Nazeer Art’aud | still from video
Step Into My World: The immersive music of Philly MC Nazeer Art’aud encompasses comedy, theatrics, and sobering life lessons
North Philadelphia rapper Nazeer Art’aud is a weird dude. His raps are the epitome of the street stories and outre metaphors of late ‘80s to early ‘90’s hip hop, exhibiting a lyrical quality delivered in the cadence of peak Biggie Smalls but drunk watching Saturday morning cartoons. But that’s Nazeer being Nazeer, an avid theater obsessive and part-time stand-up comedian whose work in those mediums informs his art as much as Adult Swim and pop culture references. As a result, a quick sampling of his music can be dizzying. One minute he’s fully decked out in Bernie Sanders 2016 swag, buying hipster girls custom jewelry on Etsy (“Hipster Girl”) the next he’s on stage performing a bizarrely ghetto, yet wonderfully melancholic pantomime of Hamlet for an unsuspecting community theater (“The Price Is Right”).
That beautiful confusion is a part of what makes Nazeer Art’aud’s music so palpably dope. From his boom-bap powered 2011 album Mary Jane Blvd. to the sultry-soul infused trap of 2018’s The Return of Nozzy, the Art’aud experience is immersive. And it should be– Art’aud’s been doing this for a hot minute, weaving unabashedly original stories connected rhythmically by multiple syllable rhymes and a warm, slug-like delivery that feels like you’re listening to the funniest brotha at the lunch table rap his liberal arts thesis backwards.
A line cook at Square Pie in Queen Village by day, Nazeer’s freewheeling artistic life is supported by the friends he works with there. Post-COVID, he’s had to battle anxiety over the pandemic, particularly after being hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism.
“So being though my lungs are already not completely healthy to begin with,” Nazeer says via email, “the thought of getting this disease scared me tremendously. But one day I decided that I can’t be scared, I just have to take the needed precautions and pray that everything will be alright.” In a bid to maintain his mental health, Nazeer returned to the studio and after having the video for his latest single “Into the Wild” torch my inbox, I’m glad he did. The video has Nazeer walking through a picturesque beach scene as a koala bear on furlough, sure, but the less-than-four-minute clip is a perfect treatise on the expectations and pressures put on rappers, especially Black and male ones, to navigate being an artist, being a role-model, and being real. Ultimately, we sat down with the self-proclaimed “half Damon Wayans, half-David Blaine” rapper to talk beats, rhymes, and living an eclectic, inspired, theatrical life.
The Key: When did you first start rapping, was that your first choice for artistic expression? How has rap changed since you first got involved?
Nazeer Art’aud: Well I started rapping at the age of 12, but my first creative outlet was poetry; I started writing poems around the age of 9. Poetry was my first love. I actually plan on eventually releasing a book of poems because I do miss writing them. The last poem I wrote is included on my project The Return of Nozzy. On my track “Coffee” instead of a hook I decided to fill space in-between verses with stanzas from my poem of the same title. It was a piece written as a dedication to my godmother who passed away a few years ago.
And I feel as though rap has changed a lot since I first got involved, but I think it has changed for the better. When I first started, I feel like rap used to be very masculine and “gangsta”, but now rap artists are more fluid and in touch with their emotions and they’re not afraid to express that in a song. I think it’s beautiful.
TK: You have this knack for mixing somewhat observational politics with edgy humor. How does that work? Do you ever read back a line or listen to a track, like, that one might have crossed over to the point where my message might be misunderstood?
NA: I have always used edgy humor in my raps, even when I first started at the age of 12. The first rap I wrote was for a talent show at my summer camp. And I remember maniacally laughing to myself and thinking “wait until people hear these crazy lyrics”. I guess I’ve always felt as if edgy humor was the best way to get a reaction from my listeners, and I think this is what makes my music memorable. This is the reason I chose the stage name of Art’aud. I got it from the French dramatist, actor and theater director Antonin Artaud. His brand of theater was called Theater of Cruelty. The goal of this theater was to attack the audience, not physically, but with the elements of theater: sound, lighting, etc. So when I use edgy humor in my songs, sometimes I feel as though I’m attacking my audience in a way. Like I make you laugh while at the same time holding up a mirror of society. But I do try to beware of the metaphorical “line” and try not to cross it or go too far. I wouldn’t want to intentionally offend someone. I mean sometimes I do, but I try my best not to.
TK: “The Price is Right” is probably my favorite track of yours, there’s a sincerity there that doesn’t lose its sense of humor. What is the story behind that song and the video?
