Wednesday, November 7, 2007

These Middling Masses – Nato Caliph

This is / Nato Caliph and I still love hip-hop

Shedrick Kelley created Nato Caliph for seven dollars. He registered the fictitious name at the office of the Missouri Secretary of State, enabling Nato to apply for credit cards, open a bank account, sign a contract with a record label and release his first album,
Cipher Inside.

“Nato Caliph is just me. I didn’t want to come out with my real name and then have a record company own the rights to it. There’s no difference. The way I think is the way Nato thinks."
I met Nato at his apartment where he lives with his wife, Dana, their two year-old daughter, Ayana, and their five month-old son, Hasani. The name Ayana is Ethiopian for “beautiful flower.” Hasani, also East African, means “handsome.”

They live on the east side of University City, on a one-way street that doesn’t see much traffic. Removing my shoes just inside their door, I could smell incense and hear Hasani responding to Dana in the kitchen. Ayana peaked around a corner with a hand puppet.

“Who is this?” I asked.

“My fingers,” she said.

Nato and I had been introduced at the KDHX studio a few weeks before, when he was interviewed on The Remedy. We had spoken briefly, but I had been struck by the sincerity with which he addressed me and the calm that he carried into an environment frenetic with discussion.

We sat down in his living room in front of a television turned to Nickelodeon with the volume low.

“Yana,” Nato said, “could you get Daddy the cocoa butter out of the bathroom on the sink?”

“On the sink?” she asked.

“Yes, the cocoa butter on the sink in the bathroom,” he said and she ran out of the room.

“I try to give her things to do that challenge her to think,” he said. “I know she’s only two.”
This is the story of a lesser man turned equal

“Where were you born?” I asked.

“Right here,” he said. “St. Louis, Missouri.”

Nato’s mother was seventeen and attending University City High School when she had him. I asked about his father.

“I know he exists,” Nato said, “but do we have a relationship? No. The last time I saw him I was eleven.”

“That was his choice to get out of the picture. I know he lives in St. Louis or at least he used to. It’s like one of those things.”

For the first few months of his life, Nato and his mother lived with his grandparents before his mother found an apartment and married a man with whom she would have two more children, though they soon divorced.

“I won’t lie,” Nato said. “It was some hardships. We had times where it was just enough for one meal. Like I remember coming home from school, and for some kind of afternoon snack, we would open up a jar of peanut butter and sit together eating peanut butter off the butter knife.”

“My mom was a single parent and here she is, by the age of twenty-one, with three children, doing what she could. Of course there were occasions when the lights would get turned off here and there. They wouldn’t stay off, but that kind of stuff.”

“I’m not trying to give you the impression that I grew up in the hood or the ghetto, but at the same time, it wasn’t easy living.”

Nato encountered hip-hop at a young age.

“My mom wasn’t one of those people that liked to shelter us from everything,” he said. “I mean, we went to rated R movies. She just told us right from wrong. This is something you do. This is something you don’t do. And we learned. Period.”

“She didn’t turn off the radio when hip-hop came on. She would listen to it and we listened to it. We knew what to say and what not to say.”

Nato first heard Rakim, an influential MC from New York, in 1987, and believes that the artist’s style and the sound of his voice over the beat affected him profoundly.

“When [Ronald] Reagan spoke on TV,” Nato said, “I would listen to it. I was always into politics, the economy, money, stuff like that. My mom has a picture of me reading the business section of the [St. Louis Post-Dispatch] when I was four.”

“I remember looking at Reagan and he was just talking and I was like, ‘This is whack.’ But when I heard Rakim, it was cool. It was something I wanted to hear, something that kept me in tune.”

“I was seven years old and I was like, ‘That’s something I want to do in my life. I want to be an orator of sorts. Something with words that has people come together and listen and have time a good time and learn some things.'”

Much like hearing LL Cool J’s single, “I’m Bad,” listening to Rakim was more than an aural experience for Nato. He believes it awakened something encoded in his physical make up.

