I guarantee that Malik Yusef has worked on some of your favorite songs. He has been part of the G.O.O.D. Music family for a long time, and is known to have been especially influential in Kanye West’s early career, with both artists hailing from Chicago. Writing collaborations with Kanye include 'All Day,' 'All of the Lights,' 'Monster,' 'Power,' 'Mercy,' 'Runaway,' 'Glow'…and so many more. Malik co-wrote and co-created 15 tracks on The Life of Pablo, 8 tracks on Yeezus, and 7 tracks on My Dark Twisted Fantasy. He was also a writer and artist on Cruel Summer, and an all-round collaborator on Film Runaway. Not a bad look, considering there are also plenty of other artists in his discography like Common, Carl Thomas and John Legend.
If that was all an artist had achieved, then he would have achieved more than most, but that’s just one dimension of Malik’s career and legacy. To date he has won 6 Grammys (most recently for 'Sandcastles' on Beyoncé’s Lemonade) and nominated an incredible 24 times. Although his career is known to be in music, Malik is primarily a spoken-word poet, hence the alias of WordSmyth. Malik also speaks out regularly for movements he believes in, such as Climate Change and Standing Rock. He is a philanthropist by nature, giving back to his community both with his time and talent.
Knowing all of this, I was a little bit intimidated by the thought of meeting such a legendary man. But I had less to worry about than if I was meeting a kitten. It’s very hard to put into words (I see the irony) how magical it is to sit and speak to Malik. You can’t help but want to be around his energy, because you feel better about yourself by proximity. Speaking to him feels like an out of body experience; I could easily have been hypnotized the entire time, as he intertwines words with melodies, phrases with hand movements. You get the feeling you could speak to him for years and still wouldn’t get bored. We spoke for a long time, about why working with Kanye is both incredibly hard and rewarding, why he prefers working with female artists, how Chicago has changed and why it’s important to speak out against injustices. I said to Matt afterwards, “I feel like my soul has been lifted”, and hopefully you can see why.
UHH: You’ve had a ridiculous career so far with 6 Grammys, all of your many collaborations and solo work. How does it feel at this point with 20 years behind you?
Malik Yusef: Yes, 20 years in September.
Sitting here right now, that must feel insane.
Yeah it does feel crazy. I was at Kanye’s house and he said, “What made you outlast the people 20 years ago that you started with?” I said, “I don’t know what it was. I just put my head down and worked and grinded through it. Sometimes you just have to close your eyes, put your head down and go, and believe that the goal line is there.”
You grew up in Chicago. How did you get into music in the first place?
I grew up in Chicago, and I started doing poetry. I think when I was a kid I had a knack for melody, but it wasn’t supported by my parents. My father is a blue-collar guy, ‘go to work, get education and a miracle will take care of you – God bless America’- type. But I didn’t feel that way, and at 6 years’ old I felt like that’s not the truth, that’s not how it’s going to work. So I started to be an alternative thinker, and from that so many other things came my way, to do other things and to entrepreneurialize my existence. I started construction companies and stuff like that, a clothing company. Because of my entrepreneurship, I met people here and there, and my talent was able to work in their favor, so I could legitimately be in a space with other artists like Common, Carl Thomas and Kanye, then it went to Cudi, Big Sean, Vic Mensa, Jay Z, Beyoncé…all legends of the world. I feel like doing movie soundtracks, working with Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, Drake – it’s been crazy, almost like I do it every day so it doesn’t seem as wild until you look back at it, then it seems a little bit incredible.
You said you started out as an entrepreneur, I feel like in the music industry, you have to have a business mind to sustain your career beyond the first few records.
It’s the music business. The illusion is the word ‘music’ comes first, but really it’s the business of music.
Have you seen many artists come and go who have a lot of talent but just can’t stick?
Ohh yeah. That’s why I don’t fall in love with talent anymore. I used to fall in love with talent, ‘oh my God you’re so gifted! This music is so great!’ A guy that can play 7 instruments, produce his own thing and topline, and you never heard his music, he didn’t have the system or the processes, the product. How do you create a product? Having great oranges at some obscure place in Florida and having a great orange juice company is different than having a bunch of oranges on your property.
