Throughout the artistic development of the African diaspora in the Western hemisphere, the ancestry of music has been a creative vein explored by some of the finest minds this world has ever seen. What we now call Afrofuturism, a term coined in 1993 by writer Mark Dery, is a philosophy of a future filled with the creativity of alien African minds, harboring time and energy on themes that recognize the dialogue between the future and the ancestors who came before us. It’s been a cultural current running through America for generations. However, in the ’50s, a young jazz pioneer in Chicago (by way of Saturn) operating under the name of Sun Ra put a face to the movement. Sun Ra synthesized a developing Afrocentric consciousness – one that recognized the African origins of humanity, admired contributions made by past grand civilizations in Egypt (Kemet), with an awareness of the cutting-edge extraterrestrial world that America was, at the time, beginning to become aware of in its Space Age.
This sentiment of projecting blackness into a future where it plays a significant role – outside of the racial alienation that minimizes its reach, and outside of a divided America – has progressed with successive generations. Bearing fruit with the George Clinton’s Mothership Connection, the seminal sci-fi works of Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, and Sophia Stewart would later provide enough of an impression on the Wachowski brothers to go on to make The Matrix, and the visionary compositions of Basquiat that completely changed and shaped the New York art scene.
It’s one thing to participate within the musical tradition of your community and remain comfortable with the sonic boundaries set by those before you. Gregory Shorter Jr., better known to us as Ras G, with every one of his releases through the famously unconventional Leaving Records label, has been a part of the vanguard consistently – with his leftfield output challenging and clashing the status quo of what we call “the beat scene.” Building on a template much influenced by the esteemed work of Sun Ra and Parliament Funkadelic, and hybridizing that with the distinctive West Coast funk endemic. From the soundscapes of Los Angeles, he has, through time, been able to mold together an aural mythology strictly authentic to his artistry.
Having been a prominent contributor to the beat scene that sprung out of LA in the early 2000s – and later became a worldwide phenomenon – it was a great honor to meet up with the captain of Afrikan Space Program and pick the mind of a living legend. We spent the day in the famous black creative neighborhood of Leimert Park where he’s based, engulfed in Nag Champa – and went through origin stories, the golden age of Aron’s Records, Brainfeeder’s early days, the Inter- and Outernet, DJing in LA before there was a beat scene, and the timelessness of Sun Ra.
SENAY KENFE: Live and direct in the Space Base in a galaxy near you. I’m here with the world famous Afronaut, better known to the world as Ras G. How’s it going?
RAS G: Always real, all is real, in the world, on the planet.
It’s good to be here. There’s definitely a mood that you feel when you step into the Space Base, which is your terrestrial studio here that you create in. How would you describe the energy that exudes out of this place?
I don’t know, you in my brain, you tell me. How do you feel? How do you feel? What does my mind do to you?
I feel like it’s just – it feels natural. It’s very telling of the area that we’re in. It feels like a reflection of Leimert Park. Always been a hub of creativity. When I first heard of you, it was partly from Brotha from Anotha Planet – that was a dope release you had. The releases that you had through Brainfeeder have always been left field of what we traditionally think of the LA beat scene. Why do you think people place you as forever progressive? Everything sounds different – is that on purpose?
I just write – it’s free – it’s all my elements coming together to make up new music. My releases don’t have any so-called one style or one feeling. Music comes from life and life has many different feelings and different moods and those moods can be invoked. That’s what I do.
So sound is just an instrument for you to showcase your mood at the moment, would you say?
At the time, the season – it’s a mark. It’s a mark in my journey.
Right, and it’s definitely a journey that reverberates with a lot of people I think, primarily, because it manifests as very Afrofuturist – I mean, look around the room. Sun Ra…
You say futurists, I say timeless. Time encompasses everything, the past, the present, and the future. So I say timeless.
What is time to you?
Everything and nothing. It’s the beginning and end and everything.
I think I first saw you years and years ago digging. You are a crazy vinyl digger, when did that first start for you would you say?
