“No Matter How Long You do This it Always Feels New”: An Interview with Husalah

Miguelito talks with Husalah about his new album, 'H,' painting, and becoming a master.
By    June 17, 2018

There’s no smoking allowed in Los Feliz’ Griffith Park and the rule is strictly enforced. On a cool afternoon this spring, at a soccer pitch not far from the base of its mountains, a patrolling officer confronts Husalah and his associates for breaking the rules. Mid-response, the Pittsburg, CA native stops to intercept the officer’s questioning, supplying enough charm to diffuse any potential escalation.

“Man, he got the drop on y’all didn’t he?” says the rapper once we settle, leaning back into a chuckle and adjusting a golden Sade shrine hanging from his neck.

Compared to his friends, Husalah is relaxed, laughing almost flippantly about what just occurred, resuming the conversation’s momentum. “You’re going to get some wonky energy from time to time, but what matters is how you adjust with it,” he says while peering over my shoulder to watch a family play soccer behind me.

The 36-year old San Francisco Bay area legend was a teen when he and childhood friends The Jacka, Fed-X, and Rydah J. Klyde began rapping. Later they added rapper AP9 to the roster and formalized themselves as Mob Figaz on AWOL don C-Bo’s 1999 album of the same name. He tells me that album helped establish “traditionalist, old school, Bay mob music”. His following two solo albums, 2006’s Dope, Guns, and Religion and 2007’s Hustlin’ Since the ‘80s, develop the margins of that tradition he’d help birth the previous decade. If “Project GTA” is a public and canonical hustler’s invocation (with one of the earliest accusations of “computer thuggin’”), the following year’s “Talk it Out” is an intimate meditation on how the former song’s mindset affects his psyche and legacy (“I make music for killers who make music”).

Rapping is inseparable from his formative years, but his love for soccer came earlier. He started playing as a way to avoid running long distances for boxing conditioning (“[Our trainer] said you don’t have to run…play a game of soccer. But, if you lose, you still gotta run…You gone play hard”). Husalah believes it’s his “natural sport” and there’s a touch of longing as he see others practice around us. He glances down at his watch, a World Cup edition Hublot designed for soccer matches. We were supposed to play, but there was a miscommunication and no one brought a ball. His frustration from the mixup was visible but short-lived. A wave of zen-like acceptance reset his focus, previewing his talk of ‘energy’ and ‘perspective’ and elucidating the more abstract principles he’d mention in the interview.

He’s cultivated this attitude through arduous circumstances, including a prison stint in the mid-2000s for a nonviolent drug offense and, more recently, the 2015 passing of fellow Mob Figaz member Jacka. Both factors contributed to an eleven-year hiatus from music, save the occasional loosie or guest verse. He made his official return earlier this year with H, his first album since Hustlin’ Since the ‘80s, and it’s a reflection of his versatility. At some moments, he delivers anthems in his “Bay area mob tradition”, like the bruising and schizophrenic “M.O.B.” At others, H also shows Hus sliding into banta and cumbia rhythms on tracks “Mi Encanta” and “Cyan Stop Me.” “This [album, H] is kinda me laying down different styles or formats without obligation,” he says before pausing to assess that statement.

During the conversation, I can see his synthesizing process. He’ll correct thoughts mid-sentence, sometimes after the discussion has moved to another topic, qualifying a take to satisfy internal counterarguments. Keeping pace with him is rewarding, watching polarities of existence balance out in a slick-talking, self-aware hustler. He “represents a traditionalist culture” while offering ways to improve it, flips word connotations for emphasis (“This is the mind of a sociopath on a righteous path” — “Nyeusi”) and politely answers questions after disagreeing with their premises.

He doesn’t focus on the specifics of his history or the logistics of making an album, preferring to use questions as vehicles to iterate a general philosophy and treating incidental details as such. Before the recording, Husalah discovered I’m from South Carolina and began with his account of the state. Whether discussing the Bay’s car culture or ruminating on the term ‘vessel,’ he speaks with a genuine visceral vision that doesn’t feel pedantic because its toughest subject is himself. —Miguelito

Husalah: I know about [South Carolina] from the Pee Dee River area to Jackson, man. I’ve been everywhere. The horses are fast down there.

You visit horse races in the South?

Husalah: Yeah if it’s there when I pull up on a Sunday or something I’ll do a little bit if I’m there, but I don’t seek it out or know the names of horses or anything like that.

Do you gamble much?

Husalah: Naw, not a gambling man. I’m a hustler. When you work hard for something, when you labor for things, you’re more reluctant to gamble it. I’m not into gambling like that.

