Rising above

Feb 9, 2005 at 12:00 am

Ypsilanti, 9 p.m., the dead of winter. One Be Lo is exhausted. He just drove 800 miles from Minneapolis, through a blizzard and without sleep, after performing a raucous hip-hop show with Atmosphere and Brother Ali the night before.

“Well, we ain’t doing push-ups, yo,” Lo says, as a way of insisting the interview go on. “If you want to build about an article, I got the energy to do it.”

After a grinding five years in the Midwestern hip-hop scene, the 28-year-old father of three says he and his family are accustomed to the toil, as is his 1993 Ford Explorer, which has logged 300,000 miles.

In a few days Lo splits for another tour — 10,000 North American miles in less than 40 days — in support of his newest album, S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M., which dropped last week on Fat Beats Records. The tour sees the Pontiac-raised and Ypsi-based emcee hitting fresh markets to woo new fans and record buyers — though his biggest emphasis is, he says, on the old hometown crowd.

“I’m trying to sell 10,000 albums in Michigan this time around — that’s my goal,” Lo says. “I think I can sell 5,000 CDs in the Yac alone. That’s not based off me being arrogant or ’cause I’m from there, but I’ve capitalized on my relationships. I know high-school kids that went up in their high-schools and sold 200 CDs for us. If your boy is telling you an album is tight you’re more likely to buy it.”

To legions of area kids, One Be Lo is the epitome of a grassroots underground emcee. In addition to manning his own record label, the five-year-old Subterraneous Records, Lo spends much of his free time conducting workshops for kids in public schools, facilitating creative writing classes and sponsoring hip-hop shows at teen centers like Ann Arbor’s Neutral Zone.

“Lo helped establish a real tight hip-hop community at the Neutral Zone since he started performing here,” Jackson Perry, the director of music programs at the Neutral Zone, says. “He would start ciphers, teach kids to freestyle, show hip-hop movies and even stop through unexpectedly sometimes to check up on the kids. He’s been a blessing to these kids beyond words.”

As many of his rhymes suggest, Lo’s down with altruistic causes. Life changed for him during a three-year prison stint he did for armed robbery. He converted to Islam before his 1997 release and recently changed from his birth name, Raland Scruggs, to Nashid Sulaiman.

His industry breakthrough came in Binary Star, which included Lo — then known as OneManArmy — and fellow ex-con Senim Silla. Though the duo squabbled often, their chemistry struck a chord with underground rap fans across the country. Their first album, WaterWorld — rereleased as Masters of the Universe in 2000 — sold 10,000 copies, a huge number for an indie release. And some critics fawned over Lo’s musical soul-baring and his encyclopedic knowledge of urban culture.

Two years after Binary Star disbanded, Lo grudgingly released his first solo album, Project: F.E.T.U.S., in 2002. The recording didn’t sell as well, but it helped Subterraneous Records’ cred.

As Lo’s popularity grew, he admits that his spirituality was in crisis; life as a budding rap star wasn’t so sympathetic to his Islamic lifestyle.

“I can remember being back in the hood and cats I rolled with always wanted to smoke weed,” he says. “I tried to stay on my deen (straight path) but sometimes it was too hard. I was going backwards for awhile, really struggling with Islam even though a lot of people didn’t know it. Truthfully, this country isn’t the most supportive environment for Muslims.”

On wax, Lo has often steered away from Islamic messages, though at times, he says, it’s difficult to be totally honest without rapping about his faith.

When recalling his jail stint on the track “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (from Masters of the Universe), Lo spits: “All praises due to Allah, I used to scheme/Till He showed me the straight way/Sirat al-mustaqeem.” The rhyme may have baffled secular fans but fellow Muslims thought it bold to admit in song how Islam had changed his life.

“If Mase can say he found Jesus and some emcee can say he loves bitches and hos, why can’t I say I love Islam?” Lo says.

Lo’s faith strengthened during a recent trip to the holy city of Mecca for “Umra,” a minor pilgrimage Muslims often make outside of Hajj season. Lo says that five weeks spent in Jordan and Saudi Arabia surrounded by Muslims left an indelible impression. He was awed by the overwhelming sense of peace. It was in the mountains of Saudi Arabia that Lo’s views on life, religion and nationalism began taking a radical turn.

Much of Lo’s time in the Middle East was spent in Medina, a Saudi Arabian city 280 miles north of Mecca where Prophet Muhammad established the world’s first Muslim community. It’s also home to a growing sector of Black Muslims from the United States, some of which, Lo noted, are from Ann Arbor. After returning from the pilgrimage, Lo says Medina may be his future home.

“This shit over here is an illusion, man,” he says, referring to the United States. “I’m trying to generate as much money as I can to get my family over to the Middle East. I’m trying to get my kids out of this cesspool.”

As for hip hop, Lo says his love for the genre might be waning.

“The only reason I still rhyme is ’cause I see the benefits of being able to affect people in a positive light or help other people get on their deen,” he says. “I still got mad love for hip hop, don’t get me wrong, but my heart isn’t in performing at clubs every night and coming home at 3 o’clock in the morning smelling like cigarette smoke. I want to be a father to my kids and give them a better life. I want to give my kids some knowledge and I’m not talking about ABC’s and all that, I’m talking about the knowledge of Allah.”

Before his Middle East journey, Lo began working on S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. (Sounds of Nashid Originate Good Rhymes and Music), which originally was to be released on his Subterraneous Records (home to Magestik Legend, Piece, Illite and others).

Numerous labels courted the lyricist, sparking a minor bidding war for the album’s distribution rights. He settled with the Sony/BMG-backed Fat Beats Records for one reason; Lo was offered a three-album deal and the opportunity to have his records in countrywide chains like Best Buy and Wal-Mart. Even if his album stiffed, the exposure for himself and his label would be enormous.

While he won’t discuss the financial payoff, Lo says he was swayed by the expansive marketing budget the deal included — ads in major magazines, radio spots, and MTV2 commercials. After hustling for years to get his name out in the Midwest, Lo says these temporary spoils are something he’s earned. As for the folks at Fat Beats, they say One Be Lo is well worth the investment.

“He’s been successful without any major support for years. What we wanted to do is just give him an additional push,” says Ethan Hoben, a staffer at Fat Beats.

What does the label think of Lo’s possible relocation to the Middle East?

“If he wants to move to Saudi Arabia, and be more of a father to his kids, it gives us even more respect for him,” Hoben says. “We’re 100 percent committed to Lo, even if it means we have to help him put out his last two albums from Saudi Arabia.”

S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. itself has already inspired critical hyperbole. He’s been featured in Vibe, Mugshot and XXL, where senior writer Chairman Mao called the album “extra fucking terrific.” Sonically, it’s Lo’s best work to date, by far his most personal. The Trackezoids-produced disc is 22 tracks of consciousness on wax with little, if any, filler. The initial verse on the song “Axis” takes aim at inertia in urban communities; it’s didactic and scornful. For many unfamiliar with Lo, the song is a fitting introduction: Tell me who you trust when you in your new truck/Some of us dying over a few bucks/Killers old enough to ride a school bus/With brothers like these tell me who needs the Ku Klux?


The S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. release show is Feb. 16 at the Blind Pig (208 S. First St., Ann Arbor; 734 996-8555). Two shows: 6 p.m. all-ages; 10 p.m. 18+.

Jonathan Cunningham is a Metro Times intern. Send comments to [email protected]