DETROIT MIX: Nappz Julian, Maj James, NateOGDetroit
As a self-description, Nappz Julian offered: 'Nappz Julian 1/2 of Rebel Lion the other member is AHK we started out as 10 speed n brownshoe with Black Milk here in Detroit had a chance to work and tour with Baatin of Slum Village R.I.P we still at it.' To listen to his music with Rebel Lion and other releases, go here.
MB: What are you trying to achieve with your music?
Nappz Julian: It’s a mix of reggae and hip-hop, (in my music I'm trying to) fuse the both of them so my music has its own sound.
MB: Where do you think hip-hop and reggae come together, what do you think unites them?
Nappz Julian: Just the rhythm and the culture of everything. Smif-N-Wessun did it, InI did it. Keeping it going really, using the message of reggae to fuse with the message of hip-hop
MB: How would you describe the underground sound in Detroit, what kinds of words would you use?
Nappz Julian: (pauses) Unique, a unique sound. It’s different, it’s not like everybody does one style. You get a different culture with different artists. Black Milk, Phat Cat … artists like that. (...) Black Milk is a unique artist, I was in a group with Black Milk when I first started out. He’s doing his thing.
In 2000 we luckily had a chance to tour with Slum Village, we went as roadies and luckily we were in a group at that time with Black Milk. They let us open in a few cities, since then we’ve been grinding it out as independent artists.
MB: What made Slum Village so special, why do people keep coming back to them?
Nappz Julian: Because Slum Village is the root of everything that comes out of Detroit, in my opinion, as far as underground hip-hop and that whole independent sound. They are the foundation of it. They are the cornerstone of Detroit music, along with .. back then there were a few major groups: Slum Village, Five Elements and Laswunzout. Back then, Slum Village was the one who stood out the most.
MB: Are they a point of reference for you in terms of what you do as well?
Nappz Julian: Definitely, definitely, they’re a big influence on what I do. Not just because of music, I got to know Baatin and he showed me more (about life) in a brotherly loving way, it was (also about) us being brothers coming up.
The next Rebel Lion album will be released on August 15, if you want to hear more of Nappz Julian's music, check out the Healin' the Nation mixtape from last April.
Over the past few months, Maj James has been linking me a series of his very short videos on Facebook of his production work. Lo-fi doesn't begin to describe it, it's rough & ready with the similar, super-earnest introduction each time, similar production aesthetic and the same interior shots filmed in his house, with a few objects captured in the view.
But I like these videos, they appeal to me, even if - or because of - the very, very rudimental production values. This is something that I also appreciate about hip-hop culture; the 'nerd-aesthetic' (no offence intended, Maj James) that comes through in the genius of MF Doom and other less known artists and that spills out into the key ancillary activities of crate-digging and record collecting, compiling and categorising, the spotting of samples as if they were rare birds. In the end, hip-hop is a culture defined by enthusiasts 'doing their own thing' - and it's open to everyone.
MB: How would you describe yourself in terms of what you’re doing?
Maj James: Unique sound coming out of Detroit, just trying to stay in my own lane – doing music for the people as well as myself. I look up to people like De La Soul, Pete Rock, 9th Wonder musically-wise, inspiration-wise. I’m trying to put an instrumental project together, been working with a few MCs.
(Maj James plays me a file, over the phone, that's very difficult to hear, I can only make out the repetitive treble sounds).
MB: what kind of mood, or feeling are you trying to achieve?
Maj James: I’m trying to develop a sound for the world to get accustomed to. (...) At the moment the Detroit scene is pretty dope; sometimes it keeps going, and then we get to a standstill and then we push a little harder. I used to be involved in a group called Monkey Bars from here, back in 2011, we kind of rocked out, the concept of Monkey Bars was we’d call producers up and do it old school style and we’d turn up in locations in Detroit, different parks, anywhere outdoors and we’d pull up with a boombox and put the music on a have a cypher.
It went to Jersey, we were talking maybe a few years ago to rekindle the flame to start it up. It was basically volunteers, it was a community cypher and everyone would participate.
MB: Was it different people getting involved, or mainly young guys?
Maj James: It was guys, people like sPoT and 01 and a sister from here called CoKo Buttafli – she’s a rhythm and blues, jazz, soul singer so to speak, she’s pretty dope. I got to meet different people, work with different MCs.
MB: If you were to describe Detroit to someone who wasn’t from there, what things would you say?
Maj James: I would say for us Motown is not dead. It is very much still alive here. The music scene is just awesome, we’re finally as a music scene coming together, I grew up with Baatin and Dilla, the whole Slum organization, we spent countless hours at the Hip Hop Shop in the early 90s – every Saturday we all used to hook up and do cyphers.
MB: How can you explain the vibrancy of the scene, considering the tough circumstances?
Maj James: It’s just one big melting pot of musical love here.
MB: (laughs) That’s funny.
MB: Can you choose an act from Detroit that represents the ‘Detroit sound’?
Maj James: If I do that, I can’t just name just one act ... the defining element of the music scene for me is that it’s very authentic, it’s something you can’t put in a box, you feel me, so many people are outside the box – they think outside the box, that’s the realest thing that everybody does.
