Bahamadia is one of the most decorated artists in underground hip-hop. The Philadelphia emcee’s distinctive voice and smooth, yet impactful flow has captivated listeners since her 1993 DJ Ran-produced song “Funk Vibes” broke through—including late, great Gang Starr front-man Guru, who signed her to his production company (Ill Kid Records) and became her mentor in the mid ’90s. Her jazzy 1996 debut studio album Kollage is heralded as a classic and featured fellow Philly-natives The Roots (who also featured her on Illadelph Halflife that same year), as well as legendary producers like DJ Premier, Da Beatminerz and Ski Beatz.
Since then, she has gone on to release several projects and work with a diverse mix of collaborators, from Talib Kweli on the Reflection Eternal track “Chaos” for Rawkus Records’ celebrated Soundbombing mixtape series to Jedi Mind Tricks on their second album, Violent By Design. Whether rockin’ with Erykah Badu and Queen Latifah, Slum Village or Planet Asia, the Queen B has always represented for the culture and held her own as a lyricist.
Although she actually began her career as a percussionist and DJ, and music production has always been a passion, Bahamadia has forayed deeper into the craft with her latest project: a series of free-form EPs, each released as a seamless single track available for digital download, that she completely produced (and in some cases recorded) on her cell phone. While she rapped on the entire first installment of Dialed Up, which was released in 2013, she decided to recruit a dope lineup of other emcees including Geechi Suede (Camp Lo), Kev Brown, Rasco (Cali Agents) and Zumi (Zion I) to spit over her smartphone-produced beats for Dialed Up 2, only lending her own vocals to the project’s first cut.
UGHH got up with Bahamadia to discuss the relationship between hip-hop and technology, the ideation of the so-called “femcee” and working with Guru and DJ Premier, as well as her long-awaited upcoming studio album, Here.
First off, I wanna talk about your Dialed Up series. How did you come up with the concept? Was it born out of necessity, or did you just think it was a dope idea?
Actually, I had been toying around with the app for a while and came upon a stockpile of beats. After a while, I was like, “I need to lay some verses on ’em.” Next thing you know, it just evolved into that. Kinda like necessity too, in terms of wanting to just flesh my ideas out quickly—’cause sometimes, when you’re using hardware, it just takes a long time to get the idea where you want it to be.
To me, hip-hop has always been about innovation. It transformed turntables into full-fledged instruments that you can get lessons for, now. Do you see Dialed Up as an extension of that?
Certainly. I see music production as an extension of DJing, and I actually started out as a DJ before I was [rhyming]. I was always into poetry in my younger years, as a youth, but then I got into DJing. I was DJing first. Actually, percussion was first. That’s how it all began, and then the poetry, and then the DJing—when I got introduced to the park jams and the dollar party stuff and all of that (house parties). I feel like that’s an extension of it, you know what I mean? ‘Cause the DJ is the [one] who loops with the breaks, anyways, right?
What does producing music like this, on the go, do for you creatively? How does it affect the direction of your sound?
The direction of my sound is whatever it happens to be at the moment. On my first Dialed Up, [I made] the visual component to it because when I first did the audio component and put it up on Bandcamp, people didn’t believe that I actually did it [like that]—so I actually had to do a visual of it for them to see the process. It’s like a tutorial, as well. People, they like to be engaged. That’s the cool part about it; it’s the community. You get your support [and] tips—and everybody’s growing, and it’s like a collective of people creating on that piece. Even just feedback, [or] whatever. Again, the con to that is that people think that if they study every single aspect of what you’ve done—if they use the exact same tools that you use—if they even wear the same hat or do the same gestures or whatever, they think that those simulations are gonna impart that part of your creativity into them… That’s not the case. You would have always had to have had that to begin with. Anybody that’s an innovator, or people that are prolific or whatever, you’re always gonna have people that are gonna emulate, or attempt to emulate, what you do. It just comes with the territory. Everybody has to start somewhere and be inspired … but acknowledge the source—out of respect for the particular lane that you’re trying to develop, in yourself and your craft. That’s the issue. People discard people that have been before them, or that have laid down [the] foundation. There’s a lot of revisionism going around in the industry overall because of the internet, which is a very powerful and helpful tool for true DIY artists and entrepreneurs, and all of us in our culture. But the downside and the con, again, of that is there’s no balance and there’s no honor when it comes down to the practice of inspiration or evolving to another level with what you’ve been inspired from to begin with: the source. It’s crazy, because people come in and infiltrate our culture and exploit it. This is the only genre, this is the only culture, where they don’t honor the forefathers and mothers of the culture. In every facet of the culture, even in the business aspect, I think that people need to rethink that or we need to come up with some sort of mentor thing. In analyzing the whole spectrum of everything, I think that sometimes it’s because we haven’t had gatekeepers. We haven’t had those conversations start between the pioneers and the new school (the now generation) and the people that are currently dominating on the mainstream, and in the traditional underground or the indie scene. It’s too segregated.
