Tara Jacoby

Husalah, Bay Area Legend, Returns to Rap with Limitless Wisdom

In his first interview in years, Husalah discusses his return to music and the legacy of The Jacka.

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Jul 11 2017, 6:30pm

Tara Jacoby

Husalah is one of the best rappers you've never heard. He's not the only one; hip-hop is championed as a genre of celebrities and aspiring celebrities, but seldom for the art that, regardless of its artistic relevance, exists independently of mass commercial success. But even taking that into consideration, Hus is one of the most distinct, creative, and innovative personalities to have ever coasted along the genre's regional margins. In the Bay Area, of course, he's a legend. He joined the five-man supergroup Mob Figaz as a teenager, released two highly regarded solo albums—2006's Dope, Guns & Religion and 2007's Hustlin Since the '80s—and has appeared as a guest on many, many more, before being sidelined by a five year bid in the federal penitentiary for a nonviolent drug conviction in the mid-00s.

After he got out of prison in 2009, Husalah was greeted with waves of adulation, and many thought a comeback was close at hand. A single—the melodic, dancehall-inflected Traxamillion-produced "Pray For You" dropped soon after his release, and he performed for packed halls up and down the West Coast. But outside the occasional loosie—2011's cocky throwback "Da Mob" or sardonic obscurity "Handsome"—Hus seemed to play the margins, holding on to rumored vaults' worth of music but not actively pursuing any kind of career, even as fans clamored for more. He would tease music—snippets of a recording session with Paul Wall, for example—but the songs rarely appeared. He gave no interviews.

It's easy to see why his music attracted so much attention, even if the wider world was never exposed to it. Outlaw image aside, as an artist, Hus' music is both intuitive and deeply considered, a reflection of a man with an unending intellectual curiosity whose approach to hip-hop nonetheless reflects a tradition more dependent on capturing his in-studio energy, performing with an improvised, on-the-spot musicality, rather than aiming for rehearsed precision. He combines the bold, shocking energy of Too $hort with the syllable-dense percussive style of Kool G Rap, but those influences fall short at capturing the heavy, singular dose of style that makes Husalah an original.

Photo courtesy of Husalah

A listen to Hus's 2006 release "Frozen Heart," a dark record spiked with urgent waves of piano and saxophone, captures his jazz solo-like rap style. You can sense his intensity and performance building to a climactic peak of choppy, percussive, rapid-fire syllables—"In the trunk in somethin' super dumb disgustin' cousin'"—before dropping in energy as the verse comes to a close, pausing after the line "I don't know which way to go," as if to illustrate musically the existential crisis portrayed in his lyrics. His lyrics throughout captivate because they capture both the allure and the deleterious effects of lifestyle he portrays. The musical choices feel like purposeful efforts to create a sound which reflected and complemented the contradictory truths of the song and the man who made them. It ends in the middle of a verse after a stark lyric, cut short suddenly like The Sopranos finale.

Last month, Husalah released twin single "M.O.B." and the Sade-sampling "Protect Your Soul," with the promise of an album on the way. Now, he's sharing the video for "M.O.B." along with the news that that album, MOB Maniac, will be coming later this summer. "I decided to put the music out for the sake of preserving the culture and legacy of what we've been doing," he explained, after reaching out to give his first interview in years. "From the historian aspect. Keep it going, keep it perpetual. Let the people remember what dope is, basically."

That interview was less an interview than a TED talk—Husalah had a lot to say. In a phone call that passed the two-hour mark, occasionally interrupted by his parenting, he painted a picture of an artist whose interests are less about music than life itself, touching on philosophy, his friendship with his longtime musical partner The Jacka, his Muslim faith, and a relationship with the commercial music world with which he is still at odds. Though he's an artist in his 30s, he rarely seems to view things through some generational lens, defending young artists while lamenting a lack of attention to originality and style, which he views as a moral choice, rather than a culprit of the generational divide.

Noisey: When you got out of prison in '09 there was a lot of excitement around your release. Was there a reason you decided not to release anything after that?
Husalah: I just wasn't feeling doing music at that time. I don't do music for the sake of doing music. I don't do music to be rich, I don't do music to be cool. I don't do music as an identity. It's just something that I do that people enjoy. My brother The Jacka was going, he had good momentum with his music, so I was just being supportive. People forget that I executive produced Jack's first records. We look out for each other. He had a lot of momentum going, so I just decided to support him and reconfigure myself and find myself.

