words by Solomon Gustavo
photography by Nabil Ahmed courtesy of the artists
Hip Hop duo Nazeem and Spencer Joles, both 20, sit on shaggy rolling desk chairs in a surprisingly quiet room behind the stage at record store and Rhymesayers Entertainment headquarters Fifth Element, as the shop’s Thursday night open mic finishes up. Both born and raised on the southside of Minneapolis, Nazeem and Joles speak loosely about their creative process shortly after performing three songs from their simply titled debut The Album. From the looks of it, their bodies and minds are drained of pre-performance adrenaline and gassed up by the experience of a good set, like a basketball team in the locker room after a hard-fought win against a crosstown rival.
When confronted with where and who they are -- where they live, their musical tastes, inspirations and aspirations lie -- they don't really have an answer. Pinpointing specific genres as goals or foundations, if they favor themselves more musicians or filmmakers, or where they even live exactly, isn't seen as a challenge to them -- it isn't seen as anything. Asking those questions misses their point. The two prefer to range about like vagrants, doing anything in anyway that brings them satisfaction. “We’re like hobos,” says Joles. “It’s hobo rap.” The duo performed three songs from their debut album, simply titled The Album on a whim, a warm-up for their album release show at 7th St. Entry on April 14 [Ed. Note: Tonight]. Though they clearly appreciate preparation, within the context of their wayward worldview, terms like spontaneity require redefinition.
The songs on the The Album -- which sports features from local luminaries like P.O.S and Muja Messiah, who happens to be Nazeem’s father -- reflect this. The album swerves and dips, turning down corridors of cerebral, smoldering bars over pensive, pounding minimal beats, and alleys with nostalgic samples trumpeting anthemic choruses so deftly and quickly, it becomes impossible to predict what's next. It's like listening to a frenetic fantastic car chase, and the fun is in seeing where they go next.
Fifth Element’s open mic is like most open mics. Both unheralded and unknown acts ranging wildly in quality are intently watched by their friends, but half-heartedly watched by everybody else. The presence of Nazeem and Joles brought all of this to a halt. Retreating from the amber sunset glow of their uplifting album Intro, they begin Smoke Daht, a slow, winding weed-rap track with plenty of space for Joles to lay down Mr. Hudson-like sing-song vocals fitted with a deep voice distortion conjuring a level of inebriation that literally slows down time. Cell phones in the room shoot out of pockets into the air and hit record. The two break here momentarily for applause, it dies down, and a guy yells out -- “what's your name?” He must have been chit-chatting during the artist’s introduction, but he's paying attention now.
“Nazeem and Spencer Joles, aka street food,” yells back Nazeem. A group of fans who were well aware of who they are give a few hoots and hollers, a couple yelling out a requests for them to play another song Why So Low. They don't give in to the requests, but the tallest guy in the room with a towering afro says of the next song, Benjis, “it's okay, this one turns up.” The track is Nazeem and Spencer’s rollicking take on trap-pop, fitted with Travis Scott auto-tune and spine-tingling hi-hats. After it ends, they run off the stage to raucous applause from the crowd and too many daps and handshakes to count.
Growing up the son of one of the Minneapolis rap scene’s pillar artists, Nazeem says he expected to make music his entire life, rapping first for himself, then slowly showing it off to people when he was in his early teens. On the other hand, Joles never thought of pursuing music until his mother bought him a guitar, with which he began to write songs, finding the creative channel a useful way to blow off the steam of adolescence. The two have been peers since middle school, and began to gravitate towards each other musically during high school.
“It took a couple years, hanging out a lot,” says Nazeem. “We basically learned how to rap together.” The two began spitting in cyphers at Southwest High School, meeting under a stairwell during their lunch hour. “Sometimes we wouldn't get lunch, and just be constantly writing goofy, Lil’ Wayne type verses,” says Joles. Nazeem says they were always trying to one-up each other, to come up with the bar that made the entire group throw their hands up and holler.
When graduation came, Joles went to Milwaukee to go to film school. He ended up hating it, prompting him make even more music, and reach back out to Nazeem. From his dorm room, Joles made a beat and randomly sent it to Nazeem. Nazeem laid a verse, sent it back, and the two couldn't get over how much fun it was. They continued to work together, making scant songs and eventually deciding to make a record together. What was once friendly competition soon transformed into a genuine creative chemistry. “We’re really different people but really similar at the same time. We make crazy mental connections,” says Joles, adding that the two will set out to make a song and end up writing lyrics with the same theme.
Nazeem looks at The Album as a great start, a place from which the two can creatively look back and work toward improvement. The record is decidedly versatile, with little to no songs that emanate from the same source except the first and last, which intentionally embrace a soulful, throwback sound. “We try to make nostalgic music,” says Nazeem. “If you hear it, it will represent a point in time of your life. Basically, music that helps you remember what it's like to be alive.”
The Album is surely a springboard for further hip-hop creation, but the group isn't just interested in exploring one genre, or even one artform. They have a “folk-punk” collaboration with the Houston-based folk band Days ‘N’ Daze in the works. They’re also working on television and film scripts -- one of which would be an exaggerated take on their lives -- as well as plan on self-directing more of their music videos, hoping to eventually shoot videos for all 13 songs on The Album.
When we spoke in the backroom of Fifth Element, both were surprised that there were people sing along or requesting songs. They also took time to marvel at signed records on the wall, saying that they both appreciate how hip-hop history was being preserved at Fifth Element, showing their appreciation for blending eras as much as musical genres. Each day, more and more in the metro will learn of this exciting new duo as they aim to make their mark on the Minneapolis scene and beyond. They’ll be the vagrants, rifling through sounds new and old, both lost and on their way.