A conversation between Dom McLennon and Nothing_Neue | Amplified

Nothing_Neue is a Black artist, event organizer, and activist currently based in Brooklyn.

He recently self-released an album titled AMANI, and has been using his ‘(in plain sight)’ events to give access to gear and create a space to play for musicians in his community since 2017. From organizing local block parties to having regular residencies around the city, Nothing_Neue is a creator who is definitely worth watching for. Let’s dive into a conversation with him as part of a new artist-on-artist conversation series between Black artists, Amplified.

Dom McLennon: First and foremost, congratulations on AMANI, it’s an incredible body of work. I’m so proud to see it out in the world. Is this your first self-released project?

Nothing_Neue: Thanks! I’m happy to be sharing it with people – a lot of work went into creating AMANI and it feels good to hear how people are receiving it. In terms of self-releasing projects, honestly all of my projects have been self-released. AMANI was special because it was my first label release, and it’s important to be strong in presenting my work and voice on my own.

DM: I 1000% understand where you’re coming from there. Sorry I wasn’t aware this was going to be the first label release, but I do remember seeing how everything went down in regards to that – I absolutely think you made the right decision here and did what was best not only for your art but also for your identity as an artist. A lot of folks would be very cautious at the concept of pulling a release from any label, but it truly was a defining moment, at least from how I see it. It’s a true statement of independence that I think anybody would wholeheartedly respect considering the circumstances.

N_N: I mean, it kind of came as a knee-jerk response. The day that everything went left with the label, I was out there protesting during the first protests for George Floyd. I was getting messages asking about what was going on with the label, and if I still affiliated myself with them after they took part in some shady business involving performative activism. I was so mad that I decided right when I got home that if I’m to make an album celebrating Black Dreams, I need to show people that they can do it based on their own strength.

DM: The way this situation became another way for you to establish independence as a Black artist is so essential. So many things out of our control can create moments where things we aren’t even personally responsible for create a circle of doubt in relation to our capacity to achieve something. I can say with full confidence that something like that would’ve caused me, at the very least, to significantly push my project back just out of sheer disbelief of what happened and needing time for myself to process it. I have so much respect for you pushing through and continuing to believe in yourself and your ideas to give this to the world. I was having a conversation with a friend earlier about how Black joy, Black creativity and Black thought are so important right now, because it’s just as much a protest as us being out in the streets. We need to balance the dark times with the light of our spirits. Would you take a second to break down the title of the album?

N_N: AMANI is a name that translates to two different things in Arabic and Swahili. In Arabic, AMANI means ‘dreams’ or ‘aspirations,’ while in Swahili it translates to ‘harmony’ or ‘peace.’ I wanted to set the intention of the album right from the title, as well as reference some of us ’90s kids who had parents who went to a big book of African baby names so their children would affirm their purpose every time they write their name. The opening and closing tracks are the translation of my first and middle names, respectively.

DM: That’s beautiful; there’s so many ways to interpret that as well. I can totally see how the sound and this album’s name come together – there’s definitely an intention of giving peace to the listener here. I’ve been listening to the album over and over, and I love how the lyrics in the title track are essentially affirmations as well. There’s a true sense of completeness to each track, and the sounds you pick in each song also come across as thoughtful too.

N_N: I’m glad you picked up the vibe of the title track – those words came to me while I was in a heavy place and it was the first time I decided to try to sing what I heard.

DM: Man, it’s a moment for sure – the overall soundscape of the album creates these moments where the pockets that have vocals make you run them back a few times just to really process what’s going on. I can interpret those lyrics as like, the creator’s message to their creation, if that makes sense. Going back to naming a child, if this title track is one of many children on this album, it’s as if you’re telling the album that its existence will serve a purpose with your words. Powerful shit.

N_N: My family is connected through music. We used to play together, and as we got older we followed our own sounds. When I started playing heavy metal, my dad stressed the responsibility of having your voice be amplified. He made sure I understood that whatever you do with music has a direct effect on the listener. It was initially a warning to get me to stop playing metal, but I later understood that whatever I do with my music should be lead with the intention of healing. Metal and moshpits are in ways a form of catharsis, and I aim to that with every release: provide a space for healing.