After being at a crossroads—there's things that you don't really know about yourself, as far as effects of prison. So before you just throw yourself into the world, you've got to reconnect with your family. You've got a lot of shit that you're obligated to do as a man before entertaining as a musician. You've got to reconnect with your kids, your family, your grandmamas. You've got to stay in touch with who you really are. Being isolated for years at a time—I felt great, I look great, I'm happy still, I'm still the man and everything. But being an intelligent person, I realized scientifically there has to be some type of something I have to explore about myself as far as effects. Am I crazy? What's going on? So I went on a self-improvement, self-discovery kind of thing. It ended up being for quite awhile. It was a journey.

When was the moment you realized you wanted to start putting together music again?
I never stopped recording music. I live music. I talk, I walk it. I walk lyrics, I live lyrics, that's what I do. As far as commercially getting into it, it wasn't nothing I was thinking about. I was reconnecting and re-grounding myself.

I'm not saying I'm a big street dude and all that shit, but I feel like it's a priority for me to be connected with my people, and not just be Husalah the rapper. I like to connect myself to where I'm from. It sounds cliche and sounds corny. But I still go visit auntie. I take pride in being myself and I think it's important for artists to be theyself. If you want to evolve into something else, that's fine. But if you like who you are and you like the results you get as far as creativity, you've got to connect with what gives you that energy.

"You've got a lot of shit that you're obligated to do as a man before entertaining as a musician. You've got to reconnect with your kids, your family, your grandmamas. You've got to stay in touch with who you really are."

To me it's the people, it's my soil, it's my neighborhood, it's the thought process of interacting with people, building with people, sharpening people, shedding light on people, learning from people. That's what makes me me. I love that I'm smart enough to know that about myself.

When it comes to your artistic process, in the studio, I remember reading an interview with you in Murder Dog many years ago, you talked about how you couldn't really make music in jail because you thrived on the energy around you. I was curious what your process has been like getting out—
It wasn't about making music. It's just that there's so much other shit that I could be doing. I could be sharpening up on my French language, I could be sharpening up on speaking Portuguese, I could practicing Isometrics, I could be chilling in my beautiful body that I've been blessed with. I could be perfecting my physique, I could be running, jogging, learning yoga, studying, shit like that. Besides—"I got a hundred albums!" What you gonna do with it? You can't release the shit. I had music. It's what I do. I am style. It was something that was bestowed upon me. People running around calling me the champ, calling me a king, calling me a legend. I never tried to reach out to be the champ. I always wanted other people to be the champ.

Maybe I should have been chose music a long time ago. Because I've always took precedence in the streets, and being the alpha male that I am—I was supposed to be an alpha male also. I know I can whip everybody's ass, I know I'm the coolest, I'm the handsomest, that's not what I try to, that's just something that was given to me, I was born like this. People expect you to do that and be that, and that's not who I am. I'm a renaissance person, I'm a man of many hats, I'm not really a one trick pony. Maybe that's why I didn't really do this music as much as I should, because I don't consider myself a rapper. People like Da Vinci—they were inventors, they were engineers, but they're known for other shit. That other shit I'm doing and people want my sketches? All the inventions and the mechanics I've created, people just care about my sketches and my water coloring?

I don't do music for money, so I can do what I want. I have that freedom because I don't do it for money at all. That's not what I do it for at all. I've been doing music long enough to know that the money is not the fulfillment. The fulfillment is when you get chose and when you connect with the people, when people say "bro this is the illest shit ever. It made me stronger, it made me iller, it made me improve myself. It made me a better person at work, it made me the best bus driver, it made the women love me because I got a confidence about myself. It made me be the best mailman, I do my routes more efficient because I'm a beautiful and gorgeous mailman."

