Thursday, 5 September 2013

Rod Serling, realism and self- respect: An interview with Uncommon Nasa

Earlier this year New York rapper, producer and label boss Uncommon Nasa released one of my favourite Hip- Hop LPs of the year so far by the guise of "Land of the Way it Is." A both personally cathartic and sociologically conscious affair, it's an album that sees Nasa voyage across the lyrical theme board from tough upbringings to worldly ignorance and self- respect. It's also an album that sees his production expand to become epic, hard hitting yet reserved where necessary.

In this interview Nasa talks about the more technical side of the industry he works in (including his time working as an engineer for Company Flow and Cannibal Ox), as well as literary influences, the pros and cons of running a label and the kind of righteous attitude that it's often hard but also important to maintain when in the music industry. There's also an exclusive spotify playlist, compiled by the man himself, linked at the bottom.

1. I hope you're well. How has the aftermath of the release of "Land of the Way it Is" been? Have you been touring it much?

I'm setting up a tour now with the homies Sarcasmo for November.  We're gonna be hitting the North East hard along with some of the Mid-Atlantic.  Also  I'm setting up and beginning the process of getting some videos made.  I'll have a follow up EP called "New York Telephone" along before the years out.  I'm putting down for LOTWII for the long haul.  Really just getting started working this record, but the aftermath has been great.  Really impressed by the attention it's gotten and relieved by it frankly.

2. How are the new songs going down?

I'm in the process of rehearsing a few new songs from the record for the tour, a few of the songs that are on LOTWII I've been rocking for a little bit ahead of the release, so it's all pretty solid.  I wrote this record in order to perform it.  I guess I always keep that in mind, which is why most of my stuff is so chorus heavy, but I think this time out I got production that is better balanced between the creative and accessible.  So shows are always a fun time.

3. I've seen you mention The Mars Volta as being one of your favourite artists, and I can definitely hear hints of their progressive, spontaneous jam- style music in a lot of your production. Do you ever progress or change your songs when you perform them live?

I'll do some flips that make them different from the album.  Sometimes it's in editing songs together or kicking to remixes, but I eventually would love to get on the level of being able to play them out live.  Not sure if that's my bag in the live setting though, I like to deliver the songs as they are to a certain extent.  I guess that's contradictory in a way for someone that's a fan of a band like The Mars Volta.  I sort of do a lot of my jamming in a studio setting and then try to bring the best chops I can to the stage in order to replicate that.   A lot of my beats are played out and individually multi-tracked with no MIDI and most of my vocal takes are take all the way through verses.  If anything, I change up the delivery considerably on some songs when I do them live, like Twenty Two for instance.

4. I was interested to hear that you started off at the more technical end of the industry, recording stuff for Company Flow and Cannibal Ox. When did you start producing your own music?

I was pretty much producing that whole time as well, it all sort of came together at once.  I still mix and master records as an engineer now, and I was making beats and rapping then.  It's just a matter of timing for which of those disciplines comes to the forefront.  I was making beats prior to 1999, but that's when I got my MPC, so '99 is the exact answer I suppose.

5. In an interview with The Village Voice I saw you talk about your relationship with EL-P. Was he a kind of mentor to you in the early days?

Mentor is a strong word, but it was definitely a formative time for me as a musician.  I think going into working with him during that period as an engineer I had my own clear idea of what I wanted to do as a writer and as a producer and I've pretty much stuck to that after that up until now.  That said, watching that dude make beats from scratch on a regular basis and being able to mix down a grip of those beats seeing how the individual tracks broke down was a big help.  I was a fan of his work before working with him, so most of the ways he was making beats didn't surprise me, but having it broken down into particles right in front of you was a different level of understanding.  

6. You've noted the influence of Rod Serling as a key influence, and there's a very strong narrative style to a lot of your lyrics. Are there any other literary figures that have been important to you?

I'm often inspired by non-musicians in the arts than by musicians and Rod Serling is a great example of that.  I consider myself a writer first and foremost.  My goal is for my lyrics to pop off the page as much as on the mic.  I like a well written song more then anything, something makes you re-think things and gives you clear visual imagery.  That's what Rod did with the Twilight Zone and lots of other things he wrote, like the tele-play "Patterns".  If you haven't seen that, look it up on Youtube, find the original version (there are two online, both from the 50's).  What an incredible example of breaking down power structures at a time in the mid 50's when NO ONE was doing that.

