QUEEN OF NEW YORK: QUEEN LATIFAH INTERVIEW
For 40 years the Empire State Building lorded proudly over the skyline of New York, dwarfing everything in its surround until the age of technology and the high-rise office block finally caught up with it. No longer is the Empire State the highest watchtower over New York – that honour goes to the twin towers of the World Trade Centre – but it is still impressive, nonetheless.
Rising 1,250 feet out of the sidewalk, it is said that on a clear day you can see 80 miles into the horizon from the 102nd floor observation platform.
You don’t need to look quite that far to spot Queen Latifah’s stomping ground. She points in the distance to explain the close proximity between her hometown of New Jersey and her current Bronx residence: “It’s right there,” she says, surprised that anyone would not be able to recognize New Jersey from the top of the world’s third tallest building. “New Jersey and New York are right together… and I live that way now,” she says pointing Bronx-ward.
Latifah is very much a product of her area – she even drives just like you’d expect a New Yorker – but like all natives of a city, she is oblivious to many of those astounding local features that cause outsiders to marvel. She may well be able to single out, from a great height, the various neighbourhoods of NYC, but Latifah has to admit that she hasn’t been to the top of the Empire State Building since she was a child. But what better way to capture a Queen than when surveying her kingdom from one of its tallest vantage points. As she poses for photographs with the concrete and glass towers of her kingdom behind her, she reconsiders her opinion of the tower realizing that it isn’t quite as bad as the tourist trap that she imagined it to be.
"You should come up here more often, your royal highness,” I suggest, “it might even help to inspire your raps.” “It might do that too,” she agrees.
Four nights earlier, way down on the Lower West Side of New York, I’d seen Queen Latifah destroy a sizeable Payday Club audience with a mesmerizing sense of presence that even the hard-hitting showmanship of Ice T was unable to match later on that same evening.
“I’m comfortable on stage,” she explains, unabashed by the strength of a wind that sometimes forces the Empire State to incline a couple of inches either way. Her attention – if not her hair – remains unflappable as she continues. “The more people, the more comfortable I feel; instead of being nervous, I just go out there and be myself and somehow the audience can see through me and see that I’m being myself and not phony.”
The Queen may have conquered the problems of the live performance with an overwhelming self-belief and honesty, but on the other side of the career coin is chart success – and Latifah has yet to crash into the national US pop charts, unlike her homeboys, De La Soul. “Then again,” she reasons, “I haven’t really made anything that they probably would want. I haven’t really been into pop shit.”
But even without a pop chart hit, which must surely come in time, she has a following nonetheless. “A lot of people support me, I have a crowd,” she explains, putting herself into place in the hip-hop hierarchy, “but I’m not a Salt-N-Pepa yet!”
Would Latifah like to be a Salt-N-Pepa?
“I’d like to make their money,” she candidly admits, “I’d like to be large, but I’m not rushing anything; it’ll come in time.”
Salt-N-Pepa obviously made it large through a series of very popish crossover records, but that isn’t a gameplan that would appeal t the Queen. “Whatever I do has come from me, and I don’t really feel for that pop shit,” she insists. “The pop side of it is cool but it’s not something I’ve been working at doing. I never made up something that felt ‘hey, this is specifically for this audience’ or ‘I could sell a million records with it’. I make music that makes me happy.
“I want to be successful at what I’m doing,” she continues, “but I kinda wanna do it my way. I don’t want to make records just to please people, I want to make my own thing.”
Queen Latifah grew up in New Jersey listening to just about anything that was played on the radio and on MTV (“It wasn’t like I was locked into any specific kind of music”) and performing in everything from talent shows to school plays (“I played Dorothy in ‘The Wiz’ and Joanne in Godspell”). She was supported by her mother at every turn. Even when it became obvious that Latifah was progressing towards the wild world of sex and drugs and rap’n’roll, her mother’s support remained constant. “She trusts me,” says Latifah, justifying her mom’s unflinching belief in the face of what could have been great pressures. “She raised me right, she knows that I know better than to get into anything. I don’t hang around people that sniff cocaine or shoot heroin and stuff. I’ll drink a beer but other than that I’m not into anything else.”