I’m going to shout out a couple of acts though: I got to give it up for Slum Village. They came with such a unique sound, J Dilla is worldwide because that particular sound and groove, man, every time you hear his music, he had that rhyme: ‘I known to cause neck injuries disperse vertebrae about 7 degrees’ - every time you hear something from him, your head bops and also Clear Soul Forces, from the younger generation. When I was thinking of giving it up in 2014, something came across my timeline and I started looking them up.
As a closing comment, Maj James offered: 'As a culture, as a people I feel like our people need to come together.'
MB: Talk to me about the most recent release of yours, 'Sky 9' what are you trying to achieve with this record?
Nate OG Detroit: It is my second release, it’s a collaborative release, with another producer, Jadar, out of Birmingham in the UK. Jadar approached me to collab on a project, at the start I didn’t know it was going to be a homage to Dilla, but that’s how he’s described it. Jadar has released it through his company, Real Records. He did a couple of beats, I did a couple of beats. For me it’s a good thing cause it gives me more exposure over in the UK, maybe I could work with UK or international artists or do tours. That’s my ultimate goal to travel and experience different cultures.
MB: You said it is a ‘Dilla tribute’ can you talk more about what that means?
NateOGDetroit: That was Jadar’s idea, I thought we were just collabing, all I knew it was a beat tape we were collabing out when it finally came out and I read the description that’s when I saw it was a Dilla tribute.
It’s a homage to Dilla in the style, he could make different kinds of music, he had different moods: street, laid back, but my track, 'Rain' stands out for me cause it has a real pulsating rhythm, drums groove – the way I chopped the guitars … it was a rock sample, the way it came together, it has a real in your face feel.
MB: That’s a nice description there, you said it has an aggressive feel, it’s in your face, can you link it with Detroit, cause people often say that the hip-hop has this kind of mood, not too subtle.
NateOGDetroit: I think that’s true, for me inside the fish-bowl looking out, rather than those on the outside looking in, it’s like Detroit has – what Waajeed called the ‘Detroit hump’ - after Motown, everyone had that factory style mentality, even when their doing music, it reflects in the music, the art. That’s Detroit. The city has that blue-collar work ethic, and it comes across and manifests in the music. It’s one of the things that makes us one of the most followed sounds, next to New York in the OG days.
*After the interview, I asked Nate what he meant by this: 'Detroit hump is factory worker type of mind-state of how Detroit artist and producers create and release there work Detroit back in the sixties was known for having the three biggest USA car manufacturers at that time.'
Nate also has a blog, called 'Nate OG'z Chroniclez, where he interviews a range of Detroit and other acts ... Let's talk about your writing and journalism now, how would you describe your blog, what’s that all about?
NateOGDetroit: My concept is to get to know the artist it’s more about getting to know the person as an artist not just the music, the product you consume.
MB: Obviously Detroit has a symbolic presence in hip-hop and people who are into hip-hop love the sound of Detroit etc but it seems maybe you’ve got this great tradition but maybe not the record labels. You’ve got the talent, but not the industry presence, what do you think about that comment?
NateOGDetroit: It all started with Motown, When Motown moved out of Detroit, when they moved in LA that was all we had, so the way that Detroit music scene, every artist/every MC/every rapper they create their own independent label to put their music out. They’re the artist, the CEO and have to do that to create an official brand. The big labels, the distributors don’t come to Detroit cause we don’t have Motown, or Aristas, or anything like that. Every artist has their own labels, there are like a 100 labels with artists doing it on their own.
MB: What does this mean for the local scene?
NateOGDetroit: It’s good in one aspect, it gives the artists a more professional look as they have to do it themselves, but when the major labels do decide to spotlight Detroit it’s going to be so saturated, they’re not going to know where to look. It’s going to be harder to distinguish between the trash and what they can make money on. It’s good and bad.
MB: How would you describe the creative scene in Detroit?
NateOGDetroit: It comes from not having anything. The roses grow from the concrete, to quote Tupac. The circumstances Detroit is in – the physical, the economic – all that’s going on now is the concrete, the music and the entertainment scene is the rose.
So the first thing, when the media or the outside world look at Detroit and see those negative things, they blame the residents. It’s not our fault. It’s the government that runs city council, the mayor is meant to make sure that schools aren’t being closed down. They close about 100 schools a year. But all this makes you work extra hard, the music is like some kind of medicine.
We’re still chasing that Motown legacy. We’re still trying to create that new Motown. We’re still the direct descendants of Motown that’s why we work so hard. Look what’s going on in Flint, that’s 10 minutes away and in Detroit they were shutting people’s water off the regular water, the government told them to shut off the water of anyone who had a house. It’s ridiculous, but we’re trying to get through it.
When asked for a final comment, Nate said:
NateOGDetroit: Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio, read in the newspapers, see on TV, if you want to know the truth about something go to the source. If you want to know about Detroit, come and ask me. I’ll tell you everything. That’ll be it. If you want to know the truth of something, go to the source.
Post-interview, Nate offered this self-description: 'I'm the hardest working and most dedicated producer/musician since James Brown and Tupac Shakur.' Oh, okay then.
** Big thanks to Nate too for coming up with the idea of me interviewing some more acts in Detroit and by so doing prompted this project.