Sat June 22
"I never tried to get signed; I was always satisfied just rockin' the party, making my tapes, and listening to them. Basically, I'm trying to make the album that isn't out right now. My goal is to fit into the blank space."
Facts are facts: You can't swing an oversized clock pendant without hitting a hiphop emcee who talks about pushing the limits of hiphop and taking it to another level. But when Labtekwon says he wants to fit into the blank space, you have to believe that the highly regarded underground Baltimore rapper fills it. After all, no one else in hiphop has been so diligent about self-releasing his own music (over 17 records in about 15 years, under the label name Ankh Ba), while seeing his contemporaries sign to labels and get huge (Tribe, KRS-One, Digital Underground). His music relies on simple, bass-heavy production and a rhyming style that can go from a jazz-singer-style sex-rap, to spiritual ragga, to sharp-tongued spitting, but is always laidback, and has sounded fresh and unique since his beginnings in the late '80s. And, can you possibly name another emcee who teaches underprivileged kids to rhyme; who aligns himself with the controversial offshoot of Islam, the Five Percenters (Wu-Tang, Rakim, and the rest of East Coast hiphop notwithstanding); and who raps about mysticism and Egypt and gods and tribes and the ancients--while still kicking out a dope rhyme and a hot dub beat?
Basically, Labtekwon makes his own niche.
"The first tapes I made were in, like '87, with DJ Unique. He had an 8-track reel to reel and I would rhyme over his beats. We were the only people seriously doing it in our crew; I hung out with a lot of graffiti artists here in Baltimore, and basically, I was giving tapes away at that point--just feeling the culture, as it were," he explains. "I was always a couple steps off, and when I began, I didn't really look at Run-DMC or L.L. in terms of success. I just wanted to rhyme as much as possible." At first, Lab wasn't really writing conscious lyrics, putting out social commentary and "booty shake" rhymes. But in 1990, Lab's older brother went to war in the Persian Gulf, and everything changed.
"My mom was stressed, so I was trying to console her and be a good son, and I would go to church with her. That actually shifted the paradigm for me tremendously, cause I started researching the Bible: who wrote it, when they wrote it, and why. I went on a mission to educate myself. It was a big turning point, 'cause as a lyricist, it gave me a chance to study more and get a better foundation in terms of substance. I developed a unique perspective."
His perspective, and desire to educate through his music, is amplified by the teachings of the Five Percent. (Which essentially says the black man is god, and that only five percent of the population knows and teaches truth.) He uses the discipline to put history into context--speaking about slavery and reparations--and it reaches into his music. "I've tried to touch on things that affect me. My great-grandfather, the Reverend Walter Williams, was lynched in the early 20th Century for speaking out against Jim Crow in the South. He was lynched in Florida. And I have an obligation to not just act like everything never happened. Something did happen, but if we're gonna move past it, let's at least connect about it and then see how we can avoid making that mistake again. Let's be the realest people we can be."
Despite the heavy nature of his lyrics, Lab asserts his desire to balance intelligent messages with entertainment in his music. He stresses, "Ultimately, I would love to be the Al Green or Marvin Gaye of hiphop. I'd like to get to a point where my audience is 75 percent women. Don't get me wrong--the bros are great, 'cause they're the main ones supporting it, but I want more of a party vibe and nobody likes to go to a party with all dudes."
Labtekwon's party vibe can be heard on his 17-song retrospective, Song of the Sovereign, released by Mush earlier this year. "It's a good example of my nice lyrics," Lab notes, "but at my roots, I'm a battle emcee, so I got a lot of perverted style on there. It's a paradox, I guess, or a dichotomy, whatever you wanna call it. Just different aspects of my personality and I express them freely through my music."