Uncommon Nasa is a New York artist who has been working in hip hop for about two decades. He dropped his latest solo album, Only Child, on Uncommon Records, this past Friday. Before the album dropped, he took the time to talk us about the album, his upbringing as an only child coming of age in New York, his writing process and influences, and his very specific opinions about album art, among other things.
Photo by Gabe Liendo
Scratched Vinyl: You’ve got the new album coming out, Only Child. Let’s jump right into the title and the main subject matter of the album. You’re an only child?
Uncommon Nasa: Yeah, the album is to me - what I’ve been saying, is that it’s a tribute to my parents, you know? But it’s a record about me. It’s about some of my earlier memories and it’s about, I guess the level of detail you put into things growing up when you are an only child, because you don’t have a sibling to share those experiences with. You know, when you’re an only child, things happen to you. There’s not really a “This happened to us.” Until you get married or something. But you spend all those years, and all those things happen to you and you evaluate them and learn from them and grow from them. And that’s part of what my background is as a human being. So I tried to put that into the theme of a record. The other end of my life story is that I don’t have any children, and I won’t have any children, for a variety of reasons. But you know, a lot of times, I think people find a certain amount of wisdom when they have a kid, whether they have that kid at eighteen or thirty-eight, or even older. But when you hit the age forty, and you don’t have that, I think the age does what a child would do to you, and you start to evaluate things in your life and rethink things. Think over the value or importance that you put into certain things. That happened to me when I crossed that threshold. You know, I felt like that was a fairly unique experience, because there’s not that many people who have that lineage, you know? So what I tried to do is represent what I think is the uniqueness of my story, but also that people who hear the record can identify with certain aspects of that story. I made this record for me, but I also made the record so that other people can hopefully get something from it and find that commonality.
SV: Can you give us a general background to your only child-ness? Were you a latch key kid? Were you a late-in-life kid? What was your situation as an only child?
Uncommon Nasa: I was a latch key kid. I went to a literal latch key for several years. I was in a latch key program. Funny that you ask about that. I was involved with that. My folks were both working, and my fourth and fifth grade – maybe third grade, too – definitely fourth and fifth grade, I had no where to go, so I stayed at school until they could come pick me up. Even picking up was sometimes just walking there and taking me physically back, there was no car, either, at certain years of my childhood. That was it. I don’t know how works. I don’t know if those after school attendees were also teachers, or other sorts of assistants or lunch ladies or volunteers, but they had a lot of work. I couldn’t even imagine – because I was older, like nine and ten years old, but there were kids in kindergarten and first grade that were in the program, too. And in my school, there were probably thirty to forty kids a day that would be in the lunchroom. Luckily for them, in my school the lunchroom and gymnasium were adjoined, so they could set up activities and just keep us activated with coloring books and kickball and all kinds of shit. I couldn’t imagine doing that. Shout out to the people who volunteered. Any of them that are still walking this Earth. That’s yeoman’s work. But yeah, that was part of it.
And once I hit sixth grade, eleven, twelve, until I was sixteen, you spend a lot of time at home alone. I was just there. Watching TV, for the most part. I didn’t even have friends to hang out with until I got older, so I spent a lot of time alone with my own thoughts, creating my own memories.
SV: When did you discover music as an outlet? Did that help you kind of fill that void?
Uncommon Nasa: It did. Certainly my music fandom did. I could remember just playing Fear of a Black Planet, Sex Packets…those were CDs that got regular, loud rotation in the apartment that I was in, when I was there by myself. Music was certainly something that kept me busy as a fan in younger years, and then when I got into high school I got involved in some high school rap groups and shit like that. To be honest, it is a little bit different now that I think of it. I was really into movies and TV as a younger kid. I did creative writing when I was a kid. Short stories, poems, things like that. That was sort of my first outlet for art. And then when I got into high school, I started to be around more people that were into rapping, doing graffiti, stuff like that. It wasn’t until I was older, until I was about twenty or twenty one that I started to take rapping seriously and really put out output that I took seriously, even if other people didn’t yet.
SV: Did you find that creative writing helped you find your voice and your style?