What do you think was the turning point for your career when you were coming up?
The turning point for my career was…I think being on Common’s album, letting the world hear my poetry. Then I think people got interested with good services and good product.
You’ve referenced ‘poetry’ a few times now; you started writing poetry and it turned into songwriting. Most of the songs you’ve worked on are definitely more poetic than rap, it’s more soulful. How much are words and reading an inspiration, alongside other artists and instrumentals?
I would say 75% of my skill is reading, because when you’re reading, your brain is 82% more active than when you’re watching television because you have to imagine. If they say, ‘Mrs. Brown cooked 3 blueberry pies, 2 apple pies and 1 peach cobbler, set up on the window ledge on her farm. The dog was running and her granddaughter Ruby was throwing the ball’ – you have to imagine what the granddaughter Ruby looks like, her name is Ruby, maybe she’s a redhead? The dog, what kind of dog is it? He’s throwing a ball so it can’t be a purse puppy, it’s a substantial dog to go chase a ball. What does Mrs. Brown look like? Does she have grey hair? The windowsill, what side of the house is it on? So all those things have to happen in split seconds in your brain, and it makes the brain active.
Do you do any exercises to keep your brain sharp, fresh and newly inspired?
A lot of puzzles, and now you have apps for puzzles to keep my brain active, combinations and connections, and so forth.
So you are a Grammy winner, ‘All of the Lights’ being one of them, which is honestly one of my favorite Kanye songs – it truly lifts you up. What was the experience like creating that song?
We had tried to get control of the beat he did *sings beat* but he had another sample in there *sings sample* “the champ is here” - it was Muhammed Ali, I was trying to design the rhymes around that. But I couldn’t get it, every time I said something to him he said, “no that’s not it, not that’s not it, no Malik that’s not it”, which he says all the time, ‘no’, that’s his favorite thing. Then I just told Drew, the engineer at the time, ‘take the sample out’…‘take the sample out? You love the sample’, because I’m a Muslim from Chicago, I loved Muhammad Ali when I grew up, but said, ‘just take it out’ – it was like losing a child. But it cleared the space so I could think, I started thinking about other thoughts, clear your audible palate, like a sorbet or an intermezzo – clear that palate. My oldest son Jibrail, his first words were “light”, and I thought, ‘light is a beautiful word. There’s all kinds of light – there’s sunlight, there’s flashlight, there’s strobe lights, there’s night lights, there’s streetlights…all of the lights.’ When I said that, a literal light went off in my brain, I was like *singing* “All of the lights, all of the lights*. I had it. I went upstairs and told Rick Ross, “I’ve got it”, he said “you sure?” and I said, “I got it!” Jeff Bhasker was in there and he came down, we recorded it, and it just started after that.
What’s that feeling like when you just get it?
It’s not even like ‘Eureka’, it’s like…you toil, and you work so hard and your brain recalibrates, and you touch it – ‘I got that thing I was trying to get’. It’s not often that humans get exactly what they want. You can want things and never get it. The thing itself has to capitulate - no matter how much you love tomatoes, if you live in the desert then you’re going to have a difficult time. Music is different, it’s a spirit – you can bend it a little, less viscous, it can move, it’s a ghost. When you bend it and turn it, it’s a feeling, I don’t know what it is. It’s like great food or good sex, like ‘this was here? I could have got here a long time ago’, but you couldn’t have because you had to work through that process enough so your brain calibrated. So that’s what it was like, it was beautiful. We had Elton John come in and try some stuff and he couldn’t hit it. But the stuff that everybody did then made sense – we could implement the Cudi stuff, and the Elton John stuff, and Dream came in and he’s just a master.
Do you see music?
Yes, I’m a synesthete. I was just in the studio with Jay Z and No I.D. the other day, and I was trying to explain to him the color I was seeing from the sound, and No I.D. said ‘green’ at the same time as me. He’s like, ‘I don’t know but I could tell what you’re thinking’. That’s how talented No I.D. is. I see the colors, I see the shapes, it’s just alive. Like how your hair’s blowing, that’s what I see in my brain, it’s moving. It’s why I was a terrible student because if someone says something or I read something, it sparks these images. If it took a regular kid 5 minutes to finish a page, it took me 25 minutes.
