Brooklyn rap duo 11Roots recently released their self-titled, debut album, and it’s a compact, spiritually-rooted record, with no wasted space. The songs are lyrically conscious and dense, and powerfully address many of the ills facing the United States today, both directly and more obliquely. Brown_Buddha handles the production, and Ur Maa does most of the rapping, and wrote most of the lyrics. The two men have known each other for a long time, and are deeply connected, and this is reflected in the intimacy between Buddha’s beats and Ur’s verses, and the ease with which they discuss the album’s creation and their artistic vision.
It’s not a quarantine album, but the effects of the quarantine, and the pandemic, have impacted the album and its sound, in sometimes small but notable ways. Born from the isolation, confusion and anguish of lock-down, the artists emerged with an LP of beauty and strength, and one that’s not afraid to address hard truths. The nine songs on 11Roots run two minutes or less; the artists had time on their hands but they didn’t waste any of it.
Brown Buddha and Ur Maa told Backseat Mafia that the album starts from its creative end point, from a place of light, and looks backward to some of the despair they were both feeling about America, and the country’s on-going (maybe) reckoning with racism, climate change and widening income disparities, accountings that are long overdue.
Two songs on the album directly reveal this theme. The first, “black michael,” a reworking of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon,” juxtaposes Scott-Heron’s caustic observations about the race to the moon with an almost jaunty instrumental created by Buddha. The contrast between Scott-Heron’s words and the music amplifies the discordance of Project Apollo, which was launched at a time when Black people were fighting to make Equal Protection Under Law more than just words on a page; many were dying and jailed in that struggle. Listening to the 11Roots song and Scott-Heron’s lyrics, you might be struck with how little has changed since 1970, when the original song was released.
The second, “it was all made up,” is a dirge, it’s lyrics also direct, and a response to the hypocrisy Ur Maa sees all around him, actions and events made more clear by the U.S.’s response to a pandemic and a president who refuses to disavow white supremacists, and, in fact, openly courts them. Ur is trying to open the eyes of many of us with his lyrics, particularly white Americans: how can you not see what I see; how can you not feel what I’m feeling?
The album has light moments, too. “Chicken Pot Pie” is bright, with drums snapping below Ur’s elastic flow, and “we are” kicks things off with a message of positivity, especially in the face of woes large and small. In “can’t wait,” the music is stacked underneath Ur’s rhymes. It has a melancholy vibe, but it’s beautiful too, like a song about spring, which makes sense for a group calling itself 11Roots. “stacks” features sparkling piano, and Ur’s voice rides the melody until an abrupt break at the forty second mark makes the artists’ intentions clear.
Backseat Mafia sat down with Ur Maa and Brown_Buddha to discuss the album and the process of creating it.
This interview has been edited for publication. Photo of 11Roots courtesy of 11Roots and Tajae Hinds, Photography by Tajae.
Backseat Mafia: This is your debut album together. How was the process to create this album?
Brown_Buddha: It was emotional for me. I got to pour out what was happening in my life, getting my emotions out through my art. At the same time I was working on the Zen Sword album (Buddha’s rap alter ego),and I got a lot of things off my chest. It was really cathartic.
Ur Maa: Buddha, over the years we’ve worked a lot with each other. I really gravitate towards his music. I hear it, and I get an immediate emotional reaction. When I got to college, I needed an outlet. School was draining for me. I needed to pour out all that feeling and music has been that for me. That’s why I love music, making music: I need to let go of everything I’m feeling.
BSM: On your Bandcamp page, you write that the album and the name of your duo was inspired by the 11 Laws of Maat. Tell us something about that.
UM: We’re Ausarians, which is derived from Ancient Egyptian teaching. The key point is that peace is my nature, and that’s what we live by. Buddha and I grew up in this, hearing about this our entire lives. It’s something way bigger than the music; it’s really a spiritual thing.
BB: I’m always looking to better myself, and those laws keep me in check. So when things aren’t going right at the job, aren’t going right with the music, things aren’t going right [anywhere], I always turn to those teachings and reflect on what is going on in my life. I understand that I am one with all, and I’m basically okay.
BSM: You also say that the name 11Roots, which is the name of the record, stems from the 11 deities on the Tree of Life. Tell us something about that.
UM: Each law is based on a different deity within the Tree of Life. There are a lot of them. The one is Ausar, which is the unity with all, and the one with all. You have Sekhert, which is your spiritual power, that divine power that we all have within us. That’s three. Het-Heru is the root of creativity and imagination.
BSM: This is a tight, compact album, with no wasted space. The longest song clocks in at 2:08. Was that intentional on your part, to keep the songs short?
BB: As the person who was making the music, it wasn’t my intention, to keep the songs short. It’s just the state of rap. Rappers, for whatever reason, we don’t want to give lengthy bars. We’ve had decades of three minute songs. I’m not coming out here spinning bars like LL Cool J.
