If you had the time and the patience, you could find everything you need to know about life inside Jim Russell Records on Magazine Street. Racks and shelves brim with 45s, LPs, cassettes, and CDs. Concert posters and photos climb every horizontal surface. The Complete Riverside Recordings of Thelonious Monk stand atop an old speaker box next to a runty Christmas tree, just down the shelf from an Akai reel-to-reel tape recorder and laughing figurines of James Brown and Ray Charles. How many gigs of information are stored in all the tape, wax, and paper crammed into this legendary cave? What lessons on birth and life and death wait another turn?
Poised amid the deluge, his fingers combing through a box of funk records, is Truth Universal. A walking vault of music history, the New Orleans emcee knows the room. There would be no hip-hop without the monkish process of digging through crates for possible samples, and Jim Russell remains a favorite place for creators to lose track of time. Today, though, Truth describes a break from his past that led to his new full-length album, Invent the Future.
“A friend of mine told me, ‘Man, you’re stuck in the ’90s!’” A burst of laughter erupts across his thoughtful face. Guilty as charged. “Nothing’s wrong with that; it’s always going to be the core of my sound—that’s where I was nurtured, musically.”
Today, New Orleans sits at the edge of a polar vortex and the air inside Jim Russell Records is more crypt-like than ever. We walk down the block to the recently opened Hi-Volt, a wedge-shaped café with circular windows that bathe the room in warm light. Steamed milk hisses and faces peer into laptops.
It seems his friend’s ’90s charge sparked a reevaluation. Inspired by a speech by the Pan-Africanist leader and theorist Thomas Sankara about the courage necessary to incite real change, Truth asked himself a hard question. “There’s a certain amount of madness to take the tried and true and ask, ‘What would going away from it be?’”
He resolved to move beyond the golden era’s boom-bap style and began soliciting different beats for Invent the Future. “I wanted something more lush, soulful,” he says. “In my mind, it’s that [Detroit producer] Dilla-esque sound, thick basslines, bouncy bass lines, maybe even choppy, trippy samples. It’s something I wanted to do for awhile.” New collaborators surfaced, including producers P.U.D.G.E., Kev Brown and Af the Naysayer, while longtime partners like DJ Waht created new angles. On the finished product, Truth raps over staggered rhythms, odd reverb levels, and psychedelic vocal hooks. I tell him that it’s startling to hear his radical message swaddled in the album’s shimmering production.
“I want to always show growth while still embodying those traditional characteristics. That will always be there,” he explains. “Usually when you start out on journeys, you don’t end up where you planned to, but I love where we ended up.” His own journey in local hip-hop is a singular story marked by generosity and an unflagging dedication to his art. More than a decade into his career, album sales and audience size reflect only a fraction of the impact Truth Universal has had on local music.
In the early 2000s, the world knew about Cash Money and No Limit Records, the groundbreaking labels that delivered New Orleans hip-hop in the form of bling, tanks, and hood anthems. Local emcees that favored East Coast groups like the Roots, A Tribe Called Quest, and Gang Starr had a hard time finding a stage. And no matter your tastes, club owners rarely welcomed hip-hop. Enter Truth Universal.
“A few people looked out, a few venues would allow us to perform, but nobody was really looking out, or trying to give artists a shot,” he recalls. In 2002, he launched Grassroots!, a monthly concert series that began at the Neighborhood Gallery on Oretha Castle Haley and ended at the Dragon’s Den in 2012. Countless aspirants touched their first microphones at Grassroots!, with Truth handling the booking and fliers, renting sound equipment, and even working security. Today the series is over, but the landscape includes several hip-hop showcases in its mold. “I’ve always considered Truth’s Grassroots! monthly event as a solid foundation for so many of our current underground emcees and events, myself included,” says Slangston Hughes, host of the monthly Uniquity series. “Before an emcee touched a Uniquity stage, I’d personally ask them if they performed at Grassroots!. In my opinion Truth and his show were/are so influential to our local hip-hop culture and community.”
Truth is humble, but he knows things have changed. “Some people tell me it’s because of some of the doors I opened,” he says. “As I’ve come further on this journey as a serious artist, there’s a lot of stuff that I had to stumble through. Rather than maximize that knowledge for myself only, I’m going to try to impart it. Somebody who’s serious, I’m going to talk to them. I’ll give it to you the best way I can and hopefully you can take it and run with it.”
Real talk is never in short supply in Truth’s music. At times, a Truth Universal album feels like a succession of PBS’ Frontline episodes, with content that ranges from police brutality to immigration to black-on-black violence. Delivered with authority in a baritone flow, the lyrics are distinguished from the usual “conscious” rapper’s vagaries. Truth Universal doesn’t muse on the what-ifs of liberation: he sketches the shackles and provides information as weaponry. The new album features a call for urban farming and an unflinching tale of domestic violence. “A Letter to the Youth” emphasizes legal hustle (“Pell grants and baking bean pies got me through college”) to combat self-destruction.
He continues to push for hip-hop’s inclusion in discussions of New Orleans’ musical traditions. Last year’s South by Southwest found him on a panel with Ben Jaffe of Preservation Hall, radio personality Wild Wayne, OffBeat publisher Jan Ramsey, and Scott Billington of Rounder Records. “Being included in that discussion means it includes hip-hop in the landscape,” he says. “WWOZ plays a little more hip-hop now and Jazz & Heritage is more supportive. You have entities that are projecting this culture to the world and we need to be in that picture.” He serves a consultant on the recently debuted NOLA Hip-Hop Archive, a project of scholar Holly Hobbs and Tulane University’s Amistad Research Center to ensure the music’s preservation and study. “I’m fortunate enough to say I’ve seen a lot of this stuff that brought us to where we are take shape. I’ve seen a lot of artists come and go, be in the underground and blow. You see Mannie Fresh—but did you know about Mannie Fresh and Gregory D? Did you know about Ninja Crew?”
Truth’s schedule for 2014 already includes a Jazz Fest spot, tour dates supporting Invent the Future’s release, and the completion of a new album dedicated to his Trinidadian roots. Undaunted in his love of hip-hop, Truth will not be moved from his chosen path. A few years ago, on tour in Mexico, he shared a stage and a hotel with Popmaster Fabel, a member of the legendary Rock Steady Crew. Riding around Mexico City with a personal hero, Truth admired the unshakeable integrity of a pioneering b-boy whose heyday was more than 30 years past.
“It was never a thing where they weren’t themselves, but they reached heights and still have generations coming along, without a commercialization of it, without shameless commodification.” For a minute, he sounds like a fan before he then expresses a deeply held personal value: “Stopping isn’t an option.”