The early days of hip-hop were dominated by the DJ/rapper combination, with the DJ serving as the producer, laying the foundation for the rapper to paint lyrics over the canvas of the beat. From Eric B and Rakim to Pete Rock and CL Smooth, talented MCs would team up with trusted producers to make masterpieces happen. Throughout the years, that arrangement has led to the creation of classic albums, like when MF Doom teamed up with producer Madlib to create Madvilliany or, more recently, when Freddie Gibbs linked up with producer The Alchemist to create the Grammy-nominated album Alfredo.
Now Nashville rapper, songwriter and producer Namir Blade has teamed up with his Mello Music labelmate L’Orange for their own masterful collaboration, Imaginary Everything. Blade was WNXP’s very first Nashville Artist of the Month, after releasing his creative, other-worldly hip hop project Aphelion’s Traveling Circus. On Imaginary Everything, he takes a step back from producing his own music and trusts L’Orange’s production to guide his lyrics forward. (Some context: L’Orange has collaborated with legendary hip-hop MC Kool Keith, as well as Del the Funky Homosapien and Oddisee, and XXL magazine called L’Orange one of the most underrated producers in hip hop after his jazz-influenced project The Ordinary Man.)
The instrumental accompaniment for their first single “Corner Store Scandal” sounds like it could be on a soundtrack to an NBA 2K game or in the soundtrack of a heist movie. Blade even nods to his love for video games with the line “I might just go and Crash like Bandicoot.” L’Orange created the cinematic score for the story Blade tells on this album, and enabled him to showcase his range as a rapper. It doesn’t seem to matter what arena Blade is playing in at this point—he’s running up the score and running it back.
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On the Record: A Q&A With Namir Blade
Marquis Munson: How has 2021 been so far, compared with 2020?
Namir Blade: It was pretty rough because of the pandemic, the lockdown and everything like that. It was rough as far as figuring out how to exist in this new space that we allowed to exist in. Putting the album together in that time was really weird, because you couldn’t really just pull up on people or anything like that. But I’m a person who likes to stay in the house anyway. 2021 has been dope. I released this new project. I did my first animated video ever. I’ve just been taking time to try to become a full-time musician. Well, actually just living and being a full-time musician and everything that comes with. I’ve been exercising more. I got back in the martial arts.
MM: What did your 2020 album Aphelion’s Traveling Circus do for you as far as establishing your reputation? Have you seen a difference being on Mello Music as opposed to self-releasing your music?
NB: After Aphelion’s, things just started going crazy. Things are already going crazy for me in the city. I started working with more and more people. More and more people started becoming aware of who I am and what I do, which is really dope. You guys [at WNXP] definitely played a really, really big role in getting me exposure to a lot of people.
So Aphelion kind of lit a fire under me. It was just like, “You just released this extremely creative thing. What now?” And the label was just like, “Now it’s time to prove to people that you can really do this, like you’re not just a one-trick pony, like you have ideas, you have a certain level of skill.” I got to work with Joell Ortiz, Stalley, Solemn Brigham and then L’Orange hit me up and I was just like, “Hey man, do you want to do a joint album?” So we ended up linking together and doing that.
I just been working nonstop with people in the city, people outside of the city. It’s cool to just be a person who’s to the level where they’re celebrated in the community. It’s like everybody knows me and it’s like all the hard work that I put in pre-Aphelion kind of changed everything. Mello has been a really, really big part in me not only learning about how the music industry works, but learning about how the music industry works for me and people like me. So I’ve just been doing nothing but taking notes. Every time I talk on the phone with Mello, we laugh a lot, we joke a lot and then he’s always dropping me gems. Same thing with L’Orange; he’s always dropping me gems. So I just try to take those gems and apply them.
MM: I’m glad that you mentioned working with Joell Ortiz and Stalley, because you killed that verse on “Black Rock,” and that was the first new song I got from you outside of listening to Aphelion’s Traveling Circus. That was proof that Namir Blade is not just this creative mind that can piece together these different ideas. He can also really rap.
NB: I’ve work with some of the best rappers that I know as far as in the city [of Nashville]. I sat on Petty’s porch, which is probably one of the most important musicians of our generation in the city because it’s like you go to his porch to level up; he’ll get you there. So it’s like I rubbed elbows with him, Ron Obasi. I just seen Chuck Indigo the other day and all of them are just like, “Yo, you’re amazing.” So I popped on there and dedicated the whole verse to the city and showing the world that we have people in this city who will smack the industry effortlessly. I feel like I definitely took that point home.
MM: Under Mellow Music Group, you are working with guys like Ortiz, and Kool Keith is on your label as well. I know we are still in a pandemic, but have you had a chance to link up with them and pick their brains?
