Droppin’ Knowledge: In Chi-Town, Rashid Hadee Is On The Beat. And The Mic, Too.

In hip hop, a sample can sometimes lead you on an unexpected journey.

Rashid Hadee’s first box of vinyl records came from his uncle. The Chicago rapper and producer discovered the box in a closet, and decided to listen to the LPs, one by one, and create beats from what he found. Hadee’s uncle was a jazz bass player of some renown, Eldee Young, who played in the Ramsey Lewis Trio and later formed his own band, Young-Holt Unlimited, also known as The Young Holt Trio. His uncle had left the vinyl collection in his home in Mississippi.

At the time, Hadee knew his uncle “played in a jazz band,” he said during a recent interview, but that was it.

“So I pulled out this Young-Holt Trio record and put the needle down. I listen to one song, and then another.” Then, Hadee cued up the trio’s cover of “Strangers in the Night,” a song made famous by Frank Sinatra. He let the stylus ride and listened closely to the song’s introduction.

It begins with a piano and what sounds like a sawed bass, the instruments together in harmony, punctuated by someone striking a triangle three times. The introduction sounded familiar to Hadee. He searched his brain, trying to recall where he had heard it before. Then, it dawned on him. The song was “Return of The Crooklyn Dodgers,” by Crooklyn Dodgers, a 1990s super group which at one point included Chubb Rock, O.C. and Jeru The Damaja. The tune was featured in Spike Lee’s movie Clockers. The production was by DJ Premier, the acclaimed producer and one half of the highly regarded duo Gang Starr.

“That was one of the first hip hop songs that made me want to start making beats,” Hadee says, “because the sound was so different from what I was used to hearing. I wanted to make music like that. Just that sample. Wow. It blew my mind.”

After listening to both songs, Hadee looked up Eldee Young on Allmusic.com. He was shocked by what he found.

“That’s my uncle, my grandfather’s brother. The song that made me want to make that style of hip hop that has my uncle playing bass on it. It’s crazy that it came full circle like that. It didn’t dawn on me when I first heard [the song] that was [my uncle].” Hadee’s actual surname is Young.

Eldee Young and DJ Premier remain touch stones for Hadee, and you can hear Preemo’s influence in Hadee’s music. Both artists create walls of sound, combining intricate samples, effects and sonic textures to their songs but Hadee tends to be brighter in his beat making, less minor key piano riffs, more sparkle and sheen. Listen to “Loonng Time Coming,” from Prime Diesel, an album released in January with The Primeridian. It sounds as if Hadee is conducting an orchestra; the music is luxuriant, with an emphasis on the down beat, and the song booms and baps with abandon, joyous and free, its tone rooted in Gospel music. Hadee also handles the first verse, and he’s a fine rapper, too, fluid on the mike with emotive lyrics to match. DJ Premier is an exalted figure in hip hop, but a rapper he is not.

Hadee often creates complex, mini symphonies of sound in his art, with rich, bright flourishes that frequently belie the seriousness of the subjects he addresses in his songs. Even if the beats shine, the words can be pointed and direct, and reflect his take on a myriad of social issues, such as racism, police violence and poverty. Sometimes, his songs are simply meditations on love or hope, or life, reflecting the wisdom of an adult but also the spark of a man who is always moving forward, always learning, and working on his chosen profession.

On “Die Immortal,” from October’s 6 Packs & Cognac, the subject matter is serious; the song is a paean to Black cultural icons, but also a tribute to lives lost too soon. (A tuxedo clad Eldee Young appears in the Philmore Greene directed video.) A muted trumpet loop carries the melody, and although there’s sadness in the song and in its lyrics, Hadee keeps the music bright, and a sparkle of hope anchors the track. It’s a technique Hadee returns to again and again when he produces, and it’s something that lifts his songs out of the ordinary and into the sublime, adding color and intricacy to the music, for himself and for others with whom he works. The brightness creates tension, which makes his art deeper and more profound, with its emphasis on nuance and shading, and it causes the listener to dig deeper.

Chronologically, 6 Packs & Cognacs is Hadee’s latest work, and one that is closest to him personally, both in terms of the EP’s subject matter and the instrumentation underneath his rapping. Over the past year, like many people in the United States, the outside world intruded on Hadee’s thoughts and his artistic process and affected him personally and creatively, especially police shootings of Black people, and society’s demands for justice and equity. In his revery about this moment in time, Hadee thought about the ripple effects of the shootings, and their consequences on one’s broader community.

