In his personal essay, experimentalist Michael Nhat traces his path from the hip hop scene to the indie punk world of underground Los Angeles. This sing-song rapper found his place among the boundless, genreless network of living room venues and unconventional spaces that thrives like a self-spawned weed fertilized by city smog. His new album Swimming To Cambodia comes out this week on label Annie Hall Records. Nhat also has a collaborative project with Kthei???, another maestro of strange beats and verbs. They’re called 1000 Apes In A Room and their record can be downloaded for free. But, first, here’s a candid, ketchup-packet splattered taste of the L.A. DiY scene in “What was i doing in L.A. before i discovered The Smell?” by Michael Nhat.
I began making music professionally in 2001 when I first moved to Burbank, California. I used to buy weed from my roommate and get a 40 oz of Old English and sit in my $300 a month room and listen to music through my headphones.
I was listening to Beck’s Midnight Vultures, Radiohead’s Ok Computer, Kid A, and Amnesiac, Fiona Apple’s When The Pawn, Sonic Youth’s NYCity Ghosts and Washing Machine, Nirvana Nevermind and Unplugged, Crass Feeding of the 5000, Method Man’s Tical, Three Six Mafia’s Underground Volume 1, Deathslot Tapes from 1996 and a bunch of beats I made on the Korg Triton and Roland MS-1 sampler. These were my influences musically.
I vividly remember laying on the floor on my stomach high as fuck from a poorly rolled joint (I was used to blunts) listening to these musicians and writing along with them for 5 to 8 hours a day. I was highly influenced by “Fitter Happier” by Radiohead. I emulated that style and content of writing. I understood it completely and immediately. I was in love with what I was writing thanks to it. Then I started to form my words around the music I made with the influence of Method Man and Triple Six Mafia and Deathslot. I did not care for their lyrical content or their demeanor of writing. It was too infantile, braggadocios, adolescent, uninspiring, sexist, and often all too ignorant. But I loved their style of laying the words around the music. So this was my grounds for how I placed my words in a sentence to rhyme and fit and combine with the content that I wanted to say. It was weird and I loved it. I was making the music I always wanted to make.
I did not have any friends except KeKe and Stacy in Northridge, Anita Lee and Barry in Burbank. I was single and usually broke. I would take ketchup and mayonnaise condiment packets or Del Taco ones and put them on a plate, mix them together and lick the plate. This was when I first started working at Wherehouse Music and was waiting for my first check.
Anita introduced me to a Puerto Rican guy who made hip-hop music in Burbank. He invited to pick me up and take me to an underground hip-hop spot on Melrose at a place called “The Temple,” I think. The first 15 minutes of the ride there he asked me if I ever heard of “Them.” I did not. He suggested I may like them. I was interested. Because he said it was different and like my stuff. It wasn’t until a year later I did finally hear Them’s music. Without even hearing their sound I bought their 2nd album at Backside Records, took it home, and I was kind of disappointed. I did not like the music, but the songwriting was good and the packaging and artwork was good. I did not care for the delivery of their words, but I was happy they were doing it because it was their “thing” and I am always happy to see or hear someone do something they enjoy, even if I don’t care for it. Like homosexuality. I am not attracted to men, but it makes me really happy to see openly gay persons because it takes strength to be yourself in this society. I admire that. It makes me happy that they are happy being themselves.
About 3 months passed by and I moved into the Avalon Hotel on Olive and San Fernando in Burbank. Anita said she got the feeling it was haunted. I believed her. I was getting lonely and drinking alone starting at 11am. It became routine for me on days off or days I worked at night. I often came to work drunk or buzzed. At this time I also found it in me to realize I could sing and conjure up melodies easily to just a loop. So I recorded over 30 songs just singing and not “rapping.” I soon realized I can’t do both. It felt weird having full on singing on songs then on the next me “rapping” so I made the decision to just rap and sing later because singing is a lot more mature and acceptable to humans at a later age. I got heard by James Morris who was starting a hip-hop project called Very Special People with a bunch of local celebrities such as Busdriver, 2mex, etc. James really liked my music and asked me to be a part of the project. I said yes and it was released in 2003, which is when I moved to Pasadena with close friend and co-worker DJ Foci. Sometime after first meeting with James I booked my first show at Backside Records. This started my journey to doing meaningless performances at open mics all over L.A., including Project Blowed once.
I took the bus for 2 hours to get to Blowed. I performed and I was given the “please pass the mic” by the audience. This was a really “hip-hop” kind of place, not my crowd and I knew it so I wasn’t upset. It was just affirmation that it wasn’t my place to fit in. I was wearing skinny pants and tight Clash t-shirt and it was 2004. I felt like a fish out of water. Another 2 hours back on the bus arriving in Pasadena at 3am at my friend’s place, the door was locked and no one would answer. I was never given a key, so I slept on the ground in front of the door. This was by far the worst night I ever had during my “open mic” days. I learned, if you don’t like milk, and even when you do drink it and it upsets your stomach, why complain? You don’t like it anyways, even if it didn’t upset your stomach.
I think that was my last open mic attempt. I was getting booked at random bars in Pasadena, Arcadia, and Little Tokyo. I felt like it was a waste of time, but I did it anyways. For fun? No, because I didn’t know what else to do or how to find the audience and scene that I could relate to and feel at home with.
Then I went to The Smell in downtown Los Angeles. I read about it in L.A. Weekly. I found the kind of people that I hoped and knew existed. Even though I knew no one, a new beginning dawned for me. These were the times I desired for years since 2001 and did not know where to go.
Now it was really the truth that before this, every random open mic/bar show was a waste of my time. There isn’t one person from those days that has come to my shows since or bought my records or even probably remembers me except my actual friends that went with.
