No Rest For The Grinders: An Interview With Uncommon Nasa
When you think of a NYC staple, there are many names that come to mind. There’s one that has steadily been built from the ground up. To some, he’s known as ADAM, NASA, and even Adam Warlock. Now he simply goes by the name Uncommon Nasa. Ask anyone that knows anything about New York City Hip-Hop, Nasa’s name will come up. Often. The NYC native isn’t one to boast about past accomplishments but instead focuses on today and tomorrow. His body of work speaks for itself, which includes working the boards for The Cold Vein, the legendary debut album by Cannibal Ox. He stepped out on his own years ago with The Presence and later by releasing material under his own name. I’ve witnessed lopsided tour stops that had him hitting stages long past midnight, which notes the dedication to his craft. This year he’s dropped a new album of fiery gems compiled together entitled, Written At Night, (Man Bites Dog), an album solidly produced with friends and contemporaries like Guilty Simpson, Shortrock, billy woods, Gajah, Oh No, and Open Mike Eagle just to name a few. I caught up with Nasa to talk about his latest opus and living life in New York City.
So earlier this year you released your new solo album, which is your third or fourth album(?). I know you’ve had other releases prior to venturing off on your own with the collaborative effort The Presence, as well as Autonomy Music, which you collaborated with Short Fuze. Has it been a rough go of it just focusing on yourself here?
It’s the fourth, but actually, in a lot of ways, it’s a bit easier working on solo material. I just sit in my studio, and either choose a beat from a collaborator or make a beat, I write, I record and I mix it. It’s a linear process. I love collaborating, and Written At Night was much more of that than the typical “solo” album, but having control from start to finish is a pretty powerful thing. I’m the executive producer for most things that come out from Uncommon these days so maybe control is the wrong word because people I work with typically put a lot of faith in my decisions with our music. It’s just a matter of being able to create something so immediately that’s freeing about solo material, in particular, when compared to my work within a group like back in the days with The Presence.
Back in the early days’ everyone just knew you as NASA, that was when you were working with other artists back in the Def Jux, Definitive Jux days. How did all that shape your style and/or you as a person, throughout the years?
I think I grew up since then musically in terms of owning the style of music I create, the subject matter, my comfort zones and such. As I say often, in the early days of being a writer or an emcee/musician I think we are all writing from the outside in. “I see X and I write about it”. I think that’s all you can do before you mature and have actual life experiences to write about. Over time I became a writer that was more looking from the inside outward. So it’s more like “X happened to me, how do you relate as the listener?” In this way, what I do can’t be duplicated, at least not exactly, because it’s my life. No one can experience or interpret things exactly as I do. Whereas me and 5 other emcees can all write about something else that’s happened externally, maybe we all write dope shit about it, but we’ve all done the same thing with a twist. Even when I do broach current events, these days it’s from a much more internal place and I think that allows me to connect with far more people then I did in my 20’s when I first started writing. If you listen to the title track for “Written At Night” it’s really getting into specific things that I experienced as a 17 and 18-year-old freelance recording engineer in Manhattan. No one else can write that verse but me. If you listen to “The Patient” on the new album, I deliberately wanted to address the spread of mainstream acceptance of racism, but I wanted to keep all of us in the realm of personal feelings on it, not reporters on it.
Written At Night is a pretty powerful, dark and dynamic recording. One of my favorite tracks is “Speak Your Truth” that have that gritty urban feel musically. I guess the city has helped shape you there eh?
This city has shaped me and always will. All of my four projects have some ties to experiences one can only have in NYC. It’s part of my DNA. I’ve worked in and/or commuted through the island of Manhattan daily for over 20 years, every step I take here is another idea for a song, to be honest. Regionalism in rap isn’t dead yet, and when applied correctly it’s a great thing. Hopefully, I’m pushing the right buttons to express that and take people that haven’t been here someplace through music that they may never see.
I’ve had that conversation with people out here. I mean, especially in Phoenix, where there aren’t a large number of national acts, there’s so much potential. It’s more about trying to get people to see and hear them. There are a couple of artists like Denzil Porter and Chris Rivers from NYC that I’ve been digging. Any new artists you’re digging there?
I suppose it goes without saying that anyone reading this should be checking for KA’s music. billy woods and Elucid, separate or together as Armand Hammer. I’d definitely check out Jalal Salaam too. Those are some of the guys that I think capture NY’s vibes currently.
