The end of the ‘’90s was a pivotal time for underground hip hop, as a new wave of independent artists ramped up conceptual ideas and abstract sounds within an already flourishing indie-rap movement. Mike Ladd had a number of cohorts in those ranks – including the Juggaknots, Antipop Consortium, and Company Flow, members of which populated his 2000 Infesticons project, Gun Hill Road. But he was also a unique voice, a tobacco-raspy philosopher capable of arch comedy, social insight, and emotional impact in the same line.
His 1997 debut Easy Listening for Armageddon proved as much from the title on down, but it’s his second album, Welcome to the Afterfuture, that really enshrined Ladd’s sensibilities. It sounds like a record from some moment dislodged in time, channeling space-voyage sounds through a lo-fi four-track that makes even the most forward-sounding stuff feel like it’s squinting at tomorrow in the rearview. 15 years after its release, we talked to the man behind the record.
You come from a background that’s heavily steeped in poetry and influenced by jazz, but also rooted in an academic knowledge and curiosity – how did those approaches begin to intersect when you started making music?
The poetry and jazz, that’s only part of it. My approach was a lot more typical – I was 11 or 12 when hip hop really took off in Boston, so that was always there. There was also a lot of heavy dub stuff, dancehall, and I played in punk bands – very badly, I played bass through the mid ‘80s. So there was a hell of a lot more of that than poetry or jazz – jazz, that came later. There were things that my mom would take me to when I was young, my mom being a black academic in Boston in a pretty small community. So I had access to things through her. But I spent a lot of time with my aunt, which was much more of a typical experience. So in the stuff that really spoke to me… your first record, that takes ten years to make that record ‘cause you’re accumulating all that education. And the information I really accumulated that really impacted me was a lot of dancehall, certain punk rock – Bad Brains, Minor Threat in particular. And all kinds of hip hop, [Rakim’s] “My Melody,” I’ll never forget when that came. Divine Styler had a huge impact on me, Jungle Brothers had a big impact. Poetry was more in the first record [Easy Listening for Armageddon], and by the time I was doing Welcome to the Afterfuture it was actually more… you could consider it hip hop outtakes from the first record. And more experimenting sonically. I was happier with the second record even though it was made with outtakes from the first.
I know the title track first appeared as a b-side around ’98. So how did Afterfuture come around? It does seem to have a thematic thrust to it as far as themes of futurism butting up against the reality of a stifled progress.
The record was done in two spots – the outtakes, I did most of the first record in Boston and just a little bit of that in the Bronx. So there were certain things like “Poseidon’s Reigns” and “The Animist,” stuff that was done in Boston. And “Blade Runners” on Afterfuture, of course, is pretty much a sequel to the “Blade Runner” on the first record. El-P was so into the song ‘cause we were both huge Blade Runner fans, so that’s how that happened.
When did you move from Boston to New York, and how did the city affect your art? I’ve seen the album described as a sort of Giuliani-era document, even though it feels like it’s carried on past that, too.
[laughs] That’s funny. I’d lived in New York since ‘92. The reason I ended up making the first record in Boston is because I was going to grad school there – I was getting my graduate degree in poetry while I made Easy Listening for Armageddon. I was making beats in Boston and then taking the bus down after I took my class and recorded it in New York at Ozone Studios, the same place where Company Flow was doing their stuff. So it was sort of back and forth. It wasn’t like Boston had shifted my consciousness, it was a return home to go to grad school and it was only one year. In many ways, it’s a Northeast Corridor record. I’d been going back and forth between Boston and New York since I was 15 when I started playing in punk bands. Every now and then we’d go down to New York, and try and play CBGB’s on a Sunday. But I talk about megalopolis a lot in both records, and the whole idea of Blade Runner – for me, I was living in a city that starts in Boston and ends in D.C.
In your musical influences, talking about dub, I hear a fair amount of that – how did the sound of the production start to fall together, and how did you manage to get all these different strains of influence to speak to each other and cohere?
There’s a couple things, a broad sort of collecting of music cerebrally and all that. But technically I was really into lo-fi; I’d been in Northampton area when I was at Amherst for college, ‘88 through ‘91, and of course that was a huge lo-fi time. I had this beautiful AKAI four-track which is enormous; it’s bigger than an MPC3000. This huge four-track with these big pre-amps. I used that to do a lot of compression – I realized it could compress stuff beautifully.That [bassline], boom, boom boom boom, that’s just a cassette tape smushing all that shit out, pushing it through. The pre-amps in the desk were so strong that it just gave you these big piles of sound. It was stuff like that, and just being fascinated with quirky lo-fi stuff, and not being a real expert at it but playing around enough in that area that it worked. And I always just like a nice dirty sound. I’m still trying to make a Charles Stepney record. [laughs] I wish I still had that desk, but it’s at Preservation’s apartment in New Jersey. I used that trick on a lot of songs on a couple of records, especially on Vernacular Homicide.
Who were some of the specific artists from the lo-fi scene that inspired you?
Mostly kids I was in school with – Zeke Fiddler, New Radiant Storm King, and Heatmiser. Elliot Smith was in school there, too, though I didn’t really know him, he always seemed older than everybody else. The Supreme Dicks, Gobblehoof, the Silver Jews hung out, there was also Lou Barlow and Dinosaur Jr. I’m not sure if aficionados qualify all that as lo-fi, but there were a lot of Tape Op magazines lying around.
I feel like lyrically, there’s a sense on this record of having to carve out your own version of tomorrow – there’s takes on Afrofuturism, and in “5000 Miles West of the Future” especially, of a deferred future: “Where’s my floating car / My Utopia / My Mars colonies.” Was that your own take on the run-up to all the new millennium hype going on, how 1999-2000 felt like very sci-fi sorts of years not living up to old expectations?