[Noting his Sade chain] An example of something you worked for. How long have you had that?

Husalah: Uh shit, I don’t know. This shit is all material man, I don’t keep track of it. I don’t even keep track of time like that.

Do you know what day it is right now?

Husalah: Depends, do you follow the Gregorian calendar or not? I don’t really get caught up in that. I’m an essential guy. I’m into the essentials, if that makes sense. The bottom line, I’m a bottom line kinda guy. Most people start at the complexities and work to the bottom line, but I start there and then work out from that. Sometimes time and stress go together, you know what I mean? Time can create stress. So anything that can create negativity and stress I try not to worry about. It can make me seem like a procrastinator or like I don’t care or something.

But [time]’s a form of constriction. Someone says, ‘Well I’m 25 or 35,’ ‘Tom Brady is this age and he’s supposed to hit this wall,’ but he’s playing in a Super Bowl. Or someone goes, ‘You’re too young to do this.’ No, no I’m not. I’m old enough, ‘I’m gonna win the belt’ or whatever, you know what I mean? When you can avoid an unnecessary constriction or boundary you should.

Do you feel constricted?

Husalah: Things are going well, pretty well, right now. I got different struggles now. Just as any human develops, you know, we go through stages. No matter if you have this degree or accolade, there’s always more. Something else to try and master outside in other pursuits…unforeseen events.

Life’s always renewing, rebirthing. We go to sleep and wake up, constantly in a cycle of consciousness and unconsciousness and that’s how life works. So that’s about it. [I’m] handling this project coming out and the new struggles it brings. No matter how long you do this it always feels new.

Are you trying to master anything right now?

Husalah: I’m not trying to master anything. I believe there’s no mastering anything, really. You can focus on a certain skill, but to master something means it would be done. Again the bottom line, what’s a master in relation to a skill? He just does it. It’s done. Right now I’m just working. But to kind of answer your question, I’m trying to “master” effort, applying myself. Going forth in certain directions that are conducive to what I’m trying to do. That’s about it. I’m pretty nonchalant. I don’t put too much weight on things ’cause it causes friction. I’m just going along with it and pushing. I use instincts. You put a project out and people respond this way, so it’s like, ‘Okay let’s try it this way next time.’

You frequently use cars to pose with on album covers. Tell me about the car culture in Pittsburg.

Husalah: [Laughs] I’m a car guy. On Dope, Guns, & Religion it was a ‘75 Delta Convertible on 26 inch rims and H was a ‘77 Caprice Aerocoupe on 22 inch gold. That pays homage to where I came from, the traditional style, aesthetic. The aesthetic I grew up with. I guess it’s a nonchalant way of stunting. You know it’s cool and act like it’s nothing. That’s old school style, white t-shirt and jeans, leather suit, gold chains. It’s like me paying homage to my heritage. Like somebody being next to a stagecoach with a Henry Repeating.

We’re heavy into muscle cars. We look like white boys when you see us, rootin’ tootin’ South Carolina cowboys. Heavy into Chevy Chevelles, ‘69 Camaros, you know what I’m saying? Drag racing, horsepower, American muscle. Dodge Mopar. We have foreign cars too in the Bay Area hustler culture, but you gotta have something that’s running. Something with some nuts, you know what I’m saying? If not, you’re left out. Built not bought is what they say. We call it flippin’ old school mobs, mob shots, glass houses, Caprices. In South Carolina they call ‘em donks, we call them mobs. It’s our particular flavor in the Bay.

I’m intertwined with the Bay in that respect and really with all things. I’m from there. Whether it’s my car preferences or Pan-African thought, George Jackson, stuff like that. I wouldn’t say the music so much because I’m tied with that history and a part of it, it’s more something that was created out of that environment.

I don’t really get influenced from music to tell you the truth. As an artist, you’ll eventually evolve past something you admired. As a musician, if you want music to be a source of inspiration you’re setting yourself up for failure. You need to tap into a higher power of creativity or something and learn to cultivate on your own if you wanna be truly satisfied with it. Other than that you’re just emulating something…You know even when you’re emulating it’ll be unique because it’s your own representation. Like some OGs say, ‘Ain’t nothing wrong with being a copycat as long as you’re copying the right cat.’

