Jamal Muhammad has a good falsetto. It's not quite on the level of Earth, Wind and Fire frontman Philip Bailey, but it's solid, and this is really unexpected. Because the last time Jamal Muhammad opened his mouth, there was nothing sweet in his voice. That was four years ago, when, as local pointman and proselytizer for the Nation of Islam, he gained notoriety by telling kids at public schools that long ago, white folks ate their dead. Not exactly the message middle-brow Denver was used to.
But today, at a small recording studio in Aurora, all that seems far away, and Muhammad's simply a laid-back music producer guiding a young singer, Diedra Walker, through the chorus of a hip-hop tune called "Can't Get Away" -- a tale of a gangbanger who can't escape a violent past. He's in the middle of producing a second album for Denver rapper Mecca Machete. Their first collaboration, Can I Touch Somethin'?, is already in local record stores.
It would seem that the 38-year-old Muhammad has escaped his past -- the recent one, anyway. There was something severe about him then. The sharp suits and bow ties of the Nation of Islam; the tense, unyielding carriage. Like the brother was some cold-eyed intellectual assassin, ready to bury his opponents with deadly verbal volleys. To get him to consent to an interview was like facing the Inquisition.
It was February 1996 when, as Jamal X, Muhammad vaulted into the Denver consciousness with a speech at Montbello High School during which he told students that, way back in the day, black people were building pyramids while whites ate their dead and slept with animals in caves. More controversial speeches followed, and then came the media barrage: More than seventy articles were written about him in local newspapers, including scathing editorials that questioned why the public schools would grant such a provocateur access to impressionable teenagers. X caught hell from the press and his superiors, who wanted to know why he kept riling everybody up. (The plan for Denver's branch of the Nation of Islam had been for members to be non-confrontational.) X wondered what he'd gotten himself into.
"Folks look at you like their savior or the devil," he says now. "The reaction was so violent. Who wants to be the bogeyman for the white man in the middle of some racist controversy?"
Muhammad admits he played into the hype, or what he now refers to as "tantrum politics," and eventually he stopped going to press conferences. "I didn't want to lend my voice or image to nonsense," he says. And some of that hardass act had always been pure theater; after his speeches, Muhammad would go home and critique tapes of them and "cringe at certain parts."
But just as quickly as he'd shown up, he disappeared. People thought he'd left town, when all he'd really left was the spotlight. (Muhammad thought of getting involved in Mayor Webb's re-election campaign last spring but figured he might do more damage than good.) During an interview at the downtown library, there's still something serious about him. But now he wears jeans and sneakers and a bright yellow shirt with the word "Colorado" on it. These clothes are much more relaxed than the suits and ties of the past, and so is he.
Muhammad is still a practicing Muslim, but he's not active in the Nation of Islam. "The Nation can't talk black or white. It's a myopic vision of the world," he says, adding that even the Final Call, the newspaper of the Nation, has its share of propaganda. "That doesn't sit too well with me," says Muhammad. "It can look like a cult of personality." He says that while some local Nation members have given him the cold shoulder for his abrupt departure from politics -- they think he lost his nerve and sold out -- most of his old colleagues are cool with his decision.
As he moves toward a more open and inclusive philosophical worldview, Muhammad has returned to his first love: music.
Jamal Muhammad used to be Jamal Eliot, the Panamanian-born son of a deckhand supervisor. In the late '70s he moved to Southern California, took up the guitar and bass and started garage bands with his friends. His influences ranged from guitarist Vernon Reid, who later gained famed with Living Colour, to James "Blood" Ulmer, who recorded with free-jazz legend Ornette Coleman, to a whole range of jazz pioneers. He also took to the aggressive spirit of punk, playing in groups like J. and the Strays and the Screaming Cadavers. (Muhammad once described one of his bands as sounding like "buzzsaws in trash cans.")
Punk and hip-hop are merely two sides of the same process, according to Muhammad, one that involves young kids, white and black, refracting the inputs of a convoluted world, breaking it down and kicking it back out again. He says he's always fed from both streams, tuning in to rap stalwart Public Enemy as well as Bad Brains, an all-black hardcore punk outfit from the early '80s. His teenage son now has him hooked on the rap-metal hybrids of Limp Bizkit.
Muhammad always wanted to produce a hip-hop album but could never find an MC who was stable enough to stick around to get an album out. When he took a job at the HueMan Experience bookstore, however, he was trained by Detric Garvin, aka Mecca Machete, a young rapper who hadn't been able to find a producer who was into his vibe. "Everybody out there was just doin' gangsta-type stuff, with borrowed loops and samples, and I wanted to do original stuff," says Garvin.
At first Machete wasn't too interested in Muhammad's punk background, but eventually the men became friends. Both were Muslims, and beneath Muhammad's punk-rock surface was a fan of jazz, R&B, hip-hop -- you name it. Machete says that after hearing some R&B tracks Muhammad had laid down some years earlier, "I was like, 'Cool, man, we should hook up.'"
The result was Can I Touch Somethin'?, a debut album that Machete describes as a demonstration of his skills, as if he were Babe Ruth pointing his bat toward the bleachers in left field. "The sound is universal," he says. "I'm just trying to display skills in as many different genres as possible. I'm lyrically superior on every level."