“I’m talking about the effects of police brutality on a family, on a household,” he says about the set. “These families don’t have people at the dinner table, because there’s always a fatality. I was concerned about the effects [the death] has on family, on friends, on next door neighbors, people you grew up with in school. You hadn’t seen them in twenty years and then you see their faces on the news. It’s gonna mess you up.” The pervasive consequences of one person’s death weighed heavily on Hadee and the way he thought about and approached such a loss. You can hear this in the song, a lament for lives lost and communities shattered.

With all the music that he makes, Hadee’s goal is to create an emotional connection with the listener, content that he believes is more critical for this purpose than boasting or creating club bangers, although he’s not opposed to either. “It’s bigger than how many words you can say in a verse, or how dope your beat is. It’s beyond those little sprinkles. That’s just salt and pepper. I got a whole meal to prepare,” Hadee says. And he does serve you a meal, every time.

Hadee is adept at chopping samples and constructing something new, but reducing his art to merely his technical skills, his cutting and pasting, denigrates it, like saying Jackson Pollack merely splashed paint on a canvas, or Gordon Parks just pushed the button on a camera. For Pollock and Parks, their vision was their genius. For Hadee, it’s his ears. He hears things in sounds that you and I do not, and this aural acuity allows him to assemble dense mosaics of sound that lift the mind and the body of the listener, as he does in “Sunnday Gospel,” from Prime Diesel, a rousing opening track that owes a great deal to a church service, and its own kind of divine inspiration.

In 2019, Hadee released the collection Aural Sex, a title that nods to his gifts behind the boards. But don’t count him out as a lyricist and emcee. When I asked him if he preferred producing over rapping, I was surprised by his answer.

“I prefer rapping over other people’s beats,” he tells me. “I could just rap over Nottz’s beats all day.” (Nottz is a frequent collaborator who produced “Just Wanna Live II.”) I feel like I was leaning in that direction at one point in my career, trying to embrace all that but it just wasn’t my style. I came up from battle rapping, from cyphers and free-styling. 9th Wonder is a great rapper. Dr. Dre is a great rapper. Pete Rock is a great rapper. But I feel like they’re put in this box of producer on the mic.” You can officially call Hadee a rapper, who happens to sit comfortably behind the boards, too.

When we spoke via video, Hadee proved himself to be affable and funny, a hip hop Everyman with an outsized talent and a gift for the turn of phrase. (Example – if you’re a gangster rapper, or trap is your game, don’t post pictures of yourself on Instagram “tickling puppies on their bellies.” With tongue firmly in cheek, or not, Hadee deems this to be potential career suicide. Later, I checked Conway The Machine’s IG page and gave it the all clear. My research continues. )

Photo courtesy of Rashid Hadee

Hadee was born in Chicago, but spent his high school and early college years in and around Jackson, Mississippi, where he attended Jackson State University, like another Chi-town icon, the late Bears running back Walter Payton. While at Jackson State, Hadee discovered an active cultural scene, where he would meet other budding artists and hone his mic skills.

“We had the coffee house in downtown Jackson, an open mike type of deal. We’d go out there, cypher, network with other emcees from Jackson. And there was Seven Studios. Everybody was up there. David Banner came through. I came up with David Banner and all them other cats, too. This was before anybody knew who David Banner was. My man Skip Coon, 5th Child, 7eventhirty. DJ Phingaprint and Gensu Dean would DJ there too.”

In Jackson, Hadee formed a hip hop duo with a friend, Young Valentine, called Chapter 13. The pair independently released their debut EP, Legendary Aspectz in 2002, and they sold a few hundred copies of the CD out of the trunk of a car, in and around the streets of the city. In 2005, Chapter 13 dropped its first full length, Nevermore’s Asylum, on Neblina Records. This was the same year Hadee’s first solo LP, Dedication, was released in Japan. Two years later it dropped in the United States. As Hadee told me in a subsequent email, “funny thing is, I’ve had a lot of first releases. I know that makes no sense.” Except, in today’s digital world, and general internet fuckery, it makes complete sense.

Hadee eventually returned to Chicago, where he attended the city’s SAE Institute, and earned degrees in Audio Technology and Music Business. And, like a lot of musicians, Hadee worked a day job for fifteen years, which he finally quit in 2019 so he could free up his time and devote himself to music. He says a day job puts “a cap on your personality, and you can’t really embrace your hip hop culture, your true side of things.”