If something is a tradition and culture, people will draw from it. Everybody’s gonna have their own take on it. So you want people to draw from what you’ve done…I do draw from a lot of people. My influences are not just limited to the Bay area, though. Obviously, C-Bo put us on to a lot of game. I feel like he’s the best of all time, in my list. Even before I even worked with him, you know to meet people like that…it’s past music. That’s why music is special because it’s more than music. You hear that a lot, ‘It’s more than music,’ but it’s not just restricted to music, you know what I mean? It’s directly connected to streets and the neighborhoods, areas, bloodlines, fathers, mothers, shit like that.

What’s an influence that extends beyond the Bay?

Husalah: Sade’s Love Deluxe. It’s different with me. I think different, so things that apply to other people don’t apply to me. One of my favorite albums of all time is Deftones’ White Pony, shit like that is my favorite shit. I don’t even know why. You know there are times when I wanted to like other music but it just didn’t work for me. If it gives you the goosebumps and you think it’s the shit, it’s what you’re looking for. That’s what I draw from, the feeling. Of course there are usual legends but there’s music from all over that inspires people.

[Interaction with the cop. Before we regroup, Husalah spends a few minutes convincing me to find lost relatives in Cuba.]

I’m not gonna hold you up though, keep going with your questions.

No, this can go wherever. We can talk about Cuba.

Husalah: I’m a psychological profiler and this [interaction] is unique.

In a bad way?

Husalah: No, no. What’s bad? There’s no such thing as bad.

You don’t think so? Do you think it’s a matter of perspective?

Husalah: I mean, if you acknowledge it then you feed into [badness]. It’s like a cause and effect. Even if there is something that can cultivate some negative energy, its effect will push all your energy into the [re]action you know what I’m saying? For example, if somebody wrongs you, don’t feed into the middle part, go for the bottom line, you know what I mean? If you’ve got a vendetta or need revenge and you’re sitting and sulking, considering and pining whatever they may or may not have done, that’s not gonna help you. Get straight to the root, the resolution. These are the small things you can do to increase the quality of your life, make it a little better. You gotta be fanatical about that shit, that thinking.

It’s enjoyable because a lotta people don’t think like that. You thinking like that, you’ll actually love it. It just becomes perpetual motion. Becoming fanatical about something can lead to previously unseen benefits, too. You’ll say, ‘This progressive thinking I’m doing is causing other things to happen.’ People talk about blessings a lot, and some of it is the higher power, but a lot of it just the energy, you know, the universe is real, too. That’s why when you say things like your questions I’ll react in a certain way. Not to be sounding like a philosopher or like I’m so deep or something, just so you can kinda get a feel for how I am.

Last year in an interview you were asked about your creative process with respect to writing and your answer was very nonchalant, as you’ve described yourself. You said, “It depends on how I feel.” Could you elaborate on that?

Husalah: As far as the creative process, we’re humans and we have emotions and self-will. We’ve been blessed with will. We have the will to go in certain directions. We’re not bound so much as other things to be what they are. We have a say. I kind of let the music guide me. It’s almost like I see it. I see the music. I see the process. People can say I’m great and this and that, but I’m just tracing something. I’ve collected so much in the rolodex, the storage, the terabytes, whatever you wanna call it in the brain, and it manifests in that process. Like people say they see the paintings before they paint them. Most people don’t know I’m a visual artist as well. It’s one of my favorite things to do. I feel music’s not even my strong point.

What mediums do you use?

Husalah: Everything. Any medium that has to do with creativity. But also acrylic paint. I’ve studied a little bit formally and tried to emulate certain artists to learn techniques.

My point being though, I look at a wall and I see something. I see what I’m trying to do. Whether I see it, look away, come back to something different, it’s what I do. It’s what I trace. It’s not like this big technical thing that I maybe wanna take credit for and say I’m a genius. It’s something that belongs there, so I place it there.

I’m a vessel, an instrument. I don’t know what you wanna call it. I see and/or hear what belongs in places and go from there. That’s with actions too, reactions, emotions, conversation. Placing what you feel belongs there from your perspective. Your best interpretation of it. That’s what my music process is about. It’s not a huge technical thing, it’s tapping into the natural, the divine energy. ‘I’m intrigued by this melody, okay, let’s make it solo sound.’ ‘Hey we got this horn loop.’ ‘We know we enjoy bass, put the heavy thunder there.’ Next thing you know you put these pieces together and you realize, ‘Okay, that’s where the bongos go.’ Just like a puzzle.

Do you mostly feel passive during this process?

Husalah: Yeah, but I wanna clarify and say I’m not a vessel. I don’t wanna say I’m being guided by anything specific. To be a vessel you have to be guided by something specific.

