INTERVIEW BY JOE FITZPATRICK
PHOTOS PROVIDED BY HOUSTON HEARD
That’s the puzzle!
Dealing with the death of a brother is a burden that no one should have to bear, but in 2013, the members of PAID IN FULL ALLSTARS (PIFA) lost their CEO and founder Eric Wilkins aka AllstarEazy. Despite this devastating blow, the men continued to press on to achieve the success that Wilkins sought for himself and his brothers. After performing to a sold out crowd at Shaggfest 2015 this summer in Virginia Beach, that dream is getting closer to becoming a reality.
It has been said time and time again that the youth are the future, and they will lead the way to better times. NODIS is no exception. Off the stage, he is known to his family and close friends as Sidon Faris. This Washington, D.C. resident is only 19 years old, and he is making moves that most kids his age only dream of. Last month, NODIS released his debut mixtape, which features his partner of BRADDOCK ROAD, as well as long-time friend GRAMMAR, in addition to local producer BALA ORTIZ. Just two weeks after its release, NODIS had the opportunity to perform in Austin, Texas at South By Southwest (SXSW). We spoke with him to discuss his mixtape 22nd Century and his unconventional method of promoting it on social media, as well as how this lion will lead the sheep of the universe to make a turning point in their lives.
Taking inspiration from historical black leaders, such as Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcom X, as well as religious and cultural influences in hip hop, ROBERT MCFARLAND is taking on topics not talked about in pop music and the majority of hip hop in order to spread his message and “make knowledge born” to the masses. Originally from Virginia Beach, McFarland has been living in Brooklyn for the past year while making connections with other artists and music industry professionals.
Though he is relatively new to the Hampton Roads rap and R&B scene, vocalist Jason Coffey, who is also known as JAE, is a native of Newport News, Va. that has been making quite the splash. With two mixtapes self-released in 2014, and his debut EP scheduled to be released later this year, he has already set himself up in the local scene as a rising star.
Though you probably haven’t heard of NAY NAY yet, this 20-year-old rapper from Virginia Beach is on the verge of breaking out of the underground and into the eyes and ears of the mainstream local community. After paying his dues in the local music scene, NAY NAY and fellow Virginia Beach musician BRYAN MAHON have been selected to play Z104’s annual music festival Shaggfest, which is hosted by the namesake of the festival, Shaggy — one of the radio station’s main DJs.
Though he is no stranger to the rap game, 20-year-old Virginia Beach resident Nathan Swihart, who prefers to go by his nickname NAY NAY, is on the verge of breaking out from unknown independent artist to local celebrity. In February 2015, he released his debut album Lost In Space, which combines his personal easy-going style with the various producers he worked with, including 6ix, who is the most well known having worked for the hip-hop artist LOGIC. The first track, “Star of the Show,” really sets the scene for the album, providing the listener insight into NAY NAY’s flow that’s simultaneously laid back and aggressive. The soul of the background vocalist’s voice provides a nice compliment to NAY NAY’s autobiographical rhymes about him coming up as an aspiring rapper.
The fourth track, “Daps and Pounds,” stands out as a reflection of the preceding and following tracks, showing NAY NAY’s style and swagger. Though at times he comes off as a bit nerdy, it is not necessarily a bad thing, and he uses it to his advantage. As a song about confidence, it shows through each verse, and it will surely get your head bobbing. NAY NAY’s album really hits a climax with the title track “Lost In Space,” which is easily the most hype and aggressive track. This song is a party song, and there is no mistaking that. Yet it will be enjoyable whether you are listening to it in your car on the way to work or getting turnt up at the bar.
Combining classical elements with a modern flair, NAY NAY is definitely an artist to watch out for. If you are a fan of MAC MILLER, KID CUDI, or CHANCE THE RAPPER, you need to listen to NAY NAY.
Though he is still an up and coming rapper from an unlikely music scene, HOUSTON HEARD from Williamsburg, Va. is a name you should know. Finding influences in the alternative hip-hop genre, the rhymes of HOUSTON HEARD are more stylistic and refined, while simultaneously working in element of pop, dance, electronic, and classical music into each well-crafted song he produces. Though he did not respect the classics as a young boy, he has grown to appreciate the art of the piano as he has developed as a songwriter, and it too flows skillfully across the tracks on which it is played. Having established some notoriety in the Williamsburg scene, HOUSTON HEARD has set his sights on playing bigger shows on a much larger scale. Currently, he is busy promoting the release of his debut album Above Below Average, which was released on Jan. 20, 2015 and chronicles some of his struggles in the early years of high school, as well as performing showcases to play this year’s Shaggfest in Virginia Beach, which he hopes will help to bring more attention to his music and help more people relate to it.
What initially got you into rapping and making hip hop?
