Nadir Omowale: Diary of a Distorted Soul
Somewhere in Detroit sits an anonymous building on a nondescript block. Throughout any given day, a steady stream of conspicuously awesome people carrying guitars, keyboards, etc. flow in and out of this seemingly forgettable building on a seemingly forgotten block of a city whose demise some people seem to think is a foregone conclusion. If music is indeed the soundtrack to life, then Detroit and more specifically, this building, is very much alive thanks to its long list of strong-winded musicians who blow life into it daily. One of the musicians you can find in this building, and who is most responsible for the city’s current musical pulse is none other than 11-time Detroit Music Award winner, Nadir Omowale.
Nadir embodies that “do it yourself” mentality that is at the root of Detroit’s creative ingenuity. As a musician, singer-songwriter, and producer-engineer, he possesses the rare ability to go into a studio alone and create a finished, polished product that is ready for public consumption. The fact that he is also a journalist and a political activist has led him to write songs that have been the perfect accompaniment to the socio-economic and political REBELution that has been taking place over the last decade. Nadir blurs the boundaries of funk, soul, blues, rock, hip-hop, and world music and adds to it lyrical social commentary. The result is a sensual, pure form of music that in effect seduces its listeners into having minds of their own. After listening to Nadir ’s first two albums Distorted Soul 2.0 (2004) and especially Workin’ for the Man (2008) it becomes evident that this man could sing the alphabet in a way that would make Y and Z question their placement and make W change its name to Double Yousef.
But that was then and this is now. With his next release The Book of Jonah, Nadir focuses his efforts on the subject of love. That’s not to say that the previous albums didn’t speak on love and relationships- they did. And musically, this album is as funky as the others, more so even. Gone, however, is the restlessness of a man trying to conquer the world by song, and in its place is the vulnerability of a man allowing himself to be conquered by love.
Nadir sat down with the TheDetroiter.com to discuss many things, including his new album The Book of Jonah, which is scheduled to be released this July.
TheDetroiter.com:Let’s talk about The Book of Jonah, the sound of it and how it differs from your previous releases.
Nadir: I started my first record as I was coming out of a rock band, and I wanted to go in a more soulful direction. It still had that rock feel and rock elements, but I really wanted to express the soul music side that I didn’t get to express with my band Jack Johnson. So, it definitely leans a lot more on the soul side.
The Workin’ For The Man album, I think, expressed me really getting back to the rock thing and then also, adding the hip-hop and dance music elements that I love so much. With [The Book of Jonah], the main difference in production and sound is that I have upgraded my studio. I now have a place where I can stretch out, bring in my band and record live drums.
So I think this [album] reflects a broader range of the styles that I do, because now I don’t have as many of the limitations as I did before. My studio is in the Metroplex Room at the Submerge building and we’ve got the ability to record incredible drum sounds. We even cut a string section for one tune.
Also, technology has caught up with us. On three of the songs, I got drum tracks from my friend Simone White who lives in Australia. (He used to play with Michael Franti, George Clinton, and a bunch of different people.) He records drums in his studio and sends them over. So, some of the things that happened on this album revolved around just being able to remove those limitations and do some things I’ve always wanted to do.
TheDetroiter.com:The theme of this album seems to be more about human interactions.
Nadir:Yeah, some of it is autobiographical, but most of it involves universal themes. I always get into a lot of social commentary; but this album is not as overtly political as Workin’ For The Man. My brain is just not there right now.
It’s definitely more about relationships and the politics of humanity, the politics of love. For instance, “Stickin’” is a song about dishonesty. It could be political, but it could also be about the relationship between a man and a woman. Even with all the madness in the world, I wasn’t writing political songs over the last couple of years. I’ve been writing more about just being a human being.
TheDetroiter.com: You just released a seven-inch vinyl record with an awesome video for the single “Go It Alone”.
Nadir : Thank you. Yeah, Drew Parfitt did an awesome job on that video. It’s like an action movie without the sex and violence. Fun stuff! And I’m really excited about the resurgence of vinyl. It’s my favorite format.
TheDetroiter.com:I noticed one of the songs on the album is a bossa nova record. Is there a chance you’ll do a bossa nova album?
Nadir: Actually my manager, Cornelius Harris, suggested that I save that song [“In Your Dreams] for later. He said, “Why don’t you just do a Latin Album?”
TheDetroiter.com: Why don’t you?
Nadir: Actually, I am getting more into the ethno-percussive type feel, but songs like “In Your Dreams” and “Queen of Sheba” [from Distorted Soul 2.0] don’t come to me every day. They just happen to show up and they just happen to be good songs, so I slip them in for a change of pace.
