Uncommon Nasa: The Cabbages Interview

The New York emcee/producer and Def Jux studio vet talks his new album 'Only Child' and his creative process.

Uncommon Nasa: The Cabbages Interview
Photo credit: Gabe Liendo

For some two decades, New York native Uncommon Nasa has been a fixture in his city's hip-hop underground. As an emcee, producer, and engineer, his career has found him working with countless indie talents, from his early days behind the boards mixing Def Jux classics like Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein and El-P's Fantastic Damage to his own run of rap albums for his proprietary Uncommon Records imprint. His latest album is Only Child, a collaborative effort with producer Messiah Musik due out August 6th.

I was looking earlier at the piece that you did on YouTube for the Masai Bey Paper Mache reissue. That is such an interesting record, and I also think it's a good entry point. Because 2002, that’s the same year as The Presence's Woke 12”, both from Def Jux where you’d been working on their early releases. I’m curious about your head space at that time.

First and foremost, in terms of the world around me, all of that stuff was done in the shadow of 9/11 happening. So “Woke” is sort of this abstract piece that me and Cirrus Minor when we were The Presence put together. That was just about our reaction to living in the city after 9/11 happened. You know, it's 20 years this year, so there’s people walking and talking and buying music that were not alive then, which is kind of a trip. But bless them for not being alive then, if they're doing well now, because it wasn't a great time to live through. So that was part of that scene. That’s why I think a lot of the music that came out of Jux that I was working on was so dark. I mean, that was what underground was, but it got even more like that after. And so, that would be the context to put both of those singles under, to some degree, even though Masai’s single was not related to that the same way that The Presence one is.

As you said, you know, Masai Bey’s Paper Mache came out in 2002. It was part of Def Jux Presents II. It was one of my favorite singles to work on. Myself and Short Fuze, who’s my partner in doing the 7” label Uncommon Restoration that we put that back out on, and my partner on Flashback Sessions, which is one of the shows that's on the Uncommon Records YouTube page, we basically—I finally, after 20 years was like, all right, statute of limitations. I'm going to start to actually talk more about my time at Jux publicly. And those are my stories to tell. I kind of like YouTube as a medium to sort of tell those stories, with Short Fuze, and put some history down on record of not just what I did, although that's important, but also my point of view of what happened and give the fans of that music from that era—whether it be like Ozone stuff or Def Jux stuff or even beyond that into Uncommon and unrelated to all three of those labels—some background story on it. There's also not a lot of mix engineers that can actually speak and talk about music. [laughs] So for the people that really want to hear that stuff like, how did you EQ this? or what did you feel when that first got dropped? Those are the kinds of things that I could talk about on that show on the channel. I've been lucky that I have been sort of a content creator on a few different levels. It was just like a confluence of things.

I had the show to talk about old sessions and I had this 7” repressing. I reached out to Masai. I’ve known him for a very long time and I reached out to him recently to be like, hey, I'd like to extend what we already put out, The Panacea Goldmind, C87 [with BMS], and Kitchen Khemistry. I noticed that a lot of your stuff isn't available digitally anymore. Would you be interested? So, through Uncommon Records I'm going to put a lot of his albums that aren't online anymore out, slowly over the next several months to two years. We’re just going to put them all out digitally so that you can stream Masai Bey again. There'll be some other little vinyl opportunities here and there too with the catalog, and one of the pieces of it was Paper Mache. All that stuff really got returned to the artist from that Jux era, and I thought it was a perfect opportunity to put out something as a seven. Our sevens are big-holed 45s, like real seven inches. I just thought it would be fresh.

I really took mixing very seriously then. That was my main focus. I still mix and engineer, pretty much for myself at this point. I don't really do freelance too much, except for a few rare exceptions. So I was really focused on that at the time and that drove me. I say all the time: I do wear a lot of hats in the studio, but I learned how to wear them one at a time—with some level of gray area there. I had been doing stuff with The Presence, who put out this EP called Advanced Bloodbath prior to 9/11; that was during that summer. We sold a bunch on Sandbox Automatic, back to the old school internet days. And El heard some songs and was digging what we were doing. In a previous episode of Flashback Sessions, we talked a little bit about why I didn't put out a lot of stuff on Jux then. I was really focused on mixing and didn't want to be that guy that hung around the studio, getting paid to do a job, and trying to peddle his shit all the time. That just wasn't my style.

