“Back in the day when I was young, I’m not a kid anymore…” – We all know that familiar chorus from Ahmad’s 1994 single “Back In The Day” where he reminisces about his youth over a sample of Teddy Pendergrass’ “Love TKO.” In 2008, I caught up with the veteran West Coast artist to talk about that song and his path towards obtaining a PhD at Stanford University. The original interview was published on AllHipHop.com in March of 2008 but now I’m re-releasing it as a Raptalk throwback! Check it out. There’s some real inspiring stuff here.
Interview by Tim Sanchez
When you were a teenager you made a deal with your mother that you would go to college if you didn’t land a record deal. Is that correct?
Yeah. When I was in High School I was one of the captains of the football team and me and will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas were rapping all over the campus – we went to the same school. Both of us had that dream of being rap stars. I was also in Honors classes while doing the rap thing and playing football. My studies were on the back-burner because I had dedicated myself to Hip-Hop. I told my mom that I was thinking about doing rap for a career and she was like, “What? You are going to college!” I told her, “If I secure a record deal by the time that I graduate, would that prove to you that I could make a living doing this?” She said “yes.” Obviously she thought that I would never do it at 17. I was committed, focused, lucky, and skilled – a lot of things came in to my favor and I secured a deal with Warner Bros.
How were you able to secure that deal?
This is how naïve I was. I thought that the record companies had their own delivery people that would deliver their CD’s to the record stores, so I after school I would go to the record and wait hours for the deliveries hoping that I could give my demo to somebody. I didn’t know anybody in the industry. I would go to the Good Life on Crenshaw which was a haven for West Coast Hip-Hop – groups like myself, The Pharcyde, Jurassic 5 – we all came to age there. I was there every Thursday and was able to secure a manager. I stayed in the studio and was rapping for anybody that I could rap for. I finally got an audition for this woman named Cassandra Mills at Giant Records. I went to her office after football practice and rapped for her live in her office. I spit a bunch of freestyles for her and she was like, “Yeah. You are cute. I am going to give you a deal.” The rest is history. It was a hard grind. I put my blood, sweat and tears in to rap. It was not just about the money.
You’ve always had that positive vibe to your music which was pretty rare because it was in the midst of the golden age of the West Coast gangster rap scene. How hard was it for your music to advance?
I guess it was difficult in terms of proving that you could have a viable career without the misogynistic lyrics and the self degradation that we immersed ourselves in that period and continue to do even today. A lot of us had gone after the proverbial carrot and we keep chasing it. We don’t realize that the joke is on us. As much as we perpetuate the character of a buffoon or a jokester that is dancing for the entertainment of everybody else to the detriment of our community – we dig a deeper hole for ourselves. My knowledge of self and my self-consciousness drove me to say that regardless of whether or not I got paid, to act like I don’t know better. If I couldn’t have done it on my terms, then I would have gone to college because there was no way that I was going to make records that I felt were detrimental to my community.
Do you think that if your music had been controversial or with a gangster vibe that your career in the spotlight would have lasted longer?
I don’t know because it goes both ways. I look at people who have passed away – heroes of Hip-Hop – who made the decision to do a certain thing and it came back to haunt them. I don’t know if I would even be alive today if I would have chosen to go that route, let alone be a successful rap artist. I am never going to blame consciousness as far as preventing my ascension in Hip-Hop. Maybe I could have had better beats? Maybe I could have had a better record label – a Def Jam per say instead of a Giant Records which went out of business a few years after I signed. Maybe things would be different then? However, I am pleased with the progress that I made and was able to do so much. A lot of people never dream and die with those dreams unfulfilled. I was able to fulfill a lot of my dreams.
Was there ever pressure from your label for you to make music with a harder edge?
No doubt, especially from the suits and executives. It even persisted after my band, 4th Avenue Jones, was signed to Interscope. We had that pressure too although they signed us knowing what we were about. They were like, “Do you hear what’s on the radio? You’ve got to give us some of that.” And I was like, “I’m the anti-thesis of that. We don’t care about that.”
You’ve got to understand that a lot of these record company people and executives could be selling rubber ducky’s. They don’t care about music. They are not music people. It’s not like the days of Clive Davis and Quincy Jones. Now you have cats that come out of business school and it doesn’t matter whether it’s rubber ducky’s, ice cream or CD’s – it’s a product. Whatever the public is asking for, that’s what you give them. It sounds good to give the people what they want but the problem is they create the climate to influence what people want –then they give them that. It’s a real circular logic when you think about it. People don’t really want that, it’s just that they have been so accustomed to hearing that, that they grow to want it. Every time you see something positive come forward like a Lauryn Hill, Outkast or Kanye West, what happens? People soak it up. They are so deprived that they embrace it. I don’t believe that people don’t want music that is conscious. I just believe that they don’t have access to it.
Let’s talk about the song that started it all for you, “Back in the Day.” You brought a lot of people back to their younger days with that one. How did the song come about?
“Back in the Day” was really organic. It was the last song that we created for my self-titled album. I was in my girlfriend’s room listening to Teddy Pendergrass, “Love TKO.” I decided to make a record out of it and sample the break. I took it to the studio and hooked up with some of my producer homeboys and put the music down. After the beat was created I was trying to figure out what I wanted to say on it. I decided on talking about everything we did growing up from Junior High School to now. I started calling around to my friends asking them what they remembered from the days. That’s the feeling that the song has. It’s a sociological document that describes a lot of the things that was significant during those periods of time. I love that song for that reason. As soon as it comes on you are transported to a certain moment in time.
The song garnered a lot of attention, but what happened after that? We really didn’t hear much from you after that song.