It’s a gift, it’s amazing.
It is a gift, but not when you’re 7 years’ old, like ‘ahh what’s wrong with me?!’
So of course you’re part of the G.O.O.D. Music family – what’s it like working with Kanye and his team?
Working with Kanye is arduous. He’s so fucking gifted, he’s just the one, he’s him. He’s that creature that was born to just be magnificent. But with that comes just this Sisyphean task of rolling that boulder up the hill, just for it to come down again, days at a time. But working with the other artists is good, it’s easier but working with him is the best because he distills something out of you…it’s hard to explain, because inside the frustration is where the beauty is, it makes you try harder.
Absolutely, the best teachers get you to that point.
When you’re a kid, the best thing to happen is when a girl says, ‘no I don’t like you’, so you can get better and prove things, until she’s like, ‘okay, maybe’. It’s what makes us better. Yes’s don’t make us better, no’s make us better.
You’ve been nominated and won a Grammy every year since Best Rap song, and I think most are Kanye connected?
Yeah I don’t think I’ve missed a year. I think I had one year with John Legend, Raheem DeVaugn and Kanye in the same year, 3 different artists. This year I had 3 different artists too.
Which other artists do you work well with?
Wiz Kalifa. He’s one my favorite people in the world. If you ever have the opportunity to meet Wiz Kalifa, do it. He’s just a powerful human, and a great person. Obviously he’s an incredible musician and makes songs people love all over the world, hence his ability to have millions of streams. Everyone feels like that about him, he has tons of people that want to be around him; he’s fun, he’s talented, he’s just a great human. His energy is uplifting, and I love that about people more than anything else, more than their talent.
Do you find there’s a difference between working with male and female artists?
I like working with female artists better because of their energy, because music is a feminine art form so I just like that better. It’s just more romantic, we’re in a world where women are allowed to say things that men can’t, so you can do a filter of a woman and say the sweet things you want to say, when other people will say, ‘ah Malik, stop being soft’ – I am soft though! I’m just a soft mothafucker period, I can’t be soft, like I’m in a gang or some shit? I can be vulnerable, and male artists are like, ‘that shit too weak, that shit too soft, want me to beat you up?’
‘I got two sides!’
Please understand I have two sides! You can speak about flowers and shit and nobody gets upset about it.
Do you think female artists are surprised when you come out with these things?
I think so, hell yeah I think so. People were surprised at Sandcastles. I did allow Beyoncé to call a man a bitch…I didn’t know if that was permissible or not, but I asked my wife and she’s like, ‘oh yes’.
Okay then, if Beyoncé can say it.
It’s just good to be vulnerable, people like that. The muses are feminine energies in Greek mythology. That’s why I raise my sons differently, like ‘you can cry, if you hurt yourself, you can cry.’ All the ‘toughen up, be a man’, all that goofy shit is stupid. Do you think ‘man’ is opposite of ‘woman’? No, we’re intertwined, there’s no opposite. What’s masculinity? You can’t even define it, ‘it’s not feminine’ – get the fuck outta here, are you fucking crazy? You want a person to grow up with no feelings and go into the world and hurt other people? That’s where we get bullies and shit from. People that can’t feel other people, they aren’t allowed to know who they are, and I think music should be a portal to that. Of course there are some songs, “we will, we will rock you” – that has to be a song. But Freddie Mercury also was able to evoke the feminine energy as well, and that was important. Michael Jackson, he could do ‘Beat It’ with a knife, and then he could do ‘Human Nature’ *starts singing Human Nature beautifully*. That shit is important, man. We don’t let artists nowadays have that dichotomy. ‘If you’re a rapper you better be tough as shit, and you better not say nothing sweet to a woman, boy. Better not hear about any pain, better not hear you hurting about anything.’
You just mentioned Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson. Which songwriters of all time do you look up to?
