Sunday, October 30, 2016

Lions in Jah Kingdom: An Interview with Napom of First Brigade

"Bring 'em the truth 'cause ignorance is self abuse"

    When Ganjah K released a collection of First Brigade tracks last year on his bandcamp page, under the title Weapons of Mass Destruction, hip-hop listeners finally got a chance to hear material from members of the crew who had previously only been known to most people through shouts out on Ganjah K songs. One of the stand out tracks, on an album full of stand outs, was the very heavy "Lions in Jah Kingdom", a solo track by Napom, a song that grabs you by the throat with it's raw, unfiltered message and moody production. But while listeners like myself were grateful to finally hear some First Brigade material, many questions were raised and I began searching for more info about First Brigade and it's members. I was fortunate enough to get in touch with Napom, who also contributes a very tight verse to the posse cut "1st Brigade ..Sewed Up", and who is also planning to record some new material with Ganjah in the near future. He broke down some of his history and shone some light on yet another chapter in the secret history of First Brigade. 

Can you talk about your earliest experiences with hip-hop and what inspired you to start rapping?

    Actually, my earliest experience with hip-hop would be in the 70s, with Blowfly. That was the first person I ever heard rap, to be honest with you. Also, there was this guy called Johnny "Guitar" Watson. My mom used to listen to him, "I Want to Ta Ta You Baby" and "Superman Lover." That was really my basic, first experiences with rap. Then along came the Sugarhill Gang and, shit, that blew everything wide open. We used to go to the skating rink in Venice and that was like the pulse of hip-hop. 'Cause we didn't really have an understanding of Kool Herc and guys like that on the west coast.

    I would say Chuck D really influenced me to start rapping. I'm a big Chuck D fan. Some of the stuff he would say was totally blowing my mind as a youth. That was really before the gold chain era, when everybody would wear little African medallions, or some beads. You see Pac back in the day dressing like that. That was a cultural awakening for me because here in America, a lot of black people are taught that they're nothing but slaves. They have no real validity, no self worth, no one to look up to, as far as history. So that really started my rhyming. I wanted to let people know how I felt about certain situations, so rap was like a voice for me.

    I would say I started being serious about it in '88. I've been doing it all my life. Rap is really an extension of getting ones' message across. Like in the 70s, the pimps would be rapping [laughs], talking that bullshit. My grandfather would call it shuckin' and jivin'. It was something that the community that I was in was involved in. I grew up in South Central, and pimps would be rappin'! [laughs] That's real shit. I guess that's why Snoop is so good at it. That's his mentality. His whole thing is to get you involved in what he's saying.

You mentioned music with a message. Some of the stuff you sent me, like the stuff with Supherb and Marc tha Murderah, has a thugged out element, but a lot of your music you can hear the influence of the Nation of Islam, Rastafarianism, even Buddhism. Is that spirituality a big part of what you do musically?

    Yes, sir. I was born into Buddhism. My mom was practicing Buddhism in the 70s. Nobody was really on no Buddhism then. They used to laugh at us, man. My mom she used to chant these words, "Nam myoho renge kyo" and people would be like, "What are y'all talking about?!" She got ostracized sometimes, but she stayed fast to what she believed in because truly she believes in world peace. So, you know, that aspect of my mom was very influential. I only had my mom and my grandfather, and my grandfather taught me the man part. But my mom really cared about human people. Not just black people, but human. 'Cause her grandfather was Irish, man. My grandmother's father was white and he was married to a black lady, way back when that shit wasn't cool. So she tried to influence me to think like that. I started dealing with the Five Percenters and I learned a lot from them. They were very informative in me learning about my culture and who I am and what's my place in this world, but coming from so many different religious beliefs - my grandmother was a Christian, and she was a good Christian - I had to go further. The will and the need to understand all nationalities, to surpass religion and deal with the human condition. So a lot of the raps I made with Marc, we havin' fun, talking about different inner city shit. You can't escape that. In heaven, there's gonna be a hell. You have an up and a down. You can't escape it. A yin and a yang. You just have to make the correct choices so that you lessen your karmic retribution. 

Well, you've got a great, rugged voice, so that really suits that type of subject matter too.

   Yeah, man, Marc, I've been knowing him since elementary school. Not many people I can say I've known damn near 40 years! We have history, growing up together, playing basketball together. Marc is one of the most underrated emcees that I've ever known. He's super dope! Some of the stuff he spits, you can't even fathom, "How did he think that?" He's always a great influence and a great person to work with. But actually, Bombay was actually the one who taught me to rap.

