Emcee and producer Uncommon Nasa has been making hip-hop independently for years, with a huge body of work to his name. We caught up to talk about his excellent recent album, Written At Night, the production process, and his love of New York City. We’re also proud to premiere the incredible More than Two Suns; which Uncommon Nasa describes as a mix of rarities, hits, and new tracks. It was mixed by UK DMC Championship Finalist and Last Sons member Furious P.
Your brand of rap is sometimes hard to define. Not that pigeonholing an artist is necessary at all, but if you had to, how would you personally describe your sound? You’ve used the term Progressive Hip-Hop in the past.
I like to consider myself a conversational writer and performer. I have a number of rhyme styles that I use, depending on the theme of the track or the style of the beat. But usually it comes down to me doing something with space for the thoughts I’m putting out there to be fully absorbed and somewhat pondered in the mind of the listener. That’s why I’d call it conversational. When I’m performing, I like to involve the crowd in addressing them in between songs and delivering my lines in a clear and effective manner. I don’t want my music or my performance to ever come off like I’m showing off or that it’s all some cheap party trick or a talent show.
Tell us about Written At Night.
The album was put together purposefully as something I would produce in full and that would have a good number of collaborations. It was also important to me that the record still hit a central theme of some sort and that it was wholly mine overall. I think I was able to do that. All the people I collaborated with are immensely talented, so it was a fun, but challenging effort to try and concept tracks that played to their strengths while still having to deliver my end of the bargain each and every time.
You have features on there from people you’ve worked with before, Billy Woods and Open Mike Eagle for instance, but more guests overall than some of your other works. Do you see this one as more of a collaborative project?
It is, but it isn’t. This is my album, I concepted all the tracks, made all the beats, etc. I wrote each song first for myself, then took all I had and sent it to the artist. I’d hate for it to be caught in some weird “duets” or “posse cut” zone, because that’s not what this is at all. In most cases when I was writing, not only did I know where I was going conceptually, but I also knew who I’d want on the track with me. I tried to put everyone I worked with in a position where they had a beat they’d be comfortable with, subject matter that I felt they’d be familiar with and with a prepared product of what I was doing on it in my space. All said though, yes, aside from two of the 11 tracks there is a guest and I know that working with all of those people made this album something it could have never been if it was just a standard solo record.
The music you make has a passionate love for New York City, similar to El-P, in a way that cuts deeper than a rapper meaninglessly shouting out their borough. You write very vividly about the city as a living entity. What exactly does NYC mean to you?
I always felt privileged to live and grow in NYC. Coming from Staten Island as a younger guy I was part of the city, but I wasn’t experiencing it at full measure. So I’d see movies like The Warriors or Hangin with the Homeboys and want to be a part of that. Those nights out on the town are kind of key to this record in fact. But my point is, unlike people that saw those movies far from NYC, I was actually here, so I just started traveling to it with my friends and by the time I was 17 I had a gig in Manhattan and haven’t looked back since. I’ve been in Manhattan probably 75% of my time since turning 17. If not more. So it’s like I said on Written At Night, “I’m a would be, could be city kid/instantly paying dues and bids”. That really is my perspective on my city, so I value it enough to write about it as often and as vividly, if you will, as I do.
You’ve talked before about being an early adopter of releasing music online. Did you foresee what’s happened in the last ten years?
I hate to say yes. But um, yes? There were a few things I was right about early on, for better or worse. The first thing I realized when I started my label in 2004 is that on the physical market I could no longer keep up with the costs endured by labels for the volume of releases that were needed to be relevant. The digital distribution business model started around that time and by 2006 I had signed a deal for Uncommon Records. I knew that this was a way for us to keep up with the larger indies in terms of volume of product without enduring the volume of cost. And that sort of became the model, right? For a number of years, this was the case up to the point of today where it’s perhaps just too easy for too many people to work this way.
The other thing I called back then was when the streaming model began to emerge, I immediately said “this is a trap!”. I felt like once major labels became involved in this sort of thing it would become a walled garden, where they didn’t just own the bats and the balls for the game, they owned the field the game was played on. Once a major owns the field like that, it can dictate who’s allowed to play and who’s allowed to play at what level. And you see that there’s a huge battle behind the scenes in promoting records or trying to get on playlists. There are hoops you have to jump through in order to get placed on these things that usually translate to “don’t bother unless you are on a major”. It’s a manipulated part of the business. The consumer owns nothing, has the appearance of choice, with no actual choice. I wrote blog posts and talked about it online a lot back in 2010 or so, but nobody really cares about what I’m saying right? Haha.
