Feature: N-Side

Picture of N-Side

Interview by Marc Kets

Every once in a while an artist comes along with a message so deep and profound that it touches you not only on a melodic level, but in a way that makes you reassess what your priorities are. In an age where so many artists sacrifice their message in favour of financial gain, we need someone to stand up and speak from the heart and that artist is the jazz-poet N-Side. As he so succinctly puts it, "We need more talking with and less talking at."

Who/What are your influences?

What influences me are people who care about the well being of others and do something about it on a soulful level, not determined by dollars and fancy talk. Anybody can say something clever and catchy, but not everyone can move a soul. People who bring hope to the hopeless are my heroes such as Donald Byrd, jazz trumpet player and Red Garland, piano-player, Ray Brown, bass, Kamau Da'ood, Gil-Scott Heron, Sekou Sundiata, Milton Nascimento, Nina Simone, Roland Kirk and William "Smiley" Winters, drummer.

Gil-Scott Heron has also had a profound influence on myself, do you find that his message still stands tall today, and is the message as relevant now as it was in the 70s and 80s? What has drawn you to him and his music?

Yes, it still stands tall today for me. As far as it being recognized as being relevant, that's another question. For example, while I was growing up in Berkeley, some would say the movement was in Oakland, but it was in both. Some reflect on the "We won't take anymore" aspect of the period. Now, you might hear some very profound assessments of the period now, but what about the person who lived through it? Is what affected him less important, if he doesn't have a platform? Why do I ask this? Because I am a survivor of that period. Not by any means am I saying ability to articulate is a bad thing. My concern is about who gets lost through the cracks? Who has given themselves the authority to decide what or who is important based on judgment from afar? And simple but meaningful dialog is what I think is what's missing. How many times have you heard a track that was real simple musically, but profound in the bigger picture? It doesn't matter the genre, what affects you is the honesty in its presentation. Don't confuse, what the essence of a message morphs into. But the common truth it represents in its simplest form. Now as I said before, I try to speak for the voices of disregarded unheard, those who fell through the cracks. Because I can do that I believe authentically. Now, how does this relate to Gil-Scott? Well, Gil-Scott spoke to you and me and a lot of others, whether they knew it or not. Can you imagine how comfortable it made me to hear "Pieces of a man" while trying to emotionally reconcile my own feelings of my mother leaving my dad with 4 kids and losing his job? Or "Save the children" as a seed of conscious awareness for me, as a child, to believe I can't quit and give up on myself? It made me believe that I could and must go on.

What do you think of his work with Brian Jackson?

Gil-Scott and Brian Jackson created atmosphere, artistically and educationally. No one-upmanship so, he planted a seed in me of conscious awareness that I will never forget.

Who do you think is making a unique contribution to music at the moment? Why?

That's a hard one because I come from an era of music, where you had to say or do something meaningful or from the soul, to stand out from the crowd. I am a jazz person and sadly we only seem to gain notoriety after we are dead and a rebirth through so called Jazz classic re-issues. In more cases than few, they are ahead of there time. Then we see derivatives of their influence, some tasteful, some not in different musical styles or genres. Appreciation for them I can do authentically. A lot of what I am influenced by is stuff that will fall through the cracks, if you someone doesn't tell you about it. People like Jill Scott who sings from her soul, like Anita Baker, who was my favorite female vocalist and she is a poet, too! Lizz Wright who can show you how much can really be done with a trio: Bass, piano, drums and powerful lyrics. Michael Franti of Spearhead who reminds me of my influence Gil-Scott Heron by speaking of things on a real human level. He will perform in prisons, refugee camps, for free and for a cause and I appreciate and respect that. Musically, I believe he is sincere. See, to me, if you are honest with your musical sound, it will come across that way. And like my friend, Sammy Goulbourne says, " Music, the healing force of the universe," and I believe that. So, for it to heal, it needs to be honest. It doesn't matter what genre. Another is Dwele who is an authentic, soulful brother. To be so young, he comes across very sincere. He reminds me of Marvin Gaye. It doesn't matter how hip or old school it should or shouldn't be. Deserves more credit in my book. Kamau Da'ood I can't really say why, but you just have to hear him. He is the reason I became a jazz/poet. The group Zero 7 is another great influence, when a group or 2 guys come up with a concept or a vision, put it out there and people get it. That cultivates energy that will inspire and create hope. And of course, I like Sophie Barker.

