Bearded Gentlemen Music
Interview with Uncommon Nasa
Written by Jack Mckeever
October 13, 2015
Though underground Hip-Hop is a widespread and hugely varied plain of artistic presence, one might be hard-pressed to find a mind as on-the-ball or as down to Earth as Uncommon Nasa. I first became a fan of his in 2013 upon receiving his full-length LP Land of the Way It Is. In many ways, the title of that album works as a signifier of Uncommon Nasa’s whole oeuvre. His penchant for hard-hitting, forward thinking but definably honest boom-bap is composed of an esoteric but direct dialect, one that recalls the likes of Billy Woods and MF Doom while being entirely his own unique way of story- telling. But his involvement with his local scene also makes him especially important and prolific. As head of Uncommon Records he’s released albums by Short Fuze, Gajah, and Aeon Grey, very much doing his bit in the fight to put great rap music on the map.
Halfway, his new full-length which comes out today (13th October), finds Uncommon Nasa in perhaps his most self-aware and vulnerable state yet. Mostly concerned with one’s own mortality and ideas of death, it’s an album that has morbidity in spades as well as glimmers of a light at the end of the tunnel. Just like all his previous work, it’s so tangible because it’s told from the street level upwards. It feels like an encapsulation of modern suburban New York, but it’s also perhaps his most directly personal work to date. It takes in the notions of everyday life and forces them into the context of the bigger picture, all over the course of 12 sublime, catchy and rigidly New York Hip-hop tracks. I spoke to Uncommon Nasa at length about some of the themes of Halfway, and larger ideas of life and death. As you’ll see below, his answers provide evidence of his work ethic as well as his monstrously intelligent attitude towards life.
Halfway feels particularly cinematic and conceptual. Were you thinking of it as a sort of narrative from the beginning or did it just come together that way?
I approach all my albums with the ideal that they will each capture a moment in time in my life. I’m hesitant to call them all “concept albums”, but they all definitely will have their own theme and Halfway certainly does. This record stemmed from a lot things coming together at once all culminating in the realization of my own mortality like never before. So that’s the glue that holds this record together. Since New York Telephone, I’ve taken it on to create dialog that is relevant to the piece and place it throughout. I think it can set my work apart from others and I feel like you can sample a movie all day, but creating something that speaks directly to the songs, that’s natural, is great for creating that narrative feel you mentioned.
Death is a very ambiguous thing. How much did other people’s attitudes towards death inform your own perceptions when writing the record?
Most of this record is very much first person, so I’m not sure how much other people’s attitudes on death informed me. I can tell you that as a guy in my teens and twenties I was attracted towards lots of songs dealing with death, Atomic Rooster’s “Time, Take My Life” was one of them. Lots of Rod Serling’s work on The Twilight Zone dealt with death as well, and that’s always a big inspiration for me. That being said, your interest and respect for death changes over time. When you get to a point where you see more and more people pass, you realize what mortality is all about. Luckily I’ve always had this sense of time and the temperance that life is, I’ve always had that within me to drive myself to accomplish as much as I possibly can.
Black Tokyo produced the whole of this record, and “This Bodega” was one of my favourite tracks off of New York Telephone. What’s the secret behind your particular chemistry with each other?
I think we just get each other. From the very beginning before we started working together on music there was a certain vibe between us. We me through the twitterverse and became friends. He’s produced lots of great tracks with me, our first was a song called “Don’t Die” back in 2010, which ironically dealt with some of the things I stretched out on for Halfway. His beats really help me come up with refined and visual ideas, ideas that are serious but still manage to not be complete downers. He’s a good homie, we live in different States, but talk on the phone and online/text often. His trust in me for the creation of this record, it’s direction and final sound speaks a lot to his character as a musician. I’ll always appreciate that and that comes from a friendship based foundation.
The first time I heard “My Music Is our Children” I thought it was about a partner, or your wife, but then it struck me that it could also be about a friend in some respects, or a parent. Is that something you were going for, or does it have a very straight-down-the-line meaning to you?