Uncommon Nasa: Yeah, I credit a lot to that. I never let go of the idea that I was taught…I got into some different things when I was a kid, like kids would try to pick on me and shit like that when I was a young guy. And when I was in sixth grade, a teacher pulled me aside and said, “Read The Catcher in the Rye.” Which she probably would get fired for today, but in the ‘90s it was kind of acceptable? I don’t even know if it was then. That book had been banned. I read The Catcher in the Rye and it really changed my life. It taught me to be more introspective, and it made me more cynical at a time when being cynical is actually quite healthy. I think being a cynical older person just makes you a bitter prick, but I think a healthy dose of cynicism for an eleven-year-old is good. That way you’re not just walking around doe-eyed all the time. That book helped with that. I think I took the correct lessons from that book, and not the incorrect lessons from that book.
SV: You didn’t try to kill anybody?
Uncommon Nasa: No, I didn’t try to kill anyone, I didn’t try to drug anyone, or whatever else happened. I don’t remember the exact details, I just remember a lot of crazy shit happening in that book. I think the first person narrative – you look at an album like Only Child – the first person narrative really stuck with me. And that is how I write the majority of the fiction that I write. I haven’t broken out of that mold yet. I haven’t dedicated enough time to writing as an adult to have broken out of that first person narrative style yet. It’s a challenge in and of itself – anyone who writes probably knows that. Doing that creative writing – what I was leading up to saying was, when she referred that book to me, she also referred me to a writers’ group. This guidance counselor, an older woman named Ms. Kaplan, brought together all these misfits. All these kids that got tossed out, not liked by many people, and she taught us creative writing. In a free period, to keep us out of the lunchroom and away from all of the bullshit. Anyway, long story short, we ended up writing a bunch of stuff, and I kind of got embedded with this idea from her, of “If you’re going to write about something, write about something.” There has to be a subject. All of my songs, for the most part, to this day, when I write, there’s something you’re hearing about in that song. I don’t just write raps. I can do that whenever I’m doing collaborations, obviously, to have fun, but if it’s a song from me, it’s going to have a story or a theme, something being expressed. And that comes from my early days as a child, basically.
SV: Going to a different side of things and going back to the title of the album, it’s also interesting because throughout the history of hip hop, we pick all of these identifiers – neighborhood, city, ethnic background…star sign, but we don’t talk about birth order. And birth order is a really important contribution to what our personality is going to be. Did that factor in at all?
Uncommon Nasa: It’s certainly an identifier for me. I didn’t consider it as a whole, the way you’re describing it, but I do understand that that is the case. I think sometimes a lot more can be explained by…maybe the better identifier is when you were born and how many siblings you have. And what gender those siblings are, maybe. It helps you be more informed or more considerate, or maybe not, depending on the person. That’s a thing that I believe exists, I do think it changes the way you become an adult. That wasn’t something I considered with this. I think for me, “only child” certainly was a self-identifier that I wanted to express. I did want to represent myself as an only child, my wife is also an only child, so we have that connection. We actually talk about our experiences as only children quite often and can compare to the experiences of people that are not only children. The things that they have that are better, and the things that we have that are better. Which, especially after the last year, are fairly apparent. I think that’s where Only Child comes from. Being an important title and theme to wrap these songs around.
SV: Getting into the title song, one of the things I appreciated was when you get to the chorus and say, “I’m an only child!” and then you’ve got the voices coming like, “Oh.” “Oh!” When did you have that first have that moment where people were like, “What are you doing? You’re an only child? Oh, okay, now I get it.”
