MB: I was really, really impressed by the first track ‘Thirty One Three’ on your new release, the Metal Letter ep I think it’s a great way into the record, it’s really cool …
Nametag Alexander: Yeah, originally I wasn’t going to do an entire project I was just going to do a series of singles, and I just decided at the time I was recording a lot with JR Swiftz and we just had a cohesive sound after a while, we had more than six tracks. ‘Paper’ was a single that came out about a year ago and I ended up using it for the Taglines ep I put out and then I thought, you know what this fits so well with the vibe of the ep in its entirety so I’ll keep it.
MB: It’s very consistent the sound of the record, what’s JR Swiftz's focus in terms of his production work?
Nametag Alexander: (pauses) JR Swiftz originally is from Brooklyn, now by way of Virginia so what I understand is that his dad worked a lot with Nottz the producer, so it kind of stems from there, I know with JR he’s about 24. His influences are like Black Milk, Madlib, Just Blaze - cats like that really inspire him.
It’s crazy for the longest time like since 2010, or 2011 when I just put out my first album, The Name is Tag and not long after that I did the album with Nameless, the For Namesake ep like between those two albums JR was emailing me consistently with beats. And I was like, I’m going to check out these beats one day, I’m like one day I’m going to sit down and go through these. And then one day I was in the studio and I was like, ‘Wow, he’s got a little sound going on there’ and I was just riffing on it, not really working on anything new at this time.
But JR just kept sending me these beats so finally I sat and listened to them and the first track was ’You Are’ off my Nametag Alexander ep and then we just continued to build, we had ‘Paper’ and they were like the only two joints we did together and then then he kept sending me more tracks and I was like, ‘What else you got?’ It was originally going to be a single series, just to kind of brand both of us, and then we thought this could end up being an ep.
MB: Talk to me about the second emcee, he's called Cordova right? Is he from Detroit as well?
Nametag Alexander: No (laughs) and it’s funny you asked that cause I knew I was going to get asked that question by a lot of people, cause when they hear that track, ‘Thirty One Three’ they ask that Cordova is he from here, no he’s actually from Virginia. The funny thing is he’s a huge fan of Detroit music, just like JR Swiftz is.
I heard a project JR and Cordova released together, they have a duo called Ill Science. They put out an ep called Getaway Classics so I listened to that and I was like, ‘This Cordova cat, he’s nice.’ He’s a good songwriter, he’s an emcee but on top of that he can write songs. I had the beat for ‘Thirty One Three’ and I sent it over to Guilty Simpson, but Guilty had just put out an album and he had been out of town touring. He was like, I’m not going to do anything right now.
MB: Let’s focus in on the track though, because there’s this really great rhyme about half-way through where it’s like ‘anotha body ’/anotha body found/somebody not livin’ …’ and then, later on ‘I hope somebody listenin’ ...’
Nametag Alexander: Well, it wasn’t originally going to be a track about Detroit, I sent it over to Cordova, I didn’t want to just get spitterific about you know, just rapping about being a dope rapper. No I don't want to do that – I want to open it up and make it something different.
And Cordova was like this has to be a Detroit track. I’ve got a hook for it, it’s got to be a Detroit track, he said, I love Detroit so much we got to bring it to life. Cordova sent me the hook and I was like I could easily come up with a song that’s like praising Detroit, which is what the hook is stating, but at the same time, I’m like in the first verse let me talk about being proud, being proud of being from there, people can relate to that and understand that.
The second verse, I was like I’m tired of turning on the news and hearing about … This song was recorded at the very end of last year so I think it was around October I recorded that and I’m like, I’m so tired of hearing about a kid being murdered - you know these senseless crimes – and I’m tired of that. That’s just ridiculous. I’ve got nieces and nephews and I’ve got a daughter.
You can relate to what we go through, but as a parent these verses came to life. Thinking about the families, you know, you’ve got to think about the families. It’s sickening, it’s crazy.
MB: I think it’s really powerful and I love the refrain of ‘Hands up/Hands up’ - it’s very effective. And then there’s this rhyme about another body etc and then you say you don’t want to seem like you’re ‘preaching’ …
Nametag Alexander: Yeah
MB: But you also say ‘we prefer to create’ so it’s like there's this tension going on between the two. Can you talk about this more, when you were creating the track were you thinking about these different elements of Detroit and how they are in contrast?