NB: I really want to. I feel like I haven’t established enough of a rapport. Being on a label is kind of like being gang where it’s like first step in all the OGs are looking at you like, “Yo, what is this person here for? You made the cut, now prove yourself.” I feel like I’m in the state of proving ground. I understand that maybe a lot of these people might be a little bit jaded, or wary about new artists. Because I understand people hate rappers. I hate rappers. [Laughs] There’s a lot of ego; there is a lot of unnecessary B.S. that comes with rappers and dealing with rappers. It’s just like I don’t even just really consider myself a rapper. I consider myself a person who just happens to rap. Ultimately I’m a human first and then I’m a musician, I’m an artist, a creative and then rapper is just one of the roles that I play and something that I could be really efficient at.
MM: Your other labelmate L’Orange is who you did this album Imaginary Everything with. How did the idea of a collaboration album come about, and how did you pull it off?
NB: L’Orange came to me and was just like, “I really love Aphelion’s and I really love what you do. I want to work with you and let’s take this opportunity to work together. I want to see what you can make of my production. I know you produce your own stuff, but let me bless you with some beats and we’ll see how it goes.”
It was a real big challenge to think outside of the box and do something different. I haven’t rapped on that style of beat to where it’s that heavily sampled in a really long time. It was really intimidating to me. The first project that I ever put out with me rapping on it in 2013, Scatterbrain, I did it, but I was really young. I was really inexperienced, and I was trying to figure it out. That was a hump that I was trying to get over. I felt like putting this album out was me establishing my confidence as a rapper. It was me breaking outside of my comfort zone and just really showing my diversity as far as a songwriter, artist, a person who has an ear for music in general.
The process was really tumultuous for me. I pretty much approached it like a job, essentially: “I’m going to wake up and do my work study on some of my favorite rappers and what they’ve done on beats like this. I’m just going to take a journey back into the ’90s and early 2000s.” I listened to so much Cam’ron and Dipset. I listened to D-Block, I listen to The Lox, pretty much all my favorites from that era I did some homework on. Ultimately it helped garner the style that I rapped on this album. Everything else was watching movies that I used to watch when I was little, like “Willie Dynamite,” “Cornbread, Earl and Me.” I also watched the Wattstax documentary where they went to Watts after the riots and the performance. Richard Pryor was one of the narrators and they just interviewed a lot of Black people. They talked about church, they talked about women, they talked about white supremacy, what we need to do to face that. And they talked about carrying yourself as a Black man with confidence and dignity. They also had the musical numbers from Isaac Hayes, James Brown. All of that kind of work together conspired together to bring this album to life and put it together in the way that I was happy with it, L’Orange was happy with it, and that Mello was happy with it as well. I’m proud of the album. I needed it. It definitely helped me walk different.
MM: You’re producer yourself, so was it a challenge to step back and let someone else produce for you?
NB: The only reason why I started producing was because asking for beats in Nashville was challenging. I made my first beat at 14 and over my homie’s house out East. He had just got Fruity Loops.
I really wanted to do sample-based hip hop beats. I couldn’t find anybody to provide that for me in Nashville. Everybody wanted to give me like the Southern classics, the trap beat with the organ in it or trap drums. I was like, “I don’t want to do this because it’s not challenging for me. It wouldn’t set me apart from anybody else.” I did it for a while until I got to the point where I had a Eureka moment and I figured out how to sample.
I bought my laptop, I got myself a Ableton and I bought a record player with bunch of records. The person that taught me how to make sample beats was this dude named Warren Young. I met him at Sam Ash at Rivergate when I was just window shopping because I was a broke. I went over his house in Madison and I sat with him and he was beatmaker. He worked with Thievery Corporation, and a bunch of people out in L.A. where he met a bunch of people and had, lik,e a million connections. We both had our laptops. We had his really crazy amount of vinyl. And we just went through and we flipped some of it. He taught me the basics of looping, the basics of counting, why being a vinyl DJ was so important to sampling, so on and so forth. And he gave me my first drum packs. He let me take whatever I needed and he just fostered my creativity. After that it was over. So I’ve been making my own beats ever since.
Fast forward to now working with L’Orange, it was definitely a big learning experience for me because I can make my own beats. He said I couldn’t manipulate the beats in anyway. I couldn’t add my own stuff or anything. He was like, “You take it as it is and you do it as is. Have fun and challenge yourself.” He would send me like a million beats and out of those million beats, I’d find like a cool five of them. I didn’t touch the mixes at all. We got Willie Green to mix it and we got our other guy to master them. Usually I do everything; I record, I mix, I master, I make the beats, I’m writing. For this project, it was a lot of firsts. I’m just looking forward to do it a lot more.
MM: How much were you just experimenting with freestyling over the production L’Orange sent you?
