Uncommon NASA Is the Rod Serling of Underground Hip-Hop
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.
Tyler Cavallero Uncommon NASA
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.