‘The Uptown Interview’ is a series of candid conversations with some of D.C.’s cultural influencers in an attempt to interpret and preserve the artistic heritage of the city.
Nate Gski is a native Washingtonian from Takoma Park, to be exact. A stint in North Carolina following high school at Duke Ellington School of the Arts led to a working relationship with record executive/producer 9th Wonder. Returning to the District in 2010, his Gness has been a constant figure amidst an evolving cultural scene. In a recent conversation, he touched on his partnership with Afro Velvet, hip-hop today vs. hip-hop of the 90s, and ‘Nate G Unplugged’ the show that reignited this ‘Exploding Plastic Inevitables’ type interdisciplinary experience prevalent in the District today. Read on for a greater context of one of your peers, you might learn something new.
NG: …In the midst of it all it’s fucking great, you know what I’m saying? Because at the end of it all, we always see that show was amazing and we did go through a lot of shit in the process to make it happen. But it’s always worth it. And then of course because we date and we’re together, there’s always that extra sort of being sensitive to not only you working with another artist but your partner. It’s something we have to be aware of. We have to be conscious of it and it takes effort.
MY: How did your relationship [with Afro Velvet] come about?
NG: Ah, man, I actually met her at a show. I was performing with one of my good friends Vaughn the-God-Sent El, and she had a performance, too. I was like, “Yea, that shit is tight.” So, that was the first time I met her, and then not too long after that, we had come across space at this warehouse, Nomad Yards. We both wanted to utilize the space. We both wanted to collaborate on something. She had an idea for this fashion show, ‘100% Cacao’ and that was pretty much her show showcasing her designs, her vision put together. I found myself in that sense helping her behind the scenes put the whole thing together. A lot of ideas, I had ideas. But for the most part, it was an Afro Velvet show. That was the first time we collaborated. Collaborating with another artist, you have to leave mind for speaking up for the things you want to see represented while supporting someone else. In that sense, we made something beautiful.
MY: And that helped your relationship progress or were you guys already in a stage where you were feeling each other? What came first?
NG: The art came second.
NG: It was definitely second. Before that, it was all ‘Netflix n’ chill.’ You know, once you get to know a person and what they’re into…I would say we definitely became friends first and then we started digging into art shit. It was just a natural thing. We didn’t have to talk about it, we just sort of did it. She became very interested in what I was doing, and she wanted to manage me. Not in a classical sense as a manager, going out and busting down doors and shit like that, but she really helped me manage my brand. She definitely helped me bring a different element of presentation to everything. We actually worked on an EP together. It’s called Not Just a Body.
MY: That’s what I heard at Ctrl Space CMD, right?
NG: Yea, we did that in Pittsburgh.
MY: Bro, I’m from Pittsburgh! What’s the connection?
NG: So, her brother–
MY: Babyt33th, also lit.
NG: He lives out there. He also had a son a year ago and some change. We were babysitting, but it wasn’t really babysitting because he’s her nephew. So, we were up there for about a week and it was just me and her and her nephew, Milo. And my man had sent me some beats–he sent out a little zip folder.
MY: How many songs is it?’
NG: Just three tracks. The baby was sleep and we just listened to it. I think we wrote the whole EP in a night, and the next night we recorded the whole thing. And then I think we spent about three or four months just tweaking it and EQ-ing it–putting different flavors into it. We learned a lot. Once we made the EP we were like, ‘Okay, what do people who make EPs do? What’s the next step?’ We learned a lot about performing, electronic press kits, and a lot of the background shit. Not Just a Body was a beautiful project in the sense that we didn’t even think about what we were writing, so much so we just vibed and captured the times.
MY: It’s a deep album, though.
NG: Yea, it was organic. It was natural. I think that’s why it was so deep. It was like a conversation you might have with your close buddies at two, three in the morning–talking about some real shit after a party. It was a conversation with like-minded folks. I feel like because we were on that same wavelength it hit home. It hit home because it was just conversation. We intend on making the whole Not Just a Body album. It’s already complete by now…the cover, too, like we were butt-ass naked on the cover, tryna be vulnerable, man. It was like ‘original man and original woman.’
