There’s a joke in Oakland that there’s a BART stop somewhere in Brooklyn; that much of a cultural exchange between either city. Both known for maintaining cultural diversity and artistic relevance in the face of rising gentrification, comparisons between the two cities are hard to avoid.
So is the seemingly fateful musical trajectory of Oakland-native-turned-Bushwick-resident, Nappy Nina. Raised the daughter of popular radio personality Greg Bridges in the nest of Oakland musicians, activists and culture makers defining the Bay Area scene of the 90s, Nina took the mic as a poet first before moving to Brooklyn five years ago to pursue music with fellow musicians Alfie Lenox, DJ Inward and Théo Mode. After a series of collaborative releases and residences at local Brooklyn venues, Nappy Nina has emerged on her own – first with the Naptime EP and now their latest, Extra Ordinary.
Featuring appearances and production from the likes of Stas THEE Boss of THEESatisfaction and Norvis Junior, the project highlights how Nappy Nina’s voice has evolved from the hyphy bounce and Yee! tendencies of Bay Area hip hop, to a project as diverse in sonic structure and cadence as it is in content matter and lyrical depth.
We caught up with Nappy Nina recently in West Oakland, visiting for a quick pop-up show in support of her new project at longtime Oakland artist Eesu Orundide’s Sixteen Screen Printing Boutique & Gallery, before heading up to Seattle for some creative time with Stas THEE Boss:
You mention a lot of the folks you grew up around in Oakland – what was it like growing up with your dad with his role in music and how it speaks to the Oakland you grew up with? Was it like being raised by a tribe?
Growing up, I lived in Oakland but moved to Union City and when I did that I spent every other week in Oakland. When that was happening my dad was just taking me around with his homeys, basically and they’d be the artists like Eesu [Orundide] or K-Dub (Keith Williams), or the musicians like Dwayne [Wiggins, of Toni Tone Tony], and they all had kids and we were just basically around while they were creating. I remember this one show So So On Ten where all of them came together.
Basically I was being brought up by all these creative ass folks who were creating just to create, all the time, and I just saw that. I didn’t think about it all, it was actually kinda annoying to be dragged around to all of these places, you know? I was like, I’d rather be at the house playing video games or watching a movie – whatever dumb shit a kid wants to do. But because I wasn’t there and my dad was dragging me everywhere, he was dragging me to the Java House where he was hosting Open Mics when the poetry scene in Oakland was really getting popping, and he was taking me to the radio stations where he was having shows at because that was free child care (laughs) me being at the radio station. So that just seeped into me and I didn’t realize it for a long time, or even try and fight it – I was just reluctant even to be involved in Youth Speaks, which my dad recommended. I didn’t know if he knew if I wrote or whatever, but I wasn’t initially gung ho about performing.
You and your brother Myles (Théo Mode) now are musicians, doing your thing – how did that crew of your Dad’s influence you both? Was he doing the same thing with you?
Yeah we were going together; we did have music lessons growing up, I played piano, but not forever. I quit like I don’t want to play anymore.
But my parents still had me in band. I was playing clarinet, and then I joined jazz band and randomly played upright bass – which my Dad loved! – but I was over it. I wanted to be a cool kid in highschool – I’m not gonna play bass, what? This is horrible. Carrying that shit to school. Myles had piano for a while but we weren’t practicing everyday or whatever, I think us becoming musicians was kinda a shock, despite who our dad is.
I must’ve been like 16 I guess; my dad recommended it, but I brushed it off. I think I saw something about a workshop at the Oakland Museum about a Youth Speaks writing workshop and randomly went. It was only two kids: me and Bryant Phan. The facilitator was Lauren Whitehead. After that I just started going to workshops. And then I went to one of the open mics at the Luggage Store [in San Francisco] and after that I was like, “This is tight!” I wasn’t hella into hip hop yet, so it was a nice medium of doing cool shit and school work.
And Hip Hop during that time was horrible. It was like 2005? That was like when Hip Hop died, as Nas said.
It was like pre-Wayne, pre-Drake; maybe the Outkast double album?
That was good but the stuff on the radio was mostly Lil Jon and Eastside Boyz and a lot of copycats of that.
When did you start rapping? Was it an evolution from spoken word?
I think it was it’s own thing. My poetry style was fighting being an MC in slam, because I saw that MCs get no love in the slam! (laughs). They’re always out in the first or second round. My dj Ahb – DJ Inward – he was like the first kid at my school that had an iPod, and he had it stacked with like mad emo hip hop on there like Murs (laughs). Hella Heiroglypics and Atmosphere. I had never heard any of that! And I was like, “Damn, this is dope.”
