Chicago’s MC Zulu is rarely seen without a megaphone in his press photos, though lord knows why he needs it when he’s got one of the most powerful baritone voices out there. In the last few years, the crossover MC has managed to collaborate with Poirier, Soulico, Murderbot, DJ C, Kush Arora, not to mention putting out his own tracks, that bounce from straight-up dancehall to dancefloor electro. Seeing as he’s got a new LP coming up, we asked him a few questions about his beginnings, the story behind the name, the scene in Chi-town and a whole heap of other stuff. Carry on reading the full interview below and download this exclusive track from his forthcoming album Electro Track Therapy, ‘Talk Dutty’, while you read.
You’ve been MCing for a good amount of time now, but you started out as a hip hop MC – was that your first love?
My start in Hip-Hop, and music in general, was actually as a producer…In Chicago, in the mid-nineties.. At that time the idea of being an MC was secondary. I really couldn’t rap my way out of a paper bag. As far as Reggae was concerned, my style was way too non-specific to be taken seriously. I did manage to borrow a Korg X3 Keyboard from a friend, with the understanding that I would make free tracks for him and his crew. We ran to studios around the city to record, but none of the engineers knew how to synch the audio. That led to me learning engineering. So initially I was a “Lab Rat”. I loved to be in the studio.
How did you end up with the name Zulu?
Living in the north shore of Highland Park, Illinois and being a Black Panamanian, I had all kinds of choice nicknames.. “Black Chicken”, “African Booty Scratcher”, My real name’s Dominique. That was changed to “Domi-Nigger” and “Zulu”, from the Michael Caine movie. When Shaka Zulu came out, I pretty much wanted to crawl into a hole. I was lucky though, Afrika Bambaataa started making the rounds on mixtapes soon after. I got heavily into B-Boy Culture, and “Renegades” became my personal theme song. At that point I embraced “Zulu” as an identity.
You were born in Panama and moved to Chi-town in the 80s – how do you feel that affected your development – musically or otherwise?
The 60’s Classic Rock influence over me is huge, simply because that was all over the radio. Aside from that a Hollywood director named John Hughes was shooting a lot of movies in the suburbs where I lived. The 80’s music he used began to fit somewhere in the mix with all the Hip-Hop I was listening to.
I recall though, one of my more affluent friends (one of the rich kids) gave me a tape he bought while on vacation in Jamaica. For some reason he thought I might be able to translate it for him, and somehow I was able to. I remember telling him “Yea, that’s how my Dad talks when he gets angry.” The song in particular was Tiger’s “Ride Pon Riddim”. Tiger was absolutely unhinged.
Where was your first live gig? How did it go?
It was an Open Mic at “Lower Links” in Chicago. That place is closed down now, but I had a bunch of disparate lyrics. I was rambling on about the “Soldiers Of Babylon” or some craziness I thought would fit the mode. That wasn’t Zulu tho. That Was “Nique 1 Culture”..wacknessss!
There was stone silence when I began, but another Reggae singer in the back of the Room started cheering “Boh!-Boh!-Boh!” and brought the whole room with him. All this thunderous applause really took me by surprise, because at that point I KNEW I was terrible. Anyway the guy in the back of the room ended up being a good friend. He’s known worldwide as “DJ Collage”.
Which MCs do you look to for inspiration?
In the past, the rulebook was written by Shabba Ranks, hands down. Buju Banton came out soon after, and I thought to myself “MAN this guy’s good, but he sounds like he’s about 45. I hope I’m still that good when I reach HIS age.” I found out he was 16! That was when I stopped trying to be a “Hardcore Dancehall” singer. I went the experimental route from that day on because to me, Buju answered all the questions. The only way to make a difference from that level of performance would be through innovation; and so it is. All turmoil aside, no Dancehall artist, in my opinion, has been as engaging a performer as Buju Banton was in the early Nineties. Mr Vegas is a very close second.
Getting away from straight Dancehall though, Jim Morrison, Otis Redding, Bob Marley, Fela, and even GG Allin (…although I would never…)
I’ve heard you voicing ‘Spanish Fly’ over the 85 riddim, and over Beenie Man’s ‘Hmm Hmm’, so you’re obviously a dancehall fan. What are your favourite riddims?
I tend to favor riddims that were way ahead of their time. Joyride was one such Riddim. Lady Saw killed it with “Sycamore Tree”. You know when you get a really innovative track like that, because a lot more people decide to voice it after the initial release. South Rakkas had one like that called Chinkuzi. Now if you want to reach way back, almost everything Jackie Mittoo did was bananas. Riddims for the next 30 years of Reggae’s development were re-interpretations of his work.