After “Back in the Day” came out, I toured extensively. I came back home and made a second album. During the interim of my first album and second album, I became even more conscious. Through the process of touring it solidified my understanding that everything that they were selling in terms of commercialism, the debauchery and hedonism that often comes with the lifestyle of a musician – it was all make believe and no happiness was to be found there. It was like cotton-candy. It looked big and puffy but when you take a bite it’s actually nothing. When I came home I wanted to make a record about all of that. I told myself that I was going to be even more conscious this time. My label was like, “We don’t even accept this record. We’re not putting it out!” Shortly after that, they went out of business. I then had to fight to get out of my contract. Even though they were out of business, they didn’t want to lose me as an asset because I had some success. So I was shelved for a couple of years.
That whole experience made me a little bitter but then I came back and formed a band called 4th Avenue Jones and we got a record deal with Interscope. We toured but our album was never released on Interscope. We put out a series of independent records. We did shows on The Wake Up Show and other underground outlets so I’ve been active. In terms of the success that the “Back in the Day” song had, I was never able to equal it. I was never in that type of position again where I had that label support but because I love Hip-Hop, I never stopped making music. Cats in L.A. and on the underground know that I gave it all that I had. As far as history goes I feel that I am one of the tightest cats to have come out of the West Coast.
Now you recently made a decision to go ahead and fulfill your mother’s original wishes of you attending college. What prompted that?
I was on the road touring with my band in Denmark. We were doing a rock concert because we performed rock as well as Hip-Hop. My son was with me and he was one-year-old at the time. We had just finished touring in the States and you know all of the struggles that come with the road and having to keep up with paying your band and other expenses after each show. We were struggling and my son was with me and I was like, “You didn’t sign up for this. You need some stability. You need to be in a pre-school and see the same friend’s everyday. You need to have an anchor.” I told people that I was getting out of the game and going back to school and they were like, “Why are you going to do that? The only thing you know is music. How are you going to support yourself going back to school?” I’ve always had a strong sense of believing that I could do whatever I set out to do and that comes from having a strong mother. I told myself that I wasn’t going to lose. I didn’t know how I was going to manage but I knew that I wasn’t going to lose. I went back to school with the intention of doing my best and my best turned out to be Valedictorian.
What was your mom’s reaction when she learned you would finally be going to college?
She was excited. My mom went back to school late in life as well and received her Master’s Degree from USC. She’s been the model for everything that I am doing now. Since she was able to accomplish it, I knew that it was possible for me also.
Did she give you any “I-told-you-so” type of reactions?
No. I bought a house from this music business so it’s not like I need to do what I didn’t do – now it’s just time for me to do something different. A lot of times I feel sorry not just for Hip-Hop artists but for people in general who do something well and then buy in to the notion that’s all they can do. I knew that I was a good rapper because I invested hours upon hours upon hours of time to perfect that craft. But that’s not all that I’ve ever been. I am a scholar, an artist, a father, a friend, an intellectual – so many things. Why paint myself in to a corner? Not only am I going to go to college but right now I am also putting the finishing touches on my new album. I’m doing it all.
So you ended up being a Valedictorian at Long Beach City College and now you are going to Stanford University. What are you studying for there?
I’m finishing my undergraduate degree. My goal is to get a PhD in Social Welfare. I’m Sociology major at Stanford. I transferred there and out of 1200 people they only selected 21 transfers. For me being from a community college and you have people transferring in from bigger schools, it was really remarkable.
With all of the rappers using the Doctor title in their nickname, you could be the first rapper that is actually a Doctor one day.
Exactly! Dre and I will have to hook up and do a record then [laughs]. I believe that Roxanne Shante got her PhD or something like that. You can verify that. [Note: Roxanne Shante received a PhD in Psychology from Cornell University]
You secured financing for your education through the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation?
Yes. Stanford is paying for most of my education, housing and other expenses. Whatever they don’t cover, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation covers for me. Jack Kent Cooke also has a network of scholars that I am able to tap in to and I have developed some serious friendships based on that network. There is a support on every level that they supply.
For any rappers or fans out there that wish to go back to school, what do you recommend?
That’s the question I’ve been waiting to answer. First off all there needs to be a belief in one’s ability to get it done. Second you have to have optimism and hope to get it done. Hopelessness is a scourge in our community and the reason we don’t do things is because we don’t hope to do them a lot of times. Understand that you can go to college – Stanford and Harvard were built for you to go there. It’s not for other people only – it’s for you. Get that in your sights and tell yourself that you are going there. Then develop the will to do it. Put down the weed and turn off the PS3 and read a book. Don’t just go to a concert but go hear a lecture also. There are lots of free lectures going on out there. Take notes and figure out what it is to be a scholar. Be a student of life. Understand why you are in your predicament. Understand the game so we can play it. Look at me – I did it. I grew up in South Central Los Angeles, poor, black, short, dark-skinned – and I’m winning.
What about people who say they can’t afford it?
I love the city college system. When I went back to school, I didn’t have much money but I pretty much did my first two years of college for free. There would be grants that would pay for the books and other needs. The State also has money available to help you – and honestly where there is a will there is a way. Even if you have to take some type of loan and go in to a little debt, a college graduate on the average makes 3 or 4 more times over a lifetime than those that just graduated from High School. If you have to go in to $20,000 of debt to get a 4-year degree, that will more than pay for itself once you graduate. Don’t let money be the reason that you don’t go. If you have the grades, the will and the desire – it will happen. There will be nothing that can stop you from going to college. People don’t let money stop them from making demo tapes, buying studio time or getting those Jordan’s. You can do it.