I also had Miseducation [of Lauryn Hill] from my Mom – her and my Dad have a solid collection I stole from – and listened to that heavy at the time too. Basically Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott I was rocking back to back.
But I wasn’t really serious about rap; I kinda just did it.
So there was The Carenots projects – all of which is was part of the Post-Traumatic Slaves crew. It almost feels like a new village or like an artists co-op that you work with. How was it working across the groups and crews?
I try to remind myself about how blessed I am to have these people that are dope and wanna collab and what I keep realizing with every step I make is that the connections I’ve made along the way are genuine, and the collabs I’ve made are mostly about the music, so feeling that and remembering that just puts you in your place a little bit (laughs). I feel like on the outside in the bigger music industry people try to collab because this person has bigger internet following than you, or This person can provide this social capital for you. What people don’t realize is that that works for a second – you might get a little bit of traction – but in the long run that shit’s not gonna work out because the connections aren’t genuine.
The connections I’ve built with Post-Traumatic Slaves, with Alfie Lennox, with Norvis Junior, Stas THEE Boss – all those are because we want to rap and we have free time and we’re like Fuck it! I like the way you make music, I like the way you rap, let’s just sit in this hot ass room, smoke blunts all day and make these tracks, you know? That was it! There was no end game, and there still isn’t. I just want to make music with my friend and to be able to sustain myself doing that, and I don’t think that’s wrong to feel that way, you know?
How’s it working with Norvis Junior?
One day I was listening to his tracks, walking down the street to my job – and I seen him walking down the street! So I stopped him, and like, put my headphones to his ear, and he just nodded and was like “Cool.” And then he introduced himself like “Hi, I’m Norvis, I’m Nina” and that was it. But then I ran into him again on the same street and he was like “Yo, you wanna make music?” And that was it (laughs). He was living in this small ass room and we hotboxed that bish in the summer and recorded “Yee Ain’t Ready” with Stas THEE Boss. That was like maybe four summers ago. I’ve been in New York almost five years now, which is crazy to think about.
How’s the move from Oakland to Brooklyn been? I feel like your whole crew took flight out East.
I think I moved to Brooklyn at a critical time personally, I think I was 21? I was in a hungry-ass mode and I felt like I couldn’t be exactly who I want to in the Bay; people hold you to a certain standard because they’ve known you for so long. So I felt like I had to get out and that transition has been pretty good. Of course I’ve struggled like my first year – like no lie, I moved to Brooklyn with $500 aight? (laughs) I’m glad I’m still here.
Brooklyn and Oakland are very similar. It’s different folks, but the diversity is similar. Just the landscape is kinda similar sometimes. But the people are different. Brooklyn is more direct. That’s been good for me because I need a push; I need people to hold me accountable. I needed opportunities to be in front of me so I could take them.
The transition’s been good, but everytime I come back to Oakland I regret I don’t live here anymore. It’s bittersweet.
So your new project “Extra Ordinary” starts with the track “Extra Extra” – there’s those lines about your mom and Houston Street in New York and leaving home and the push and pull of all that; that song sets the tone for the whole album. It’s like the thesis statement. How did you go about writing it?
I totally agree. I feel that way about “Naptime” too. Similarly both of those songs started each project. I heard the beat to Extra Extra and I immediately started rapping to it, and that’s when I decided I’m gonna have an EP or whatever, and that was the same with “Naptime” and realized ‘Oh this is my project – Naptime.’
With “Extra Extra” I was feeling a specific way at this time, and I heard this specific beat, and that track means a lot to me. I debated whether to put it first [on the album], because it’s such a slow track, and I was conscious about that – but it’s like the most important track to me.
Was it all recorded in NYC?
It was all recorded in NYC, actually at Converse’s studio in Williamsburg, and my boy Ben Armin who was the manager there let me record my whole EP there – and now they’re gone, out of Brooklyn. They even laced us with new sneakers. So I recorded most of the EP there, and my brother engineered it.
Talk about what you’re doing in Seattle next week.
I feel like I’m at a point in my life, like a lot of other artists, where I’m wondering like Should I quit my day job? So I’m gonna be in Seattle for a month and try and finish an EP that I’ve been working on with Stas THEE Boss of THEESatisfaction, so we’ll see. Me and her just like to rap together; we just love to sit in the room together – she makes beats – and she challenges me to be a better writer, like craftier and wittier, because Stas is really witty with it (laughs). I love to sit in the room together, and spending time together in Seattle is going to bring out the best of both of us, so I’m excited to see what comes out.