Musician, poet and scholar Mike Ladd lives in the afterfuture. He waits there for his flight at LaGuardia airport on a recent summer evening. The building is much like the Boston-based station from which American Airlines Flight 11 was launched on the morning of September 11, 2001, only to explode against the World Trade Center in Manhattan less than an hour later, thrusting the world into a mediatory space between tragedy and reinvention.
“I believe we’re gonna be here forever/It takes more than 41 to bring us down,” he sings in a pained yet resolute voice on “It Takes More Than 41,” a poem from his 2000 album, Welcome to the Afterfuture. “I believe we are the ones with the future/Because the future’s come and gone, and we survived.” In the afterfuture, there is the presence of Armageddon, an imagined end of the world: horrific events much like the 9-11 terrorist attacks on Manhattan and Washington, D.C. or the 41 shots fired into Amadou Diallo by four New York City police officers, that lead to a cataclysm, an end to our world perspective; and there is the Armageddon that never happened, a catastrophe that we, still living yet traumatized by such events, must learn to deal with and accept.
Ladd once wrote a song about Diallo’s murder, titling it “Feb. 4, ‘99 (For All Those Killed By Cops),” the date referring to the evening when he was killed. However, rather than paying homage to Diallo by name, Ladd begins by talking about his childhood growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts among “Roberts upon Roberts and Sylvias and bushes and ponds and projects and steeples.” He reminisces of how “I couldn’t play basketball for shit so my friends made me toss a glass bowl in the dark to test my coordination skills/The sting on my knuckles when it slipped through.” One minute later, his voice suddenly rises to a boil as he shouts, “You would think Cambridge would finally buckle under its own ego/That the Himalayan stones would melt and somehow drown the right people,” before a crescendo is pounded out on the keyboard. Regaining composure, he predicts, “But no, the world is too beautiful for that/Too beautiful to let go of pain/Too confused to leave out mistakes/But if days are numbered/The day will come/And they will serve.”
The anger that fuels “Feb. 4, ‘99” is bitter and unmediated, an emotional reaction to a horrific crime. It’s as if Ladd is saying the world doesn’t make sense, it shouldn’t exist, if such ugliness is allowed to be a part of it. With “Feb. 4, ‘99,” Ladd reminds us that as citizens living in a country illegally governed by corrupt, warmongering officials who employ badge-wearing soldiers to enforce their policies, we are all potential victims of police brutality. As he ruefully, yet poetically, notes, “We are the size of constellations in the path of wrathful idiots.”
Ladd believes that these tragedies—the 9-11 disaster, Diallo’s senseless killing—are shaped by memes, or mental viruses that affect our collective unconscious and lead to inexplicable events seemingly willed into being by our own desires and fears. This leads to “post-futurism,” says Ladd, a “coming to terms with the understanding that our reality is much better at creating science fiction on its own without our imaginations.” For example, there is the relationship between our obsession with our demise, the feelings of anxiety that fueled the Y2K hoax at the turn of the century, and “the World Trade Center. Talk about a real post-futurist moment,” he notes. “The super-future cities crushed, and 3000 people were dead in less than half an hour.”
And when we emerge from our past into the afterfuture or post-future, what do we look like? Are we something new, or a synthesis of what we were before? Ladd, for his part, is an artist who makes songs, freewheeling, culture jamming sessions in which he tosses out multiple one-liners, observations and media critiques that slowly build into poems and impressions. He is also, as he explains on “The Animist,” climbing “ten steps to bliss.” “If I were getting paid for this, I would be a pundit/Or an appetizing captain of your mind in merchandising,” he mulls on the track. “If I was Reagan, I should be dead.”
But the Ladd I talk to at the airport is just bone tired. After several marathon sessions spent completing a new concept album under an alias of “Majesticons,” called Beauty Party, Ladd is flying to London, England to drop a master copy of the record off at Big Dada, avant-garde rap imprint and subsidiary of internationally-renowned electronic label Ninja Tune, which is releasing the project. Then he’s moving on to Italy to rest, relax, work on his forthcoming solo album (Negrophilia) and celebrate his 32nd birthday. “I haven’t slept for two days,” he admits wearily.
Future Without a Past
It’s easy, of course, to personify Mike Ladd as a soothsayer uncovering truths most of us share yet can’t put into words. But he has his own destiny to contend with. A Boston native who currently lives in Brooklyn, Ladd attended various prestigious schools, including an alternative high school in Delhi, India, before earning his bachelor’s degree from Hampshire College. He then garnered a master’s degree in poetry from Boston College while supplementing his income with carpentry. He went on to become a professor at numerous schools, including Long Island University. “I tried to keep teaching English,” he says, “but we were touring so much in the last year and a half that I had to stop teaching, which, frankly, was a real bummer.”
