What does “revolutionary” mean? Although these days it’s a term used to sell video games and kitchen gadgets, Truth Universal’s outspoken politics and innovative music make him a truly revolutionary artist.
Proudly outside the musical and political mainstream, his accomplishments include Grassroots, a decade-long series of monthly hip-hop showcases that provided local up-and-comers opportunities to perform and network. But Truth isn’t resting on his laurels: he’s looking ahead, as indicated by the title of his latest album, Invent the Future.
Honed by 13 years in the New Orleans hip-hop underground, his lyrics are sharp and his analyses cut as deep as ever, but he’s also continued to develop musically. His versatility was on display at two recent performances, an album launch at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center and an Anarchist Bookfair after-party, where he moved two very different crowds with the confidence of a skilled live performer. Invent the Future has polished production and presents a broad swath of musical styles. It’s the work of a musician who remains engaged, innovative and excited about hip-hop.
I think Invent the Future is your best record yet, lyrically and musically. You’ve been making music for more than a decade— do you make a conscious effort to adapt and evolve?
Truth Universal: At heart I’m a preservationist, and you preserve the important elements of the art form, which are what make the art form. But you have to innovate to survive. That brings us to the title of the record, and the intent: Invent the Future. It’s a revolutionary term that I borrowed from Thomas Sankara, a revolutionary leader from what used to be the Upper Volta and is now Burkina Faso. He led the movement that liberated that territory from the French. In a speech of his, he talked about non-comformity, the courage to turn your back on old formulas. He spoke about being one of the madmen who dare to invent the future. Not to discard what was there before, but evolve and innovate.
I hear different influences from different eras, and even different styles from within a given era. You’ve got punchlines and wordplay, and then on “Domestic Disturbance,” you’ve got old-school storytelling.
I’m from hip-hop’s golden-era period. That’s what I was grown in and came of age in, in a hip-hop sense, but I’ve got a few different things in my background. I understand that being an MC calls for you to be an effective storyteller. And the first place anybody here probably saw me was in 2000, at a battle—you have to be able to battle as well. Then Devious D, an MC from here that I went to high school with, he always said, you ain’t no MC if all you have is paper rhymes. If all you have is written rhymes, if you can’t freestyle, you ain’t an MC. You have to be able to do that to some degree, too. So I come from that era where you have to have this arsenal of skills, but you also have to be able to roll with the punches and bring about new styles.
Both creatively and in terms of the analysis you have on your subject matter, where’s the line between drawing from history and being limited by it?
When people talk about “artists,” when there are resources available for “artists,” that word so often seems to exclude us in the hip-hop community
A good friend of mine who’s also an MC, I Self Devine from the Micranots, he said: If you’re an artist, you have a canvas, and you have to use whatever colors are on your palette to paint those pictures.
But where we live, a lot of the history is painful and horrific.
Both negative and positive come out of those experiences. I don’t romanticize anything, but for purposes of whatever I’m trying to convey to the audience, usually I’m highlighting the positives. So we can talk about slavery—definitely a negative would be our family structure was damaged; but at the same time, in some ways our will to resist was built up. There are levels of resistance you probably couldn’t have gotten to unless you challenged a person’s freedom or threatened to harm them a certain away. That resistance was built up; our resilience is beyond any imaginability. So there’s positives even to something as extreme as that.
It’s exciting for me to hear a lot of the things you say on this record, because I can’t think of another venue outside of private, take-the-battery-out-of-the-cellphone conversations where I hear this kind of direct revolutionary ideology expressed.
It’s what I’m in the middle of. I think I present stuff (or try to) in such a way that you can tell there is thought, preparation and intent behind it. “Serve and Protect,” the song I did the other night, is from an older project, Self Determination. I didn’t just write an “F the Police” song, I actually based that on a scholarly study, The Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove: an Analysis of the U.S. Police. What’s in that song is something documented.
In it, you literally poll the audience: Do you trust the police? You’re asking the question.
If you listen to it, I quote a lot of stuff from that study and other work as well. I add in my own experience— why I drew this conclusion personally—along with the facts. The facts make sense to me because I have these personal experiences.
When A Terrible Thunder, the book about Mark Essex [who shot nearly a dozen New Orleans police officers in the winter of 1972-3] was published, NOPD would walk into bookstores and just yank it off the shelves. It’s not a story they wanted told. It’s hard to think of a more controversial figure than Essex and yet on this record, you mention him right off the top.
I use a model like Mark Essex as history you can’t erase. As much as you might want to erase it (or portray it in a different way), you can’t. I want any listener, anyone who hears that to ask: Why did he do what he did? What conditions caused him to do what he did, and what can be learned from that? The intention isn’t to arm people and put ’em on rooftops, but to understand an oppressive reaction, to understand self-defense and the right to self-defense. It’s not random.
Have you faced pushback based on your lyrics?
