Within Hip-Hop, I’ve found myself growing fond of a number of artists, emcees, and producers on a personal level along with being a fan of the music they continue to deliver. The artists we all listen to are in fact people behind the mic, behind the boards, behind the instruments they play. This past October, saw the release of Grapes, the latest offering by Spoken Nerd, an album fully produced by Juan Cosby. Both artists have had a busy year, with Juan Cosby releasing his own Quantum Foam (Grasshopper Juice Records) earlier this year, while Spoken Nerd spent his time continuing to release conceptual singles thematically wrapped around film culture. Both have continued to move explosively rather than standing in static motion.
Dialing up Spoken Nerd, known to friends and family as Nathan Conrad, it’s obvious he’s in constant movement. “I’m in Casey, Illinois right now,” instead of his Nashville home. I called him an hour early and chalked up the mistake because he gave me the wrong time, but I incorrectly figured him for Eastern Standard Time, but he mentions that “Nashville is central time, but Chattanooga & Knoxville is EST.” Either way, I’m wrong but it was a fair miscalculation, and He doesn’t hold it against me. But why is he in Casey? Well, he tells me, “My wife buys from auctions, and I go with her. She started a couple of years ago and is doing really well with it. It’s kind of like I get to tour without touring.” Images of storage war reality shows pop up in my head but no, it’s not that kind of glamour, instead, hitting estate sales, auctions, and time capsule houses. He offers, “We also thrift. We find a lot of stuff in thrift stores.” It’s something he’s able to do in his off time and laughs, “It’s super fun. I’m always trying to do some kind of hustle.”
So this year man, Grapes! You and Juan Cosby released a new album. I know you’ve worked with him before, you were on his last album, Quantum Foam, earlier this year. Have you guys worked consistently together or was this the first time?
We actually have done a lot of stuff. We met a few years ago; kidDEAD and I were on tour, and we played in Cincinnati. Nick (Juan Cosby) and I hit it off. The first time I think we worked together was when we did that MC DOOM thing. For Comic Book Day we did this release where it was a comic of a guy in a DOOM mask. Really, it was obviously me and we did a single with it, later making a little compilation. That was the first time we worked together but we’ve done a few things now. We kind of felt like we were gelling, so I had that crazy idea to make a Tales From The Crypt mixtape and put out a comic with it. Do you remember when M. Night Shyamalan was going to put out that Tales From The Crypt thing?
Yeah, I remember that.
It was around that time, and I thought ‘Oh man, I gotta do that Tales From The Crypt mixtape and this is going to be the guy to do it with…’ and that kind of fell apart but we were still working on music. I was like, ‘Well, let’s keep working on an album then’ but it didn’t have to be necessarily tied to that particular concept, so we went for it.
You named the album Grapes. Why Grapes?
It kind of came through the writing, I wasn’t even sure what to name the album. We were a few songs in and a lot of the songs had a vibe about forbidden fruits, different sins, things like that, and how they affect us. A few years ago, I attended a bible study where they talked about how the forbidden fruit was the grape, and how no one had blood in their body but when they ate the grape it suddenly put blood in the body. It was some theory this guy had and, not that I necessarily buy into that theory wholly or anything, I thought it was really interesting and it kind of came to life for me as I was pondering on that. There are some references in the bible to the blood of the grape so when I wrote the intro, I referenced the blood of the grape, and then I was like ‘Yeah, that’s the name of the song’ and then thought ‘This is the name of the album.’
For Grapes, it seems like there’s a variety of different beats throughout it, and your style is kind of infectious with each track. They’re so different, but still being the same, keeping your identity throughout it. Was that purposeful to do something like that?
Sort of. I think a lot of it came with the album being recorded over the course of a few years. We started the first group of songs pre-State Parks, my band. I did that State Parks record and I was still working on Grapes. Then the thing happened with Fake Four and I had to put that on the back burner to put out I Need A Friend Like You. I was still working on it on the side because I was putting all of my attention into that while simultaneously working on I Need A Friend Like You and another Cult A Cola Classic with 247. I think that’s why you see so many styles within what I’m doing.
Regardless of so many different styles, so many variations of Spoken Nerd himself, the album still coalesce well through its songs.
I’ve always been a fan of using one producer on a record because I think that keeps a record from being all over the place. I think that’s important for a project to be very cohesive and very conceptual.
There are very few projects that do gel well when you have so many producers [REKS is one artist I can think of and his last album T.H.I.N.G.S. (The Hunger Inside Never Gets Satisfied) and his style fit every track but that doesn’t happen for everyone.]
That’s really cool when it happens and if I ever do a release of like a Filmology full-length, which I plan on eventually, I think that that will have different folks on it producing. Obviously, the tracks have already had different producers, and that gave me the opportunity to work with different producers. I have so many friends that I want to do music with, but I never want to do stuff that doesn’t make sense within a whole project, if that makes sense. Even like featured rappers, I’ve had some of my favorite rappers agree to collaborate with me and as I’m working on albums I sometimes think, ‘No, this isn’t right for them. None of these sounds are right for this artist.’ I’m pretty intentional about how I put together records in the first place.