Photo courtesy of Husalah

That's what the fulfillment is in. I've never had a problem finding money, I've never had a problem getting women, I've always been the cool guy. The handsome guy that women like. Rap didn't give that to me. DNA gave me that. So you know, all these guys, they wasn't cool until they started rapping. They didn't get bitches until they started rapping. They didn't have a bag of change until they started rapping. Not to downplay it or nothing, but that's a hindrance because they're going through a psychological transformation. As humans, when something new comes, you tend to become fanatical about it. Whether it's a new interest, a new success, a new hindrance, we tend to overdo things when it's new.

Now they walking around and forget the day they was broke. They forget they was once on the corner. You see these dudes, and they're delusional. People lose touch with themselves. Like "OK—you just got money, now you rap, but you don't really have money like a corporate person. You got a couple hundred thousand, and you're rich?" The motherfucker who's been working at the UPS has $400,000 in equity in his two houses has more than you but he drives a—so it's a delusional thing, you've got to treat music in this recession, you've got to handle it with care, you've got a moral responsibility and an obligation.

Put actual meaning in this shit, and let this shit do what it's supposed to do. Let's manifest our true potential with this shit. Instead of being all, "Oh I'm fresh outta jail!" Fuck all that. I don't do my music like that. I take the Sade approach. People who really think and have a pride about their music. People ask me, why you got a Sade chain? For one, I admire her music, and for one, her thought process as far as creating music, between her and her band, is something I admire. That's a reason why. Just making music for the sake of making music? I don't believe in that.

Everything I have ever put out has always just been music I created, has been a release of creative works. It's never been—"I got two months to make an album!" It don't work like that. It's organic, it's grown. They've got vegetables that only blossom every 12 years or some shit—they have trees that bear fruit every 12 years. You want an orange? Go get a fucking Monsanto orange over there. You want a Monsanto apple? We Monsanto free around this motherfucker. It's not grown from Monsanto seeds. Not to diss Monsanto, but I'm just saying. A lot of this shit is just organically engineered bullshit, not to diss nobody, none of that. But it only has—the crop only yields two seasons and the seed dies. This shit that I've been doing is something different. I'm not saying I'm better than nobody, none of this shit. I'm just saying it's something different. I don't remember what you asked me, but that's the answer.

What's your writing process like? Do you freestyle in the studio? Do you write it down?
It depends how I feel. Sometimes music comes to me just through divine conception, I can see it. It's like my art. People say, "how can you do this, how do you do this, how do you paint this shit?" I just look at a blank canvas and I can see it. I look at walls and see anything I want to see. That's the same way with the music. When I hear music, I hear vocals already. It's basically like I'm tracing—I'm tracing my self-conscious. I'm just tracing something that's coming out of me. It's like, oh, I want to draw a naked lady, or I want to draw a mountain, I see it! I see the people, I see the mountain, I see the window.

I've always been a guy to cut corners and be more efficient and work smarter not harder. I've always been that type of person. So I realized, "OK, if I just steady think about this shit before I get to the studio, by the time I get there I ain't got to cram this shit in and have this artificial flow of creative energy, I can be like 'I'm ready.'" I know what I'm gonna do to this shit already. You take that same energy with anything you're gonna do. Your work, your pad, your schoolwork. "I'm bout to kill the shit out this essay!" Get the shit out the way, get it done, so you can get the best results.

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Jacka passed a couple of years ago. I was wondering what you learned from him and what your memories are of how he helped enrich your life.
Jack was like a reluctant big brother. He was like the guy who was your big brother, but you didn't really realize it. He had a certain element, that he didn't speak on or that he didn't run around bragging about that was natural about him. He was a leader. He was a leader of leaders. Sometimes the best leaders are the people that you don't realize is leading. That's what Jack was. We would perpetuate each other as far as how dope we could come. We always was in competition—not competition, but we'd always be like, "man check this out, hear how dope this is, you don't understand!"

We would always push each other. Jack was always there with me; I was always there with him. Since we was teenagers doing the Mob Figaz, we never parted. We lived in the same household. We rode in the same cars, we stayed at the same hotels, we took the same trips. Any time you have a connection like that with a friend it's gonna become something. And on top of our thing, just being Muslims. We developed a great appreciation for each other as far as Islam, because it's a certain devotion. Your manhood becomes apparent when you're put into a situation where—you gonna do it or not? In the streets you can say a lot. But are you making your prayers? Are you waking me up at 5 AM to pray? If I come get you at 5:30, are you gonna be ready to do your prayer? Or are you gonna say, "man, I'm tired bro." It became a certain admiration we had for each other because we would push each other as far as Islam as well as the music.

