Danny Brown is conscious, personally, but he puts it in a sugar-coated pill. If he was spitting over some experimental shit, people would love it. They’d be like, “He’s crazy! He’s got an electronic beat!” But if Chuck D spits over an electronic beat — “Oh, he’s too smart to do that.” Like, “Why is Malcolm X wearing blue jeans and Jordans?”
That’s something else I wanted to talk with you about, because in interviews I’ve read, you guys almost go out of your way to defend commercial rappers like Drake who hardcore hip-hop fans typically mock or write off. You don’t seem to see a division between “commercial” and “underground.”
ML: Last night I was listening to Apple Music, and I was listening to a Nicki Minaj playlist. This is one of the dopest rappers of our time. But there’s certain things about her that people judge. Somebody will have a fake mindstate, someone will have fake friends, someone will have fake money, but they’ll be judging Nicki Minaj, saying “Your body is fake, you’re a Barbie.” She had to call herself a Barbie to be marketable to normal people, but she’s still one of the dopest rappers of our time. I don’t know who would win if there was a battle between Nicki Minaj and MC Lyte in her prime. I don’t know who would win between Queen Latifah and Nicki Minaj. Put her against Mos Def — Allahu Akbar, I love you bro, but…
That’s how perception controls the way we judge things. Those are the stereotypes that we’re here to break down. We’re trying to break down walls and division with the art that we do. We chose to make hip-hop, which is the most judgmental art form on planet earth. Stevie Wonder can get a song from Marvin Gaye, but Drake can’t get a song from Quentin Miller? Stevie Wonder is in the Hall of Fame, but Drake is wack. Marvin Gaye is “emotional,” Drake is “gay.” Hip-Hop is so judgmental. It’s the best example for how things really are in many places in the world.
JB: It kind of goes back to when I first started listening to rap music. A lot of it was violent, a lot of it was misogynistic, a lot of it was materialistic. Hey, what do you know, what does rap sound like today? It’s violent, it’s misogynistic, it’s materialistic. Words do have power. They can affect people’s lives. But at its base, it’s still an art form. My momma raised me as well as she can, and I listened to the worst of the worst rappers. I’ve never held a gun in my hand, I’ve never sold drugs, I’ve never called a woman a bitch. You can take what’s in front of you and still control your situation.
ML: Here’s a question: race is not an issue, but we keep getting into issues that deal with race. My question is: can people of color do art, and can that art simply be respected as art? Or is it always suspect? That’s my question. If a black person makes an art piece and there’s a devil in it, and there’s a baby in it, and there’s a half-woman/half-unicorn in it, and he puts that up on the wall — can that be respected as art? Or is there something wrong with him?
JB: One of the reasons we approach rap the way we do is because we already have enough things that are separating black people. We have light-skinned versus dark-skinned, we have Crips versus Bloods, we have women versus black men, we have poor blacks versus rich blacks — all these things are already separating black people enough. We don’t need rap music to be another means to separate us. If you’re rapping about incense and backpacks, it doesn’t mean you have to hate someone for rapping about money. You don’t have to love it, but it deserves space to exist too. Just ignore it and put into the atmosphere what you want to represent.
ML: What’s the difference between Ice Cube and Common? There shouldn’t be one. There should be no difference between Dead Prez and OutKast, or Wu-Tang and Bone Thugs N Harmony. It’s the same spirit from a different location. But because labels sell us as products, they have to focus on the differences. It’s all division so that they can tell us apart.
This gets at something that’s another big theme in your music — the idea of unity. That shows up again and again, not only in your songs, but in the way you operate. What do you think are the biggest obstacles to unity in the world right now?
JB: There are some things that have been passed down from generation to generation to generation — ie. racism, ie. sexism. This stuff is taught, and it’s still being taught. That’s definitely a big obstacle. When your grandparents and your parents tell you that this person is stupid or ugly or wrong or inferior because of the color of their skin — or that they deserve to die because of the color of their skin — that’s hard to overcome. Some people get the perception that we’re anti-white, which isn’t the case —
ML: — that happens a lot when you have “black” in your name, for some reason —
JB: — but we definitely are pro-black. So when speaking about unity, you have to take into consideration that there are people in this world who don’t want unity. And we make music for them, too, honestly. Hopefully we can change their minds. That’s what’s going on in the world, and it’s been going on for hundreds of years. It may not change in our lifetime, but we try to do our part as best we can.
ML: When I moved out of Detroit to the Ypsilanti-Ann Arbor area in Michigan, there was more of a balance of different races — which is beautiful. In my High School in Detroit, there were only two white people, and they both were super nerdy. I didn’t think white people were cool until I started doing shows in Ann Arbor. And so even a white supremacist — even a police officer who killed someone — I may have anger, I may have protection for my people, but beyond that, it’s protection for humanity. There’s still a part of me that looks at him and thinks, “How was he raised?” I want to sit down with this dude and say, “What did your dad teach you? What did your parents teach you? What happened to you? What made you do this?” And in that thought is a chance for unity. There’s a chance to say “We are One.”