Chicago Dance Crash presents a hip hop prequel to The Wizard of Oz with their original production The Bricklayers of Oz, premiering on July 28th and running through August 5th. The production features lyrics from Chicago rapper Al Tamper (AT), whom Picture this Post (PTP) interviewed ahead of the show’s premier. Tamper discusses his musical influences, the show’s political allegory, and more in our interview below.
Note: this interview has been slightly condensed.
PTP: Tell me about your background in music. How did you first get into rap?
AT: “I wasn’t trying to rap. Everyone raps, so I was trying to avoid it. But a friend of mine heard me, just playing around, and told me I should get into it. This was probably around 2004.”
PTP: What are your biggest influences in rap music? And do you look to other genres of music for inspiration?
AT: “Let’s see. I came up as a B-boy and a DJ, pretty much. Being in Chicago, of course, house music is an influence. But back in the ‘90s and the ‘80s, people tried to keep those separate unless you want to make a gimmick out of both of them. With that said… growing up, my stepdad used to listen to West Coast rap, so I came up around N.W.A., and then Del [the Funky Homosapien], a whole lot of Freestyle Fellowship. After that, I started getting into more East Coast. I wanted to hear where it all came from. I stuck to a lot of Biggie back then, but then bounced right back to the West Coast. Picked up a lot of Xzibit.
My style kind of goes everywhere, considering I don’t just talk about b*****s and hoes, partying, drugs, bull***t. You can talk about that – that’s easy to do – but I figure you need a storyline.
And if we’re talking about the Midwest… Common of course. Kwel [Chicago rapper Talib Kweli] always had a cool wordplay. I listened to a whole lot of Twista. My influences go everywhere. People ask me the question, ‘who’s your favorite rapper? Who’s the best rapper of all time?’ I just don’t have an answer for that because it always changes.”
PTP: How did you start collaborating with Chicago Dance Crash? Is this your first time working with them?
AT: “When it comes to rap, yeah, this is the first thing I’ve done with Chicago Dance Crash. There was a point where I actually did a couple shows with Dance Crash as a dancer. We’ve always had that connection of, ‘whatever you do, let’s try to put it on there.’ I came up in the graffiti world, so when they needed someone to paint a backdrop, I grabbed one of my crews and a couple of cats from them and we painted the backdrop for them.
I kept doing stuff with them. The next show I did was The Trials of Buster Keaton, based on the life of the silent film star Buster Keaton. He came up around the time when everyone was Charlie Chaplin-crazy. It showed how he was trying to keep his career going and stay relevant in the world of silent films. And the last one I did with Dance Crash was Gotham City.
After that, I pretty much stuck around with them, because they’re cool people. Organically, we’ve always been pretty connected. Whatever I got, you got. If I can help you with this, you can help me with that. We’re all friends… We just happen to do a lot of business (laughs).”
PTP: Do you find that writing raps for a dance production is a lot different than writing for your own music?
AT: “Sure. But it’s still writing themes. If you heard my album, you know I like to tell stories. So it’s not hard for me to help tell the story. Originally, when we started doing it, it was like, ‘we need this amount of songs, and they need to be this long. Do what you can.’ After, we switched it up and figured out what we needed to do to make it work and stay on the same page.
It was just different. It wasn’t exactly as difficult as it seemed like it was gonna be at the beginning. Once you figured it out, it was actually pretty easy.”
PTP: I know your music is pretty political, and I know the concept of this play is pretty political. Do you feel like there’s a thematic connection between the two? Was it difficult to navigate the shift between your own music and writing something based on the Wizard of Oz?
AT: “A little bit. The album I’m doing now is pretty climate-related, very, I guess, revolutionary. Just based on what’s going on in our society. I can’t sit back and act like that s**t ain’t happening, so… it’s on my head to write that kind of stuff.
And as Black man, I’m living with s**t. But because I sound like this, and I seem quote-unquote intelligent to those who don’t know, I have a chance to write for a predominantly white audience. If my audience is white, then they can hear my side of it and ask someone like me about it instead of assuming.
[My music and that of Bricklayers of Oz] are kind of on the same page, but a little bit less so. I tried to not make it seem like a joke, with what I was writing for The Bricklayers of Oz. The story is still part of the same thing. Some people lost a battle, they got moved over to a different part of Oz, they had to take work, but they got duped. Sounds like slavery to me.”
PTP: Do you feel like the concept of the play is specifically related to our current political climate? Or do you think it’s more applicable to the history of the United States generally?
AT: “It’s like the history of the world, really. You can a drop a dart anywhere on the map and you’ll find some form of slavery there. Black folks weren’t the first people to be enslaved; it was just that we were the first to be treated this bad. But it touched the world. It just depends on how you wanna look at it. I mean, it’s a cute little Wizard of Oz story, so people don’t ever think there’s a backstory to it. We all know Wizard of Oz, and all of the different versions of it, whether we’re talking about having it redone in technicolor or whether we’re talking about The Wiz.
You kind of have no choice. Everything we do in art is based off of life, right? You can’t act like what’s around you has nothing to do with it, no matter what kind of story you wanna make up. A story is made up because of what’s already been on your brain.”
PTP: What do you think the biggest challenge of doing something like this is?
AT: “I use of lot of metaphors. I feel like you should be able to flex the dictionary and the thesaurus as hard as possible when you’re writing any type of story. Especially when you consider yourself a lyricist in this culture of rap. It’s kind of hard to not do that, and say what would be easier understood by Grandpop in aisle 10, whose like, “what did you say?” You gotta make sure it’s plain English. There’s metaphors in it, but the metaphors all relate to the show.”
PTP: Logistically, how does a collaboration like this unfold? Did you write the music for the choreography, or vice versa? Can you walk me through the process of collaboration?
AT: “Oddly enough, it kind of happened at the same time. You can’t play a game of telephone to get the show to work. You gotta sit down, have a meeting. But it’s coming along really nicely.”
PTP: I know you talked a little about the album that you’re working on. Any other projects that you have in the works that you want to let our readers know about?
AT: “Off the top… my album Fight Back should be coming out soon. I’d like to put it out by fall. Let’s see… Garden Music’s always putting stuff out. Alo’s got stuff coming out right now. He’s got a cool little beat CD out called Paletas which everybody should check out.
Check out my website. I try to keep that updated with what’s playing in my ear, and what I support. You know, I support my people first. Not saying I don’t support everything else, but you got have something that you can come back to."
Learn more about Chicago Dance Crash here.
Ruth Page Center for the Arts
1016 N. Dearborn Ave., Chicago, IL
Friday, 7/28 at 8:00 PM
Saturday, 7/29 at 8:00 PM
Sunday, 7/30 at 3:00 PM
Friday, 8/4 at 8:00 PM
Saturday, 8/5 at 8:00 PM