Original article and photos at: http://citypaper.net/articles/2006-06-29/music.shtml
Malik B makes a Psychological breakthrough.
by Zach Mortice
A four-track recorder
A coffin-sized closet vocal booth.
A CD shrink wrapper.
Crisp new business cards.
An air mattress in a studio apartment.
These are the everyday tools of a once-household name rapper making a play to get back in the game. Today, these things are a lot more important to Malik B, The Roots' often-absent "second" MC, than they were when he was touring Europe with the first real hip-hop band in the world. At his new apartment near 12th and Spring Garden, he gladly demonstrates his new DIY ethic, sealing a copy of his new EP, Psychological, in shrink-wrap. "It's fun," he says. "It's like drugs or some shit."
DO YOU WANT MORE?: After parting ways with The Roots in the mid-'90s, Malik B (right) learned the finer points of record distribution from his manager and friend Haak Blast (left).
: Michael T. Regan
Malik (aka Malik Abdul Smart) learned about the finer points of record distribution from his manager/promoter/ producer/handler/roommate/friend Hakeem Woods. A month and a half after they first plopped down an air mattress and unfurled a sofa bed, they're still moving furniture into the apartment with the aid of a van rented for a gig at the Knitting Factory in New York.
Philly's underground hip-hop players regard the 35-year-old Woods (aka Haak Blast) as a music-biz mentor who looks out for aspiring artists. Lately, he's been focusing on Malik, and as far as media attention goes, he's been alone. When Malik B stepped off the tour bus in Germany after the release of Do You Want More?!!!??! and left the Roots camp, he might as well have hopped onto a rocket to Mars.
The last time CP got a quote from Malik it was '99, and by then fans were already wondering about his status with The Roots. Malik acknowledges feeling creative differences regarding where The Roots were headed after Do You Want More?!!!??! and says he sometimes regrets leaving that first big tour in the face of culture shock and tour-bus life. Black Thought's plea to Malik to free himself from drug use on Phrenology's "Water" inspired rumors that his distance from the band was the product of a chemical dependency. Malik admits to having had problems with a handful of drugs (codeine, syrup, prescription pills) but says drug use never alienated him from The Roots. "Sometimes I would use it to create," he says. In 2000, Malik found himself in jail on forgery charges, and probation violations sent him back for a nine-month stretch last year.
Though he sat on the bench for both Phrenology and The Tipping Point, Malik graces three tracks on The Roots' new album, Game Theory, and hopes to record and tour with The Roots again, "I wanted to let people know I'm still around and that I'm hot," he says. And that he's been staying out of trouble. "As long as I'm busy, I don't have time to get in trouble. I got a fear of boredom," he says.
The way Malik B talks makes you conscious of what he's holding back. He picks through words carefully and stares straight ahead, like he's contemplating things he doesn't quite know how to say, or isn't accessing some part of his naturally dexterous MC personality. What he's not accessing, at least in terms of Psychological (which he wrote parts of in jail), is a world where he's haunted by satanic nightmares, lost in his own mind, running the streets ragged, addicted, and calling out to Allah for help.
With lo-fi architect Woods at the controls, Malik takes listeners back to the minor-key paranoia and shambling, off-kilter percussion of the RZA's mid-'90s golden age. Psychological was recorded in underground basement studios across North and South Philly and has the gritty crunch and vinyl hiss of Shaolin to prove it. "We want to produce nostalgic pieces, timeless cuts. We don't have to live up to a commercial standard," says Woods. "Look at 'Daytona 500.' duh-dut, duuuuh, dut-da duh dut. That's not perfection! That shit sounds staticky! But it's got that energy."
Woods wants Psychological to re-establish Malik's reputation, but it isn't a push for crossover success. It has little to do with the slick sheen of hip-hop radio today, whether it's the bombastic thud and zip of the records coming out of Atlanta and Houston, or the crystal clear champagne pop and Hummer door slam of whatever G-Unit spinoff is on TRL today.
With The Roots, Malik recorded one of hip-hop's most expensive albums, but it's unlikely he'll have to leave the lo-fi aesthetic for his solo work. "I want to start rapping over shit you can't even identify"—a zipper rotating in a washing machine, a pen tapping on paper, the ambient noise of daily life.
He's almost there. Psychological's "Sporadic Measures" has Malik flowing over the mechanical bleeps, hollow wails and subterranean thumps of a terrified futurescape, and it won't be long before he can commit the sonic detritus of the present to wax.
Woods hires young, hungry producers to contribute these fresh beats to Malik, and young artists have been hiring the duo to teach them the strange customs of the music business. For the past four months, they've been dispensing advice on how artists can be interdependently profitable and also survive the financial cataclysm of success and a record deal for a modest $30 an hour.
Before the gig at the Knitting Factory, Malik and Woods still have to set up the desk and computer they've moved in and get their merchandise booth ready for the trip, which will end early in the morning with a near-dawn drive back to Philly after the show. As Woods knows, "When you do indie work, it's a lot more than going out and hustlin' records."
Malik B record release party, Fri., June 30, 10 p.m., $10, Medusa Lounge, 27 S. 21st St., 215-557-1981, www.medusalounge.com.