Speaking to that, are there any up-and-coming artists that you’ve been checking for that you’d consider taking under your wing and mentoring?
Well, I’m open. I’ve been working with youth for a while—over a decade now. I do creative workshops and stuff like [that]. Mentoring, I’ve always been doing that. The people that I’m checking for? That varies. It depends on what my mood is at the time. I don’t really listen to commercial radio, but things that currently come up in my feed, like the Cardi B’s and people like that—or the Kendricks or just different people. I mean, it just varies. I’ma tell you this: somebody that’ll catch my ear is someone that’s being their authentic selves and doing something really amazing with their music and with their craft.
Speaking of Cardi B, I actually wanted to talk to you about women emcees and the current ideation of the “female rapper.” I know you’ve spoken a lot about hypersexualization of women in the music industry and I was curious to know what you think about the success of Cardi B?
Hip-hop was founded on people, inner city youth, making something out of nothing, right? Celebrating your resilience, celebrating expanding things on being your authentic self and expressing yourself from an authentic place—being 100% who you are, right? Did she not do that, from social media to her current success in the mainstream?
I think so. Definitely.
That’s what I’m saying. For the people that argue that that’s not hip-hop, or the success is not whatever, whatever… I don’t even get into that conversation. That’s like politics and religion to me. I just don’t even have that, but I will say that building that presence from social media, from a free platform, to turning it into what she’s become—that’s to be commended. From a business standpoint, from just an entrepreneurial standpoint, and then as a woman in a male-dominated industry… It is what it is, but I just really, really have a lot of respect for the way her career has unfolded and what it’s become, and who she’s become as an individual.
Do you think that a woman can celebrate her sexuality on the mic and still be [considered] a boss, and can a woman’s sexuality ever empower her—or do you just see it as a promotional tool imposed by a male dominated industry?
I think that it depends on what the objective and the goals are of the artist or the business people that are promoting [that] particular imagery. There just definitely needs to be a balance, because for every sexualized female in the industry, there is definitely a b-girl component to it—or a person that’s in the middle of the two. I think that our voices have been marginalized and … oppressed, as women, in every industry. I think that our voices are varied, and I think that every component of femininity should be celebrated and acknowledged and respected—’cause we have a right to express ourselves the way we determine to express ourselves. And in terms of femininity, I think only women should have the authority to define what femininity actually is, though. If we’re talking about the business of music, [there’s] the cliché “sex sells”—but to me it depends on the goal, and if we talking about authentic hip-hop culture or we talking about rap music from a commercial standpoint. Those are two different conversations, and I think people need to make the distinction between the two when talking about the success of mainstream artists or pop artists, as opposed to traditional or authentic hip-hop artists—’cause they’re two different dynamics. They’re totally two different things.
What do you think about the term “femcee?”
Oh my god, what is it? [Laughs]. What is it? [Laughs]. Is there a “mencee” out there? [Laughs].
[Laughs]. Right. I hear you. Let’s talk, real quick if you can, about Here. You’ve been working on the album for a while now. Is there anything you can share about its progress?
Some of the delay was because I had a personal [tragedy]. One of the first major delays or readjustments was my mom had passed away.
I’m sorry to hear that.
That kind of blow—it took me a while to get my senses together and just focus in on the music… Then it was some sample clearance issues—because, me putting out my own stuff now, I just don’t want any possibility of anybody coming back and talking about this and that when it comes to publishing and the whole headache—clearances and all that. A few things came on my radar that couldn’t be cleared and all this kind of stuff—and it was some changes too. You know, I grew from the time that I first started it to when my mom transitioned. My mindset… I was just a different person. That’s what’s been taking so long with it. I even had the cover art and the main core of the project done. It’s just that some of things, they no longer serve their purpose on the project. Sonically, I had to do some things that compliment what the core of the project is.