Yeah, it was part of a discussion that was begun in Easy Listening for Armageddon, where the title track joked about Armageddon: look, the Mayans are going to have [it] later, and yadda yadda yadda. [...] Failed experiments, miscalculations and assumptions about what all this new millennium stuff was gonna be. So the Afterfuture was actually breaking through that threshold. Where Easy Listening was the lecture, Afterfuture was the Q&A. For me, the Afterfuture’s this big concept, in some ways a response to Afrofuturism: “well, futures have already happened, they’ve happened in the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s. Sun Ra was a futurist. We’ve already had great black futurists. So I’m beyond that point, that movement’s done, so I’m a post-futurist.” I’d declared that before I’d heard of any other post-futurist movement, and of course several people are post-futurists and have their own definition. But mine was very particular. Art imitates life, so science fiction imitates life as well. And science fiction can’t keep up with real life. For me, there was this breaking threshold when the Hale-Bopp comet came by – there was the cult…
Yeah, the Heaven’s Gate cult.
You remember that, the guys with the purple and the Nikes and all that? One of the people who was in the cult and committed suicide was the brother of [Nichelle Nichols], Uhura from Star Trek. And he caught a ride on the comet, and they found its tail was a little bit longer. For me that was like, “Aha!” From that moment on, we’ve been in the afterfuture.
It does feel like we’re just kind of stuck rebooting things and having difficulty having a specific identity for the times we’re living in right now. Not just in pop culture, but in politics… what really resonates for me on this album that’s 15 years old, you have two very specific references [“Takes More than 41”; “Feb. 4 ‘99 (For All Those Killed by Cops)”] to Amadou Diallo and his murder, and 15 years later we’re still going through all these same issues with police brutality and police killing.
Yeah, unfortunately that’s part of the struggle, that battle is part of the United States history since before it was actually founded. And then it’s part of the canon of black music because it’s part of the struggle and part of the principal narrative of the country. It’s in the canon, and it’ll be in the canon until the struggle is over. You can talk about songs like “Midnight Special,” the litany of blues songs, then you get a litany of songs in the ‘60s, all the way up ‘til now. So until the struggle’s over there’s always going to be something like that. Part of it is, it’s true in the context of the future, in dealing with the afterfuture, the world we’re supposed to be, that does give it a certain weight. But no one said the afterfuture would achieve anything.
This album came out within, what, a few months of Infesticons’ Gun Hill Road – were you working on both albums around the same time, was there anything you tried on one album that seemed to fit well on the other as far as ideas or themes you had in mind?
There was a lot of drum work that I was starting to mess with on Welcome to the Afterfuture that became the base for Gun Hill Road. Pretty much messing with good Chess records and getting them as loud and as powerful as possible. So that carried over. But in a lot of ways it was a real departure – and it’s supposed to be like that. Sort of like a Parliament-Funkadelic type strategy.
How do you think the musical environment has changed in the 15-or-so years since this came out? It feels like the barriers towards music that might be considered “experimental” have shifted at least a little away from economic concerns to social ones.
The climate’s almost, just on a cultural level, about to come full circle. Of course, with what’s happened with Ferguson and all of the others, it’s getting so much attention now even though it’s been happening all the time, at this moment there’s a real need for stuff with content that’s complex. Something people can grapple with again in their discussion, in their tweets, or whatever. So they also want music that addresses that as well. Like Run the Jewels… you’re probably going to see some old heads pop up like Talib Kweli, cats who’ve been staying conscious throughout this whole period even when people weren’t really trying to be a part of that. It’s fusion, you’ve got to balance it all out. I don’t know if Welcome to the Afterfuture is “conscious” in that way – it dabbles in all kinds of stuff. But in regards to a general appreciation and understanding of music today, I think it’s night and day, it’s totally different because everything’s free. A record like Afterfuture might hit a different way today than it did back then, where you were still really dependent on an infrastructure. The record got much more attention in Europe… not because it was more appealing to Europeans, but because it had a more stable distribution out there.
What else did you carry from Afterfuture through your subsequent records, and how do you see it in terms of your greater body of work, which has wound up going all sorts of places stylistically?
Well, the thick snare sampled mostly off Charles Stepney recordings just got bigger, and I still fall back on those drums, all different ones if they were on Chess, and had some reverb. I haven’t read any interviews, but by looking at their covers and listening to the music it seems like the Black Keys were also obsessed, and clearly they did it right. The [Stepney drums] are on the 2010 Infesticons record too. But I was messing with a bunch of stuff, big into Bollywood as well since the first record, and there is plenty of it on Welcome to the Afterfuture through to the last Infesticons. I went to high school in India for a year, 1986 or ‘87. The Bollywood that blasted from the busted speakers on the buses around Uttar Pradesh, the state where I was living, was the most punk rock thing I had ever heard in my life. The goal was to recreate punk rock… kinda with Bollywood, I succeeded in “Wild Out Day” and “Blockin’ Door Anthem,” in my opinion. I always wanted to keep it subtle mostly, and was into sampling Bollywood covers of Western songs, trying to keep the cultural ping-pong moving.
One last thing, super important: Welcome to the Afterfuture would not have happened if it were not for three engineers who also were co-producers at times; I tried making records alone with no one to work the desk with and throw ideas off of and it sucks. Dennis Kelly, who engineered and co-produced my first record. Fred Sepulveda of TME Studios who helped me get through all the work I’m most proud of and I still count on a lot. And Jeff Cordero, who was one of the best musicians and musical minds I ever met; he worked on the first Company Flow record [Funcrusher Plus] as well. He passed years back and is sorely missed.