The Aleem Brothers discuss with Michael Tillery of The Starting Five the release of original material recorded with the legendary Jimi Hendrix before his passing. This deal, coordinated with the twins, Hip Hop artist and producer Spyda D and Jimi’s estate, has been in the works for over a year. This comes a day after Jimi Hendrix’ drummer, Mitch Mitchell, died.
The world is transitioning to a new state of consciousness. For most who were around when the children of this ever changing society were unsure of what path America’s culture would take, this new era hearkens back to the past to shake us all for the sake of the future. As we enter this unknown period, there undoubtedly will be a cultural explosion of sorts spawning pockets big and small of mass cultural creativity. Music changes melancholy moods into spiritual food which can determine if one smiles, whistles, laughs, cries or sighs. You see, through music life is born. In that life and also through death a generation can have seismic shifts just because of a song. Jimi Hendrix unfortunately is relatively unknown to those in this nation who are on a constant search of soulful understanding. Here comes music again to blaze a path and help those relevant extrapolate a note or two just so they can be.
There were many times during this interview where I could see and feel another wave of the Harlem Renaissance. Could you imagine living in a space where the streets were the perfect beat…where at night you could nod smile yourself to sleep listening to the glorious art surrounding you? How much influential soul was made in an area I find myself drawn to because of so many great stories of the vibe live?
The Aleem Brothers…TaharQa and Tunde Ra are a bridge to a past where Jimi Hendrix was misunderstood to practically everyone outside of the community where he spent a lot of time. Most now thought Jimi was all about Rock, but as you read below, there was a different side of Jimi we all need to get to know…subsequently creating, sustaining, relating and penetrating a cultural psyche where we all can grow.
Michael Tillery: Before we get into the meat of the interview, I would like the two of you to touch on the origin of music in your family. Music seems to have a large impact in shaping who you are.
Tunde Ra: That’s interesting, Mike. My mother was a music teacher and so was her mother. Music has been in our family for as long as we can remember.
TaharQa: Not only was my mother a music teacher, she also played piano. She was a pianist in her grandfather’s Baptist church in Jacksonville, Florida.
MT: How did music evolve from the family through the two of you?
TaharQa: The music evolved through my sister. During that time, teaching boys the art of music was a no-no. Some people considered playing piano as sissy. My mother didn’t feel we had the discipline to really get down and buckle into music. My sister was pleased to hear my brother and I learned how to play piano after hearing her music lesson.
Tunde Ra: You see, while she was taking music classes, we would be in another room supposedly reading funny papers the instructors gave us, however, learning by ear the intricate scales and songs (our sister was being taught). When we returned home, we would show her what we learned because we loved and admired her so much. We literally learned how to play by ear by listening to what she was doing.
MT: As you grew older, where did your obvious love for music go from there?
Tunde Ra: There were five of us (siblings), so as we grew older my mother would gather us around the piano and give us vocal parts to sing for our father when he returned home from working for the Pennsylvania railroad. We grew up around an enriched musical environment.
When we were in high school we formed a Doo Wop vocal group. We organized the vocal arrangements the same way as my mother did with us.
TaharQa: In our neighborhood of Harlem (141st) there was a concentration of very rich musical talent. There was the legendary Woodside Hotel that Count Basie wrote about and we lived on that block.
Great musicians like Basie, Ray Charles, Miles — and other Jazz Masters — would frequent that hotel. Young Do Whop musicians like Jimmy Caster, Frankie Lyman and other groups prominent in the 50’s lived on that particular block. In the area you had people like Sammy Davis, the Isley Brothers…there was an extremely rich Black music cultural dynamic we experienced on a daily basis. The Savoy and the Apollo Theater were in our immediate vicinity.
MT: Amazing. Take me back in time…I would have loved to be a part of that existence.
Where did you meet Jimi Hendrix and how did that relationship develop?
TaharQa: That happened in the early 60’s. Hendrix was in fact one of the guitar players for the Isley Brothers.
