NOSAJ THING: YOU DROPPED THE BOMB ON ME
Nosaj Thing was in 40 Bands 80 Minutes with Wives, HEALTH and Abe Vigoda and then followed madman visionaries like Flying Lotus and Gaslamp Killer to Low End Theory. He now joins half the next generation of L.A. beatmakers on Daddy Kev’s Alpha Pup Records with his debut full-length Drift. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
What did it feel like on the first day after you got laid off?
I was scared, man! I worked five years straight—since I graduated high school, I had to get a job to help my parents out. I was working in a music store—I don’t wanna say their name because I kind of hate them!
You first learned music in public school—how important is that kind of education?
I didn’t take any extra-special classes. I was just kind of in the school music room, playing clarinet. And in high school, I joined drum line. It’s just developing your ear and a general understanding of basic music theory—being able to figure out melodies by hearing them. Learning about chord progressions. That helped a great deal. After high school, I took as many music classes as I could at a community college—East L.A. College. I grew up in Montebello.
Where would you have gone if you hadn’t started with music?
I remember in middle school and high school I was also into art. It seems kind of lame now, but I wanted to go into graphic design. But I got into hip-hop early. Third grade—kind of crazy! My parents enrolled me in a YMCA after-school program and the bus driver that picked us up always had on Power 106. I had no choice but to listen to that every day, and that’s when all the Beat Junkies were DJs on Power. I was really into it and fascinated by it. I didn’t understand how they made those sounds, being so young. When I got home, I used to record the mixes off the air on to tape. I didn’t understand the lyrics or anything, but I just liked the beats so much. And when they had electro nights on Friday, I really liked that, too. I really liked how the Beat Junkies did beat juggling. They don’t really do that at Power anymore. The first time I got into DJing I was in eighth grade and one of my best friends was a tomboy girl, and her older brother had the set-up. I’d go over every day and just scratch and mix.
What else were you into in third grade besides the fundamentals of hip-hop? Like Saturday morning cartoons and cheap candy?
I was really into rollerskating! There was a roller rink next to my house called Skate Depot, and they always played really good music. Songs like ‘All Night Long,’ ‘You Dropped The Bomb On Me.’ I used to go listen to the music and roller skate. I went there the first time for a birthday party and I always wanted to go after that. In eighth grade and my freshman year of high school, I was also introduced to the rave scene. As I got more and more into it, I was wondering how people make this stuff. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, it was when a lot of hip-hop was giving props to the producers in the song—guys would talk about Dre a lot or the Neptunes and they’d be in the videos—‘Oh wow, these are the guys making these beats?’ I was going to Guitar Center or something and messing around with gear and I was really inspired and just wanted to do it! When I was a freshman, an older friend hooked me up with a bootleg of Reason. I installed it on my dad’s computer.
Next to like Microsoft Word and QuickBooks?
Yeah, boring programs! I was pretty much on the computer all the time—I was an internet geek at an early age. I wasn’t into anything else. I wasn’t really good at sports. I was in little league!
What was your most shocking rave experience?
I had to pretty much lie to my parents to go, so that was scary already! I was scared of getting in trouble. I was like 13. I’d tell them I was going to a friend’s house.
What do you think about Low End Theory’s Unreleased Beat Invitationals?
To me it’s not about showcasing your music—it’s about sharing with everyone. Everyone knows that at showcases, they’re there to showcase the latest thing they’ve made that no one else has ever heard. It’s exciting. We’re all there to learn and progress, and that’s what Low End is about.
Where did you feel most at home before?
Before that, at experimental noise venues like the Smell and Il Corral. I played 40 Bands 80 Minutes. That actually really influenced me for live performance—just by seeing all these bands and artists, I was really motivated and inspired to do stuff on my own. A good friend of mine always took me to the Smell in high school. That influenced my sound. I liked to check out bands not from L.A., so just seeing different acts using different instruments—every time I went there, there were always new ideas everywhere. Even local bands like Abe Vigoda and HEALTH. I think mainly noise bands were a cool idea for me. At first it was really odd to see someone just perform with a guitar pedal, but then I thought that was really cool and another way to express things. With my music and electronic music in general, I pretty much do the same thing.
Do you find that noise offers a purer experience? Or purer expression?