Yeah, I’ve heard that before. Sometimes when you collaborate with another artist it doesn’t feel right and you kind of have to start from scratch.
Exactly, sometimes that’s the way to go. Just pop out a single!
On some of your songs you give – like I mentioned before already – a variation of yourself but you’re exploring new territory. “Delicate Flower” is a good example. You’re spitting some quick-tongued lyrics and it fits. But even the title track, you’re deliberate, you’re not angry but aggressive. I think ‘This is the same cheerful guy I know but he’s doing things differently here.’
When I started rapping, there was a point where I was aggressive and almost too aggressive, angry raps. I was pretty influenced by the angrier side of Rhymesayers and those kinds of labels. I figured out within my style that I needed to tone it down a little bit and find my own voice. All those influences have kind of come out. For the first time in years, I’ve been listening to a lot more popular rap. Anything you listen to I believe influences you and I’ve drawn a lot of influence from that lately too.
Aside from your influences, you also throw in everyday type situations. Say “Tokens” for example, there I am thinking about being in an arcade spending my entire day playing video games. Even “Bad Coffee,” we all need that jolt of dunking our heads into a sink full of it sometimes.
(Laughs) This is super cliché, but they always say to rap about what you know. That’s kind of where I’m at. “Bad Coffee,” I played a show up in Illinois in Blue Island at this bar. It’s one of my favorite places to play, they do this big shindig every year where it’s outdoors. My wife ended up not going with me on this one, she tours with me a lot, but for this show, they got me a hotel room and I thought, ‘Man I’m going to get a Lyft over there and I’m going to drink.’ My merch was set up outside and it was starting to get dark, most of it was over and I was playing pinball all night hanging with folks, nothing too crazy. It started pouring down rain and suddenly I had to run outside and get my merch out of the rain. I called a Lyft and he was pissed because so much merch to put in his car. I went back to the hotel, loaded my car back up, and the next morning I wake up and I’m kind of chilling in my hotel and sat down to write. I used the coffee machine in my room and take a drink of it and threw up! It was horrible. I kind of lost my voice and here I am without much voice and this melodic beat, and that song just came out at that moment.
One of the things I like is the fact that you’re not afraid to explore different things.
I think that’s important. One writer I admire a lot is Aesop Rock and if you look at what he’s writing about; he writes about his house being gross and all kinds of stuff. I admire that, I think it’s cool.
On the album, you don’t have a lot of features, but you do have a few. I mean, E-Turn kills it on “Sacrifice For Destruction,” but I think one of my favorite tracks is “Tales With Darko.” On there it seems Darko The Super raps all nonchalant in his delivery. It’s awesome the way it comes across.
He’s really been a gem to me. I met him a few years ago when I was on tour. I guess last time we were out where we were full-on Spoken Nerd tour, touring I Need A Friend Like You, I’d reached out to my friend Donovan who usually throws my shows in Philly and he said ‘Hey man I’m going to be gone but Darko will take care of you.’ We stayed at his house, spent 2 days with him, and hung out with his dad. It was a really cool and fun time. The way he raps and tackles everything, he does it all the time. You can tell, this guy writes every day. He’s got a lot there and it’s unique, no one else sounds like him. The first time I saw him, his voicing almost reminded me of GWAR’s lead singer, like whenever Oderus Urungus would sing a ballad, but he’s up there rapping like crazy throwing all kinds of stuff out there. I always wanted to collaborate with Darko so when I had that song – this is when we were still in the Tales From The Crypt phase of the record when I wrote my verse and laid it down – I had written a hook that was almost too dark, a little cagey and being in the character, a little bit of those dark raps. This hook had to go and thinking about it, it didn’t need a hook, but it did need a guest verse and I thought that he’s the guy.
It worked out well between the two of you. How do you decide on different collaborations with other artists? How do you pick and approach them? You have a track with Homeless and a couple of others too.
Most of the time the artists I pick are people that I have a relationship with, sometimes not. I usually have a song that I have a feature on and then I’ll ask myself, ‘Who do I hear on this song?’ Sometimes I sit with it for a while and think about it. The Homeless one was a little bit different because that song was originally supposed to be Homeless and Chris Conde for one of Juan Cosby’s albums but it didn’t work out for Conde so he just actually said ‘Hey, why don’t you take this beat, but I would like you to have MC Homeless on it?’ I thought about it and said ‘Yeah, I hear him on it.’ He’s my homey, let’s do it. That was a fun one.
I have one right now that I’ve listened to for a long time and sometimes, I will even go through and listen to rappers; people locally or some that I’m pretty sure would say yes and I will just listen and listen and listen, thinking ‘Whose voice sounds right on this? Whose voice has the right style for this?’ That’s kind of how I pick them.
Any plans to tour?
There will be some touring next year. I’ve kind of done with my shows for the most part, but if someone shows up with a suitcase full of money and says, ‘You have to play here,’ I’ll play obviously. When I get into the holiday season, I just focus on work usually. At my job, that becomes pretty important but next year I plan on getting out. I’m not sure what it’s going to look like, obviously, everything is different, but I think it’s going to be good. We’ve done 4 shows this year and only 1 of them was a stinker, the other ones were pretty banging honestly.