Tunde Ra: We came together through a mutual friend of ours-an entrepreneur from the neighborhood. He had a spiritual daughter named Faye who was a groupie. She often bragged about the talents of her boyfriend, a guy named Jimi Hendrix. She introduced us to him and also to one of Jimi’s girlfriends named “Pantera” who later on became Tunde Ra’s (Arthur’s) wife.
The four of us lived in an apartment in Park West Village (97th and Columbus). Basically, that’s how our relationship started. Guess you can say because of a lady named Faye.
MT: How was the divide between Black music fans and Jimi back then being he was a rock star?
TaharQa: Rock star is what they called him, but he was really a blues guitarist and rhythm and blues artist.
MT: How was he perceived in the Black community?
TaharQa: Always remember the black community nurtured him. There were two Jimi’s. There was the Jimi that was definitely a smash, the Jimi Hendrix that the world knew — and there was the Jimi Hendrix that was nurtured by the community prior to his going to England. In the Black community, he was a hot guitarist and he was unbelievable when it came to R & B type of music. So that’s why he was very well received in the music world and the music community. Some of the greatest artists had great admiration for Jimi and that’s why he played with some of them. There was Ike and Tina Turner, Little Richard, the Last Poets and Wilson Pickett. Everyone in the music world knew him as a star before he was a star to the world because of his unique style of guitar playing.
When he went out and did his own thing, that’s where the controversy came in. His style was so unique that people weren’t ready for it. His music was very compatible with Black music, but Black radio wasn’t ready for him to produce that type of stuff in the 60’s. They were feeding the masses with (so-called) popular music and Jimi’s style apparently was not the type of style they wanted to expose Black music fans to.
MT: That’s unfortunate.
Tunde Ra: That was very unfortunate. Music itself is evolution. It’s part in all cultures of what creates evolution by stimulating the mind. When people are kept away from the various types of evolutionary music, you have stymied growth.
MT: When you all were living together, could you see if his talent was that much better than anyone else? Was it his work ethic? What was it that made Jimi Hendrix special?
Tunde Ra: Jimi once told us if he were sweeping the floor, he would be the best floor sweeper n the world. This was because of his work ethic. Jimi had a lot of pride in himself as well as anything that he was doing. It showed in everything that he did-the way he walked, the way he talked, the way he wrote and the way he dressed.
TaharQa: I think I can add…my brother and I wrote a book on our life and it includes forays of our relationship with Jimi. In it we explain the basic things and the phenomena that contributed to his development.
Artists were very committed to their work and that continued from the ’30’s ’40’s and ’50’s. You had a lot of competition. You had lots of great artists working together, spontaneously feeding off of each other’s musical ideas.
Now you have a lot of technology that keeps an artist from really developing or learning from each other. Artists are now more segregated, individualized.
Then along came the Hendrix aura, combined with the social elements of the time that helped in the evolutionary process of his musical genius. A good example is there were a lot of clubs where you could walk in and play your instruments. You could plug your instrument in and play with acts that were already playing. You could do that not only in Harlem, but also in the Village, Long Island and even all around the country. You don’t have that today. It advanced the field by creating a lot of competition as well as camaraderie.
MT: I would have loved to lived back then because of the cultural artistry.
TaharQa: (Laughs) I’m sure there are gonna be ways in the future to make that possible.
MT: I hope so. I need a stronger heart (cultural consciousness) and state of mind to surround myself with. I yearn for it.
How did you come up with the name Ghetto Fighters? That’s Hip Hop.
TaharQa: That was the name given to us by Hendrix.
Tunde Ra: My brother and I were hustlin’ in the streets. There was an older hustler named “Mookie” Jackson who called us the Ghetto Fighters. When we decided to switch our trade and become professional musicians and music businessmen. Mookie would always keep us green by saying to us “You’ll always be Ghetto Fighters.” One day Jimi overheard him say that to us and later said to us, “I like that name for your group, “The Ghetto Fighters?”