As it is, that’s actually and purposefully the most straight forward song on the record. It is about myself and my wife and our relationship. For a multitude of reasons we do not have children and will not have children. In a lot of ways, as I said on the song, this situation and our love has allowed me to put full focus into my music and I think in a lot of ways that’s a beautiful thing that deserves credit too. Both of us deal with stigmas and judgement for being married for so long and not having children and I wanted to create a song that stands up for us and other people like us. Regardless of how you came to the point where you have no kids or don’t wish to have kids, this song is for you. Structurally I wrote the song the most direct as well, there’s not really any flow pattern tricks here or anything like that, I wanted this song to hit you over the head with our truth as we live it.
One of the things I love about this album is that it feels very human, very tangible, even in its most poetic moments. Was that something you were very conscious of?
I think that just speaks to who I am as an artist. I’m well past the point of trying to prove anything to anybody. Once you get over that mentality that you have to somehow prove your worth on the mic, you can write better songs. I feel like my approaches are very varied and I want people to feel all the styles I can bring on the mic, from the poetic to the multisyllablc flow based stuff. But throughout it all, I want people to hear me and I want to deliver good songs.
There are some fantastic features on this record from the likes of Short Fuze, Carl Kavorkian, and Sketch185. How did you get them on board?
They are all good friends and all dope emcees. That being said, I hit them all up for the songs they are on for a reason. I knew each could write and deliver on the subjects at hand. I’ve been working with Short Fuze for a decade and I’ve toured with Carl and Skech. Strong bonds with all 3.
On the title track you say that you visit your parents more often because you’re finding that you have more and more in common with them, before making the analogy of human beings to a clock and saying “we are that fragile, and that easily destroyed”. How bleak is your attitude towards ageing?
It varies from day to day, just like anything else. I’m big on acknowedging reality. And the reality presented on this record is that we are all aging and we are all dying. That doesn’t have to be as bleak as it seems, and I think on a lot of songs on the record I showed the positives of such a thing, but it’s still very much the truth.
There’s a lot of anxiety on this record. I once heard the comedian Reginald D. Hunter talk about how when you hit 40 you start making a mental inventory of all the things you’ve achieved thus far in life, and it seems like maybe a song like “Pipe Dreams” is informed by the same notion?
I think for me it’s more about “what’s left to do”. I’m constantly looking to the future and setting new goals. The key to living life to the fullest is constantly setting new goals for yourself. A life without goals is almost a life wasted. So yeah, there’s cool stuff I’ve done in the past, but I feel like for me, aging leaves me no time to reflect. “Pipe Dreams” is one my few more comedic songs, and it basically lays out some wacky ideas I’ve had about goals that I could set for myself, while acknowledging that these businesses I came up with actually already existed.
On “Love the Cold Like a Brother” there seems to be an acceptance of death, almost an embracing of it. How much, at this point, do you think you understand death and what it means to you?
“Love” deals with another theme I wove into the record, which is losing friends throughout your life. And I don’t mean just from them dying, I mean people that consciously decide they don’t care about your relationship to them anymore. “Love” sort of gets into that feeling of loneliness and having to depend on yourself sometimes.
Both “Why I stopped Watching The news” and “We Living in These Dark Times” look at and discuss mortality in a wider social context, again highlighting the ambiguity of death as well as its universality. How much do you think life is controlled by notions of death?
I think death is one of the single most greatest motivators of human beings on Earth. So it’s a serious thing and it’s not something I could discuss in a bubble only relating to myself. I live literally 3 blocks away from where Eric Garner was murdered on videotape my police. His death had a large effect on me being that it happened right here. The sequence of “News”/”Dark Times”/”Good Time” all sort of show the shock, horror and acceptance of such a thing. That incident was one of the many things that culminated at the same time and lead to the creation of a record that deals with these sorts of topics.
After Halfway drops next month, what’s next on your radar?
I’ll go back on the road again several times throughout the next year plus. I’m going to work on finishing up producing records for Short Fuze, Last Sons (Duke01 & Furious P) and work on a record with Gajah, that’ll be produced by Awkward. Me and Gajah are White Horse as a group. I have other projects in the works as well, plus I have my next album kind of thought out conceptually and that will be produced by Messiah Musik who did 574’s, DestiNY and others on “New York Telephone”. People often ask me to do stuff and as you can see I kind of have my next 2 years mapped out, you have to be this way. Records don’t just happen overnight.