If you’re really “in the streets” of New York City, then most of the people in your circle should be street urchins and guttersnipes also using the asphalt lawns of the Big Apple as their playground.
They’re your closest friends, even though you didn’t go to school together; you’re not from the same hood or even the same borough. Yet somehow you’re friends. The street is your alma mater. Racking, hustling, skating, rapping, writing graffiti, drinking, drugging… that’s the curriculum.
Telli and Jah Jah, the remaining members of NinjaSonik (their DJ, Teen Wolf, left the group), are no different. Jah is from the Bronx; Telli is from Brooklyn. Both went to different schools and for the most part hung out in different hoods. Yet a love for skating and music bought them together. They recently released the EP No Swords, No Masks as a prelude to their next album, Peter Pan Syndrome, which is scheduled to drop this summer. Though in keeping with their usual sound and aesthetics, their new music makes it obvious that the duo wants to lay claim to the downtown rapper throne. Here’s why they think they deserve it.
Tell me about yourselves before you became a group.
Jah Jah: I grew up in The Bronx right next to Yankee Stadium. Growing up there influenced me because I would see the B-boy jams and it made me want to be a DJ. That time in my life helped fine-tune my ear to different music, not just what was on the radio. Then I went to Art & Design High School. That was when I started meeting kids from Manhattan and Brooklyn and Queens.
Telli: I’m from Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights area. But I ran around all through Brooklyn. BK was all I knew. Then I went to Norman Thomas High School. That was when I started seeing kids from Harlem and LES and Queens and seeing different styles and slang. Because up until then Brooklyn, like I said, was my whole world. So that started broadening my horizons, because I’ve always hungered for different perspectives and sides of the spectrum.
So how’d you get into skating?
Jah Jah: There’s a skate park by where I was at in the Bronx called Mullaly Skate Park. I knew this one kid; he was the only black kid that skated. I used to play ball in the park and I saw him jumping off of shit and doing ollies. One day he passed me the board and told me to try. I tried once and I realized it was more fulfilling than playing ball, at least to me. I had to use my imagination more with skating plus there were no rules. Also seeing my first skate video. It made me want to skate.
Telli: I’ma come clean… we used to shop downtown when NORT was opened and Alife and all that, and it got to the point that we got tired of walking all over the place. So we started skating from place to place. At first we put soft wheels on our decks just to cruise around and be at spots downtown lurking. Eventually though we started doing ollies we’d bust our asses on the soft wheels so we switched. But initially it was just a way to get around.
How did it influence your lifestyles?
Jah Jah: Well it made me appreciate new types of music. I was a DJ and I only spun breakbeats and hip-hop, but then I’d hear a dope punk record or hardcore record on a skate video and you’d seek that shit out. It widened the musical spectrum for me.
You were the pioneers of the whole tight-jean downtown rapper scene. Did you ever feel ostracized by the baggy, hardcore rap contingent before the more fitted look caught on?
Jah Jah: I remember once walking down Fordham Road with my boy in some tight-ass pants. These two fly girls were walking toward us so I’m getting ready to holler when one of them is like, “Are those girls’ jeans? Is this nigga wearing girl jeans? Those are some tight-ass jeans!” I was like, “Aaaah, man, I got played.” But my boy was like, “Don’t worry. Watch—in a few years everyone is going to be dressing like this.” Now look… [Tight] is the norm.
Telli: They were giving me shit. Like, “You’re a weirdo…” Everyone thought I went crazy. Then I was rocking a perm for a while. I would walk down certain blocks in Brooklyn and niggas would give me shit. It never got too, too bad because I always kept it G. Pretty soon I would see dudes who just came home from the pen be all baggy, but once they started hanging with us their clothes got slimmer and slimmer—to the point that now if you see dudes in hella baggy clothes they look crazy!
Jah Jah: Real recognize real. [People] are going to test you regardless anyway to see if you’re real. Might as well be yourself. What’s realer than that?
So how did NinjaSonik come to be?
Telli: I think [Jah and I] met Downtown on Skate Day, but I remember seeing him skate through my block waaay back. I was like “A black kid on a skateboard. Wow.” I remember he had this dope HUF hat and no one even knew what that shit was back then. Then I met Teen Wolf in this bar/rehearsal space in Brooklyn where my uncle was mad cool with the owner. He’d be in there on his computer. So one day he tells me he’s in a band and he plays me “Tight Pants.” I kicked a little something over the beat and he invited me to lay it down in the studio. He starts telling me about Jah Jah, how his pants are even tighter than mine. So I come though the session and I see Jah. We already kind of like knew each other so it was an instant connection. It was on from there.
Jah Jah: I met Teen Wolf when he was going to Fordham University. I lived in the neighborhood. One day my boy met Teen Wolf buying records. He told him about me and we met. Soon we started doing the Fordham functions and I became like the local DJ. Eventually we started making little hooks and beats. It just grew from there.
Tell me about the new EP.
Telli: It’s seven songs. We just rap about our day to day. Remember when rap was all about exaggerating? Now it’s about our lives. It’s all about what we’re actually doing.
Jah Jah: Yeah. People see me and might think I’m popular or a celebrity but guess what? I’m drinking at the same bar as you eating at the same restaurant as you, shouting out streets that you know. We give people that feeling “Oh I’m just as cool as them.”
What does the album name, Peter Pan Syndrome, mean to you?
Jah Jah: Never losing your creativity or imagination. Handle your business because you’re an adult but never lose sight of that kid you were.
Sup with Ricky Powell popping up in your video?
Telli: That’s a funny story. He was hosting this Cypress Hill show at Alife. At first he was asking why are jeans were so tight and kind of trying to clown. But we straightened it out real quick and by the end of the show he was a total fan. Ricky’s the man.
So what can we expect from The Ninjas in the years to come?
Telli: We’ve been cool about it, but we’re coming for that throne.
Jah Jah: Word. There are millions of kids just like us all over the world. We want to reach those kids.