Mike Ladd: The Furthermuckin Expat Q

I once wrote, “The Brooklyn Moon Café—the epicenter of a renaissance in spoken-word poetry—was packed wall-to-wall every Friday night during the mid-1990s. The unassuming restaurant and lounge hosted a weekly open mic for poets, some of whom would eventually go on to produce albums, books, and movies: young, gifted and black poets like muMs, Saul Williams, jessica Care moore, Sarah Jones.” It was back in those heady days that I first ran across MC Mike Ladd. Ten years later, we’d go on to have parallel experiences moving to Paris, marrying French wives, and fathering two young kids at nearly the same moments.

Mike was initially signed to Mercury Records by the Smashing Pumpkins. Whenever he crosses paths with De La Soul’s DJ Mase, the pasemaster always showers praise on his old poem, “Ika Bricka My Brain.” The original Afropunk MC, he’s collaborated over the years with an avant-garde roster including Apollo Heights, Saul Williams, U-God, Vijay Iyer, Company Flow and more. Since moving to Paris from NYC in 2004 (same year as me), Mike Ladd has put out three albums, including this year’s Bedford Park.

Way back when, I wrote up something on Mike’s début album, Easy Listening 4 Armaggedon, for the Black Beat fanzine, and met him soon afterwards on Brooklyn’s Fulton Street through my homie Mark Darkfeather. (Mike claims we met even earlier in The Bronx through muMs, and maybe so.) We met again backstage at the Elysée Montmartre in 2005 in our new lives as expats, after he finished rocking the spot as Saul Williams’s opening act. (In fact, it was the first concert of my firstborn son’s life, kicking in Christine’s womb at the time.) I took him for Queen Ann hot chocolate and the rest is history: my first Parisian homeboy by way of The Bronx. Forthwith: MC Mike Ladd.

You’ve said before that you didn’t move here to enrich your experience as a writer or musician. Where would you have moved for that?

I have my fantasy places. Johannesburg, where I’ve never been. Bombay, where I’ve been. Guangzhou, where I’ve never been. But realistic places? Probably Bombay or São Paolo. São Paolo because of the people I worked with there, producers and musicians. I love megacities, and São Paolo’s that: 22 million people. And it has an energy.

One thing that I’ve become sensitive to living here is the continental difference that America has. Not the United States, but the whole continent. Because it’s made of so many kinds of people and so many mixes of those people, generally anything is possible culturally, and things are able to be invented. Yeah, every country has their patterns and their neuroses. But there is a sort of cultural liberty that you just won’t find in places that are older and where those cultures are much more established. São Paolo also has that. It’s got the few things that I actually like about L.A.—but I know I could never live in L.A.?—but then feels kinda like New York.

I haven’t been to Brasil yet at all.

It’s a dope place. I was there this time last year actually, and I did an album’s worth of beats in like two weeks, just blasting them out. And I can’t get that done here. My perspective of Paris is changing a lot. I got this new studio in Saint-Denis, I’ve been out there since May. ’Cause I was up in The Bronx by 199th and Grand Concourse. Not Bronx Bronx but Bronx Science Bronx. Still, I loved The Bronx. It was my favorite neighborhood I ever lived in up there. And so this is like the first time I’ve been in Paris and lived in a vibe that was even remotely close to that.

We both experienced the Brooklyn Renaissance of the 1990s. Where’s that happening here?

When I first moved here, it was happening at Le Triptyque. There’s basically one cat named Alfie Dosu, actually my man from the UK, he pretty much set it off. He was tight with [Nigerian singer] Keziah Jones, and it was really as close as I could get to like a Brooklyn Moon Café-like feel, in that cats would come in, and there’d be these all-night joints. That’s where [Nigerian-German singer] Ayọ got her start, so she would be like the French equivalent to Erykah Badu. We used to rock with Ayọ over there. This other chick, [Nigerian-French singer] Aṣa, got big over that.

When did it end? What happened?

Probably like 2006, 2005. Honestly, it was Wednesday nights. And I think probably that night just ended up being not that economically viable, so it lost its spot. Alfie is trying to start something up. Brooklyn was different in that it was a neighborhood that connected it. But to get to that [Triptyque] vibe, you had to come into town to be there. And that’s a big problem here.

You released three albums since being in Paris. Is your material received differently here?

The reception on both ends is pretty much the same. I would say France, England and the US in general I always get pretty much the same reception. It’s such a cult status and such a small audience that the world is small around it. This time around, the audiences have been super-enthusiastic. Because it’s like the die-hard fans, but sometimes that’s 40 people. And cats are old. There’s a lot of cats out there who love me, there really are, but they’re at home with their kids! They’d really like to be there, but there’s no way in fuckin hell they’re putting their shoes on, and I completely understand, ’cause I’m right there with ’em. [laughter] You can’t get me out of the house unless you’re paying me.

What was the hardest thing about making your transition here?

I guess maybe getting used to the posture of Paris, getting into the attitude. Especially coming from New York, where being open and polite is an important currency, and then coming here where being rude is the currency. I come from Boston, which has that same self-entitled bullshit. Basically, there were just not enough guns on the street to make [Parisians] learn how to behave, to put it in the rawest of terms. [laughter] I have this theory that New York was just as rude and self-centered as here, and then guns came in, and now everybody is like, “You alright? You dropped something.” [laughter] In the 80s it was just like, “Just don’t fuckin shoot me.”