About ’97, ’98.
Yeah, because I feel like when I first saw you when I was real younger, I think it was at Aron’s Records or something. Can you tell people about Aron’s Records? Because most people that dig in LA, currently, they have this concept of what a big record store is like Amoeba.
Aron’s wasn’t so much a big store, it just had a lot of everything that you needed, the essentials. Once you knew what you want – it was about new and used records, it was one of my favorite record stores. A lot of people there, a lot of good in there; that was my spot. If I ever had a record store that was like the store I was at all the time, it was Aron’s Records. I was there all the time.
When you were there was that where you used to start to meet a lot of people who would later become very influential and who became the LA beat scene?
Yeah. That’s how I met Kutmah in there, I met J Rocc there, I met a lot of people. Eric Coleman. A lot of cats man.
That’s very interesting that you got Kutmah because he’s a very big figure in the community here, in LA now. Because DiBia$e told me about how he used to bring the boom box out at the Sketchbook shows that Kutmah was throwing. He talks about Sketchbook because that’s a precursor to what now is Low End Theory.
Sketchbook’s pretty much started that. So many people were already into beats, all kinds of beats… They were the dudes that who was in the record stores at the time while everybody else was like, “Okay, we’re going to do this spot.” Get the spot, you all came to support it. That’s all I really wanted to hear at that time, so I was there early because, like I said, I was at Aron’s Records so I knew all these people and I supported them. So that’s how I started.
I know it’s ridiculous and such a big thing now, this idea of people playing just instrumentals; just beat. But can you talk about how different it was at the time to be in this hip-hop world and being like, “I just want to play the beats”? How people looked at you?
People were into it but it wasn’t so big. I mean, give credit to the heads at the time – they would listen, but eventually they would be mad at you because you were just playing beats. “I want to hear those vocals.” It was like, “Nah, the beats, the beats kill, I can listen to the beat forever.” I got certain records I ain’t never played the vocals on. I was DJing – the vocal will be brand new – instrumental or an album. That was just a certain time when everyone wasn’t into beats, but from there it kind of grew more once people started making shit happen. People were into it.
“THEY WOULD LISTEN, BUT EVENTUALLY, THEY WOULD BE MAD AT YOU BECAUSE YOU WERE JUST PLAYING BEATS.”
You got a Myspace, which is a good point to go off on because I was an earlier Myspace friend of yours – not that you’d remember, you had so many [laughs]. But Myspace was a great avenue for a lot of beat cats to spread their music, specifically you. I saw you at the Afrikan Space Program and the first time I saw it was on Myspace. How did that early interaction with the Internet help spread your movement?
Shit, got to meet some of the overseas people whose records I was playing at the time. A year or two before Low End, it helped a whole lot. Like I said, we were just making beats at that time. Me and myself, I didn’t know people who were listening to it. Myspace was like a platform to give out your beats so I was like, “Okay, I’ll do this, this is cool.” Before that, I wasn’t even hella into the Internet, except for looking at what was the new instrumental out all the time. I wasn’t really trying to do online shit, I wasn’t in chat rooms, and all that shit at the time.
Myspace came and that was the whole thing that got me into Myspace, I could upload my beats. “Okay, I’ll sign up for this shit.” It’s been crazy ever since, the Internet has been in effect since then.
Describe that divide between the Internet and the outernet.
The outernet man, that’s what you put out there, it comes from within. Some people are careless so they put out a great thing to the outernet. Understand from the Internet to the outernet to connect with people, they see you got a true Internet, and they love you for that. Truth over a lie. They don’t really understand their Internet.
Yeah, I think a lot of people don’t understand the symbology behind a lot of their actions and it shows.
Truth, it’s a tool that can be used for you or it can be used against you, I use it for myself.
Can you talk about your connection with the [Roland] SP and how you picked that up? Because I feel like you, as a performer, [and] as a part of this movement of people, have hugely popularized the SP-404, -505, throughout the beat world and production side. How did you make it through that tour?