MY: Do you see yourself continuing that kind of partnership as far as your music and art careers go?
NG: Uh, I feel like it’s a question I can’t answer because I don’t think we really sat down and decided to do so in the first place. I just know it’s naturally going to come. Like, I’ve been on the street and this was the first time this ever happened to me.. Somebody stops me and he’s like, ‘Yo, aren’t you Afro Velvet?’ And I was so fucking pissed. I’m like, “Nahh, that’s not me. That’s my girl.” But, you know it’s good and then it’s fucking good. I can’t say it’s bad. She was making her joint from jump street…
MY: You can see the chemistry. For me, I didn’t have to know that you guys dated to see that you guys work well together. I wanted to talk about your relationship with D.C. Where are you from in the District?
NG: Northwest. I grew up in Takoma Park.
MY: How’d you get in touch with Jamal?
NG: Jamal-fucking-Gray. Jamal Gray. So, after high school, I spent maybe a year or so up here. I graduated in ’06. This was just before all of the cats that got locked up, I think in the late eighties–a lot of OG’s went to jail–this is right before a lot of these cats hit the streets. This was right at the time where blogs were big, sneaker culture was huge, and Wale hadn’t quite popped the bubble being that person to represent D.C., yet. I went to North Carolina to spend some time with M-1 Platoon, they were all working with 9th Wonder at North Carolina Central University. Then I came home around 2010. Around 2010, this was just after [Fat] Trel had popped and Pure Lounge, 360 Music Group, Studio, and Phil Ade was going. Wale was on, Fat Trel was the next cat from D.C. This was before Maybach Music Group and Bohemian Caverns on U Street. I met Jamal Gray up there right around the same time I met Mr. Selecta and StephisDope. We were doing a lot of stuff with Tyrone Norris. He had their thing called ‘D.C. Rap.’ He was a character. He put on a lot of shows in D.C. Man, when you talk about an underground cat who didn’t really do it for himself necessarily, but he put a lot of us on–gave cats their first shows and shit. Like when you talk about hustlers like me, Jamal, Mr. Selectah, StephisDope, like he gave some of us some of our first platforms to jump off of. Of course, Selectah doesn’t spin at hip-hop shows anymore, but that’s where he was breaking into meeting certain people and getting a feel for what he wanted to do. So, Bohemian Caverns was a huge platform for all of us to grow up. And then from there when I knew Jamal, he was running an open mic and then he moved into the Everlasting Life Cafe era. And that was when we had The Carryout, The Kool Klux Klan, you know, I’m sure you’re familiar with that era.
MY: I’m learning. So, I know Kool Klux Klan a little bit. That’s Sir E.U, right?
NG: That’s Sir E.U and this other cat AV, Avion.
MY: I know about him. He’s sadly not here anymore.
NG: Yea, he transitioned on. He and E.U were like Goku and Vegeta, the Red and Blue Dragons, fucking Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, man, back-to-back. When you talk about two phenoms that really fed off one another and really pushed each other creatively and in competition–formed a brotherhood–they were fucking lit. But not just them: G’town Wayne, Logic around that time…
NG: Yea, yea. Logic used to [come around], Sir Childish, Keylow–anybody who raps now was probably there–Unc Nasty, Raheem Supreme, Money for Drugs Ciscero…the whole Wop. Before the Whop was the Whop they were the Kool Klux Klan.
MY: So, the Whop becomes the Kool Klux Klan and the Kool Klux Klan becomes the Whop?
NG: In a sense because it’s like different names for the same shit. All the young cats who came from Mt. Vernon and PG [County], it wasn’t like they were from the Whop, they became the Whop. But it is now, you know what I’m saying? And the latest representation of that now is GoldLink. He’s from D.C., but he knows a lot of cats from Maryland, and a lot of the cats from the Whop are from Kool Klux or whatever…
MY: You said ‘the Whop’?
