IMG_5429

Mercury Rising: Interview with Jamal Gray of Nag Champa (D.C.)

Words + photos by Antonio.

Over the past two decades, rap music emanating from the nation’s capital has had its fair share of prospects, beloved one-hit success stories, and breakthrough artists, though relatively few have gained national recognition. While the current shift in the sound leans toward trap music, helmed by major label signees Shy Glizzy and Fat Trel, the underground and alternative scene is experiencing another explosion. Local crews like Kool Klux Klan, Gram Fam, as well as frequent collaborators Not A Collective and 3-0Whop have built cult followings with relentless stream of quality releases and live shows.

Before D.C. had a DIY scene for hip-hop that’s growing exponentially today, native Washingtonian Jamal Gray began The Carryout Productions. From 2009 to 20013, The Carryout was the go-to for young emcees, producers and visual artists, that the city’s showcases often neglected. In 2014, Jamal co-founded experimental band Nag Champa as well as the collective CMPVTR CLVB, in order to adapt to the changing state of music in the area, and foster collaboration amongst the influx of newer and established artsts.

Jamal discusses his pioneering work with The Carryout, new beginnings with Nag Champa and CMPVTR CLVB, and what’s at stake if D.C. loses Union Arts.

//

nagchampacollage1

Q: Where were you born, raised and favorite place to perform?

JAMAL: I was born and raised in Washington, D.C.. Split my team between NorthWest and NorthEast. My favorite spot in D.C. is hard to say, because we’ve got different memories for every spot. So far it’s got to be The Smithsonian American Art Museum. It’s fucking crazy to think we performed down the hall from original Picasso pieces and all these other masters of modern art. It was like they were watching over us. After that would be any random living room we’ve performed in Uptown

Rewind to a number of years ago, and give a rundown on Carryout Productions and what you and your team down?

The CarryOut is my first child for real. It started around 2009, when the D.C. music scene was making a big shift from Go-Go being the main stay. Now more and more people were gravitating to local rap shows and the endless open mics that were popping up. This was one of the most active times for D.C. hip-hop, when a lot of people were thinking we were the next big market to blow. Like “DMV is the next ATL.” That moment passed, but a lot of really talented artists came out of that era.

“A lot of people were thinking we were the next big market to blow… That moment passed, but a lot of really talented artists came out of that era”

The CarryOut started as a music and events production company, and grew to a boutique label. We got with a few artists that represented the future sound of hip-hop, and just happened to be from the D.C. area, including JF Coop, 431 aka MoneyFourDrugs, and the Kool Klux Klan (Avion, rMell & Sir EU). We were killing shows all around the city, and really helped to usher in the next phase for the area. Along with countless other artists that we were building with at the time.

Our main stay was Everlasting Life Cafe (now called Woodlawn’s New Vegan Bistro) on Georgia Avenue right by Howard University’s campus. We were throwing packed shows there every week, with like 50-200 people. They shows were all ages, so cats from like 16-30 that would come through.

D.C.’s hip hop scene at the time was cliqued up, and for the most part, promoters had their go-to artists that you would see booked on every show, plastered on every flyer. We wanted to be the antithesis to that, by throwing our own shows, connecting with the artists we knew were dope but weren’t getting the recognition. We were DIY before that was even a thing in D.C. We brought this young punk rock energy to the scene wherever we were at, and showed love to everybody.

“A lot of people wanted their piece of this cultural renaissance that was happening in Uptown, and outside influences began to pull people in different directions”

There was a shift of energy in 2012, though. A lot of people wanted their piece of this cultural renaissance that was happening in Uptown, and outside influences began to pull people in different directions. Then we lost Avion (Kool Klux Klan), who was like our little brother, a member of the crew, and possibly the best dude from D.C. to ever pick up a mic. Literally same week this happens I found out my girlfriend is pregnant , so my whole world is shaken up. Nothing was the same after that.


 
I vividly remember entering beat battles hosted at Bohemian Caverns, and even then you had a great turnout for something like that on a weeknight. How did you cultivate your following and interest in your events?

