Now here`s a thing. Mike Ladd`s “Welcome To The AfterFuture” has just been re-issued. This was actually the first record that I ever reviewed, as a freelance writer, in this case for Sidewalk Magazine (a pretty big UK skateboard glossy), back in the days when you still got paid (my regular cheques to chase were from Sidewalk and an inflight publication (Thank you Calvert! Thank you Julia!)). I thought I`d dig out the review and give that a re-issue, just to see how things have changed (?)(I whacked in a few hyperlinks, in 2000 I`m not sure they existed).
I’ve been lying on my living room floor with my arms around my girlfriend, listening to her classical collection. I’m not big on Mendelssohn but Arvo Part’s melancholy spirals on like life. Bells toll its passing. I’ve been there nearly all day, aching, exhausted. But now I’m forcing myself to do something. This is Sunday. My day to do something for me. And not for work. So I’m sitting in front of this screen and with a haul of second-hand Sly & Robbie on my headphones, I’m beginning to wake up.
I was prompted to think about what Hip-Hop meant to me, after I saw Westwood on telly and heard him inarticulate that kids like Hip-Hop ‘cos it speaks to them about their lives. Like War said “The world is a ghetto”. I love that tune, but it wasn’t what Hip-Hop meant to me. For me, it was the idea that we can all be creative, we all have talent, we only have to try. Hip-Hop’s genius was to turn this idea into a competition at the level of the street. I mean, if someone said they were a painter, they’d be a cissy right? What if they said they were a dancer? But a graffiti writer or a breaker, that was completely different. Just by trying you were given outlaw status, which has always been cool. If you were good, you were given respect. And black plastic beads (I wrote to Bambaataa via Tim for mine but they never arrived). You were encouraged to believe that everybody could do something, that all you had to do was stop watching, step away from the edge, take the circle and have pride in yourself and your abilities. It opened minds. I don’t want to make out that I have a totally rosy-spectacled view of Hip-Hop. I know you had to watch your back at the South Bank jams. The Taxman would always be on the look out for a dollar away from the lino. And he would always be mob-handed. And for me the all-dayers at Birmingham’s Hummingbird were days full of fear. I had a go at it all, though. And it gave me a lot of confidence as a kid. I used to paint awful wildstyle on South London’s concrete alleyways. Practice scratching on a music centre with a huge silver rotary volume knob. I used to break dance in Charing Cross tube station, but I don’t have any freezes anymore. And it’s all about the freeze.
Now to Mike Ladd. I won’t go on about the record’s cover, but Mike looks like a nice guy. He’s wearing a half-smile and he has a warm gleam in his eye. He doesn’t look like the drug-fried super-hero exploring the void of inner space that I’ve seen in his other publicity photos. When I first got the record home, I just flicked through the tracks looking for things I could play down the pub (Islington`s Medicine Bar). I was looking for head-nodding party stuff but I only found jazzy instrumentals, cheap drum machines and two finger Casio solos. So I listened to it again. And again. On headphones. This record is all over the place. “To The Moon’s Contractor” is Weldon Irvine doing drum and bass. “Wipe-out On The Wave of Armageddon” reminds me of Cornelius` imagining of The Beatles and The Beach Boys. “I Feel Like $100” with it’s coda of “you’re taking strawberry fields forever” over a bottom-end piano has its freak flag flying, tunnel-visioned, in slow motion, weightless down your hallways, in cahoots with Tranquility Bass’ deranged Acid Rock Trip Hop.
The fact that “Welcome To The AfterFuture” is based on the spoken word doesn’t make it a Rap record. But it is a Hip-Hop record, taking its inspiration from the block parties, the DJs, the MCs and the dancers. And taking its codes from graffiti. Lyrically, Mike’s closest to Company-Flow (guests on the track “Bladerunners”), who describe the state of the world as a claustrophobic take on the state they’re in (“from here to oblivion I will narrate”). But Mike’s also related to other Ozone artists (Ozone were the label that put the LP out originally), Saul Williams’ apocalyptic sci-fi and Sonic Sum`s horror imagery, both of which I think can be a bit humourless and overblown. Forget conspiracy theories. It’s all a conspiracy and we’ve just got to get on with it. Like Mike says “My soul’s too young for sermons, and I’ve grown too old for rants”.
The mood of the whole record is summed up by the first track, “5000 Miles West of The Future”. One of stoned disappointment. Disappointment that the future utopia that TV promised still isn’t here. “Where’s my Mars colonies?” “Space 1999?” It’s down but it’s not out. Even the blues of “Planet 10” promises brighter days. The slowed down voice of wisdom states “You’ll break through, any day now”. The strings and beats of this piece have got more to do with Detroit Techno than current independent Hip-Hop. On “Red Eye To Jupiter” Mike is the Universe. Sun Ra said he came from Saturn to make his point: you stole me from my land and brought me here and still you treat me like an alien. This country will never be my home. I may as well come from Saturn. It’s the hardest track on the record, with Mike set against noise and off-key brass blasts. Not angry, determined. He’s on his way and he will not be stopped. However by the last track Ladd’s back on Earth, all-be-it as high as a kite. “Feb. 4’99 (for all those killed by cops)” is a free-form poem of random reminiscences, set against orchestras, horns and a break that’s a tired heartbeat that won’t quit while the end is in sight. “Somehow bullet holes in steel doors look like a collection of constellations”. “Macaroni and cheese all week long tastes better in the company of cousins”. It’s that moment of clarity in an Acid hit when it all makes sense (which is unfortunately lost as soon as the shit wears off).
“Welcome To The AfterFuture” is linked to both the recent Mos Def record (in that it’s a very personal statement) and to Gil Scott Heron (in that it’s disaffected and pissed-off but still positive). Mike Ladd sounds like he really cares.
“What really resonates for me on this album that is now 15 years old, you have two very specific references to Amadou Diallo and his murder, and 15 years later we’re still going through all these same issues with police brutality and police killing.” – Mike Ladd
“Welcome To The AfterFuture” is back out there thanks to VaVa Records.