Style and Savvy

If you shuffle the letters from the names Om’Mas Keith, Taz Arnold, and Shafiq Husayn, you can almost form the word ‘futuristic’ – at least, that’s the buzz around their musical collective known as SA-RA Creative Partners. Having produced for artists such as Common, Dr.Dre, Bilal, John Legend and Pharoahe Monch since the trio formed in 2000, SA-RA accumulated a high level of interest for a group that didn’t even have an album until a few months ago – and have produced a rare example of a release actually deserving that “heavily anticipated” tag on its packaging.
Last year, rumours circulated online that the group were splitting up – but, shrugging this off with little explanation, the group have answered the hearsay with their first full-length album. The Hollywood Recordings was released in April 2007 on independent New York-based label Babygrande Records (the same label through which producer Hi-Tek released his last album Hi-Teknology 2). Those who have been familiar with the collective since the turn of the century may be disenchanted with the record, which contains a considerable amount of old material – but this one’s not for you, SA-RA explain. The Hollywood Recordings is more of a “SA-RA 101 course; this album is the perfect album for someone who’s never heard of SA-RA. You’re getting the whole fucking picture, this is why we did this. This is not a conceptual album based on some fairytale,” – for that, you’ll need to wait for their ‘proper’ album Black Fuzz which is due for release with major distribution in 2008.
I get on the phone to SA-RA-member Om’Mas; our interviews starts with a bong hit (not me…) and ends with smoke signals for a visionary album, for which The Hollywood Recordings is just a warm-up. “Everything that’s good takes time,” Om’Mas begins, referring to why SA-RA’s first album was released six years after their formation. “We’ve been very busy along the way producing for people and having lots of fun creating great music so we really don’t feel like it was that long. We just felt like the timing was right to finally release something.”
You can have a field day mix-and-matching terms to describe SA-RA’s production style – I’m rather fond of ‘funkadelic future-soul’ but they’ve concocted ‘Afro Magnetic Electro Spiritualism’. Broken down by Om’Mas, this means “our music is black music, but it’s African, and it’s magnetic because it attracts people, and it’s electronic, and the fact that it just comes through us boundlessly and limitlessly without any provocation or any inherent necessity is the spiritualism, it’s just a very magical thing.” In the same vein of African spirituality, Om’Mas explains that the name Sa-Ra derives from “Ancient Kemetic terminology…we just looked at the kemetic words of the light, of the most powerful energy in the universe, and we just thought that that’s what our name was. The ‘Ra’ is ‘the energy’ or ‘the god’ or ‘the universe’, and ‘Sa’ means ‘of’ or ‘from’; and that’s who we are.”
Who they are, has evidently influenced the output of other producers; you can hear SA-RA-style production even in places they haven’t laid a finger. “The reason why we are who we are is we made our music available for free the whole time. It’s clear that people have listened to SA-RA beats and made their own shit. My friends call me and say ‘yo, did you produce this?’ and it’s like ‘no, this guy did it’. That’s why we are futuristic,” Om’Mas explains of possessing a double-edged smoking sword, “because now the stuff that we were doing four years ago is what’s starting to come out and all the ‘popular’ producers are incorporating these elements into their records. And there’s nothing wrong with it – it is what it is – because I’m telling you; it’s all about your personal drive and what you see for yourself – manifest your destiny.”
“We’re futuristic because we’re the big secret,” Om’Mas says of the super-glue bond between that descriptive word and the collective. “What we do is just be ourselves. What makes you futuristic is the fact that you do what you want to do. Everyone who’s doing what they wanna do creatively at this current moment is futuristic, it’s safe to assume, because people who are following trends are not futuristic – their sound is intentionally now. We’re not the only ones who are futuristic and I don’t even know, nor do I care, who else is futuristic. But I know that we are, and I know that Thelonious Monk was futuristic. But in fact, his style of playing could often be implicated as non-futuristic and very backward and/or primal… you could say that his sound is simplistic and complex, nonetheless complex. But at the time there were people who understood that what he was doing by just wanting to do what he did – express himself – would eventually be the gold standard. And as far as the new movement right now, which is this whole new movement of ultra-fly, retro kinda 80s, pulling from different genres, highly musical, highly conceptual, intelligent music; we’re at the forefront. We’re not tryna fucking make records for Britney Spears, she’s gonna come to us. It’s kinda like how fucking Pharrell was futuristic at one point because no one had heard of him really, N.O.R.E. put him in a video and that got it popping. People will probably stop saying we’re futuristic once we fucking stop selling records; it’s just the nature of things, the box people put you in.