“A lot of people want to debate this and argue that it’s not true,” Nato said, “but being a black person, we inherit what they call the Boom Bap, which is the African drum, the rhythm, the beat that’s in you.”

“When you hear a nice beat, you can’t help but move. You get addicted, but then of course you start to listen to the words and start to realize that they’re saying something. Not only does it sound good, but it means something.”

This is for aunts, mothers and sisters that’s out there hoing / and uncles, fathers and brothers that’s love not knowing

Nato was recorded freestyling at a family reunion when he was nine. He started writing poetry in school and would read his work over his mother’s old Anita Baker and Gladys Knight tapes. When record companies started releasing instrumental tracks along with popular singles, Nato began noticing the beat measures and composing his rhymes to fit. By age fifteen, he was writing complete songs, but another passion had monopolized his time and efforts.

“Football for me then is what hip-hop is to me now,” he said “It was all about football. I played seven years straight of football. That’s all I thought about. It was everything.”

By his senior year, Nato was the captain of University City High School’s varsity squad. Describing this experience in the armchair across from me reminded Nato that he needed to switch channels from Nickelodeon to the Sunday NFL game. Nato’s talents on the field earned him scholarship offers from several universities, but the $19,000 a year that he finally accepted from Bradley University in Illinois was strictly academic.

“Somebody told me, ‘You have a better chance of being a brain surgeon than being in the NFL.’ I was like, ‘Okay, I need to go ahead and focus on academics and music and that’s that.’ That’s what I did. I made those choices.”

Nato’s roommate during his freshman year at Bradley was a young man named Stewart, who produced fake IDs for thousands of minors with his computer. At two o’clock one morning, when Nato was studying for finals, the FBI broke down their door and confiscated Stewart’s computer. The files they found included a headshot of Nato that Stewart had cut from an old identification card. Nato, who has abstained from drinking alcohol since he was seventeen, was questioned by the authorities and subsequently stripped of his scholarship for refusing to detail Stewart’s activities.

Stewart’s family hired a lawyer who won him a reduced sentence, enabling Stewart to complete his education at Bradley, while Nato was forced to return home, later enrolling at the University of Missouri St. Louis, where he was unable to pursue his intended major in civil engineering.

“I was already a loner anyway,” Nato said. “I didn’t have too many friends just because you can’t trust a lot of people, but that really put me in a tight circle.”

I keep building / and hate love that loves hate

During his second year at UMSL, Nato met Dana Williams.

“I told her then that we were going to be together,” he said. “She didn’t believe me of course.”

He also created the name by which I and most people outside of his family address him.

“When I was little,” he said, “I’d always hear about a NATO air strike here, a NATO air strike there. I thought, ‘Man, NATO is always blowing stuff up.’ I found out that it was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, so this was a group of people coming together to blow things up. That was at a time in hip-hop when it was popular to say, ‘I drop bombs on the mic.’”

He discovered Caliph through a Western Philosophy class at UMSL where he learned that the word is Arabic for “successor,” referring to the figure intended to succeed the Iman, or high priest.

“A successful bombing mission is kind of how I put those two together,” Nato said. “That’s why I rap about knowledge and revolution and the greater good.”

Nato now works for Express Scripts, one of the nation’s largest pharmacy benefit managers, as a national scheduling business analyst in resource management. He helps create schedules for thousands people working at call centers located throughout the country. This requires an understanding of what Nato describes as, “call center math,” dealing with intervals down to the half hour. This type of logistical analysis seems to appeal to Nato, who applies a similar process to his writing.

“I love information,” he said. “I’m an information geek.”

“I take my rhymes from things I see. I watch a lot of news. I watch a lot of financial reports. I look at CSPAN. I look at the quote unquote boring stuff. I consider myself a translator for the people that do not understand or watch that. Basically, I try to decipher.”

Nato told me about the discovery, announced that morning, that Indian manufacturers had been employing a system of child slavery to produce clothing for The Gap.

“Something similar to that will pop up in a rhyme later,” he said. “Not necessarily that particular instance, but just about, once again, the clothes we wear on our backs. And it’s funny, I had already put on this little Gap jacket and I read that and I was like, ‘Man, that’s messed up.’ It’s always way worse than what they’re telling you.”