I don’t worry about that crap. I mean, I’ve been at shows where they cut the music off. They said, “Listen, you can’t say that. You can’t say these kinds of things.” I’m like, what are you talking about? It’s already been said. I’m just presenting it in a way that people who are listening can digest it.
One of the things that comes through on this record is your passion for hip-hop as an art. Right now, in so much of hip-hop, the misogyny and materialism are so brutal and relentless. Within that context, can hip-hop be reclaimed for a different set of values?
It’s not just reclaiming hip-hop, it’s reclaiming culture, because that’s just an aspect of black culture. I mention it a lot so we can recognize it, and that’s a step towards… or not even a step, just a reminder, because a lot of people know what’s going on—recognizing the exploitation of black culture. It’s been exploited. And it gets to the point where people get so arrogant that they feel like they can curate your culture, and exclude you from your culture… There are those who believe hip-hop isn’t an original art form, one of the music forms that were cultivated or birthed here. That’s B.S. Hip-hop is the direct descendant of jazz, blues, soul, funk. It’s part of that. The materialism came about in the first place because you have young kids who have nothing. Most MCs—rappers that were able to do this and make money—didn’t have anything before this. Not money like that, not safe money. So you get this constant stream of income—it’s like an athlete that doesn’t have financial training or coaching: Shit, I’m gonna take this money and do everything that I love to do.
Anyone would if you have no filter, if no-one ever sat down and told you. I forgot the guy’s name—he blew a million dollars in a strip club. You know what I’m talking about?
Jesus. That’s extreme, by any standard.
If you have it… I mean, I wouldn’t do it, but if you have it…
You could do worse. Hell, he at least made some dancers rich. Those are working women. He didn’t give it to the Rolex corporation.
Right. But while poverty is one aspect of the whole thing, it’s also just the way industry works. In any industry, when there’s something successful, people latch onto it, to try and capitalize on its popularity. You focus on that, and that becomes the imagery of hip-hop. Then even when it’s been propagated for so long you’d think it would fade, more people still want to emulate it, because it’s the popular thing, and that becomes the standard. Human nature I guess, to do that sheep-ish thing, to emulate and follow along… it’s just a matter of mass production. We’re in a capitalist state, and music is an industry.
In “For The Love” you say, “It’s for the people—but compensation would be great.” How do you maintain that balance?
I was talking to someone the other day—he asked how I’ve been able to survive as an artist with the content that I have, where I am, in New Orleans. How to get past that is to not just focus on making quote-unquote “message music.” I strive to make good music first, because if I’m not making good music, I should find another venue to present what I’m trying to say. I try to make the best music I can make, and i think that’s been the thing that’s been able to carry me because I feel like I’m making exceptional music. So the music has carried me, along with a lot of back-end work. That’s the other part of it: almost by trial and error learning how to navigate the things you need to do to be a serious artist. Things like radio promotion, publicists, not performing and booking all these dates if you don’t really have a product. So as I’ve gone, I’ve learned how to have an effective—in a loose sense—business model.
“Domestic Disturbance,” which deals with violence within a relationship, is extremely upsetting. It comes from a different angle than a lot of the tracks on this album.
What I try to present with that song is some of the causes that will foster that type of environment. Of course there’s that economic pressure and disparity. There’s that cyclical recurrence of learned behavior– you’ve seen it, so you do it as well– but then there’s that urge and impetus to stop. To break the cycle. It’s actually in there, in the story.
There’s an increase in domestic violence with economic pressures, but to me it’s fundamentally a gender issue. It’s tangled in other forms of oppression, but it’s rooted in patriarchy.
To challenge sexism, you have to diagnose it. Before you can dismantle it, you have to approach it. I’m no expert on domestic violence or anything, but all these things have to be laid out to even start the discussion. We have to talk about it. You know, there’s kind of an old-school paradigm where to put together a record, there was always a single on the record, something more people would gravitate to, then there was maybe a song for the clubs, then maybe some kind of hardcore track, and then there was a love song. If you look at different eras of hip-hop, you see different versions of that paradigm, and one of those tracks would be one that moreso spoke to women. So I do that in a different way. I’m not saying I’m telling every woman’s story; I don’t want to say that I can identify with or speak for others, or even seem like I’m making the assumption that all women have experience with domestic violence…
I’m not sure that’s an unreasonable assumption, if you look at the statistics– even if it’s not a first-hand experience.
Well, that’s why I’m able to write that, just my exposure in the community, growing up, relatives and friends, you see some manifestation of it, or you see it all the time, or you experience it. So that went into the song as well… Both that and “Food Fight,” I hope that those could be used in some sort of environment or setting where discussion could dissect the song, as a way to deal with the topic and see how it could be approached, towards solving it and doing something with it. To start talking about it.
