Introduce yourself, your crew and affiliations…
I’m Truth Universal—Diego Martin, Trinidad born, New Orleans bred eMCee. I’m affiliated with the InnerRecess Collective, Liberated Territory and The Bomb Sniffing Dogs.
Your raps are very politically driven, you deal with topical themes involving the U.S. government, have you always had a strong political message in your music?
No, when I started I was just getting a grasp of Self-Knowledge. I am strongly influence by artists like PRT, KRS Public Enemy, X-Clan, Digable Planets etc. But I’m also strongly influenced by those that I felt did Hip Hop like it was supposed to be done like EPMD, Special Ed, 2 Live Crew, Clark Kent + Dana Dana, Jazzy Jeff + The Fresh Prince, Geto Boys, UGK, Tim Smooth. I just “battle rapped,” if you want to call it that. No particular point or topic, just some braggadocio shit chocked full of similes. As I learned more about myself, community, and world affairs, all that made its way into my music.
How long have you been rapping for? How did you start?
I’ve been rhyming for about 20 years. I’ve been releasing material and touring for about 11 years. I started out just freestyling in high school and what not. When I got to college, my roommate—Eric Bell—encouraged me to write the stuff down. I took his advice, and started writing songs and recording at my man Pantha’s PIT Production dorm room studio at LA Tech. I also used to link up with my dude U.P. at Grambling State University, which was like 5 miles up the road from Tech. DJ Phil from the Ricky Smiley show used to be there in U.P.’s room scratching and mixing all the time.
Your moniker Truth Universal…is there really such a thing as a universal truth?
I think there is, and it’s what I seek, strive to speak, and strive to live. I feel that your name or attribute should reflect what you as aspire to be or achieve. That’s why I have that attribute. It’s not because I’m extra arrogant and bereft of humility.
There most definitely is right and exact truth that cannot be challenged.
What are your thoughts on certain rappers being referred to as “conscious rap” – aren’t all rappers rapping conscious?
I have an appreciation for just about everyone’s expression in Hip Hop. Some of the music that I love the most, people probably wouldn’t think I gravitate to. And of course mostly everyone exhibits some level of social consciousness, and has some commentary. It could be disdain for police repression, selling dope because you have little to no alternatives, their take on various social issues, etc. Cats are also depicting their reality through rhyme. But the bulk of this, that you hear the most of anyway, is dealing with the façade—trapping, clubbing, material acquisition, sex and violence. If 95% of what you hear is perpetuation of the façade, we are not advancing. I think the conscious label speaks to an individual possessing some degree of understanding and analysis and is able to articulate things affecting their community. Somebody who’s considered “conscious” has just recognized the façade and it’s evident in their work. I wouldn’t have a huge problem with being categorized that way for the purpose of identification. However, it can alienate and discourage people from supporting my efforts. People who come from the same or similar background that I’m striving to present this work to, may feel like this is over their head, or it isn’t their “thing” per se. Deejays are like, “I can’t play this in the club or radio mix because…” Also, there’s usually a preconceived notion that when the music is “conscious” it’s going to sound a certain way, and it’s not really as palatable as most popular music. It’s a false notion. In actuality, I know a good many eMCees doing similar work who not only stress substantial content, but they put a lot of work into having a fresh presentation (rhyme delivery + production) as well.
The labeling happens anyway, but I choose refer to myself as “progressive.” I aim to encourage progression both artistically and socially.
How did you link up with the Mexican emcee Bocafloja and how did that “Immigrant” track and video come about?
I linked with Bocafloja somehow over the internet a couple years ago. We recognized our like-mindedness, had an automatic mutual respect for each other’s work, and started building on show and recording collaboration. This led to us setting up shows for one another in our respective cities—the Quilomboarte 4 year anniversary in Mexico City, and my “GRASSROOTS!” Hip Hop Showcase 9 year anniversary in New Orleans, LA. The song collaboration was already in progress. We just took the opportunity to have Legaux, from OnPoint Media, shoot the video as we traveled to each other’s cities.