I’m just me. You feel like this sentence should go in that place, so you put it there. It’s up to them, the audience, how they respond to it. Same with me. Sometimes they respond well. Other times they may not. So it’s pretty interesting and fun. It’s something I enjoy and I’ve never been…maybe I’ve prepared myself and put the work in so that I’m not nervous in the studio. I’m ready. Stressed? I don’t feel that. Don’t stress yourself. Don’t constrict yourself.

Sometimes I might think the beat is whack. But, hey, some people like whack beats. Give it a go. What’s your interpretation? How can you add to it? That’s pretty much where I’m at with that.

Earlier you were talking about being drawn to melodies in instrumentals. Is that usually what hooks you?

Husalah: It depends, there’s no structure at all, really.

You seem to like using horns.

Husalah: Yeah, to date, you know what I’m saying? Sounds can captivate you, so I try to study that. Experiment with what people respond well to. Sometimes it happens to be a beat. I’m not gon’ take all the credit, sometimes my brothers come with a dope beat and I rap on it.

You rap in Spanish a decent amount on H. How did Latin culture influence you growing up?

Husalah: You know, it was intertwined in my existence. I grew up around Latin people. I just included my neighbors, my people. Giving props to the music of my people. I’m a connoisseur of beauty, [with respect to] people, places, and things. I enjoy cumbia music, so I included it in my record.

I think [“Mi Encanta”] is one of the first banda-style mob era song with slap. Can you find another one? I know Texas has some crunk cumbia and some slowed-down screwed shit. I like jazz, too. But whatever I like, maybe somebody will listen to that and be inspired and do something even better.

You seem removed from the politics of music and happy with that decision.

Husalah: The word you’re looking for is a microcosm. I’m a microcosm and I take pride in being a microcosm. There’s a song by [reggae trio] Mighty Diamonds that goes “No man is an island, no man stands alone,” so I’m humbled by that notion as well. I mean, I’m not the only person in the world, obviously, but I take pride in my individuality. I’m an individual and I’ve put a lot of energy into that and that tradition I come from. Me and my brother Jack, rest in peace. Being our own muse. Becoming doper than you can fucking imagine. There’s no format for that though, you gotta find a way to do it. So to be doper than you’ve ever imagined, you have to dig. You have to do some shit.

You gotta be like Nikola Tesla or whatever the fuck his name is. ‘I’m betting everything on this, fuck this General Electric contract.’ It might not make the most sense from a lucrative standpoint to put all your resources into something that’s out of this world, but it may. Three or four hundred years from now, we’ll know its impact. This conversation we’re having, we’ll know what it became.

I know for sure I ain’t gon’ be no fuckin’ mediocre musician. Not gonna be a dude who’s just, ‘I rapped about selling dope, I did this, I did that.’ I’m not finna do that. There was a time in my life I did that, and I did it well and people liked it.

Talk about the polarities on an album that ranges from songs like “Don’t Die,” a message to the next generation, to, well, “Humpin.”

Husalah: Aw yeah, hell yeah. Well you know, people want it. This is kinda me laying down different styles or formats without obligation. I may wanna do a full album of a certain style, however not yet, can’t do that yet. There are restrictions for everybody, nobody is exempt from anything. So I’m obligated to my brothers. I don’t mean I have to make their music again or emulate them, but I have to keep displaying how we do things. Our train of thought, school of thought. The sauce from this era and that era. There might be moments where I remind you of past artists because I gotta preserve that and keep it going. In a way you get the power to resurrect people or ideas. You’ll never actually resurrect that person but you can convey the same feelings to your shared audience.

Music has power. Anytime you create there are gems you can stumble on. I realized I can pay homage to my brothers. I’m a traditionalist, very much an old-fashioned guy. If it seems like I’m an innovator or pushing the envelope, I’m a traditionalist.

You’ve mentioned before that you took a break from music to stay connected with your roots. Now it seems you’re using music to help stay connected.

Husalah: Yeah. At the end of the day we’re humans, man. Things can change, dynamics can change. To be the best you can be, you better find that source that keeps you sharp and who you need to be. It’s just what it is. It’s evolution. It’s like playing sports. You might be the Patriots for three years but on that fourth year they know your plays, you know what I mean? You gotta re-create yourself and strategize. When you’re intertwined in the fabric of evolution, you have to find a way to maintain what you are and who you are instead of just forcing out music.