If you can’t ask about management, what your split is, what do you get for shows versus album sales— if you can’t even ask such questions, you’re going to be exploited, and you will have no power
Bounce music is purely hip-hop. I have no prejudice or bias against it. There was a time that that’s what we did on Saturday nights; we frequented bounce clubs [like] 49, Big Man… I never really got a chance to go to Ghost Town, but the first bounce song that I heard , that I had on cassette tape, was T.T. Tucker and DJ Irv, Live in Ghost Town—”Wha Dey At?” If you listen to that recording in particular, I think we latched onto it like we did because it was such a native expression of hip-hop. A form of hip-hop was here before, but that was almost like the native expression, the genesis: It wasn’t any different from what we were listening to in terms of the DJ took a break and spun it back-to-back and the MC, T.T. Tucker, freestyled over it, but that Mardi Gras Indian cadence was incorporated. That bamboula rhythm was incorporated.
As an artist in the hip-hop underground, when there is a breakout New Orleans sound (whether it’s bounce or Cash Money or No Limit), does it lead to an increased interest in what you’re doing?
I guess there’s some more interest. As Dee-1 does more, as Curren$y does more, Lil Dee, Jay Electronica, more people are looking here. It’s not like since [Nesby] Phips and Curren$y been doing stuff, now my phone’s ringing off the hook. As a scene, though, I think we get a little more recognition. People do know there is a scene of established MCs and burgeoning artists. I would say I’ve noticed this change—I remember sending 12″s out to DJs before and following up, like “Did you check it out?” They used to be like “Nah.” Then a couple folks have hit me back like, “Look man, I apologize, I didn’t check your stuff out because I saw New Orleans on the label and was like, eh, that New Orleans stuff. I’ll pass.”
In “Path of Least Resistance,” one of my favorite songs on this record, there’s the line “Guerilla rap / unconventional anomaly. I’m not included in a bogus cultural economy.” With this recent City Hall talk about “cultural economy,” there’s at least an acknowledgement that culture should be valued, but what does this mean for those creating the “culture?” Where do you as a rap artist fit into that?
When people talk about “artists,” when there are resources available for “artists,” that word so often seems to exclude us in the hip-hop community. Or someone says “cultural economy,” and what they mean is “soul, funk, americana, folk, swamp-rock” economy. Then don’t call it “cultural economy,” because it’s not that. Say what you mean. I’m not gonna say we’re never included or able to be involved in certain functions, but it just seems like the opportunities aren’t commensurate. Like I say, “it’s not traditional without guitar or brass band.” We do digital music. We have two turntables, and I’m on a mic. Now we definitely add elements to that—singers, drummers, and at different times, instrumentalists, but it gets to the point where you feel forced to do that. But I’ve been in line-ups with people who form bands, and we do what we do, as a hip-hop act, and we do great. As an example, we just did Chaz Fest, and I don’t know how much hip-hop they’ve had there, it’s possible we’re one of the first hip-hop acts to do Chaz Fest, and it went really well. People came up after like “I loved what you did.” So the issue isn’t really what we do– it’s the perception of what we’re doing that has to change. I know very few festival curators and programmers or producers that understand where hip-hop fits into New Orleans culture, and that’s a serious problem. There has to be a willingness to dialog with the hip-hop community and try and understand where we fit in. I know where we fit in, but it’s on those people who are packaging this stuff and curating these festivals to understand.
Can those who create this intensely fetishized culture, the culture that’s being used to advertise and sell New Orleans, engage with the tourist economy without being exploited?
I think it’s always imperative that we control what we do. We must control what we create. That’s been one of my mantras for a long time. Stay in control of what you’re doing, and let it be on your terms. When there is some type of compromise being made, do enough research and have enough information to be able to suggest things for yourself that might come out of it.
If you get signed or whatever, like I said, definitely a signing is a compromise, but you have to come to the table understanding what you’re getting into, being able to ask questions. If you come to the table to sign paperwork and you can’t ask a question, if you can’t ask about management, what your split is, what do you get for shows versus album sales—if you can’t even ask such questions, you’re going to be exploited, and you will have no power.
What’s the way to build power?
We have to recognize our own power. We have to recognize the strength that we have. And people are doing it. I saw DJs do this a while ago, I guess it was a DJ union. They really got together and were like “Look man, we can’t be doing these fifty-dollar gigs. When you do a night at one of these major venues so cheaply, you’re being used, and you undercut everyone else. You’re just prostituting your work, and you’re hurting the rest of the community.” To build power, there needs to be some type of unification. And I like to think I contributed significantly to people understanding that in the hip-hop sector: that we don’t have to wait on these big venues to call us to be able to do a show, we don’t have to wait for a label to pick us up before we can release music and tour. I did Grassroots for ten years, and the main intention was to educate folks, as well as give us that space, to be one of those spaces where we could perform and hone our skills as burgeoning artists, and learn what we should be doing business-wise. Now I see a lot of folks that came up through that setting, in that environment, doing a lot of those things on their own. So I like to think I helped out in that regard, at least a few folks and they’re passing it on to people.
Invent the Future is in stores as well as available online via truthuniversal.com/itf. Truth is on Facebook and Twitter as TruthUniversal.