A couple of years ago, in a dumpy discount grocery store in Cleveland, Ohio, you might have seen Jimi Nxir stocking shelves with crap like antiperspirant deodorant and mothballs. The singer-songwriter was probably filling those racks to the fine tunes of groups like Dexys Midnight Runners and Wham! But even then, in full-fail regalia with the employer-provided polyester polo shirt and flat-front pants on, he had a different song in his head—one of psychedelic soundscapes where electronic vibes become soulful and hot-buttered soul becomes ones and zeros. You might not have recognized it back then, if you saw him among the rows and aisles of processed food and useless knick-knacks, but Jimi has always had his own song to sing. And his song would take him from the sleepy streets of Cleveland to the vanguard of a new movement of black artists in New York City.
Joshua Kissi, who is the co-founder of Street Etiquette, discovered Jimi's work randomly on SoundCloud while he was in a hunt for something new and experimental. Excited by what he heard, he reached out to Jimi via Twitter and eventually they met up when Jimi finally made the plunge to come to New York after being accepted in the Red Bull Music Academy. Josh, who is probably the only person I know who I would seriously call an "arbiter of taste" without a constipation-face, was so inspired by Jimi's music and mission, he's taking time from globe-trotting and showing dweebs how to dress to help spread the word about Jimi's music.
And that's how I heard about Jimi, from Josh, who spoke about sharing Jimi's music with me the way someone would share a precious secret or a tab of Yellow Sunshine LSD with you. When I first listened to "Thundher," I have to admit I was underwhelmed. It was short and the lyrics weren't about big butts or selling drugs. But like all great things, such as a tab of Yellow Sunshine LSD, it took time to settle in. It crept up on me—the emotive love lyrics, the crooning vocals, the bumbling bassline. Before I knew it, "Thundher" was in constant rotation. It was the only thing I was trying to hear.
As someone who loves the song, is a fellow Clevelander, and is excited to see young brothers use their creativity to step outside the bounds of hip-hop into other arenas, I'm super proud that VICE has the opportunity to debut the music video for "Thundher," which Josh produced and J. M. Harper directed. To commemorate the drop, I linked up with Jimi and Josh for a chat in a place that probably looks like a hobo's living room. We talked talk about Jimi's creative process, leaving school to ultimately pursue music, the vast spectrum of blackness that isn't being presented in popular music, and how the love of women can inspire so much creativity and so much bullshit. Check it out and be on the look out for Jimi's debut EP, GXLD, dropping later this year.
From the left: the author, Wilbert L. Cooper; the artist, Jimi Nxir; and the producer, Joshua Kissi. Photo by Christian Storm
VICE: Before you were in New York doing music, you were in Cleveland. How'd you get to Cleveland from Howard University, where you went to school?
Jimi: I didn’t graduate. I couldn't afford it at all. I left after my first year. I went straight from Howard back to Cleveland. And I lived there for, like, two years.
What were you doing in Cleveland?
I worked at Marc’s and lived with my mom. I was working and working and then I realized that music was my shit. I knew that before I left for Howard, but it became more prevalent when I got back to Cleveland. So, I saved up enough money to go back to school... Let me rephrase that. I earned enough money to go back to school, but I didn’t spend shit on going back to school. I just bought music equipment instead.
How’s New York going for you?
I love it man. I’m just broke as fuck.
Unfortunately, I can relate. Where are you living at in the city?
I’m living with a friend in Bushwick. But I might not be there for much longer. I have no idea what I’m doing at all, because I’m not working.
What made you come?
I came here for the Red Bull Music Academy. I was coming one way or another, though, because I was really into the New York scene at the time. I loved it all from Street Etiquette to the Flatbush Zombies. Finally, I was just like, “I have to stop doing this bullshit I’m doing and make it happen. I need to be a part of it.”
What was the process like getting into the Red Bull Music Academy?
It was a long-ass 25-page application.
No shit? What’s the program involve?
It’s like a summer camp for grown-ass people who love music. It’s set up like school. Every day we had lectures. They’d give us stories about their lives and musical tastes. Then, we’d have a show later on that night, where one of us in the Academy would perform. In between all of that, we’d work on our own music.
Josh, you guys met for the first time in person while Jimi was in the Academy. What attracted you to his music?
Joshua: I was at a brunch, and I invited him to come. We just talked it up that whole day and got to know each other. More than anything, we’re friends, we support each other, and that’s how it really started. We just started to build. I saw his vision, where he wanted to bring it, and I was like, "Yo, we could really make something incredible that hasn’t been done before."
Word. Jimi, how’d you get into making music?