In 1997, Ladd released his first album, Easy Listening for Armageddon, on Scratchie Records, a now-defunct imprint of Mercury Records. Though it garnered good reviews, the album sold poorly. His next album, Welcome to the Afterfuture, was released as a joint venture between his own label, Likemadd Music, and Ozone Music, a management company and record label. The two labels, he says, will be releasing his upcoming third album, Negrophilia, sometime next year domestically, while German electronic music giant Studio K-7 will distribute it worldwide. He has also led and participated in two concept albums (the Infesticons’ Gun Hill Road and the Majesticons’ Beauty Party), put out a live album (Live from Paris), and released an EP, Vernacular Homocide.
There is undoubtedly more personal information worth uncovering about him, but our conversation never extends beyond politics, controversies, projects and philosophies. History isn’t on our minds; there is only the here and now.
You could mistake Ladd for a rapper by the way he talks on his records, and in the sharp, if warm, tone of his voice. But he’s no MC. In spite of his sometimes pungent observations, he still raps with a measured pitch much like Gil Scott-Heron’s erudite speech on “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” More importantly, he cares more about the words than the beat. He is unafraid to talk out of tune, spill his words out, and upset the rhythmic cadence so pivotal to an MC’s mystique.
Yet it’s difficult to think of Ladd as an MC living in a poet’s body. Like fellow wordsmith-turned-musician Saul Williams (Ladd will probably dread this oft-made comparison), as well as Jessica Care Moore, Sonja Sohn, Mos Def and countless other now-famous writers and artists, Ladd spent considerable time in the mid-90s reading his poems at the Nuyorican Poets Café in Brooklyn. But he has never released a widely-available book of his work, and print versions of his poems have only appeared sporadically in literary journals (Bostonia) and anthologies (In Defense of Mumia). His public persona, for better or worse, has come to our attention in the form of a musician. “I love poetry, but that’s my own private shit” he admits. “It’s not like I walk around saying, ‘Hello, I’m a poet.’ In high school, I would have made fun of anyone who was into spoken word. I would have punched them in the head, like, ‘you’re a spoken word fairy.’”
“Poetry is something that I’ve always written, and it’s almost like I don’t have a choice. The music and the writing… no matter what career I thought I was going to do—a lawyer, President of the United States, a guerrilla, a commando—it didn’t matter. The one thing I could keep doing moderately successfully was writing and making music.” He adds, laughing, “artistically, not monetarily. By any means.”
While he distances himself from other poets, there’s a functionalism to Ladd’s approach representative of a generation more renowned for cross-country “slam” tours and undertaking acting roles in television and film than writing chapbooks. Taking their cues from Allen Ginsberg and the Last Poets, they produce verse that is meant to be heard rather than read, spoken with the quickness of a canvassing debater or rapped like an MC. It is their way of dealing with the hegemony of hip-hop culture and its usurping of the poet’s ability to transform language into pure melodic sound.
Ladd’s response to this challenge has been to make his own music. “If I’m going to do music, I’m going to do music; if I’m going to do poetry, I’m going to dedicate it to the page,” he affirms. But while his two “Armageddon” albums, Easy Listening for Armageddon and Welcome to the Afterfuture, channeled hip-hop through an imaginative hybrid of free jazz and blues, broadening its scope to “outer space muthafucka,” his ongoing “cons” project addresses hip-hop culture head-on and tongue-in-cheek.
“Boom had five daughters and five sons,” writes Ladd in the liner notes to Gun Hill Road, the all-star effort he released under the alias Infesticons in 2000. “When all were grown they scattered across the earth and established 10 kingdoms. These rulers called themselves the cons.” Ladd goes on to explain that this mythical kingdom with a passing resemblance to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is eventually torn apart by civil war, with only the Infesticons (“a Spartan people interested in ideas”) and the Majesticons (“fascinated with their own exterior”) surviving.
The two clans eventually take their battle to modern-day New York and the imaginary Gun Hill Road, a Gotterdammerung where “eclecticons” (“people down for a lot of different styles”) battle for the soul of hip-hop culture against the mainstream “jiggadons” (“record exec secret society”) and “nostalgicons” (who think “everything from the ‘70s and ‘80s was cool no matter how bad it sucked at the time”). The war reaches fever pitch with a series of “theme” songs featuring poet Mums the Schemer (“Grinder Theme”), rapper BMS and singer Dana Diaz-Tutaan (“Cave Theme”) and Ladd as Infesticon #0 (“Hero Theme”). “God bless the Infesticons!” he shouts on the latter. “Fuck the Majesticons!” Or, as rapper El-P says on the “Night Night Theme,” “Blah blah blah.”
Most listeners at the time interpreted the Infesticons project as a satirical yet sincere attempt to rally underground heads against the mainstreaming of hip-hop culture. “It’s not though,” Ladd explains. “It’s not about good vs. evil, it’s about pretty vs. ugly. A real Nietzsche thing, y’know?” In many ways, the “cons” epic parallels real-life rap wars, too, from the Brooklyn vs. Queens skirmishes in the mid-80s to the endless “hip-pop vs. indie hip-hop” debates raging in chat rooms and magazines like Spin and CMJ today.
The new album, an answer record by the Majesticons titled Beauty Party, continues the planned cons trilogy. “Basically, the nouveau-riche and the old money join together to crush the power of the Infesticons,” explains Mike Ladd, “’cause the Infesticons kicked their ass on the last record.”
