The cover of En’ A-Free-Ka, the solo album from Sa-Ra Creative Partners’ Shafiq Husayn, shows the producer and MC studiously perched on a slender, dark-green stool, clutching an ancient-looking brown spear. Around him, an eclectic selection of antiques and artifacts clutters the scene, while a hazy, late-afternoon beam of light defines him as the focal subject. He’s sitting inside Africa by the Yard, a store in L.A.’s Leimert Park district. It’s an artsy area, he explains, a former cultivating ground for the progressive-thinking early-’90s hip-hop movement Project Blowed, and home to Good Life Café, where artists like Freestyle Fellowship and Abstract Rude would congregate.
The store itself is run by a brother named Fidel, a collector of arts from across the globe but a specialist in African relics. He imports and he exports. Husayn calls him an “elder” in the community, a part of the Egyptology-influenced spiritual cog pushed into musical motion by Sun Ra and kept moving along to this day by Sa-Ra and Husayn. He’s known Fidel for more than 20 years, and regularly buys pieces from him. On one level he’s simply talking about his album cover, but on another Husayn could be describing his whole creative approach: a curation and weaving of influences accumulated from 20-plus years of musical tuition.
When hip-hop existed not on record but via the playing of snippets of other people’s records, funky eclecticism was king. Led by Afrika Bambaataa, a native of the Bronx whose move from gang member to hip-hop icon and founder of the Universal Zulu Nation was, in part, prompted by a trip to Africa, early park jams would reverberate with the sound of a couple of bars of Electric Light Orchestra meshing into a moment of Bill Withers, Twilight 22 musically commingling with Atlantic Starr.
Today, Husayn is carrying that torch, importing and exporting sounds and genres into an otherworldly whole but always rooting back to a beats-and-rhymes basis. A random skip through En’ A-Free-Ka throws up a rugged, chugging beat topped with Fela Kuti–style horns (“Nirvana”); an up-tempo, buzzing number that more closely resembles Björk’s work with Brazilian composer Eumir Deodato than something you’d expect to hear dubby rapped couplets over (“The U.N. Plan”); cod-operatic crooning (“No Moor”); pop-rock lamenting (“Major Heavy”); and a guest list completely outside the pop Top 40 set. It’s capped by a contribution from singer Fatima, who was invited to travel from her U.K. home to record for the album because Husayn was “told there was someone I should really meet.”
This unabashed love of collaboration and confluence harks back to the days when open-mindedness in hip-hop was a virtue. Husayn became smitten while listening to his grandmother playing records in her kitchen: “I’d watch every single piece of vinyl that was put on the turntable,” he recalls. “In her household it was classic soul, the Staple Singers, the Temptations. …” He found his calling in hip-hop after attending Uncle Jamm’s Army parties in the early ’80s. “Uncle Jamm’s Army was the West Coast Zulu Nation as far as throwing jams and playing that electro and funk music,” he explains in his low-register growl of a voice. “They started to rent out the L.A. Sports Arena, where the Clippers were playing at one point — that gives you an idea of how influential they were in L.A.
“I met Ice there,” he continues, casually referring to Ice-T, then a budding rapper hosting parties at clubs like Radiotron, where a prefame Madonna could also be found on the bill. “Ice would come to the jams they held at Crenshaw High School in 1984,” he recalls.
As Ice’s career began to take shape, and Warner granted him his own imprint label, Husayn was impressive enough to be offered a deal as part of the Nile Kings. But while their legacy stuttered after they released the 12-inch “Dropping Bombs” in 1990, Husayn’s production talent was about to receive a boost.
“I was staying with Afrika Islam at the time,” he says, referring to Ice’s right-hand man and West Coast Universal Zulu Nation ambassador. “He went to Japan for a few months and left me at his house. Ice came around asking where Islam was — he was trying to do a soundtrack for New Jack Hustler. He heard me working on a track and asked me to come to the studio with him. From that, we started to work together.”
Hopping around L.A. studios like Wide Tracks, Soundcastle and Cherokee, Husayn managed to stamp his production credit, S.L.J., on more than half of Ice’s 1991 O.G.: Original Gangsta album, as well as on projects by Lord Finesse and King Tee. But it was his role providing sound effects on the post–L.A. riots–penned “Cop Killer” that hipped him to a sense of musical politics. That track, an anti–police brutality statement from Ice’s rap-meets-rock Body Count project, was anointed as vile and reckless partly as a result of the publicity-seeking wrath of odd couple Tipper Gore and Charlton Heston. “When Ice came to the studio and opened the letter from the FBI, that’s when I started to understand it all,” he admits. “Seeing that letter gave me a sense of seriousness about what was going down. We was young children making music, hungry and inspired, but when you think about the FBI and the wiretapping and the surveillance, it made that time an accelerated period of learning.”
If not inspiring anything as brash as the sentiments of “Cop Killer,” and if resulting in nothing as inflammatory as lines like that song’s “I’m ’bout to bust some shots off/I’m ’bout to dust some cops off,” the experience that day in Ice’s studio started a process that imparted Husayn’s own creations with a greater spiritual hue. Whether he’s working with his Sa-Ra family (coincidentally, he first encountered Om’Mas from the group at Ice’s house in ’94, recording as part of the crew Raw Breed), or outside production, like Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War), his expansive sound pool became married to a worldly political philosophy. So while the new album collates a brilliantly motley array of sonic influences — Husayn cites Sly Stone, the Beatles, jazz pianist Dick Hyman and “chamber music” as his soundtrack while composing it — it’s all held together by a “free nationals” ideology. It’s a worldwide concept he explains as “basically anyone who’s naturally free, free from nationality. We say these are the ones who aren’t slaves. In America, you have what we call 14th Amendment citizens — anyone who came from other nations, who came to register as a citizen of the United States. They’re not free nationals anymore, they’re nationals to the U.S. They gave up their native nationality to participate in someone else’s government. So the U.S. has 14th Amendment citizens, who are second-class citizens. It started in the slave days so it’s not possible for them to be free.”
It’s a peace and unity–based line of thinking straight from Bambaataa’s book, and as En’ A-Free-Ka unravels, it resembles a full-circle resolution of Husayn’s musical journey. “Whenever I went to the East Coast, my partners were people like Prince Whipper Whip and Grandmixer D.ST., so what I was experiencing with Uncle Jamm’s, I also experienced simultaneously with what the Zulu Nation was doing over there,” he says, connecting the dots. Then, with broad, indiscriminate blessings, he adds, “Peace, love and light; I appreciate all energy.”
SHAFIQ HUSAYN | En’ A-Free-Ka | Plug Research