TheDetroiter.com: “In Your Dreams” sounds like a vacation. It’s very exotic.
Nadir: Yeah, I was really happy with that one. Jon Dixon played keys on it. He’s an amazing, amazing musician and Simone White played drums on that one. Of course, I programmed the Beat Thang with some of that Latin feel when I wrote the tune. So yeah, “In Your Dreams” is a fun song.
TheDetroiter.com: You have another record on your album entitled “The Bottle.” A lot of your songs have been blues infused but that one is just down in the mud blues.
Nadir: Yeah, that’s just how it came out. A few years ago I was asked to score an independent film by my friend, Lee Martin, called Top Ten Things I Love/Hate About The Hood (CornerboyFilms.com). There are two instrumentals on the new album – “A Hustler (In spite of Myself)” and “Rockets and Dreams” – which were originally in the score. “The Bottle” wasn’t in the film, but the lyrics were inspired by the movie’s main character. It’s an old school drinking song. I’m originally from Tennessee and alcoholism runs in my family, so it was a subject I could speak about that is close to home. It’s the blues for sure. It could be a country song too.
TheDetroiter.com: You mentioned you are originally from Tennessee.
Nadir: Yeah, my wife and I moved up here in ’99.
TheDetroiter.com: You have always said that Detroit is the greatest music city in the world. This coming from a Tennessean… Why not Memphis? Why not Nashville?
Nadir: Memphis is an incredibly important music city with its blues, with Stax Records, and with Elvis and older rock n’ roll especially because of its place on the Mississippi River. It was a crossroads for migrations between the north and south.
Nashville has become known more for country music, but during the time of the chitlin circuit, Nashville was a very important stop for R&B music. People like James Brown and Ray Charles would come through and play all of the clubs in the thriving black business district on Jefferson Street. When they ran Interstate 40 through Nashville, they cut Jefferson Street in half – in pretty much the same way they ran I-75 through Hastings Street here in Detroit – essentially killing the black business and entertainment district. Since then, Nashville’s business and tourism industry has done a lot to play up the country music aspect because there’s that corporate industry presence there. But Nashville has incredible rock musicians and hip-hop artists. I was a part of that scene for 10 years, and I still work with a lot of folks down there.
What’s different about Detroit? Look at it this way: New York, LA, Philly, Chicago, London, Tokyo – all great music towns, no question about it. Where Detroit ranks above all these other cities is in two places: No matter what style of music you choose, there just seems to be an abundance of great music that comes out of Detroit. The other thing about Detroit music is that it always leads, it’s always innovative.
There’s never really been a major label corporate music industry in Detroit. There has always been that independent spirit. So even beyond Motown, which was the best, the biggest, most important independent record label ever, you had labels like Westbound, which released The Ohio Players and Funkadelic. You had labels like Invictus that was started by Holland-Dozier-Holland. Think of all the great Detroit Rock and jazz and gospel. The reason Detroit is the number one music city on the planet is because the impact on so many different genres is so broad and because that impact is always innovative.
Nadir : Techno. I mean, come on, Detroit Techno. People talk now about how electronic music is the big new thing. Detroiters were driving around on Belle Isle listening to techno in 1981. Now that it’s selling out in New York, all of a sudden it’s big. Techno has been huge for 30 years and it started in Detroit.
TheDetroiter.com: You’re inspired by Detroit music, a lot of people are. What made you decide to create Detroit Music TV (www.DetroitMusic.TV)?
Nadir : Because it hadn’t been done. We had the idea. Drew Parfitt, Dave Gosselin, Tim Pamplin, and I had a conversation where the idea of doing a website that would feature great up and coming bands came about. We did spend a lot of time filming local bands, but that was an unsustainable business model. But as technology changed we just decided to promote Detroit music period. As more people began to shoot their own videos, it made more sense. And there is such a deep well to draw from. I don’t know why Detroit doesn’t have a Detroit music radio station yet. You could fill up three weeks of programming and never repeat a song. It’s just so expansive. I don’t know that Detroit Music TV will be able to be encyclopedic because there is so much quality work, but we would like to get as much of that music as we can.
TheDetroiter.com: I hear you are creating a Distorted Soul sound pack for The Beat Thang drum machine, can you tell us about that?
Nadir : Yeah, three music producers from Nashville came up with this idea for a portable music production system called The Beat Thang. They designed it, went out and got funding and brought it to market. We recorded a lot of the original sounds here in Detroit, and I’ve been helping them with a lot of the marketing over the last couple of years. It’s a really innovative device that is only going to get better.
