Flatbush's N.O.V.A. Knuckleheads Tell Us Why Carnival Is Crucial

The Brooklyn MCs tell us about their Caribbean heritage and how to survive the raucous street masquerades that take over their neighborhood every year.

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Mar 5 2017, 2:34pm

The N.O.V.A. Knuckleheads love to turn up. As their name implies, Cake Man Maine, Tyson, and Wu-Benz have a lust for life that is only satisfied when they're getting "Numb Off Various Addictions." As the rap group's laid back track "Persona" says, "good vibes carry good karma." According to the crew, those elements are major keys to the "N.O.V.A. lifestyle." It's seems only natural then for the trio of Caribbean-American rappers from Flatbush, Brooklyn to be big fans of Carnival, the annual festival that's bursting with excesses of all kinds—from whining booties and thudding soca tunes to festive drinks and lots of jerk chicken.

Although many people think of the West Indian Day Parade when they think of Carnival in Brooklyn, for the N.O.V.A. Knuckleheads, the best part of Carnival is J'ouvert, a street masquerade that starts late at night and runs through dawn on Labor Day. Last year, VICE's Wilbert L. Cooper hung with the Knuckleheads while they celebrated J'ouvert. They showed him how to really kick it: Drinks were poured, steel pans were played, and then they took to the streets of Brooklyn in the midst of a cavalcade of revelers covered in paint and powder.

We recently caught up with the crew to talk a little more about Carnival, their favorite time of year, and how they convert the Caribbean spirit of J'ouvert into the infectious vibes you hear in their music.

VICE: Tell me about your Caribbean heritage?
Cake Man Maine: We're all from Brooklyn, but my parents are from Guyana.
Tyson: My pops is Jamaican, my mom's pop's is from Barbados and her mother is from St. Vincent. So I'm like a mutt.
Wu-Benz: My parents are Haitian.

What elements of Caribbean culture are present in your music?
Tyson: The food, the clothing, the dances.
Cake Man Maine: We grew up on a lot of dancehall and backyard parties so the things we heard—the melodies we heard in that music—is what we bring to the table as far as mixing it with other rap we listen to.

What songs of yours celebrate your culture?
Wu-Benz: "Persona" for sure.
Cake Man Maine: One of my personal favorites is "Floating Down Flatbush," that's one of the first times we really came through on some heavy culture like, "OK, we're going to express ourselves."
Tyson: We can't ignore it. We can't not do it. We grew up doing that, listening to that, moving like that, talking like that. It's going to come out.

How were you exposed to J'ouvert?
Tyson: It's something that was born in us. If you're from Brooklyn and you're West Indian, I want to bet money that you've been to J'ouvert and the Eastern Parkway for the parade. Our music is heavily reggae-influenced, so it's synonymous with J'ouvert. We threw a dope party J'ouvert night, and it got lit. We had a good time.

How do young people celebrate J'ouvert?
Cake Man Maine: They get drunk. They get turnt up. They come out real late…
Tyson: They wear nothing…
Wu-Benz: They throw baby powder.
Cake Man Maine: They throw anything they can basically get their hands on, and it's all in celebration.
Tyson: No sleep. Good vibes... You're eating a whole lot of good food—jerk chicken, rice and peas, oxtail gravy.
Wu-Benz: Kids are smoking a lot of weed in public because the police are not really harassing you that day.
Cake Man Maine: That's the one day you get away with it in New York.

What are you celebrating?
Tyson: I celebrate independence. It's a celebration of West Indian culture. They dress up in big-ass costumes and masks and shit, throwing the powder... These are traditions that have been passed down since before we were born. That's just the basis of it. You've got to just get extravagant with the celebrating. Go the hardest you can with everything—dressing, eating, drinking.
Wu-Benz: West Indian people, they are some hardworking-ass people. So when it comes to Labor Day, it's like celebrating all the labor that they put in. It's like, "OK, we're really going to turn up on this one day and we're really going to live our lives and enjoy this day for what it is."

What do you make of the violence that sometimes occurs at J'ouvert?
Tyson: It's the one day of the year where everybody's allowed to walk around in one concentrated area wearing masks and are drunk and high. The other 364 days, life is happening. People have beef. People have problems. So everybody comes together this one day and that's what happens. Maybe they should make more days like this so there will be less incidents like that.
Cake Man Maine: Violence happens all the time. You can't really avoid it, and when you've got people [coming out] in those kinds of numbers, something's going to happen. For the most part, we focus on the positive. We wish it didn't happen, but it is what it is. We go out there for the fun. That's what it's really all about at the end of the day.

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