Uncommon Nasa Assembles Beat-maker Bedrock #7 & Sits Down for The Witzard Interview On The Eve of Self-produced Written at Night (Man Bites Dog Records)
"I could easily talk about how loud I blasted [Public Enemy's] Fear of a Black Planet (1990) daily from my Yorx Entertainment System in junior high or pumped [Company Flow's] "8 Steps to Perfection" (1996) and everything else recorded from my Stretch & Bobbito tapes in the Burger King kitchen, after closing time during my shifts or dip into how DJ Premier made beats that were completely abstract, but made them instant norms by nature of his talent. But, in truth, when I sit and make a beat, I don't feel the influence of other Hip-Hop producers too heavily anymore, even less than I feel when I write rhymes. I've settled into something pretty original, not without influence, but kind of it's own thing, for better or worse. So, what I'd rather talk about is my relationship with Progressive Rock music and how it spurned my definition and coining of the term "Progressive Hip-Hop."
I still love some good old Prog-Rock, even though I own almost all the albums I need from the sub-genre on vinyl, these days. That means my influences might come from Tears for Fears, 80's Dancehall, or Gil Scott-Heron more right this minute, but there is always a core need in me reaching out for that Prog. When I was in high school, I didn't understand or enjoy any kind of Rock music. I was strictly Hip-Hop and that was about it. I stuck my foot out into the world of Reggae in high school, but as I finished up an internship in a recording studio at 17, a lot changed. I had been listening to a grip of Indie Hip-Hop from the Fondle 'Em label, like Siah & Yeshua, The Juggaknots, Cenobites, and more. Listening to late night Stretch & Bob on Thursday nights exposed me to the changing sound of Hip-Hop in the underground. Something that was slowly pushing left, while remaining completely authentic to it's origins."
"I had mop and dishes duty at that recording studio in the East Village, and access to a huge stack of the owner's CD's, mostly from groups I'd never heard of. It was here that I discovered Progressive Rock music; in the form of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Gentle Giant, Yes, King Crimson, and more. I finally had Rock music that appealed to me. It wasn't the Alternative Rock, grounded in grittiness, I was uncomfortable with until many years later. Progressive Rock was surrealist, it might get to the same feelings, but it took the scenic route and distracted my mind from all the teen angst that other Rock music drove toward. I wanted to think bigger, life and death, the battle for ethics, world power struggles. This was Progressive Rock.
From the moment I dropped the first CD of it into the player, I was hooked. Below, I'll point out a few of my experiences with some of what I think are the key releases that effected, if not my production style, then, certainly my mindset and approach to creating music."
BEAT-MAKER BEDROCK VII
Tarkus By Emerson, Lake and Palmer (1971)
"This is my earliest memory of Prog-Rock and certainly my "WTF?" moment with it. Imagine being a kid that's only real idea of what Rock could do being defined by Nirvana and Pearl Jam, then hearing f***ing THIS. It's a song about a monster of some sort striving to survive in a strange land... or something. It got me through lots of sessions mopping the kitchen floor of that studio, while sessions with Larry Coryell and other luminaries I wasn't familiar with (yet) went on behind closed doors.
Pro Tip: if your local bar has one of those Internet juke boxes and you want to watch people's reactions, select this track and let the hilarity ensue. It's runtime is 22 minutes and change."
Made In England By Atomic Rooster (1972)
"By the time I was in school for Recording Engineering, I was in the early stages of making beats and digging. And I had done tons of research into Progressive Rock. I had drawn the lines of band members that criss-crossed the genre from band to band and the name Atomic Rooster had been associated with Carl Palmer (from Emerson, Lake & Palmer fame above.) As it turned out, Atomic Rooster was Vincent Crane's beast and Carl had left after the first album. Made In England was Atomic Rooster's fourth. I remember digging at this record shop on 8th Street in the West Village [New York] that I didn't go to often. I was so young, like 18, so somehow, it came up that I was looking for samples. I asked about this very LP and the guy harshly said, "nah, there's nothing you'd ever want on there for that." He seemed to hate the idea of me sampling anything, so I bought it anyway. "Time, Take My Life" came on as the first track and blew my mind. I still get chills during the horn section in the beginning and if you click the song below, you'll hear the most lay-up loop ever starts the track. It became the foundation for the first "beat" I ever made on my Yamaha SU-10 sampler. I remember playing it for people at school and getting the "so what?" look. I'd have to learn to do more than have a good ear for loops, I guess."
Journey By Arthur Brown's Kingdom Come (1973)
"By the time I finished Recording School, I was getting pretty savvy and digging deeper. I was a whole year older, at the ripe old age of 19-20, and had started working at the Ozone Studio and I was opening up as the DJ at their events at the awesome and naturally, long-closed Brownie's in the East Village. I was convinced that Company Flow and King Crimson should share a natural head-space; they did for me, so why not for everyone? To that end, I started mixing Prog-Rock and Indie Hip-Hop together at live gigs. Those were fun and inventive times and usually, worked out. One of the songs I used to love starting off with was Arthur Brown's "Time Captives." It starts with a singular repetitive electronic kick. It played long enough that in a live setting people would wonder just what the f**k you were doing up there. Then, the music would begin and heads would nod. Then, I had them!
