All killer, no filler, as the kids say. An instant classic.
Uncommon Nasa, the legendary East Coast emcee, producer and overall sound whiz, likes to talk. He can talk and talk and talk, but like many other unique New York City characters, he can also tell a story. His talking generally serves a purpose, it’s not merely idle chit chat. It’s possible that in the morning, you could leave Nasa on a street corner near his home in Staten Island, and by noon you’d find him surrounded by a crowd, talking about “that time when,” the once upon a time starter for all street corner poets.
Gajah, the legendary West Coast emcee, and founding member of hip hop underground stalwarts Acid Reign, likes to talk, too, but he is more deliberative and circumspect when he speaks. Gajah can also tell a story, with a facility few others possess, and he has done so both with Acid Reign and on his solo records, since the 1990s. You could probably leave Gajah alone in Leimert Park in the morning, and by afternoon find him battle rapping with all-comers, slaying challengers left and right.
It was perhaps divine providence then, when, like the beginning of any good story, the two men found themselves sitting at a bar in a Phoenix, Arizona club. It was circa 2014, or perhaps 2016. (Like with all good stories, dates can be fuzzy.) The old friends were touring together. They had just finished performing and a DJ was entertaining the audience. He was playing an eclectic set, and the crowd was jumping.
“He played everything back to back, and it made no sense,” Nasa says, “and he was killing it. Latin, folk, rock, early rap. You name it.”
Then, a European synth pop song from the 1980s began to play, and Nasa was hypnotized.
“It was like a Prince inspired production, or in between like Kraftwerk and Prince. And just hearing those kind of vibes, and seeing people, like us, who had never heard the song before, it was so fresh.”
Walking out to the car after a long night, “the song was stuck in our heads,” Nasa says. “The song crystallized the fun of being on the road, the fun of being in front of people live, and the fun of watching someone else do their thing. There’s something magical about that, and that’s what we wanted to capture, the genesis of what we wanted to capture with the name.”
The band was Denmark’s Laid Back, and the song was “White Horse.” Later, Gajah reminds us that he had in fact heard the song before, but that the moment in the club in Phoenix inspired him as well.
“For me, it all spawned from that dance party” after the show, Gajah says. “Wow.”
What that dance party spawned for the two men, was a group collaboration and the release at the end of September of their duo’s self-titled, debut album, White Horse, on Uncommon Records. The record is a compact, lean collection of eight songs, that detail the amazing and the absurd, the weird and the discomfiting, all discovered while driving between shows, throughout the American Southwest.
“Everything on the album was influenced by our travels,” Gajah says. The two artists were “soaking in everything as we went along, having a great experience and really, having the time of our lives.” On the record “we’re not talking about performing together. We’re explaining our travels, and encountering the strangeness, overall,” and the subject matter helped to create a hip hop album full of humor and heart, the bizarre and the beatific. White Horse is alternative rap’s On The Road, except here, our protagonists don’t make it east of Texas, and they still have plenty of material to work with.
After he graduated from high school, Uncommon Nasa faxed his resume to Ozone Studios on Pearl Street, in Manhattan, and was hired there as an intern. Right away, the studio put him to work on Company Flow’s “Patriotism,” which later appeared on Soundbombing II, the second album in the respected series by Rawkus Records. Company Flow included three renowned underground artists, Bigg Jus, DJ Mr. Len, and a guy who rapped and produced, and went by the moniker El Producto. The group’s 1996 EP, Funcrusher Plus, is an underground classic, familiar to hip hop heads everywhere.
When Ozone collapsed, Company Flow’s manager asked Nasa to be the group’s full-time recording and mixing engineer, at Definitive Jux, the record label co-founded by El-P, the former El Producto, and now one half of Run The Jewels. Nasa worked on Company Flow’s single, “D.P.A.,” and at the same time formed his own group called The Presence. In 2003, Def Jux released that group’s single, “Woke.” The label also released one of the most heralded albums of the hip hop underground, Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein, in 2001.Through Def Jux, Nasa was also involved in two other of the label’s other ground-breaking records, El-P’s 2002 Fantastic Damage, and Aesop Rock’s Bazooka Tooth, from 2003. In 2004, Nasa started his own record label, Uncommon Records. All together, this accounts for a lot of hip hop history, and Nasa was there for it, and himself a pioneer in rap music’s evolving sound.