DM: I relate in so many ways. I think our northeastern connection gives us a specific affinity for any form of technical music with guitars, especially all the different forms of metal people play out there. Going back to family though, can we get a short list of some of the instruments and genres different members of your family were playing?

N_N: My mom started off as a guitarist in punk bands, and then started playing reggae, and eventually African drums. My dad is a reggae bassist and singer/songwriter. My brother is a classically trained jazz pianist and later became the bassist in our band. I play the drums and Ableton Live. My parents were a bit older, so I didn’t get a lot of hip hop in the house – mostly smooth jazz radio, R&B, or reggae. I had to find the hip hop stuff on my own.

DM: That wide range must have been so inspiring – I can definitely hear the jazz and R&B influences in your sound selection. My parents were all about the smooth jazz radio and R&B stuff as well. I didn’t get as much into things that weren’t mainstream hip hop until my cousins put me on Mobb Deep, Styles P, The Roots, Dilla, and stuff. What was your introduction to electronic music and hip hop, and how did you find your way into Brooklyn’s beat scene?

N_N: The College Dropout was the first hip hop album I ever purchased. After that, I think someone might have had a Madvillain song on their Myspace profile, and I went to Virgin Records and picked it up. Adult Swim bumps introduced me to Flying Lotus’ “Massage Situation,” but it wasn’t until Nujabes did the music for Samurai Champloo that I went down the rabbit hole and discovered Dilla. The Brooklyn beat culture had been existing long before my knowledge through Paxico Records, Beat Haus, and Beat Society, but I lived in a bubble and didn’t know about it. I was focused on trying to get on Soulection Radio, but somehow I got the attention of Beat Haus. They randomly liked one of my Instagram posts one day, and I realized the community I wanted to join existed down the street from my house! I’d be there every First Friday from the summer of 2016 to 2017, when Fresh Daily moved to California. My goal was to be able to play on that stage just once.

DM: It’s so sick that you were able to stumble into Beat Haus like that. There were some small local scenes in Hartford that I happened to do the exact same thing with; it really opens your mind up to the idea of what a little curation can do for so many folks. Any personal favorite moments from your earlier beat scene days?

N_N: The earliest memory I have is hearing Foisey. play a set at Beat Haus. That was one of the first beat sets I’d ever seen. There was also the first time I met Brainorchestra. Before I even went to a show, he pulled out the SP-404 or 555 and it blew my mind. I knew I had to get one, so I bought a beat-up 303 on craigslist so I could perform live one day. Those memories stand out because those people are still good friends of mine, and are incredibly accessible to the community.

DM: Man, I can’t express how important it is to have folks like them in your community, rather than traveling some distance to see a set where you’ll never really be able to connect with the musicians. Those kinds of moments were so essential when I was learning how to really rap and perform – being able to go up to guys like Self Suffice, who was emceeing practically every event in the city one summer. I saw AceMo at a garage show way back in the day and had a similar moment watching him with an APC40. Seeing how far he is now is just so sick.

N_N: Accessibility is key to demystifying what it means to be a working musician / artist. Being able to exchange information and gems we’ve picked up along the way helps us continue to grow. Even this conversation is huge, because the walls have been broken down and we’re able to talk and connect as people and not as business relationships or something similarly detached.

DM: 100%. The precedents an action sets can be just as important as the action itself. Two Black artists being able to have transparent conversations and find connections creatively is important, no matter their orientation, gender, or public status. We owe it to ourselves to make it a point to make spaces where we can communicate with each other, and I think taking that space on platforms like this sets an important precedent in regards to not only how we can be seen as artists, but as thinkers, too.

N_N: Absolutely. Too often, as artists and more specifically as Black people, we’re sold the idea that we have to build vertically, that we have to be better than the next person in order to accomplish what we want. I’ve been constantly working on ways to build horizontally. I know that’s a place where we both connect at an instinctual level. If I know something, I should be able to share that with someone else in hopes that they take it and grow from it. Be it production techniques, marketing moves, or platforms to be seen and heard, it’s important for us to get to a point where we’re more concerned with seeing the whole succeed, and not just ourselves. For every door we get in, we should leave a foot jammed at the entrance so we can bring someone else in to do the same.

