NASA - Rocket Men
If NASA is the Western World’s representative in space exploration, then their namesake in music parallel with a United Nations of so-hot-right-now musicians, exploring the boundaries of genres. 3D’s Cyclone chats with DJ Zegon about his homeland of Brazil and working with 40 different people on their debut album.
The new hip hop duo NASA are not obsessed with space travel, even if they do share their acronym with the US agency. No, their mission is to promote global peace through musical exchange. In fact, ‘NASA’ stands for ‘North America/South America’, referencing their nationalities. Still, NASA’s debut is titled The Spirit of Apollo. And they’re tripped out.
As he picks up the hotel phone drowsily, the Brazilian DJ Zegon (AKA Ze Gonzales), missing for an hour, is adjusting to time constraints (The Spirit took six years to record). “I slept a little bit too long ’cause I just got here in San Diego from Brazil today – and I just woke up. I knew I had an interview at four. I woke up at 10 to four. Then I have to soundcheck by five!”
The São Paulo native bonded with Sam “Squeak E Clean” Spiegel, brother of director Spike Jonze, at a Hollywood Hills party in 2003. The music boffins headed into the studio, cooking up the beats for Hip Hop. They transformed it into a posse cut led by KRS-One. However, NASA’s album concept clicked when they masterminded Strange Enough with Karen O, The Pharcyde’s Fatlip and the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard. As such, The Spirit manifests hip hop’s most outrageous-ever collaborations. How about Tom Waits vibing off Kool Keith on Spacious Thoughts- Or Talking Heads’ David Byrne decrying the evils of money with Chuck D-
Most media are scrambling to talk to Spiegel because of his glamourous Hollywood connections – and, admittedly, the American is more accessible. Nevertheless, it could be Gonzales, with his Latin cultural heritage, who is the dominant musical influence on The Spirit.
More than other offbeat hip hop outfits – N*E*R*D, Gnarls Barkley, Handsome Boy Modeling School – NASA are outsiders. Tellingly, they’re aligned with Anti-Records. Spiegel has worked closely with Jonze, overseeing the soundtrack to the skateboard flick Yeah Right!. He also produced the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Grammy-nominated Show Your Bones, which accounts for Karen O’s willingness to attend NASA’s party. He’s a celebrity DJ in Los Angeles. (Beware Mark Ronson.)
Gonzales was a professional skateboarder. He began skateboarding as a kid in the ’70s. (Gonzales was born in 1969 – he’s a decade older than Spiegel.) It was through skateboarding that Gonzales inevitably discovered hip hop. He’d skateboard in the same square in downtown Sao Paulo frequented by B-boys. At the time, Gonzales was into typical skater boy music – “new wave, post-punk, hardcore” – but then he added rap. In the mid-’80s he witnessed the hip hop DJ Hum – and was blown away. “He was kinda like the Grandmaster Flash of Brazil,” Gonzales recalls. “I saw him scratching at the time and I said, ‘What...- I need to do this!’ I was always kicking it with him, he became a friend, and he taught me how to scratch. I learnt scratching before I learned to DJ.”
Gonzales first DJed at skateboard events. “I started DJing at the skateboard contests, ’cause I wasn’t that good [at skateboarding] anymore,” he says. “Actually, it wasn’t that I wasn’t good, but I always had a broken something – always. I had over 30 fractures. Once the guy from the insurers came to my house to see if it was true, because my mom took me to put the cast on, and my brother the next day, and my younger brother the other day [laughs]... So I started DJing at all the skateboard contests when I had something broken.” By the early ’90s, he was spinning full-time.
In 1994 Gonzales joined the rap metal group Planet Hemp. They supported the Beastie Boys in Rio and Gonzales was introduced to the New Yorkers’ Brazilian producer, Mario Caldato Jr. “I’d always been curious to know who Mario C was. Then I found out he was from Sao Paulo like me, so we became friends.” Planet Hemp signed to Sony, with Mario producing an album. The band were controversial. Their lyrics dealt with everything from government corruption to police brutality to, pointedly, marijuana. “We started getting banned in a bunch of cities. We had a tour, 10 shows – we played two. Everywhere we went, they’d cancel.” That was just the beginning. “Once in Brasilia, right after the show, we got arrested. They said we’re instigating people to smoke. We stayed in jail for eight days – the whole band.” There was an upside. “After that, Planet Hemp sold a million records, so it helped a lot!” Planet Hemp were so popular, that during the Brazilian elections, savvy politicians looked at them as a photo opportunity – a means to entice the youth vote.
As a turntablist, Gonzales dabbled outside of Planet Hemp, even teaming with the heavy metal Sepultura. Eventually Planet Hemp dissolved. At the invite of Mario, Gonzales journeyed to LA – and it was here he bumped into Spiegel. Gonzales has since moved back to South America. “I say I have two hometowns – LA and São Paulo.” The DJ is tied to Brazil, where he’s raising a family. (“I can’t leave my family alone in the US while I’m touring.”)
Regardless, fresh NASA projects are on the way. They’re forever devising schemes. Gonzales is training himself not to mention them until they’re “concrete”. Fortunately, that doesn’t stop him from letting a few things slip. The pair are readying a NASA ‘making of’ documentary. They’ll also have a remix album. And there’s the possibility of a “B-sides” compilation. NASA are sitting on numerous outtakes – tracks with Cee-Lo, De La Soul, Money Mark... But, for now, NASA’s focus is touring with their turntable show. (They’ll hit Australia in June.)
NASA may switch direction in future. Their current sensibilities are different to those heard on The Spirit. The last track they cut for the LP was the electro Gifted, featuring Kanye West, Santigold and Lykke Li, which Gonzales considers marginally incongruous. “DJing nowadays, we play electro, up-tempo, B-more, we play freestyle – it’s not down-tempo hip hop any more,” he says. “But we talked about this – and we don’t listen to what we DJ at home, anyway. So I feel like the album is more mellow on purpose because, with dancefloor music, you pretty much just listen to it for a season.”
It felt like an eternity to complete The Spirit, but NASA revelled in it. They’re often probed about their sessions with Byrne and Waits – “the most unexpected guests,” Gonzales says. The rock veterans were “super down” with NASA’s vision, not merely supplying their parts and then disappearing, as is common practice with the hip hop collab. Gonzales loved his encounter with Chuck D.
The Brazilian’s ultimate collaborator has to be Spiegel – but they do argue. “People sometimes think everything just flows for us, but most of the time we have very different ideas. The challenge is to make something both of us like. We’re not battling each other, but we always like pushing each other. He’s a super perfectionist like me. We never finish anything, we always keep working, and sometimes that can be bad. I’ve had many musical partners, but the chemistry between us is different.”
WHAT: The Spirit of Apollo through Anti- / Shock
WHEN: Out now