You've mentioned the re-issues that are currently doing the rounds. I find them to be an integral part of the scene at large at the moment, when you are walking around cities like Tokyo and Manchester and you see guys in their late teens and early twenties walking out of shops like Jazzy Sport and Fat City with Steve Reid and Charles Mingus albums you can see that without these a lot of people who are into broken beat and deep house would never have found records by these artists.

Now about re-issues, they are not bad things. I am so happy that they are being looked at and remixes are being made. I respect all art, that I feel is honest or touches me. My point about the re-issues was more in regards to the role of record companies. I don't think that they are signing a lot of new artists but I think that's changing, or at least with some small labels I hope. See, what is hard for me is this, as I said earlier, when you've seen a lot and nobody seems to think what you've seen is important or if it has recognition, because of a selected few. What happens, a few great artists or contributors fall through the cracks. All dialog is important to some degree. Now, I'm sure you have seen a dedicated jazzman. You know, the guy who doesn't have anything to live for, but his horn. He's lost his family, his health and dies broke with no medical. Well, I guess its great that the re-issues are making someone else rich, or is it, or what about the lack of respect given with an unauthorized use of his sample? It's about respect beyond notoriety. When I was younger, I used to go to the corner club to see a jam session, cats getting down. Horn players, I mean blowing up! A couple of musicians from the University in there wanting to jam, buying the jazzman drinks all night and going to school too because they love jazz. I go over to the university to a jazz forum, do you think I see that horn player? I can't help what I've seen. Old story, but I haven't seen it rectified. And I'm not going to apologize. Everybody isn't a villain. There are some, that are just artists, who do it with respect. I love seeing the young people coming out the store with those albums. I go to a place called "The Village" and you go in there and man, the dude will talk to you about all the music in there, he loves it. And that's what's missing, back to that dialog thing again. And you guys are doing that! If I'm not a selected or chosen figure, can we sit and talk about the love of it? Can you and I connect the then of it to the now of it? Yes, and we should keep doing that. Celebrity status can be the detriment to dialog. You look at me and say, "I don't have nothing to talk to him about". And that where the slow death begins. Alienation between us all.

Where do you see yourself in three years?

Wow! That's a good question. I spent two and a half years consolidating my vision and purpose. I have a vault of material, a documentary, that l wrote and directed, and in the next three years, if somebody catches and supports my vision, I will be bringing hope to the hopeless, speaking for the disregarded voices of the unheard and reminding those who may have forgot that everybody matters. My documentary will inspire young artists to protect, strengthen their right to creative expression and develop artistic integrity. It is a blessing not a curse. I will be making hope reachable.

Over the course of the past decade, what pursuits have you been involved in?

My background is very business orientated; I was in the entertainment field about 15 years. Then I stopped. But then again, do you ever really leave? My corporate background was in Law, Securities and Marketing. Misdirected hustler mentality interlaced with greed, lead to a crash and burn ending. Lots of money made, but soul and spirit compromised and depleted. Always have been teachable, thank God, I regained connection with my soul, my spirit. Then I asked myself the question; one should never ask themselves, if they are not ready for the answer. That question is: What difference in this world have I made? And if I could make a difference, would I? The answer will force you to commit. I have. My mission is to make a difference. I have a lot of experiences, much more than this space will provide for me to go into. From those experiences, I can share the "notes" of my travels. And maybe, somebody might not have to experience the consequences of a bad life choice or challenge, of which they may not be able to handle or recover from. I can show the hopeless how to care. And I'm not talking about some motivational speaking hustle who ha. My poetry is honest, not hip. It isn't meant to be correct. For most of our life challenges, we have seen solutions. I'm just trying to remind a few folks of that. We ourselves are resourceful, but sometimes we feel a little down and forget. But If you got it together and can quote a whole bunch of intellectual clichés, then I can't tell you nothing, but if your sitting at home with a gun in your mouth, wondering why you should care, then I got something for ya! My work is reflective, but what good is that, if what you see is unpleasant? Simple words with a passive voice are how I do it. Not meant to entertain, but inspire. That's what I have been doing over this past decade. The poetic tool has only come about in the last 4 years. And it feels right. I think I can move some souls, if I stay honest.