Nametag Alexander: I felt like it is time (pauses), it’s so easy to create songs about the grittiness of our city, it’s very easy – we’re proud of the city at the same time but, sometimes it can come off as glorifying the grittiness and I didn’t want to do that with the track. I thought it’d be easy for me to be like, I love my city I’m from here, it helped build the character of my music and the artistry of it, but something else is going on that needs to be addressed. I wasn’t certain that anyone else was doing it in their songs, but I felt like I needed to do this in this one in particular.
And I was like, you know what the younger generation is going to hear this, like I said I’ve got nieces and nephews you are young and they listen, their friends listen so I don’t want to come off ‘preachy’ - I’m 30, so I don’t want my songs to come off like I’m preaching.
I’m seeing what’s going on, I’m hearing about it, but I don’t want to be a preacher about it neither. I want them to hear it and take it as it is, letting them know that we’re addressing it. And that’s what art is supposed to be about. It’s like a vessel for those who don’t have the ability to say, or they have the ability, but don’t have the same opportunity to say it as the artist does to say it.
MB: You’ve already talked about the sound, it’s got a wonderful funky beat that really drives it along, this heavy beat, the sound reminded me a lot of Dilla’s album Welcome 2 Detroit - but a modern-day version of - I’m wondering if that record was a point of reference for you when you were thinking about the record's sound.
Nametag Alexander: Yeah that would come from JR, that’s like I said he’s entirely influenced by the ‘Detroit sound’ - it’s crazy, it’s like Dude, you’re from Virginia, your stomping ground is Virginia, but it just shows you how Detroit’s influence goes beyond our city. It’s like people hearing it, they love that sound, people who used to work with Dilla they talk with JR and he'll be saying how he's very influenced by Black Milk, by J Dilla. He’s naming these artists who influence his production all the time. The crazy part about it is he’s young, he’s got so far to go. He’s going to be amazing.
MB: Thinking about Detroit then, if you were asked to pick maybe three or four that represented your city in terms of the hip-hop sound, which ones would you choose?
Nametag Alexander: (pauses) Well, I’d have to put ‘Thirty One Three’ out there, and there’s another artist, Mahd, he had a track from his last album, Thirteen called ‘Hello Detroit’ and I was like this is so fire, it embodied – and the video – and just everything about it embodied Detroit so perfectly.
And I would say ‘Detroit New Dance Show’ by Black Milk’s If there’s a hell below ... That whole vibe of the New Dance Show, you would have had to have watched that show to understand the whole techno scene and dance style that started in Detroit – from the grittiness to the upbeat tempo sound of everything.
MB: I like the track ‘On my Job’ cause I feel like you were trying to do different things in terms of your delivery, playing with rhythm patterns. It sounds like you were experimenting, are you trying to develop the way you’re delivering a rhyme on this ep?
Nametag Alexander: Yeah, I am.
MB: So talk to me about that track and what you’re trying to move towards ...
Nametag Alexander: Just evolving, when I heard that track, I was like ‘Man,’ me and JR spend a long time just talking about it, and thinking, ‘What do you hear? What do you hear?’ He was like: ‘It’s for the clubs, but I thought it’d be fake for me to make a club track with that – I’m not even in the clubs, how can I approach it and not be … but I’m at a point where I don’t want to be like rappity rap all the time, I want to actually make songs that you can remember.
I don’t want it to be like, yeah yeah he’s spitting, he’s real spitterific. I wanted people to remember the pattern how I was rapping and the melody and let’s make something that everyone can relate to, you know ‘I’m on my job.’ I was just approaching it with that idea.
MB: I could hear the influence of Rakim on your last ep, with that speedy delivery and it seemed on this ep you’re slowing down, simplifying almost, would you say you’re going for a more elemental style now?