Latifah’s attentions began turning towards hip-hop while in High School when, with two friends, she started a crew called Ladies Fresh. “I used to do the beatbox,” she says. But it wasn’t long before she was inspired to write her own rhymes, and then, with DJ Mark The 45 King and Ruler Lord Ramsey, she established her own recording career. With a record deal that was clinched when, unbelievably, her demo was played over the phone to Tommy Boy Records, Latifah has proved unstoppable!
A series of stylish hip-hop dance hits have helped to establish Latifah in the major league of world rap, while her forthcoming debut album ‘All Hail The Queen’, with its mixture of styles, sounds and producers, will consolidate the gains of the last year. The album is also a testament to the kind of regard in which Latifah is held by her contemporaries; the catalogue of heavyweight hip-hoppers that the Queen enlists to guest on her recordings is impressive to say the least. KRS-One produced a track called ‘The Evil That Men Do’, house-man Louis Vega took over the controls of ‘Latifah’s Law’, while Stetsasonic’s Daddy-O produced ‘Pros’ and Prince Paul handled ‘Mama Gave Birth To The Soul Children’. The album also features duets with De La Soul (‘Mama Gave Birth To The Soul Children’) and Monie Love (‘Ladies First’). DJ Mark The 45 King took the production credit for the remainder of the album, as Latifah regards few people with the respect that she holds for the 45 King.
“I think he’s crazy talented,” she beams. “I think he has so much talent and so much versatility in certain aspects… It’s real easy working with Mark cos we know each other so well, we know what we want before we go into the studio. And we don’t push each other, we really just work together. He knows what I like, so he makes beats I like.”
Interestingly, although Latifah generally doesn’t involve herself in the production of her recordings, the one album track where she shared the production credit is, in fact, a house cut, called ‘Come In To My House’. “It’s the only house record on the album,” she explains. “I love house and I like to sing. I’m not locked into hip-hop and I don’t want people to think I’m locked into hip-hop. I figured we’d mix it up, give them a mixed bag, some reggae, some hip-hop, some hardcore hip-hop, some kind of comical hip-hop with the De La Soul thing and some house.”
The Queen knows that mixing styles isn’t always to the taste of the hardcore, purist section of her audience, but she wants to take risks. “Sometimes it’s harder for a hardcore audience to like house when all that they listen to is hardcore hip-hop,” she ventures. “It’s hard for house people to listen to rappers but when you combine the both you get a nice combination.”
Aside from the recording of her album and the guest appearances there within, Latifah has been making a guest appearance of her own, helping out the Coldcut boys by rapping on their next album. But there was a degree of confusion… “I didn’t know what I was supposed to do,” she says of her role at the recording session, “so I just waited until I got there and asked them what they wanted. I wrote the rhyme and it came out pretty good. I’m expecting a pretty good turn out from that record cos it’s deep, it’s kinda def.”
And as far as other guest appearances go, Latifah currently has one burning desire. “I would love to be in Spike Lee’s next movie,” she says with the kind of irrepressible enthusiasm that makes it plain that she’s totally serious. “I’ll audition and the whole bit, cos I think I could probably get a part. I just got to find somebody who knows Spike.”
It’s a big step from school production to movie stardom, but if she approaches the challenge with the kind of career seriousness that she has applied to her ascent of the rap summit then anything could be possible.
As the interview concludes, all that remains is the return journey to street level. Rather than attempt the 1,860 stairs, it’s back to the elevator. As we descend the final 80 floors of the Empire State Building in just under a minute, it becomes obvious that you don’t need anywhere near that long to conclude that if Queen Latifah is going in any direction, well, it’s not downwards!
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007