What trait do you most admire in others?

I admire a display of confidence and stability in their truth and people who show me examples of unconditional love.

Non-musical hero. Why?

Nelson Mandela is a man of conviction, perseverance and principle. When he talks about being accountable that is important. Perseverance is very important. It's hard to be a visionary, if you don't have a vision in the first place. Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, is someone who has taught me so much, with statements like: "This very moment is the perfect teacher" or "relax as it is". The Dali Lama when he says, "Breath in for peace in you and breath out to send peace to others" (or something to that effect) How hard can that be to do? He walks his talk in faith.

You've mentioned Nelson Mandela, and possibly jazz made by artists such as Hugh Masakela, Abdullah Ibrahim and the like forced into exile by the creative and cultural strangulation that was Apartheid. How do you think work by African, American and European artists differs? If so, how?

Yes, as well Miriam Makeba and I know a few more, but I don't really know the back-story of most African artists, other than what is made available with ulterior motives of a commercial nature. But what I get from afar is a sense of connection with the spirit of what they are playing. Similar to an American Indian's chant or prayer. Sincere. Or when you hear Milton Nascimento (the African-Brazilian) sing, you don't have to know Portuguese, to believe it is heart felt. Now the American artist? You know you about to get me in some trouble now? But, oh well. My take is this: the Black artist in America has always been innovative, (at least where jazz is concerned) from Ray Charles bringing gospel chords and changing the time 4/4, 6/4 or whatever. The music critics said couldn't be done! Mozart 5th, attacked by the culture police, Hmmm? Charlie Parker, whom you mentioned earlier, in a conversation with Dizzy said, "I'm a good writer!" Now Charlie gave him something to play and said, "Write that!" - all in jest of course. Now Charlie said, "It had to played, before it was written." It had to be documented! Charlie would take a head arrangement and have fun with it. A few solos and such, which gave way to what we now call improvisation or what William "Smiley" Winters called "Controlled Freedom". They were never given the proper respect for there ability to write music. Everybody wanted to make changes in the music, as if they (the artist) didn't know what they were doing musically. Now I'm not a jazz academic buy any means, I am a jazz lover. We just kind of let our ears take us where we go. If we like what we hear, that's what we go by. It needs to be honest. But here's where the turning influence takes place. A player creates something, record exec says clean it up, sweeten it, make it kick back, something you can snap your finger to. Once that happens, it is no longer his art form. Ask someone like my idol, Donald Byrd. Or if you could ask someone like Miles Davis, what were his most constant battles over? Making changes to the music. Take someone like the great Sun Ra or Ornette Coleman and look how hard it was to maintain. Sad. This is something that could be academically challenged? Yes, but that's not my point. My point is that if there is no respectful dialog, how can we grow with appreciation. We have to talk safe, say the right thing? Or be judged or bankrupted? Am I bitter? No. The truth is true today, tomorrow and guess what? It will be true next year. Now with soul music, I'll just say one name James Brown. Or I'll just say one movement Motown. Oh, can't forget Stax Records. We need more people asking questions like you. Exchange not competition.

Would you say that jazz has a narrative? Is it an expression of the soul of the artist performing?

Well, Miles Davis said, "It's all blues!" And we know that blues will tell you a story. How many artists from over there went down to Mississippi to discover that Delta magic? Or as my mother would say about her son's poetry, "My son, Norman or N-Side, or whatever he calls himself, will take you down to the river and show you a few things. He has a story to tell!" As an art form, it evolves and with each turn of evolution, a new story is born. Turntables, remixes, voices, prose, whatever. Let's not confuse the rights of creative expression with radio terms, design to categorize; Electronica, World Music etc? We just need to make sure that the artist is telling the story, not the non-artistic company man and his hype patrol.