"We knew that the streets was a limitation... There's a glass ceiling to it. But as far as manhood and life and Islam and music and creativity and art, there is no limitation to that."

And we were both avid b-boys, you know. Sure, we were involved in street stuff, but we knew that the streets was a limitation. The streets is a lane. The streets is not as complicated as people make it. There's a limitation to it. There's a glass ceiling to it. But as far as manhood and life and Islam and music and creativity and art, there is no limitation to that. That's why we got that cult following; that's why it was such a hard loss.

There comes a time when you look and up and you're like, everybody's gone. Everybody I shared a roof with. Everybody that I woke up and took trips with, they're gone. My brother's gone, my best friend is gone, my other best friend's gone.

There comes a realization, this false sense of completion I had—on the streets we internalize a lot of things, as far as negativity, emotions and all that shit, right? We internalize it, and had to carry on. To do what we gotta do. "I don't need no bitch, I don't give a fuck about goin' out, no fun, none of that bitch-ass shit. I sell dope, I get money, that's what I gotta do. I'm a robot, I'm efficient, I'm a machine." It's like a soldier or a marine, any type of structured faction. If you want to excel in the streets, this is the mentality you must have. It ain't about feelings, my nigga, what has to be done is what has to be done.

So you develop a false sense of completion: it's working, I busted these moves, I took the trip, I got the money, I'm enjoying it, it's time to work, I'm working again, I cut the smoking, drinking, all that sensation and all that shit. Fuck all that. It's time to keep stacking. You develop that, and it comes a time when you say, wait a minute: the universe is based upon the sun moon and stars, man woman and child. "I don't give a fuck about no bitch!" That's not true. You need a woman, every king needs a queen. So that's one thing.

You've also got, just not caring—death is death, you lose people. That's false. Because you have a connection—you have companionship. Our friendships and our relationships are what mold us as humans. And you realize, this shit is unhealthy, after a while. All this false sense of completion you have is unhealthy. Even if you feel content, you might feel it—you might say, "I hate to say it, but I really don't care about none of this shit but getting money. That's how I really truly feel." But guess what: Scientifically you don't feel like that.

If it wasn't for Jack, I wouldn't have never done music. Let's get that out the way, too. I would have never released anything. All the situations we ever had commercially, Jacka brought that about. "This label wanna do this—" I was just making music, we are who we are, we doing whatever we doing. Jack always had that dream of making it commercially for us. I never cared about it like that. It's not an advantage for creativity but as far as production, yeah, it's pretty valuable. Jack always pushed us forward. That's one thing about the brother, he always pushed us forward and he always had a plan. It was a devastating thing.

After awhile you realize, damn—you know how people say, you don't want to live forever because it would be too depressing? I was always the fun-loving, fun, enjoying myself, always smiling, whatever, and you look up and you're like, damn, I lost everybody. Nobody knows the jokes we told for 20 years. You know how people say "no new friends" and all that shit? But what do you say when you lose all your friends? Where do you go from there? I got PK [his manager], I got family, a few people, but as far as this musical journey? This street journey? It's like I'm one of the last men standing. As far as my thought process. As far as where I came from. I've got mad people that's still vibing, that's still a part of it—but having to build that connection with people is difficult when you've never had to do it. You've never had to make new friends. You've never had to get to know new people, build connections with new people. It's a shock.

People look at me, they say damn, he's handsome, he's strong. That's my DNA. As far as psychologically, it take a toll on you. Not to be so dark and all that, but this is real, I'm just talking to you from who I really am. Besides the music shit. You lose a lot, you live through a lot. I'm strong, but incarceration, death, the streets—that's some deep shit. We signed up for the shit, so I don't think about it. It's nothing I stress over, that's why I'm still handsome, I don't have any wrinkles on my face, my face is beautiful, you can't find one pimple on my face. I can run fast and jump higher than everybody still 'cause I don't think about the shit. But when you get to doing some self-reflection and people ask you shit, that shit comes up. "What's up with you making music?" Well, how 'bout everybody I grew up with is dead, got life, dead, out their minds? There's a bunch of shit. Life has taken its toll on almost everything around me. That's when it comes out.

