The world according to Mike Ladd

Boston Globe, November 20, 2005

It’s a twisty road to pop success. All hard work and talent can promise is recognition by a few peers and a place in the purgatory called the “underground.” From then on, it’s usually about either “going commercial” or simply persisting.

But Cambridge-raised poet and producer Mike Ladd has found another way to proceed. One turning point was meeting jazz pianist Vijay Iyer at the now-defunct House of Blues in Harvard Square back in 1997. From that encounter would grow 2003’s “In What Language?,” a brilliant collaboration that explores the emotional content of globalization, portraying the thoughts of people as they come and go in an international airport.

“In What Language?” won lavish critical acclaim. It also introduced Ladd, now based in Paris, to an audience larger than the esoteric circles of intellectual hip-hop and poetry slams where he is something of a reluctant cult figure.

This month Ladd returns with a new disc, “Father Divine.” It’s a work of artful noise that blends inputs like Bollywood horns and shuffly Caribbean beats with the adventurous production spirit of vintage Public Enemy, and lyrics that explore Ladd’s ongoing preoccupations: with culture, migration, nostalgia, and the evolution of music itself.

On “Apartment C4,” Ladd hurtles through his life story: “Boston and Montmartre / the superfly style of my life so far,” and “Lawrence and Nigeria / at least I ain’t jive.” On “Barney’s Girl,” he sings of his teenage escapades: “We loop around to 128 / Suburban girls with impeccable taste.”

“I paint this picture of this classic 1987 chick,” Ladd says on the phone from Paris. A Barney, he explains, is what Cambridge kids used to call those whose parents were well-off or academics – or both.

Ladd may be the last full-fledged artist that Harvard Square produced before getting buried under middlebrow chain stores. The son of Florence Ladd, black education pioneer and longtime director of the Bunting Institute, and a white British father, Ladd grew up between a house in elegant West Cambridge and his aunt’s place on the Western Avenue “Coast,” where funk and soul ruled.

“It was this amazing bass-filled house with scratchy WILD in the morning, this R&B AM music trying to crackle through the little cracks in Boston,” Ladd says. “And at Mom’s it was Roberta Flack and Nina Simone.”

Of course, those were not the only influences.

“But growing up in Cambridge, I always had this punk-rock thing. Nate Albert from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones grew up across the street from me. I used to think hip-hop wasn’t crazy enough for me.”

By the late ’80s, hip-hop had taken a quantum leap. The noise and politics of Public Enemy attracted the punk crowd, while the ska and reggae kids saw the future of verbal “toasting” in the extravagant lyrical imagination and flow of a Rakim. For the biracial Ladd, who was playing bass and drums in a band modeled on Funkadelic, the rapprochement between supposedly “black” and “white” genres had the force of catharsis.

Irked by the crunchiness at his school, Northfield Mount Hermon, he used savings from a construction job to spend a year at a boarding school in India’s Himalayan foothills. He came back ready to leave again. But after enrolling at Hampshire College, he changed his mind.

“I studied black expatriate writing in the 19th century, what were the political and literary implications of leaving the US,” he says. “But I came to the hypothesis that to fight for black issues, the best way was not to take flight. I realized there was a lot of work to be done here.”

He moved to New York and dove into the underground, where artists steeped in hip-hop were trying, he says, “to shed the hippy-dippy trappings of the poetry scene that were invariably stuck to it, that you had to scrape off your shoe at the end of the night.”

With his edgy attitude and sheer erudition, Ladd made a name for himself, recording his first album, “Easy Listening for Armageddon,” before returning briefly to Boston to receive a master’s degree in poetry from Boston University.

Back in New York, Ladd and friends embarked on an urban exodus, leaving Brooklyn at the same time that all the hipsters were moving in, and setting up in the North Bronx neighborhood of Bedford Park, where the relative anonymity gave him creative space.

In an apartment lovingly memorialized on the new record, Ladd went into a creative frenzy, churning out albums and collaborating with partners ranging from alt-rappers Company Flow to rockers Yo La Tengo. “Welcome to the Afterfuture” was followed by “Infesticons” and “Majesticons,” named for the fictional hip-hop crews that they depict in battle, one grimy and intellectual, the other flashy and slick. “No one is paying me a lot for my records, so I’ve got to do one per year,” he says. “It’s what I feel I owe to my mother and her generation. If I’m not going to be Zadie Smith, let me at least do this.”

Needless to say, Ladd’s music is all over the place. Though held together by his versatility as rapper, writer, and multi- instrumentalist, each album has its own sound and complex agenda. He’s often tagged as making “concept albums,” but he dismisses the term.

“Everyone makes a concept album, just usually the concept is [having sex] and getting high,” he says. “I focus more on playing with new musical and lyrical ideas than on a recording strategy.”

Nowhere are the rewards of this curiosity more apparent than on Ladd’s collaboration with Vijay Iyer, which blew open new creative pathways for both artists.

“It was apparent that this man was on to something different,” Iyer says in an e-mail, “from his fancy for old analog gear and lo- fi audio, to his dystopic, hard-edged yet literate texts, to his visionary sense of a connection between hip-hop and punk rock. His work was seemingly post-everything, and still somehow his sheer honesty and emotional connection was impossible to ignore. Working with him was one of the highlights of my professional life.”

In the two years since “In What Language?” premiered, the two men have begun work on a new project, “Still Life With Commentator,” about “television news, the blogosphere, and our mediated relationship to modern atrocity,” Iyer says.

Last year, Ladd moved to Paris, the home of his wife, Fanny, who is part African-American and part French. He also put out “Negrophilia,” an album that considers the influence of Africans and black Americans in Paris on the spread of modernism.

It’s not lost on him that he has become, for now, the expatriate that he once criticized. But perhaps more to the point, Ladd is a new kind of artist, for whom geographic displacement isn’t about exile, but about better understanding others and himself.

“It’s a post-futurist reality,” he says. “… We’re part of an unavoidable global community.”