NA: “The Price is Right” was actually inspired by the instrumental used for the song. I came across the beat one day scrolling YouTube and I immediately felt a connection to it. The second I heard the sound of the tape player I knew it was something special. The singing sampled on the beat reminded me of the Greek chorus used in theater. This is why the song is almost written in the form of a monologue. Also, it’s why I chose to go with the Hamlet-esque music video.
The song is also an ode to my upbringing in North Philly and the different types of things I witnessed on a daily basis. I remember seeing crackheads roam the streets growing up and I thought that was a normal thing because it was a part of my everyday life.
TK: Particularly the lines: “Where I’m from, murder real / Fresh Prince on the scene, no Uncle Phil” sticks out as a depiction of impoverished life and how not having a father figure has shaped or molded inner city young men, but you also tackle gentrification describing how white people affect and become caught up in the day-to-day business in the hood. Can you speak on the correlation between gentrification and lack of direction for inner-city youth and how that affects them and how those things set you personally on your current path?
NA: Well growing up in my neighborhood, most of my friends didn’t know their father. And if they did, they didn’t have the best relationship with them. We all just kind of learned how to be a “man” from each other, which is a very toxic thing because none of us were mature enough or had enough life experience to really know what we were talking about. And our only real life role models were the drug dealers in the neighborhood. These figures represented the life that we all wanted: nice cars, women, dope clothes, etc. But the downside of that lifestyle was this tough guy persona you had to uphold, meaning violence was a part of that. And a lot of times, it was either killed or be killed. I have friends that I grew up with who have been murdered, and also friends who are currently serving life sentences which is pretty wild when you think about it. Luckily, I realized early that wasn’t the road that I wanted to go down. But I could’ve easily been dead or in jail, as the classic hood cliche goes.
And I’ve always viewed gentrification as a tricky thing. Although the neighborhood looks better, I felt like the neighborhood wasn’t for my people anymore. The neighborhood is doing better in a sense, but the people are still struggling and eventually get pushed out because they can’t afford anything in the neighborhood anymore; when they were barely getting by in the first place. For example, my middle school and high school both no longer exist because of gentrification. Temple University bought and destroyed the property to make dorms, tracks and soccer fields for their students. So not only do we feel misplaced in our own community but now they’re taking away our education; the thing needed most to acquire a better life for yourself. And that just doesn’t sit right with me. Also, they come into our community not understanding our way of life and causing problems and getting the police involved. Like you can’t purchase a luxury home in the middle of the jungle and then complain about the tigers. That’s not how this works.
TK: How do you fit into the current state that rap is in? Often, rap and hip-hop has been on opposite ends of a similar spectrum. Do you find yourself lodged into the boom-bap vs trap war, or are you somewhere in the middle, and how so?
NA: I think I fit in quite well in the current state of rap, and I try to keep a good balance of old and new school. Which is why I believe that I fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum because I feel that lyrically I am hip-hop, but my flows and delivery may lean more towards the rap side. And that’s because I’ve always loved both sides. Somedays I feel like listening to Common, The Roots etc.; and other days I’m in a mood for Migos or Three 6 Mafia. I feel like my music appeals to both sides. For instance, I remember as a child listening to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, then literally ten minutes later bumping the 400 Degreez album by Juvenile. I just think I love every aspect of hip-hop and rap, and I think that comes across in my music, at least I hope it does. But lately I have been leaning more towards trap because those types of songs are really fun to perform and make in the studio. But that’s how I feel right now, that can easily change tomorrow
TK: You’re a theater, film and television aficionado, an actor and writer. How do those mediums inform your work? What does theater and hip-hop have in common artistically?
TK: I think my work is informed by these mediums a great deal. A lot of my songs make references to films and television shows because when I’m not listening to music or writing music, these other mediums are usually the things that are consuming my time. And I have to accredit this to my mother. She’s the reason I fell in love with these mediums. When I was a child, she would take me to West Coast Video every Friday and let me pick out whatever movie I wanted. Then we would go home and watch all the movies we rented, so I was bingeing way before it was the thing to do. We also purchased a lot of VHS tapes, and I remembered having multiple plastic totes filled with them. Sometimes I feel like that Jim Carrey character The Cable Guy because my brain is mostly filled with movie and television references.
In both theater and hip-hop, I believe you must stay in character and be believable as the character that you’re presenting to the audience. Just like in theater, the audience can tell if the rapper doesn’t believe the role he’s playing, even if they’re [just] listening through headphones. They can tell if you don’t have confidence, and they can even tell if you don’t yourself believe the things that you’re saying. Also, in both these worlds, being a good performer is necessary, I feel like a lot of people don’t like rap shows because the performances aren’t always up to par. But when a hip-hop artist is a good performer, that’s just the whole package. Which is kind of why I also got into theater, to help with my rap performances.
