Beyond the Beats

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:14

      Rather than hang itself on a subgenre’s rigidity, one NYC hip-hop movement has created a paradoxically boundless niche. Uncommon Records is a self-described progressive hip-hop label operated by producer and emcee Nasa, an alumnus of the golden underground of the 1990s and former sound engineer for Definitive Jux. Uncommon marks its five-year anniversary in 2009, and celebrates 2008 with a two-day festival called Yule Prog, taking place Dec. 17 and 18 in Brooklyn. Releasing everything from jazz-tinged spoken word to psychedelic boom and instrumental concept albums, Uncommon is driven by unique people with everyday concerns pushing the art form, and a reciprocal standard of authenticity wherein the audience and artist are one and the same. “We’re a niche label,” explains Nasa. “I don’t use the world niche negatively.We’re not exclusionary like only these people are allowed to listen to our music.

    At the same time, we’re straight from the source.The cats that work with us, they’re making this music in their house. Our mind-set is that the best music isn’t discovered yet.” Nasa’s hip-hop vision is punk in its boundary-breaking mentality. It sounds contradictory to label this “progressive”—with its assocations with self-important 1970s prog rock—but it’s the DIY aesthetic that keeps progressive hip-hop grounded and the music experimental.

    “Progressive rock suffered from self indulgence,” says Nasa. “Record labels and A&R [people] tried to figure out how to make it more sellable.What you heard from later acts like Styx and Journey was a major-record-label influence on prog rock that watered it down. When you look at prog rock—King Crimson, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown—all those amazing groups were signed to something like Atlantic.We’re not, so we don’t have the pressure that those artists had because we’re making our own music, we’re making our own money and we control what we do.” Wednesday night’s Yule Prog event is an invited emcee battle judged by Cirrus, Nasa’s partner in the Presence, a rap act adept at abstract political catharsis, and lowkey underground emcee Masai Bey, an Uncommon artist who beneath layers of words reveals an antecedent in someone like KRS- One.The battle however, is linked to Uncommon’s roots in the ’90s underground.

    “They [used to have] battles like Braggin’ Rites at Nuyorican [Poets Café] and Wetlands,” Nasa recalls. “They were sick battles.

    You went and saw a show [and] it was theater.They rhymed over beats too, this was the ’90s where every beat on underground radio was sick, the same beats from Stretch and Bobbito and that you could get at Fat Beats.

    Everything we do is along that line.” Thursday night’s headliner is Vast Aire, who helped pioneer progressive, impressionistic hip-hop with Cannibal Ox’s 2001 release The Cold Vein. He’s hugely influential to a few but not yet widely known.

    “We’re trying to flood the market,” says Nasa. “It’s about how much you can get out there with the digital stuff, everything adding up to give you some kind of movement. Every release is a sign, a digital billboard for us.You can see it on the website, that back-catalogue effect. It’s like having a record store in your house and making those discoveries. Make sure the fans know about it and boom.”

    > Yule Prog

    Dec. 17 & 18, Public Assembly, 70 N. 6th St. (betw. Kent & Wythe Aves.), Brooklyn, 718-384- 4586; 9, $7. Also Dec. 18 at Southpaw.