Alaska: Interview

Alaska – he of Hangar 18, Atoms Family and more recently Words Hurt fame – released his new album today. This time he has teamed up with the producer PJ Katz and the pair have concocted a jazz-fuelled journey, with a whole bunch of different guests making their appearances along the way. I last spoke to Alaska back in 2016, when I interviewed him for Grown Up Rap, so I thought now would be a good time to have another chat about a few things, including the new record and reflecting on the past. There is also a new video from the album, which you can watch below.

It’s been a couple of years since we last spoke. How has life been treating you? You seem to be in a good place music-wise.

Things are good. Just been watching my daughter grow up, making music, traveling, drinking bourbon on occasion, trying to stay out of the hysterics that are dominating our time and focus on the bigger issues, rather than the little ones.

You’ve just released your new album, alongside the producer, PJ Katz. Can you tell us a little bit about the project?

The album is called He’s The PJ, I’m Alaska. It’s coming out through Pig Food Records on March 12th and it will be available through all digital channels, as well as a small cassette run, which is exciting. The cassettes are designed to look like the Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince album, He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper. In case the reader hasn’t figured it out, I am the best dad joke rapper alive [laughs]. The album is produced entirely by PJ Katz, who is a musical wiz out of Albany, NY. We started working on it in 2011, recorded in 2012 and now it is finally ready to go. I think it is a pretty fun album. It was the first solo album I wrote after a few years of a sabbatical where I was getting my life back in order, post Def Jux/Hangar 18. I had come out of the fog and I think my pen was really sharp. It is weird to listen to now because through Words Hurt my style has evolved to something a bit different, but it is nice to see where this style of grumpy old man rap started; you can see a lot of the seeds for where my style went in this album.

How did you and Katz end up working together?

Mitch, aka Doodcomputer, and Dan, aka Dezmatic – aka the dudes that run Pig Food Records – and I have been friends for a while, and when I stopped rapping after the Crack Epidemic albums, they were always trying to get me to come back to it. I was starting to write again and I was really inspired by 92 Renault Music, which was an album they dropped with PJ. We got to talking about maybe doing an EP for the label, they asked who I wanted to work with and PJ was my first choice. Luckily PJ was down. I really loved his sound, we didn’t really know each other, but we had a lot of friends in the same orbit. It just sort of worked out, everything lined up and we were able to make it happen. I don’t think I even met PJ in person until the day of the photo shoot for the album.

Is there going to be a lot of variation from your releases with Words Hurt?

I think the production is a huge difference, as PJ is more rooted in jazzy samples. I think the stuff we picked comes from that 1990s tradition of digging. The great thing about PJ is that he is a trained jazz musician, so he can take these samples and bring something more to them with his playing. Lang and I have a more glitchy dystopian sound, where as PJ and I have a more Rap City basement feel. There is even a song on the album called Hype Williams, which talks about how just listening to rap makes you feel like you are part of Ill Al Skratch, or in a Hype Williams video. I think in a lot of ways this album was my geek out rap fan album.

With the guests you’ve got on the album, I’m always intrigued as to whether the song or the feature came first in those situations?

For this album most of the features came as I was writing the songs. I knew who I wanted on the album and I think the music sort of dictated how they became part of it. At the time I don’t think I ever spent more than a few minutes not drinking when I was hanging out with Dez and Mitch, so it made sense that we made a song about the joys of drinking. There is a song reminiscing about my career, so obviously I needed Wind and Cryptic on it because we had started this journey together. For Work, the track with Elsphinx I just heard his voice over it and I loved his style and the way he approaches his work as a rapper. Once I wrote the hook for Performance Art I knew I had to have Shyste do part of it, I just loved his voice. The only track that had a weird path was, When I Fall, which features Gorilla Tao and Moses Rockwell. Originally the track was supposed to go on Tao’s solo album, but for one reason or another it ended up my project, which is exciting because it is such a dope track, but also kind of odd because he fucking kills that track so much more than I do and it is weird to have someone rap better on a track on your album. Moses Rockwell came about a few years later, we reached out to him to do a remix version for the single and it just sounded so good that we ran with his verse for the album cut. So now both Moses and Tao body me on my own track. There is even an uncredited appearance by Iron Bar Collective doing backing vocals on the Fuck Hip Hop hook. One of the important things for me on this album was to feature a lot of upstate/Albany dudes, and outside of Wind and Cryptic, they are all from upstate. Pig Food Records is an Albany label; I have had a long history with the Albany scene and they always welcomed me as one of their own, so I wanted to pay homage to that by having as many folks from that scene as I could.