NG: ‘The Whop’–that’s PG County, Maryland. Ciscero and GoldLink are the modern versions of what that is now. The year’s about 2010 and he was at Everlasting Life. Now, it’s 2017 and that energy has bubbled up and GoldLink is the one carry that torch for us. Ciscero is right next to him. But yea man, a lot of those cats started in the ELC era, and Jamal put a lot of cats on, and then we move into the AUP era…
MY: Which is?
NG: Art Under Pressure. It was a shop up at Georgia Avenue.
MY: Oh, Mensa was telling me about that.
NG: Yea, that was a really great addition to the community. A lot of designers, they would sell their stuff on commission. It was like a brick-and-mortar place where like if you were a designer you could go to it, drop your designs off, promote it–people would have shows, rappers would come–your stuff is hanging on the wall, you could come every other week and pick up how much you made for the week. It was a great fucking place. Also, if you had ideas for making shit, you could go there and they would make it for you. If you were a rapper and you needed somewhere to sell your CDs you could do it there…If you were a biker you could come and get your shit fixed. If you needed flyers made–it was a one-stop shop for anything and everything. At one point, I had a studio up there, and a lot of cats from Uptown would come up there and record with us. The Carryout was still poppin’ around that time, they would do shows up there. I think two years in a row we went to SXSW. The first year, it was Kool Klux Klan (Sir E.U & AV) and Keylow, AUP sponsored that. They had a showcase. They performed with Dead Prez. A media company from California had Dead Prez and Talib Kweli. Kool Klux Klan opened the joint. That was the first year. The second year, myself and StephisDope represented and it was pretty much the same thing–we performed or opened up for Dead Prez and Talib Kweli at this showcase. But yea, AUP, man, it was taking a lot of cats off the corner who were just making that quick ‘earned, flip and shit,’ but niggas was taking that earned money and making legit shit, like ‘Nah, I’m making shirts now, or I’m managing this cat now, or I’m producing.’ It was a great place, AUP.
MY: You’re separating these eras, but I feel like the separation is also due to outside forces, like gentrification.
NG: Hell yea. Like Bohemian Caverns, man. Bohemian Caverns, now, is closed. Bohemian, the place right above it, and Liv on the third floor. I could take you back to the winter of 2010,11 or 12. All three of those spots would be open at the same time, poppin’. I think it was the winter of 2012, there was a group called Sham, and they had a show at Liv all the way upstairs, they had some happy hour in the mid-joint, and Bohemian Caverns was rocking. That was really us playing our role. Of course, back in the day during the Harlem Renaissance, it was called Crystal Caverns, same spot. People would come down for the cabaret, man. Duke Ellington would be down there, Ella Fitzgerald. So yea, 2010-11 is Bohemian Caverns, around 2012-13 is ELC, and 2014-16 is Art Under Pressure. You know, some of these joints overlapped. A lot of us started performing in those places–the Carryout (Jamal Gray) to Aquatic Gardener, me and a lot of the members of Nag Champa performed together, CMPVTR CLVB. We performed together and fed off of each other. A lot of the [vibes] that came from Nag Champa came from ‘Nate G Unplugged’, incorporating projections, live band with production, bringing in the natural element with plants…
MY: You mean, how everyone is throwing events now? Are you saying you started it?
NG: I started it. All hubris aside. Because before that, there weren’t any shows that had elements of that. I know that first show Tony Kill and Jamil, he goes by Ledroit, and Miles, a member of Nag Champa, performed in that show with me. Everybody was there, it was a beautiful evening. It happened at this joint that’s closed now. It was right across the street from Zeba Bar. I cannot remember the name of that venue. It was beautiful. And then, of course, Jamal, that’s my brother, he caught the vibe. He came with Nag Champa and he took that and expanded it. I had music and then Miles playing the djembe, Ledroit on the drums and Tony was playing the keys. Of course, Nag Champa is a full ensemble band. Jamal is in sole control of his music as I was of mine. But then they just expanded upon it. Some of the people that are a part of Nag Champa were performing with me at ‘Nate G Unplugged’. And Jamal is my bro, I never looked at it as a sort of like ‘I did it first’ type thing, it’s just I was one of the first people to bring those elements together in that way, which Nag Champa completely expanded upon. And then, from that came CMPVTR CLVB. They took the projections to a whole other level and the music to a whole other level. So, we all grow naturally with each other.