Yeah that’s kinda crazy you remember that, because that’s actually the beginning of it all, before The CarryOut was the name. In 2009 I started throwing these producer battles all around U Street called The Beat Clash, with my good friend StefIsDope. It’s always been endless dope producers in the area, and there was no real platform at the time to give them that proper shine. So we’d get like 16 hip hop producers together and have them go track for track, and let the crowd decide the winner. The Beat Clash became a spot for everybody on the scene to link up. Like the best of the best in the DMV came through, to play tracks, perform, or just soak it up.

beatclash

The crazy thing was we threw our shows on Tuesday nights. I don’t think I was forward thinking or aware enough to really explain how we did it. We were early on connecting different ends of the scene through Twitter and Facebook. This was 2009 mind you; everybody else was trying to use the club formula, and pass flyers out on the street, and the flyer would have some cliché shit like a model and huge champagne bottles on it.

“Everybody else was trying to use the club formula, and pass flyers out on the street, and the flyer would have some cliché shit like a model and huge champagne bottles”

Ultimately, people were looking for an alternative to what was happening with D.C. Hip Hop at that time, and something that genuinely reflected the culture. I had just got back to D.C. after living in Philly for four years, and a brief moment living in Atlanta, which helped me get a taste of how a thriving music scene looked and operated. There had to be an infrastructure, and our hip-hop scene was missing that.

What are your biggest lessons learned from that era?

Timing. Everything will happen in its natural order. You can’t force situations or experiences. Also, you can’t weigh your success by other people’s standards. We’ve all got our own paths to walk. All the other lessons I’ll save for the book.

IMG_5443

What are some of your best memories from that time period?

We made countless moments in that time. The most stand out would be getting that co-sign from one of my favorite producers, 9th Wonder. He was in town for another show one Saturday, and everybody got on Twitter and were shouting him out like “Nigga, you need to be at Everlasting Life right now! Fuck with The CarryOut!” That show was actually a joint release party for Sir E.U, STEFIsDope and rMell. So again, timing is key. 9th came through with one of his boys and rocked with us for like an hour. He hadn’t seen so many young black kids representing the culture like since he was coming up, that’s why he called us “The New Native Tongues”.

How have you seen the city change over the years?

Man, I grew up in D.C. so it’s hard to capture in words how much the city has changed. D.C. has always been an international city. D.C. has always been a hub for progressive thought. We’ve always had a thriving black art scene. I am a product of that D.C..

“People have been ready for D.C. to heal and move forward, but we don’t want to lose our culture in order for that to happen”

D.C. is ultimately just a microcosm of how America has changed in general over the last 20+ years. Drugs, poverty and negligence shook this city to its core, just like any other urban area or anywhere marginalized people live. What I see is a lot of people still recovering from the emotional, psychological and physical effects of it all. People have been ready for D.C. to heal and move forward, but we don’t want to lose our culture in order for that to happen.

There’s a lot of money coming in to D.C., but very little talk or action toward preserving the cultural history. As a product of D.C. it’s my personal duty to fight against this kind of erasure. In five years, Washington will be unrecognizable to Washingtonians, and that doesn’t sit well with me.

What is the mission of Nag Champa?

We’re aiming to create that definitive sound that encapsulates the times we live in by merging ideas of Afrofuturism, new age spirituality, political unrest, social consciousness, and love on all levels. Sonically, we pull inspiration from Jazz, house, Afrobeat, Latin rhythms, psychedelic rock and Go Go.

How did CMPVTR CLVB form?

CMPVTR CLVB started as a group of homies that were just looking to shift the way people were consuming art and music in D.C.. From 2013-2014 we were renting a studio space and throwing events out of Union Arts, which was like a hub for progressive minded artists of all disciplines. At the time, I was also the booking agent for the event space, and we were going by the name SleepWalking Culty.

We brought some serious musicians there in that short time, like Julian Casablancas (of The Strokes), Goldlink, TheeSatisfaction, MNDSGN, Yung Gleesh. Our time at that space ran its course, and we had lost a member of the crew, but we had to look to what was next. So from there we started CMPVTR CLVB. The original squad was Exaktly, SexGod, St Clair Castro and Tony Kill. Over time the team grew, and now have about 10 members, and we’re one of the most progressive groups of musicians, producers, DJs and multimedia artists representing D.C..

