Behind the wheel of his black Cadillac XTS, Sulaiman Salaam III started to string together the words for one of his latest songs.
The music begins with a few strokes on the piano, but quickly rounds out with the catchy sounds of an organ and church choir.
“Finally free, finally free,” they sing.
Salaam quickly fills in the lyrics. He says he writes in conversations. And this one is about him.
I freed my mind. I freed my time...Free at last.
Better known by his stage name Suli4Q, the Kansas City rapper has been recording his own songs since childhood. In recent years, though, his music has reached wider audiences, mainly through online channels.
Salaam, 31, says previous jobs in sales have helped him market his art and turn his passion into a living. In March, Suli4Q hit a new milestone when his latest album, “Scarlet R3d: DLX,” landed on iTunes’ top 10 chart for all rap and hip hop albums.
While he’s broken into a notoriously difficult industry, Salaam knows Suli4Q isn’t a household name — at least not yet.
“I’m not even close to the pinnacle,” he said. “I feel, for myself, this is just like the beginning.”
Tech N9ne, Kansas city’s most successful rap artist, said Suli4Q is the artist to watch in the ranks of local up-and-coming talent.
“He has the drive, the talent and the music to go all the way,” said the rapper, born Aaron Yates.
At his Strange Music record label, Yates expects artists he signs to go on to even bigger careers than his 35-year and counting run in the music industry. And he expects the same of Suli4Q, who he has collaborated with on several projects but is not signed onto his record label.
Asked to compare Suli4Q to other artists, Tech N9ne declined, saying the rising artist has a voice and style all his own.
“He’s one of one,” he said. “It’s natural. He can sing, he can rap, he can produce his own beats. He’s an all-around star.”
With catchy tunes and a palatable image, Suli4Q is poised for mass appeal, he said.
“Tech N9ne can sometimes be a lot to accept as far as the imagery and topics,” Yates said. “On the other hand, Suli has this major mainstream feel to his music. I believe that once more eyes and ears are on it, it’s going to go through the roof.”
Music runs in the Salaam family. His father, of the same name, starred in his own rap group called Islamic Force in the 1980s and 1990s. But his dad, imam at Kansas City’s Al-Haqq Islamic Center, ultimately put aside aspirations of a professional music career to stay home in Kansas City in order to play an active role with his kids.
His son, now with two young kids of his own, still thinks about that choice.
“My dad felt like he had to choose between the two,” Salaam said, “and I decided I wanted both.”
Kansas City, Atlanta influences
Salaam got on stage for the first time at 2 years old, acting as the hype man for his dad.
At that age, he also penned his first song. Called “Just be good,” the lyrics were straightforward.
Just be good and don’t be bad. Just do the right stuff and don’t be bad.
“And I just repeated the same thing over and over and over again,” Salaam said.
His family was Christian on his mom’s side, Muslim on his dad’s side.
Growing up near 29th and Prospect, Salaam says he was one of few kids with both a mother and father at home. There wasn’t much money, but he remembers himself as a happy-go-lucky child.
His surroundings, though, eventually hardened him. Looking back at childhood pictures, he can almost pinpoint the moment his big smile faded away to a straight faced stare.
In retrospect, he said he was afraid of being fully himself. Shaped by the despair around him, he acted tough to fit in.
Like other conversations, this one bleeds into his music.
Lost my smile
This ain’t who I am
This who I became
Until I learned
Changing my surroundings
For Salaam, a scholarship at the Art Institute of Atlanta changed his scenery and his life. After a stint studying audio engineering, which he said he had already mastered as a child, he began working sales jobs and creating music on the side.
Even during hard times in Atlanta, which culminated in homelessness, he became more of his true self. He recognized the poor attitudes cultivated on Kansas City’s East Side as mere defense mechanisms.
Choosing his own circle of friends in Atlanta, he lightened up and reverted back to the smiling, happy kid of his early childhood.
“I’ve just become more of that 6-year-old kid over time,” he said.
In 2013, a relationship with his now-wife brought him back to Kansas City, where he continued to pursue music, but always on top of a more reliable day job.
With a child to care for, Salaam built six months of savings, crafted a business plan and took a leap of faith to chase his music dreams full time in 2016.
His five albums have been streamed about 1 million times each. Music videos from his last album have had more than 9 million plays on Facebook, he said.
In addition to creating his own music, Salaam produces for other artists, runs his own clothing line and co-owns Blvd816 clothing store off of Troost Avenue and Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard. He’s also a visual artist, who has created his own album covers and produced several short films.
While the biggest artists fill arenas with national and international tours, Suli4Q has kept things more local. He performs around town and collaborates with other local creatives.
But he’s built his living around small but consistent revenue streams. The funds roll in through piecemeal royalties as his music is played on online streaming platforms, social media sites and the radio. And there’s the direct sales from albums and album downloads.
