Longtime fans of the A-Alikes expecting something of the order of their 2006 underground classic 'I Eat, You Eat' will no doubt be taken aback by the experimental tone of 'EYE2025.' But for Ness, it all makes sense. "It's basically about being free," says Ness, who hooked up with The BoomBox recently to discuss his bold new set, the future of the A-Alikes, his early days with Dead Prez and the respect Jay-Z and Kanye West have for his work. "Whatever sound inspires me to write -- I'm not just going to stay in a box and say, 'Nah, that's too weird," he says. "I'm going to just make music." Spoken like a true rebel.
As a member of A-Alikes, you are usually involved in more political and socially conscious releases. 'EYE2025' has a more conceptual, experimental tone. How did it come about?
It started with me doing a movie soundtrack about a year and half ago. I was talking with film director Paul Biedrzycki about doing the soundtrack for a movie set in the near future. Something that's tangible, something we can deal with. Not like a 'Star Wars' or something like that [laughs]. Being a musician, I wanted to do the score for it. But it ended up rolling into this 'EYE2025' project. The script is on hold, but I moved forward on it in terms of making music. But the actual concept of 'EYE2025' is still based in the future. There's poverty and [political, social and technological] strife. Very conceptual.
Structurally, that had to be different, right?
It was very different. You know, A-Alikes is usually rooted in right-now, street and political day-to-do experience. But this project is saying imagine you as a person still having your politics and worldview, but let's give it a different perspective. Imagine where the world is going to be years from now. Imagine how music is going to sound and where people's heads are going to be at and paint that picture.
Was there any particular movie score that you listened to for musical inspiration?
I was listening to scores from certain movies like 'Blade Runner.' I was trying to imagine what sonically would we be listening to years from now. And politically how would that also come off, content-wise. With the A-Alikes, doing what we have been doing for years, I felt the political climate getting more intense. I think hip-hop reflects that. But you have to keep it from being a niche thing. That's what 'EYE2025' is all about. The content is a lot more general. It's some next s---. It's not just straight-up boom-bap. There are elements of electronic, pop and rock music. You can hear different genres in the music.
That has to be an irony, given that you started working on this project almost two years ago, as music was changing so rapidly?
Exactly. Sonically, this project is not just three-bar loops. Since I started working on 'EYE2025,' things have kind of progressed to the point where people are doing a lot of genre-bending. You hear a lot of electronic music out right now. And then there has been the political changes, the Occupy Movement. This has all happened in a year-and-a-half, and it's not even 2025 yet.
Specifically, what sound were you aiming for?
At the time, when I first started it, I was opening up my musical taste from just listening to classic East Coast hip-hop -- Nas, Mobb Deep, and stuff like that -- for most of my younger years to now listening to classic '80s pop music and underground electronic music. I incorporated those elements into the project. I even started listening to '70s analog dance music ... Giorgio Moroder, who did stuff for Donna Summers and soundtracks for 'Scarface' and 'Midnight Express.' There's this crew, this French electronic duo called Justice. They had an album called 'Cross the Universe.' I was just amazed. I just thought to myself, "How the f--- is this even out and the hood or cats that just listen to dope beats are not even up on it?" This is what I was researching.
Did you work with any other producers on the mixtape?
There were a couple of beats I got. There's this one producer Enki Alien. She's from Australia. She engineered the last A-Alikes album. At the time I was working on the beginnings of the 'EYE2025' project, she was coming over to the loft and was like, "This is amazing. I got some tracks for you."
Did you think about the fact that you were working with a female producer, a rarity in hip-hop?
Not really. One thing about me is I'm in my own lane. I do what I want to do. Being as she was my engineer for the last project, I kind of seen her grow. When I played it out, it was dope.
How much of a battle was it to do an entire project without you're A-Alikes partner K?
It took some getting use to. A-Alikes has been rocking since the early '00s. This project was an exploration into the music process and learning about what I like and what I want to do. When you are in a group, you have to compromise; you have take in account what your band members want in terms of sound and content. But this time around, I just wanted to do this myself. I don't want to negotiate my creativity. I just wanted to zone out. I learned a lot about myself. It was real fun, man. It was freeing and therapeutic. It wasn't just me saying, "Oh, I'm going to do an album that's set in the future." I just wanted to take myself out my own comfort zone and showcase this story.
Take me back to what it was like coming up as a member of the People Army/RBG movement and being in the same circle as Dead Prez. Artistically and politically, did you guys think you were really going to change the world?
Well, the irony is I really thought and felt that we were going to do the things that we were talking about as far as pushing the envelope, attacking the system and helping the people rise up. We wanted to free ourselves from the economic and social situations that we were in. And that may not have happened. But there are still so many people who come up to me and say, "Oh, Ness from A-Alikes -- you down with Dead Prez and RBG's? Y'all changed my life." People tell me that all the time, how they were in college when Dead Prez's 'Let's Get Free' came out, or when A-Alikes' 'I Eat, You Eat' dropped. That we made them care about their health and what they eat. That we put them on to certain books. You can't pinpoint what we did to change the world. But I know the vibrations that we put out there -- the whole People Army and RBG's -- I know it helped shift the consciousness of the hip-hop collective. Maybe we were naïve. But we played a part in the protesting that you see now.
And it must have been cool to see artists like Kool G. Rap, Jay-Z and Kanye West have reached out to your crew over the years for collaborations and performances. What does it mean to know that these acts have a respect for you?
For a long time, I would say, "Well, I don't care if you have a big name." And I still hold on to that. People are people. But looking back at my career and moving forward I find a level of pride in knowing that I've been involved with certain artists that people look up to and respect. From going back and forth spitting rhymes with Kanye to being around Mos Def and hanging out and building with Dead Prez. All of these things are cool to look back on.
The thing that was always cool about you guys is you critiqued everybody -- not just what you saw as racist power structures and the self-destruction that goes on in minority neighborhoods. You also helped put together a 2008 documentary about Barack Obama's presidential run and what it meant to the hip-hop nation. It's not exactly a love letter. Why did you decide to tackle the documentary world with such a thought-provoking subject?
The documentary, directed by Paul Biedrzycki, is called 'The Ballot or The Bullet,' which comes from a Malcolm X speech. Kennedy was going to be president and Malcolm was telling people don't fall for the okey doke. Does it lead to freedom? So when we got a black candidate that had a real chance to win, we wanted to ask hip-hop, what does it all mean? Will it help us? Can we get free through the ballot? So we went around to activists and artists like Chuck D [of Public Enemy.] We went to his home in Long Island and talked for three hours! It was incredible.
That sounds insanely epic, huh?
It was ... and we talked to Stic man and M-1 from Dead Prez. We built with Immortal Technique, and we built with Malcolm X's daughter Ilyasa Shabazz and what would Malcolm say about Obama. And we even had Joy Bryant, the model and actress, for that film. It was great to be a part of it. I got a certain level of insight into other people's opinion. I'm still not a fan of voting. But my politics have become less rigid. The same can be said about my music. I'm going to do one more A-Alikes album. Me and K will link back up because we will always have [that chemistry]. From there, anything is possible.