To be honest, it kind of just happened. I was in sixth grade, [and we had to do] a science project on something. And we made a song. It was absolutely terrible, but it was fun. I just went home that day and found beats on YouTube, and then I started rapping over them. I guess [from that] here I am now.
Who are some of your primary influences, as far as rapping goes?
I guess I just go off what I listen to, mainly alternative hip hop, like what I make. If I had to pick one it would be this guy named GEORGE WATSKY, who is a poet and a rapper from San Francisco. I go off of him for producing, writing, and the general flow of things.
I don’t think growing up in Williamsburg has really affected anybody, to tell you the truth (laughs). Obviously there is not as big of an influence as there would be in Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York. Obviously, Williamsburg, Va. isn’t really known for its hip hop. So I would say, not really.
I really enjoyed hearing you play piano on this record, in addition to your rapping. How long have you been playing that instrument?
I started playing piano a while ago. I was [about] eight; my mom always wanted me to play. Then my piano teacher actually told my mom that it would be a waste of money to be spending the money on the lessons because I didn’t want to learn any of the classical stuff. I kind of stopped for a little while, and a few years ago, I taught myself again. I like to incorporate it in everything, so I’ve gotten a lot better [throughout] the years.
One of the most standout tacks on your debut EP, in my personal opinion, is “Society,” which is very critical of the norms within American culture. Can you please explain in more detail how this song came to be?
I wrote that last year ; it was actually the first song on the new album that I wrote. I put it out [before] and just redid it for the album. I made another beat for it and stuff. I was going through a pretty tough time … in my first two years of high school. … I was in the awkward, early teenage years. I was so obsessed with what people thought about me, and I got to the point where I just got tired of it. Then I sat down and wrote that song. It got me through it then, but now I’m past it.
Are most of the songs written on Above Below Average from that timeframe?
I think, to be honest, everything I write is going to be effected by stuff of that nature. [On] the album that I am working on now, basically every song has that general feel to it, besides the more nonsensical ones like “Ain’t No Way” and “What’s Up Now.” Those I kind of just wrote to write. But “Hourglass,” “Won’t Be Easy,” “Society,” and “Brain Drain,” obviously, [can be applied to my years in high school].
In addition to performing on your own, you also are a member of the hip hop group DISTORTED AFTERSTORY, which also includes rappers BRIAN B and Chandler Matkins of BIG MAMA SHAKES. Is this more of a side project for each of you?
I hate to say it, but DISTORTED AFTERSTORY is just Chandler Matkins and his friend Ryan Foster, who produces the beats, and BRIAN B isn’t in it either. I just collaborate with them a whole lot. They are good friends of mine. I’m on their stuff, and they are on mine.
I’ve got a friend that has a really nice basement for shows and parties, so last June for the heck of it, we did a concert in his basement. It was my first time performing. We made a stage out of pallets, and about 80 people showed up. It was great fun. On Dec. 20, 2014, we did this [show] called Burg Fest, which was initially supposed to be something like that, but then DISTORTED AFTERSTORY and BRIAN B got on board. And my friend named Colin McGuire, who is a DJ and goes by SHIP WRECK, [got on board as well]. We went all out; we packed the basement. There was absolutely no room, and we had a full sound system with lights. That was all done by Colin Cross, who runs Unkempt & Overcaffinated [Recording] Studio. I’ve also done a showcase, and I have another coming up on March 28 for Shaggfest at Sidelines in Virginia Beach.
In addition to “Society,” which track stands out the most to you as a personal favorite?
I would be lying if I didn’t say “Won’t Be Easy.” So far it is my favorite song that I have ever written. Tommy [Vereb], who sang the chorus on it, just made it fantastic. I just think, overall, it came together really well.
Going forward, what do you hope to accomplish in the rest of 2015?
I am working on an album right now, and I’m gonna try to get that out. I need a little bit of money first so I may do an Indiegogo or something like that. I want to get that out later in the year, and I am definitely trying to do Shaggfest, which is why I am doing the showcases. That would be sweet. Basically, I don’t see myself getting famous to the point where I am selling out huge venues. That was never my intention from the get-go. Obviously, I would love for people to know my name, and I’d love for people to connect to [my music]. That’s one of my main goals, to generally connect to people, because I’m not generally rapping about the “normal” things. I’m trying to be as relatable as possible and write just what comes to my mind. I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to nationally known by the end of the year. That may be farfetched, but it would still be cool and my mom would be proud of me for once.
For more updates on HOUSTON HEARD, be sure to “like” his Facebook page, follow him on Twitter, listen to his debut album Above Below Average on Bandcamp, and be sure to check out his next showcase in Virginia Beach at Sidelines on March 28.
On his debut, 11-track album Above Below Average, alternative rapper and composer HOUSTON HEARD delivers sharp, quick rhymes with a flow so eloquent you might forget that he is just a teenager. Based out of Williamsburg, Va., HOUSTON HEARD is unapologetic track after track and the pop synthesized beats are equally captivating.
