Photo courtesy of the artist
Nosaj Thing approaches live music the way the best surgeons approach an appendix that’s near bursting. There’s the adrenaline before and during, there’s the satisfaction after, but the act itself is gut wrenching, with stakes that don’t go away no matter how routine the procedure.
“Sometimes you’ll talk to someone after a show, and it could be a one-sided conversation,” says the producer, born Jason Chung. “That’s hard. You come off stage, you’re hot, you’re sweaty, you’re uncomfortable. I’m not used to being on stage or in the spotlight or anything.” He pauses, then adds, as if it wasn’t clear: “I grew up making music in my bedroom.”
That he did. But while one’s sleeping quarters can work as a kind of pejorative with some music fans, “bedroom” isn’t the worst descriptor for Nosaj Thing (a play on "no such thing"). Ask Chance the Rapper, who barely gets vertical in his verse on “Cold Stares”:
“Devil whistles in his ear, out of tune/
On an empty-ass bed, can’t remember how to spoon/
Tied up in the sheets, sweat drips from his cheeks/
He’s gonna die in hospital clothes/
Bed, bed I rest in, not my own/
These cover make me itch/
Hurt my head, head I question/
Not my own/
These covers make me sick.”
The song, from his new album Fated (Innovative Leisure), is illustrative of Chung’s style, both his broader directions and his tics. It smolders, it creeps. Its first set of lead vocals, from The O’My’s, are left naked; even as songs about heroin addiction go, it’s bleak. Yet it plays like a lullaby, because nothing in Nosaj Thing’s world can help but shift and play with genre. “I might have X number of beats,” he says of his editing process. “But I need to let people rest their ears now and then.”
Chung says most of his songs begin as home-produced sketches, and that’s apparent in the finished product. There’s a quality to Fated that’s not sloppy, not exactly improvisational, but feels uncluttered by what might be called “finishing touches.” “Erase” whips itself up to a worthy climax, but doesn’t bring in a 12-piece orchestra to do so. At its end, it’s as hollow and unsettled as it is at the outset. “A” is all sinew. “Strip down my approach and make it transparent to my thoughts,” Chung says.
Fated is strikingly personal, insofar as instrumental music can be. It’s not somewhere Chung always saw himself. “When I first started making beats, I wanted to be Dr. Dre,” he remembers, laughing. “I wanted to be The Neptunes. I started doing it, and I started going more left field and making noise and ambient music. It made me turn and go find something else, you know what I mean?”
From there, the ascent was focused and relatively quick. The influences circled closer to the end product (“[the late DJ] Rashad was a big one”), and the music started coming: an EP in 2006 (Views/Octopus) and, in 2009, his Alpha Pup debut, an album called Drift. By the end of the last decade, Nosaj Thing was well on his way to becoming one of the earliest and best purveyors of the heralded Los Angeles beat scene. Low End Theory, the weekly music night at The Airliner founded by Alpha Pup boss Daddy Kev and the legendary battle rapper Nocando, is the focal point for the convergence of beat and hip-hop, and Chung quickly became one of its biggest draws. “He’s the Isaiah Thomas to Flying Lotus’s Michael Jordan,” Nocando says. “He’s one of the best in the beat scene and may be the first one to transcend ‘beats’ and become a real producer.”
You could argue that he already has. Though the volume isn’t there, Chung’s hip-hop Rolodex is impressive, and the songs themselves crackle in the best possible way. In addition to Nocan’s “Head Static,” there’s work with Kendrick Lamar (2011’s “Cloud 10”), and Chance, for whom he produced Acid Rap’s quietly furious “Paranoia.” Busdriver, the master rapper and Project Blowed alum, says, “Jason taught me how to take my time. Sophistication born out of patience.” He adds: “His music kind of introduced a modern longing to me. He’s a real LA recluse in that respect.”
The two collaborated on “Split Seconds (Between Nannies and Swamis),” the excellent first song on Driver’s 2009 LP Jhelli Beam. It starts with six a cappella words from the MC: “Be real—conscious rap failed us.” That willingness to confront genre politics bleeds back into Nosaj Thing projects, where mastery of electronic production never means soullessness. “How he lets his synthesis breathe kind of makes what’s alien become personal,” Driver concludes.
But what’s personal for Chung has become increasingly difficult to navigate. It makes sense that his last album was called Home; it’s also not surprising that it preceded one of the most tumultuous periods of his life. Though it runs contrary to his personality (“I’m kind of a homebody”), he’s been making a concerted effort to get back out on the road after a series of family and health problems kept him sequestered. He had to keep moving. “That’s what heals all, time,” Chung says. “I moved a lot, as well. I’ve been moving every year for the past four or five years. It’s kind of hard to find a place to work.”
The changes in environment came with the predictable hallmarks of upheaval, but also presented challenges only a musician would face. “The change affects everything,” he confirms. “I’m really sensitive to my environment. Even the acoustics of a room change my work.” So instead of jarring departures, touring became a sort of comforting routine. “Even on this recent tour, I didn’t realize how much it means to me [until it was over]—connecting with people,” Chung says. “I feel like I was just missing inspiration all along.” The drawbacks (“you’re uncomfortable, you’re sleep deprived”) melt away; the producer grows animated when he talks about an encounter with a thoughtful fan in Austin at South by Southwest.
So Nosaj Thing has grown appreciative of the road, even when it doesn’t appreciate him. During a tour stop in Houston this spring, his tour van was robbed, the thieves absconding with not only MacBooks and audio equipment, but also the hard drive that housed nearly all of Chung’s work over a span of at least two years. Nothing was spared in the heist—not even the session files for Fated. It was the kind of catastrophe that would send musicians with even the most outgoing personalities.
“It was weirdly liberating,” he says. He cobbled together live sets; he persevered to finish the album as it was intended to sound. It’s not difficult to tell in conversation what a centering power Fated has had on a life that often finds its creator so displaced. “I definitely had like a realization recently on this tour,” Chung says. “A lot of my music is just very personal.” Then he stops, considers, and turns over the words like he’s processing them for the first time. “It helps me so much.”
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