UM: Now, in the landscape of rap, there are amazing songs that are fifty seconds. But I’m not thinking, this should be short, or this should be long. It’s really just whatever I’m feeling.
BSM: Is there a theme to the album?
UM: Buddha structured the album.
BB: When I heard the songs, I could hear Ur building up and kind of breaking down with himself, through the songs. I had gone through that before. I know what it’s like to be broken down and then build straight back up, and be a whole different person. We started with him being happy. (Editor’s note: Track 1., “we was.”) I like to structure in a way that you get the end of the story first, and then you get the most important part, the journey. It’s not about the beginning or the end. It’s the journey that matters and I was trying to convey that.
BSM: So let’s talk about the first song, “we was.” What is that song about to you, Ur?
UM: I was talking about what was going on with me now, in quarantine. That’s kind of what I was hitting on. (Raps the lyrics: “I was dodging the pen, dodging the flow, dodging the wind, dodging the gold…”) The first part of the bar, was like “you stressed about them dark days.” Now, I see the sun, even when the clouds are grey. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining, if it’s cloudy, if it’s snowing. There’s still a sun up there. The sun still shines every day.
BSM: “black michael,” the second track on the album, is essentially a remix of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon.” Why is the song titled “black michael?” How important to you is Gil Scott-Heron?
UM: When I first heard that, it sounded like off-the-wall Arabic music. When I heard it, I titled it “black michael.”
BB: When I’m sampling from YouTube, “We Almost Lost Detroit” always comes up, every single time, without fail. I will never skip it because it’s so complex, so dense that I just have to sit through it every time to listen. Sometimes I think, I missed something in his lyrics. Let me go back. For this generation, not just me, influential speakers like Gil Scott-Heron, Malcolm X, maybe even Martin Luther King, they mean more to us than what they meant back then. We grew up with these people in our hearts. The people living back then got to see them in person. We idolize them.
BSM: Why did you decide to include “Whitey on the Moon?”
UM: This “acting” that’s going on? Sometimes [I think] I’m playing my PS4. We’ve got a PlayStation, but we can’t solve poverty. We decide, let’s go to the moon. It’s pointless. It doesn’t matter. There are way bigger problems going on. You just feel that way sometimes.
BSM: What was the inspiration behind “golden,” the third track on the album?
UM: That was the first song I wrote. I’m very into honesty. So, that first line, “don’t be running in my face with the lies, I ain’t really got the time,” I can’t take lies. I can’t take it. Starting with that felt really good. I always feel like the first lyric dictates where I’m going. When I say “stuck up in the clouds, can’t find no directions, now I’m looking at the sun, eye to eye, it already knows my face, so it knows when I lie,” it’s kind of like the idea when someone tells you a story. I don’t know if it’s true, but that’s between them and God.
BB: The first thought that came to mind [about the song] was, damn, there’s a lot going on here, there’s a lot of emotion. [Ur] was probably punching his screen while he was making this. When I was making this song, I wasn’t having the best day. I remember it. Ur reciprocated the energy off of that, so it just kind of meshed. It matched up. I would say I was being brutally honest.
BSM: Let’s talk about “it was all made up,” which is the center piece of the album and a powerful song. It’s also the longest song on the album.
UM: We were trying to get the album done, so we could get it out. That was one of the beats Buddha sent, like a five second clip. And when I heard it [Ur hums the song], I was bopping my head, and I said “it was all made up.” This was in June, with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, all this is happening. Sometimes, when you go on the Internet, you’ll see something written terribly. You can tell that person has no idea what they’re talking about. They’re coming from a place where they don’t even know the historical background of the police. And that’s why the wording is “it was all made up.” You don’t understand that you’ve been taught a lie. When I say “you taught a lie, you hate the truth, immortalize the hate, abuse staring at the hanging noose,” when you talk that lie, you keep the abuse going on in this country. [Ur recites more lyrics.] “Reading from the book of lies, paintin’ wit them crooked eyes, waste away the perfect lines, they made the case, earth will die.” You are getting a skewed view, especially reading from a history book. They don’t want you to understand the whole history of race relations in this country. When we open back up, I’m gonna yell these lyrics.
BSM: You share verses on “it was all made up.”
BB: That was Zen Sword [laughs]. Zen Sword is my rap name. When I say “hydra-headed monster,” that’s Trump.
BSM: The cover art for the album is beautiful. Who is the artist?
UM: I booked a photographer I normally work with, Tajae Hinds. She’s really dope. She’s out of Queens. We walked into Prospect Park, in Brooklyn. We saw this tree, and Buddha was like, okay, we should take a picture of this. It was [Tajae’s] idea to have us on two different sides of the tree. That’s a powerful cover because it’s tying us together.
BB: Tajae was like, “I’m gonna save this for later.” We went to take another picture somewhere else, and then we came back to the tree. And she said, “Buddha, I want to take this picture now.” And I was like, okay! Cool!
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