Well, first I started with the SP-303 – in my opinion. Like I said, I didn’t understand the freeness of the tour, it was just all MPC at that time. I remember – everybody was like, “Yeah, this is weird.” “Okay, that’s cool, whatever.” Then I showed them how to use it, they still don’t get it. At that time I was still on a crazy tour, I played the tour it was crazy, I don’t know how they do that shit. Then Lotus was like, “No, it ain’t no tour, you gotta fuck with it.” I went into a pawnshop one day like, “Let me see what this thing does.”
At that time, I was making beat tapes and I didn’t have a computer or a CD burner. My little league rapper tapes, [MPC] what Zedd did – all this shit, all the way from Carson to Pasadena on the bus. My man Black Monk burned a beat CD for me. Too many beats, couldn’t find beats, it was just a crazy scramble during that era.
So one day I got the bright idea, when I was sampling something, using an SP, “Oh, shit, there’s a bunch of time on here.” Not Em’s song, but I sampled something and it just kept going and I got the mastered version and it was like, “Oh, maybe I can put the beats in here and take these beats from here and just take it to someone’s house and record the beats like that.” As I’m doing that I’m thinking, “Damn. I could play a show like this.”
So once I got that thought, there were two SP-303’s I was working with. The first tour I went on to London, I had two SP-303s. I couldn’t afford a 404 on way on the tour, so I took two 303s and it allowed me, at that time, to do an hour set. It gave me thirty minutes each. From there on, I bought the SP-404. Just like I said, it was already mastered in my brain – how I could lay it out and what to do with it. So that’s what you see me doing on stage.
Like I said, a few other people started picking up on it; I see people doing it.
A lot of people, I would say, when they listen to your music, they’re most connected with the analog sound of it. It has a lot of texture. Your sound makes me feel like [it’s] a collage – the way I would see a Romare Bearden collage, who takes pieces of images that are important to his culture and brings them all together to coalesce into a unified image. That’s how I feel like your music is being drawn to us, because the texture of it seems like it’s hitting all sources, but it doesn’t sound [like], “Oh, this guy’s doing too much.” It sounds unified. How do you do that?
I don’t know, it’s the feeling I’m just channeling. I don’t know how I’m making this music per se. I never went to a music school, I never know what you need to know for music, all I know is the feeling of music and how it should be. I just utilize that with intuition. Out of body experience, spirit controlling the flesh.
Romare Bearden’s The Train. 1975
Do you feel like you are a conduit for the ancestors? Like, you’re channeling energy of people before you through your music?
Before me and everybody after me. Everything and nothing. Grabbing the joint and giving it forth at the same time.
How do you start the day? Like, “Today, I’m making music.” How do you start that day?
I don’t know man, I just wake up, I’m on the planet, I just come into the vibe, come into life. I read something, I learn something. Every day is different but the rise is the same.
Can you tell people how you came up with the name that you created?
That’s just my name, Ras. Ras, the royal you. So I call my lifestyle Ras to the Ra, the sun, I am the sun, the beginning. My grandma and my mama gave me the G; Gregory from my pops.
How do you feel about working with other artists in terms of –
I only work with artists who – like Koreatown Oddity, I just feel the spirit of his music and I feel it works with him. I wouldn’t work with anybody for money, but with him I already feel him on that level. My music’s not based on that, that’s why I work with the ones I work with, the ones I hear with a certain vibration that I feel is something I can groove with, something I love, something I feel is going to be effective. That’s why we do it.
Is it important to know the knowledge before you go out and manifest it?
No. It’s going out. To manifest it, you might know the knowledge to manifest whatever it is – steady building if you already got knowledge; any knowledge. Stay building on different things, stay honest, stay growing with that thing in you that you know.
“I NEVER WENT TO MUSIC SCHOOL… ALL I KNOW IS THE FEELING OF MUSIC AND HOW IT SHOULD BE.”
How did you get connected with Kutmah?
