Rhyme Junkie speaks to New York rapper Uncommon Nasa about ‘Autonomy Music’ and his life in hip hop (Interview)
By Peter Johnstone
We recently wrote about the talented Uncommon Nasa on Rhyme Junkie and were fortunate enough to speak with this legend of underground New York hip hop. Nasa released his “Autonomy Music” project with Uncommon Records label-mate Short Fuze on July 19. To celebrate this drop, we spoke to Nasa about his life in rap and hip hop.
Rhyme Junkie: What were your rap and hip hop influences growing up?
Uncommon Nasa: Public Enemy, Gang Starr, X-Clan, 3rd Bass, Wu-Tang Clan, Hiero, Boot Camp, Organized Konfusion. Run DMC’s “Tougher Than Leather” was the first rap LP I had on tape, I wore that s*** out. I could go on and on. When it’s all said and done I’d say Chuck D, Del and GURU were ultimately my biggest influences as I look back on what I’m doing now.
RJ: When did you decide to go for it and become an emcee and what did your parents think?
UN: I was rapping in little BS groups back in high school; I stopped for a few years ’cause I sucked at it during high school. Then I started taking it seriously in my early 20’s. But to be honest, I wasn’t truly “going for it” until I was out of my group for a few years. I had put out a ton of music as an emcee, but was I “going for it” or “doing it” for real. When I put out my first release as Uncommon Nasa, “Land of the Way It Is” that’s when I’d say that I truly “went for it” if you will. That’s when I decided I was going to tour about three times a year and release an LP about once a year for as many years in a row as I could. That streak is still pretty much going on year three or four now. As far as my folks — they’ve always known I’ve loved music. They’ve always supported what I’ve done, even at moments when they didn’t understand it at all. They knew I cared about it and that I was probably pretty good at it to be doing it for so long. When I started touring, they started checking me out on YouTube and watching me do what I do. It’s crazy when they’ll tell me “yeah, we sat and listened to your album the other day”.
RJ: Were you ever approached by big labels to sign a deal or change your style?
I’ve had a lot of opportunities over the years — some large, some small. I’ve never been approached by a major or anything, but people come calling some times. I’m always ready to take a call from anyone. Sometimes the arrangement is mutually beneficial, sometimes it’s not. Just because someone calls me doesn’t mean I have to work with them. But I have worked with some great people and hope to work with more. Some exciting things are actually in the works right now that I can’t get into yet. As far as changing what I do? You can’t tame me, I’m a wild Clydesdale in music; you can only hope to contain me long enough in some fencing and charge people to see me.
RJ: What we love most about your music is the gritty feel. What do you think over the modern day rap which can sometimes be overproduced?
UN: I think somewhere along the line Rap lost some of its aggression. Aggression and the release of it is crucial to the development of our youth. Youth driven music, which rap is, needs to serve the youth. I think a lot of pop rap these days doesn’t address the issues of the young, it just teaches them how to be compliant adults. My music is ultimately about me and my experiences, I’ve learned that if you want people to hear you and respect you, you can’t clutter the s*** up with bells and whistles. That doesn’t mean you should hold back on creative music production, but there is a balance. It’s not always about out-doing people, either on the mic or with beats.
RJ: At Uncommon Records do you feel like the parent to all these artists or do you see them more as colleagues who are helping to expand your label?
UN: I’d never consider myself anyone’s parent. I try really hard, however, to mentor people when the situation is right, and that goes for artists that are on my label or just in my circle. The artists I still work with directly on Uncommon Records have been down with me for many years at this point. We have excellent working relationships and friendships. People like Short Fuze, Gajah, Shortrock, Last Sons and Brzowski (who I have an upcoming project with) are like family. That’s not even to include the many friends I have in this underground thing. People I work with for projects not on my own label, people I tour with, people I hang with. I’ve been very lucky to meet good people over the years and curate my circle constantly to keep it positive.
RJ: Who is the rapper you would like to work with most? Dead or alive (we got holograms now!).
UN: I still feel pain thinking about how GURU passed. I didn’t know him at all, I wish he were alive today; I would love to collaborate with him. His style was so far ahead of its time. He was so much more versatile than people give him credit for, he could be aggressive like on “1/2 and 1/2” but could be smooth like on “Ex Girl to the Next Girl” too. All while maintaining the quality and integrity of his voice. His paced delivery is something a lot more people are doing these days, including myself often. It’s easy to forget how rare that was back then, he was damn near the only one doing that sort of chill delivery with mad spacing for the beat to breathe.
RJ: What has been your best experience in the rap/hip hop music industry to date?
UN: Couldn’t point to just one; being able to tour and see the whole country on the back of my music is something I’m very proud of. I’ve seen places that people in my family never will, that’s an accomplishment to me. I’ve driven a car from Los Angeles, all the way to Salt Lake and then back via Portland, with many stops in between and turned a profit. That’s the real s*** that makes me proud. The time, effort and sweat equity I put into touring is all important. I’m also really proud to have reached a point where I was able to self-fund the manufacturing of my last LP, “Halfway” and my current release, “Autonomy Music” with Short Fuze. Uncommon Records has become the vinyl label it always strived to become.
RJ: Who is your favourite current artist?
UN: Right now, I’d have to say KA. When KA drops something, I pretty much stop what I’m doing, purchase it and listen to it about a hundred times over the next few months that follow. He’s a historic writer in rap music, no one has done what he’s doing quite like him, ever.
RJ: As someone who has seen different decades of rap what do you think is the next thing to come in rap?
UN: I can tell you what I’d like to see, I’d like to see the continued increase of cohesive, conceptual and topical songs. Of quality song writing being celebrated in rap. It’s not about boiling us down to terms like “skills” or “lyrics”, it’s about respecting us as song writers capable of creating something timeless. And I mean timeless in a sense where we can make something that is clearly rap, representing the culture of rap but still existing in the non-rap head world. I’d like to see a lot of my peers doing this very thing in the underground start to get radio play and get signed to majors. I’d like to see fans respect music enough to pay for it and to be proud to do so when they can and when they feel it’s warranted. I’d like to see less money made from creatives going into the pockets of the tech sector. I’d like to see that money returned to the artists themselves in a system that is better and more fair to them than any previously set up in human history. I’d like to see success for those that deserve it in any way they want it. I can dream.
RJ: Tell us a fun fact about Uncommon Nasa?
UN: I like cats better than children about ninety percent of the time. Cats are awesome because they don’t need you all the time, they can basically take care of themselves. They choose to love you, they could leave any time; but they usually don’t, because they’re awesome. You can’t say that about a dog or a baby.