For several years, Nato was a member of Soul Tyde, a collective of emcees and singers once dubbed the “the Wu-Tang of the Midwest.” In 2004, Nato, another MC named Lyfestile and DJ Fly D-Ex formed Plan B, in collaboration with DJ Crucial, who would later produce the majority of Cipher Inside. Nato has created his own record label, Cipher Music Group, but is now affiliated with F5 Records.

“F5 is a real wholesome label in the sense that there’s no paperwork. It’s an agreement. It’s artists working with artists. They’ve been in St. Louis on the hip-hop scene and they’ve been doing it right—really working and doing the vinyl, and doing shows.”

Since the October 9th release of Cipher Inside, Nato has reinvested all of his personal sale earnings into promotion.

A bunch of words to a beat mean nothin’ if they’re only helping you / What about the homeless community, shelter and food?

I could see the connections between the perspective that Nato was expressing and the lyrics that I had heard on his album, but another element remained unaccounted for.

“Are you religious?” I asked.

“No, not religious,” he said. “Religion comes from a Greek word, ‘religio,’ which means to split, conquer and divide. There’s been more bloodshed in the name of God than any other thing on the planet. It’s caused the most destruction, the most heartache, the most pain.”

Nato has received and practices the teachings of the Five Percent through the Nation of Gods and Earths, founded in Harlem in 1964 by Father Allah, a former member of the Nation of Islam.

“Some people who don’t understand it try to see it as a black supremacy group or whatever you want to say, but one of the founding principles is peace.”

The Nation’s membership has included such hip-hop heavyweights as Rakim, the Wu-Tang Clan, Busta Rhymes, Gang Starr and Digable Planets. Men within the organization are referred to as “gods,” women as “earths.”

“We’re not atheists in the sense that we don’t think that God does not exist,” Nato said. “We believe in God. We know that God is in us. I see God in more than one person. When I see a man that knows who he is and he uses that to his advantage to help his people, to me, that’s an attribute of God.”

The Nation has schools in ten cities, running programs focused on youth education.

“It’s not just teaching them that the black man is the original man,” Nato said. “We teach them how to look past the initial message that people put out there.”

“The best way to lie to somebody is not to just tell them a lie. It’s to give them the truth and then tell them it’s not real. We question everything.”

The Nation of Gods and Earths claims math and science as a foundation for its teachings and its members communicate through a series of signifying letters and numbers.

“If you understood what we call ‘God knowledge,’” Nato said, “you could go back and listen to my album. It’s a whole other album inside of what people hear.”

I write for my threes / and I love my twos / and I’ll die for my four, God, how ‘bout you?

“I write for my children,” Nato explained, “and I love my women. Four is freedom. I said, ‘I’ll die for my freedom, God, how ‘bout you?’ I’m talking to other black men that consider themselves knowledgeable of who they are.”

How could you…

I attempted to stage a family portrait in the backyard, with Nato and Dana balancing their bundled children on their laps, having just wiped lunch from Hasani’s face and a smear of makeup from Ayana’s. I asked Nato how much babysitting help they receive from relatives, to which he replied, “I like to be around my children. When I’m not at work or doing music, I like to be around.”

He also likes playing video games with DJ Crucial, himself a father of twins, listening to Coldplay, responding to emails through his cell phone and moving crowds.

I’m the guy atop the Himalayas with the morning yell / and I’m the supervisor / at opening bell / and I’m the best thing that happened to anything good / and I say and feel / what the whole world should

Cipher Inside can be purchased on iTunes, emusic, locally at Vintage Vinyl or directly off the F5 website.


VUE said...

I will now go buy this gentleman's album from F5 Records.

Human beings are good to know when they are good to know.



Slick Rubin said...

All props to Nato......

ktm said...

i will check out his music. always good to know people's stories.

Roo said...

Great work Ryan. Nice to have to covering the Lou.

Mathizzle said...

Nice article! Big up to Nato.. "Cypher Inside" is the truth.