From inside a box to fresh out of one, it can’t escape anyone’s notice how creatively the members of SA-RA dress. With emphasis on being freshly dipped, more extreme than the likes of Kanye West and Fonzworth Bentley; is their interest in fashion mere indulgence or do they regard it with superior magnitude? “It’s both an indulgence and a greater importance. It’s an ultimate expression of creativity, just like music,” Om’Mas maintains. “That’s why we spend money on clothes because when we wanna put an outfit together we’re committing a creative act – people wanna trivialise it, but every time we get dressed there’s some creativity going on. Some selection of colour and texture, and a process. It’s part of our lifestyle…
“Fashion is synonymous with Sa-Ra and vice versa” he concludes, naming his style icons as ranging from Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix, to Humphrey Bogart, Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier (“even Bill Cosby is a style icon, man – he had those sweaters going on”). What gives them the confidence to rock such crazy outfits? Om’Mas muses briefly and responds, “I think it comes from just being comfortable in yourself and knowing that you’re an African and that the cradle of civilisation lies within your blood, and that entitles you to a certain level of feeling inside that [with] your genes you have the right to adorn yourself in whatever you want. However crazy, you have the right to use colours and textures to make a statement. You have to be comfortable with making statements.”
Making statements is fundamental to the principles of SA-RA. “There are people that walk around this whole planet earth that are not comfortable with the act of making a statement…This is what divides men. We have something inside of us that says we can stand in front of people and display – and that’s a trick that either you miss or hit when you’re born. Everything that we are and that we epitomise, are genetic predispositions. Music in particular is a genetic predisposition within us all that many do not choose not to realise, but it’s genetically programmed in you to desire the sound of music. Music is my voice right now, it’s a note, if I started with it I can sing a whole song with my speaking voice, it’s a genetic predisposition. I definitely think it’s something that’s innate within us and we couldn’t escape it if we wanted to.”
The inner freedom to wear what you want correlates with a mentality that you can be what you want, an ambitious mindset SA-RA have previously attributed possessing due to their parents’ schooling and encouragement. Our drive and self-belief (or lack of) as adults often has much to do with our formative experiences, and Om’Mas expounds, “Unfortunately there’s never the conversation with the parent and the child where the parent tells the child to manifest their own destiny, and to that effect, that they can create anything with their mind if they believe it. A lot of parents simply do not tell that to their children. My parents were wizards. They used to talk about all kinds of magic and shit, energy, and crystals, and chant beads. I was made to believe that I was incomparable, I was valuable on this earth, that’s what my parents told me, and that’s what I told my daughter.
Designer scarves delicately wrapped around a neck with some quirky trousers don’t spell out the stereotype of flagrant male sexuality portrayed by hip hop, yet Om’Mas describes SA-RA as “overtly masculine”. He elaborates, “In our heads at least, the way I’d like to romanticise it, is that we’re more masculine in a Sidney Poitier, Cary Grant kinda smooth, masculine guy who will take charge and still be chivalrous and get the door. This is what separates us…if anything…from the level that we’re hearing in music now. I mean look – some of our lyrics are misogynistic, some things we say are very parallel to the things you might hear on some of the more popular mainstream rap songs… but I think it’s just the mindset and how one is raised. You can be classy-trashy, or you can be raunchy-trashy; if there is such a thing. But I think if you really break it down you can be both ways. You can have a tact and a coolness to your clandestine movements, instead of being ghetto with it and hood. But we can do both.” He emphasises, “There’s nothing wrong with any of it, I am at home listening to the most foulest… I can listen to any creative expression, I can watch any creative expression, I’m comfortable with that. We’re all the same way, that’s one of the traits of SA-RA.”
Our journey for learning more about SA-RA, whether it began six years or three months ago, will continue with SA-RA’s full, concept album Black Fuzz due for release next year, plus continued production with other artists including Erykah Badu – they have so far written ‘at least eight songs’ with her for consideration for her forthcoming album. Om’Mas advises that in the future we will come to know SA-RA for more than just their distinct production: “We see ourselves as creative visionaries – everything that is creative is what we’re going to envision, we’re going to manifest it, all permutations of creativity are what we’re going to explore and make money at and be successful at. It’s already starting to happen – Shafiq is becoming quite the successful painter, Taz and myself definitely have an interest in fashion, and multimedia, we wanna fucking open magazines.”
Perhaps unusually for artists that revel in pushing their creativity beyond mainstream constraints, SA-RA also have their minds firmly on their money. “What we do best is we make money. We figure we sit in a room, we look at each other, and we say ‘How we gon’ get some money fellas?’ and we figure it out, but we’re using music primarily to do that right now. There’s not gonna be any limit, any good businessman knows you don’t limit yourself.
It’s certainly a creative hustle. Question is, will you buy it?
SA-RA Creative Partners’ latest release, The Hollywood Recordings is out now on Babygrande records.