The Delegates of Culture member from Toronto has a chat with Matt Grant on how he would describe his hip-hop, what he's working on at the moment, what's going on in Canada, Christianity and faith.
It was a pleasure to speak to this guy – people like him make the effort in getting this site off the groudn worthwhile. Ill Seer is a member of the very talented Delegates of Culture who are based in Cambridge, England. He met them over here whilst studying philosophy at Cambridge University and has since returned home to Toronto, Canada but continues to step up to the mic and drop knowledge…
Give us a brief description on how you would categories your style of hip hop.
My style of hiphop is hard, dark, and conscious. It is often called cerebral since I use intricate rhyme structures with other rhetorical devices and try to cram in double or triple meanings when it suits the context. I usually find myself gravitating towards a grimier sound of beat, some people call it industrial which is rather fitting given that I grew up in a city of industry. Lately, I've been expanding my horizons realizing that sometimes it's nice to have something mellifluous hit your ear as well. I try everything from expression of personal feelings to philosophic reflection to story-telling. Though I'm not adverse to the style I'm just not at home as a party emcee.
What are you working on just now?
I'm just finishing up my solo album tentatively titled Phosphatidylserine (phos-phat-id-ill-seer-een). It comes from the name of a brain nutrient and is made up of material spanning the past five years. Expect something to sit down and listen to repeatedly and get something new out of it each time.
Which artists are doing it in Canada right now?
In Canada I'm really feeling cats like Mindbender, Vangel and Dorc, Noah23, SelfHelp and Thesis (Bending Mouth), CreatureBox, Beat Mason, my homie Shinobi, LefSpek, Wordburglar, The Verbals, Toolshed, Epic, Josh Martinez, and the whole Backburner, Low Pressure, and Peanuts and Corn cliques. Yeah and I will forever stand by Canada 's original king of hiphop Maestro (Fresh Wes).
And what about UK acts, which ones are you feeling?
I'm lucky my boyz keep feeding me mixtapes like Bee109 & S-Class' "BrainPlug? cuz it helps keep me up to date now that I'm out of the country. Of course Delegates of Culture are my fav UK-based artists but the scene is full right now with talent like The Untold, Taskforce, Hoodee, Roots Manuva, Phi Life Cypher, Jnr. Disprol, Michaelis Constant, Cappo, Klashnekoff, Jehst, Braintax, Rodney P, DJ Vadim, Rigid Literature, Koastee, Lewis Parker, the Flaredycats, and all sorts of other acts. The scene is deep believe.
You're a Christian right? What angle are you coming from on this?
Yeah I'm a Christian. I've been attending mostly Baptist and Pentecostal churches in my journeys but my spirituality has been significantly shaped by the Roman Catholic graduate colleges I've been enrolled in. I'm probably one of the new-breed orthodox Evangelicals who find the ancient tradition a great treasure that we haven't begun to delve into.
Some people are born into the Christianity community and stay there where as others often become 'reborn' and join it that way either as a complete newcomer or as someone who previously left the faith…how did you come to the faith?
I was born into a Christian family – well actually my parents became "born again" shortly after my birth – so the Church has been a presence in my life from an early age. I went through some struggles in my early teen years, not really denying God's existence, but rejecting the hypocrisy of the Christians I had experienced, especially in their treatment of some people I really loved. I remember one night going to the front of this special meeting and apologizing to my church for all the hatred I had been storing inside for them. I didn't soft-sell the issues that alienated me, but I realized that a community of like faith is the most powerful tool on earth for reshaping this deprived culture we all are part of and that harbouring resentment was only poisoning my soul. I often look to that night as a changing point, when I mentally embraced God's priority in my life – unfortunately it's been a struggle to actually live that out over the past decade.
What do you think is most important for you – the message of Christ or the significance of his death?
Funny, I find separating the two one of the biggest reasons for the torpid state of the Church today. In the early part of the 20th century we had this division between the "liberals" and "fundamentalists" the earlier focusing on acting on the social mandate while the latter focused on the salvation brought throw the death of Jesus. To me separating the two is reprehensible: Christ's message was his death; and his death and resurrection validated his exhortations to go out there and provide for society's outcasts.
Do you pray? If so to whom and for what do you pray?
Yeah I pray, not as much as I should mind you. I pray to God, through his Son Jesus, and I pray for everything from world peace to making sure my wife gets home safe to me each day after work.