To hip hop aficionados, Gajah holds a similar pedigree. A veteran emcee and battle rapper, Gajah’s art was burnished in the fire of Project Blowed, an open mike workshop in Los Angeles, founded in 1994 by rappers Aceyalone and Abstract Rude. Project Blowed was a training ground for many artists who went on to influential roles in hip hop besides Gajah, including Ras G, Thavius Beck, Open Mike Eagle, Bus Driver, Freestyle Fellowship, Pigeon John and Myka 9. Gajah says that loyal attendees of the workshop could be accepted into the inner circle by O.G.s, such as Freestyle Fellowship, Abstract Rude, C.V.E. and Hip Hop Clan. The accepted few were then dubbed “Blowedians.”
Gajah went on to form Acid Reign, in Los Angeles, with two other area emcees, BeOnd and Olmeca, and the group released their first cassette, Acid Trip…a journey to the…, in 1997. After a brief hiatus, and solo releases, the group reunited and released Diversity, on Uncommon Records, in 2011. In 2015, Acid Reign collaborated with Gebo on the LP Losaka and, in 2019, the group reassembled and dropped a single, “Sosa.”
Gajah and Nasa go way back. Nasa became aware of Gajah’s art through Twitter, and a suggestion by Los Angeles rapper Subtitle. He heard a song from Gajah’s first solo album, Hair off my Chest, which was released in 2007. The song was “Harry Shoeman,” and the video for that song blew up Twitter.
“I heard the Hair on my Chest album,” Nasa says, “and after that Acid Reign had put together a record called Diversity, and that was put out by Uncommon Records in 2011. Then, we [worked on] Hands of Gold Are Always Cold,” Gajah’s solo record from 2014, also released by Uncommon Records. Nasa produced the album and is featured on several tracks.
In 2014 and 2016, Nasa and Gajah hit the road together, traveling in the American Southwest to promote their solo releases, in a series of dates they called The Gold Telephone Tour and the West Coast Halfway Tour.
“We created White Horse because we were touring together,” Nasa says. “We toured twice, and we really got to know each other, and we got to know how each of us thinks. It was a good fit, chemistry-wise, and it was during those tours that we formulated the ideas for White Horse.”
“We soaked everything in as we went along,” Gajah says.
Many rappers can brag or boast. They’re a dime a dozen. Plenty of artists can start feuds and throw shade. A lot of rappers are adept at pouring verbal gasoline on a simmering fire and turning an arcane spat into a full-blown conflagration. Evidence for this is available in every possible medium for listening to music. But not every rapper can tell a story. There is an art to telling a story with writerly detail and telling it with enough pizazz to get people to sing along, shout the chorus or study the words on the page. Just ask Slick Rick. Gajah and Nasa are just such artists, and this is not a back-handed compliment. This observation merely reinforces a truism that most people will recognize as fact: only a storyteller can tell a story; everything else is just a waste of words, a verbal trip to nowhere.
Consider these bars from “Written at Night,” the title cut from Nasa’s 2017 album: “My future rests on no beds/Like the first time that I saw it/Pitch dark, fluorescent light, ships through the night/Each step is more toward paranoia (watch out)/But peace is in the autonomy of these choices/Danger is freedom, fear on my half is emboldening/Like I carry all the concern with me/Strengthening my stance in every step, collected breath/I did this (me)/And when I finally do lay down my head/You’re best to know I found my life’s calling till I’m dead (till I’m dead).”
Nasa writes with what he calls a tone of “harsh wisdom,” but his writing is beautiful, too, and poetic, which is what you’d expect from a man, who in the end, considers himself a writer first.
Or, you can listen to Gajah’s “The Keys,” from his 2018 album, Poverty’s Prodigy: “Think back to the days you were younger/Reminisce on the innocence and embody that feeling, it still exists/Just close your eyes, take a deep breath and then release every demon that has possessed you in life, to find your peace/You’ll come to see that money is only a piece of paper/And all humans are equal viewed through the eyes of the maker.”