NG: From there we started hitting different sports: Black Cat, Howard Theater, 9:30 Club, 9:30 Backbar. We’re out here now. A lot of that energy that was created when I met Jamal has cascaded. The energy that was put behind the Kool Klux Klan turned into the Whop, which turned into GoldLink. There will always be more places like now we have Songbyrd. But it’s bigger now. We’re bigger. There’s more shit to do.
MY: Do you ever have moments where you felt like you were skipped over? Or the light wasn’t properly shining on you? Maybe not just you, but the community as a whole.
NG: Personally, I don’t feel like anybody owes me anything. So in the phrasing of skipping over, I don’t feel that. I don’t feel skipped over. Everybody in our city knows who I am. There’s a respect there even though we’re all going for the same thing: this is fucking rap. This is blood, Viking war-lord shit. We all want to be the best. We all want to be that one. So, in that sense, I don’t expect anybody to put anyone in a place where they themselves are striving to achieve. At the same time, I haven’t seen every crevice of the city. As far as the rap shit goes, what happens on the other side of the water I don’t know all the cliques and clans. I don’t know everybody that spits over there. I don’t know every hood-ass rapper.
MY: When you say, “other side of the water,” where are you talking about?
NG: I’m talking about Southeast [D.C.]. I’m from Uptown. I got that shit tatted on my belly. I can tell you what’s going on in Northwest. I can’t tell you every crew, every hot nigga in Southeast. There are some hot niggas in the city. But as far as what I’ve seen, nobody fucking with my shit. But I don’t expect anybody to hit me up and say, ‘Yo, Nate, come get on this show.’ So in that sense, no one’s hitting me because you don’t want me coming to catch records. You don’t want me to come fuck on your show.
MY: You’re gonna shut it down.
NG: You don’t want that. So, no, I don’t get calls. I don’t expect them either. I’m at a level where I have to build so people will come. I feel like that’s better for me, that’s better for the city, and that’s better for my peers. I’m in this to really create the definitive work for my generation. I’m not here to play around with nobody. I love what people are doing, but all due respect, I wanna shit on that. I wanna raise the bar. Make people strive to be themselves better. Create something that they thought they couldn’t. That’s what I’m really in this for. As far as overlooking the city, nah, man. You can look at any other city. You can feel Atlanta, you can feel it. You know if you make a wrong turn–trap, trap. You know what the trap is. You know what’s in it and you know what they drink. Same with New York, you know all the boroughs, you know every drug that comes from there in the 80s. D.C. is an untapped joint. It’s right in the middle of everything. Right on the Mason Dixon. We’re half South, half North. We have our own slang. We have our own way of dressing. People from the South know and people from the North know, but we’re right in the fucking middle. This city is less than 10 miles wide, it’s so small. You could walk from one project to the next like I’ve walked this city on a date. So, no this city is not getting overlooked. It just so happens that we lived in a time where bitter, old motherfuckers thought we had to leave to get on. Now, niggas are just fly. We’ve got phones and shit, we’re starting to get hip. You don’t know yet. You know ‘Moe and Joe’ and Mumbo Sauce, but you don’t really know this place yet. You don’t know about Northeast, Northwest and Southeast, Southwest. You don’t know that if you’re from Fairfax you’re not really from D.C. type of shit, know what I’m saying. No shade, but that’s a real thing.
MY: So, is that your responsibility to show people that? Without knowing there’s also a limitation to the type of spotlight that can be shed on the city because some of those people who don’t know are also people that can influence and amplify the culture.
NG: Well, I would say it’s my responsibility and a collective responsibility. Northwest is Northwest. As strong as I know my shit is, I have to keep it real and say it’s Uptown. I’m from Uptown, D.C., so when you listen to my music or watch my videos you have to know I’m giving you quintessential Uptown, D.C. From childhood to right now this is what you get. If you want the South Side, Southeast or Maryland, you’re gonna have to go there. So, it’s collective and I’m here to play my role.