How do you write your lyrics, what’s your artistic process?
Sometimes I dream a lot of crap in the middle of the night, like Edgar Cayce. Then I rush to write it down. Mostly I drive around mouthing off words, and looking like a damn fool. Pretty much all I ever listen to these days is instrumentals. The ideas come from reading everything I can.
You seem to mix the more ‘carnival’ vibe songs alongside some that are clearly conscious and politically-driven – how do you balance those sides?
With modern day music, it’s like you have to be an idiot to have fun; or you have to be boring to talk sense. The middle ground is vast, and that’s where I am. It’s actually much easier to navigate than the extremes if you think about it. I admit I flirt with politics, but I am still far removed from it. A lot of the songs I write are jokes. They might be political, but think of them as political cartoons. In the USA we have Left vs. Right wing debates raging daily. What people don’t realize is, if either side ever won decisively, Holy HELL would be unleashed. The very nature of life is to seek balance. Those who do not, quite literally cannot stand.
You’ve called yourself the white label menace because you’ve worked with so many underground producers like DJ C, Poirier, Sabbo, etc, how have these collaborations come about?
Whitelabel Menace as a name came from being an underground artist; but every so often I would grab an established riddim, or even a Top 40 track and show them who’s boss. DJs responded in kind by mixing my versions in with the originals. If I sent them drops then the sky was the limit. I was charting on Top 40 record pools and mix shows, with unofficial remixes, and independent releases. Radio stations have since put a stop to that. But I met all these DJs / artists on Social Networks. The opportunities used to be on the Tech.Nition’s, then BumSquad message boards. Now it’s Twitter.
The cross-genre and international collaboration seems really healthy right now, what do you think the future holds for MCs like yourself – is it easier now than it was before to make interesting collaborations happen and be inspired by different genres?
The opportunities are always there. If you’re the type of artist to return e-mails and interact with your fan base then your profile will be larger, plain and simple. Still, MCs are the future of global music. Remember I said it.
All around the world, kids are setting up shop in their bedrooms and making certified bangers on their laptops or iPads. They can go to CD Baby or BandCamp and sell it to the rest of the world immediately. If they go DJ their tracks out, they can raise a local, then international following. They aren’t going to let some record exec. tell them which genres don’t go together. The technology has made things like distribution, marketing and promo much easier. Now production is a snap as well. The only conceivable thing you can add to the mix, that no one else can, is your voice combined with your ideas.
Who would you like to collaborate with most?
Right Now…Justin Bieber… Or the winner of American Idol. I would write them a HIT!
What’s the scene like in Chicago – do you MC around? You recently collaborated with Murderbot – are you involved in the juke scene at all?
I try to be involved with all the scenes in Chicago, without ever being too involved. That way you are cool with people, but you can flourish as an artist without having to explain yourself. One thing I can say with full confidence is that you would never want to see me trying to juke, haha…
Murderbot is doing the city some real good by being a beacon for the juke scene, but I know his interests are all over the place like mine. You never know what he’s going to do next. Since we are on the subject of Juke though, BIG Shoutout to DJ Thadz, DJ Chip and also dem bwoyz from Crucial Conflict. Heartical Bredren fi real. Wildstyle, their producer was making some wicked juke tracks last time I talked to him. Big up Spinn and Rashad for the Murderbot Remix.
You’ve just finished a tour, where and what is next for you?
I am seriously back-logged with recording requests. Many of them are great opportunities, so I am committed to finishing them before starting another full tour. I had to announce a ceasefire so I can get some of the work out the door.
Summer Highlights are looking like: Wakarusa Music Festival with Radiohiro, Pitchfork Music Fest with Murderbot, Millennium Park in Chicago, and I may be hosting MC Juakali’s album release party in New York.
My upcoming projects include working with Liquid Stranger, Dub Gabriel, Kush Arora, Dim Summer, Radiohiro, FSTZ, BIONIK, Chrissy Murderbot, DJ Searchl1te, Jeekoos, Knight Riderz, OctaPush, Sabbo, Soulico, Mochipet, Anita Benner and quite a few more. Those are the ones I turned in already. Hoping I can finish the rest in time. Wish me luck.
Be sure to grab Zulu’s Promo Pak, with 10 free cuts, including ‘Body Rock’ with Douster, ‘Go Ballistic’ with Wildlife!, and ‘Darling’ with Poirier.
Interview by Susannah Webb