Uncommon Nasa: Yeah, people definitely treat you like a freak sometimes. I think there’s a lot of stigma against only children. I think that people think that only children are weird, and that parents of only children are weird, or mean for not giving you a playmate or something. I definitely think that’s the case, and it’s very hard, even more so now…things are not progressing in the way that science fiction writers or futurists would think. I think as we stand today, I can’t think of a person that I’ve met in the last ten years that is my age or younger and is having children, and they’re deliberately like, “One is enough. This is all we need. We’re going to take care of him or her, and that’s exactly what we need.” I haven’t heard anyone say that in years. I know that there are people that say that – my parents did, and my wife’s parents did, but I was born in the late ‘70s, as was she. I don’t know if those ideas have changed, maybe? In the 2000s, and much further on, because we’re in the 2020s now, but yeah..I do think there is – it’s not a debilitating stigma, but you do catch people’s ear when that subject comes up. Because you either are an only child, or you’re not. If you have one sibling, you can still talk to someone with two siblings. It’s different, but there’s still a commonality there. If you’re not an only child, you don’t know what it’s like at all. And I also don’t know what it’s like at all to have a sibling. I can only imagine it. But it’s easier to imagine having a sibling, because that’s what everyone has. It’s really hard for people to imagine what it’s like not having a sibling when they’ve had one. And I think that’s what causes that “Oh!” That’s what I wanted to represent in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek kind of way on that chorus.
SV: Getting further into the album, it’s produced entirely by Messiah Muzik. One question that I had was just as someone who does both emcee and production duties, what is it that makes you hand over the reigns of production duties to someone else for a project like this? What makes you think, “This is the guy for this project”?
Uncommon Nasa: My production is a particular thing, most of the time. It’s heavy and it’s aggressive, and that’s the way I like to make beats. And I like rapping on my own beats. I’m totally fine with that. But as a writer, poet, and emcee, there are things that I want to express that maybe my production might not be the best for. I could make Only Child myself, but it wouldn’t be the same record. It would be a lot more tense. And that’s the kind of production that I do. And luckily I’ve gotten to the point where I can clearly delineate my production and my writing. Those are two different aspects of me within the same person. Sometimes the writer in me just doesn’t need the producer that I am. In terms of working with someone like Messiah Muzik, I was fortunate when I put together New York Telephone, it was after I did Land of the Way It Is, and I met some producers [from that project] who made up the core of New York Telephone. And when New York Telephone came along, Messiah Muzik joined that mix. And so I met this core of producers, Messiah Muzik was one, Black Tokyo was another, and Lyle Horowitz. They were the people I was working with at that time, besides myself…I went on to do Halfway with Black Tokyo, I did Ornate with Lyle Horowitz (and we did some other songs)…and this is the record I always intended to make with Messiah Muzik. All the way from back then, or shortly after. It wasn’t that I wanted to make Only Child and chose Messiah Muzik to do that, it was that I wanted to do a full record with Messiah Muzik and see where that went. And it went to Only Child. Themes of a record naturally evolve. While all of these concepts and things that I talk about on the record have been in my brain, they haven’t always been musical ideas, until I was able to sit with Messiah Muzik’s production. His production guided me towards this. Just like Lyle’s production and Black Tokyo’s production guided me to certain other things, style of rapping. Messiah Muzik – I have a certain energy with his stye of music that I don’t have with other production, or vice versa. Including my own.
SV: Jumping off that, one of the songs that jumped out to me in terms of production was “Vincent Crane.” Was that something that you already had, or did you hear that beat and write to that?
Uncommon Nasa: As a general rule, 95 % or more of the time, I write the song to the beat. There’s less of a percentage of time where I’ll have an idea in my head, of a concept where I’m waiting for the right beat. That happens sometimes, I don’t remember which came first with “Vincent Crane.” But I definitely wrote everything to that beat and then just kicked it to that beat. The theme to that song is…a lot of things…I hoped that what I was able to do with this record was create songs that have multiple dimensions to it, that say two or three things at the same time. This is the closest I’ve ever come to doing that on a consistent basis, first song to last song. This is hopefully a record that people can listen to a few times, if they’re into it musically, and hopefully they’ll get a lot more listens out of it.
