Luce Unplugged: Five Questions (Plus One) with Nag Champa
December 3, 2015
Before you leave town for the holidays, get your fix of D.C. music and culture at the next Luce Unplugged, our free local concert series, coming up with Nag Champa on Thursday, December 10th, 6 p.m. Nag Champa are a progressive, beat-driven electronic jazz and R&B group. We're particularly excited for this show because it will feature a Luce Unplugged first: two performance artists, Ra Nubi and Ashley Shey, who will perform both choreographed and improvised movements coordinating with Nag Champa's sound. The show is presented with D.C. Music Download and will feature a cash bar plus an art talk at 5:30 p.m. on a work chosen by the band. Read on to learn what the group's leader, Jamal Gray, had to say about internet culture, sampling your conversations on the Metrobus, and his plans to make you think, cry, and fall in love.
Eye Level: I hear you'll be premiering new sounds at your Luce Unplugged show. What can you tell us about them?
Jamal Gray: I guess our music will always be new to somebody, because we're so new, but for anybody that's seen us live in the past we wanted to create an entirely new experience for them. Most of our gigs over the last year have been at lounges and house parties, and there's always one of our friends DJing to support. So the emphasis of the music has been on the groove. We wanted to make you dance, then think. With this show we want you to think, feel, cry, fall in love, and dance if the spirit moves you. The sounds will be heavier, and more dramatic. I've been studying a lot of film scores and soundtracks from the late '60s and mid '70s, and will be bringing those elements to the new sound.
EL: Can you talk about the line between curator-DJ and musician? Also, what's the coolest/most unusual/surprising thing you've sampled?
JG: For me it's really one in the same. So I don't really own the title of DJ. A DJ has to play to the mood of the crowd, and it's not a skill that everybody can harness, despite the absurd amount of people claiming to be DJs. You have to be able to read people, and it takes a level of compromise I'm probably not ready for yet. For now I just call it sound selecting. There's always a certain mood and certain message I'm trying to convey, and it changes. Don't get me wrong, I like to engage the crowd, but for me it's about reaching a crowd that is open and receptive to new ideas. I like performing for active listeners. It's a much more liberating feeling when you're truly curating.
The majority of the music I produce is sample based, so the aim is always to find something obscure, and reconstruct it. I've been doing a lot of field recordings lately with just my iPhone Voice Memo app, and I've been capturing some really trippy sounds. A lot of the recording takes place on crowded Metrobuses, unbeknownst to anybody on the bus but me. It sounds a little voyeuristic, I know, but when people don't know they're being recorded, it gives the subject a certain freedom. It's a great process. There's no time for rehearsals or overdubs. You'll pick up the some of the wildest most genuine human interactions, while also capturing the atmosphere of the bus ride. That creates textures in the music that can't be duplicated, even by me.
EL: Considering how many members are in Nag Champa, how do you divide production?
JG: All the songs we perform start out as a beat on my laptop. Some of the tracks date back as far as 2010. From there it's like process of elimination. We'll get together, have a jam session, play like 20 beats, and whatever sticks, we run with. It's like once we catch a feeling or mood, we just try to capture it and cultivate it. You have to keep it organic, especially cause we've all got different influences and aesthetics.EL: How much of your live shows are improvised? JG: Fifty percent of the show is improvised. We all come from a jazz background, and that's really how you get your bearings on the scene. We develop our sound in jam sessions. It's like having an open conversation, where everyone is speaking a different language. At first it may sound like a bunch of noise, until you start to find common themes and points of communication. Eventually it'll be like you all are speaking your own dialect, that only you can decipher. That's what Nag Champa is. The power is in the intangible.
EL: Your music would sound at home in L.A.'s beat scene. Are there any strictly D.C. elements or influences?
JG: L.A. is at the forefront of progressive black music right now, so we're honored to be a part of that conversation. From the jazz to the experimental electronic and hip hop. The D.C. sound is Go Go of course, which is percussion-heavy funk with a swing. D.C. loves the groove and the pocket. Percussion and rhythm is a major part of Nag Champa's sound. Instead of just pulling from Go Go, we're also looking towards Go Go's foundations, like West African rhythms, Southern Gospel and spirituals, funk, jazz, R&B, etc. So it's elements that make D.C. music distinct, but ultimately these sounds and feelings are universal, and that's what we aim to tap into. Universal truths.
EL: Who handles the art direction for Nag Champa? How would you describe its aesthetic?
JG: This project is reflection of my life to this point, so my parents' are the direct inspiration for Nag Champa's aesthetic [see their new video ESCAPISM 002]. From my mother, who's Buddhist, there's influences from Eastern spirituality. So that conveys a softer more feminine energy. On the other end is my father's influence, which is deeply rooted in 'AfroFuturism.' Combining ideas of Afrocentricity, cosmology, science fiction, fantasy, and esoteric spirituality.
Catch Jamal play with Nag Champa in the Luce Foundation Center next Thursday, December 10th, 6 p.m.
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