What do you think of the influence that someone like Gilles Peterson has over the scene?

A lot of people could learn from his example. I like him a lot, he's very tasteful. He illustrates a lot of the points that I am making. Makes me feel good. But remember, I'm old school, still learning from guys like you and him. You know, I'll tell you. What I do may never become popular but that never was my goal in the first place. If I can create some dialog where we can all start talking with each other instead of at each other, then I have accomplished my most important goal.

Given the accelerated pace of modern culture, what are we due for a revival in?

A sense of worth, so that we can create hope. And from that inspire the return of true love, goodness and prosperity to those who are in need of it.

For the uninitiated, how would you describe your sound?

Simple, but honest with respect to my influences.

Have you always been a producer or have you played in bands before?

My mother was a vocalist. She studied opera, but was a singer with The Johnny Hartman band, (vocalist on "Lush Life" and "My one and only" with John Coltrane) when she was young. My brothers could sing, my sister was a vocalist with Dr. John, but they told me I couldn't sing. Older brother and sisters can be kinda cruel sometimes so, I decided that I was going to learn everything else, but singing. I studied Music theory, piano, guitar, audio engineering, entertainment law, publishing and promotion. Everything else. I had the ability to see the big picture. I have always been able to hear things with an orchestrative ear. When I was 13 years old, I would take one instrument from a song and listen to it throughout the whole record, probably about 12 times. Ohio Players, Bar-kays, Issac Hayes, War, Earth Wind and Fire, Mandrill, Steve Arrington and Slave, D-Train, early Kool and the Gang, before they were Muslim and after. Tracks like "Chocolate Buttermilk" or "Universal Mind" Jean-Luc Ponty, Stephane Grapelli... I could go on. My point is that I always had new visions. But back then to be considered a producer you had to have money for the project or be well connected and nobody wanted to be a producer, they wanted to perform. So, I would go to the record store and just read album covers, seeing who was playing with whom. In my hometown I was known as the guy who could buy a record based on personal and pick winners. I was always the guy who could bring the best out of you. I could sing a note, but not perform it. Scared to death. Yes, always a producer. Couldn't compete or show off, just work hard to make something happen. Now I have given myself the permission to let that shine. My band has studied with the best. My bass player, for example, has studied with the likes of Ray Brown and Charlie Haden, and yet they have no problem following my instructions, why? Respect for my vision. I told them that I would pay them as respectfully as I could, and that I was taking a chance that I could create an environment that would hopefully help them remember why they love jazz. That means leave your ego, bad attitude and hustle at the door, Jazz lovers only. Improvisation with mistakes, take risk with courage to try something new. Once they saw that I wasn't just a poet, but somebody who new what he wanted and chose them respectfully, That's what you will hear on my CD. Dirty jazz, outside, mistakes and all and I love it!

What are your aims as a producer? Are you looking to release quality long players or are you going to concentrate on releasing singles in a bid to build up your profile?

As a producer, I'm from the old school. I believe a producer's job is to bring a group of artist together and help them become a collective force of artistic synergy, bringing the best out of all involved. Provide objectivity that can be trusted. I am not a DJ, but I think I could add some pretty cool words to a remix, if it is about something I respect for makes me feel good. If someone wants to work with me, I will be open. As I said before, I have a purpose.

Anything else we should know?

I'm so far down the rabbit hole, I have jaded myself. I'm tired. Don't have time for nonsense. One of the things that keep me going is to remember that the truth is going to be true tomorrow, next month and hopefully next year. So, I have to wait for those who are seeking a truth, we together see. If I don't get support from others. I will try to continue speaking for the disregarded voices of the unheard. And I mean that. I will do like everybody else and try getting help in this business, but if I don't get it soon, I won't be bitter. My mission is too important. I must stay committed to contribute my little bit of strength and experience to help bring back the greater good.

"Three Voices from the N-Side" available: www.CDbaby.com/nside2 www.myspace.com/nsidestribe www.jazzpromo.com

Marc Kets, Jan 2006

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