There's a fixation by music writers and podcasters on certain records from that time on that label. But there’s so much other stuff that came out on Jux. If we're going to talk about these things now, there's parts of the story still to be filled in. I appreciate your willingness to speak on it, here and on YouTube.

I think I got to a point, especially during COVID, where I started to realize that I had been around long enough that I knew certain things that were definitely just fact in my canon of knowing things, from being in the scene and from being involved that people younger than me had never heard about and didn't know, or people that were my age who have forgotten. I wanted to start to put down, at least from my point of view, nobody’s a perfect historian. I say on that show all the time, these are my memories, other people in the room may remember things completely differently and that's okay. I wanted to put down some of that history for myself, but also for the records themselves and for people that are interested.

YouTube is a really good platform in so far as you're not shoving anything down anyone's throat. If you really want to sit and listen to 45 minutes of us talking about the Paper Mache single, we got you covered. But it's not a tweet. It's not a Facebook post. It's not something fucking driving you crazy on your phone. If you want that, it is there. If that's what you want to do on your break at lunch, when you're not on a Zoom call, doing whatever, we got you covered. We can entertain you with that. We did another episode about the recording of Infesticons' [Gun Hill Road]. We have some other ones coming. We're just gonna kinda mine the discography and see what we come up with, and then talk about some other personal stories too.

You put out some of The Presence stuff again out through Uncommon Records and digitally on Bandcamp. Is the Woke 12” part of that?

Yeah. Woke is on Spotify and streaming through Uncommon. And in the uncommonnasa.com store, they're literally two-for-five. I stole those 12-inches. [laughs] When Jux was on the way out, I had already been gone for a couple of years. But I got a call from the product manager and they were like, yo, we've got a bunch of warehouse stock of Woke. Do you want them, or do you want us to chuck them? And I was like, fuck it, send them to me. I've had boxes of them ever since.

So for this new record Only Child, you worked with Messiah Musik, who'd produced a number of tracks on 2014's New York Telephone. And then prior to that, last year you had your Ornate project with Lyle Horowitz, another New York Telephone production collaborator. Is there something about that period in your career that now has you, say, nostalgic or otherwise inclined to kind of revisit your relationships work-wise with those producers?

I think it's a continuous relationship, rather than going back. With New York Telephone, I'd already been in the music business, making indie hip-hop. Uncommon Records was celebrating its 10th anniversary, but that was the first record that sort of broke through, at least to the degree that it did. It certainly put me on the map a little bit more than I had been as a solo artist before it, so it is a special record. But from the moment that it had gone out and done what it did, and probably even from when I finished it, production wise, there were three key producers on there, beside myself, that I wanted to dedicate going forward with—Black Tokyo, Messiah Musik, and Lyle Horowitz. At the time, being the ambitious person that I am, I thought that I was just going to go straight into just knocking out solo projects with each of those people. And, you know, time has its way of slowing you down. I did the Black Tokyo record right after, like the next year, called Halfway, that I'm still very proud of. I did a few other things with Lyle, here and there for his projects, and then Ornate last year. It's four songs, but they're really standout songs for me; it feels like a full project.

And then I finally got to finishing this record with Messiah Musik. You know, some of the beat selection for this record started back in 2014 and 2015. It went through phases, like I had started dipping and dabbing and working on it, and then the opportunity to do Written At Night came up, so I put it to the side. I started to go back to it, and then the opportunity for City As School [with Kount Fif] came up. I went back and did that. Then right after City As School, I put the finishing touches on the last couple of tracks that were left to do to complete Only Child. Now it's here and I feel like this is, to me, probably my strongest record in terms of what I've contributed to any of these projects. Whether other people like it or not is going to be their business, but I know I like it. [laughs] I shouldn't say I like it. I mean, obviously, I like what I do in general, because that's why you do it. I am satisfied with what I did and what I was able to get out into the world, or what is about to be out in the world now, because it does mean something to me. I had to make this record for myself, and now I'm going to share it with other people.

It's worth noting that Messiah Musik’s profile has gone up considerably since 2014. He's a fixture of those Backwoodz Studioz records, like with Armand Hammer. I feel like having his name attached to Only Child maybe draws in some people who are unfamiliar with your solo work or who have maybe caught a project here and there, And while it’s produced by him, you've done some instrumentation on there as well. This is clearly a collaboration. Could tell me a bit more about that dynamic, about how you two work together?