As far as others, I read a lot of non-fiction.  The only fiction I read is in comics.  Jim Starlin is a huge influence on my work.  The way he makes all of his characters introspective and internal thinkers was big to me and so much more real then what other comic writers were doing when he came on the scene or even do now.  Jeff Lemire is a current writer that does some amazing things as well.  His consistent themes (whether in alternative or hero oriented books) of family bonds and how they can manipulate emotions is heavy as fuck.

7. Two songs on "Land of the...",  "Two days" and "My Ego's Big" seem like particularly lyrical, personal songs to me. Could you just divulge a little bit into what kind of picture you were trying to portray with them?

Those two songs in particular hit on similar themes and hit the overall message of the record directly on the head.  The album is about the struggle to be an artist in an era where you can't possibly do that full time.  This can be applied to any passion or artistic discipline for the listener.  Two Days describes just that, two commutes to work.  It starts with leaving the workplace, how the sun shines down on your happiness of being free to do what you want with your own time.  You can still hear the thunder striking for others still on the grind, but it doesn't matter because you're almost home.  Then the second verse is the morning commute, now the roles are reversed.  Now you're the one in the thunderstorm and darkness heading back to the grind once again.

My Ego's Big is a collaboration between myself with Aeon Grey and Elucid, Black-Tokyo on the beat.  The concept there is the fact that you need to keep a big ego and not let the work process and middle management brow beat you into thinking you might be some sort of failure.  It's about not letting the system hold you back from your full potential.  You have to go into work situations with the ideal that you simply don't need their bull shit, even if that isn't the case.  If you don't respect yourself, no one will.

8. You also run your own label in the form of Uncommon records. It seems like a real family and talent orientated environment. Are there any specific traits you look out for in MCs before you sign them? (excluding you thinking them a good MC)

I think it's about associating with talented people and always being super honest and up front with them, but also finding people that for lack of a better term, "get it".  I work with mature cats that understand this isn't the glamorous industry it used to be.  Even in the underground you deal with people that have certain ideals of what they think a label will bring.  For some they expect a bounty of gigs, a bushel of fame or to just not have to do jack shit for their own career anymore.  I can't handle that sort of attitude.  Signing with Uncommon is a partnership more than anything else.

The label is changing though, from this point on if I sign someone, I'm signing them to produce their record.  I need to start stretching my legs more as an artist and as a producer and show this era what I can do.  I've operated Uncommon for almost 10 years as an A & R styled label for Progressive Hip-Hop and that's produced what I think are some classic and timeless records.  But at this point, partly because of my own needs and partly because of where the business is going, I need to do me some more.

9. Is it hard to balance the business side of running the label with the passion you clearly have for the music your roster is putting out?

Yes and no.  I think for me when I started a label I never did it to straight up make money.  But I did start the label with the hope that I could make some money putting out the highest quality music I could find.  I want the artists to make money on their craft too.  I've never put out anything that I didn't think was economically sound as well as progressive, I'll put it to you that way.

10. What are your plans for the rest of the year?

Touring in November, dropping some videos going into next year even and finishing up this EP.  I'm also going to be producing several albums in 2014.  I'm already knee deep into projects with Gajah, JunClassic, Taiyamo Denku and about to start work with Duke01 and Pruven.  There are other things afoot as well, we'll see how it all works out, but I'm just trying to leave a legacy of quality from my hands.  Period.

"Land of the Way it is" is available to purchase now from both itunes and the Uncommon records store. 

Uncommon Nasa Spotify Mix

01. Billy Woods- Crocodile Tears
02. KA- Cold Facts
03. Quelle Chris (ft. Cavalier)- Old Friend
04. Cult Favorite- Technoccult
05. Teddy Faley- Skinned Knees
06. Brzowski- Friendly Fire
07. Uncommon Nasa- Two Days
08. ECID- So damn Einstein!

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