There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Unspoken Heard wants to make music for an invisible man. MCs Blue-Black and Asheru are struggling to capture the ears of the ex-hiphop head—the fan who loved the culture as a teenager, but whose life has become more than Rolexes and random sex. Mainstream hiphop’s view of gender, drugs, and violence doesn’t quite correspond with the lifestyle of the average 25-year-old these days. Even when it tries to be serious, it winds up making cartoon images that lack depth and credibility (see Eve’s “Love Is Blind”).
But Unspoken Heard is one of the local arms of a movement that began in the mid-’90s to reclaim the audience that went from Craig G to Kenny G. As far as retail goes, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more active group on the local scene. Over the past three years, the group has released two EPs, Cosmology and Jamboree. This year, Unspoken Heard is set to release its first full-length album, Soon Come, which combines new material with songs from the EPs. But Soon Come’s real gift is that it shakes the shackles of youth in favor of introspection and self-analysis. Asheru, fresh off a tour of Europe, recently talked about the group’s latest project:
Washington City Paper: Soon Come has been a while coming. Are you happy with it?
Asheru: I love it. I’m ready to put it out. It’s like having a child. I mean, I haven’t had any kids, but just the process of creating it is like having kids. All we’re waiting on now is the cover art. We also gotta finish mastering all the joints. But all the songs are recorded. All the producers and all the MCs have been paid. Right now, all we’re looking for is worldwide distribution, because 60 percent of the stuff we make right now goes straight to Europe or Japan. Certain stores around the country carry our stuff, but it ain’t getting pushed like it is out in Europe.
CP: Tell me about Europe. What was the response like when you went to Finland?
A: I didn’t know what to expect in Finland. In London, I was like, “Man, we can rock it there.” But then I saw the fliers and we got there and our promoter was like, “Man, there’s a big buzz. Everybody’s excited.” And I was like, “Really?” Then we did the in-store [promotion] and it was jam-packed….It was like 600 or 700 people. Then I got offstage and sold all the records I had. I sold like $100 worth of records, but they was like $5 a pop….Out there, those people listen to you on stage. They listen to your music, and they listen to the lyrics. This cat came up to me and said he heard “Better.” He was talking about the first verse, where we was talking about the herb, and he was like, “Man, I thought I wrote that shit.”
CP: How does it make you feel that you gotta go to Finland to get that love? When you come here they barely know who you are.
A: It’s like, in your own home, it’s harder. It’s unfortunate, but D.C. is going to end up hearing secondhand how dope their own talent is. You’re gonna have some cat in London writing an article, then you’re gonna be like, “Oh yeah, I know him—he’s from down here.” We ain’t done shows here in a minute, man, just because we’ve been everywhere else. We ain’t have no demand here.
CP: If you had to name three cuts on the album that bang the most, what would they be?
A: Well No. 1 is “Soon Come.” That’s our triumph song. If you listen to that joint, it’s talking about what we’re working toward as a family, as an organization, as men, and as a group. The joint “B-boy” rocks. “Elevator Music” rocks. “Jamboree” rocks. I like ’em all, because all of ’em got a different story.
CP: But say you had to pick three, that you had to give to somebody?
A: I’d pick “Soon Come.” I’d probably pick “Jamboree,” and I’d pick “Better.” It’s like I said: They all have a different story, and the thing with “Better” is that we got my man Smiley to do the beats, and we just got into a huddle, like me and you talking right now, and we was like, “Yo, son, when we go in here, we gotta give ’em all our shit right now.” And when we did that song, the adrenaline was just up there. And when I hear that song, it just reminds me of that time we were in, because it was so dope. Wes [Jackson, president of Seven Heads Entertainment, Unspoken Heard’s label], to this day, says, “When I die, that’s gonna be one of the songs that I play at my funeral.” I was like, “Damn.” But that’s how he feel.
CP: I was talking to DJ Stylus a few months ago, and he was saying that one of the problems with hiphop is that it has yet to develop what he called “adult contemporary hiphop.” So, like, say one day your mind-state ain’t bitches and weed anymore. You start thinking, I might want to have kids. I wanna buy a house. Hiphop hasn’t really been created yet for those people.
A: I like that label, “adult contemporary hiphop.” That’s exactly what we’re making. That’s our target—people our age. Whether you went to college, or finished college, or not, as you grow older you start thinking about life. And it ain’t about being in this club every night. It’s like now I gotta tell my kids at school why it’s not dope to walk and jig a nigga with a knife. Then I gotta think about what I’m listening to and what type of music I’m making. We want a man or woman our age, who’s got kids or who’s just living their life, to be able to hear what we’re doing and think, OK. That’s not the hiphop I was thinking of.
It’s like, sometimes I tell people I do hiphop and I gotta be apologetic for the music I make. They’ll be like, “What kind of music you make?” And I say, “Well, I make hiphop, but I don’t make the hiphop that you’re thinking of.” The fact that you gotta put up a disclaimer is just evidence of how wack shit is. I had to consciously stop buying some stuff. Like, for example, Jay-Z. I like Jay-Z. He’s dope. But the shit Jay-Z talk about doesn’t relate to me. But I can buy something like Les Nubians, and that ain’t even hiphop.
CP: Your “Setting Sun” is a really complex song. One of the things that limits hiphop is its inability to expand subjectwise. It’s pretty much about “I’m better than you.” Do you think that’s one of the things that’s hurt the art?
A: When it first started, it was about battling. But wasn’t nobody gonna come to the studio and stick you up. You would battle for the crown, and then, when it was all over, it’d be peace. But now, cats got self-esteem problems. What we’re saying is that all of us are talented and what we choose to do with that talent is important. And if you don’t like Unspoken Heard, it’s cool—you ain’t gotta like it. That’s the advantage of being independent. We going to keep putting our stuff out, and if it means we gotta keep rocking for 600 or 700 white people over in Finland, then that’s what we’ll do. But it’s sad that our people can’t get out of that mind-set. I know white people who’ve elevated past the racism and can tell you why black music is the center of popular music. And they’ll give you that respect without feeling bad about themselves. But you got black people who was raised in the tradition and make music and it’s bullshit.
CP: Why do you think the adult contemporary hiphop sound can’t get out there? You take Mos Def. I don’t even think he went gold. He certainly didn’t go platinum.
A: I don’t know why, man. Sometimes I think it’s just too many big words for people [laughs].
CP: I’m telling you, it’s plenty of cats who turned 25 and was like, “I’m not into Jay-Z, so I gotta get out of rap.” Where did they go?
A: They move out of it. They go to jazz. Like me—I been buying a lot of jazz and shit that just ain’t hiphop. The last two albums I bought—they wasn’t even hiphop. But now it’s like the Roots, Common, or Black Star—those are my peers. But it’s getting depressing. I just turned 25, and hiphop seems wack.
CP: What’s up with Blue-Black? You know, cats joke and say he’s on some Malik B shit.
A: Black is working, man. He works for Value America, and he’s just moving up in that shit. Plus he wants to start a family.
CP: He’s part of that generation.
A: Man, Black is 31 years old. He’s been doing hiphop for 15 years, and it ain’t brought nothing to him. But he keeps giving. That’s why we say it’s so much more than going for the glory. We’re documenting our lives on wax, so that if you put this in a time capsule and open it 10 years from now, you’ll know that there was something going on.—Ta-Nehisi Coates