"We lived in Elvis Guesthouse, literally, to the point where we stopped paying for alcohol," says Nasty Nigel from the seven-man New York City rap crew World's Fair. Recognizable by his trademark wild plume of hair, he's lounging in the Williamsburg offices of Fool's Gold, his group's record label, thinking back to nights at the East Village club that shuttered at the end of 2016. World's Fair hosted a number of residencies at the venue—"essentially the same party but we named it different names," Nigel says—and he remembers Kid Cudi, Metro Boomin and Jaden Smith passing through to party. Also present at Fool's Gold HQ today, DJ Thoth recalls stepping behind the bar to serve himself, while with animated glee the MC Remy Banks adds, “When the smoke room became available, it was like you unlocked a level in a video game!”
Those nights at Elvis Guesthouse set the sonic tone for New Lows, World's Fair's long-coming debut album. The first single, "Elvis' Flowers (on my grave)," is named in honor of the spot. The track careens along with monstrous, rumbling bass tones and eerie, rave-influenced synth lines punctured by flashes of a drum 'n' bass break. (The vibe was inspired by Goldie and Rob Playford's jungle remix of The Fugees' "Fu-Gee-La.") This nightlife-inspired vibe suggests a fresh style of NYC hip-hop that throws off the boom bap shackles while retaining the unimpeachable rap flows the city prides itself on. Crucially, it also introduces a new chapter in the World's Fair story.
The roots of the group—which also includes the rappers Prince SAMO, Cody B Ware, Jeff Donna and Lansky Jones—go back to their days being raised around the borough of Queens. Prince SAMO says some of them have been friends since elementary school; as they grew older and started making hip-hop music individually, their paths began to intertwine and bonds were formed. Looking back on those early days, Nasty Nigel says they bandied together "more like a support group, like if Prince has a show, we all show up; if someone needs to record, we can go to someone else's house if they have the equipment." Before settling on the name World's Fair, they considered calling themselves Colosseum Gold, The Foundation, and Vintage Irish. Remembrance of the latter causes Remy Banks to lean forward on the couch exclaim, "I still don't know what the fuck that meant—nobody’s Irish in the crew and we were like 21!"
Prince SAMO looks back on 2009 as the year when World's Fair decided to properly solidify and "move as a unit and get it rocking." At first, they'd record over instrumentals from other hip-hop producers like Madlib. 2011's "Company Fair" nodded to the group's underground roots as they rhymed over Company Flow's "8 Steps To Perfection" beat. But linking with the Detroit-based producer Black Noi$e, after a recommendation from Danny Brown's DJ Skywlkr, kickstarted what Remy Banks calls "the start of developing our sound."
The benefits of working with Black Noi$e sparked a crucial profile bump in 2012: Remy Banks, Nasty Nigel and Lanksy Jones were recording together as Children Of The Night and saw some traction with "Kids From Queens," a mid-tempo track hooked around a moody piano loop. A mixtape, Queens...Revisited, followed the same year, complete with a cameo from feted crime rhymer Roc Marciano on the synth-powered hometown anthem "'86 Mets (3:05AM)." The trio took that momentum and pooled resources with their friends to sign to Fool's Gold en masse as World's Fair, releasing the Bastards Of The Party mixtape in 2013.
Part of the idea behind World’s Fair was to embrace the same sort of umbrella setup as the Wu-Tang Clan, with individual members free to pursue their own musical quests. Notable releases over the years include Remy Banks following the World Famous mixtape with Hannibal King (a producer who's also worked with Mac Miller and Joey Bada$$) with 2015’s higher, Prince SAMO dabbling with reggae influences on 2012's Street Viceroy album, and Nasty Nigel delving into an experimental zone with 2016's El Utimo Playboy: La Vida Y Los Tiempos De Nigel Rubirosa project. Last year's Drives To Cherry Valley also saw Remy Banks and Nasty Nigel teaming up for a 20-minute, quick mixed collection of music named after a late night deli spot in Queens.