You have other tracks like “Compass” where you’re getting down with Guilty Simpson & Shortrock. Things seem to just go bananas there. Still present is that grittiness, but whether you’re rhyming with others on here (Open Mike Eagle, Billy Woods, Quelle Chris) you’re just doing you. It’s not really a question but more of an observation.
Yeah, I think when I was approached to do this record for Man Bites Dog the intent was to get me into the mix with different emcees and see what would happen artistically from that. That being said, I never wanted to let this turn into some kind of producer project or a compilation where it was all over the place. This is still an Uncommon Nasa solo project and creatively I wanted it to sound like that. I wanted to make sure my fingerprints were on all of these songs even when I wasn’t the one rapping at that moment. I don’t really have another way to approach things than that.
Now, this album, you have a theme going through it obviously, and time plays an important role considering the timbre is pretty dark. Was it complete written at night? No pun intended.
Certainly, some element of every song on Written At Night was worked on at night, that’s the whole point of the record because that’s the reality I live in. You have to make the most out of the time you’re given day by day and for most of us, that time is at night. You have to push through being tired to get the work done on your art. I was indeed writing the title track at night out my balcony. I was outside but in the crib and I live on a very busy bustling street that had finally grown fairly silent around 3 am. When I got to the end of that verse, I knew that would be the title of the song and then a moment later I knew that would be the title of the whole album. The themes then grew outward from there.
That was pretty much my life in NY, I did so much in the evening and wee hours. I was burnt out though. Growing up in that city will sometimes do it to you. Do you ever find all the bustling a distraction?
Not the bustling (I love being in passionate and moving city like this), but the hustling takes its toll. At the end of the day, as you know, it costs a fair amount of money to maintain in New York City. After X-amount of years of putting my heart and soul into this city, it wears you down over time. I love NYC, that’s pretty unquestionable, but I’ve found my mind drifting more then I’d like to retire to Montreal or living someplace far away from everything at some Cape or some Bay that no one has heard of in a log cabin. As long as I can have my wife with me I’d live anywhere, but the amount of nine-to-five dependency in a city like New York is definitely adding up.
When I first heard Written At Night I was surprised that this was the first one of your albums that you’ve fully produced. I had even said at one point that this album is possibly your most realized work to date. Do you attribute that to your growth as an artist or just saying, ‘Fuck it, I’m taking the reigns and doing this completely my way’?
I wasn’t really looking to produce my own album anytime soon, but that’s what I was asked to do for the release by Man Bites Dog, so I went with it. Producing my own solo record was a “someday” kind of thing for me. Mostly because I enjoy writing and rapping over other people’s beats. When I start to hit a rhythm with a producer, like Black-Tokyo, Messiah Musik or Lyle Horowitz among others, it can be more fun for me. Since I didn’t make the beat, it still kind of surprises me on the one as it loops, I don’t know exactly what was going through the producer’s head when they made the beat. That can bring out lots of new and interesting flow patterns and even concepts that would have never happened over my own production where I know the ins and outs of what I’ve made. I’m glad that self-producing a record didn’t happen until my 4th album because I was able to step into this project with a lot more experience to tackle my own production work with. I think on the other side of it though is yes, working with some level of artistic predictability will probably leave some listeners with something that comes across as more “realized” like you found, so it’s a tradeoff.
Well, when I say “most realized” you can define that as your “best work to date!” which makes sense since you obviously grow as an artist, and your focus is to keep getting better. With producing, I had that conversation with Blueprint once. You’re held to a higher standard I guess whereas when you’re not producing something, there’s less pressure on you. (Again, an observation here. I gotta get better with making these questions)
Personally, for me, it didn’t come from any sort of pressure or heat. When I set out to make Written At Night I was originally given a deadline of 4 months, start to finish. I think part of the charm of the record is the “in the moment” feel it has even though it’s a production that includes a dozen or more artists working together. That was intentional. Folks that know me and that have worked with me know that I don’t sit around sweating every placement of a high hat or record vocal takes for 3 hours. I like to capture things as they are, not as we want them to be. So, I started and finished the “creative” part of putting the record together in about 3 months. The cycle was pretty much like this: Determine who I’m working with, make a beat that has them in mind, come up with a theme that would be somewhat in their wheelhouse, drop my verse, send them the beat with my verse on it and an explanation, get their contribution to it, go deep on the arrangement, mix it down. Rinse, repeat. I basically did that 11 times in 2-3 months. I don’t leave much on the cutting room floor, ever. There are no outtakes of the title track, this is it. I’ve come to a point where I don’t over think things at all.