The album is filled with similar boasts and challenges. On one track, "Raw Deluxe," Machete envisions ripping opponents' CDs "like Zorro with a lyrical slash." And on "Who'z Mecca," he claims he "backs my raps/with the edge of an ax, like a butcher/Now I gotta cut you/Now where's your head at?/Steady rollin'...heads be rolling."
Yet Machete also shifts gears into loving grooves that are macho without being unromantic, and elegiac tunes that address the realities of the banger's lifestyle. In "Manhood," Machete's narrator reflects mournfully, "Damn, I never thought I'd live past the age of 25. I might have done something better with my life..."
Machete's flows are framed in Muhammad's toe-tapping grooves, grooves that on some tracks have just a trace of that lazy, straight-from-the-islands vibe, and on others sound almost as smooth and silky as modern R&B. But it took a while for the rapper and the producer to click. At first Machete says he just wasn't feeling Muhammad's reggae-tinged "Spanish-style stuff." They worked on a half-dozen tracks in frustration, but stayed optimistic and finally got the right feeling with "Play on Playa" -- a track about the art and artifice of the Mack. "Jamal introduced some new percussions different than anything I'd heard," Machete explains. "I started with the drum beat, he did everything else. He added in congas. It was just off the hook. I know ain't nobody ever came up with anything like that. It was like, 'Let's build on that.'"
"The real cool thing about him is you hear about rappers 'keeping it real,' when what the majority are doing is riding off the testimonial of others," says Tony Morrison, the owner of Studio A, where the album was recorded. "With Detric, I believe him when he speaks about something he really believes. A lot of times he'll get in there without any lyrics and just come up with something."
"I'm serious about this," Machete says. "I'm trying to make it all the way to the top -- people knowing who Mecca Machete is all over the world."
Machete, 29, was born in Oklahoma and raised in Colorado. He started rapping when he was eight, but it wasn't until age 22 that he realized he could make money as a rapper and got serious. He perfected his flow through years of jazz-style cutting sessions, where young rappers would get together and throw down. On his block, before school, after school, during lunch, or when he and his mates ditched school altogether. All to play out the primal drama of men: Who's the best?
For years Garvin had gone by the name Mecca, a reference to the Muslim holy city and an Arabic word that means the center of attention or attraction. That's how Mecca saw himself on stage. During cutting sessions, bustin' flows against rival rappers, he picked up the tag Machete, for the way his raps cut straight to the chase and buried his opponents until "they wouldn't want to rap anymore."
"I'm not always talking about thuggin' it and stuff like that," he says. "What's selling right now is the thug shit and talking about hard times. That's cool and everything, but I like to talk about good times, and I like to talk about solutions. The thug stuff is gonna rule for a while, but it's gonna get more into realism and solutions."
Of course, it's a fine line. The solutions to problems are usually best dramatized when the problems are made as vivid as possible. For instance, in "Can't Get Away," Machete's narrator claims in his chorus, with great vigor, "You talkin' about bangin' and shit'? Nigger, I done did that shit."
"That tune was biographical," Machete says. "Everybody's making money doing dirt. I've done all that stuff, but I'm not gonna make it a focus of what I'm doing." He says he was always basically a good kid and a good student, but he spent some years hanging with a bad crowd. Still, though he saw some of the darker aspects of the lifestyle, he seems to have spent most of his time deconstructing it: "They didn't like that, so I was just, like, whatever." Machete has studied at Howard University, the University of Colorado at Denver and the Community College of Denver, where he is now one class shy of graduation.
"It was a trip to work with him," says Muhammad. "He'd have the whole thing planned in his head. Everything measured out in his own words" -- and everything in his head, never written down. Machete also had the basic groove he was looking for. Muhammad would then noodle around until he found something Machete liked; he says the two tried to "find a field to resonate in." Muhammad queried Mecca about his influences -- artists like Rakim, Ice Cube, early Fugees -- and then studied them himself. He would also listen to each track for hours on end, listening for any slight thing to tweak or change. With no instruments or equipment at home, Muhammad had to do his work in his head, too, then in the studio. The album took almost two years to record.
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The two are currently recording a follow-up album that they expect to be ready by late next spring, and Machete is looking for venues in which to perform. "We're always looking for shows," he says. "I'm certain it's harder for artists to come up in Colorado than it is somewhere else, for the simple fact that Denver doesn't support the local hip-hop scene." Club managers, he points out, are worried about violence and the high cost of insuring live rap and hip-hop concerts.
Muhammad, meanwhile, is trying to build a stable of artists to produce. He hopes to do a hip-hop equivalent of Blood on the Fields -- the three-disc epic on slavery from composer Wynton Marsalis -- and he wants to get a band together, a "hardcore rock/Brazilian funk" group. He misses the stage. "The stage is like a horse: You get on it, saddle it, ride it. I know how to mount a stage." Turns out he'd rather do it with his hands on a guitar instead of a podium.
"I've been suppressing this side of my being for so long," he notes. "I have an artistic side that's very strong."