TK:With “Into the Wild,” you’re a cartoon bear living the high life, and it reminds me of MF Doom / Madlib / Adult Swim. Did that era of hip-hop have any influence on you, and if so, what? The track is kind of floaty, vibey, beachy– but you’re rapping more aggressively on top. What about that contrast do you like?
NA: This track was very much so inspired by Madlib. At the time I wrote [the song “Into the Wild”], I had the Bandana project he did with Freddie Gibbs in heavy rotation. Madlib is actually my favorite producer and it’s my ultimate dream to do a collaborative project with him. So Madlib, if you’re reading this, please do an album with me.
But as far as the song itself,I chose that contrast because I think that’s how people view me. I think people view me as this easy-going and vibey– stealing that word– person but inside I deal with so much turmoil and am kind of an angry person because of the type of environment I grew up in. It’s kind of like a weird form of PTSD. You know, I present in such a calm manner, but the North Philly side of me is always there and reminding me of my troubled past. But I’ve just learned to suppress it and laugh a lot of things off, which I know isn’t a good thing but it’s better than therapy. But realistically, I should probably seek therapy. This is why I identify with the koala bear so much, because their life looks like it’s easy and chill but at the end of the day they still live in the wild.
TK:I think it’s interesting how, like on “‘87” you say quite poetically “You wanted a nigga, shit, nigga here now”, and then a few lines later you say, “mention slavery, white folks get dementia.” Is this juxtaposition of a sort of hard-edge persona with a thoughtful commentary on society and whiteness deliberate? It’s approached as someone aware of their white audience — why is that something that you’ve chosen to address?
NA: Oh yes, this is very deliberate. It’s just a reminder of how black people are expected to forget any type of traumatic event that happened to us in the history of this country. When I say “nigga here now”, it’s a reference to the Kevin Hart scene in the Judd Apatow film, The 40 Year Old Virgin, but it’s stating that this country made Black people the way that we are and then try blame us for our shortcomings. Like your ancestors created this image of us and what they perceived us to be, and we’re still dealing with that today in a system designed for us to fail.
White America will say things like “but slavery was so long ago,” not realizing or choosing to be ignorant to the fact that the Black community is still effected by those events to this day. Which is why I follow the dementia line with “maybe if planes crashed in those fields, they’d never forget,” which is kind of a messed up jab at the events that took place on 9/11. But I wanted the line to cut deep so that my point was made clear. Black people in this country are forced to deal with trauma on a daily basis, watching ourselves die on camera and are told to forget about it or just deal with it. But when it involves any part of white America then it’s “never forget.” And I know 9/11 affected the country as a whole, but I knew it was the one event that my audience would be able to identify with as a whole.
TK: What is the song-writing process like? The way you’re perhaps a fraction of a fraction ahead of the beat, it feels like you’re writing in the same room the beat is being produced. Also, how do you choose a beat to match moods of your lyrics and intensity of delivery?
NA: So there are a couple ways I approach songwriting. The first way is, I already have a song in mind and try to find a beat that I feel best suits the mood or vibe of the song that I want to create. This was the process for my song “Brunch.”I already had the hook and melody planned out before I even found the beat. And the other way I approach songs is, I’ll hear the beat first and if I have a connection with it, I then try to figure out what I call the key elements of the song; subject matter, flow(s), melodies, etc.
My upcoming project, Mister Larry’s Looney Funhouse, was actually the first time I had the experience of being in the room as the producer made the beat from scratch and it made the song creating process easier because it then became more of a team effort. The process honestly reminded me of theater, everyone in the studio playing a key role and contributing to this big production. So it was a very joyous experience for me.
TK: The new project with Sakr3d Wolv3$ seems a lot more introspective. What was the inspiration behind this project? Who is involved with you in Sakred and how did it come to be? Can we expect an LP of this kind of mellow, inner-reaching for of hip hop from you in the future?
NA: I love the Sakred Wolves project so much. It was probably the most comfortable I’ve been creating anything in a studio environment. Sakred Wolves consist of myself, my cousin and fellow artist M11son, Mavericc who produced / mixed every track, and Kenny Rosario-Pugh who plays guitar throughout. But we basically just went to the studio and finished this whole project in one night; written, produced and mixed all in one night. Musically, it was a dope experience for me and I feel like I’ll definitely make more stuff like this in the future. I feel as though I’m evolving as an artist. Five years from now I may not even be doing rap or hip hop, maybe I’ll switch to disco or indie pop. But we’ll see.