Namir Blade used quarantine time to finish his concept album Aphelion’s Traveling Circus, a ruminative, otherworldly soundscape of a hip-hop project, mostly on his own in his East Nashville home.
“I was a mad man,” he laughs. “I was a maniac in the living room, like, in this very seat.”
Just to clarify, Blade is using his home studio setup to record himself recounting how he recorded himself. Speaking with WNXP over Zoom, he’s surrounded by the tools of his self-sufficient trade, including a cardboard box of samplers and synthesizers, a guitar, a bass and even a cello.
He started his pursuit of sounds at age 6. A lot of kids that age listen to kid stuff, or whatever the adults in their lives play around the house. But Blade actually found a musical muse—in the video game “Chrono Trigger.”
“From the beginning intro soundtrack, there’s like this really soft piano and it’s like, ‘Doo, doo, doo, doo, doo,’” he rhapsodizes. “And then the rest of it builds and then it goes into the main theme, which is just this epic theme that has this sense of adventure, uncertainty, etc. It’s just life-changing to listen to it. I became obsessed with it to the point where I’d play the game just to listen to the soundtrack, because I was just like, ‘This is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. This sounds like my dreams.’”
Blade was determined to figure out how to recreate those cinematic melodies in real life. Ridiculed at school for wearing coke bottle glasses, he’d hurry home to his battery-powered keyboard. “I wanted friends,” he recalls, “but not a lot of people wanted to be friends with me. And I was just like, ‘Well, these things are my friend. This music is my friend. These video games, like, anime is my friend.’ And they just kind of just been with me.”
By 6th grade, he had a drum machine, and a couple of friends his age, and they all rapped. They’d get on three-way phone calls and record their beginners’ bars into a tape recorder. Blade remembers one afternoon when they dialed up record labels they found in the Yellow Pages: “We’re little dudes. The world is our oyster at this point. And we call and the guy answers the phone. He’s like, ‘Hello, this is Oh Boy Records. This is so-and-so.’”
Oh Boy Records is the indie label started by legendary folk-country singer-songwriter John Prine—but Blade and his cohorts didn’t know that. All they knew was that they should let the one group member who’d hit puberty make their pitch. Blade comically lowers his voice to act out the stammering: “He’d be like, ‘Um, we’re interested in, um, doing some, doing some label business.’”
Blade’s group did not get to do business, but he started putting himself out there more when he went to magnet schools with other arty kids, took a class on audio technology and ventured into Nashville’s hip-hop scene. He spent the end of high school with family in rural West Tennessee and joined a band that played hardcore punk and thrash metal in a woodshed. Then he spent a couple of semesters at MTSU and switched to lo-fi, emo-inflected acoustic fare, recording as SoulCrusher, before ultimately circling back to hip-hop. “I just came back to rapping and making beats,” he explains, “and I’ve kind of just been using the elements that I learned from working with the other genres to help make my stuff diverse.”
Blade spent the rest of the 2010s experimenting, recording and producing under different monikers. He soaked up the ideas of jazz virtuoso and Afrofuturistic visionary Sun Ra, some nights going to sleep with Sun Ra’s lectures on loop. Then Blade had an artistic breakthrough making Aphelion’s Traveling Circus, and wanted the album to bear his real name, Namir.
He says he often had the sci-fi movie Blade Runner and some of his favorite Japanese anime films playing on his TV on mute for inspiration. The songs he shaped tell a story of people trying to not only survive, but thrive in the future. “When we’re in grim circumstances,” he reasons, “it’s good to look towards the future, because the future can kind of just give you a semblance of hope. I feel like as a Black man, in order to be able to maneuver through our current circumstances, and even our circumstances for the longest time, we had to look to the future.”
Blade put his sci-fi fascination to use, alongside technical skill and mischievous freestyling, but he also made his storytelling feel emotionally revealing. Listen to some of the lyrics, and the pensive way he delivers them, and you hear someone worrying that he’s ruined his chance at closeness. “That’s a big step for me,” he allows, “because, yeah, I come from where you just hide all your vulnerabilities behind all of these complex metaphors and multi-syllable words and all of that.”
This is a big step for Blade in every way—his first album to get a wide release through Mello Music; his first real taste of peer respect, critical praise and audience appreciation.
“I’m still dealing with trauma from being the unliked kid, so it’s cool,” he says. “The child in me is happy. The child in me is happy for the adult to me. Like, he’s jumping up, turning cartwheels just like, ‘You accepted and you didn’t have to compromise a thing. They love you anyway!””