That business model has been particularly helpful during the pandemic, when artists have been forced to postpone or cancel tours.
For Salaam, the words in his everyday life weave through his music.
He doesn’t write on a computer or on paper. It’s more a stream of consciousness, often spoken directly into his iPhone when inspiration hits.
This conversation, thinking about the arc of his life, is the fodder for “Free at Last,” a single that he wrote and recorded in a matter of days last month.
It speaks to growing up on 29th Street, dodging bullets in high school, and seeing bodies drop when he was only 15.
To his father, the music is reminiscent of the work he created decades ago with Islamic Force. At least the messaging is similar, though he said his son’s delivery is all his own.
Sulaiman Salaam Jr. said he pushed his oldest son from an early age, becoming a Joe Jackson-like figure watching over his shoulder.
“It’s something he said he wanted to do,” he said. “I wanted to make sure he would be successful at it.”
While he sometimes wonders what might have been had he pursued his own music career, Salaam Jr. said he’s always wanted what any father wants: for his son to do better and go farther than he did.
“You can see in your children the potential that they can’t see for themselves,” he said. “So I’m happy to see him blossoming and being who I always knew he could be.”
Music that is authentic
With the lyrics in his head and the beat in his headphones, Salaam starts piecing together “Free at Last” at a small studio in a Raytown strip mall.
To hit the higher notes he can’t, he brings in fellow Kansas City performer Adrian Truth to sing backup.
This ain’t who I am
This who I became
This song started with the beat, which was released to artists online by an Atlanta producer. After a quick download and a $250 fee, the background music becomes Salaam’s canvas.
While recording, Salaam tinkers with the track over and over. When he misses the beat by a hair or hits a note wrong, he records it again.
On the other side of the glass, Brandon Charleston commands the expansive mixer, turning knobs and switching buttons like a seasoned pilot.
It’s a piecemeal process. Like a chef tastes a dish over and over, the two mix and match parts of the song, taking a few seconds here and stitching them together over there.
An audio engineer for 14 years, Charleston runs Studio B Muzik, where he helps artists transform their ideas into recorded songs.
In Suli4Q’s music, he hears the man behind the songs. There are stories about kids and relationships, an authenticity that is sometimes lacking with other artists, who rap about Lamborghinis or other fictions.
“It sounds good but it’s not authentic and I can’t really relate to that because I don’t have a Lamborghini,” Charleston said. “I feel like his music is for the people, for average people.”
Traditionally, musical artists seek to get signed with a big record label, which can help them book tours and build their public profile. But Charleston said Suli4Q is making his own mark by going out on his own, pairing his music with film production and his clothing line.
While the Kansas City area has fostered some well-known talents like Grammy winner Janelle Monae, it’s not as common for musicians from here to make it big. You’re not likely to discover the next Jay-Z at the Plaza or the mall, Charleston said.
But he thinks Suli4Q has what it takes to go all the way in the business.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I think he’s going to catapult out of Kansas City.”
Juggling music, family life
Wearing a bright red hoodie from his son’s clothing line R3AL Apparel, the elder Salaam watches Suli4Q record while perched on a barstool.
As the song comes together, he starts to sway with the music.
But as his son begins to tinker with the backup tune, dad urges him to keep it simple. Sprinkle the harmony only at the end, not throughout the entire song, he says. Let the song slowly unfold, don’t weigh it down early on.
“You’re overthinking it,” dad says.
They go back and forth, trying it both ways.
The son is adamant about piling on the background vocals. But once he hears it dad’s way, he relents.
“Pops knows best,” he says.
In under two hours, the four men in the studio have recorded and edited the entire song.
As it plays over the speakers for the umpteenth time, Salaam is finally satisfied as the music vibrates through his body. He stands on his toes and his knees buckle when he hears the bridge play.
“Yeah, let’s goooo!” he shouts as he claps his hands together.
This track is set for Suli4Q’s next album, “Depends on who you ask,” which he plans to release in the fall.
The title is a nod to the current crossroads in his career.
At times, he gets recognized at the gas station by someone who saw him perform at a club or found his music online. But he also hears plenty of “who’s that?” when people hear his artist name.
A few years ago, one of Tech N9ne’s albums, “Planet,” was the topic of conversation on comedian Joe Rogan’s uber popular podcast. Suli4Q, who was featured on the title track of that album, was referred to as “Sushi4” on the podcast.
At times, Salaam sometimes feels like things are moving slow despite his early success in the industry. But he said this is all part of the plan as he tries to juggle a music career with his family life.
“It’s a blessing that I did everything the way that I have, because I have balance,” he said. “I have my happiness, I have my family and everything’s still growing.”
Don’t spend yo whole life waiting for change
Wins and losses comes with the game
Be patient and you’ll see
You’ve got all you need
Everything around you’s we’re it’s ‘posed to be
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