IMG_5520

How did the performance at the Smithsonian come about and what was that like?

Performing at The Smithsonian was like a whole new type of high. We got the chance to transform this classical space in to our own world, surrounded by these priceless pieces of art.

It came about through our connections in the indie music scene. Nag Champa had been playing around the city for a while, and some of our biggest supporters were other musicians. Amelia at the Luce Foundation, who curates the music series, is deeply connected with the indie rock scene, and somehow our name kept coming up. We got the co-sign from my dudes in Baby Bry Bry & The Apologists, and D.C. Music Download was a big help in solidifying it.

“We were pulling influences from African spirituality, and paying respect to our ancestors, something that had never been done in a space like that”

It definitely marked a transition in how we approach performances. We collaborated with 2 performance artists Ra Nubi and Ashley Shey, to really bring that space to life. We were pulling influences from African spirituality, and paying respect to our ancestors, something that had never been done in a space like that. A bunch of bands had done that gig before, but we’re always trying to test the limits of expression. Always aiming to create a new experience for the viewers.

Do you have to tailor your performances for different venues?

For sure. Even though we’re doing shows on a small scale right now, there’s a lot of moving parts to a Nag Champa or CMPVTR CLVB show. From the performance art, to the projections, we’re tryna blow the audience’s mind every time we hit, and create a world onto itself. The show we have now could work in any environment. I’m inspired by Parliament Funkadelic and Sun Ra, combining elements of space and spirituality. Every show we’re trying to lay down some otherworldly shit.

Has fatherhood impacted your creative ventures?

Fatherhood allows me to move with a more defined purpose. It gave me clarity. My father was a jazz producer, and ran his own label Black Fire, as well as working at Blue Note, Flying Dutchman, and Capitol Records. So for me this is just carrying on tradition. My father never pushed me in any one direction, he allowed me to explore, and that’s what I carry with me.

“We still don’t have a fully self-sustaining art scene here, so the creative entrepreneurs have to end up moving to New York, L.A., London etc”

Do you feel that D.C. has been able to nurture the talent here?

D.C. has nurtured some of the greatest talents in modern western history. That’s testament to the many progressive minds that have passed through this city. But with art and music, it’s hard for a serious artist to make a living and stay in D.C., especially with how expensive it is to live here now. We still don’t have a fully self-sustaining art scene here, so the creative entrepreneurs have to end up moving to New York, L.A., London etc.

Talk a little bit about the turmoil that Union Arts is experiencing and it’s importance to D.C. music.

The warehouse at 411 New York Ave, now known as Union Arts, has been a D.C. institution for over 20 years. It was home to our underground dance music scene way before it was trendy be spinning house music on U Street. You can see everything there from avant garde jazz to noise rock to super underground hip hop. It’s also currently home to about 100 working artists, musicians and activist who are deeply entrenched in the cultural happenings of the city.

“Union Arts is the last frontier for independent artistry in D.C.”

Union Arts is the last frontier for independent artistry in D.C. The building has been sold, and the tenants have only a few months left. It just speaks volumes to the current trend of big developers coming in to a neighborhood with no regard for the people that make these places thrive.

It’s total erasure. They wanna use the cool factor of these cultural hotbeds to market these huge luxury condos, but simultaneously kick out all the people that make it cool.

There’s gonna be a huge void left when Union Arts transitions into being a luxury hotel. There’s no real DIY venues left in D.C., and nowhere to experience the full spectrum of what D.C. has to offer artistically. It’s like a death in the family, or losing your childhood home.

Where will you  be in 5 days, 5 months and 5 years?

In 5 days I’ll be somewhere in D.C. rolling tree tryna mastermind our next move. In 5 months Nag Champa will be back on the road, aiming to get down when festival season starts. In 5 years… I’ll tell you when we get there.

//

Spread the love

One comment on “Mercury Rising: Interview with Jamal Gray of Nag Champa (D.C.)”

Comments are closed.