Uncommon NASA is an MC, Label President, producer, engineer, and has worn pretty much every hat there is to wear in underground hip-hop over the past 15 years. In that time he’s also been a pretty important part of some of the genre’s classics including mixing Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein and El-P’s Fantastic Damage. This week he releases his new album Land of the Way It Is, which features Open Mike Eagle and Organized Konfusion’s Prince Po, on his own imprint Uncommon Records. We spoke to him about how much the underground’s changed and what he’s tried to preserve with his label and his music.
How did you first link up with Def Jux?
It started out as me being a fan of Company Flow. The original Funcrusher EP came out when I had just come out of high school. Through living that underground hip-hop lifestyle, I discovered Company Flow. I was working in a studio called Pause, and they disappeared on me, which studios did back then. Company Flow’s “End II End Burners” CD single came out, and on the back had information on where it was recorded. They designed their song “Help Wanted” as a contest and gave the address of Ozone Studios. Long story short, I listened to the song, wrote down the address, slapped on a resume and faxed it to Ozone. I heard back right away and started interning there. My first session was with Company Flow for “Patriotism.” From there I recorded “DPA,” and the early Cannibal Ox stuff. Around that time was when Ozone fell apart and the guy who was managing Company Flow approached me and said they needed a full-time engineer. It was that simple, all that took place in less than two years.
Your group The Presence wound up releasing a single on Def Jux too.
Yeah, we did a single, the “Woke” single came out pretty good. By the time we did it, I had known some of those guys pretty well and we kicked it to El and he was down to put it out. I never wanted to be that guy at Def Jux who kept kicking my records to El. I never wanted to be a dickrider. Plus, in recording school they taught us to not sweat the musicians, you’re there to do a job. I tried not to overstress my music or push it too heavy. I knew El liked what we were doing, but I was a little headstrong at the time. The point is, I finally was ready to just push this and the quest to make a perfect single. I think it’s in the annals as the rarest, most little known single that Def Jux released.
Your label Uncommon Records turns 10 next year. What lead to its creation?
I worked at Ozone and I worked at Jux and I saw how labels came in and functioned from the inside out. I saw how the business was working and wasn’t really cool with everything. I knew when I started a label I wanted to focus on A) really progressive left leaning hip-hop B) stuff that really connected with people and C) wanted to sign records. The contracts that we would do were really fair deals for just one record. I wanted to create more of an artist-driven label that was upfront to the point of fault if necessary. I also really wanted to focus on New York because, from 2004-2008, left-leaning progressive New York hip-hop was in the doghouse. The people that wrote about hip-hop didn’t want to hear it, and the people who did want to hear it had no way to communicate about it. There was no Twitter, just webpages and MySpace that were islands which people had to know were there in order to connect with you.
What separated what Uncommon was putting out at the time from your underground contemporaries?
There was just an industry kind of vibe for that period. Records were made for specific audiences rather than made from the heart. There was a stretch where everything was so micromanaged and created in a laboratory. The money grew and when there were more people at shows because they wanted to be seen than to actually hear something, you had a problem. There was a lot of burnout, and a lot of cats from New York left New York without setting up the next scene at all. It went from a hand-in-hand fluidity to the mid-2000s and people who came from our scene just stopped doing shows here and we had to start from scratch. It was a frustrating time, money brought people away from New York because they couldn’t get the same amount of money here.
How different is it releasing/mixing an album now as opposed to a decade ago during the Def Jux heyday?
I was still mixing off of a trio of ADATs. We mixed through a big ass digital board that was top-of-the-line at the time that was one of the first digital mixing boards. It had a computer screen, but was affordable ebcause it wasn’t built as well as an analog board. Just simple things like, even in the early Uncommon Days, having to search out a store that had DAT tapes left in order to mix something. If you didn’t have a DAT tape, you couldn’t finish the mix. Now it’s all digital, you can do whatever you wanted to, everything is in the computer. You’re only limited by hard drive space. It sounds crazy, but in the Jux days, if you didn’t have DAT tapes, you didn’t do shit that day. The scarcity of everything is gone. Back then, records would come out and there would be a finite amount. Now, everything’s digital so you can infinitely buy things off of an artist.
Was your new album Land of the Way It Is done all digital?
Do you have any desire to return to those old ways?
You know, I’ve built up my new lab, I just moved and have a nice larger space. Land of the Way It Is was recorded in a fairly small room in a fairly small apartment. I could go back to the early early days when I was working at Ozone Studio before Jux, and we had racks of vintage gear. I’m trying to add some of that stuff back to it, but nobody would record on an ADAT now because you’re still not getting analog quality. You have people who would record on a two-way, and that’s not even just a hip-hop thing, and I’m sure it sounds better. But at the end of the day you can record on two-inch tape all you want but it’s still going to be turned into a crappy MP3 that’s going to get played on a crappy computer somewhere. Unless you have somebody who’s super experienced in that world, I don’t really see the point. In the oldest of technologies you would have to have more money than with the newest of technologies.
How did one of your heroes, Rod Serling, influence this new record?
Rod Serling influences a ton of my work. As I get older, I understand his stories better, and when I read about the man, it painted him in a really amazing light. He had an impact on social causes without being overtly into the political system and he was creative as Hell at presenting those things. My record has some references to “The Twilight Zone,” and the song “22,” which deals with stagefright, has references to the episode “22” where the same thing keeps happening to a woman and she keeps getting warned. Huge influence.
You’ve stated the album “sums up the feeling of an artist that’s entirely kept from the craft.” What does that feeling entail?
It’s very autobiographical and deals with the situation artists are in today. We’re all going to work for someone else and doing someone else’s bidding at the same time when you know you could be home and creating incredible art, providing for yourself and your family though that. But we live in a system where in order to have health care you need to go work for someone else or really, really make a lot of money. But to be on your own and make a lot of money in the music business really isn’t attainable anymore because of piracy and technology all where all those things intersect. I think that’s a tragedy, and that’s what I wrote about. Not being able to take the leap you thought you would be able to take as a young man to make that leap full-time. I grew up watching artists I respected get to that point, but I don’t know anybody like that any more. A lot of people look back to the 90s and think that the music was so great, but that’s because great music had money behind it. Coming to grips with that is part of what that record is.