"I was always the fun-loving, fun, enjoying myself, always smiling, whatever, and you look up and you're like, damn, I lost everybody. Nobody knows the jokes we told for 20 years."

But I don't think about it at all, because I know we have a purpose, and I'm a military minded person. I have a rigid thought process. I'm stern. I stick to what I'm supposed to do. This is what I was born to do, this is how I was bred. I was bred without emotions, I was bred to be a soldier, I was bred to be militant.

[ He talks to his son.] Where'd you get all those donuts from boy! My son has like five Krispy Kreme donuts.

I'm glad you asked me that. This is my first time even thinking about this actually. This is my first time even thinking about the reason of a lot of shit, because I don't think about that shit.

I feel like you should be giving TED talks.
I'm an extraordinary guy. This is speaking in third person. Husalah is a very extraordinary person. It would be hard for me to capitalize. I've got a lot of gifts, and I don't really talk to people about them. You can count on your hands how many interviews I've ever given in my life. Because one, when you've been living this way, and condition yourself to think a certain way, you get separated from people a long time ago. I was separated from the masses along time ago, as far as my thought process. It's not many people that would even relate or comprehend—a lot of the shit I think or do or say or live is beyond human reasoning.

I guess it translates sometimes to my music. Because people are like, "man I don't know why, me listening to you talk about the streets and all this thug shit makes me a better person." And I guess there's an element to it that's more potent to it than anything else. There's a reason why it's certain songs you can listen to—a Donny Hathaway. You can listen to it at a funeral, you can listen to 'em at a wedding, you can listen to them when you're sad, you can listen to them when you're in love. So it's like, certain people have a certain element about them that translates to it no matter what you do. And I guess that's what I was given. But like I said I'm not here to capitalize on it.

I do like to inspire people. That's why when people see me—"Man show us the jewels, show us the diamond necklace, show us the watch"—I'd rather show myself doing some push-ups, man, 'cause I want you to do those. I know that's what's gonna help you. Train yourself to look for pull-up bars everywhere you go. "Look at that, that's a perfect pull-up bar, let me do a set." And it's helping you, it's feeding you. It's not, "I'ma drink this lean, I'ma look at this watch, look at this." That's not gonna do anything for you, man. You living unhealthy. Please your woman. Be productive. Be strong. Raise your vitality. Let me see your vitality level. Everybody rich, everybody got money. But are you rich in vitality.

It goes back to hip-hop. You couldn't be a sucka MC back in the days. In the Bronx in the 80s, there was no such thing as a sucka MC. So you know, we snatching ya gold chain. If you're a sucka, oops! Upside your muthafuckin' head, we catch you in your sweatsuit. You couldn't walk down Fort Greene, Brooklyn if you was a sucka MC. So I come from that.

Photo courtesy of Husalah

In our culture, it's just like, I'ma put on this costume, put on this facade, and this is who I am. Pick up the gun and the double-cup, and I'm a gangster. If your city only has 100 homicides in a certain circumference, but 10,000 guys on Instagram with guns, that's not true. The death toll would be like Venezuela or something. Let's stop lying to ourselves, and start being—let's get practical about this shit. But I guess for the sake of the imagery, I guess that's what it's become, it's become a cartoon, it's become WWE. Which is fine with me, it's what they choose to do. But I'm gonna do what I do. I guess that's what it's come to. That's the thought process I used to have. That's the reason why I release music. Thinking of an alternative to that.

The state of music is in a crazy place. I don't know how it got like this, to where the streets don't have nothing coming to them. It's fucked up. The so-called street artists. So I think just focus on the art, focus on the dopeness. I don't have to rap about selling crack, selling heroin, I've done it all my life, I've been convicted of it, I've done my time, and at the end of the day I don't want it on my tombstone. I'd rather my tombstone said great philosopher than he had the best heroin in the hood. I'd rather my tombstone say, he helped people, he believed in people, he was an artist, he was a renaissance man. So that's what stage I'm at in my life.

David Drake is a writer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.