Through Black Monk, I was DJing at Poobah records. I was DJing around the corner once all I was playing was beats. He’s a producer, he came in, we started vibing, and he was like, “Yo, I was digging the beats.” He was a cool cat, we started vibing out. Like I said, at that time I didn’t have a computer or CD burner or shit. So I could do mixes and record beats, he was always there, he was looking out. From there he’s like, “Yo, come to my house.”
We were trying to do a few things at his studio. We was having a few bottles and we was like, “Yo, let’s go to my man Rhyme’s house.” Rhyme, now the owner of Poobah, he was working there at the time.
Before they closed.
Before they closed – and working at Canterbury. I went to his house. I was young – I walked in his crib and just started going through his records. Pulled them out and started playing, smoking a few Backwoods. A few months later or something, he bought Poobah and I’m like the second person he hired or first person he hired or some shit. Start ordering shit and became a buyer for them.
Have you always felt like you would be connected to the record store somehow, some way?
I’ve always been connected to records stores, even before that. It’s weird, just the connection with Aron’s Records. There was a time when I was at Aron’s so much, people actually thought I worked there and shit. I did not work there at all. Even now, I got a homie on Facebook – he used to work at Aron’s Records and I’m still in contact with him. If they’re having a little Aron’s get together I’ll be in the invite. “You coming?” “Yo, I didn’t work there, but…” I met all these people, we’re friends and shit.
So I’ve been in record stores all over the world. In Amsterdam, Japan. Tokyo got all the shops, man. I love record stores, I love records.
This was for the first Brainfeeder tour.
Yeah, I was friends with a lot of Myspace and Internet people – like I said all my relationships, having relationships we build up. I got to actually meet all these people and see that people really listen to what it is that I’m doing. Before that, I’m in my space, smoking a million blunts, trying to get it out, and make some shit I can ride to. Play some shit for the homies; I want them to be tripping. But when I was out there I was seeing what’s going on like, “Man, people really listen to this shit, that’s pretty crazy.”
It was the ultimate trip for me. I’m meeting all these people whose records I’ve been buying. My first show over there was at Ballers Social Club. That was the first show and shit. The second show was in London, Rusty, Milo, Kode9, Fly Lo, Samiyam. I met Om Unit there, my man. Fatima, Alexander – that shit was the best, man. That was a trip, man, that was a crazy trip.
How would you juxtapose the reception your music gets in the States versus overseas?
Everybody’s tripping – everybody just zones out, some are more into it than others. Everybody feels that out of body connection, feels something else, which is what I want them to feel. I want them to feel everything.
How did you end up being on Brainfeeder?
Hanging out with Flying Lotus at the apartment and vibing. Hanging out with Sam, hanging out with Steve at this apartment. Who else was there? That was it. It wasn’t no gangster shit, just chilling with the homies smoking weed, how we do. It is what it is.
“I WAS MAKING BEAT TAPES AND I DIDN’T HAVE A CD BURNER.”
Even though you said you didn’t have a lot of musical training, I feel like the background for a lot of you guys is jazz. You have a heavy influence, I see the Coltrane and the Leon Thomas –
Yeah, with the beats man, it’s the same feeling I get with jazz. I love beat music but they go further off that feeling and as soon as you’re in a room with all those cats, it brings out some amazing shit. I think we all do that in our minds when we’re trying to make this music. It’s inspiring, that’s why we do that shit. There would be like five people in my brain to make some shit happen.
You definitely subscribe to the cosmic philosophy that makes a lot of these artists, specifically in one that’s more pronounced than the others – which would be Sun Ra.
Who else did that? Who else can channel and sit out here doing that? Making that noise that’s cosmic and deceptive. It’s proven, you know what I’m saying? All that work, all that music is proven. Today, you still got new music coming out, there’s old music, there’s always some new shit mixed with the old traditions which makes it timeless.
How were you able to do that Saturn release with Sun Ra?