But “Vincent Crane” in particular, there’s different levels to it. It’s about my experience discovering progressive rock music after not listening to anything but hip hop for my entire growing period. Then when I worked in a studio at seventeen, I was introduced to music that I didn’t know existed. I started listening to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Gentle Giant, and King Crimson, stuff like that. In my head, this idea of genres always goes in growth spurts, where they’ve been around long enough, they’ll go through periods where they get really experimental and progressive. And in the late ‘90s, when I was really coming into my own in the indie scene, that was what was happening. Hip hop was at that experimental point. I could see the alignment with where rock music was in the early ‘70s. Everything made sense to me. How to view music and how to view musical scenes, and how music brings people together. There’s a commonality to everyone that’s ever made music, no matter genre or what part of the world they’re from, or what background they have. And that was a pretty mind blowing thing to take in as a young person. And it’s also about Vincent Crane the man, who was the head of a band called Atomic Rooster. The first song I ever sampled to try and make a beat was an Atomic Rooster song. When I had my early equipment, before I had my MP. It was really influential, because he wrote the lyrics, and he played the Hammond Organ, and as I say in the song, he played the bass lines on the organ. There was no bass player for most of the lineups of the band. Atomic Rooster was a trio, so you had guitar, drums, and then someone playing organ, playing the melody on top, and then the bass with his feet on the bottom. To me, it’s just incredible to me that someone could be that talented, and relatively unknown, at least on this side of the pond. They had a pretty big following in England, as I understand it. It’s pretty amazing to me…and it’s an Internet age. I wanted to do something sly. Throw a name out there and have people Google it, and hopefully bring some light to that person’s legacy. And tell my story through that person’s legacy and the effect that he had on me and the effect that the music has had on me over all these years.
SV: And I feel like that’s an overlooked part of hip hop and sample-based production. That’s a way for us to discover new music from the past. For example, I never heard of Ramsey Lewis until I heard it sampled, and now I have a substantial Ramsey Lewis section of my record collection.
Uncommon Nasa: I knew who Yellowman was through sampling, other people sampling him. I knew who Herbie Hancock was. I knew these people at like sixteen, in like 1994. And how else would I know who those people are? And those are some of my favorite artists to this day, as a grown man. That’s the beauty of hip hop. It’s arguably the most unifying genre of music that’s ever come along. In terms of bringing people together word wide, bringing people of different backgrounds and ethnicities together, bringing people of different age groups together, and bringing together different musical tastes together. Where else can you find that? It’s a beautiful thing.
SV: Another song I wanted to ask you about, just because I had to Google it because it seemed like a super regional specific reference – “U68.” For those that aren’t from the Northeast, what is U68, and how did that become your ‘in’ for that song?
Uncommon Nasa: So this is the song that will truly date me. Although, I’ve gotten over trying to hide my age at all at this point. U68 was a borderline pre-cable sort of competitor to MTV. MTV started on cable, but there was a period when large swathes of New York City were not cabled for cable. And that was the early ‘80s. U68 came along – I don’t remember his name, but there was a guy who came along and bought this old over-the-air channel, it was a New York band, and turned it into a music video channel to counter cable TV’s presence of MTV. And there was a lot of controversy in the early days of MTV of them not playing African American artists, and U68 countered MTV off of cable, playing music of all different genres, people of all different backgrounds and regions, and just played everything. This is actually a quote from the founder that I found on Youtube, that’s on the end of the song that sort of explains things. And I grew up as a kid, in 1984 and 1985, when U68 was on, I was like five, six, maybe seven years old. It only existed for that time period. I grew up thinking it was normal to turn my rickety click-click-click dial on the old color TV (I’m not that old), you click-click-clicked away on this thing, and then the 68th number on this thing on the U-band…Most of them were static. Nobody owned them, nobody broadcast anything. But this guy bought this channel, branded it, put up advertising, everything. And I discovered hip hop on this channel. I may not be the person that I am today without this channel, because that’s where I saw the Fat Boys, that’s where I saw Run DMC, Whodini, and UTFO. Those were the kinds of videos that they were playing, you know? They were playing it alongside, equally, your David Bowies, Tears for Fears, Hall & Oates, A-ha…all those videos that are classic Youtube ‘80s videos today, I got to see as a very young child, almost pre-school. Kindergarten-aged child. That was my Sesame Street. Just watching this. Thankfully, my parents let me watch it, and I would always turn it on. Like I said, I thought it was totally normal and would be there forever, but then one day when I was six-and-a-half or seven, it was gone. And when you’re that age, you don’t know why things go away, they just do. And there was just static there. And then I was left to my own devices with music until much later. That’s U68, man. The whole theme of this is taking these niche moments and trying to turn them into experiences to share with other people.