I guess it was a combination of things. I resisted it being my home for a long time. I imagined that I was just in this neighborhood of this greater city that included New York—New York was downtown, obviously—and then London and Paris were also part of that city. And I was like, “This is just my version of Brooklyn over here. This is my Brooklyn Heights, but when I’m really going downtown, I’m gonna go to Manhattan. I’m gonna take the plane, but I’m gonna close my eyes and I’ll be there in a minute.” That was my perspective. Basically, the plane was the 4 train… it’s elevated.

But then reality kicked in two years deep when I had do the paperwork for my son and engage in the bureaucracy. When he started going into institutions—school and stuff like that—then I had to engage in those institutions and face the fact that I really lived here. So it was a gradual process. And really, I don’t think I even came to terms with the fact that, “Oh, I’m here” till really like two years ago. Part of that was helped by being on tour all the time. So I was always going from city to city. Still, this fall I’ve only been in town for, at most, a week and a half, two weeks. It’s in and out, but it’s enough of a break-up that it doesn’t let you really get into the rhythm of the whole city.

What was your resistance against living in Paris? Is it like living in a museum sometimes? I have an ex who lived in Cape Town for years instead of going the cliché Paris route.

I have the same impulse that your friend had, that’s it’s cliché. And also, what made Paris a great place to be 80 years ago—and this is my own jive theory—was this combustion of brand new modes of living, and brand new technologies colliding with very old traditions and ways. If you go down and see the Eiffel Tower, if you at the Bir-Hakeim bridge, if you look at certain architectural moments in the city, you can see how in 1901, people were like, “Damn, this place is like Blade Runner!” It was an incredibly futuristic city. There was a tremendous amount of industry, and a tremendous amount of technology. It was all happening here in a very specific way. And all of that energy was smashing into some very old modes of being in a way that wasn’t happening in New York, even though New York was probably spectacular in its own right at that time. It wasn’t nearly as sculpted in the way that Paris was. At the same time, there was still mayhem; Montmartre was a construction site.

And so things were being broken, demolished to make new things. And then the Europeans blew the fuckin shit out of each other in the First World War, and so then that wiped the slate clean of a whole lot of things, one of them being authority and the logic of authority. Which makes for a great moment—so you get the Surrealists and stuff like that.

And all of that basically over the process of 80 years solidified into more tradition, and sort of went the normal course of things and stagnated. All of Western Europe has stagnated to a certain extent. And, you know, the United States is on its way to stagnating culturally. However, places like São Paolo, like Mumbai, like Guangzhou, like South Africa, have these very old ways of being colliding into brand-new technologies.

And also, new middle classes popping up. That’s some other shit that’s very important. New middle class: not part of the leisure class, but just enough to have some kids that are ready to pop some shit off and the kids who have enough time to pop that shit off. Someone’s gotta be at least slightly privileged, I don’t care if it’s De La Soul or Lou Reed. You got enough time to write a rhyme and not just survive. Now there’s more access to money for black South Africans, so more shit can pop off. So you have the same thing in these other countries. And that activity and that rebirthing, that’s what makes it exciting. It doesn’t matter where it is, it’s just the elements that come together. And they just don’t do that here anymore.

Do you think that avant-garde art is more appreciated here?

In general, yeah. France has a general interest in the avant-garde, or in different things. And there are certain artists who are able to play here more, certainly they can find an audience here. Not everybody. It has to do with what’s in mode. So that’s one side. And that’s something that France also shares with Germany, certain cities of Italy, maybe in Spain. But yeah, there’s definitely like an openness. I’d actually put it a different way. I’d say there’s less of a need for pop music than there is in America or England.

So the avant-garde does get celebrated here, because it was started here and has a right to be celebrated here, and most of that celebration’s healthy. But the import of it is very contrived and self-conscious. Then we have the African fetish thing. As a light-skinned, blue-eyed motherfucker, that really fucks people up. ’Cause they’re always on a constant search for authenticity. My mom’s black; my father was white, and he passed when I was very young. But that’s an interesting thing. Just on the street I confuse motherfuckers. The only people who immediately recognize me [as black] are blacks who are from France or from Paris or from les Antilles; that’s it. Because they also have the same mix as we do. But the Senegalese are like, “C’mon, man. Yeah, right. You’re Spanish, dude.”

But within the general avant-garde audience, and on a very subtle level, it confuses them. ’Cause there’s part of the Parisian avant-garde that’s always like—especially when it comes to black music—it’s a fetish. They want their shit, they want their little fix. And they’re not scared of dark people like Americans are, or were. So someone like me comes along and they’re just plain confused. In some ways, I’m not authentic enough. Which is like, that’s really their problem. It may be my problem monetarily, but at least I can sleep at night. So it’s sort of an appreciation that happens. It’s complicated. And I think it’s been complicated for a very long time. Well, it clearly was. [Author] Petrine Archer-Straw thumbs out how fuckin complicated it was, that’s what her whole book is about, Negrophilia.