When you have the courage enough to acknowledge that, that’s empowering in itself, ’cause you’re like, ‘Man I’m not fixin’ to force something.’ I’ll try [laughs]. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll try. Most of the time we’ll try ’cause we need the money. We’re like, ‘You know what, I’ll give it a go.’ But there’s nothing wrong with saying you’ll come back to it. It’ll be there.

Was H recorded recently or stitched together from older music?

Husalah: A mix of everything. Stuff that was two years old and two days old. I’m very malcontent with music, so my boy and manager PK, he put together the list and said, ‘This is it.’ I went to check it at first, but I knew if I did I’d find something to critique. So I procrastinated until I had to give the approval for release. The only thing I did was move up “Mi Encanta” the second track. ‘Put something that knocks first, like “Can’t Stop Me,” and I know they’ll love the next one ’cause it’s one of my favorites.’

I’m fortunate to have some great critics, most of the time these dudes are pretty accurate. Y’all do great work that I respect [at Passion of the Weiss] too. I hear nothing but good things [about the site] from my people too. You might say I’m the Jeff Weiss of rap [laughs].

I mean of course you got your ego, but I feel like nothing is my best work. Nothing is perfect. You might hear it’s classic or perfect from other people, and it might be classic, but not perfect. That’s almost scientifically impossible.

Is it difficult to listen to your own music?

Husalah: No, I make so much music that if any of it’s difficult, I won’t listen to it. Not until I decide it’s a good one. I didn’t like a lot of that album [H]. But it comes and it goes. Sometimes you think it’s amazing and other times you don’t. It feels like there’s a divine energy behind the music sometimes that makes me understand it. ‘Why would you question it? Why did this make you nervous?’ I’ll ask myself that. Everything is emotions and in flux.

Me and P were watching something where the dude was talking “mercury retrograde” and all that, but the way he explained it…he was bullshitting somebody…but it was dope how he said it. It made sense to me. It just fit. The stars aligned for me you could say, so the music made sense again. What do they call it? Divine intervention?

I just trust the process and don’t rush nothing. I definitely don’t compromise the music for the sake of time or an outside element that’s not beneficial to it. I believe I’m great and when you believe you’re great you start realizing you can be greater. And greater is better than great.

Have you always felt like you’re great?

Husalah: I always knew. Even when I didn’t feel great I knew my potential. I didn’t have limitations as a kid. If I was a certain grade and a guy touched the rim [of the basketball goal], shit I can do it too. ‘Nobody in 6th grade can touch the rim.’ Well that guy just got close and I know I can whoop his ass so let’s see. It was a thing like that for me. I felt like nothing was difficult, and maybe I’ve never realized that until this moment. I believe that, no matter how hard or difficult it is, if it’s scientifically possible you can do it. If you deem it impossible, that’s on you.

Maybe I had grandiose thoughts that led to entitlement, because you gotta do the work. You can’t just think and believe it. The doing it part is what I had to work on. I knew I was great though. That’s kinda where I’m at with that. Not to sound all intellectual and shit. When I have these interviews I realize I sound like that. I’ve got a comical side, a theoretical side, I don’t know…I don’t know what I’m doing. We’re just here. It’ll make sense in a couple hundred years, maybe it’ll make sense tomorrow.

I make music to inspire other people to be great. I’ve realized people believing in themselves is a rare thing. People limit themselves. Of course there’s no shortage of vanity, but I believe if we build a culture of people believing in themselves, something good can come out of it. I guess inspiring people is one of my favorite things. Do something great and maybe you won’t hate other people for being great or put negative energy on them. If a motherfucker realize they’re worth something, you won’t have to belittle people or be a pessimistic person. Let’s be fanatical about this.

‘Fanatic’ tends to have a negative connotation, but you use it in a positive sense.

Husalah: Of course, man. I like doing that. Like the words maniac, psychopath, animal—you don’t always have to tie that stuff to negative shit. Some of these words have a strong energy you can channel either way depending on your perspective. Like I said, it’s all perspective, so when you recondition you get rid of things binding yourself. It’s beyond human comprehension. People take these things for granted, but I’m interested in it.

What non-music endeavors are you interested in going forward?

Husalah: I’m focused on my family and health right now. I wanna get into top form again physically. I’m vain. I believe I’m handsome and wanna remain handsome, so I’m gonna drink water.

I don’t consider myself a guru or anything like that. When I talk like this it’s not to get praise or acknowledgement or have people tell me I should write books and shit. I do it because we’re having an experience, communicating, and that’s something that’s necessary. We’re both going for the same thing. We’re the same. Trying to elevate and achieve. You want the check, happiness, comfort? I want all that too. So yeah, it’s all perspective.

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