Recorded over four months in Oakland, Lateef the Truthspeaker’s FireWire brings together some of the best producers in hip-hop on one album, including Chief Xcel, DJ Shadow, Dan the Automator, Somehow at Sea and Headnodic (Crown City Rockers, Mighty Underdogs). Bay Area stalwarts Lyrics Born, Del and The Grouch turn up as well, giving the album a congenial, familial feel.
FireWire stands as Lateef’s most musically ambitious and diverse project to date; the musical equivalent of hip-hoppers, hipsters, dance heads, R&B lovers and unapologetic pop fans all doing shots at the same party. “We The People” opens with a Kraftwerk-style intro before morphing into a New Wave track that would make Gary Numan proud. “Oakland,” a heartfelt, candid tribute to Lateef’s native city, hits with dirty funk drums, while “Left Alone” fuses Steely Dan-esque ‘70s rock with retro ‘80s drum machines. Then there’s “So Sexy” and “Inside You,” two slow jams dripping with sex that convey clever double meanings while remaining appropriate for intimate, late night listening. Inspired by everyone from Toro Y Moi to Radiohead, it’s as if Lateef found his inner Rakim, Paul Simon, Juan Atkins and R. Kelly simultaneously. "You have to make an album that you like and enjoy performing and that you like to listen to,” says the rapper.
“I wanted a name that encapsulates the organic and digital aspects of the album,” Lateef says of the title. “The album's sonic cohesiveness comes from the marriage of the two sounds. I wanted to showcase both aspects of my versatility in terms of singing and rapping. I'm not D'Angelo or Luther Vandross, but I can definitely carry a tune.”
Throughout FireWire’s confluence of disparate styles, Lateef the Truthspeaker imbues his lyrics with an inspiring message that never relies on the preachy or didactic. Take “We the People,” a ubiquitous American phrase reconfigured for global consumption. “I wanted to write something that was anthemic and unifying,” says Lateef. “Obviously, it's an American phrase, but the idea can be applied worldwide to show the power of unity. There's not much that can stop a unified people.”
“Social consciousness is integral to all my work. It informs my baseline moral values, politics and my attitude toward propaganda. A lot of those values are out of favor and not as popular as they once were but I'm not afraid to tackle more difficult subject matter or stuff other people may not feel comfortable speaking on.” On the DJ Shadow-produced “Say What You Want,” for example, Lateef imagines a revenge tale born out of the real-life shooting of his cousin and the death of the shooter at the hands of another cousin.
Perhaps this mindset towards truth and consciousness was inevitable. The son of two Black Panthers – his mother was a roommate of famed activist Angela Davis – Lateef was part of an anti-apartheid group at the age of 4; the same age he first hopped on a mic. After co-founding legendary hip-hop collective SoleSides (later renamed Quannum Projects) in the early ‘90s, Lateef became an integral component in the Bay Area hip-hop scene, co-founding Latyrx (with Lyrics Born), Lateef and the Chief (with Chief Xcel) and The Mighty Underdogs (with Headnodic and Gift of Gab) and collaborating with everyone from Z-Trip to Fatboy Slim.
In the end, talent, intellect and charisma have allowed Lateef the Truthspeaker to stand on his own two feet; rising past all internal and external challenges. On “Testimony,” a 1970s AM radio track filtered through squelchy synths, the rapper’s reflective, poignant lyrics could double as an overall life mantra. "Somehow I stay smiling/Even with the world swirling with violence/'Cause while no man is an island/I'm still sole proprietor of what's behind my eyelids."