SV: The last song I wanted to touch on in terms of a specific experience was “The Ballad of Metal Mike.” I feel like this goes back to you talking about your background in creative writing, because this feels like you’ve got this great framing story about this guy that you run into at very specific times in your life.
Uncommon Nasa: Everything on that song that I said, besides one embellishment, is one hundred percent true and happened. He was not that intense about me staying in music, he didn’t care that much. For dramatic effect, I added a little bit there. But I ran into him three times, the only three times I ran into him. And he was…I don’t know the story of how he ended up with a column in Ego Trip in the early ‘90s, but I know that it happened. And I know that that’s how I knew who he was. When I was a young guy, I was seventeen, and I was finishing up my internship, my Vincent Crane-story internship, I decided that – and this dates me again – 1996, going into 1997, this was pre-internet, or at least usable internet, and so I decided that I was going to go door to door to every record label in the city with a book of resumes and intern with whoever would take me. When I was working at the recording studio, they actually had the big book of record labels. It was a list that would go around to recording studios that they would pay for so that they could send mailers out to the record labels so that they could get people to come in and do business. And so I, of course, stole that. You know, I had a list of every record label in New York City. And I went to all of them that I had heard of, or were relevant to hip hop, or to wider music or whatever. So I went door to door to every record label in Manhattan over the course of two days. In the dead of summer. And the first time I met Metal Mike, I was standing outside of where G Street was, which was West 4th and Lafayette. Right behind where Tower Records used to be. I don’t remember if it was before or after, but I went up to G Street and they were very kind to me and let me give my pitch, and then kindly asked me to get the fuck out. And then I saw Metal Mike – and I recognized him from his articles, “Metal Mike! Oh cool!” I started talking to him, because I was a seventeen-year-old, and why wouldn’t I? I just started talking to a random stranger that I had only read about in a magazine. And so he pointed to TVT/Blunt, which was the label that Mic Geronimo was on at the time, and some others. I went up there – TVT was like a soundtrack and metal label. I think Trent Reznor did some stuff with them. And then they started Blunt. Blunt had Mic Geronimo, and early Ja Rule before he was Ja Rule, those kinds of records. I go up there – every record label gave me the same treatment. Some wouldn’t listen, and some would pretend and take my resume, but I never got an internship. I think I got an interview at Profile Records, but I didn’t end up getting it. I can go through my resume another time. The point of it is, that was the first time I met Metal Mike. Then I met him a second time, when I was working as a runner on Wall Street, when I was putting myself through school for engineering. Then I didn’t see him again for almost twenty years, until after I had really settled my life down and was working and making decent money. And there’s sort of a weirdness to that arc. You take with it what you can. It’s a story, and it’s there for people to interpret.
SV: The album comes out in – remind me, early August?
Uncommon Nasa: August 6th. It’s available on vinyl, it’s available on CD, it’ll be everywhere, there’ll be T-shirt combos and everything. I’m super excited to finally have it out in the world. I’ve worked on it for…on and off for quite some time, and then finally closed it out earlier this year and late last year.
SV: As things start to open up, are you making any plans to tour or do some local shows, release shows, that kind of thing?
Uncommon Nasa: Ummm…no. I think at this point in my life, if the opportunity comes and it’s the correct opportunity, I’m more than willing to tour or do one-offs or whatever, but beyond the correct opportunity coming…I ain’t leaving my house. You know, you reach a certain point and you half consider what’s important and what’s worth doing. I love performing and going to places. My favorite part of touring is going and seeing other places that aren’t New York. ‘Cause I love where I’m from, I love New York City, but if you truly love New York City, you have to go and experience the rest of the country. I think that balance is what creates a further love for New York City. And the love of other places. I would love to experience that again, but I would have to be taken care of and do it in a correct manner. In many ways. Not just money. It has to be the right place to do it. Hopefully that happens. Call me!
