Baba's Mind Music
By Silja J.A. Talvi

I rhyme because I don’t see myself in sitcoms/the real world of dot-coms/Cause sometimes I’m not calm/I rhyme because I’m sick of the strong-arm/The media lockdown that poisons hip-hop sound. ––Baba, "Why (Part II)"

Here and there, in the pockets of the hip-hop scene still buried too deep to fall prey to the greedy, sharp-clawed grasp of commercial culture vultures, a slew of beatboxers, DJs and emcees are still living and breathing the true-school.

From New York to Seattle, the life of this scene is dependent on the kinds of men and women who are chasing a different kind of dream, far removed from the blatant materialism of bling-bling and bimmers.

To get there, says Baba, a Brooklyn resident and full-time hip-hop ambassador, we’ve got to tune into the kind of music that nourishes both our bodies and our minds. Baba knows of that which he speaks. The 27-year-old’s debut album ( Mind Music, released this summer on the New York label Velour Recordings, is one of the brightest and bravest full-length hip-hop releases in recent memory. On songs like "Bounce," "Blues Man" and "Beatbox Logic," the multi-talented beatboxer, musician and emcee rhymes and delivers stream-of-consciousness freestyles over a jazzy smattering of acoustic instrumentation, digeridu drones and the tantalizing turntablism of Houston native DJ, Big Wiz.

"Mind music, for me, is music that is stimulating mentally. Very little music right now is [that way]. In pop culture, it’s either sex, violence or saccharin songs. It’s all about boy bands and Britney Spears and safe, illusionary [images] or hyper-violent sexual expression," says Baba.

The creative process of an artist is a personal one, explains Baba. But with a sense of purpose reminiscent of a West African griot, Baba argues that music also has to connect the community, to tell people’s stories and to understand their triumphs and tribulations. "Hip-hop can’t exist without the community, it’s about interaction and call-and-response," he explains. "It’s not an isolated form, but something that comes out of the community experience."

Raised in downtown Manhattan by parents who were members of The Living Theatre, a cutting-edge, avant-garde theater group in the 1950s and ‘60s, Baba grew up watching his parents produce plays based on radical political themes. Rooted in a collective emphasis on bringing improvisational theater to the common people and spreading the concept of non-violence, the group would perform in the streets, on farms and in prisons.

In the here and now, Baba has taken inspiration from his Russian/Jewish-descendent parents, bringing hip-hop to the streets, community centers, schools and prisons, in addition to making a living sharing the stage with artists ranging from the Black Eyed Peas to Afrika Bambatta. "It’s about using hip-hop as a basis to build literacy and facilitate creative expression, [to] challenge youth to get into their own expression and think critically about music and the power of words," says Baba. "When I was growing up, hip-hop was a lot more balanced and positive and creative and uplifting. That did so much for me so that I feel like I have to bring continuity [to the scene]."

What’s happening in the New York scene, says Baba, is the emergence of an exciting counter-trend to the kind of MTV pap spoon-fed to youth across the country. "Over the past ten years, there’s been strong synergy between hip-hop and spoken word, recognizing hip-hop as a form of lyricism. Emcees in NY have deepened the possibilities of what you can say," explains Baba.

And that includes the possibilities of what emcees can do. For Baba, the expanded role of the emcee has included building a recording studio in a Queens public school in tandem with teaching kids how to write and rhyme, rapping in a klezmer band and learning to get down in the Russian underground club scene in NYC.

Through it all, Baba says it’s incumbent upon non-African American emcees to honor the origins of hip-hop as a Black art form. "I’ve always got to acknowledge where it comes from ... and it’s something I’d like to encourage other artists to do." With a profound respect for his fellow artists and his feet firmly planted in the creative culture of conscious hip-hop, Baba affirms that his own ethnicity has never posed a credibility problem. "If you come with sincerity and skill, you usually get respect," he says. "This is the culture that I know the best, and this is how I express myself."