 Yeah, I wanted to get back into the First Brigade history. Can you talked about how you hooked up with Ganjah and how First Brigade came together?

    Well, we actually started in high school. I've known Ganjah since 7th grade. I know his family, he knows mine. That's how I linked up with First Brigade, through Ganj. Then him being rap partners with Bombay, I already knew Bombay from high school. Bombay always treated me good, man. He treated everybody good. It's a shame he's not here. It's a great loss to society because you never know what people can contribute for positivity. We used to go to Bombay's house and just sit there and write rhymes, and try to perfect our style. I was always the stubborn one 'cause they'd give me little cheats, but I had to do it my own way. The way Biggie was influenced, by the Jamaican aspect of it, I was also influenced by that, the witty words. Like Chuck D had this one line: "The hater taught hate. That's why we gang bang it." That rap blew me away. I wanted to be on that level, like Chuck.

I know there are more songs with you than what Ganjah released last year - Sach told me he had some stuff on DATs he produced for you guys - were you guys making a First Brigade album or was it more just recording songs here and there?

     Yeah, we were trying to put an album together but I think the RZA said it the best. He said when you have different mindsets as people, even though y'all might be on the same page in terms of putting it together, there still might be conflict. But that didn't take away from what we were doing, it actually fueled it. Because rap is a competition, man. Just like when we was comin' up, if you had the fliest gear. If you came to school with some Bally's on and a Mohair Kangol. I mean, how B-Boy is that? Or your fresh shell toes, all white. You know what I'm sayin'? We was always in competition. To me, that's black America, competition. Gotta be the best.

Do you recall who produced "Lions in Jah Kingdom"? Was that Sach?

   Actually Sach and James worked on that, Sumbi. Sach really took me to whole 'nother level because he made me want to produce. Like that one I sent you, "West." I produced that. Sach has always been influential to me. He gave me the first opportunity to rock a crowd. He believed in me and I appreciate that. But I just got a good job, really, [laughs] and started making money and that was it.

Were you producing back in the 90s as well, or is that something you've started doing more recently?

    I made a lot of tracks for different people where they were orchestrating the instruments but I was bringing the sounds together. I was always big on blending. Back in the day, I used to hang out with this dude named Fabian. He was like Supreme B-Boy when we went to high school. Ganjah will remember this guy. He could break dance and he could DJ. We used to go to his house, in his backyard, and just blend shit. "What would go with this song?" That was my first introduction to production and that was in the 80s, man.

So, you mentioned you got a job that kept you away from the industry but have you been recording a lot of stuff low key over the years?

    Yeah, you always gon' do that. I got a studio at the house [laughs]. I'm working with Reasons, Logic Pro. I'm always gonna be in tune with music. My nephew raps. I can't get rid of that. Though I don't listen to a lot of emcees anymore, man. I listen to a lot of old stuff. I don't know why. 'Cause everything sounds the same. One person that caught my eye was Kevin Gates, I liked his shit. I liked his music.

I know you're a big fan of reggae. Have you ever recorded stuff with that kind of flavour?

    I've got some tracks with some reggae dudes. Yeah, I've done a reggae song with Marc called "Throw Your Hands Up." I love reggae, man. When I first saw Bob Marley at UCLA as a kid, that got me into reggae. And Rastas are cool. They're peaceful. No matter what, he's got a smile. He doesn't need to have a mean mug. He smiles and is charismatic. Plus my grandfather is Jamaican. The culture, it's African, but it's not. I like the southern culture too because my people from the south. America's a big ass melting pot, g. 

Did you ever perform at the Good Life? 

   Yes, I did.

What would you say you took away from that experience, as an artist?

   I would say, to me, it was like when I played football and you went to the championship. Some days you win the whole thing, some days somebody would come with the vicious rhyme and you just have to respect that shit [laughs]. The Good Life really taught me how to be a real emcee. I've never been really into freestyling because I figured that I should write it down. If I freestyle it, I might forget what I said and I might want to use it later on, or construct a rap from another rap. There's been times where I wrote a rap and I'm like, "I don't like this. Lemme just use this part and I'll go from there." That's the beautiful part about it. You're orchestrating that canvas, like a painter. Performing at the Good Life was one of my greatest experiences. That and performing with Sach in Santa Monica. That was a great experience too.

Would that have been when the first Nonce album came out and he was getting some big shows?