Your back catalog is sizable. Does the ease and speed at which you can get music online mean there’s a compulsion for you to pretty much make everything you record available for public consumption?
To be honest, I’ve always been an artist where you are hearing almost everything I make. I don’t have a stash of unreleased material, because when I sit down to make something I’m already envisioning how this will be released and received. It’s not to say that informs my art and forces my hand to do one thing or another, but when I create, I’m creating for an audience from the first drop of ink from my pen. I think this comes from my background in recording studios and seeing the process of genesis to birth repeatedly take place in music.
As far as getting music online, I think it’s easier to start this process quicker and bring it to fruition, but I think I’m releasing as much as I’ve always been capable of talent wise. And when I release something, I try to make sure I do all I can to make sure people hear it. When I release an album or a project of any kind, there is an attempt to promote it fully. There is cover art and/or merch that is as professional and thoughtful as we can create. I think the bigger issue is sort of just folks that toss shit on Soundcloud and Bandcamp un-mixed, un-mastered, demo style recordings with no original artwork. If you embrace that and are aware that that’s a short coming and you just want to get feedback or have fun, that’s fine too. But cats that approach releases that way shouldn’t be under any false impression that it goes beyond their fun and growth.
It must also be quite liberating to have complete freedom to release projects with perhaps less mass appeal, like your instrumental albums, or EPs like Orange Military?
The freedom to do what I want was always going to be there, because that’s just who I am. To be honest, I always want more attention for everything I do and I’m never that satisfied. I feel happy, but satisfaction is never really there. It never will be. Even an instrumental project like Cold War Era, I don’t do those as side projects or dumps. I did that to make it as big as it could be. I understand it’s an experimental beat tape and that there are confines to that, but I want to reach the top of those confines. And to some extent we did, we got coverage at this awesome site called Gimme Tinitus and I got to build with the guys that run that site online. That felt good, but that’s an example of where even with a perceived “smaller project”, I still have an idea to grow from it and take it seriously.
You often record live instruments and then chop them up. Can you describe the process in more detail?
Sure – with Written At Night in particular there was a goal set out for me to not sample, or to certainly use less samples. And I hit that goal with this record. It’s something I was considering before I was even approached to do the record, so the timing was perfect for me to jump into creating this in that way. I pretty much create my own samples now. I play something out the way I would have heard on a record and then flip it as if I got it off vinyl. I also play things on top of that on keys free hand, which I’ve actually always done. I’ve slowly and surely built up a small arsenal of tools to help make this happen, but in truth I could have stopped with my MPC and an Ipad with apps and still pulled this sound off. In fact, most of what you hear on Written At Night was made with those two tools at its core.
Tell us about your relationship with Man Bites Dog Records.
It’s been great so far, and I have had absolute creative freedom. I made the exact record I would have released on Uncommon Records and we put together the artwork independently as if it was being self-released. There were even songs that went far left like Gingerbread Hag that I didn’t know whether or not I’d be questioned, but that wasn’t the case at all. And I think to some extent I was able to pull off sounds as varied as Compass and Gingerbread Hag on the same record due to placement and over all theme.
It’s good to have another ear, another person that’s depending on you getting something done. I’ve always been self-sufficient in that way, but having someone texting you at 9am with a video concept or asking for a response to an email that’s invested in your record is a welcome change. It’s been a long time coming in reality, I’ve always been open to the idea of working with other labels, it just was never the right situation.
You also have your own Uncommon Records imprint. What are the advantages of releasing music on your own company versus via a label like Man Bites Dog Records?
Obviously when you have someone else investing time and money into you it can only make you stronger. I’ve been carrying my own weight for quite some time so it’s nice to do less lifting, even though I am still doing plenty. Uncommon Records does continue on, I am finishing a record with Last Sons (Duke01 and Furious P) which I fully produced. I’m starting my next solo record that will be produced by Messiah Musik and I am starting the follow up to Autonomy Music with Short Fuze. That, among some other projects I can’t mention yet, will all be on Uncommon unless they end up placed with other labels as well.
What’s next after Written At Night?
We have some more videos to release and I’d tentatively say I’m looking to tour in November and early 2018 as well. That along with working on the releases I mentioned earlier are my immediate plans.