How did you get involved with Man Bites Dog? They’ve quietly built up their stable of releases by artists like Vast Aire, who you’ve worked with before, Roc Marciano, and Illogic & Blockhead. I mean, you’re in good company there.
I’ve always been a believer that if you work hard and produce a dope product that can actually be sold to other humans that people will eventually seek you out. And that’s what happened here. MBDR was inquiring about production and I made a few suggestions including myself to hit up. The conversation started from there and evolved because I had met the owner (R.M.L.) in Austin at one of a few SXSW’s that I’d rocked at previously. So there was a prior knowledge of each other and I think myself and R.M.L. (the owner) have just enough things that make us similar and just enough things that make us different from each other that make the relationship work well. I’m always willing to “pick up the phone” so to speak and hear what’s been asked/offered. I’ve had talks about other opportunities in the past that just weren’t right, you should never be afraid to say no to things. I’ve done a few things with I Had An Accident for cassettes too and of course, continue to run Uncommon Records. I’m glad that I was able to gel so well with Man Bites Dog for this release after so many years of doing it almost entirely on my own.
On Written At Night you rock out with a lot of people like I mentioned before, Quelle Chris, Shortrock, Guilty Simpson, Open Mike Eagle, and also Gajah who you toured with, Oh No, billy woods, Black Tokyo, and even Mike (Ladd.) There are a number of others I haven’t mentioned, no disrespect to them, was it just a matter of ‘You want to get down’ or what? You know what I’m saying here. (laughing at myself here.)
I know all but 3 of the people on the record personally and most of those people I’ve known for 5-10 years if not more than that. When it came down to specific themes on songs, everyone involved was definitely chosen for a reason. I’ve been around long enough that I could literally make an album with these many collaborations a second time and not repeat the same artists once. I’m a big fan of all the artists on Written At Night and a big fan of the people too. I’m glad that I am friends with enough talented folks that I could put together a record like this.
Side note question: Was Mike in town for that track or did you guys work it electronically? He got real gritty on that joint.
There were a few tracks recorded in the same room, but that wasn’t one of them. I’m a huge fan of Mike Ladd’s. For a while I’d get questions in interviews about “who I’d want to work with that I haven’t” and I always said, Mike Ladd. So when this opportunity came up where I knew it was going to be a record that was heavy on collaborations he was one of the first people I thought about working with. It was nothing short of an honor to finally make that happen. I think based on the verse I did and what I sent him, he had an idea that I was looking for that gritty Red Eye to Jupiter version of what he does. He killed it, his verse is so visual, it takes you on a ride through corruption and evil like no one else can. A true nightmare sequence for the scariest part of the evening on Written At Night.
Yeah I know, I’d love to hear Mike Ladd on more joints but I know logistically that can’t happen. France must be nice and he’s put down roots there. That Illtet was bonkos. It’s funny how he’s influenced a bunch of younger kids coming up. When I talked to Milo he told me Mike was a big influence. He even mentioned him in a couple of songs on one of his albums. Some of these younger cats know.
His influence is unquestionable. Welcome to the Afterfuture is still many years ahead of this time, much less its own time. It’s one of those albums that I just can’t do without, probably a top 5 rap album of all time for me. The first time I met him he recorded “Feb. 4, 1999” in front of me at Ozone and my jaw dropped. And you look at what’s being reported heavier nowadays then it was then with police murders?
That was almost 20 years ago and it will make the hairs on your neck stand up in 2017. I then became heavily involved in the recording of Gun Hill Road – his Infesticons project – and that was one of the most important lock out sessions of my life. He was one of those people that I didn’t realize influenced my own work until after a while, then I was like “oh, this came from him”. He’s still killing it as you said, that Illtet project was incredible. I highly suggest anyone reading this to go and check out the man’s legacy of work.
Look at that, we start talking about your work and we end this with you shouting out Ladd. <GB>