The Piety Of Rapping: An Interview With Alaska

The veteran emcee discusses his new album. + Reviews of Gabe 'Nandez, Monroe Flow, and Zombie Juice. #135

The Piety Of Rapping: An Interview With Alaska
Photo courtesy Alaska's personal archives

Alaska knows that he sounds a bit different now.

Whether you're a fan going back to Hangar 18's Def Jux run or even a more recent convert via his work in Cargo Cults with Wrecking Crew chum Zilla Rocca, The Structural Dynamics Of Flow will likely give pause. "I can't put a finger on necessarily what it is, but it felt like an evolution," the New York rapper says of his approach on the recently-released album, recorded with and produced by the Brooklyn-based Steel Tipped Dove. "I've been wanting to write something like this for a long time and it just felt like the right vibe for it."

For starters, Alaska raps a great deal slower than before, a choice compelled by the pace of the beats themselves. "I had to be really deliberate with my words," he says. "There was no hiding them behind a pattern or speed. I felt that I owed them something really personal." In contrast with his collaborations with Jason Griff, their tracks he accurately describes as "antagonistic [like] punk rock," he rejected outward aggression and emcee acrobatics for the messages he'd hoped to convey.

"You get to a certain age and I think you start just naturally looking back on like your life somewhat," Alaska says, admitting to a certain reflectiveness after turning 50 last year. "You sort of like realize, wow, I'm really like closer to being dead than I am to being young." From there, he began writing about topics of concern to him, issues of late capitalism and gentrification, among others, often with an end times bent. Songs like "3 Mile Island" and "Dinner Party Smart" offer up calculated jeers and snarky sneers from his mature perspective.

Yet rather than merely point his finger at the world to convey his grievances, the cultural remit of the stereotypical aging man, more often than not he turns his focus inwards. Throughout Structural Dynamics, he acknowledges his own complicity in some of the contemporary phenomena that rankles him, a rarity to be sure. This makes for powerful moments like "Push It Along," a track that explores how artists displace natives in urban areas, only to be displaced themselves by wealthier and wealthier outsiders.

"I don't feel like a gentrifier; I've lived more of my life in the city than I did in Peekskill," he says, having first moved to New York City back in 1997. "But I am one of those people that came into a neighborhood that wasn't my neighborhood." The song continues the narrative beyond the city limits, into the artist enclaves of Hudson Valley and the like, where artists bestow their cool only to be priced out by moneyed types looking for weekend homes. "It's almost like dealing with my own guilt on it."

That interrogatory self-analysis isn't solely limited to external matters, but existential and personal ones as well. "I had a lot of shame about the way things went with Hangar 18 and Atoms Fam," he says. "We were never big or anything, but we got to do cool shit and I kind of kept it hidden in a closet." Finding nostalgia a repellent concept (there's a song called "Fuck George Lucas" on the album, after all), he largely kept quiet about the experience in later years, even as his credibility and popularity in underground and indie rap circles grew off that perceived legacy.

"I didn't listen to Cannibal Ox for a long time, 'cause of everything that happened with those guys," he says, thinking back on the Def Jux days. "Myself and Windnbreeze, we were best friends and then–we didn't fall out–the music ended and we stopped hanging out."

Recording at Steel Tipped Dove's Brooklyn studio meant the producer witnessed this revelatory process of creative unburdening unfold, often in real-time. "The majority of it was like this really nice balance of cynicism about the world, cynicism about himself," he says about Alaska's lyrics here. "But [it's] also like a really nice nihilism, a sort of a positive nihilism about how the world is."

Having been a fan of the rapper since he was a teen, with unabashed admiration for Hangar 18 by dint of its diverging from Def Jux head honcho El-P's style, Dove expresses delight about having worked on a full project together. It started like so many collaborations do these days, with beat packs shared digitally and combed over. Alaska warned him in advance that his part of the arrangement could take a while, as other responsibilities and activities including the Call Out Culture podcast already occupying his plate. Dove insisted on not rushing, yet somehow things progressed quickly. "It just started to happen," he says of their sessions. "[Alaska] would just come through and then boom, another song, boom, another song."

Wrapping the Structural Dynamics recordings also impacted other music Alaska already had in progress, the experience and overall outcome compelling him to review those projects with a new critical lens. "I have to go back and revamp that other work that I thought was up to snuff," he says, "because it can't come after this."

The Structural Dynamics of Flow, by Alaska & steel tipped dove
11 track album

It's true. Go look.

Gabe 'Nandez, Pangea

(buy it / stream it)

Though the lyrical contents of Gabe ‘Nandez apparently go back two or three years, the novel Pangea nonetheless feels like it arrived right on time. Its tumultuous themes expressed via bouts of clarity, this short album permits the New York-based artist to convey his pandemic-era sentiments properly. Tony Seltzer’s beats here occasionally play off the early-mid-2000s, resulting in modernized Bad Boy variant “Transactions” and G-Unit deepfake “Risk.” That suits the rapper well, his flows evidently indebted to the city’s hip-hop history. He sounds nice even when the solid production diverges from those past-tense touchpoints, as on the title track and the minimalist “Trust” with ethereal vocalist Duendita.

Zombie Juice, Love Without Conditions

(buy it / stream it)

This solo debut from Zombie Juice marks a meaningful detour from Flatbush Zombies' excitable, drug-addled lore. Of course, there's plenty of fan-friendly 420 content, and pro-stoner features by Curren$y and Devin The Dude on "Terpalation" and "Alto," respectively, serve such hazy aims. Yet while naming his album Love Without Conditions might jibe with the neo-hippy cover art, the sentiments behind said phrase run deeper than that. "Melancholy" opens the record from a place of honesty and "Mindful" closes it with a certificate of authenticity, the latter extended by a powerfully personal phone call with the woman who raised him. Confessional cuts like "Fly" and "Say Enough" lend further gravity, while Beast Coast cohorts The Underachievers shift the vibes on "Dizzy."

Monroe Flow, Mafia Island

(buy it / stream it)

Larry June affiliate Monroe Flow kicked off 2023 with The Players Retreat, and he continues the globetrotting theme with Mafia Island. Beyond the overt synergies with his proprietary Safe Travels retail brand, the project boasts an undeniably breezy quality reminscent of old Jet Life tapes. You can feel the warm tropical winds blow beginning with "Mafia Dinner," his densely-packed bars and luxurious hook providing a somewhat tense comfort. "Hit My Line" perpetuates the lifestyle flex, mixing references to the finer things with those of criminality. He can't help but celebrate his earned expensive tastes on "Race Horse Music" and "White Wine," each approaching anthemic levels of hustler motivation.

S5 guests include Blockhead and Heems!