“To be an artist, it’s a process that starts from the time you wake up. It’s momentum that builds, from the time you wake up. Everything you do throughout your day will determine if you can even make a song, make a beat. When it comes to being an artist, you’ve got to put everything into it. It has to be a lifestyle,” Hadee says. “Unless you’re rapping about going to work, if that’s your thing. But that’s not the type of thing I’m embracing [now],” he adds sardonically.

In Chicago, Hadee has partnered with a cadre of other like-minded artists like Philmore Greene, Neak, Thaione Davis and The Primeridian, musicians who are serious about their art and follow the same work ethic he does. (Neak and Greene both contribute notable bars to “Die Immortal,” and the three men collaborate frequently, brothers in arms.

“I just vibe with them. I like their drive, the way they approach their careers,” Hadee says. “That’s what I cherish about any artists that I’ve met. If you’re as serious about [the music] as I am, then I know we need to work. If you have multiple artists working on a professional level together, it’s gonna be right. I’ve been working behind the scenes with them for a long time. Neak, probably about a decade. Phil, more than eight years. We just locked in on that type of vibe over the years.”

Since the end of the 1990s, hip hop’s so-called Golden Age, there have been bottomless arguments among rap aficionados about the health of the culture, the viability of the music and its evolution. Music currently labeled “hip hop” is ascendent; it dominates the music charts and, in one form or another, the genre is probably the most popular music on the planet. Ever since Nas released the LP Hip Hop Is Dead in 2006, hip hop heads have brawled over what he meant and whether the album’s title was a slap at more commercial, less topical versions of rap.

Part of this debate can be considered posturing, part of it a page taken from the cranky old man (or old woman) user’s manual, in which someone begins the verbal sparring with, or the equivalent of, “when I was a kid…” Some of the feuds simply reflect inter-generational tastes, or an unwillingness on the part of older folks to give credit where credit is due. For many fans who came of age in the late 1980s and 1990s, no one can replace Rakim, Gang Starr, Wu-Tang Clan, N.W.A, Public Enemy, De La Soul, Pete Rock & CL Smooth or A Tribe Called Quest. (Feel free to add your own hall of famers to the list. East Coast, West Coast, or anywhere in between.) But, more contentiously, some grouchy elders insist that no one should even try. For those fans, hip hop stopped when the clock struck 12:01 AM, on January 1st, 2000, with some notable exceptions.

Hadee came up when many of these artists were in their prime. He listened to groups like Wu-Tang Clan, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Gang Starr and he began to pay closer attention to the way these artists constructed their songs and wrote their bars. He started to appreciate the use of sampling and listened in a new way to the music he heard around him. He marveled at the elaborate arrangements and the density off the sound, and Preemo’s work made a particular impression on him.

“You listen to DJ Premier, and you see what he does, and you actually start to learn how to sample. There’s no surprise element [any more] when you sample off of YouTube. You don’t have to work for it. It’s not like when you bought this random record in the dollar bin,” Hadee says. “You hear something like ‘Above The Clouds,’ [from the Gang Starr album Moment of Truth], you put the needle down, and it’s like, whoa, what’s up with that? It was bigger than making beats. It was bigger than wanting a record deal. That was love. That’s when I first started falling in love with this.”

Listening to music was a different experience to Hadee, too, than it is today.

“You would listen to music on a CD in a car. It was just like the best audio experience you could have. It’s night time, a summer night, and you got the windows rolled down, and you got a little somethings else to spark the mind. We in the car, hotboxing, listening to the dopest shit you ever heard in your life. J Dilla, Slum Village. Some people don’t even get to have these experiences because they listen to this shit on their fuckin’ phones.” Hadee laments that there’s no bass when you listen to music on your phone. “I love that, love that bass line. It’s in my DNA. It’s in my African DNA!”

During our conversation, I asked Hadee to assess the state of hip hop today because he has a unique perspective on the culture. He released his first album, It Ain’t Hard to Tell the same year as Hip Hop Is Dead, and interestingly, his album shares its title with a song from Nas’s seminal debut, Illmatic. Hadee has worked with independent flag-bearers like Little Brother, and many fans point to Hadee and his musical brothers in the Windy City as artists who keep the flame of “real hip hop” alive. Other keepers of the flame include Elzhi, a Detroit artist who has expressed some disdain towards certain artists lumped into the hip hop category.

Hadee suggests to me that hip hop has changed both substantively and in the way new artists are discovered, nurtured and developed. Social media has made things both easier and more difficult, primarily because artists with trigger fingers can post something on social media that upends their career or creates negative publicity; the A & R suit won’t be there to preemptively clean up the mess. But, at the same time, artists can post about themselves on social media with abandon, and communicate directly with fans. The rewards can be high, but the potential pitfalls can destroy a career.