Nametag Alexander: I am, yeah I’ll be honest. I like to perform, so when I’m performing sometimes when I do these tracks where it’s that speedy delivery and I’m like I said rappity rap, you get a little winded on that stage and I feel like the crowd’s not catching it. The core fans can hear what I’m saying, but there’s also the new fans who probably don’t deserve having to sit back and decipher every single punch-line and every single word, it’s not about compromising what I’m saying, but (letting people hear) and think, ‘oh my god that was dope’ where it’s effective enough for them to remember it. It is intentional, but it’s also catching the vibe how the track is.
MB: I think the earlier track that connects with this is ‘Run it Back’ - that’s again a really special song, I think, it’s got that repetition and the perspective seems to shift at the end. Again it’s got that very core, elemental approach.
Nametag Alexander: ‘Run It Back’. That was on the Taglines ep, that was a homage to Slum Village and their track on Fantastic Volume 1 and 2 and they did a revision of it on Detroit Deli ... It may be called the ‘The things you do’ on Fantastic Volume 2 and you’ve got Dilla saying: ‘I got an eye, for you so why
Do I socialize bout (run it back, run it back) ...’
Him, T3 and Baatin did that flow and we always thought that was so dope. Nameless sent me that track and I was like you should get T3 on here and y’all do that same kind of style that the original did, they did on Fantastic Vol 1 & 2 and Detroit Deli and I was like real skeptical, I don’t know if we should do it. And I reached out to T3, but I think they had just started the 'Yes' LP tour. In the back of my mind I was like I’ll write two verses for this just to play it safe. And I was like how can I be real lyrical on this but at the same time incorporate the ‘Run it back’ on there, once I had the first line I was like there’s a rap in here. It was heavily influenced by the Slum Village track ‘The things you do’.
MB: I also read somewhere that it’s influenced by Busta Rhymes as well …
Nametag Alexander: Yeah, ‘Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See’. My first verse ends with the way Busta starts his first verse. Nameless didn’t do that, that was actually the DJ DDT’s idea to put the Busta Rhymes sample and I was like, ‘This is crazy people are going to go nuts when they hear that.’
MB: Talk to me about Nameless, what really strikes me is how he’s so different with different artists - the work he does with Clear Soul Forces is different to what he did with you – can you describe the creative process for you two when you worked together?
Nametag Alexander: I just let him do his thing. Nameless is a monster. I knew it from the jump when we first started working on For Namesake and I was like this guy is just ridiculous, his style is just … I always tell him and JR they are my Just Blaze and my Kanye, back in the early Roc-a-Fella days when both were so fresh, that’s the vibe I get from Nameless and JR. You’re going to get some heat here, you’re going to get some fire. It’s all cohesive, with Nameless, he’s a monster. The crazy thing about him is that he also does graphic design too, as well as the beats. He’s a monster.
MB: He’s like a chameleon, he changes; you can hear this confident style, but it’s shifting, it’s interesting. Now on that record, my favourite track is ‘Hookless’ - could you talk that through in terms of the lyrics and your collaboration with the other emcee, Mahd?
Nametag Alexander: Yeah, that was me and Mahd. The funny thing is that wasn’t the original beat, the original beat was like a video game sample that’s the vibe I got from the original. Nameless when he did the production it was like, this beat reminds me of a video game and I agreed. I took it to Mahd and I was like, I’m working on the For Namesake album we’ve got to knock out a few more songs, what do you want to do? I sat down and watched Mahd in less than an hour piece his verse together in his head and he laid it right there.
MB: What I noticed about it is that it’s got an interesting rock element that doesn’t really go anywhere - that repetition of a note that kind of builds, but there's no progression it's just left hanging almost.
It’s got a retro feel, but very distinctive and I think this comes through in your most recent ep as well it reflects something in the past, but it feels quite fresh. Were you influenced by any particular production styles of the current moment, like trap music, when you were putting your ep together?
Nametag Alexander: (In terms of what I used to listen to) I used to always be in a box, I only listened to underground hip-hop, I grew up listening to a lot of Tribe and Dilla, and De La, Wu-Tang, anything that was New York, that grimy underground sound. It came about after high school, being around different people and different walks of life, introducing me to different music from the South and they were like, ‘This is hot too. Check this out’. I listen to it again, but I still wasn’t feeling it, it didn’t inspire me, but now I listen to everything and not compromising the style you already had that got you here. (…) I just try to embrace everything and incorporate it into my style as well.