I didn’t know that Michael Jackson wrote as many songs as he did, he wrote hundreds of songs. I didn’t know he wrote these musings, and it was like poetry. But when you’re making a big record, corporate music doesn’t let you do some of the songs. Prince is another person, and you know who else too? I really think that Merle Haggard is one of the best songwriters of all time. Country music has some of the greatest songwriting in the history of music, Merle Haggard was just a beast, so tuned into his target. So I listen to all kinds of music, all genres. If I had to pick one, I would say Prince. He has songs like ‘Coat of Pink Cashmere’, it’s so abstract *starts singing song*. “I’m making you a coat of pink cashmere” – the image of this guy is just crazy. I don’t know what it really meant but just the image of it is beautiful. So those are the type of things I look for, I mean that wasn’t a popular radio song, but popular radio is not made to evoke a lot of emotion, unless it becomes also a hit by the system. So Prince for me is probably the top, because he was able to get his musings out into songs, even if they weren’t hits; I love that.
Do you use a physical pen and paper when you write? And if so, how important is that versus typing?
For me, it’s analogue, it’s visceral, it’s a feeling. It’s a connection with an object that I use, almost like a red magic wand to put my spells through. I like the feeling of it, the symmetry or the asymmetry of it. The hand and the mouth kind of work together sometimes, it’s intimate.
Do you have a special book or do you just write on anything that’s around?
Anything that’s around, but I do have some books that I like a lot, the aesthetic of, the outside of. I like a lot of pastel colors and stuff like that, pink is my favorite color. I didn’t bring any pink here…
This is a fresh outfit though, the shoes especially!
Yeah my man Don C, I’m so proud of him, I talked to him the other day when I was coming down, I’m so proud of what he’s able to do in this space.
What do you do to unwind?
I don’t know if I ever unwind. Maybe when I sleep? I have a female brain, you know a woman’s brain doesn’t turn off, women can’t disconnect from their stream of consciousness but men can?
Oh really, is that a thing?
It’s an evolutionary thing. Estrogen is a chemical that promotes thought, and testosterone is a chemical that promotes action. So at a younger age, women develop a part in the middle of the brain that connects both hemispheres called the corpus callosum, and in women they develop trans-lateral thought, left and right hemispheres working together faster, so the corpus callosum has to grow to accommodate that action, and it grows thicker and longer. The corpus callosum is closer to the frontal lobe, and you have greater access to your emotions. So the brain is always processing emotions, and the synaptic gaps are short so they can always be working. When a man’s at his hardest task, his brain is working at cycle 7, but when women are sleeping, their cycle is also at a 7. Women are a lot smarter than men, just by nature, they have to be though. You had the responsibility of having a human inside you for 9 months!
I didn’t realize you still lived in Chicago most of the time. Even more so recently, Chicago has been in the news because of Chance the Rapper with his success and also his school donations. How have you seen the city change over the years?
It’s better than it was when I was coming up. In 1993 I remember just being 1300 murders or something like that. But it was a drug culture, and also everyone knows that in Chicago, the police have a lot to do with the murders. When you got a high ranking gangster being killed and there’s no suspects, who can walk up on a real gangster except for a police officer? We know this in Chicago and we’ve protested it, and some of these murders are like, midnight, on a block – heart shot, head shot, neck shot, and ‘they were driving past in a car.’ I’m from the military and I can’t make that shot, not to a moving car. It’s just political. What Chance is doing is exposing the hypocrisy of it. If the news really wanted to report those murders in Chicago, they would say, ‘there was another gun violence incident in a low resource area of Chicago’, that’s what the real news should be. ‘High crime area’, really it should be ‘low resource’, if you want to make the news and inform and say, ‘look at this school, look at the lack of youth centers’. That’s what our solution-based stuff is in June, we’re coming in with actual places for kids to be and also targeting some of the existing edifices like churches, mosques, synagogues and temples, to be a place to avail themselves for kids to come in for conflict-resolution.
You were one of the celebrities who went to Standing Rock. How do you feel now they made a decision not to build the pipeline, only for it to be repealed?
When there’s a President who has a fiduciary interest in the pipeline going through, it’s going to go through.