My production partner, Reavis Mitchell, is one of the designers. He’s also the company president now and Chief Technology Officer. He’s really doing a fantastic job of getting The Beat Thang to where it needs to be. When you actually start building your own electronic device, that’s when you discover how hard it really is. I think that’s one of the things that has been interesting to see from the inside is all of the things you have to go through to actually develop that device. Those guys are doing it and I’m really proud of them.
TheDetroiter.com: Tell us about the sound pack.
Nadir : Well the Distorted Soul sound pack focuses on live instrumentation. I’m a lover of hip-hop, a lover of rock, of funk, blues, soul, and all these different styles. So, with the sound pack I included guitar and bass riffs and created loops so producers can chop up those rock and funk elements and apply them to their hop hop or dance music or whatever. Reavis’ brother Reagan played some incredible saxophone stuff on the sound pack so you’ve got jazz elements as well. We also added more keyboard sounds like organ and Rhodes and such.
My biggest disappointment with hip-hop and pop over the last six or seven years is that it has lost its innovative spirit in a lot of places other than Detroit. Detroit actually still has some hip-hop innovators, but that’s not the stuff you hear on the radio since the FCC rulings of the 90s, which opened up radio station ownership. Playlists have gotten smaller as corporations have taken over the music business and taken it out of the hands of musicians and local programmers. With the sound pack, I wanted to give people all of these different tools that you can now blend in with your hip-hop and electronic music to further your creativity. And all of The Beat Thang sound packs use wav files so no matter which music production system you use, you can add any of the Beat Thang sound packs to your arsenal.
TheDetroiter.com: : So you work a lot as a producer. Do you approach the process of producing for others differently than you do the process of going in alone?
Nadir : Yes. I tend to be kind of a hermit when I write. I just get into my own mind and just do my thing. As a producer, the most important thing about my role is to get the vision of the artist out.
I wrote an article for B.L.A.C. Detroit Magazine last year about Detroit producers. One of the things Denaun Porter (aka Mr. Porter) said in the article is that a music producer is like the director of a film. So when an artist comes to you, they want to know that you can take their song, take their baby and turn it into a movie. That’s the way that I approach being a producer.
I sit down and talk to the artist and it’s really a collaborative effort where we talk about creating the song they really want. The number one most important thing is the song. And because I love all kinds of music, I don’t do just hip-hop or just rock or soul. I can do whatever they want. I’ve got a recording engineering background. So, what we want to do is get the best performance of that song and find the best way to portray that artist’s vision. I think that’s the most critical aspect of being a producer.
TheDetroiter.com: : Are you still going to do the techno funk?
Nadir : I’m working on a lot of different stuff right now. I am doing some Detroit electronica-funk-rock type stuff. That will rear its ugly head soon. I did a really cool remix with Stewart Francke that we’re going to release soon.
TheDetroiter.com: : Now… some rock stars want to reject their inner nerd because it might not be bad-ass enough, but you are a journalist.
Nadir : (Laughing) I like being a writer. I’ve always done a lot of blogging. My wife, my wonderful, loving queen, Akanke, harassed me because I didn’t do more freelance writing. And so as I started writing more people were digging what I was doing. I’ve been fortunate to write for a lot of different publications from time to time, and to even work for MTV as a special correspondent during the 2008 elections.
TheDetroiter.com: : We talked earlier about your involvement in politics… Do you think Detroit’s creative community would benefit from being more organized as it relates to getting things done on a civic level?
Nadir : Yes. There’s been a lot of work in that direction, and I’ve been involved in several efforts to help organize Detroit’s creative community. I was an inaugural member of Detroit’s Entertainment Commission, a city body that is designed to help move the entertainment community forward.
Unfortunately, organizing artists is like herding cats. You’re talking about people who… the very nature of what makes them great is that they don’t think like everyone else. Everybody seems to be singularly focused on self-expression, so it’s going to take some time. I think the creative community is already working hard to make Detroit a “cool” city and Detroit is already one of the coolest cities on the planet.
Where we have difficulty is the politicians. There’s a tradition of cronyism and corruption that has to be eliminated. The whole culture has to change. There are a lot of people in Detroit that are working in their community, and doing what they can within their sphere of influence instead of running for office because they don’t want to go down and be tainted by the madness that’s going on in the Coleman A. Young building. If you’re a public servant, you have to come in with the notion of serving the public, and in my opinion, that’s what’s lost.
That’s where artists are different. We serve ourselves but we also serve the public. Our job is to reflect the community and reflect what’s going on around us, reflect life. But then again, if artists were running the City of Detroit, the city offices wouldn’t open until noon.