“The Infesticons is, essentially, underground, the hard-to-access music, but at the same time, for me, the Infesticons had to do with fundamental proletariat values, y’know, the everyday hustle. And the music reflects that—it’s rough and ugly. It’s like life. The Majesticons record is all about the bling-bling and the pretty-pretty, like pop music. The main function of pop music is to escape.”
Surprisingly, Beauty Party is a far superior album. In a misguided attempt to replicate the raw, minimalist boom bap often typical of underground rap, Ladd sheared Gun Hill Road of the stray effects and fills that makes his music so vibrant. Beauty Party finds him returning to form as a producer, tailoring tracks with strange, otherworldly electronic sounds like “Dwarf Star Party’s” keyboard arpeggios and “Prom Night Party’s” eerily effective appropriation of Kenny Loggins’ “I’m Alright” and the Pet Shop Boys’ “Opportunities.” And, of course, there are the umpteen guest appearances like Def Jux stars Murs (“Cut Cut Party”) and El-P and Vast Aire of Cannibal Ox (“Dwarf Star Party”).
“I don’t like the over-intellectualization of hip-hop culture that occurs sometimes. It’s fucking annoying to me. The same thing happened to jazz; it was like, ‘alright, whatever man,’” says Ladd. “The main thing is that it’s visceral. Then again, I’m the same person that, if you give me a cigarette and a drink, I’ll babble on forever.
“In a lot of ways, I’m stuck in the middle. But at the end of the day, I’m going to intellectualize it.”
Behind the Curtain
Ladd was inspired to create his “electronic orchestra” by a variety of sources. As a a child, he remembers his mother “listened to the news on public radio and classical music would follow [the show]. So when I was staying at my mother’s house—I jumped between my mother and my aunt—it would be classical music in the morning. Then if she was around, and it was a weekend, she would listen to Nina Simone, Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley and Roberta Flack.”
Nowadays, he’s listening to old-school punk bands like Mike Watt and the Second Men, and the Dirtbombs. “As I get older, I’m into these ultimate wedding band things. They do covers and shit, but it’s real grungy, good, rugged covers,” he says. His interests, he notes, stray from Daniel Gibbons (“it’s something close to free jazz and electronic”) to Tweet (“it’s kinda fresh”). But when R&B diva Truth Hurts and her recent, Middle Eastern-flavored pop hit “Addictive” is mentioned, Ladd huffs, “Whatever man! I’ve been using Bollywood samples since 1997,” pointing out that most of Welcome to the Afterfuture’s songs incorporate music from Indian movie soundtracks. “Some bitch comes up to me in the studio and says, ‘Mikey, you gotta hear this’” he rants, affecting a cooing and whiny voice. “‘You should do something like this.’ I was like, ‘You haven’t listened to one of my goddamn records, have you? Not one of them!’ I’m a bitter old man on that one.”
Indeed, Ladd’s music career has been an experiment in melding various genres and sensibilities: blending spoken-word with rap and singing; crafting beats out of electronic melodies, ‘70s era jazz-fusion rhythms, and hip-hop tempos; and interpreting it all through uninhibited punk energy, professorial bemusement, and brash B-boy bravado. It’s part of what he calls a “global pop dialogue.”
“I have a very theoretical outlook on sampling,” he explains. “I’m trying to establish some sort of cultural ping-pong, so I’ll only sample something that has been clearly influenced by the West.” He adds that he’s not trying to evoke a different culture. “A) it’s exploitative, and B) it’s played. In a way, what’s interesting to me is this continually growing cultural exchange in the context of modernity. So, like, what I’ll sample from Bollywood will be a rockabilly-type guitar, or their version of [Buggles’] ‘Video Killed the Radio Star.’ They did a version of [Vanilla Ice’s] “Ice Ice Baby” that went ‘dunda dunda bani’ … It’s already gone over there once, then I’m taking it back, then I’ll send it back again so the dialogue will continue.” He cites Fela Kuti as a perfect example of this informal potluck of the subconscious, recounting how the late Afrobeat saxophonist “came over to the U.S., heard James Brown, said ‘I want to sound like James Brown,’ then bam! That’s his version of James Brown, and it’s fucking nasty.”
Suddenly, Ladd stops in mid-thought. “That girl has an amazing ass,” he whispers to me over his cell phone. “Airports is always good for looking at women.”
Continuing, Ladd says, “You talk about how the United States’ cultural imperialism destroys the world, etc. And it does an immense amount of damage. But I think the other part of that argument, if you look historically, is that cultures are much more resilient and much more powerful, liquid and flexible than we wish to believe. Bollywood is an excellent example. The best example in the world is black American people, who were Africans that were subjugated more brutally than any other people in the world, and what came out is the most dominant culture on the planet today.
“Yeah,” he finishes, “humans are bad motherfuckers, from Flatbush to Rio.”
Originally published in Kitchen Sink Vol. 1, Fall 2002
Welcome to the Afterfuture album photos by Tony Duval and Prashant.