I did not start doing shows immediately at The Smell. I did not even ask to. In fact, I did not even tell people I was a musician for months. I felt so alone and out of place for years in Los Angeles, that my goal was to build real relationships and friendships with people that I was meeting there. And I did. I had recently moved to Boyle Heights, which was 10 minutes from The Smell on bus or my bike. So I volunteered there 4 days a week for about 4 months straight. I felt really comfortable with Deseret and Athena at the Smell. They were there more than I was and had been there more than I had. They helped me out a lot. I feel I owe them more than I express.
Working at The Smell, I heard a lot about The Vermont House, aka House of Vermont. I googled it online and I couldn’t find much except the address and some photos. It looked like my cup of tea. I already knew I would like it there and I had never set foot inside.
Then one night my friend Zella and I went to a Mika Miko show in Pasadena at a House Party. Here I was also introduced to Ima Fucking Gymnist. A girl I met that night named Kristen invited us to an after-party at The Vermont House. Zella couldn’t go, so I went alone by train and bus. On the way I happened to meet a member of Weekend Warriors and his friends. They accompanied me there. We arrived after walking from The Staples Center with liquor stores closing their doors up. We just wanted a beer.
Turns out it was more of a private party. I felt like an intruder and I did not want to be there, but Athena was there. She was the only person I knew. Josh Clarkson, Lis Bomb, Sarah Davis, Eric, Jon, Scott, and Dustin (of Halloween Swim Team) offered us a beer. After that, one of the guys I arrived with started an argument with them about wanting another beer. It was not friendly and I remember thinking he was in the wrong, mainly because of how he presented himself about it in a confrontational way towards Josh. I did not know anyone there, and I felt sympathetic to The Vermont House residents for the intrusion. When the guys I came with decided to try and steal the beer and leave, I stayed and I did not tell them where Scott hid the beer while they were outside having a smoke. The confrontational one was offended by me not leaving with them and kept pressuring me to side with them. I refused and I stood my ground.
Eventually, they left. This is was my first experience at The Vermont House. Scott invited me to stay over since it was really late and said I was welcome anytime. We became friends. This also is how me and Lis Bomb first met. She asked me what I was writing and we started talking. Then she started taking photos of me sitting on the couch. I remember wondering why she would want my photo, but I was too shy to ask. I never would of predicted that night that Lis and I would become best friends and create 5 music videos together.
Like The Smell, I did not tell them I made music for months either. I knew they were a label and a spot I wanted to perform at since I heard about them, but I wanted to be friends more importantly. I believe it was Vonzel, another roommate there, who asked me one day while watching a movie in the day, “So what do you do besides go to shows?” Then I revealed I was a music maker. About a year and a half later, October 2009, The Vermont House aka How to be a Microwave Records released my first self-titled album on 12-inch record.
One month after its release, I started recording a new album called Better Savage. It was all keyboard based and everything you’d predict to come after the first album; fast, dorky, experimental pop songs. I finished it within the month of November.
In December, my girlfriend broke up with me and I slipped into a darker state of heart and mind. I started feeling suicidal and creative so I started writing and recording another album along the same lines as the self-titled first one and Better Savage, but 5 songs into it, I stopped. I was not into what I was making. I was recording just to keep myself busy and preoccupied. At this time I decided to release Better Savage as a later album because it was so good.
I know at this moment in September, 2010, I would be delusional to think otherwise. So instead of releasing what I consider a great album up to par with the first album, only to have a handful of blogs/zines cover it and sell an embarrassing amount online, I am going to release it when it matters and when the pressure is on and I actually have a fanbase outside of the scene in Los Angeles.
My sullen mood influenced me to write and record darker, slower, more experimental music. I also decided to include my friends and fellow musicians in the scene to participate. The success of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, Enter The Wutang and the first five solo albums by Wu-tang Clan, and Bring It On by Geto Boys sparked my idea for this. I was not expecting the same results as these musicians, but, if anything, for the diversity of hearing someone else’s voice on the record other than mine. What I really liked about bands like The Beatles was that it wasn’t just John singing the entire time.
Getting people on the album was not difficult. Everyone was willing to help out and add vocals to it. The only person who turned down my invite was my ex-GF. We had a side project that we played a few shows with at Women of Crenshaw, The Hive, and Tribal Cafe, but it ended after the break-up. Also I really wanted Mary Ann Tran from my Asians That Kill project on it, but she moved to San Francisco. Henry from Bastidas was the only person who did not make it to the session on time to be on the album that I asked.
Swimming to Cambodia was going to be a November release and I was going to call it The November Album. Because the album was such a departure from the first, I wanted to make a promotional CD-R of songs as a companion and this was going to be called Swimming to Cambodia. A week later I had more songs made than I planned, so I decided to actually just release it as a full-length and postpone The November Album to a November release in 2011? 2012?
Negotiations that began Annie Hall Records had already been in the air since November 2009. By April it was final that Swimming To Cambodia would be their official first release.
The first time I met the people behind Annie Hall was at L’Keg Gallery when it was by Echoplex, at a Halloween Swim Team show. Sometime during the summer of 2010 my name reached the east coast, in Maryland to be specific. A label called I Had An Accident Records emailed that they would like to release something by me. So, while finishing up Swimming to Cambodia, I put together my third release, Just Plain Dying as a limited edition of 100 Cassettes set for a December 2010 release date. And now I’m talking with Paramanu Recordings in Texas to put something out in March 2011. Because of my prolific recording, I plan to release something every 3-4 months until I end up on a label that tells me I can’t.
To find out about Michael Nhat’s journey to America in airplane cargo and his dark days as a thug, we’ll have to wait until Part 2.