But despite receiving a solid response to their solo output and the group effort Bastards Of The Party, the trials and finances of life began to cast doubt on the grander World's Fair mission and caused the group to question whether the setup was workable. As DJ Thoth puts it, "In a group this big, there's going to be a lot of compromising as you get older, plus there's everyone's solo intentions to consider. So if Remy's doing well and on three tours a year, we're happy he's waving the World's Fair flag, and Prince might be at work all winter. So those are obstacles we were trying to figure out." Getting down to the finances of operating in an oversized clique, he adds, "The group wasn't paying the group enough for all of us to chill."
Nasty Nigel picks up the thread and says, "We got to a point where we have to be adults and we haven't got to the place where we want to be with music and it put us in a strange place. Along with wanting to advance the sound of music, we also have to provide for our family. Sometimes it got pretty dark, it got pretty low: We didn't really know how to work and also make music and also make art." During this gloomy period, Lansky Jones coined the potential album title New Lows, reflecting the issues the group were dealing with, both individually and as a collective.
Against this backdrop of doubt, World’s Fair attempted to start recording their debut album three years ago, but nothing was sticking. Prince SAMO says three versions of New Lows exist—but the first two were unhinged, with individual members writing and recording without considering a cohesive goal: "We were just like fucking throwing rocks in a pond.” Then, last year, Nasty Nigel and Lansky Jones traveled to Detroit to work with Black Noi$e on the song that would become "Elvis' Flowers (on my grave).” They recorded in a church-turned-recording-space (Assemble Sound) and sent a sketch of the hype, uptempo song back to the crew in New York City. "I woke up to like 40 texts in the group chat," recalls Prince SAMO. The track jolted World’s Fair into action: "A month later we agreed to go upstate to stay in a house and record the album there."
World’s Fair were sequestered in a sparsely furnished property that Nasty Nigel describes as "in the middle of the bushes, straight up in the wilderness with a trail behind us.” The house was stocked with copious quantities of free alcohol and a little weed. World’s Fair wound up recording the core of New Lows in just eight days. A sense of camaraderie crept back into the recording sessions. While upstate, Prince SAMO became the crew’s de facto cook, rustling up giant plates of eggs for breakfasts and concocting two-day-marinated chicken dinners. "The vibe was incredible," he says. "I cooked every meal and I'd go room to room to tell them food's ready and it was like two people in this room with headphones on writing; go down to the basement and it's two people recording something; upstairs someone's sleeping. I remember feeling good that everyone was on the same page. It was a very artistically energetic vibe.”
Hearing World's Fair talk about those eight days upstate together comes across like they’re relaying a teen horror movie plot line. Nasty Nigel and Prince SAMO banter back and forth about respectively loving and hating being out in the wilderness, with the latter calling the basement of the house "creepy as fuck" and saying, "I got scared every night, man, I hate the woods and that shit, I don't like the dark!" Remy Banks chips in and likens the environment to Camp Crystal Lake from Friday the 13th. As World's Fair laugh, reminisce, and finish each other's sentences, a spirit of togetherness is conveyed—and it's this same sort of communal feeling that gives New Lows its life.
As the symphony of MC voices pop in and out of the album’s tracks, the production (which is handled by Black Noi$e and NOLIFE) gels the project together. The music and lyrics conjure up the image of World’s Fair running around New York City night spots and turning their adventures, shenanigans, frustrations and early morning hours reflections into rap verses. Tracks capture the optimism at the start of a night (“WF001”), rue being recognized in a club and pestered to rap while trying to chase girls (“Denny Devito”), nod to the DIY venue scene via the noise fuzz attack of “Much More,” grapple with relationships on the bluesy title track, and end with Cody B Ware’s confessional rap-turned-apology on “Untitled.”
Satisfied with the way World’s Fair has found harmony between creating music and living life, Nasty Nigel gets to the heart of the crew’s meaning. “If the group quits, we're still gonna see each other,” he says. “We don't have to make music—let's go to the bar."