Are you producing a lot of Here, or is it mostly other producers?
I got a few other producers, but yeah, I’m on there. I got one of my phone beats on there.
Dope! Who are some of the other producers you’ve got involved.
Georgia Anne Muldrow is on there. She was on Stones Throw and all that. She got some really cool stuff. She works with everybody—jazz people [and] soul people. An amazing programmer and keyboardist. She’s really dope—and then Astronote. Did something with him, [J Brown] and a cool friend from the UK, Ty. I didn’t really go out after people. I wasn’t gon’ play the whole politics [thing]. I’m not chasin’ you down. I’m not gonna try to sell the vision. I’m established. I’m not doin’ all of that. I feel like at a certain point in your career, you shouldn’t have to be in the position to feel like you gotta audition for beats—and I’m not doin’ none of that… The people that showed respect and got the vision, those are the people that I work with. But I’ve always been like that, though, in my collaborations (for the most part).
You’ve worn many hats throughout your career: DJ, poet, emcee, radio show host and more… Do you want to dive even deeper into production, and would you say that’s like the next stage of your musical evolution—producing records for other artists on their own projects? Anything like that?
That’s actually how I started. That’s how I became an artist, because I always actually wanted to help develop artists, write for artists and build artists—build brands, in that way. But I could never get nobody to be serious, so I wound up being that person—and it just evolved into me making my first record and all of this stuff and became the career. But yeah, I definitely do. I definitely see myself at the helm of coordinating projects, even producing. Yup, all different facets—and also integrating the technology into it too, ’cause that’s just where we are and that’s where my interest lies (specifically with the educational component of it).
So it’s safe to say that you’ve always incorporated that DIY mentality, from day one. Even when you were workin’ with Guru in the ‘90s on Ill Kid Records, you’ve always had that control over your art?
Yeah, ’cause Guru was a support like that. Premier, as well. They were two people that really gave me the first lessons—the first industry people, and [Ladybug] Mecca from Digable Planets. They was the first three people that had a major impact in the industry and in our culture at that time that told me, “You can control your career and your vision. It should be 100% yours. It’s your voice.” Premier, he would tell me, “Don’t let the labels rush you into finishing your project, ’cause at the end of the day you’ll have to live with it.” And Guru just gave me carte blanche with the whole situation. I was actually in his production company, and he let me like basically dictate how I wanted the vision to go for the project—so I thought that was really awesome. Actually, I thought that was standard practice, [until] I found out that it really wasn’t. When I started, I had creative control from day one.
It is dope.
So, from the outside looking in, it would kinda seem that you’re approaching Here with a much different mentality than the Dialed Up series. You’re sitting on it. You’re making changes based on your life changes, and revisiting and taking things off. Do you think that Dialed Up was or is in any way kind of a response to the stress or thought that goes into putting together a studio album?
I feel like Dialed Up is like my release. The music is doin’ studio albums. That’s therapeutic, but the process is a little bit more intense—because it’s more focused and it’s more work. Dialed Up and projects like that, it’s just me—it’s a woman that just loves hip-hop, that just loves beats, and that’s just what you hear and see. It’s no nothing involved—so it is kind of like stress reliever. Yeah, it is—it’s an escape. Sometimes you can get kind of confined to the routine, once you become a professional artist. It kind of becomes routine, even if you have an eclectic approach to making your music. It still has a tense of formulaic aspects to it, in order for it to be powerful to your listeners. Even if they’re your core die-hard fans, they still expect a certain quality or level of art from you—and there is a formula for that. But when you doing some freeform stuff (live performance, improv, that kind of stuff), I guess you could kind of [compare] it to jazz musicians in that way—where they improv live, as opposed to studio work.
That’s a dope way of looking at it.
Thank you for even having me think on that, ‘cause I wasn’t even considering that. I was just doing it. It’s fun [laughs].
[Laughs]. That’s how it should be, right?
Yup, yup! But it can be something much more, and that’s why I’m serious about it too.