Following an intro track just shy of two minutes, HOUSTON HEARD introduces us to his skills with a few strokes of his keyboard before initiating his rhymes. The music itself is very bright and melodic, with a syncopated beat that can simultaneously get your head bobbing to the song and put a smile on your face. On the second track, “Tell Em,” he does not miss a beat in bringing the same energy and emotional reactions. The music is very reminiscent of OWL CITY and MC LARS.
The fourth track, “Society,” also features another Williamsburg, Va. rapper BRIAN B and Chandler Matkins of BIG MAMA SHAKES. Together, along with HOUSTON HEARD, they form the group DISTORTED AFTERSTORY. The song itself is very unique in that it criticizes what society considers important, including having to meet expectations set by others, how “people judge you how you dress and the people that you slept with,” and how social media is more important than building real connections with other people. In the end of the song, HOUSTON HEARD has that last word in an a capella rhyme saying, “The only thing changing with the seasons is the weather. As people we’re supposed to get together but our ties are constantly severed, and we’re left on our knees with nothing but our diminished pride.”
After a brief interlude lasting just over a minute where HOUSTON HEARD lets the piano do the talking, he breaks into the eighth track “Won’t Be Easy,” which discusses moving on from a break up. The song is easy going and carefree while reflecting on what he may have done wrong to cause it. But he realizes that he is better off without that person and is happy to move forward. It’s a feel good pop song, and it helps to show more of his vocal range.
The album concludes with “Brain Drain,” opening with more key strokes and cultural criticism. His lyrics flow out so smoothly, and the elements of the song mesh together so cohesively, one might assume that HOUSTON HEARD has a higher status than he currently does in the music scene. Regardless, this album is proof that he will be one to keep an eye on as his career develops.
I met a few of the guys from GRITTY CITY RECORDS at their destination of choice, Sidewalk Café, in the heart of Richmond’s Fan district. Little did I know they’d be the most OG group of guys I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. They’re down-to-earth and relaxed, while simultaneously being serious and business savvy. They never strayed from the topic at hand (their music, obviously) but were never overzealous or pretentious. The interactions between the three members I met with — Jono aka Johnny Ciggs, Fan Ran, and Skweeky Watahfawlz, who is responsible for all of the group’s art and design work — would lead one to believe that they’ve known each other for years. The rest of the GRITTY CITY RECORDS crew includes Delta Automatik, Seap da One, Pandemic, Sirus the Virus, and Joe Threat. It’s clear how they work so well together, effortlessly bouncing ideas and relaying memories off one another, during casual conversation. To sum them up in a single word — REAL. However, as real as they may be, they are also hilarious. By the end of the interview, my cheeks hurt from laughter.
Where did it all start?
Fan Ran: Other than my parents R&B records, I grew up listening to rap. [Ages] 12 through17, I started getting into hip hop and punk heavy. People who do drugs have different taste in music. First, you start listening to the music because these people sell you drugs [and they listen to it], then you’re like, ‘That’s my shit!’ Now, unless I’m making beats, I don’t really listen to [rap].
Johnny Ciggs: I listened to a lot of hair metal, old soul, classic rock, but always hip-hop — no matter what.
Skweeky Watahfawlz: I’m a grunge kid, but listened to [A] TRIBE [CALLED QUEST], WU TANG [CLAN]. What I listened mainly was grunge, hair metal —DINOSAUR JR., NIRVANA—hip-hop came when I was too depressed to listen to depressing music. But hip-hop got me out of the bed.
How did GRITTY CITY RECORDS get started?
Johnny Ciggs: We started by putting out a Delta Automatik project. I started rappin’ for fun, kept doing it for fun, then we made a little group sort of by fun. We met [Fan] Ran from a show with DIVINE PROFITZ; Squeaks came to town and got on the track for fun. He never wanted to be part of it, but now he’s stuck under contract. Fan Ran came over hit us with a bunch of beats, started doing tracks, and it just kind of kept going. Same with Joe Threat, rest in peace, he just came through and started rapping with us. Then Danny [aka Seap da One] got out of jail and dropped his album. Most honest hip hop album I’ve ever heard in my life, he used to tell me that album sucked.
Fan Ran: Jono, you were having a staycation, and the rest of us were at Sidewalk. It got over 600 hits the first night it dropped.
Johnny Ciggs: It’s tripled everything else.
Fan Ran: And it’s not because he passed away.
Skweeky Watahfawlz: He was very happy with it, but he felt like that was something old. He felt like it wasn’t new for the times; I feel like that was why he was over it.
Johnny Ciggs: He wrote most of it in jail.
Skweeky Watahfawlz: Danny said he saw a dude get hit on a motorcycle and got a whole new perspective on life.