Jimi: I grew up with my dad listening to like jazz and the classics, the Isley Brothers, the Dramatics, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. But we didn't listen to rap.
You weren't allowed to listen to rap? Was your family real into Jesus or something?
My family just didn't fuck with it. We didn't watch BET or any of that stuff.
You’re lucky you’re parents spared you Cita's World. That shit was the worst.
When my parents split, my mom became way more lenient. That’s when I started getting into groups like Outkast. But the music that I'm listening to now, I got into in college. At Howard, one of my boys put me on to groups like the Police and Led Zeppelin. College really broadened my shit.
What seminal records put you on the track to where you're at now?
Before I got to college, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Voodoo by D'Angelo. Those two albums were really big in my life. Then in college I discovered Funkadelic's Maggot Brain and Standing on the Verge of Getting It On.
Would you say your music is psychedelic?
Absolutely. I make music that is for your own personal trip. I get into bouts of sadness sometimes over bullshit and life, and it's hard to find music that will fit my mood. To a certain degree, I make music that is for that purpose. If I'm sad, I can put it on and dance.
Tell me about the song “Thundher.” What was the inspiration behind that?
It's about two girls that embody one specific thing for me. And it's about me not being around them.
Does romantic stuff always inspire your music?
Yeah, it inspires everything. The new shit that I'm working on is specifically about women.
What is it?
It's about women.
Right, but what is it about women that inspires you? Is it the love? Is it the beauty?
It's the bullshit. That's what inspires me. The bullshit and the love. I'm getting' so much of that in New York.
That's nice. You’re getting a lot of love?
Nope, a lot of bullshit.
Unfortunately, I can relate to that as well... Josh, what attracted you to Jimi’s sound?
Joshua: For every movement there’s some type of music that comes with it. You need a sound, because you can’t march without a band. The movement needs to move. There’s a lot of talented people in my circle, but Jimi’s music is special.
Tell me about the visuals you put to the video.
I listened to the song and I was crying in the room. It just felt like this emotional journey, which is crazy because the song is not too long. But, it’s one of those songs you put on repeat. It’s addictive. So in the video, he’s on this emotional, space journey about a girl.
It always comes back to the girls.
Right? Men, we look at women and there’s a lot of thought that goes into it. But it’s only singers that actually get to put it to down on paper and make it into a song that makes both females and males thrive. So the video is naturally trippy. It has a whole space-galactic psycho aspect to it.
Jimi, since you’ve linked up with Street Etiquette, has your style changed?
Jimi: I’m at a point now where I wear whatever I want. I used to not be able to do that.
Joshua: He’s a hat guy.
Jimi: Yeah, I love hats, bro. When I see one I like, I have to have it. I like floral patterns, too. I have these dope-ass floral-pattern leggings.
Photo by Christian Storm
As you guys build in conjunction with the movement that is SE, do you think you’re fostering something people are going latch on to later? What kind of effect do you want to leave on people or the world around you?
Jimi: I’m trying to change some shit.
Joshua: We want to change the world, really. I love seeing my peers doing what they’re doing—people like the Flatbush Zombies and A$AP Rocky. When you have an idea of how you can change the world or people’s perception of things, it’s all about just getting it moving.
Jimi: I want to do things that let my little brothers know that they can do whatever they want.
Josh: People are going to reference this moment later. They will talk about this movement.
Jimi: Definitely, because we are trying to bring something real to the table.
And what's that?
Joshua: Rapping is cool and all, but there’s so much more to black culture or African-American culture than rapping and people don’t know about that. We want to bring it back to the essence of playing instruments and really learning shit.
Jimi: When I grew up, it was not an option. I had to play an instrument. But now they’re closing all the music programs.
Have you guys seen the videos of Unlocking the Truth? It’s real inspiring.
Joshua: To me, that’s the next level of what we’re all doing. There’s different ways and definitions to what it means to be black in America, to what it means to be black in this world.
How do you combat those close-minded notions?
Jimi: You know what's wild? Back in the 60s and the 70s, no one said phrases like “that’s some white people shit.” Black people were listening to rock ’n’ roll all the time—like Funkadelic. But that’s missing today. There’s no place for eclecticism right now. They’ve divided us. I want to break away from that. I want to start my own version of house music. I want go to UK so that I can understand and hear real dubstep. I want to feel and hear all kinds of new ideas and music and see the way my mind and my art evolves and grows.
Word. I'm excited to watch it happen. Thanks, fellas.
Follow Wilbert on Twitter: @WilbertLCooper
Follow Joshua on Twitter: @StreetEtiquette
And follow Jimi on Twitter: @JimiNxir
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