Record of the Week: Negro Justice’s ‘Chosen Family’

Christin Brown, who performs as Negro Justice, always believed in the concept of choosing your own family and building a support system around you. Whether those people are blood or not, he knew that you could surround yourself with your very own chosen family.

A member of local hip-hop collective Six One Tribe, Brown filled his debut solo album with jazzy beats and revealing storytelling, along with encouraging voice messages from friends and family and collaborations with local artists from the scene he’s part of, including his “right hand man” producer Aaron Dethrage. So, calling the album Chosen Family seemed fitting.

Born in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Brown moved to Nashville when he was seven. Although he still has family and friends in Bowling Green and goes back to visit, he calls Nashville home.

“I claim both,” Brown said. “I’m not trying to be Usher out here not claiming Chattanooga. You would be surprised how good of a spot Bowling Green is for music and culture. It’s only just about an hour North of Nashville. I love Bowling Green, but I tell people I’m from Nashville and I love it. I love being a Tennessean.”

The house he used to live in was in the same neighborhood where my aunt lives. He used to call it the “Lily Pad.” That’s where he first started recording music.

“Just with a little janky-ass laptop and Audacity [recording software],” he said. “The first time I was setting up to record, I was so nervous because I had a bunch of my close friends there with me, people that were excited and people I’ve sent lyrics to that believed in me trying to pursue music. I was at panic attack-level nervous, and it was just me and my friends in my house. I went into my little booth with all my church clothes and stuff.”

He doesn’t remember what he rapped about in that first verse, but does say that if he could go back and listen, he would probably laugh at himself. But once he laid down the verse down in the booth, he came out and immediately wanted to perfect it.

Pursuing music further, he made songs early on without professional mixing or mastering that he never released. But when he heard them back, he thought they sounded well-structured.

“We might be on to something,” he said. “So those are two big moments that led me to be like, ‘I might actually want to rap for real.’”

In 2018, Brown released his first project The Negro Justice. In the years since, he released a collection of singles, including “Pops Was A Chef” and “Dutch Master’s Thesis,” solo projects The Stimulus EP and follow-up The Second Stimulus Package and a couple of collaborative efforts, Two Ronin: A Short Story EP, made with producer Cal Cuttah Beats, and Resplendent, made with Gee Slab, who’s also featured on Chosen Family.

Even with better mixing and mastering, thanks to working with Dethrage at Eastside Manor studios, Brown is still honing his craft using his previous projects as game tape. Before his recent 5 Spot show, Dethrage sent him instrumentals so that the rapper could rehearse in his car.

“As I’m rehearsing, I’m doing different inflections with my voice, different ways I will deliver certain lines,” Brown said. “I get the song to a finished point, but I’m always looking at it with an analytical lens. It’s not that I think I didn’t do a good enough job. It’s just always thinking of ways you can improve it.”

Chosen Family is a culmination of all of his learning, his rises and falls. He’s using this album to deal with the trauma in his own life, with the hope that it will help others deal with their own.

Although his voice is the primary focus, during songs like “George Jefferson Strut” and throughout the album, you can see him spotlighting depth and solidary not only in the Nashville’s hip-hop and R&B scene, but within his own inner circle. Brown wants this music to help you get through your toughest moments, and feel confidence and swagger within yourself while you do. Because he knows that your support system, your chosen family, can help you get through it.

On the Record: A Q&A with Negro Justice and Aaron Dethrage

Marquis Munson: When you announced the release of this album, you mentioned how 2021 was filled with a lot of blessings in your personal life, despite the universe trying to bring pain and turmoil. You wanted to hone your craft on this record. Do you feel like this record embodies all those ups, downs, highs and lows?

Negro Justice: I really feel like this album is the culmination of all those things. There are moments on this album as I was creating it that I became so much more confident, even in my own vocal performance and delivery. I would go back and redo songs that we had recorded early on in the process. Everyday I can feel myself growing and progressing as an artist. I felt like I was able to capture all those things. I was able to capture what was on my mind, process some trauma, and process some stuff I went through. So yeah, absolutely.

MM: So growing up, who were some of your musical influences, and do you find yourself drawing inspiration to those artists now?

NJ: Growing up, it was a eclectic mix. As far as hip-hop, my earliest favorite rapper I remember having was Jadakiss, and I still love his music because to this day, that dude is cold. He was a big influence on me. I’d say, like, Ludacris, Jay-Z and not as much growing up, but back in college years I got into a big indie rap phase. That’s why I discovered Das Racist. Kool A.D. is actually on the album; he’s a part of Das Racist with Dapwell and Heems, and he’s one of the homies. So him and Nickelus F, an artist from Richmond. Nicholas F is my favorite rapper, and Kool A.D. is right behind them. Especially with Kool A.D., getting into him as an adult and then pursuing hip-hop; if you listen to him and then listen to some of my stuff, you can definitely hear some of the influences, the cadence and flow. I love how effortless he sounds when he raps. I try to do that in my raps, as far as the delivery and things like that.

MM: So you mentioned coming up and rapping with your friends. How did the collective Six One Tribe all come together?