Fan Ran: He never cheated a song. I’m the two verse king; I don’t even want a hook. I just want a minute thirty, that’s how lazy I am. Almost every record though … god damn, he wrote quick. That’s the one thing I miss about working with him the most. Dudes and girls do this… there’s a lot of captain save-a-hoes out there, some people benefit, some people don’t want to be saved. I miss him every day. That’s my own prince of darkness.
I love the combination of rawness, while still managing to have cohesive flow in your work. How would you describe your style?
Fan Ran: Gutter Magic — two words to describe Jono’s style. Jono has that queen’s bridge that…that if you don’t catch it, it’s gone. It’s like listening to WU TANG [CLAN]. Jono’s delivery is so flawless because he’s a drummer.
Skweeky Watahfawlz: in a group, we have different people. Ran, he’ll set it up and knock it down, it just grabs ya ass and knocks you down….levels you. Pandemic, he’s one of those dudes who can double time like BONE THUGS [-N-HARMONRY]. Sirus the Virus is on some south shit.. With Delta [Automatik], he’s just rapid fire. He’s got50 different styles running. Joe [Threat], and Danny, may they rest in peace; they had their own styles, too. Joe was about kick-flip, Chad Muska references that all the skate kids could appreciate, but he was deep.
Fan Ran: The books this dude read. You’d never know it, because this motherfucker smoked like ten L’s a day.
Johnny Ciggs: “I’m Harvard material, but I’d rather smoke weed” –Joe Threat
Fan Ran: “I was born on the hill, but I’d rolled in the gutter” –Joe Threat
Skweeky Watahfawlz: Danny was a product of his environment.
Johnny Ciggs: I got a call that he OD’d and actually died (but was revived), was looking at 20 years, but he beat the charges. [I called him] and told him straighten life out. He came to RVA, got all that shit done, by April we were throwing his CD release party for The Sickness of Seap at Emilio’s, and by May we’re throwing his rest-in-peace party at the same venue.
Skweeky Watahfawlz: The rest of our collective, we just work…with me, these two are my favorite rappers (Johnny Ciggs and Ran). I like to make sure everything I do when I’m not drunk is perfect. We all come together as a collective; we all have our own style but it works…that’s the secret weapon.
Fan Ran: It always works.
Johnny Ciggs: Nothing that comes out of that studio isn’t a classic.
Skweeky Watahfawlz: Every time we get together, we may not record, but we freestyle or party and build.
Fan Ran: We’ve all seen some shit. Shout out to Jono; he’s a grown man that takes care of that money shit. We’re just a group of maniacs. I saw Jono’s drive to succeed.
Skweeky Watahfawlz: I’ve been in two or three rap groups in my life, but I’ve never been this comfortable.
Fan Ran: How long I been rappin? I’m older than Jono, and he’s influencing me.
Two words: Toilet wine. Go!
Skweeky Watahfawlz: Toxic funk. We actually drank and made toilet wine. We used Seap da One’s recipe when he was locked up. It actually rang out to 7 percent ABV. We’re not bad people; we’re just fucking crazy. Anybody that voluntarily makes toilet wine is not running on all cylinders.
Johnny Ciggs: Basically Toilet Wine was us just come off doing a bunch of releases—I like to lead by example. I decided I’m going to show these motherfuckers I can do a whole other mixtape, and that’s what I did. I did this whole CD in two months, and it would have been done quicker if my studio didn’t break down.
What’s your opinion on where hip hop is today?
Johnny Ciggs: One thing that’s missing today is not reppin’ your crew. That’s an era I come from. You just gotta be the best.
Skweeky Watahfawlz: I just started rappin’ because I saw some stupid ass white kid rapping about how much coke he sells … I personally was like, ‘Fuck it.’ Those kids need to be dealt with.
Johnny Ciggs: A lot of kids are talking about shit that they don’t know about. We’re just trying to make fun of ourselves. We know a whole lot about that.
Skweeky Watahfawlz: It’s a disposable art. Simple fact of the matter, rap is pop music. I won’t play it in my car; I won’t play in my house,. If my girl wants to hear it, so be it.
Johnny Ciggs: Hip hop nowadays, the fundamentals is lost … People forget about the OG four elements: 1. Rapping, 2. Djing, 3. Break dancing, 4. Graffiti.
Johnny Ciggs: If you don’t like rapping over a boom bap beat then … (shakes his head) Dubstep and trap [have been] eating off TIMBALAND and THREE SIX MAFIA; they came way before. People don’t understand the difference all those dudes made in hip hop.
How do you feel about Nas’ infamous “hip hop’s dead” quote?
Johnny Ciggs: All the legends that are still in it are still just going with the flow. Other than that it’s just a bunch of recyclable flows … top 40 status.
Skweeky Watahfawlz: It is dead, and I ain’t trying to save that bitch.