How has faith helped shape your life and what you see as perhaps the meaning of our existence?
Faith has helped me to be loving towards a lot of people I wouldn't naturally be inclined to love. Realizing that we are part of a larger beautiful poem called the universe lets me accept my circumstances more easily, as well as motivating me to do what is in my power to change them. I've begun to realize that the meaning of our existence is to enjoy ourselves – of course this ultimately means enjoying the Creator and understanding the principles that true fulfilment entails.
It seems in the UK we have now reached what my Christian brother calls 'Post-Christendom' – often the charges laid against Christianity is that it is irrelevant or outdated because of science etc What's your answer to this?
Your brother obviously read his Francis Schaeffer, good on 'em. My answer to saying Christianity is irrelevant or outdated because of science and modernity is manifold. First, science was birthed out of the theistic assurances that we live in an orderly universe governed by discernable natural laws so its discoveries have only furthered my convictions that we are designed entities. Second, look around you, the Church is actually growing on a world scale, religion is more prevalent than it ever has been. Although God is ultimately beyond our reason, S/He is not disparate from our intellect. I could give the many reasons that I find support my faith, but that would be something to do personally face to face or in a larger textual format, at least a journal article if not a book.
We live in troubled times at the moment what with all the global disorder, how does being a Christian help your perspective on all this madness?
"There will be wars and rumours of wars.? The turmoil is to be expected. Humanity has a disease called sin and until each and every member of society has fought to reduce their own wilful pride we can only do our part to curb its effects, realizing that the final solution lies in the unforeseen future. I guess Christianity helps me to be a realist as to the situation and an idealist as to its solution.
And what about Canada, I feel the UK has become quite polarised because of 9/11 and the aftermath – particularly on lines of faith and race. What's it like in your country? I always hear that things are a lot more peaceful over there…
I've seen too much violence first hand to believe Canada is peaceful, but it is probably true we are less bloodthirsty than our big cousins to the south. But gun deaths have been sky-rocketing in Toronto lately, and I mean I myself have seen a man stabbed to death by three kids so I'm under no allusions of Canadians being morally better than the rest of our human bredrin.
Does the idea that Canada is a 'mosaic' not a 'melting pot' ring true?
Now here I do think Canada has something to be proud about. Take a drive through Toronto and you are immediately impressed with how multicultural a place it is. People of all backgrounds interact on a daily basis, it is hard not to appreciate each culture on its own in such a context, and there is no real pressure for absolute conformity (except the demand to be a Leaf's fan; maybe that's why I moved away!). I am really proud of that though, that as a Canadian a migrant person will cling with pride to their birthplace, especially when you compare it to the US demand to put all that on hold and begin a new identity as "American".
In general, how does your faith effect your musical output?
My faith is a part of me so it flows out naturally in my lyrics. I want my records to be enjoyed by everyone, not just those who share my worldview, so I try to make sure I don't piss people off in the process. Still, I think people are coming to expect honesty from an artist first and foremost so I've found a lot more support than I originally expected in terms of expressing my faith.
From my own perspective, it would appear a lot of rappers are quite open about their Muslim faith and this is generally accepted as part of the scene, it is even perhaps seen as cool – sort of slightly risqué or radical like Zack de la Rocha's Marxist views – how do people respond to you as a Christian doing hiphop? Do you feel this places you in the 'Christian hiphop' category which seems to be seen as away from the rest of the scene and far more tamer…
I've been lucky in one sense because I didn't formally have a public presence as an emcee until I began working with the Delegates, and since they for the most part reflect our societies deep mistrust of religious institutions I don't feel I've been categorized as "Christian hiphop" to most of the people who know my music. The rest of the Delegates themselves obviously appreciated me as an artist regardless of my faith, as have a myriad of other hiphop artists here in Canada since I've returned. It hasn't been until quite recently really that I've even worked with other Christian artists so I feel I've avoided some of the pitfalls that can befall music placed into the Holy Hiphop category. That being said, I find it every bit a legitimate move to make music for people of like faith, there is a need for Christians to have modern modes of music in which they can come together and praise the Creator, and this will naturally often alienate non-Christians. I just don't think that you can force every rapper who happens to be a Christian into making that type of music, in fact I find it counter productive. There are different prophets for different purposes and each side needs to respect that.