MY: Changing topics, your visual art is fucking tight. Which came first?
NG: Ah, man, the visual art came first. I was drawing before I could talk. I was drawing in church. It wasn’t until seeing this movie, I was 10 or 11, it was called Black n’ White. Wu-Tang was in it. There was this scene with Raekwon. He was reading a rap acapella off of a notepad. I was running around the house in my pajamas, the shit was just on TV, and I stopped. You know, I loved comic books, I loved words. I had a real passion for words. And you know, I listened to Nas and shit on the radio–“If I rule the World” was my favorite song–but I didn’t know about rap. When I heard [Raekwon] reading on the TV, it sounded like Shakespeare. That’s the closest thing I can think of. When you first hear Shakespeare you don’t know what you’re hearing, but it sounds great. You kinda know what’s being said, but it sounds great. ‘Who put these words together?’ But to hear this black motherfucker talking like that, I had never heard anybody speak like that, especially with no music. I wanted to be able to talk like that. I wanted my words to leap off the page and become something else. Fuck this rhyming, rhyming shit. ‘How do I make my shit feel like that?’ For me, that was the journey. That was the beginning of the journey. Then it went from writing hot bars to full raps and now albums. It was just a natural progression and wanting to get better. I had that moment and then there was the moment I heard “Verbal Intercourse.” I heard Nas rhyming then. From the moment I started rapping until the moment I heard “Verbal Intercourse,” which was like…yea, I saw that movie in 1999. It wasn’t until 2003 when I heard “Verbal Intercourse.” That was another thing that expanded my mind. Its got Raekwon, Nas, and Ghostface Killah. You know, Nas was a young nigga. This was before It Was Written and after Illmatic. When you hear his verse man, shit, that’s all I got to say. It made me want to get better. Looking at these cats growing up, the game that I studied is not the game that it is now. It’s not the same shit. The set of rules and code and shit that I learned is outdated as fuck.
MY: Can you synthesize that a little bit?
NG: The rap game of the 90s, the people that I looked up to, idolized and studied–the game then was not the game that it is now. Technology changed everything. The death of Tupac and Biggie and technology changed everything.
MY: How did the death of Tupac and Biggie change everything?
NG: Because they were the most influential artists of that time and got taken out in their prime, it’s sort of like hip-hop was moving with them. And when they died, hip-hop came to a screeching halt. It was left for somebody to come pick it up and move forward. The people who came and picked it up to move forward were not Tupacs and Biggies, they were suits. Suits have agendas, so we got stuck in the gangster era because that’s what Tupac and Biggie were when they checked out. There weren’t any more creatives and innovators. Tupac was the Black Panther Party synthesized. Biggie was an immigrant from Jamaica. These are two strong ass energies. When you take them joints out and let suits dictate the business, then you’re just filling in the Tupac and Biggie shit with anything–the JaRules and anybody who can take a little bit off of that. There hasn’t been a force or forces like that since because shit changed. We have our Kendricks and our Coles now, but when it was going then, man. And so, the game back then is not what it is now. Back then, brothers were going at each other. Biggie made diss songs for Nas, Ghostface, Raekwon–they had narratives. Diss songs nowadays, like, what was the beef about with Drake and Meek Mill? And Meek Mill, we’re talking about someone who came from Philly. That’s battle-rap central. I don’t think that should’ve happened. And not just that, I don’t think anybody gives a fuck anymore. The fact that Drake can exist means that the whole moral code set up before is irrelevant. This nigga bites everything. It’s one thing to take two bars from a rapper that everybody knows. It’s another thing to take eight bars from this unknown nigga, another 12 from this–you know what I’m saying? Teams of writers and shit. Nigga, you’re a McDonald’s, bruh. You’re a fucking menu. Who gives a fuck about who sat down to actually write this song if we can just throw you some bread and get a Drake? Do you wanna be Andre 3000 or do you wanna be Google? That’s what we’re talking about now. It’s a totally different game.