You’ve previously referred to He’s the PJ as the album you wish you’d been good enough to make in the 90s. What do you feel was lacking back then that you’ve gained in the years that followed?

I think the biggest thing lacking was the skill to pull it off. Back then I was so focused on breaking the rules that I never actually learned how to make music within the rules. I was obsessed with being an outsider and making weirdo music, which in some ways served me well, but it also set me back. I don’t think I was really able to evolve as an artist until I understood how to be creative within a structure. I wish I focused more on that during the 90s and really learned the craft as opposed to being a creative writer. I didn’t focus on having all of the tools to be a good MC back then and if I did I probably could have made better material and material that stood the test of time a little better. I was so focused on being anti everything that I missed a lot of great stuff, and it wasn’t until a few years later that I appreciated shit like Royal Flush. So I guess that is what I mean, it is one of those “If I knew then what I know now” sort of deals.

I know you were recently involved in the Atoms Family retrospective that Bandcamp put together. Was it nice reminiscing about the old days?

Yeah that piece was really cool. I quite enjoyed talking about those days. It wasn’t something that I thought much about for quite some time. It is always fun to go back over those old days, to see yourself with new eyes and see what you really were. I mean we were just kids for crying out loud, trying to make some sort of music that was our own thing. It wasn’t always great, but I think it was part of a movement that went on to spawn other cool shit like Def Jux, Rhymesayers, Anticon, Living Legends etc. Not that we created those things, but we were part of it, we were all one big collective consciousness that was going on at the time, through things like the old chat rooms, tape trade etc. A network of like-minded artists was starting to form, and it resulted in some really cool experiences. It is amazing how many cool things you actually forget you did until you get a moment to sit back and remember it all.

Are you a particularly nostalgic person anyway when it comes to stuff like that?

I am getting more nostalgic, but I tend to be the person that is all for burning the past on to the ground in an effort not to give it too much weight in the present, on some Kylo Ren shit. I like to purge. My wife always makes fun of me because when we moved in together I literally had one box of possessions and one bag of clothes. I have a tendency to throw everything out and at that time I was touring a lot and living a bit of a nomad lifestyle. I had an apartment, but I was never there, so I didn’t need things. Now that I am older and I have a child, I wish I kept some of that stuff. Just to have it around, to show her that her old man wasn’t always the square that he is now.

If you could go back and relive those days again is there anything you think you would do differently?

There is a ton I would do differently. I would have released a lot more material in the early days. I would have started touring and really focusing on the music earlier, rather than straddling two worlds of a corporate gig and being a rapper. It was hard to serve to masters. I would have drank a lot less, been more in the moment. I would have worked at being a more well rounded person. I was very shy and I drank to overcome that, but I think it ultimately lead to me being a bit of a loudmouth jerk at times. I would have been kinder to folks and more appreciative of the people I had around me and I wouldn’t have taken any of it for granted. It was a really cool and special thing to be part of and I just wish I was more present and better through it all.

Once the album release is done and the promo has died down, have you got much else planned?

Lang and I have an EP that we are going to drop later in the year, it is the original version of Soul Music for the Soulless that we recorded about two years ago We decided to scrap it because it was weird, it was a 7 song, 13 minute EP. We felt that we needed to follow up Fuck That Pretty Boy Shit with something more substantial, it had already been a few years at that point and I think coming back with something as odd and somewhat experimental as this EP would have been bad for the legacy. We both love the EP, but it was a timing matter. Now that Soul Music is out and a little time has passed, it feels like a better time to release this project. I always like to call it our rap version of the Circle Jerks Group Sex album. 13 minutes of dopeness. Other than that for the first time in a long time I don’t have anything going on. I’m kind of psyched about it. I am all out of ideas, I don’t really have a desire to do anything right now other than hang out and recharge until the muse hits me again. I’m going to China so that will be fun. Shit yall may never see me again [laughs].

You can buy He’s The PJ, I’m Alaska now over on iTunes.

@alaska_ATOMS
@PJKatzmusic

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