I just thought about it. Worked and thought on it, man. I was talking to the dude, I said, “Yo, I want to do this.” I didn’t have it fully planned, I just birthed the idea, brought it up and he was like, “Yeah, that’s a good idea, let’s do that.” I just hit him up, that’s how it happened.
You’ve been in communication with members of the Arkestra.
Not so much, I haven’t been in their presence yet.
How is that as music fan, as a music nerd?
I don’t know, it’s like, “What am I talking to this dude about? What am I going to talk to Marshall [Allen] about?” Like, “Man, you dope, you crazy.” He’d be like, “Word.” So I really got something to say to the dude: “I acknowledge your shit, I admire everything you do.” All that, but I don’t know what to say to the dude. Working with them would be great, one of those dudes.
Within the culture, how important is it for the younger heads to be mindful and [respectful of] those that came before them?
Shit, nobody to hit up when they need to borrow $20. It’s just a connection man, that’s what they keep telling us, it’s lessons. Lessons you learn from your elders to help with your youthful questions. Help you avoid a lot of bad roads and sorrow and situations and things. Inspiring at most.
What do you think some of the lessons you are giving away or teaching with the music that you create?
I don’t know, I figured somebody will tell me once they figure out what it is that they’re learning, what it is that I’m doing, then we can have that conversation. I don’t know if people listen, I listen to Raw Fruit, I listen to Alien, Ghetto Sci Fi, Back on the Planet – they’re all different. So you just gotta be who you are.
You’ve been doing a couple of cassettes and releases through Leaving Records with [Matthewdavid] and them. How has that been for you?
Good, man. It’s been showing me that the raw shit that I do, that I just smoke weed to, people actually want to hear it. I started recording some shit and that’s why we got these tapes.
Speaking of which, you just released that tape with Koreatown Oddity the other week, which was interesting enough. Limited copies of 100 that were packaged with the Backwoods that you guys smoked. Where’d that come from? That’s an amazing marketing tool.
My brain, the temple. This is that demo, this is the one where we’re like, “Yeah, we gonna do it, it fits, look at this.”
It made me think of Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, you know the Purple Tape. Because they only made like 5 or 10 thousand copies of a purple tape and it was kind of for the heads like, “Oh, you got the purple tapes, that means you were early on.” I feel like – I don’t know if it was conscious or not, but –
I don’t think about releases before they come out, I just like to do albums. Got four or five albums, boom, walk in with another record. I’m just thinking about it when it’s time to release it like, “Okay, maybe we should do this, this will be cool.” He’s like my cousin, when I see that dude it’s nothing but jokes and blunts and shit talking, that bond, friends. So me and him did a family type record and put the tape with the blunt. That was it. Shit you do with your cousin, crazy shit.
What new projects are you working on if you don’t mind? That we can expect from you in the new year?
Raw Fruit 4, High as a Beach LP, Nebula’s EP, Isotope Teleportation. I got three or four Afrikan Space Program records that are ready to go. I got an album that I did with my man Ras Terms, does all my artwork, that shit’s bananas. I have so many – I’m just trying to figure out what should go out and what time. At this hour right now, mixing and lining up dates for next year. There’s gonna be a lot of dope shit that’s gonna be coming out of this room.
How important is the artwork in terms of your music that comes out with it? I feel like a lot of your artwork mythologizes you. Like George Clinton, the artwork that came with it, it made it more than just an album. It was like, “Oh, these are characters.”
Yeah, it’s an experience, that’s what I want to do. Like you said, I see a lot of records, which is why I buy album covers, and I want my album covers to be dope. That’s how I got into Sun Ra – it was the album covers. I look at the cover and be like, “What is that?” It speaks to me in a certain way but I don’t know but let me figure it out. So now that’s all I’ll be burning and shit, my music’s the same. Not gimmicky, it touched something, something within.
Is there anything you want to end upon? Thank you for having us here, I appreciate it.
For sure. Relax, smoke, peace to the world throughout the planet.
Photography by Julian Berman.
Buy Ras G’s Down To Earth, Vol. 2 (The Standard Bap Edition) HERE on Stones Throw.