NB: I would listen to the beats, freestyle to the beats. I danced around my living room to the beats just trying to connect with some of them. But I’d probably say the first track that made me believe this project could be something groundbreaking is the beat for “Nihilism.” It’s one of my favorite songs on the project. And it’s funny, because the song wasn’t even really supposed to sound like that, because how L’Orange works is he essentially just sends you a million beats as he makes them. He’s just like, “I’m going to send you the rawest idea. I don’t care how wild it sounds; I’m just going to send it to you. If you mess with it, record a draft and we’ll go on and we’ll do a reprise to it and try to figure out what we can do to flesh it out and make it sound like the way it needs to sound.” He wanted to do that with “Nihilism.” But I was just like, “Nah, man. I think it’s perfect the way it is.” I think his biggest beef with the beat was he felt like it was doing too much. Like, it wasn’t cohesive. Eventually as he listened to it more, he was just like, “Your lyrics and everything kind of add cohesion to it and actually complement the way that the beat is constructed.” It captures so much than just the subject matter of the song. The song is about nihilism and how I pretty much echo the sentiments of meaninglessness, but also since the beat is just so energetic and it taps melancholy, but it also taps joyful abrasiveness, if you will. So the message of the song is like nothing matters, nothing changes, existence is meaninglessness. But you can polarize that by finding meaning in something that doesn’t mean anything.
MM: When I hear his beats, it reminds me so much of Alchemist’s production, and this album gives me Freddie Gibbs/Alchemist’s Alfredo vibes. What were your thoughts on L’Orange before this album and now that you’ve seen his creative process, what are your thoughts about him now?
NB: I was vaguely familiar with L’Orange being from the SoundCloud beat community. I never followed him. I seen his name all the time, but it was probably when I was just salty and mad at everybody more successful than me. Because the SoundCloud bubble popped right before the energy of SoundCloud changed.
At first SoundCloud was really experimental. It was really dedicated to producers in their bag. You’d hear people like Knowledge. Anderson Paak was heavy on SoundCloud, the Selection Team. We had like a million different producer collectives on SoundCloud. It was a fire community man. It’s one of those things like you had to be there to see it, to see some of your favorite producers just come up and do something crazy. So I first got hip to him on that, which was around the same time that I ended up getting hip to Mello and all the people who were signed with Mello.
Fast forward, L’Orange moves to Nashville and my homie Jet puts me on, because he’s over at my house playing [the video game] Tekken and we’re hanging out or whatever. And he’s like, “Man, I really love for you to get in touch with this dude I’ve made friends with. He also plays Tekken and is really good. You got to meet this L’Orange dude.” So I finally had the opportunity to meet him at a show while he’s performing at The Basement. I go in right when is set to starting again. He’s doing all of these sampled beats. And I’m just like, “Okay, this dude got really interesting chops and aa interesting way of sampling with an interesting sample catalog.” This dude is sampling 1920s jazz, which is something that if you’re a producer and you make beats, you steer clear of that. But he’s doing it and he’s making it sound fire.
Afterwards, he’s packing up all this stuff and getting ready to slide out. I kind of just softly put myself in his walking path. I was like “Yo, you did a dope job. I’m Namir, we’ll know each other soon.” And I just left it at that. Years later, he ends up reaching out to me to do Aphelion’s and to sign with Mello, which was cool. So through that I became more familiar with his beats, more familiar with his work, because I wanted to do my research. I found out that he had work with Jeremiah Jae. He’s worked with some of my favorite rappers. Not to mention, his project with Solemn Brigham.
MM: During the song “Imaginary Everything,” you have a line where you say, “I want to win a Grammy just to stunt on your family.” You mentioned the Grammys a few times in this album, and most artists look at the Grammys as a “made it” moment. So how do you define success?
NB: Man, I don’t know. I detest the Grammy’s, to be honest. I want to go to the Grammy’s just so I could be a hater. If I do win an award, I want to be able to go up there and be like, “Yo, this is cool, but children at whatever age, don’t equate this to everything.” There’s so much more out here; there’s so much influence out here. What success looks like for me is having one of those documentaries like “The Black Godfather,” one of those really deep and in depth, behind-the-music documentaries where you just have people from all over the world, musicians, actors, producers, filmmakers, everybody pretty much just speaking about how important I was to the culture. Like, what I did for people and what I did for the world, music and pretty much everything at large. That’s my idea of success, not winning a Grammy. The only reason why I would want to win a Grammy is so I can just stunt on your family. That’s it. [Laughs]
MM: In your album description, there is a great line about you talk about how most artists lean toward either hyper realism or wild futurism. What makes you explore both of those elements in your music?
NB: I guess just how I grew up, man. We watched science fiction movies and we looked towards the future because we weren’t happy with our present. But at the same time our present was really real and it was just as important than us retreating into our imaginations. So, yeah, man, we essentially had to walk a line of both.
When you think about Sun Ra as an Afrofuturist and a slightly Afro Surrealist, you think about the music that he created, the world that he put himself in, but he also was a real person who dealt with the reality of being who he was in the state of America. He never forgot that, and he never became too wrapped up in the futurism that he forgot about what Black people meant to him and what he could transform Black people meaning to the world. That was something that stuck with me, especially from listening to his Berkeley lectures. I feel like it’s important for me to be able to put myself and my people in that time period, but at the same time, give an element of realism to relating all of that to things that I go through currently, ideas that I have currently, concepts that I’ve created in my head currently. It’s a way to stay grounded and to not lose people. Yeah, the future is cool, but not everybody can just really rock science fiction like that. You need a certain element to just ground people.