Interview: Jamal Moss (Hieroglyphic Being)

14 Dec 2015 — Anaïs Duplan

(Photo by Celeste Sloman)

“People find whatever gets them in their happy place to stay functional while they’re on this planet,” says Jamal to me over Skype. “I find little minute things that keep me stabilized.” Halfway through an hour-long interview with Chicago’s Jamal Moss – also known as Hieroglyphic Being – we are talking about comfort zones. He tells me that when he’s on tour, he often keeps to himself, preferring to stay in his hotel room until the next show. I quite like thinking about Moss’ often hectic House-meets-noise experiments in terms of comfort, perhaps because his music may very well belie any chance of it.

Moss’ latest album, We Are Not The First, is the result of a collaboration among some formidable forces. The Arkestra’s Marshall Allen, jazz saxophonist Daniel Carter, along with Greg Fox, Shelley Hirsch, Shahzad Ismaily, Elliott Levin, Rafael Sanchez, and Ben Vida form the J.I.T.U. Ahn-Sahm-Buhl. (J.I.T.U. stands for “journey into the unexpected.”) All together, Moss and company manage to crack free jazz over the head of experimental House. On “Civilization That Is Dying,” a serene, if distorted, guitar melody is quickly interrupted by the ambling trills of Shelly Hirsch, sweeping percussion, and oscillating synth-scape. Each track seems to read more urgently than the last, culminating in more noise- and synth-heavy tracks like “Universe Is a Simulation.”

Admittedly, however, Moss’ conversation style says more about his music than I could ever think to say. He is quick-moving, continually on to the next thing, and somehow manages to both over- and under-explain most things. Listening to We Are Not The First is not unlike this. On the one hand, there are motifs that seem to appear and reappear, perhaps to the point of belaboring them. “Brain Damage” seemed to begin, proceed, and end with much the same high-energy free-for-all that the track right before, “Cybernetics Is a an Old Science,” did, for instance. On the other hand, there are other moments on the album that have only continued to pique my interest: about two minutes into “Root Of,” we hear Moss’ voice ask, “What’s the root of Trayvon [Martin]? What’s at the bottom of that question?”

Right at the start of the interview, Moss issued a challenge to me. “People ask me questions and it's basic shit. I'm not a basic bitch. You gotta dig deep, you know?” he said, laughing. In that moment, I figured the best place to begin was with the music video for “F*ck the Ghetto / Think About Outer Space.” “Tell me how it came together and then we’ll dive into things,” I promised. I thought about how I might up the ante, ask questions that Moss himself would find challenging – but there was no need. Moss dove into the material all on his own, with little prompting from me. In the text below, you’ll a transcription of a six-minute excerpt from our interview, in which I’ve tried my best to preserve Moss’ spirit. And if you haven’t already seen it, be sure to watch the video that spurred the majority of our conversation, embedded below.

Note: Right before the moment excerpted below, Moss has been suggesting that he’d had a different vision for the music video than what came about. He says things like, “It's not for me to interject with my ego and say, no, I want it more gritty than that.” Then he takes a short pause and proceeds –

I wanted people to see the whole thing, with the store that only sells the 40-ounces, with the packaged meats, with the junk food. That would've been me if I would've did the video. But I get what they were doing. They was trying to get it more on a cerebral level, along with the vernacular of the lyrics. I get that. But if I was given a chance to give my take, I would actually put a narrative to it so people could identify with it. So, it wouldn't be just showing some Black folks coming out of the projects with what some people consider food – which I consider not food, the stuff that you would buy at these stores – but I would show it from different communities. I wouldn't just make it a Black thing. I would show somebody, say, that's poor in the rural parts of the Appalachians or like Tennessee or Kentucky, and show where they gotta shop to get food. I mean, hell, they gotta hunt for it, you know. Road kill is a delicacy – and it's no diss to them, it's the truth. You do your research, a lot of those people who live in a mountain lifestyle, they hunt, they kill what they eat. And then the stuff that we eat, that we buy in those stores, kills us. Look at the whole weird dynamic of people, how they live and try to survive on this planet. Because the one thing is about perception is you might have other people go, oh, here go these Black folks crying wolf again. And whole point is, no – because my whole perception until 2001, when I was hanging out with my ex-girlfriend in Germany, I hung out at a whole town that was nothing but projects, as far as I knew. She's like, let's go hang out with my friend got this band watch them jam out and she's like, well, it's kind of poor where he's at. So, I hung out with her and her friends in his garage rehearsing and then we went to where he lived at, and when we got there, there had to have been like fifty, sixty buildings as far as I could see that was bald. At least twenty stories tall and they were projects. For white folks. In Germany. And I could not sleep that night. She lay up in the bed ready to get her freak on and I'm like, I'm having a moment. I'm like looking out the window because my whole reality is just being reconfigured right now and I'm trying to adjust to what I'm seeing right now. She's like, what are you talking about? I said, these are projects and these are projects with predominantly white people in it. I was just like, You gotta understand where I come from, we had always been projected that this was a Black thing, this was a Black problem. You know, whatever, yada yada yada, economics, lack of education and stuff, and then to see this – that awakened part of my third eye to realize, there's a bigger scheme that's going on in this world that most of us are not privy to. That's why I'm kind of weird when it comes about that a message is being put out. You know, sometimes in the media, you'll have somebody with a powerful message and they can get easily skewed at the power of the narrative of the director or the producer, or the medium or format that it's re-packaged to the general public. And then it's watered down and then people don't even take it seriously or they take it as somebody not being happy with life. They don't look at it as part of a human suffering [...] but it just would've been cool to do a video that shows everybody's struggle. So, I'm not empathizing with asshole Nazis or white supremacists or racist white people or people who are bigger than whatever, but everybody has a story to be told and maybe a lot of that disconnect of everybody hating on someone else is because they don't know how to weigh or convey their pain, their suffering, their fears, their struggles. So they'll gravitate towards something that has a medium that gives some type of shock and awe to express what they're trying to get out to the world about their needs. I think it's part of the artist to express that – not just because of my background or wherever I come from, but expressing from a human point of view. That's what I'm more about. So as far how the video came about, I'm happy with it. I'm glad it's out there. But the whole point was for people to get that mantra. I want people to be like, fuck the ghetto, and think about something bigger. So outer space doesn't necessarily mean out into the stars or into another planet. It means: look to a higher goal, look to a higher standard. Look above where you're at. It just so happens when you look up, there's a outer space, there's broader realms from what you're used to being around. Because I know cats that's still on the block from where I grew up at. When they go to downtown Chicago, they have to dress up in they Sunday suit like they going to Paris or something and all they going is five miles away. That's the mental scope of some people. There's some people that don't even want to leave their blocks or communities because that's all they know, that's their safety blanket. That's their Linus contingency. You know the Peanuts gang with Linus and his blanket? That's their comfort zone.

We Are Not The First is out on RVNG Intl. Get the LP here.