Michael Nhat “I write my best when I am emotionally stimulated by frustration, pain, anger…”

Still from Nhat's video "What If You Looked Like the Devil?"

All art imparts feeling. Among popular music, however, hip-hop is unique in its unrelenting ability to channel the affect of its arbiters, funneling pain, anger, fear, joy, and lust — a veritable emotional spectrum — into the ears of its listeners. I pitched this interview after discovering Michael Nhat, a Vietnamese-American underground hip-hop artist hailing from Los Angeles, through a series of ads he’s run here on TMT [editor’s note: the discovery was made through the ads, but the pitch was independent of any ad campaign]. He raps, but you wouldn’t call him a rapper — not in the most shallow sense of the term. A one-man vanguard, Nhat’s music pushes the sonic and thematic boundaries of hip-hop so far, blurring the lines, if any are left, between the personal and the political, taking hip-hop with him on a wild ride through the abyss and back again.

I interviewed Nhat hoping to introduce him to a wider audience while also giving him the opportunity to better explain his work.

The first thing I noticed when I perused your website — and I noticed this in your Twitter handle, as well — is the inclusion of phonetic respellings of your last name next to each instance of its appearance. It may sound like a silly, irrelevant question, but does it generally bother you when people mispronounce your name?

I know people who have been listening to me for over five years and when I see them at a show they still say my name wrong. Some I get a chance to correct and they still say it wrong upon our next meeting. It bothers me enough to advertise myself with the correct pronunciation, but not enough to start saying my name in songs. I know it’s a popular thing to say your name in your songs in the hip-hop genre, but I am not inspired. It makes me feel desperate and teenage to do so. You don’t see Björk and Radiohead repeating their name every other song on every album. Maybe an intro would be appropriate.

Would you agree that your experiences have motivated you artistically?

I write my best when I am emotionally stimulated by frustration, pain, anger, negativity, etc. It’s usually something that I experienced myself, but it’s also from the injustices that happen to others. I like to write what’s important to me. In fact, I ask myself that when I’m going through the writing process. Even when I listen to others’ music I ask what is so important they had to write it. And sometimes I find influence from that. How? I could be riding in a car with someone and they were playing the typical rap song you’d hear on the radio. And I, personally, cannot tolerate to listen to it. So, instead of being influenced to emulate what I hear, I get influenced to do the opposite and NOT write or do what they do.

You hail from Vietnam, but your “About Me” on your website neglects to mention where. Is there a story behind that?

No one knows where I was born in Vietnam exactly. I was found in a box or a basket near the Delta River during the last year of the Vietnam War. I was an infant.

Also, how long have you lived in LA?

Fifteen years. I moved to L.A. in 2001. I initially came here to get signed and become successful like every other transplant. I couch-surfed in Northridge my first summer in California. My music was different than what you hear now. However, that changed when I was robbed in Van Nuys while riding my bike to Burbank from a party in Northridge at midnight. I kind of went crazy. Not violently. For the rest of the bike ride I remember talking to myself [for] three hour[s]. I was traumatized by the robbery because they stole every saved beat, new and old song I had been working on, all in my backpack. It was packed with music I made and could never get again. It humbled me. The comedic, superfluous, wanna-be Eminem lyrics were no more. I was angered. My writing got dark and cryptic. I was getting high and drunk by myself in my studio at the Avalon Hotel in Burbank. My room was a shit hole.

I got my first gig at Backside Records. I met a girl named Jenn working there who passed on a demo of mine onto James Morris (Downset/Very Special People/NonCon), who was producing a hip-hop compilation. It featured a bunch of established L.A. locals I never heard of before moving to LA: 2mex, Awol, Busdriver, Existereo, Etc. Apparently, James enjoyed my demo and wanted me to join the Very Special People roster. The compilation was released January 2004. At this time I was renting a basement out in Pasadena, now with ex-co-worker Foci (Ted Talks/Respect The Driven), and recording demos together for fun on a Fostex MR-8. In 2005, my voice changed. It got a hell of a lot deeper. I also just happen to turn 30 that year.

I became embarrassed of my old music because of the voice change and intentionally destroyed a lot of my 90s demos and music I made up to 2005. In hindsight, I find it was a mistake. It’s proof I’ve been doing this for two decades. It was also around this time I started a super-group of unsigned rappers I knew. Dumbfoundead was one of the members who found success. We met from doing shows for Jeet Kune Flow and the annual Asian Hip-Hop Summit Festivals.

It wasn’t until 2009, when L.A. punk-house venue “Vermont House” released my official first solo on wax via [its] label How To Be A Microwave. In 2010 and 2011 I released a CD, and then a cassette with I Had An Accident Records and Paramanu Recordings. Since 2013, I’ve been sticking to digital releases, beginning with “Infected Be Devils.”

What does it mean, to you, to be an American?

To be American doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s just a name we slapped on ourselves based on where we live. But, I know what the expectations are of an American from an American. They want you to be a patriotic alpha-male who comprises anything from his sexual preference to his hair length to fit in with conservative values.

A minority in America?

It means you’re not wanted here. It means you’re oppressed here. It means you deal with xenophobia. It means you deal with racism. It means we might use our “color of skin” as a commonground and befriend each other. It means you’re a second-rate citizen. It means you have a fight. It means you have a story white America doesn’t relate to.

For a voice so individual, how do you feel your influences shine through on the EP, if at all?

You can hear the Triple-Six Mafia influence right when the you play the first track by my lyrical structure around the beat, the U-God (Wu-Tang) non-sequiturs in “We’re Only Gonna Dance When We Look Like Death” and “A School For Witchcraft,” and the intense volume of the Beastie Boys live in every track. The EP was an album at first. I removed two songs with intent to re-record them to different beats on a future release. I wrote and produced it within two weeks at my home in Westlake/MacArthur Park in 2014. After failing to get some labels to pick it up, I just wanted it available to the people and decided to release it. I just started the writing and recording process for my next album and needed this taken care of before I continue.

A final question: most musical artists follow a career trajectory, a path that, depending on the artist, may zigzag between uncharted territory, familiar waters, and the comfort of home. You don’t seem like an artist content to stay in one place, sonically and thematically. Where do you think your career will take you next? Where do you hope it’ll take you next?

I have an all-singing side project called How Horror Movies Should Sound (inspired by Radiohead and Bjork). I’m waiting to release a new full-length with, a split tape with Big Epoch and Sonia Hernandez a.k.a. Gatatech (Bastidas) on my new label, Gorefest Records, and a 20-track solo album I’m producing now for a 2016 fall release called “Death Doesn’t Care About Love.” My hope is I get to complete them before I lose my health. Specifically, my ears, my sight and my voice (Because I yell when I record and perform).

I record because I like what I am making. I love my sounds. I love my rap voice, my beats my illustrations, and my fashion preferences. I don’t want to compromise. I’m not trying to appease an old audience or a young one. I’m selfishly making it for myself. Today, if a label is interested I’m willing to listen, but I’m not hoping or waiting for it to happen. I no longer judge success by sales or how popular I am. I judge it by how happy I am with what I am listening to.

The most I find myself hoping for each release is more people listening and playing it for others.

Most Read