“Today,” Hadee says, “everything is built on the artist’s back. We have to learn how to brand ourselves. We have to learn how to market ourselves. What do our fans like to wear? Or, what do they eat? Or, what do they like to drink? Do they like veggie shakes?”

Hadee argues that in the past, an artist could create a demo, get that demo into the hands of an industry big shot and then obtain label backing to launch a career. Today, that calculus has changed.

Back in the day, Hadee tells me, “you had a chance to live out your dream and it was more reachable. I know what I need to do. I need to meet Dr Dre. I know he’s going to like [the demo] because I’m going to make that shit fire. So you pass it to Dr Dre. Dre may throw it in the trash. Dre may listen to it and call you back and say, ‘yo your music is fire, I want to fly you out…’ It’s a tangible thing. There is no demo shopping no more. We don’t have video platforms. No Rap City and Yo! MTV Raps. We have to develop ourselves as artists. There’s no more record deals for us. We are the record deals.”

Magazines like The Source and XXL, which took pride in discovering new artists and giving them coverage, no longer have the same influence they once did. Today, social media has replaced those venerated journals of hip hop culture. Sites like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitch, allow artists to create their own content, without filtering that content through a label image consultant, or an official “minder,” like the character played by Jonah Hill in Get Him To The Greek, a label flack who tries to prevent artists from behaving in ways that hurt a record company’s “investment” in the artist.

“As artists, you’re like The Source magazine. You can throw up all the baby pictures, and other stuff, but as an artist, your [social media] page is The Source magazine. You are the XXL,” Hadee says. “It’s easier and easier to look like a dummy.”

Hadee also acknowledges that the nature of hip hop itself, as a genre, has changed over the years. As its tone and tenor has evolved, a kind of drift has set in, that can squeeze out more traditional artists, and relegates them to “old school” or “dad rap,” characterizations that are both unfair and demeaning.

“When The Sugarhill Gang came out with ‘The Message,’ it was totally different. They actually had a message,” Hadee tells me. Now, “there’s also a sonic divide. And it’s an age divide. The window for somebody’s career now might just be a few years. Quincy Jones style, if God willing we live that long? No.” (Jones, the legendary musician, arranger, producer and multi-Grammy winner, is still going strong at age 88.)

Photo courtesy of Rashid Hadee

In many ways the art Hadee makes is radical, radical in its sense of craft, in its sense of sound, and in the sense of the dedication he brings to it. He creates music because he must. He respects the history and the traditions of his art form, but he has the vision and the technical skills to draw outside the lines of that history and tradition. His art is utterly familiar, and at the same time full of wonder. And that is what makes the music he creates fresh and innovative. To move the culture forward, he first looked back.

There is verisimilitude in Hadee’s art because it is a part of him, a part of his lived experiences, and a part of his world. It’s impossible to separate the music from the man and such art resists easy commodification.

Prime Diesel, Hadee’s project with fellow Chicago rappers The Primeridian is old and new. To Hadee it’s old, a collection around twelve years in the making, a series of songs the friends worked through, on and off, over the years, since 2007. To us, the record is new, even though some songs contained on it have trickled out on mixtapes and on underground music blogs. Before January, there was never an official release of all the music.

Prime Diesel, like 6 Packs & Cognac, is a beautiful record, beginning with the cover art by DadaSoulFace. The spitting is tight and crisp, and the songs pop and sparkle, affirmations of life and hope, a Sunday service for the ears and brain. While the album doesn’t sound old, it seems familiar in its rapping and in its sonic textures; Hadee and Primeridian’s Simeon Viltz and Race Bannon knock out bars like batters who can’t miss, no matter what you throw at them. Build them a beat and the trio can rap over it, with joyous abandon. They respect and acknowledge their history, and that respect and acknowledgement allows them to propel the culture in new directions.

It is both strange and beautiful to think that the musical journey Rashid Hadee has shared with us began with a sample. And a damn fine sample it was, at that, but one that Hadee, in many ways, has surpassed with his own art. Hadee is on the beat. But don’t forget, he spits bars over those beats, too. Preemo is undoubtedly proud that the pupil is now a master.

“We did it like that and we do it like this.”

Amen to that, Brother Hadee. You doin’ it like this now.

Independent artists need our support now more than ever. If you like what you hear, purchase digital versions of Rashid Hadee’s music here. You can purchase the vinyl version of Prime Diesel on Culture Power45 Records here.

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