DM: That’s such a truth right there. With your experience not only as an independent musician but as an event organizer, as well as having experience working behind-the-scenes at a music company like KORG with graphics and marketing, what would be some of the most essential things you think are being overlooked amongst independent musicians right now?

N_N: Marketing and promotion! On my Twitter, I try my best to give out little gems I’ve learned through being a member of the marketing team at KORG as well as connecting with independent artists like Dibia$e and Stlndrms. People focus on the art and the process, but not on how to push that art out into the world and connect with their fanbase. That’s a major key, as well as organizing in your own communities. I don’t think I’d ever be where I was if I didn’t decide to start (in plain sight). I knew that no one knew who I was, and that the only way for them to know me was to put myself on with other folks who felt the same.

DM: Using your platform to give others opportunities is so important. I’ve never been a big fan of marketing and promotion unless it’s centered around developing and fostering some sort of ecosystem that can benefit more than whatever is being promoted itself. Let’s talk about (in plain sight) a little more – what was the void you felt you saw in your scene that a project like that could fill?

N_N: I started (in plain sight) in 2017 as a livestream for me and a few people who played the very first Beat Haus open aux event. There wasn’t a roadmap to getting more shows and we were all itching for more, so we started streaming from my mom’s living room and various other ‘secret locations’ (studios, backyards, etc.). When I had the chance to provide music for my neighborhood’s block party a few months later, I knew that if I could borrow some PA gear from KORG, I could make something that would amplify the entire community. From that point, we just kept building with monthly showcases at the bar Father Knows Best in Bushwick and annual collaborative block parties with KORG where we brought hardware for the community to demo. I wanted to take the access I had as a Black man working in the musical instruments industry, and use it to boost other Black and Brown folks. We made sure that no matter how much it cost, the events were free to the public. While I was working at KORG, I was pushing for more representation in their social media presence and marketing initiatives. That’s part of the responsibility of having access / privilege: opening doors for other people.

DM: I love the concept of a block party also serving as a space for artists in urban neighborhoods to have access to new forms of gear. We’re definitely cut from the same cloth when it comes to the spirit of sharing the wealth, and I’m very confident we can rally resources together again as a community and create more similar opportunities post-COVID. Sorry to bounce around a bit here, but to go back to AMANI, are there any details you want to get into regarding creating specific songs or moments on this album you’d like people to know about? What did it feel like to hear this project complete from front to back for the first time?

N_N: It was a trip listening to it when it was finished! For the first time, I felt like I effectively said what I had to say. Two things stand out for me; one was the importance of collaboration in songs like “Live & Learn” and “Changes.” Those two songs were made after being in rooms filled with other artists and learning new things from them. “Changes” was written after a session with Wrex Mason and Crillum at SeaTea Soundworks. That was the first time I heard someone use the mod wheel on a synth effectively, which was inspiring.

“Live & Learn” was written while me and my homies Unusual, Radicule., and Knda_Relevant were working on our own beats at our AirBnB in Atlanta before playing controllers.

The second thing was not being limited by surroundings. A lot of the ideas for AMANI were written during lunch breaks at work or riding the LIRR train, just wherever I could jot down ideas. It’s important to not be limited by the ‘where’ when focusing on the ‘what.’

DM: I feel like all of my favorite music is made or written in the strangest places, or in transition from one place to another. Do you feel like spending more time creating on the move led to a different set of breakthroughs artistically?

N_N: It forced me to commit to my impulses when writing music. When there are limits like space and time, I can listen to that first impulse and jot it down quickly. “Sent Down” started as a sample that I flipped during lunch at work. Later, I decided to take some of the elements I liked and played as close to the sample as possible. Limits definitely inspire creativity and adaptation.

DM: I love that despite the limits, your approach is still nonlinear. For people who may be seeing this as an introduction to you outside of your music, what would you like them to take away from this, or from AMANI if they’re a first time listener?

N_N: I would love for people to find a sense of center with it. It was healing music for myself when I wrote it, so I’m hoping it does the same for someone else. It’s important to create moments of freedom and joy as a society, but specifically as Black artists, because finding joy even under all of this pain, darkness, and constant trauma is an act of rebellion. We dream so that we can see what we’re trying to create in real-time.

July 10, 2020

Dom McLennon Dom McLennon is an activist, music producer, and artist best known for his work with BROCKHAMPTON.