MT: How is this material going to be released? What can you tell me about the albums?
TaharQa: I can tell you this, Michael… We are completing our “Ghetto Fighter” album and also working on a virtual reality project that focuses on some of our Harlem adventures with Jimi Hendrix with original music featuring Jimi Hendrix on guitar and featuring the late Buddy Miles and the Ghetto Fighters on vocals.
Tunde Ra: It’s animation and original music that has never been heard.
TaharQa: We are looking forward to releasing this product with patient expectation.
MT: I can’t wait. I know the world cannot wait for this stuff. Specifically because as you stated, there isn’t a lot of creativity. It’s more of a decay of sorts from what was the standard.
TaharQa: These projects are meant to raise the bar. It’s ironic; a lot of this creativity we credit to Hendrix. My brother and I feel that these new endeavors will show artists new ways of creative expression.
Tunde Ra: Let me make something clear, you can’t take away from the talent a lot of these young artists have-some of the Hip Hop acts and some of the other sounds. It’s just a lot of it has become stagnant for a lot of the reasons why they didn’t introduce Jimi. It’s one feasting. One specific sound that they start buggin’ out on instead of opening things up and allowing creativity to flow. They sort of hold it and a lot of it is done through radio. Black radio should be intelligent enough to play different types of sounds. It’s not all about Hip Hop. People are getting tired of the same old thing over and over again. Instead of programmers saying ok, let us amalgamate the music, it’s all of ours and it’s all great.
MT: Could you talk about Harlem World? That’s something I’ve always wanted to ask somebody (The brothers laugh).
Tunde Ra: Our experience in Harlem World is a major part of our book, Ghetto Fighters. Harlem World was a spawning ground for us. Hendrix and many other artists came through Harlem World. Some of the rap artists you know of today got their start at Harlem World. The HW club on 116th St and Lenox Avenue was very instrumental in a lot of folks’ careers. It was a concept. The concept was the brainchild of a flamboyant hustler/ entrepreneur named “Fat Jack” Taylor. Taylor was our mentor and business partner. The HW concept stemmed from a record company that he owned called Ro-Jack Records. Ro-Jack housed the blues artist Big Maybelle and a group known as the LTD that featured drummer/singer Jeffrey Osborne. I don’t know if you remember “Blowfly” Clarence Reed, the artist that wrote the hit song titled, “Cleanup Woman.”
TaharQa: Then there was James Booker, a legendary piano player from New Orleans. That and more is the musical history of Harlem World. Then there was the notorious side of Harlem World, we tell all sides in our book.
MT: When is the book going to be released?
Tunde Ra: The book is completed. We have several products that we hope to release between now and next summer.
You are in Philly, right?
Spyda D rockin’ the same guitar strap Jimi wore during the Monterey Pop
Festival, circa 1969.
Tunde Ra: We had a rap act named Captain Rock. He was well received in Philly. He and Spyda D’s artist named Sparkie D, were artist on our label called Nia Records. We also had Marley Mal, MC Shan, Red Alert, Roxanne Shante and Intelligent Hoodlum. Eventually, we formed a label with two great young Philadelphians named The Goodman Brothers. They had an act called Fresh Prince, better known now as Will Smith.
MT: I ran into one of the brothers at a Sixers game I covered where he was being honored.
Tunde Ra: If you happen to see him or his brother, please send him our love.
MT: Oh, no question.
What is your initial focus with all of this great stuff to be released?
TaharQa: The first thing we are gonna be concentrating on is what we are calling Urban Street Tales.
Tunde Ra: Urban Street Tales will highlight our experiences with Jimi Hendrix and also our experiences in life.
MT: I get goose bumps talking to you two brothas because I know I’m speaking to greatness (they laugh).
Talk to you soon. This was my honor.
TaharQa: And our pleasure.
The Aleem brothers in 1985…