What do you think of the term 'Christian hiphop' and how it is perceived? Do you think rap-gospel crossover music like KRS One's 'Spiritual Minded' has helped reintegrate it or in fact kept it pigeonholed?
I still see a lot of people cutting down the music of anyone who is a Christian before they even listen to it. This is obviously a blatant prejudice, people not tolerating Christians, usually because they say we are intolerant! But I find a lot of people are becoming more open-minded lately and I hope this continues. KRS-ONE's album is actually a case in point; it was dissed before it even came out. I could get into his theology but we don't have room: I've followed him from his "praise to the Creator" days to his more troublesome "God is your consciousness" phase, and I was really happy to see what was in my eyes a progression with that album. But the "Prophets vs. Profits" mixtape was the best …. "God, Yeah fuck with that!"
And what about all these US rappers who wear large crosses, often two or three encrusted with diamonds, do you feel this demeans your belief system?
Actually it makes me smile because even while they curse the name of Jesus he has left such a huge mark on our collective psyche that they deconstruct their own materialistic statements by wearing a cross, the symbol of humility and self-sacrifice. I try not to concern myself with the behaviour of unbelievers as I have no right to judge them on such issues, I've just come to expect it really.
Ma$e shocked the world of hiphop by turning his back on the glamour and becoming the Christian preacher Dr Mason Betha. He now is reported to be planning to return to making music. What are your thoughts on this?
Yeah brother Mase! That "Welcome Back" track has been winning the battle of the tunes the past few nights in a row here on a local radio station. From what I've heard I really like how he is presenting himself on this tune, he isn't preaching in a way to turn people off but showing that Christians can actually be cool too. I expect a backlash in any case but I can only be excited for the potential he has to change both hiphop and the perception of Christian artists in general. We'll see how it turns out. In any case this'll be the first time I've ever purchased a Mase album, never mind listened to it in its entirety.
Do you think the fame of rappers such as Ma$e and KRS One can help bring the younger people back into the faith?
Only the Holy Spirit can bring people to faith. But I do think S/He may use such artists powerfully in the coming years.
Am I right in thinking you have a PHD in theology from Cambridge University? How hard was it to juggle being involved in the Delegates of Culture and the workload of your studies?
Actually I received my Master's of Philosophy in Theology from Cambridge University. I'm currently working on my PhD at the University of Toronto, mostly because my scholarship here pays for all tuition whereas my scholarship at Cambridge would still leave me in even more major debt than I'm in now. Sometimes I wonder how I actually completed my degree while at Cambridge as I spent almost every waking hour at the lab with the Delegates, during the last year especially. My PhD is taking a little longer than it should have because of the time I spend on hiphop; face it, it's much more fun to be rappin than to be parsing verbs or something. Luckily the last little while I've been able to find a balance because some of my essays involved analysing the aesthetics of freestyling and its relationship to the Hebrew prophets and my thesis discusses how the theology of St. Anselm actually combined poetry and philosophy in a unique but important way. He was actually a great lover of rhyme, and that helps keep me going on the more tedious days. But in the end the conflict between my two professions is my excuse for taking so long to get this album out.
And what about now? What are you doing now outside of hiphop?
Outside of hiphop I'm basically serving as Professor of Philosophic Theology at Heritage College in Cambridge, Ontario, and finishing off this PhD. I'm also halfway done writing a play and have a substantial part of another book written which addresses the relationship between poetry and the role of a prophet, including the potential of hiphop in this respect.
From my experience, a lot of doctors and professors can be stuffy tweed jacket wearing men with beards – how do they react knowing their fellow academic is a rapper?
It's kind of funny because some of my students just laughed and thought I was joking. When they came to realize it was for real I think it shocked a lot of people. In the end I think the academic community realizes I deserve my spot amongst them when they encounter my serious work and this often serves to make them very curious about my alter ego's productions.
I gather you studied poetry – would you agree with those who say hip-hop is a direct development of poetry?
Most certainly. I was never really interested in poetry until I started listening to hiphop in '88. But I didn't realize it was poetry until my first year out of highschool when my professor dropped a bombshell – the biblical prophets were poets. The connection was immediate and I realized that hiphop was really the only modern form of poetry that could actually be embraced by the larger populace. In this way I think that Chuck D and KRS-ONE were two of the most important poets of the 20th century. Obviously it was very different from the work of T. S. Eliot or e. e. cummings but in many respects their effect was much more broad.