SV: You’ve got this big project dropping. Is there anything else people should be looking for? Anything else you can mention yet?
Uncommon Nasa: Yeah, man. After Only Child, I’ll be releasing a record with Short Fuze, from our group called Guillotine Crowns. It’s called Hills to Die On. That’ll be out early 2022, but some of the singles will pop out in late fall. I’ve got some other productions that I’m working on – a lot actually. But those I can’t talk about yet. But the Guillotine Crowns album is done. It’s mixed and it’s finished. It’s about to go into manufacturing. It’s weird to have one album come out while the other is going to manufacturing. It’s good, but it’s a lot. I’m pumped to have Only Child out, though. I’m glad to have put it together with Messiah Muzik and to share it with everybody.
SV: It’s a good one. I’ll leave you with the question that I ask everyone – if there were three people that you could work with that you haven’t worked with before, who would it be?
Uncommon Nasa: Does it have to be rap, or can it be anybody?
SV: Any direction you want to take it.
Uncommon Nasa: Do they have to be alive or can they be dead?
SV: Alive, dead, you can literally go any direction.
Uncommon Nasa: I would love to at least sit with Rod Serling. And be a fly on the wall with what he created and what he was able to do with his life and his creativity. Certainly one of the most inspirational artistic people for me.
I would love to still do a song with Del. If I would say, “Who would I love to do a song with that I still have not worked with that I would love to work with?” I would love to do a song with Del and produce it and rap with him. He’s one of my favorite rappers ever.
Those two were easy. Who’s the third one? I think those two are solid. I would really love to…this is really not answering your question at all, but there’s a third part of the brain that I would love to develop, and that’s the visual art side of things. I would love to sit with several or many of the abstract masters and just watch them work. Josef Albers, Al Loving, people like that. That were just around during that movement. Or someone who’s not directly abstract like Basquiat. Get in his brain a little bit, and just get that perspective. That ‘80s perspective. I like to learn from people. It sounds like a humble brag, but it’s hard at this point in my life – you hit a certain age and it’s not like older people are talking to you. You don’t get into the older people club, but the older people have the information. So I would love to pick the brains of those people who worked in that harsher time period of the ‘60s and ‘70s into the ‘80s. I don’t know if that’s a collaboration, but once you know them, maybe that could happen. I would really love to learn from people that I respect.
SV: And you know, graphic work and visual art is an underrated aspect of hip hop. We need album art, we need posters, etc.
Uncommon Nasa: Yeah, shout out to Jazzpants, who does all of the Uncommon Records artwork and layouts. He’s been the driving force behind the visual language of the label. I tell him this a lot, but he’s the only art person I’ve worked with that’s been able to endure me for over a year or two. ‘Cause I’m a giant pain in the ass when it comes to art. But somehow he’s able to take what’s in my brain and turn it into art and actually make it happen. And so I give him a lot of respect for that. A lot of times, layouts will be this loosely formed idea where I say, “This is how I want it to look, I want this to be on the left, and that to be on the right, I want this kind of font, I want this color.” And without him, none of it would exist. And that’s true for anyone that’s serious about doing art and design of albums. I do think it’s a lost artform. I think there are way too many albums that are just random snapped photos with now layout. To each their own, it’s fine, but to me, an album cover – and this is very important for me to say, because I don’t think I’ve said this to anyone but close friends when I’m bitching about things – to me, and album cover has the name of the artist, it has the name of the album, and at times, it has a picture of the artist. Unless there’s something compelling to put there instead. That’s what an album cover looks like. Short of that, to me, it looks like a mixtape. Or something else. I’ll give you an example – The Mars Volta is one of my favorite bands ever. And Frances the Mute is one of the greatest covers – it’s a striking image. But I’ll always think that it would be better if it said “Frances the Mute” and if it said “The Mars Volta.” That’ll never leave my brain. So even an album that I love, or a piece of artwork that I love, I’m always going to feel that way. So shout out to all the graphic artists out there, especially the ones with the patience to deal with the music business and who are professionals.