After Truth Universal watched a b-boy competition at the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition, he grabbed cardboard from supermarket Dumpsters and rummaged through music store bins for 12-inch records. His family couldn't afford a set of turntables, so he learned to rap.
"After school we'd go out and drink and be in the backseat freestyling. 'Man, you should be writing some of this stuff down,'" he remembers thinking. "Then I went to college, and it was like, 'Man, you should really be writing this stuff down.'"
Truth Universal made waves not as a party rocking MC but as a pioneer of socially conscious, politically aware and provocative New Orleans hip-hop. "It's important for people who understand what's going on to put that in the music," he says. "I'm an organizer, an activist, at heart. I'm going to try to start the discussions so we can work on solutions. It's important we keep that alive in hip-hop."
With his upcoming album Invent the Future, set for an Oct. 8 release, Truth Universal nods to his nostalgia for and roots in "golden era" hip-hop, not only with a focus on culture and community in his lyrics, but by including sample-based beats and turntables, a decidedly different take on rap's endless affair with a club-ready sound. "I want to be post-golden era," he says. "At the heart of it, it has that classic feel to it."
Born in Trinidad, Truth moved to New Orleans at age 4. He started committing his rhymes to paper by the time he went to college, but he says, "The first thing I wrote was just a bunch of punchlines strung together." Although he was influenced by Big Daddy Kane and Public Enemy, Truth didn't start infusing his writing with political consciousness until later. With Invent the Future, his fourth studio effort, Truth wields his politics like a sharp-edged sword.
"Police corruption, the housing situation, gentrification, the lack of access to fresh foods — it's wide open for all that," he says. "I turn it up when I can."
After a brooding, call-to-action introduction — composed entirely of samples — Truth breathlessly rips through the album's title track, ending with his mission statement: "Affecting social change, to my heart that purpose is dear/ Invent the future, the main intent of my career." On "Motivated," Truth namedrops Rutgers University professor Ivan van Sertima and Burkina Faso revolutionary-turned-president Thomas Sankara as he counts off his contributors to his "mental wealth" — then promises to put "New Orleans on the map like Rand McNally" on the following track, "For the Love."
Truth stacks his "post-golden era" sound with an all-star round-up of well-equipped producers and guest appearances, like Dilated Peoples MC Rakaa Iriscience and New Orleans rapper and frequent Truth collaborator Lyrikill.
The album also marks Truth's next phase after returning the monthly hip-hop showcase Grassroots, which ended its decade-long run in December. It ushered in dozens of up-and-coming and first-timer MCs as a place to discover and hone new voices. Truth plans to bring it back as an annual festival. "Bigger than before," he says. "Get people traveling from outside New Orleans, and at the same time feature and help expose the local and emerging sounds."