Having caught his break working on Dr Dre’s ‘2001’, producing records for Kendrick’s most recent album, ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, and making up one third of super-production trio, Sa-Ra, Taz Arnold is the most prolific producer and cultural influencer you’ve probably never heard of.
Viper got the chance to kick knowledge with hip hop’s most elusive cosmic dandy last summer. Arnold, who’s been putting in work behind the scenes for years, is known for his extensive Polo collection – like fellow producers Just Blaze and 88-Keys – not to mention his vibrant, forward-thinking fashion sense. Arnold could be seen dripping in Fendi, MCM and designer couture with Bowie-esque face paint on, years before Kanye, Travis, or any one else in the today’s rap scene would be so daring.
Arnold and I talked Polo, Kendrick’s latest album, etymology, metaphysics, Coltrane, TI$A and Tesla. But squares and narcs be warned, this is not your average run of the mill, tit for tat rap interview, so wipe the crust out of your third eye, light some Nag Champa and put on some Lonnie Liston Smith as we get intergalactic with Mr. Taz Arnold.
Arnold sees himself foremost as both a student of the game and a master-teacher, “I’m a person who looks at myself like I have some sort of knowledge of self and the culture… first, I’m a musician, then I’m a fashion designer. In that order. I’m always studying and building with people in the community to raise the bar creatively, culturally and musically. To be able to bring my aesthetic is a pleasure.”
When it came time to make Kendrick’s, ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, the West Coast wordsmith assembled a team of producers, musicians and singers to ensure that the project would resonate both sonically and culturally. The team was comprised of such luminaries as George Clinton, the Isley Bros and producers like Terrace Martin, Knxledge and Pharrell. Arnold’s involvement in this all-star line up was no mistake. Arnold explains that Kendrick assembled “an army of people… able to raise the vibration of the project.”
The political impact of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, can sadly be seen more clearly in light of the many recent tragedies that have befallen the African American community in the U.S. ‘Alright’ has since becoming a protest song, a symbol for those who deplore police aggression and racially motivated attacks against America’s black communities. Arnold explains that some of the political content that appears on the album was borne out of discussions in the studio, “We build on math, on our people, what things mean philosophically and historically.”
Arnold produced ‘For Free (Interlude)’, which sees Kendrick in full jazz poet flow over raw piano trumpets and drums, where he declares how he needs “40 acres and a mule, not a 40 and pit bull,” and the accompanying video sees Kendrick dressed as Uncle Sam. The video is an obvious swipe at the roles of race and power in American society.
‘U’, also produced by Arnold, sees Kendrick at his most personal, literally crying and pouring his heart out, and ‘Momma’ sees Kendrick on top form – eloquent and introspective. Arnold links ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ to a black cultural tradition of political music: “We all got a straight mainline to James Brown and Jimmy Hendrix, all the shit that came before us, Tribe Called Quest…we look at it like one big conversation.”
The album has further cultural resonance now Obama and Kendrick have met and Obama considers it “one of the most important rap albums of 2015.” Kind of strange considering the album cover depicts a dead President beneath some of Kendrick’s Compton buddies. Nevertheless, Taz Arnold has left his stamp on one of the most politically important rap albums of this decade.