Labtekwon: Space is the Place
- Words: Jesse Serwer
Hip-hop’s vegan alien sex fiend Labtekwon lifts off.
For those who've never found themselves watching Nelly’s “Tip Drill” video at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday, I'll explain about BET: Uncut.
BET: Uncut was a controversial X-rated rap showcase that thrived in the early 2000s, in those last years before YouTube. Dominated by no-budget clips from no-name Southern rappers and “too hot for TV” edits of 50 Cent and Lil’ Jon hits, it was an unlikely forum in which to encounter an abstract MC known for dropping references to his vegan diet and skateboarding into his jazzy, Afrocentric space rap. Yet, Labtekwon’s endearingly skeevy 2003 video for “Unnhhh Huhnnn” was one of the more distinctive clips to appear on the series.
“I knew the only way to get on television was to have a girl shake her ass,” Labtekwon says. “And I proved my point.”
That the rapper behind some of the most intellectually challenging, information-heavy, and rhythmically complex MCing of the last decade might actually be best known for an Uncut video is no small irony. Yet, somehow it fits. Across the span of 16 years and some 25-plus albums—from the 10-volume Labteknology CD-R series, whose Sun Ra-inspired rap jazz established him as an oracle of African history of the late ’90s, to last year’s 410 Funk, an LP with B-More club pioneers Jimmy Jones and DJ Booman released under the name 410 Pharaohs—the rapper born Omar Akbar Young has always embraced the role of iconoclast.
“I’ve been a weirdo for a long-ass time,” Lab says, taking stock of a career that dates back to the 1980s, when he got some of his first gigs at legendary Baltimore house-music venue (and Baltimore club music birthplace) Club Fantasy. “If you look at my catalog, it’s hit or miss. I try to figure out what is it that no one’s done, and do it well. I never did anything because I thought people would like me… Basically, I’m a counterpuncher. I like creating a dichotomy of paradoxical ideas.”
Though he grew up in West Baltimore, Labtekwon (whose name is an acronym of “Lifeform Advanced Beyond Terrestrial Esoterics King Warrior of Nubia”) lives in a stretch of downtown he describes as “a mélange of hood and gentrification.” The new dynamics of the rapidly changing neighborhood rear their head when a security guard attempts to block him from cutting through the parking lot of his building, an old hotel that’s been converted to condos predominantly occupied by white transplants. “I get that a lot,” he says after coasting through the lot despite the guard’s protest. “If people see you in a fitted hat and baggy jeans, it’s like, ‘What are you doing here?'” Sporting an Orioles cap with matching black, white, and orange Adidas Forums, Lab—who’s in his late ’30s—says he prefers baggy pants because there’s room for basketball shorts underneath. (“I’m always ready to ball,” he says.) As an O.G. “weirdo,” he also feels the need to challenge a hipster-rap zeitgeist he believes values innovative fashion over actual innovation. “Every musician who’s really progressive doesn’t dress the same way,” he says, noting the conservative look of the ’80s hardcore punk movement. “My obsession is counteracting trends. Whether that’s ignorance in the community or wack motherfuckers in tight jeans, I’m always the next chapter.”
In an effort to make its cultural institutions more accessible, admission to most museums in Baltimore is free; this makes the café at the Walters Art Museum near Lab’s apartment a convenient location for our chat. Getting a handle on the status of Lab’s new projects proves to be a chaotic undertaking. At the time of my visit to Baltimore, he’s just about to release Di Na Ko Degg: Soul Power, a sort of extended version of his 2008 LP, Di Na Ko Degg, and says he’ll drop two more new albums—another club-flavored LP called Visions of Godfrey with Scottie B and DJ Excel, and the as-yet undefined Next—before year’s end. At the moment, though, he’s focused on Ghettoclectic, a new group project with producer Thur Deephrey (who previously collaborated with Lab in the side-projects Tao of Slick and CSD) and singers Nicholas Grant and Manny (a.k.a. U-el).
“It’s mellow, smooth, chill music but the subject matter is kind of volatile,” Lab says of Ghettoclectic, whose upcoming New Age-Ancient Soul full-length he hopes will re-establish R&B as a viable outlet for protest. “Soul music’s been all about love or this PC, everybody-hold-hands thing for so long. There should be a new paradigm to reflect these times. But singers haven’t committed to the stuff that Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, and Marvin Gaye did. Nobody’s taking it to the folk level like Bob Dylan, talking about the common man’s situation through soul music. Rap is the vehicle for this protest stuff now, but I’ve always said hip-hop isn’t for everybody.”
Living on Video
Later that day, I find myself with Labtekwon and Ghettoclectic singer Manny at Morgan State University in suburban northeast Baltimore. Lab has come here to deliver a guest lecture on hip-hop’s roots in traditional African culture but, arriving early, he turns the school’s parking lot into a makeshift video set for Ghettoclectic’s “Mad at You,” a sobering track that argues that, while there might be a black man in the White House, this country’s still got a race problem.
Over the last few years, shooting videos on the fly has become an almost everyday occurrence for Labtekwon. Despite their lack of production values, his trippy, ethereal clips for tracks like “The Beach” and “5th Elemental Deity” do a great job of capturing the otherworldly vibe of his albums; he’s currently in the process of compiling them into a lifestyle DVD/mini-movie called Visions of Tehuti.
“Back in the day, the idea of doing an album was big—now, anybody can record a demo and call it an album,” he says. “I’m trying to create a new standard with multimedia where, if you pay attention, you’ll be like, ‘Damn, so and so can’t do that,’ getting people to understand that’s a part of my art. Just as much as I can write the rhymes and do the beats, I can shoot the video, write the treatment, edit it down.”
They Will Hear It
Labtekwon’s far-ranging interests and ambitions haven’t always served him, though. Last year, he released perhaps the two best albums of his career (410 Pharaohs’ 410 Funk and Di Na Ko Degg), but neither made much of a splash. 410 Funk, the first full-length album of verse-hook-verse rap songs over Baltimore club beats, was right on time with—yet much more lyrically impressive than—the wave of uptempo club rap that’s become popular in recent years. Yet, for reasons that are not exactly clear, Strictly Rhythm Records, which released the album digitally through Kenny Dope’s newly revived Ill Friction sub-label, never delivered physical copies or promoted the project.
Like most of his recordings, Di Na Ko Degg, the title of which means “they will hear it” in Wolof (a West African language), was released quietly through Lab’s tiny Ankh Ba label. Perhaps his most intensely personal release, Di Na Ko Degg tracks like “Hurt to Heal” and “Foundation Style” contain the first-ever recorded appearances by his late father, Harry “Doc Soul Stirrer” Young, a legendary Baltimore gangster and nightclub performer.
“He didn’t know how to interact in any environment other than the hood,” Lab says of his father, who died early last year. “He just wanted to perform. A lot of people don’t understand why I have a catalog that is so deep. I see it as the completion of a mission that my father never got to finish.”
For someone who often takes great umbrage at being publicly slighted (he’s been known to rebuke negative reviews of his music in online comments sections), Lab doesn’t seem all that vexed by the fact that he made two of the year’s best rap albums and they pretty much fell on deaf ears. He’s more concerned with getting his next projects heard.
“Once I do something, it’s passé. My focus is never on the last thing I did but on the next idea that I have to move towards. The biggest point should be your ability to evolve. If this is what it is right now, then what is the next logical thing? It’s like when you do an algorithm, and you’ve got this part and then this part... What fits in between?”
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