What's happening with the Delegates of Culture now? Have you left the group since leaving England?
Nah, I'm a Delegate for life! My contributions to Headcleaners 2 for example came from my infrequent visits back to the motherland. A lot of solo work has been going on – Skuff and Inja just dropped solo EPs, I'm dropping this solo album. I didn't get to be a part of the Dragon Beef project but neither did some other members. We've always worked kind of with what we have at hand at a given moment so I'm not worried about the unit at all. We'll each be doing seperate projects with other artists but there will be another group EP in the future. To tide people over we're releasing Delegates of Culture 2000; it's a cd made up of a lot of material from the archives, especially from the really creative period when we were working on hiphop 24/7. You'll find a solo track from me on there and a couple other appearances. My role in the Delegates has always been kind of special, usually infrequent but powerful appearances, and I think a lot of other people can't understand how we operate in those respects. I've also asked Bee109 to be the sole producer of a special concept project I've been turning over in my mind, his beats seem to bring out the best in me. All in all, Delegates of Culture are growing stronger each month.
All in all, how did your experience of England help develop you both as a hiphop artist and yourself as person?
I went to England not knowing a single soul and having no place to live; I left with a group of people I can only call my musical family and a feeling that I have a home overseas. I went to England citing Roots Manuva as one of my favourite rappers; I left with him appearing on my crew's Headcleaners project. Furthermore, the experience of living in another culture, even if we shared the same language, has profoundly effected my entire mindset. I've learned to look at things from different angles and take things in a wider perspective. Walking through the ancient streets of Cambridge gave me a historical grounding I never had before and interacting with my fellow students gave me a confidence in my abilities which is proving invaluable. Lastly, it helped me believe in hiphop as a worldwide culture and inspired me to produce my best work.
When you left our little island, did you feel like the return to Canada was a return 'home'? What were your feelings?
It was actually really confusing. I wanted to go back to the UK. I felt torn from my artistic muses and was frightened I would never find a way to express myself artistically ever again. The Delegates were really supportive and although for years I always thought I was destined to move back to England for good, providence has proven otherwise. Canada is my home and I feel I've been able to impact the local scene here and hopefully aided some tiny part in cross-pollinating our scenes, mutually strengthening them from out the shadow of the mighty US giant.
Moving on, what's your view on the blockbuster Passion of the Christ? Muslim journalist Yasmin Aibhai Brown labelled it a Christ 'dripped in blood and money' and that sort of stuck with me so I didn't see it… did you go watch it and if so, what were your feelings about the film?
Mel Gibson is an Oscar award-winning director. He focused his talents on the final hours of the man I consider to be the most important in human history. I thought it was brilliant. I think the violence aspect has been over-emphasized in the media … we are talking about a man who died of crucifixion after all.
I did hear a rumour that Mel Gibson is pouring the money from the film into a sect that thinks the Pope is a Jew! Any truth in that rumour or have I been taken for a sucker?
I'm not really sure, I know his offshoot of Catholicism doesn't accept the pontiff and I've heard rumours of Mel's elderly father making some anti-Semitic comments but I think that the issue was also over-blown for this film. The hero is a Jew! Mel Gibson has repeatedly denied such allegations and he made sure his own hand was the one filmed driving the nails into Christ's wrists in order to emphasize that it was all of humanity, especially myself, that is responsible for his death.
So to start rounding off, what's next for Ill Seer?
This solo album is top priority; I hope to have a vinyl single and video if possible as well. I believe I have a tune with SelfHelp produced by my man Hoodee aka Groove Criminals droppin on a compilation from UK label Aerosolik Records. I was also part of project called "Underground Cartel: The Dropzone EP? which drops this month (May 2004) from Urban Elite/ New Dawn. The Delegates of Culture 2000 cd is due shortly and I am working on some freestyle material and numerous guest appearances. Really I am mentally preparing to expand by putting together a concept album that will showcase what I'm capable of.
And finally, what's your message to all the hiphop heads you met over here in the UK?
Yo, I miss yall for real. I owe your whole scene for re-inspiring my soul for this music. I'll be back soon. Catch me at Rawganics and expect a Delegates of Culture reunion tour in the near future. Whatever you do don't lose hope, hiphop needs you.