Aaron Dethrage: A few years ago, I started looking around at the Nashville hip-hop scene and trying to figure out ways that I could fit in. Initially, Six One Tribe was conceptualized as a tornado relief record back in March of 2020, and then COVID came around on the heels of the tornado. So it kind of killed the momentum of doing something really in the moment. We just did an interview with the Nashville Scene with the core of the Six One Tribe family. And it was weird to go back and look at it, because we realized that quarantine really gave us an opportunity to bond and form something a lot deeper than that. It’s just a community trying to bring resources and collaboration to artists that were struggling to find that.

Nashville historically has not been particularly good to hip-hop artists, in terms of opening doors for them and giving them opportunities to have studio time and the same professional resources that are available to everybody else. So I started Six One Tribe, and Eastside Manor, we opened our doors as a way to try and fix some of that. To give people a place where they can come and make a record, like we did with Chris, and really explore their full potential. Give people a chance to get out of the bedroom and work in a space that allows them to be a little more creative and a little more ambitious with what they’re doing.

MM:  I can ask both of you this question: being in Nashville and being a part of this scene, have you guys seen the awareness surrounding local hip-hop and R&B change throughout the years?

AD: I want to definitely take any opportunity I can. I have WNXP coasters sitting on our table in the studio, so that anytime people come in, I get to talk to them about it. But hearing WNXP for the first time was huge for me. I’ve lived here for almost 15 years and when I heard WNXP, I heard Namir Blade playing on the radio for the first time in Nashville. I heard Mike Floss that same weekend. And then you were spinning in De La Soul and Run the Jewels, MF Doom. I was just driving around my city for the first time, feeling like I could turn on the radio and hear what I wanted. And people were looking for people in the city that were doing that for the first time. That was huge for me, because four or five years ago, when I was first trying to tap into the hip-hop scene here, none of that was happening. There wasn’t an outlet on the radio like that.

NJ: I haven’t been in the music scene, let alone the hip-hop scene, as long a lot of other folks that are established here. But what I noticed was there are a lot of music genres represented in Nashville. But I feel like they get really compartmentalized. I don’t want it to sound like I’m saying everyone’s in a clique and everyone keeps to themselves. But when I would go to punk rock shows, it was usually, like, one type of person in the crowd or a few different types of people. And then you have an eclectic mix of people at a hip-hop show, but there’s room for any of those audiences to overlap. Whether it’s hip-hop, funk, electronic dance, there’s room for these audiences to overlap.

One of my good friends, her fiancé is in a punk rock band here and we played a show with them. And then one of the other bands that was there from Knoxville needed someone to join their bill because they had someone drop off. They asked me and Aaron if we wanted to come up there to Knoxville and rap just on a whim. The next day was the show in Knoxville. We did it, and we go up there to play for all these punk rock fans, and they loved it because they loved hip-hop. They didn’t know who I was. They didn’t know I was going to be there. All they knew was the other act fell off the bill and they filled it with somebody. Here I come, Negro Justice, in the middle of Knoxville, Tennessee [Laughs]. So there’s opportunities for a lot of cooperation, support, a united front with the different genres that are here.

AD: I feel like the internet is breaking down a lot of those barriers. For the first time, people are able to see a lot of the commonalities between things that used to feel really different when we were growing up. Chris talks about punk rock; when I was in high school, that was the thing that I was into. But it wasn’t until I was an adult that I started to see the same place a lot of the hip-hop spirit comes from represented in a different way in punk rock. I feel like there’s a new generation that’s coming up that those lines are a lot more blurred. People are able to appreciate both a little more.

MM: On this album, there is a strong representation of the depth of the hip-hop and R&B scene with appearances from Amber Woodhouse, Gee Slab, FU Stand and many others representing the scene. Was that by design, not only put a focus on yourself, but your chosen family with artists throughout the city?

NJ: So the chosen family is a lot of different layers. Talking about the album and the philosophy, the word I kept coming back to was “village.” Six One Tribe, village, these community-type of environments. I knew I wanted that element on my album and I wanted different voices. Obviously, my voice would be the thing united to carry it through, but I wanted a lot of different voices represented. I wanted people that did music, people that didn’t do music, people that were blood-related, not blood-related, nontraditional family. Any person that I’ve managed to incorporate into my circle that helped make me feel like I’m part of something bigger, which is what I like. I like feeling like I’m apart of a bigger picture and a bigger plan.

MM: Is that how you came up with the album title Chosen Family?

NJ: One of the things that I live by, before I wrote a single lyric, was, “You choose your own family.” I’ve been saying that for years. As the idea started to form, that came to my head as an album title: you choose your own family. Aaron just flipped it around [to] Chosen Family just to make it a little more punchier and roll off the tongue nicer.

MM: When making this album, was it you and Aaron in a room together bouncing ideas off each other? Are you one of those artists that likes to be isolated with the instrumental? What was the creative process making this album?