I think so. It’s more related to creating the sounds. When I start a song, I’m just messing with sound design to fit the mood I’m in. That definitely relates to artists at the Smell as far as noise. It feels like you’re not as limited with just musical notes. When I first start a song, I don’t really think about what type of song I’m gonna do first. It’s just improv—messing around. To me, it’s therapeutic. Most of the time it’s an 8-bar loop to get out what I need to get out and I’ll call it done. And if it sounds good later, I’ll build it out—make it complete. It’s done when—I can just tell. I try to find all gaps within the skeleton to complete it. I try to stay away from making it too complex—I try to use the least amount of sounds as possible but still make that point or feel. Sometimes I don’t even remember what the initial emotion was, but if I come back, I’ll add to it based on how I feel at that time. There’s no lyrics or anything, so it’s not specific to one emotion. What I hope to do is reach out to whoever’s listening to take it their own way.
What do you relate to most that’s on the radio now?
On a straight-up pop station? I haven’t been listening to radio much but interestingly enough, whenever I do, I always go back to listening to Power. That’s where I started! I listen just to see what’s going on—just to be up to date. It seems over the years, the song selection is getting smaller and smaller. For the past month, they’ve been playing the same four songs over and over. I don’t know what’s going on. They can’t really take any risks in this economy.
How do you feel about Daddy Kev calling you one of the next generation of L.A. beatmakers?
I feel like I’m the newer guy in whatever you wanna call it—a scene or whatever. The age difference and the music growing up—I don’t have the knowledge that all the other guys from Low End Theory have, and I’m just kind of the more video-game Internet generation, you know? After a while I was able to save enough to buy an MPC and when I first got it—after I glorified that thing so much!—I was disappointed because of how slow it was! I was working with software and everything was instant. Going to an MPC felt like a step back. Through time I learned—I appreciate those guys and love what they do and love the sound, but I wanna utilize what’s new. The new tools. Most of my stuff is software-based. I have a few synths. Everything is more accessible easily now. That changes the whole writing process—everything is right there. If I didn’t have this stuff, the sound would be more dated. With software, you can have such a huge palette and such a cheap price. Almost every synth ever made is now in a software-emulation version. All sampled in, every single note. You can just call them up. You have every single sound you could ever imagine on a laptop. There’s nothing to hold you back—you could do this anywhere! It should make music that much more interesting—it’s supposed to!
We’ve talked to other L.A. beatmakers and they do what they do without any thought to including future vocals. The music is done as it is.
I’m the same way. I was always into the beats all the time—Dre beats, Timbaland, Premier, Neptunes—and I really enjoyed just the groove and feel in the production. That’s what got me most into it. When I bought Regulate and Doggy Style, I didn’t understand the lyrics—and those weren’t lyrics for a third-grader to listen to!—so I just listened to the flow percussively. It was more of an instrument. That went into my head. It was just another instrument. From listening to Dre’s songs, I’m sure he has a say in how Snoop and Nate Dogg deliver their lines. All that stuff is really simple. There’s no bullshit. Every part is there for a reason. That’s why it works. A lot of people say hip-hop is too repetitive and so simple—that’s what makes it great to me! House music is the same way. It’s so hard to make something so simple and good. I learned from all those productions and songs. I’m not trying to make it too busy. It’s more just to write a song—I’m still learning.
Nobody said that now we’re the children of hip-hop the way a lot of British bands were the children of rhythm and blues. What do you think? Is that what Low End is about?
That’s really cool. I was really excited to hear about Low End when it was announced. When I was growing up DJing, I was really into scratching—the Beat Junkies, the Skratch Piklz—and also into the whole rave scene, and after starting production and releasing something on my own, seeing these artists and DJs come around into the hybrid night was very exciting for me. The thing that draws me—it’s all about kind of progressing. Doing new stuff. It’s open for everybody—it’s not just one type of music! They have bands there. What really excites me is it creates a platform for anyone to just step up and showcase their music. With all this Internet and social networking, it’s a place you can showcase your music in reality—not virtually, you know?
What instrument are you best at playing?
I’m not really good at any instrument. I’m OK on guitar. I’d like to get better on piano. I can hear a song and figure it out, but I can’t play a crazy classical masterpiece.
What video game are you best at then?
I’m not really good at video games either!
NOSAJ THING’S RECORD RELEASE PARTY WITH GUESTS TBA PLUS DADDY KEV, NOBODY, GASLAMP KILLER, D-STYLES AND NOCANDO ON WED., JUNE 10, AT LOW END THEORY AT THE AIRLINER, 2419 N. BROADWAY, LOS ANGELES. 10 PM / $5-$10 / 18+. MYSPACE.COM/LOWENDTHEORYCLUB. NOSAJ THING’S DRIFT RELEASES TUE., JUNE 9, ON ALPHA PUP. VISIT NOSAJ THING AT NOSAJTHING.COM OR MYSPACE.COM/NOSAJTHING.