It’s trust. The producers that I enjoy working with the most trust me—not only as an emcee, but also as a fellow producer. The people that I've done the most work with, besides just producing for myself, are Black Tokyo and Messiah Musik. I'll put them both in the same category in terms of trust, for me. Lyle Horowitz is like that too. And that's how this album evolved. He’s one of those producers that will send you packets of beats, 8, 10, 12 at a time. People that work with me know that, if you're getting production for me, I'm going to make you one beat at a time. I'm going to say, we're doing an album and here's a beat. Do you like this beat? No? Okay. Here's another beat that I made. That’s the process that I go through. I can take longer that way, but at least I'm my attention on the project at hand. Other people don't need to do that. I've worked with producers that are even bigger names that didn't do that, that have beats-to-go at all times. Messiah Musik has that ability and has that talent, where he just is sitting on like piles of dope beats. We’re going to keep working on some other stuff after this record. I won't get too deep into now. because it's too early, but he sent me beats the other day and I was just like, yeah, these are all really dope. [laughs] I have that trust for him, in his ear and what he's sending me. And he has to trust if I do something EQ-wise to create a bass filter track, or add an effect to something, or play some synthesizer over something, or add a sound effect or a movie sample. Obviously, I’d send it to him before it comes out. He's just been generally with everything that I've done and that, again, comes down to trust. Trust is really powerful in music. People really take that for granted, and it doesn't come without work, but it’s just the vibe man.

I am not a “rapper's rapper,” you know; I'm a producing emcee poetic kind of person. So when I'm working with a producer, it's more than like, I rap to the beat and send it back. I end up—because I'm an engineer—mixing the track. It's the opposite of how most producers work. The producer sends me the beat and then I do a lot of the drops, a lot of the adjustments. I do the mixing and EQing and recording of the vocals. All of that stuff happens here once I have the production. Messiah Musik production is really perfect for me, as a writer, because it allows me a lot of freedom to tell my stories and to paint my themes, with space. His stuff is never overproduced. I leave that to myself. His stuff is always right on. That's the energy that we have together.

It's interesting to hear your perspective on that, given that you have the skillset to do the entire process yourself. So if you're choosing to work with somebody on your music, there's a reason. It seems like you're uniquely suited for a certain kind of collaboration.

Yeah. I mean, I am a writer, performing artist, rapper, emcee, whatever you want to call what rap is. But I'm also a producer and beat maker and mixer and DJ. Both of those sides of my brain are individuals, to some degree. It might sound like, most of the time, they're rather aggressive. I play some heavy shit and that’s just the way that I do things. I have a lot of fun doing that. And I have a lot of fun rapping over those kinds of beats that I make too. But that's not always what my themes and ideas need. It would also get kind of boring if I did that all the time. I like to mix it up. What I'm going to do with Messiah Musik versus what I'm going to do for myself versus what I'm gonna do with Black Tokyo versus what I'm going to do with Lyle Horowitz are going to be totally different things. They spark me. I hope that I'm able to put different kinds of material out over each of their production, because it definitely always sparks me to write a little bit differently over the four core producers that I work with.

One of the things that impressed me just coming into this project was the “Quark Strangeness In The Hour Of Chaos." I don't think I ever imagined I would see Hawkwind juxtaposed with Public Enemy juxtaposed with Short Circuit.

You got it, man! You got it. I was going to do a little giveaway contest if somebody could name both of the artists. I'm going to have to send you something; you won the contest before I even did it. That’s awesome.

I'm really curious about “Vincent Crane,” one of my favorite songs on the record. Beyond the titular reference, it's really just this great story about music discovery and about how young people especially catch on to things. I’d love to get some insight into the thought process behind writing a song like that, where the ideation comes from and how to turn that into a narrative.

Thank you. That song in particular is a perfect example of like, there’s levels to that shit. There's different ways to interpret that song, all sort of happening at the same time. I was fortunate enough to like have that spark when I wrote that, that I was able to sort of balance different plates at the same time writing it. It's hard to tell the story, because it is multiple things at one time. So, when I came up, I only listened to hip-hop, a little bit of reggae and hip-hop. That’s it. I hated rock music, hated alternative rock. That was the time period I was coming up. It was just like too much. When I started working in a recording studio at 17, I just started listening to the CDs there of what I later knew was progressive rock music. They had King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and groups like that. No one told me that rock music could do that. I didn't even know that music could do that, much less rock music like that. You could do these concept albums and these crazy, mortality-driven, spiritual narrative pieces. The lyrics in those bands’ music really inspired me, and continue to. I was also, at the same time, listening to late night radio, Stretch and Bob, and hearing Company Flow and Jugganauts and Siah & Yeshua for the first time. And in my brain, it made sense. I was like, wow, hip-hop has reached a point where it's starting to become progressive. I don't really use that term progressive hip-hop anymore. I kind of coined it, use it, played it out, and have retired it. But at the time when I wrote this song, that was still very present in my mind. I do think it's still a good comparison genre-wise. That was one of the points that I made on the song.