Preach, Brother Gajah.
While Nasa and Gajah both write with painterly precision, they differ in terms of flow and cadence. Gajah often spits like a machine gun, in a sing-song rhythm that is as elastic as it is fluid, like he’s verbally shooting down metal ducks in a Coney Island arcade. In the song “Seek and Gather,” from Hands of Gold, he repeatedly fires off the title of the song, and it’s a miracle that he doesn’t trip over his own tongue. Gajah keeps up the pace throughout the song, and you might begin to wonder, when the heck will this guy take a breath? (He does, but you won’t notice it.) Gajah’s voice is its own percussion instrument, and his vocal pyrotechniques will leave your mouth agape.
In contrast, Nasa’s flow is more conversational and declarative. In his deep and emotionally redolent ode to New York, 2019’s City as School, you can hear vivid examples of his approach to his art. He’s a no-nonsense emcee; he spits clearly and with authority and, in general, you know what he’s telling you because the lyrics aren’t buried in the mix. “Old Cats” is a stand-out from the album, and a good example of Nasa’s style, as well as his production. Where Gajah lulls you into submission with his technique, Nasa grabs you by the collar with his voice, and shakes you until you get what he’s driving at. Close your eyes and listen to “Best Laid Plans,” also from City as School. See what I mean? Nasa commands you to listen, and, damn it, you better listen.
If Nasa and Gajah were a comedy team, Gajah would probably be the straight man, but he’s not a hapless man, buffeted by events beyond his control. He’s laid back in temperament, with lean angular features, and a soft Southern California drawl in his speaking voice. When he says his partner’s name, he draws out the first “a’ and flattens it. He listens intently when you ask him a question and takes his time when he answers. Gajah gives the impression that he will sit with you all day and answer all of your questions with patience and kindness, no matter how absurd those questions might be. He makes a virtue of forbearance.
Nasa is stockier in build than his artistic sibling and he’s assertive in the way many New Yorkers are, straightforward and sometimes blunt, direct but not insensitive. He’s funny, in a wry sort of way but he conveys a sense of seriousness about what he says and what he does, too. It’s evident that the two men know each other well. They don’t quite finish each other’s sentences, but they share a commonality of experiences, which means a conversation can mean more to them than it does to you. Nasa is the yin to Gajah’s yang. Or, maybe, it’s the other way around.
As a concept, White Horse, the group and the album, was designed to capture some of the mysterious essence of travel on the open roads of the United States, the peculiar energy of the America between the coasts, in all its strange and wonderful glory. It’s a roman a clef, part tall tale, part “truth is stranger than fiction” escapades of two city guys out and about on the back roads of the United States. It is not a record about two musicians telling stories about life on the road, or about performing. “We may hint at that,” Gajah says, “but it’s broader than that. We’re explaining our travels in a unique sort of way. We’re explaining our travels overall.”
The album opens with “Preacher Men,” which is the one song that directly confronts the highs and lows of the performing lives of independent musicians. It’s a big, booming track, part revival tent meeting, part morning after bar room floor, slick with stale beer. Nasa sets the tone right away: “today you will hear two stories from the very bottom, so that you do not end up in this place yourself.” Gajah grabs the mike and starts spitting, triplets rolling off his tongue.
“We were booked to do a show in Tempe,” Nasa explains, “and it’s like eighteen other people performing that were not on the flyer, and they’re getting whatever time slot they showed up for. We ended up playing at like two in the fucking morning, which for me was five in the morning. You feel like you’re a failed preacher man.”
“We’re preaching to these three or four people, who stood there the whole night just to see us,” Gajah says. “They’re like the chosen few for us to spread the word to.”
“Fear & Loathing in Reno” reimagines Hunter Thompson, and trades the Las Vegas strip for its smaller cousin, billed as “the biggest little city in the world.” The song begins with the two men stuck in traffic and bickering in the car. It recounts a trip to a casino after the pair performed at a club called the Singer Social Club. “It had all these Singer sewing machines on the wall,” Nasa says.