MB: There’s a real development here, as I mentioned before sometimes it was hard to get a sense of a distinctive voice on Taglines, but on this new record it comes through. How would you describe the development you've made as an emcee from Taglines to this record?
Nametag Alexander: I feel like with Taglines it was almost there, it was actually almost there with the Nametag Alexander ep, I had songs like ‘Reward’ but on Taglines I felt like it was coming out more, you know a track like ‘Paper’ - with ‘Paper’ I was like, Man how am I going to stand out on this? I told JR Swiftz, ‘You know what, Dilla was known to me for was knowing how to rap about stuff you’d hear commercial artists rap about, but he’d do it over beats that were considered underground and that’s what made it so dope for me.’
So listening to the ‘Paper’ beat I was like, I’m going do that, I’m going to try that, it’s a beat to me that’s underground, it’s gritty but how do I try to talk about something everybody can relate to and just keep repeating that over and over, something everyone can relate to. It’s going to be about how you need to be smart with your money, we’ve got kids out here, we’ve got families out here. Make the money, but be smart about how you spend it, or how you invest it. That’s really how the ‘Paper’ track came about.
MB: With the new record, there’s a sound that carries from track one to the final track, you know. It could be the producer as well, maybe it’s the alchemy of you two – you and JR Swiftz – working together, I don’t know.
Nametag Alexander: I think that’s got a lot to do with it. I’m very selective now about the producers I work with. I’m trying to grow. I’m trying to evolve in terms of my production, I think this is what I like about JR Swiftz, as he reminds me older projects, I mean if you listen to my earlier records, I have a lot of Black Milk production on there. But what I appreciate about Nameless and JR Swiftz they’re smart enough to have a similar style, but they evolve with it and they make it their own. That’s why I like working with them.
MB: I thought we could end with a quote I found in your bionote: ‘(Nametag Alexander) grew up in Detroit’s east, west, and north sides, constantly moving around with his mother to avoid repercussions of his father’s drug addiction. He dealt with the struggles and nomadic lifestyle by burying himself into his notebook, penning lyrics about his experiences and drawing inspiration from legends like Rakim. He quickly became the latest member of a family chock full of R&B and gospel vocalists, rhyming with his friends and relatives ...’
I just wonder if you could go back to you as a teenager, or a young guy, and talk about the music that really helped you then during those difficult times when you were growing up in Detroit.
Nametag Alexander: At the time, Common’s Like Water for Chocolate; The Fantastic (Volume II) The Slum Village albums, I remember definitely The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Busta Rhyme’s Extinction Level Event the Talib Kweli/Hi-Tek Reflection Eternal album, actually that Talib Kweli and HiTek album, Extinction Level Event and The Miseducation – they were like my first three CDs ever.
My mom bought me those three CDs, they came out prior to me getting into high school, but she bought them for me in high school. The Reflection Eternal might have come out during my high school, during my freshman year – those types of albums, with Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides. It was a lot of albums that got me through being broke pretty much (laughs).
MB: Can you talk to me about why that record meant so much to you? Try to imagine yourself back then as a fifteen, or sixteen year-old and evoke the scene of listening to one of these records and how it felt for you then.
Nametag Alexander: Probably, around fifteen/sixteen,I was in tenth grade at the time, I was living in North-Western, we were living in a four-family flat, we definitely had roaches. One specific album, I would say, okay (pauses) in fact in tenth grade, this was the time you had Jay-Z and Nas going at each other, heavy. I would albums like, say Stillmatic, songs like ‘You're da man’.
I mean, I didn’t even think I was the guy in high school hanging out after school: it was go home, do my homework, do my rhymes, focus on my craft. And the music at that time allowed me to crowd everything else out that was going on, the struggles and things like that, you like ‘Why are we in this four-family flat? Why are we in this neighhourhood? Why does it have to be like this?’
It was just me focussing on the music at the time, that’s all I had pretty much. My family was also heavily involved in music and it helped me focus and develop my craft to where I am today.