With the release of their third album We Are the Halluci Nation, A Tribe Called Red have actively taken on inviting more people into their world.
"When we started this album, the first thing we knew was that we wanted it to be a collaborative album," says Bear Witness of the Ottawa-based DJ trio. "We wanted to work with as many artists as we could, people who had become close to us and like our road family, that sort of thing. Beyond making a collaborative album we wanted to make an album with more of a story, more of an actual concept album rather than a collection of tracks, so we dove into writing a storyline."
The narrative focus was a marked change from the approach of their 2013 album Nation II Nation and their 2012 self-titled debut. Initially, that meant Bear Witness, along with fellow group members Ian "DJ NDN" Campeau and Tim "2oolman" Hill, thinking about a superhero-themed concept, but when they connected with late indigenous activist and poet John Trudell, they decided to centre their album around some of the poetry he had sent the group.
"Trudell had written this poem that was called 'A Tribe Called Red,' but he was like, 'I recorded something a little extra in there for you, you might want to work with,' and at the end of it was the poem that was called 'The Halluci Nation,'" says Bear Witness. "And when that came into the conversation, it's like, 'Well, now we have a nation for this idea. There was a real natural progression that went from something that was very young, thinking of superheroes, and then something that was very adolescent thinking of bandits and outlaws and breaking the rules and living outside this society. And then that group of bandits got a nation. Even before the album had come out, this whole progression had happened with just the ideas and now we had this whole nation that came from John's ideas. ... This something that he had fantasized about that we chose to bring into reality."
They decided to use the Halluci Nation as the conceptual backbone of the album, and during our interview, the trio are wearing jackets bearing the Halluci Nation seals they specifically commisioned for themselves. Worried they might have gone too far, the group contacted Trudell by email to let him know what they were doing. "He wrote back, 'Well ,thank you. I really love what you guys are doing and you made the Halluci Nation real," says Bear Witness. "He was really, really excited with the direction we had taken."
Trudell passed away in late 2015, and while he didn't hear the finished version of his contributions to the album, he was clearly aware of the importance his work would play.
From that point onward, A Tribe Called Red recruited the collaborators that would help them articulate their vision. The record features contributions from various indigenous artists such as Tanya Tagaq, Black Bear, Northern Voice, Leonard Sumner and author Joseph Boyden, among others.
But the group also recruited artists such as Shad, Lido Pimienta and Saul Williams. Lead single "R.E.D." features Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), who appears on the song with Iraqi-Canadian MC Narcy. The two Muslim MCs appear in a visually stunning video for the song that helps to drive home the group's Halluci Nation concept, querying the notions of borders, whether based on geography, race or religion. I ask if the Halluci Nation is more about a state of mind and Bear Witness concurs.
"If you watch our 'R.E.D.' video we stretch out to in the future. We're talking about the past, but we're also talking about the present," he says. "What you said about it being a state of mind, that's it. That's the closest anyone has come to putting their finger on it. It's that it's not about any one specific thing. It's about a state of mind, it's about people treating people like humans, it's about knowing how you're connected to the world around you and the earth and the sky and all of that. But what that means exactly to every person is different. So it's really about being in the state of mind that the rest of society has told us aren't true, that are jokes, that attempt to take the power away from individuals. It's about that state of mind where individuals get their power back."
Ian "DJ NDN" Campeau expands on this idea, responding to the varied backgrounds of the contributors on the album. "The indigenous idea of nationhood doesn't have to do with race," he says. "It has as much to do with what people contribute to the community and how like-minded that we are all in this together, and if you're not doing as well as I am, that I need to help you out. There needs to be these sort of collectives of people that are ready to confront the brunt of the opposing ideologies of every man is for himself and hoard as much as you can. It's just destructive, know what I mean? I also see it as a lightning rod for people who have same sort of mentality or mindset."
Clearly, visual representation is hugely important to A Tribe Called Red. The group's origins were at their Electric Pow Wow parties in Ottawa and they featured images of indigenous peoples through a subversive lens. Additionally, Past videos such as "Suplex" and "Sisters" have had strong narrative bents and are virtually short films, showing the inner lives of indigenous peoples.
"This goes back to representation and the discrepancy on how we see ourselves and how the world portrays us and then the importance to us as individuals to be able to go out and be able to represent ourselves in the way we want to be seen," says Bear Witness. "And one of the goals we've had that goes along with the representation thing is to create that for other generations. To create something that everyone enjoys, but represents indigenous people that young indigenous people can identify with and say, 'all my friends at school have been listening to this song, but I've been pow-wow dancing since I've been growing up and this is my culture.'"
Bear Witness goes on to relay a story about a young man whose father was a mentor to him. Bear Witness knew the man when he was a young child, but now he's a fashion designer and he reached out to the group. "He's like, 'I got the confidence to do what I do because of your music.' We're helping to create those social markers for our indigenous people."
We Are the Halluci Nation is an excellent project and represents a quantum leap in the sonic growth of A Tribe Called Red. Bear Witness and DJ NDN are quick to credit Tim '2oolman' Hill as a catalyst for this development. It's the first full album Hill has worked on with the group, after he joined in 2014, replacing DJ Shub. On songs like "The Muse," featuring indigenous singer Jen Kiesberg, the group broadens their sound into moody and meditative areas.
"We have a lot of people looking out for us and what we're doing, who are like, 'you guys gotta do more. You guys gotta do more than make club bangers. Let's see what else you guys can do. And having Tim with us, it allowed us to stretch our legs a little further," says Bear Witness.
"It's one thing to be able to make club bangers, but to make progressions into the song is another thing," says Campeau. "So 2oolman, coming from his very trained background with pianos and stuff and knowing progressions, really changed the game. You can hear it on the album. We went from club music to not really club music anymore. Even though you could listen to it in that capacity, it's not the same as what it was."
"If you don't like what we do with electronic music but you like what we're saying? Great. If you just want to come to our parties and just dance and not interact with the other side of what we do, I'm perfectly happy with that too."
2oolman is similarly complimentary of his colleagues. "They exposed me to tons of underground stuff, things I've never heard of and my brain grew with everything," 2oolman says. "When it came down to songs like "The Muse," we had to make it sound like that in order for it to make sense. And when we had Jen there singing her heart out, we had to meet her that way. The artists in a lot of ways push us."
Whether its been for their opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, the stripping of their DJ set of sexist and racist content or their solidarity with athletes not standing for national anthems, the group has often been in the news for a variety of reasons that have nothing to specifically do with their music. However, the group don't have any issues with audiences only connecting with their politics and not their music, or vice-versa. It's an issue the group runs into a lot and it's something that all three members are very comfortable with. It's also indicative of the communal vibe they are intent on facilitating, that people with different thoughts and motivations can co-exist and be welcome in the nation A Tribe Called Red creates.
"If you don't like what we do with electronic music but you like what we're saying? Great. If you just want to come to our parties and just dance and not interact with the other side of what we do, I'm perfectly happy with that too," says Bear Witness. "I want to make good dance music, I want people to come and have a good time. I don't want people to just come and think about colonization and oppression and genocide. So if you just want to come and have a good time, that's why those images on the screen aren't just racist images and images of genocide or something. They're bright coloured loops of things that can be really funny. We want to enjoy ourselves too."
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