And so you've got the story of me working in a studio. You've got this comparison of hip-hop. And then the last piece is just this appreciation for talent that is unrecognized. Vincent Crane was a guy who played in a band called Atomic Rooster. You can look them up. That was the point of the song, to get you to hear it and maybe look that person up and see what this man did. He was a guy from England who wrote these really amazing songs. He's a great lyric writer. He didn't sing himself. He always had a frontman in his bands and cycled through a lot of band members. He was usually forming the band as a trio, because he could play lead organ on the Hammond and lead bass on the Hammond at the same time. That's the nature of playing an organ, of course, but when you listen to those songs that he made, it's ridiculous to think about his hands and feet doing that many things at one time. This is a guy that most people in the United States have not heard of—and he's certainly not alone. There are thousands of him, walking around. Rest in peace; Vincent Crane is no longer with us, but there are lots of people that are alive that are unappreciated, certainly lots of people through the history of music that will never be seen. There's so many little nooks and crannies to music of undiscovered talent, or under appreciated talent.

You were at this stage and you mind-mapped it, this connection between hip-hop being progressive and when rock became progressive. I didn't get into like jazz fusion until I was in my thirties. I was not exposed to a lot of jazz as a kid, so I had very basic ideas. But I know so many of the hip hop records I was listening to were mining from those artists, Bob James, obviously, one of the clearest examples.

Jazz is a good example too. In just about the same timeframe, in terms of the creation of the genre compared to when you started to have people really experiment, it was the mid-to-late sixties where you started to have your free jazz and your fusion jazz, your quintet-based jazz that changed what was going on prior to that. Like I said in the song, it’s basically every genre; every genre is going to hit that phase after about maybe 25 to 35 years. All of a sudden you're you're going left, or at least going a little bit deeper, pulling from other genres. And seeing that repeat itself over and over again, no matter wherever the music culture is from regionally, who makes it, why they make it, what it sounds like, you always are hitting those phases. I think music history-wise, that's an important thing to see. It was for me. It really helped me understand where I am in the universe. [laughs] It’s a good roadmap to be like, okay, this is where the timeline is right now.

One of the things that happens with emcees—and music journalists—of a certain age is you start to focus a bit on past more so than present, or otherwise you put present in the context of past. There's some notable moments on this record where you do that, with “Brooklyn Soup” and especially “The Ballad Of Metal Mike.” What is your writing process like nowadays, as opposed to like what you were doing back in the days of The Presence? What is it that takes you down memory lane, so to speak?

I'm big on saying that my music comes from inward out. So even if I'm talking about something political or a social movement or dealing with race on certain songs, we can all see what's going on in the world. We all understand it. But instead of just commenting on something coming into me, I'm giving you myself on it. So that way, if somebody else does a song about the same subject matter, it comes from their direction, and we now have two different, hopefully both good, songs. That's a big part of my solo music, and that's why Only Child sounds the way it does, why Halfway does, everything that I've done really. Whereas [with] The Presence, there was a little bit of that. I was peeking at that, you know, songs like “Lighthouse” or “The Yawn Song.” Those are some of the ones that stand out to me when I listen back to that stuff. But a lot of The Presence was young man music. It was, look over there, look at that, look what's going on.

We can all do that. Everyone that makes music can make a song about something out there and comment on it. It devalues each of those songs if it's just coming from that point of view, to me. It doesn't give it its own originality. What I really tried to do over the years as I've become more of an adult writer is just do things from my point of view, not in a vain or condescending way, but in a natural, humble, honest way of being like, this is my story. It's unique to me only I can write this song, but something may have happened to you that is similar, that helps you relate to it. And I think that's how we can relate with each other the most. That's the most beautiful thing about music, how you could bring people together is something that seems super unique. Like “Vincent Crane,” that experience is actually what will bring people in and help me to make that connection. That's what you want as a musician, as a writer, as an artist, is to make that connection with somebody. It's really hard to make that connection with somebody on a deep level, unless you go deep within yourself to do that, to bring them in.

Photo credits: Gabe Liendo

Purchase Uncommon Nasa's music, including the Only Child album with Messiah Musik, here.