     Yeah, exactly. That was right after "Mix Tapes." I've known Sach for a long time. We all grew up in the same environment. Sach has always been a good person, man. And he never changed.

Yeah, I interviewed Sach last year and I've always respected him for never deviating from pure artistry. I can't think of one time where he did something musically that didn't sound genuine.

    Hell, yeah! What I respected, he made me dig in the crates. Him and my boy Fabian They had me diggin' in the crates. We'd listen to some shit that people our age wouldn't normally listen to. Like,  I was big into this group called Weather Report 'cause my brother used to listen to a lot of fusion. Stanely Clarke, all those old time dudes. You'd just find these little drops. Even a horn sample, before sampling was really understood. They came up with a rule on how much you could sample but back then it was wide open. 

I heard some of your more recent stuff and one of them was under the name KG tha Dapper. You also used the alias Smach Gordon. What does the KG stand for?

   Actually, it stands for King God. Smach Gordon is just I'm gonna smash out and make some beats. I liked this song on Flash Gordon, by Queen - I know you remember the movie Flash Gordon [laughs]. I'm just creative like that.

Do you have a whole album under that name, Dowing After Dark?

   Yeah, I did that album but I started working for AT&T Wireless. They send me all over the country, making good money. So I had no time to think about that. 'Cause we weren't getting paid [off music]! We wasn't making no money, man! All these great emcees I know, they're better than the top emcees out. And they aren't getting paid. They're dope but they're not marketable or they're anti-establishment. We were more raw. We didn't give a fuck. We said what we wanted to.

You had mentioned to me you had recorded some stuff with Marc tha Murderah and were planning to do some stuff with Ganjah K and Born Allah. Is that stuff you're planning on releasing in some way? 

   Yeah, I just did a cut with MTM, for sure. His new alias is Dank Will. He's got some hot shit goin'. I just had some surgery so everything got put on hold until I get healthy and get correct. I'm getting ready to get back into writing some more drastic. I think the older you get, your style changes for the better. You're more patient. When I was young, I was trying to get into the aspect of being so lyrical. At one time, the pitch of being an emcee had sped up. People like Rakim sped up the pitch and speed of being an emcee. He was so hittin' so hard. He wasn't stopping and coming back in, he kept going! He gave you a full dose of the God, you know what I'm sayin'?

I still don't think most people can touch "Follow the Leader." You listen to it, and it's twenty five years later and you still can't touch it.

   Yeah, I think the person that's most influential, besides KRS-One, would have to be Rakim, man. I love KRS-One. He's from Jamaica, so he's got that original chant style, which is where rap really comes from. If you look at most of these emcees, especially from New York, their parents are Jamaican. Biggie's parents were Jamaican. Just-Ice's parents were Jamaican...

Kool Herc too...

    Yeah, his mom was from Jamaica. In the 80s, there was this guy from Belize. He actually got his style from this guy called El General. He was a Spanish dancehall rapper. This is the 80s, man! I saw it in like '84, '85. The way they put it down linguistically, they were flippin' it! That really got me into it and one of my partners and my boy Quinton, we went to see this guy, Boy Blue - he was Belizean - and he rocked it! It really let me see who's the father of rap.

Any final words? 

    Well, shit. I'd like to give a shout out to anybody who's keeping the true art form of hip-hop alive, from the break dancing, to emceeing, to the artwork. It's a whole network of different genres of this hip-hop. As we used to call it, it was B-Boy style. Even the dudes who was mackin' was B-Boys.  They adapted the gear. Everybody who's keeping it alive. That's historic. Peace to Ganjah, Marc the Murderah, Born Allah, Brand Nubian, all the people who were influential to me. Biggie, Pac. I really loved Pac because he had the potential to change shit. They started realizing they had the power to change shit, the ills we live in, you have a voice.

It kinda seems like once people realized that power of expression, that's when it was diverted to all this swag rap and all that.

   I think so too. I think they see 10 years ahead and they see how to exploit it. I can't even say America - well, I can because it's not a country. It's a corporation filled with people trying to overthrow each other. I think once the corporation stepped in, they took a lot from hip-hop. Back in the day, we could go to the parks and jam. It was more of a friendly vibe. If you had beef with someone, you could break against them. How positive is that? Instead of you actually putting hands on somebody or creating a violent scene where something else could ensue, you could battle the fool. And some people would get upset and wanna fight! But those were the weak people, to be honest with you. Nowadays, everybody's on this Don/mafioso shit. Back then, your skill spoke for you...