"Here's a bonus that I found while putting this article together: Arthur Brown performing the track just three years ago in Manchester, UK! Sounds just as good as it did 40 years ago, no doubt. I still want to be Arthur Brown, when I grow up."
"High Rise" By Hawkwind (1979)
"A few years on from those early days of me doing DJ gigs, I was recording and mixing all week and working at my favorite record store, Gimme Gimme Records on weekends, every so often. Most of the time, I worked the register in a one-room store back in the East Village on East 5th Street. Often, I'd also be posting vinyl to eBay in a world before Discogs' dominance. I'd have plenty of time, usually working solo, to explore any album I wanted in the store. I'd heard a lot about Hawkwind, but their sound isn't exactly "Prog." It's been defined as Prog, Pysch, or even Proto-Punk and Proto-Metal in spots. They were incredibly varied in their sound. I didn't list the album "High Rise" was on because my first experience with it was on a live record at the store and this track has landed on tons of Hawkwind releases throughout the 70's and 80's. Nevertheless, as a song on it's own, I think it's a great place to start with them, as I did. My obsession with architecture that continues to this day was satisfied hearing this track. These are the kinds of messages you get from Prog: fear of success, fear of technology, fear of conformity, and all of that is on this track. Those sorts of concepts have come full-circle into my lyric-writing today."
"The tracks above are career defining for myself and I hope you enjoy them. They should all be regarded as legendary in Rock circles, but are often overlooked."
- Uncommon Nasa (Uncommon Records & Nasa Labs)
I. How did you go about selecting Written at Night's featured artists including Guilty Simpson, Open Mike Eagle, Oh No, Quelle Chris, billy woods, Short Fuze, and many more? I've always wondered... how do you decide which guest artists to place on their corresponding tracks?
I was approached by Man Bites Dog [Records] about self-producing a record with a lot of collaborations; so, from the beginning of the process, I approached the music in that way. Obviously, as an artist, you have a list of people that you've always wanted to work with or that you want to work with again. They don't particularly have to be people you don't know personally either, in my case. I'm friends with pretty much everyone on the record, knowing most for 5-15 years. I always wanted to do a track with Mike Ladd, so that was a big one to check off. Wanted to work with Open Mike Eagle again and had been building with Quelle Chris about doing something on-and-off for a while. So, it was just a matter of this project being the right place to tie up all those loose ends, in order to create something dope. I concepted the songs, including the creation of the beats, with each artist in mind. I wanted to write themes that I hoped would play to the strengths of my guests and I think we got that done.
II. What does the title Written at Night mean to you? As a night owl myself, I would assume the majority of the album was, in fact, "written at night;" is that a rather accurate assumption to make?
I'm really into the concept of the airwaves around us being clearer at night, when less people are awake. The idea that there is some sort of brainwave bandwidth that dips when people sleep, leaving more space for creativity in the middle of the night. But that only can be taken advantage of by people willing to stay up. I'm pretty obsessed with the overnight hours that border when one day hands over to another day. I like walking home in the middle of the night through Downtown Manhattan to clear my head and take pictures of architecture. So, even when I'm not in the lab at night or writing something, I feel like there's a relief in being up late. I think with the album, I tried to show the process of getting from midnight to the end of the 4am hour.
III. Is your recent 2017 Rhythm Roulette (II) how-to video pretty evocative of your beat-making process employed throughout Written at Night? If not, how did you go about assembling the album's production work?
It is and it isn't. On that video, I limited myself to just three records only, not added drums or synths or other sample sources. So, it was a unique challenge-based production. That being said, that is how I construct beats, I used my MPC to play things out and sequence and then drop it all into Pro Tools to take it to the next level with effects and arrangement. During Written at Night, I made a concerted effort to use less samples. There are still samples on the record, but not as the foundation, in most places. So, if you catch me making a beat now, it would be all of those things, synths, apps, records, all of it.
IV. Do the Prog-Rock albums mentioned within your Beat-maker Bedrock column (Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Atomic Rooster, Kingdom Come, and Hawkwind) still actively affect your rather unique"Progressive Hip-Hop" production style?
Yeah, I still want to hit you with something aggressive, when I make a beat, most of the time or at least, something perks up your ear. I'm not really a "cool it out now"-type of producer. I consider large portions of Written at Night laid-back, for what I do at least, and I think most people hearing it, would be surprised by that. I think the influence of those great records is still with me. I'm not particularly sure my writing style still follows those lines, but the core of my production style probably does. It's funny with influences, there's a time in your life where they are obvious to you and then, there's a time where lines start to blur and you become you. It's almost like a bird leaving the nest, that bird will always remember what got them to fly, but it might not have an every day impact anymore. You are the sum of the parts of your influences, but that sum is an original part.
V. What does your label imprint, Uncommon Records have planned for the remainder of 2017 following Written at Night? Anything new and exciting coming up from Short Fuze & Uncommon Nasa or any of the label's additional signees?
Written at Night is the first full-on album I've ever made for another label, Man Bites Dog Records. I think you'll see Uncommon Records get back into the swing of things with releases next year. I produced a full-length for Last Sons (Duke01 & Furious P, those guys are on "Small Change,") I'm finishing up mixes for that now. I've started work on my own next album that will be produced by Messiah Musik and I've also started work on the next LP with Short Fuze to follow-up Autonomy Music (2016.) All of those will be on Uncommon Records, unless they end up landing on another label out there the way Written at Night did.