What do you think motivates U.S. politicians to blame immigrants for their social and economic problems? Is it just a matter of scapegoating and creating crises?
I think there are a number of reasons behind that. I’ve heard that in one Arizona city that the residents had become uncomfortable with the amount of Mexicans that had settled in their neighborhoods. It’s almost like the “help” now lives next door to us and we don’t like it.
Also, the motivation for that Senate Bill 1070 is motivated by the private prison industry—Corrections Corporation of America. If they lock them up, they make money from them and they are no longer in the communities in question.
I feel like one of the foremost reasons for people wanting to leave their home countries for a better life in America, is in fact the U.S. having their hand in some policy creation that makes living unpleasant in those countries–wars, trade agreements, economic restructuring, etc.
So yeah, they have to redirect blame, when they are in fact at the root of problem.
You hail from New Orleans; can you discuss the experience of being displaced and dealing with shiesty insurance adjusters?
My displacement was temporary, but I must say it’s one of the worst feelings in the world—not knowing where you stand and where your family is going to land.
There’s definitely some obvious land grab shit going on. We had to jump through 100 hoops to get money we were entitled to—both insurance and federally allocated monies.
How is the city now? Are people going to shows? How’s the rap scene?
The city seems to be back on track, because tourism has a healthy pulse and conventions are happening. There are still a LOT of families who have not been able to return. There are an estimated 150K people who have not returned. Some haven’t come back because they can’t afford to. Rent is exorbitant. Gentrification plans are moving along as planned. I want to see how this redistricting based on the census impacts voting as well.
Hip Hop is doing well. Tours come through and we produce others on our own. We performed with Raekwon a few weeks ago. I think 500+ people were there. Along with a few other monthly events (Uniquity, SoundClash), I do “GRASSROOTS!”, which is an ongoing showcase series I’ve been doing since 2002. This year, along with our regional acts, we’ve hosted Bocafloja, Onebelo, and P.UD.G.D.E.
Could you tell me about your latest project Polygraph? Why the title, who produced it, is there a theme involved…etc?
The full name is Resistance Vol. 2: Polygraph. It is the second in a 3 part Mixtape/EP series. There first was a mini-mix by Dj Waht, consisting of a few tracks I worked on with Symbolyc One, who produced Kanye’s “Power.” There’s no concrete theme really. It just stemmed from the title track—“Polygraph”, which is produced by my dude Prospek. Other producers on this EP include Mr. Dain, DJ Def D, DJ Black Panther, and Mr. Nick. The final installment will be Resistance Vol. 3: Decolonization. It will consist of songs from an unreleased album that was supposed to be put out years ago on another label.
What else are you working on? What’s new for the end of the world?
I’m working on a few tracks. Some will mostly likely be added to Decolonization. I know a couple of them are definitely going to end up on my next full length record, which is as of now untitled. Other than that, I’m just building with folks as usual in different places across the globe about performance as usual. I also will be releasing a killer video soon. It’s for “This Moment” featuring Lyrikill + “The More Things Change” featuring Evelyn Champagne from my Guerrilla Business EP.
You recently came to Toronto to perform at the North by Northeast (NXNE) music and film festival…what were your overall impressions of Toronto?
Toronto is incredible. I love the atmosphere — people, the music, and the food.
The biggest difference from N.O., to me, is the concentration of people who have roots in other places. I especially have an affinity for the West Indian community. It’s huge!
The festival was aight. We had great energy from the folks who came out. If I ever have the opportunity to play again, I’d like to play that Dundas + Yonge Square stage.
Last words? Shout outs?
Peace to everybody supporting and holding me down. Please continue to support monetarily so we can continue to make this music for you — truthuniversal.com/merch. Follow on Twitter, like on Facebook—truthuniversal. Give thanks to you for the interview. Free things truthuniversal.com/download.
R.I.P. Karlon Lett, Geronimo Ji Jagga Pratt + Gil Scott Heron.