ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD with K-CUT, PAUL E LOPES, MIKE K and SON OF SOUL at Roxy Blu (12 Brant), Friday (August 16), $15. 416-760-3332.
As a founding member of one of hiphop's most successful and highly respected groups, you might expect Ali Shaheed Muhammad to be a busy man, fighting off beat-seekers with a sizable stick.
Not so. After mixed results with the Lucy Pearl supergroup, the former A Tribe Called Quest DJ has kept an exceptionally low profile for the past few years, happy to squirrel himself away in his New Jersey studio and work on his solo debut. Appearances like tomorrow's behind the turntables at Roxy Blu are exceedingly rare.
Muhammad's choice to lie low is remarkable considering his lingering influence on hiphop and how many people would love to get that jazzy Quest touch. The DJ himself says it was easy, though. He simply has no interest in cashing in on his past.
"It's funny, because a few months back I was fishing around for people to be on this record," Muhammad laughs, strumming a guitar in his studio. "I asked Kardinal Offishall and Pharoahe Monche on this joint, but they were, like, 'Yo, we need one of those Mr. Muhammad beats.'
"I've got tracks like that, but the point of this record is to try different things. I've established myself doing one particular thing, and it's time to move on.
"The real beauty of making a solo record is that it's completely open. I want to be able to show all of what makes up Ali, and that goes beyond hiphop and jazz and R&B. It's also a learning experience. I'm going from turntables to bass to playing keyboards to guitar on this record, so it's all new for me."
The other trouble is finding fellow artists who are willing to experiment with Muhammad. Final results aside, what was interesting about the Lucy Pearl project was how it pushed Ali into a completely different area, from behind-the-scenes DJ to part of a live soul band.
"I just want to be around people who aren't afraid to do different things," he insists. "The art form is kind of dying because people are desperate to get onto whatever's hot. It's always been that way: one minute it was cool to sample James Brown, the next everyone wanted to have African medallions. Now it's to the extreme.
"I was talking to K-OS last month about this. It's all about what you're trying to achieve. Are you trying to create a voice and express yourself, or are you trying to sell records? I'm trying to do both, and thankfully, I'm in the position where I can do my own thing and still put food on the table."
If you sense that, 12 years after the first Tribe record, Muhammad is struggling to feel connected to contemporary hiphop, you're not far off.
"If you're talking about the mainstream, then, no, that connection's dead," Muhammad nods. "Music in general's a different story, though.
"I still have the roots of making a song that's going to bang in a club. I still love going through the crates. But where back in the day it was just about sampling, now it's about me trying to figure out what the guitar player was thinking when he played that sick chord. I'm excited like a teenager."