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Sounds of the universe.Kanye West is one of the very few reasons to be cheerful about hip hop right now. Not only is he producing to a consistently high standard, but as the visionary behind the G.O.O.D. Music label he’s quietly refashioning the slavishly commercial ethos of mainstream hip hop by signing up rapper Common, soul singer John Legend, and now Sa-Ra (or Sa-Ra Creative Partners, if we‘re being formal). The latter could be the most intriguing of the lot, the LA trio being about as far leftfield as music can get without disappearing up its own backside.
Member Taz Arnold admits that the group’s work to date for the independent Ubiquity label is unlikely to penetrate deep into MTV territory. “We weren’t thinking of a mass audience,” he says. “We were thinking of the tastemakers and music fanatics.” In that regard they’ve been remarkably successful: Sa-Ra (for those not up on their ancient Egyptian, the name means ‘child of the cosmos’) have been championed by Gilles Peterson (their classic 2004 single Glorious was named second best of the year, and they scooped the ‘John Peel Play More Jazz’ award), and their signatures were courted by both Pharrell Williams and Jay Z, whose good friend ?uestlove, of The Roots, is a huge fan. “People don’t know how to make the music we do, to come up with that sound. So a lot of creative people like us for that reason,” Taz asserts.
As a contributor to Dr Dre’s 2001 LP, Taz knows a thing or three about hip hop’s prime movers. He and his partners, Om’Mas Keith and Shafiq Husayn, have resumes that include mixing and production for landmark artists like Mobb Deep, Lord Finesse and Ice T, but the orthodox sound no longer lights their fire. Theirs is a world of lush but discordant synths, sotto voce vocals and bass sounds that come out of nowhere. The trio all sing and produce, though their forthcoming album will also see cameos from Nas, Kanye (of course) and, bizarrely, Iggy Pop.
“We have hit records on our album,” says Taz, “but they’re different. They’re commercial like how Prince was commercial. Prince was popular but all he talked about was f**king and grown-up stuff. There was nothing monotone about what he was doing, it was all over the place. Look at AC/DC. First album sold ten million records. Jimi Hendrix, that shit was wild, it wasn’t no bubblegum pop shit. We wanna go back to the times when someone who was very different could be successful.”
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