NJ: Most of the sessions were done with the people that were involved on the song. So for example, if me and Chan Tate or me and Gee Slab were working on the song, we would have the beat to write and compose the song together. Then we would take it to Aaron at the studio to record together. That was one thing I was big on throughout the whole process, was being as present as I could for every piece of it. Whether it was the songwriting, mixing, mastering. Aaron would tell you, it takes a special kind of person to be interested in mixing and mastering a song. And me and Aaron are that type of person. [Laughs]

AD: You would bring friends along. And I’m like, “your poor friends are going to have to sit here and listen to the same loop over and over again.” So they would fall asleep on the couch, and you and I would just be in it.

NJ: Kenny didn’t care [Laughs].

AD: Kenny was great. He’s his cousin, and he was there for almost every session. He was really a  big part, in my mind, being an anchor for Chris through the whole record, since so much of it was about family and about personal stuff. Kenny was really there to affirm Chris through a lot of it, and that was cool.

NJ: It was dope having my cousin there.

MM: Speaking of family, talking about some of the references on this album, there’s a lot of mentions of your pops on this project, including some audio messages throughout the album. How influential was your pops not only the music that you make, but just the person you would become and you would share on this record?

NJ: There would be no Negro Justice without David Chapman Sr. It was so wild because I talk about having a strained relationship with my mother on the album. My grandmother passed away, my father passed away. Especially as an adult, having a good relationship with my dad was amazing. We never had a bad relationship, but I feel like some things were kept hidden from me that I should have known growing up.

I talked earlier about how this album was processing trauma, and when my dad passed away, I was mad at him. So it was interesting to hear those voicemails and writing these songs and just be like, “Nah man, we’re good.”

So I say on “G.T.S.H.,” “I got it honest, I got it from him.” First of all, if you look at a picture of my dad from his childhood, it is me with an afro. I’m his twin. I look more like him than any of his kids. My love of music and my sense of humor I get from him. So I know that he influences the music I make. I know he would like the music. He would love the music I make. So absolutely, he is always present.

MM: There’s more audio messages on here from your friends to your wife. How important was it for you to highlight all these people on this record?

NJ: It was very important, because that’s one of the big ways I was illuminating the nontraditional family aspect of it. I wanted to show all these different types of people I know from all these different corners of the world that I have real relationships with. It’s not just like, “Hey, we’re friends for clout or we’re Internet friends or whatever.” I’m part of these people’s communities. I interact with them and I’ve had very real conversations with them.

The voice messages were Aaron’s idea, I believe. I’m going to give you credit for that. So that really sparked it off. Once I started getting messages from people, I started getting an idea of the kinds of things I wanted them to do. I would give everyone the same prompt, but every message was very different and very unique to that person and their relationship with me. So you see I got people’s personality in every one of those voicemails and the ones on the album are a fraction of the ones that I got back from people.

AD: When you hear someone talk about losing their father and their grandmother, having an estranged relationship with their mom, it kind of paints a picture of somebody that has lost a support system. And the crazy thing about Chris was I felt like he had one of the biggest, tightest families of anyone I’d ever met. It wasn’t a traditional family like what you would expect, but it was just as meaningful and just as supporting and encouraging. It just manifest in so many different ways and so many different types of communities it kind of became the whole focus of the record. That was so much a part of who he is. That’s what the record would be about.

MM: There is another great reference on this album that’s a big part of the culture and that is the “George Jefferson Strut.” The legendary walk made famous by the great Sherman Hemsley. But what was the meaning for you behind that song?

NJ: I love talking about the song because “George Jefferson Strut” was the first song we did for the album. That was the very first song we recorded. We had a session with me, Aaron, Stan, Slab and Corduroy Clemens. I had a verse and the hook written for this song. We workshopped the hook a little bit. We changed a couple of lines. I had a couple of pieces in place and I intentionally left some pieces out of place to figure it out when I got there. I got Stan, Slab, and Corduroy here and I’m like, “All right, I can’t let this moment slip through my fingers.” I got this collection of energy here.

So I got the hook laid down and we just had the hook looping. Everyone was writing their verses. And I’m like, “Okay, everybody loves the beat, everybody wants to get on this song. I got a little posse cut on my hands. How do I get everyone on this song without making it six minutes long?” We had the idea of everyone doing half a verse, everyone doing eight bars, so that way I’m still the first voice you hear on the song in the hook and I still do a verse. So I’m prominent on the song, but I still get everyone else on it and everyone is showcased. It was dope and it’s very well structured. So that’s the centerpiece right there.

MM: If this album is someone’s introduction to Negro Justice, after they listen to Chosen Family start to finish, what do you want them to take away from the stories you share on this project?

NJ: It sounds a little cliché, but, “You’re not alone. You have the power to create a support structure.” And it’s real easy to do that, and things start to happen easily and organically when you’re just a good person, a nice person and it don’t take much. Be confident in yourself, be humble, but know that you’re out here.

Talk about playful, braggadocios on songs like “Folks Out Here”; that’s the kind of energy I want to give people. I want you to feel yourself, but I want you to be humble too, but I also want you to have a good time. I don’t know, man. I just want you to feel something. If anybody heard the album and it reminded them of something they were going through in their own life, their own family, something that they could relate to, then I did my job.