“We ended up at the Sands Casino,” Gajah says, “and it was a crazy experience for us, just being lost in a casino.” Nasa was filming in the casino, and the footage was used for the video accompanying the song. “The whole experience had an aura to it. It was fun but there’s a little bit of paranoia, too, just like there was in the movie” with Johnny Depp, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
“Dead Rainbows” is gothic rap, with squiggly synthesizer lines and rumbling snares, desert-induced paranoia and unearthly visions. Oh, and dead armadillos.
“We did a drive from Tuscan to Las Cruces, and there was such bizarre roadkill. Armadillos,” Nasa says, with the awe of a guy who has probably not seen a live armadillo. “It sparked this idea of beautiful decay and lost dreams. Somehow even the best laid plans go awry.”
“My Life at Denny’s,” with its nursery rhyme chorus, is on its surface about every touring musician’s favorite restaurant, where you can get fresh food at any time of the day or night. “And when you don’t have any place to stay on a particular night,” Nasa says, “that’s where the Denny’s parking lot becomes important. You can take a nap for four hours and then hit the road again.” Facts.
“The Vape Pen of Destiny” does not involve time travel, Satan or a dark wizard. It does involve a depleted vape pen, a search for a battery, a Radio Shack, a menacing cousin and a pick-up truck. It was Texas, and according to Nasa, “the sun was super fucking bright.”
“I left my battery charger at a bar where we were playing,” Gajah says. “I woke up the next day feeling edgy, I guess we drank too much. I wanted to hit my vape, and it died after a couple of hits. That set us out on a mission to find a Radio Shack because it was the only place I could think of that could possibly carry a battery for my vape.”
Hilarity ensues and our heroes accomplish their mission, at a vape shop in Amarillo.
“Crossed Roads” was inspired by a night drive through Clarendon, Texas, a town with dozens of crosses made from PVC lining Highway 287, which runs through the town. The crosses are ten feet high and installed by a Clarendon resident who also erected signs that say “9/11 Tragedy Worse Things Coming! Find Jesus!” The song sounds menacing, like “Eminence Front,” slowed down and viscous, after spending a night in the desert tripping on peyote.
“It was pitch dark when we drove through,” Gajah says. There weren’t that many people around, “and it was kind of cool, even though it spooked us a bit.”
“Circus of Smoke,” the penultimate track on the album was almost an afterthought. The idea for the song developed sometime after the tours, when Gajah and Nasa were scouting for places to shoot a video.
“There was a smoke shop by my house in Los Angeles,” on York Boulevard, called Circus of Smoke, “right down the block from where we were filming,” Gajah says. “Nasa sent me more beats; we were chipping away at the album. And we got inspired and we wrote this song ‘Circus of Smoke’ and we refer everything [back] to Amarillo.”
“Amarillo was crazy, man. People showed us a lot of love, and there were a lot of unconventional hip hop fans, people with cowboy hats, old biker hoodies, shit like that,” says Nasa. “It was a really good, tight show.”
“You can smoke as much as you want, everywhere,” Gajah adds about Amarillo. “We exaggerated a little bit, but every time you’re out there rapping [on stage], the smoke is all up in your lungs and you kind of just roll with it.”
The album ends with a posse cut, “Late Night Truck Stop Cypher,” and it feels like an appropriate way to close out the album. It’s not bloated or overdone; it’s an homage to cyphering, a long tradition in hip hop culture.
“The whole point of the song was to embrace the Blowedian traditions, the East Village tradition, with people cyphering on street corners,” Nasa says.
“What I take away from it,” Gajah says, “it’s as if everyone met at this spot randomly, by chance and we had a cypher.” (Editor’s note: And people, if you don’t know what cyphering is, I can’t help you.)
It’s a fitting end to an album that respects hip hop traditions, but presses forward with unique storytelling, rhyming and production, two masters of the art, forging new paths, and diminishing other so-called rappers in the process. Or, as White Horse puts it, “this album isn’t about the glory of the stage, it’s about the trauma of the paths taken to get to that moment.” Fortunately, we can experience the paths taken and forgo the trauma. Let the professionals take care of that.