Why did you feel so strongly about it that you got directly involved?
I’m part-Native and I’m very connected to the Lakota tribe, my medicine woman, peace upon her she passed away a few years back, she was in Pine Ridge which is about 6 hours from there but it’s a Lakota Reservation. So I felt it was my duty to bring light to it, the fact that a corporation can use police protection to forward their agenda – it’s criminal in every way that you can commit a crime. You’re committing a crime to the Earth; she can’t defend herself, just dig in her and take what you want, and the people that are there to protect her, that need her for life. You’re literally talking about making overt transgressions about the thing that keeps these people alive. If you don’t protest, they’ll kill you and think you wanted them to kill you.
I did a song with Vic Mensa for Gay Pride Weekend called Free Love, he came to Standing Rock and had a great show. Le1f, who’s an openly gay rapper kid, he’s saying, “respect my existence, or expect my resistance”, and that’s an important line. I’m not saying like, ‘hey, everybody should be a Muslim’. I’m a Muslim because I choose to be, that’s my choice, I’m not pushing that but you can’t say I can’t be that. You’re not allowed to dictate my lifestyle if I’m not hurting anybody. These people that are elected officials, who are they representing? You’re not representing the majority of the people in the country. That’s why I said in the song, “If you don’t like gay marriage, then don’t get gay married”, it’s a simple solution!
I know you’re very involved in working with upcoming artists: writers, singers, DJs – everyone. When you’re this far in the game, I guess you can bring up the next generation. How did you decide to focus on that a bit more?
I’ve always been doing that. I’ve never felt I could go at this alone. I grew up in a gang, but I also grew up in the boy scouts, and it’s group effort. I couldn’t survive my childhood without being involved in street organizations, because a young, sweet kid from the south side who doesn’t know anything about the streets, I would’ve just been a victim. But I had the OGs that protected me, and being around older guys, being around women that are older than you at a young age. So when I was 15, my girlfriend was 33, but she taught me so much. I was pretty mature at 15, and it happens. It’s probably illegal in some countries! She taught me so much, to be a gentleman, and a lot of 15 year old boys don’t get that. Everything I think is just a group effort, the people that you’re around to help you be your best self, if possible and that’s what I try to do. I feel I’m a good person, not even a great person, just a good person, if I can help impart a little bit of information on how to be your best self. I don’t want to say I teach, but I infuse a little bit of energy and then I have some talent and a little bit of skill in music.
Just a little bit..?
I always feel like I’m grasping for straws every time I write. Do you remember cartoons and the guy’s like, ‘must – reach – my – secret – package – that – has – the - antidote – for – this – gas.’ Then he gets it, but he’s explaining to you what’s happening, giving you the blow-by-blow, and you’re a kid so you have to understand. That’s how I always feel when I’m finishing a song, I always feel like I’m delineating every step in my own mind, ‘must – get – the – drums – right – or – I’ll – explode.’ So it’s not ever easy for me to finish a song. Starting anything is easy, but to finish is difficult.
And to know when you’re finished.
You have to be like, ‘that’s it’, or you’ll be tooling that shit for another year.
Malik looks stressed
What’s your favorite song that you’ve helped create?
John Legend’s first single, Used to Love U, *starts singing it and gives me chills*. I loved working on that song, I loved when it came out. It didn’t get as big as I thought it would get, but it’s a classic.
And which song written by someone else do you wish you wrote?
Oh about 5 million different ones. Recently I was listening to Yo Gotti, 'Down in the DM' - I wish I wrote that song, that’s my fucking life! My sister, DJ Kalkutta, she told me, ‘just don’t answer’, because these women don’t know if you got it or not, but if you answer then they don’t like you anymore. There’s some pretty wild stuff.
I bet you get it all!
Oh my God, ‘I didn’t mean to send you that picture, I’m so sorry’, oh come now, there’s like 3 pictures in a row.
And finally, what’s your favorite song to dance to?
Probably house music from Chicago, anything from there *starts singing some classic songs*.
Find more of Malik Yusef and his music here:
This is a personal favorite of mine - I used to listen to this on loop growing up but it never sounds old: