Diplomatic Immunity: An Interview with Montreal’s Gabe Nandez

Son Raw talks with Gabe Nandez about working with Chester Watson, his recording process, and his forthcoming album, Diplomacy.
By    July 28, 2016


Gabe Nandez is ill. When I first heard him spit on Chester Watson’s “Casanegra,” it took a second to get my bearings, so imagine my surprise when I found out he was living a couple of blocks away from my mom’s crib in Montreal. Following the release of “Something” his latest single and the set up for Diplomacy, his forthcoming project due on POW Recordings. I had to find out what this guy was all about. Turns out he had a lot to say… – Son Raw

Where are you from?

Gabe Nandez: I’m from a lot of places. I was born in New York but neither of my parents are American. They’re from Mali and Argentina. I usually just tell people I’m from New York because that’s where I was born but I have dual citizenship and I’m trilingual. I went to French school, International school, American public school I grew up in Abu Dis, New York, Haiti, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania—the capital—so I just tell people I’m from New York ’cause it’s simpler. But then people might hear me speak French or Spanish and they might be like “wait what.” I tell cats I’m from New York because that’s where I spent most of my time on earth so far and where I took my first breath.

You said you moved to a bunch of places like Palestine, all kinds of places. How did that happen?

Gabe Nandez: My folks work in the UN so we moved a lot.

 Some of those places like France and New York, they have big, big hip hop-histories. How did you get in to rap? How did you get in to starting music?

Gabe Nandez: I was always musical as a kid. Started playing guitar at 11. I got into hip-hop last. The first shit I got into was Jimi Hendrix and shit like that and then I was straight up just into metal, like black metal, thrash metal, all that shit. Then I gravitated out into punk and hardcore ska, reggae.
When I was in New York, initially I was in this French system so I was in this microcosm. Like I was in America but I really wasn’t, you know what I mean? I wasn’t in touch with the culture as much. I wasn’t really living the African-American experience so Hip Hop wasn’t reaching me like it eventually would. Then I moved to Tanzania at 13 years old straight in my adolescence and that was a trip.

I was into the heaviest music when I was in the chillest place [laughs]. I Moved back to NY and went to public school and re-assimilated. I was mad lost. Culture shock. That’s when Hip Hop became everything to me.

I think you might’ve been the only person listening to death metal in Tanzania.

Gabe Nandez: Probably. Me and my three best friends [laughs].

In terms of moving up here to Montreal—because I’ve known you out of this city—how did that come about?

Gabe Nandez: I came here on a trip once during summer after I’d left Tanzania and dug the vibe. Saw a lot of music.

It’s interesting that you would think to come here to do music. Montreal is known as a city with a lot of musicians and we’ve had DJs break out—like a lot of them—but the one thing for a city of this size that we’ve never had is THE rapper that put on this city. You think of St. Louis, you think of Nelly, you think of Atlanta—well now you think of about 25 million people—but back in the day it was Outkast and Luda. Everyone had their one rapper and we haven’t had that so did coming here give you a blank slate to make up your style?

Gabe Nandez: It wasn’t a blank slate because I hadn’t really done anything before as far as putting out music goes. I just saw an opportunity here. I didn’t have a structured plan or anything, I didn’t know anyone here. I just rode with my instincts.

I’m not trying to like, you’re not saying this obviously, but I’m not trying to rep the city or anything because I’m not from here. I’ve never felt like I was fully from one place, because I’m not. I’m from New York, but I’m also from here and here and here y’know? I rep myself. I just told myself, “I’ll just come here and something’s going to happen” and that’s what happened.

In New York, nobody helps anybody.

Gabe Nandez: It’s pretty dog eat dog. Lots of big cities are.

Yeah, that’s a city where they’ll tear each other down. It’s funny because you see Atlanta and LA and it’s the opposite. They’ve got a sound and a scene.

Gabe Nandez: New York is in an interesting place with Hip Hop right now. Hip Hop’s in an interesting place.

 I go to London a lot because I do a lot of shit with people out there and they’ve got a real strong scene now but there’s no denying the division. There’s nowhere that people can perform anymore, they’re closing all the clubs down.

Gabe Nandez: Really? I saw that JME did some Vice thing about that a few years ago…

That was just some racist shit. Period. That was like, “we’ve got a rapper, we don’t want you on stage” whereas now it’s more like, even the hipstery house music clubs, it’s like, “we’ve built condos here, now you can’t make noise here anymore.” Now it’s just gotten to another level whereas before it was racial.

Gabe Nandez: That’s fucked up, I didn’t know that. That’s crazy.

They do radio, that’s what saves that city. They have this network where you go and you spit live, which is a different kind of thing that we have.

Gabe Nandez: Word NY kinda has that too on a level.

The first time I’ve heard you was on “Casanegra” with Chester Watson for his release and I didn’t have any idea you were from here when I heard that. How did that happen?

Gabe Nandez: Me and my roommate at the time were chilling, listening to music just to scope what cats are doing and shit. We stumbled on Chester, heard the “Phantom” track, recognized the beat, love the MF Grimm album it’s off of. So my boy sent him a track of mine, Chester fucked with it and sent me the beat. His album was dropping two days later so I wrote the verse in a couple hours, recorded it in my room and sent it to him.

Last time we covered you for the site was with Sifu. The first thing that jumped out at me in your new video was how big of a leap there was on the production side. You always had the bars and the beats were dope, but the way your voice is recorded now has effects and overlays. What was the process like getting there? Because now that sounds like kind of a professional rap song.

Gabe Nandez: Apart from the first song I ever released and maybe like two others, I recorded all my stuff by myself at the crib. Microphone, sound card, garageband. macbook. I was using a USB mic before i copped the compressor mic and the sound card. I used my blankets to soundproof and shit. I didn’t have engineers mixing my shit or nothing. But, time moves, you keep working, you meet people, you build.

The thing about recording yourself is it kinda fucks up the process. it did for me at least, eventually. you can’t really focus as much because you’re chopping shit up and stuff. Plus the quality isn’t the best, of course. But that song went through some hands before it came out.

One of the things I did like in “Something” was that you kind of have this, it’s real subtle, but there’s like that light scratching in bits.

Gabe Nandez: Yeah, it’s dope man [imitates sound].

One of the things that was interesting about your vibe in terms of MC-ing but also how you’ve been presenting your music is that you connect a darkness, that slow dark thing that goes on today with the slow dark thing in the 90s. A lot of people don’t connect those two, it’s like this is one thing and that’s another. You mentioned MF Grim earlier. What were you listening to earlier that kind of got you to your style?

Gabe Nandez: So much stuff man. A lot of Raekwon, Biggie, a lot of Nas, a lot of Doom. Mobb Deep, Heltah Skeltah, Sean Price, yo. Rest in Peace Sean Price. As a 22 year old, that was the first time that someone in hip-hop passed that I really fucked with heavy and I felt like I lost a friend, like he’s never going to record again and that’s a big deal.

But, yeah man a lot of Doom. So much MF Doom you know what I mean?

Before Joey Badass dropped…OF and Joey Badass and shit like that, before that whole shit happened I was like, “Yo, I’m gonna be this kid that came out listening to Doom and I’ll spit like this. Niggas don’t even know” [laughs]. Then you realize that a lot of kids who like rap look up to him. And yeah man, all the classic shit. I could go on, but you know, all the classic shit.

That was interesting because I remember that OF moment too and for me it was a lot of vindication. In 2004-2005, I was 21-22 and I was fucking with Doom real heavy, smoking everyday. Until cool black kids came out and liked it, that was real tough to ride for in a way. People would always have that on you, like, “yo that’s some white guy shit.”

Gabe Nandez: Madvillain is like…When I was in Tanzania with my Pops, ’cause you can’t buy fucking CDs there so my Pops would go back on business trips to New York, I’d be like, “Yo can you please hit the Virgin Megastore up (which is now closed) and pick me up these CDs” and it was always death metal CDs. He went one day and the guy at the store was like, “Yo, you should get this for your kid.”

This was when you were in Tanzania?

Gabe Nandez: Yeah.

Oh okay, I was like “They have Madvillain in Tanzania?!”

Gabe Nandez: Yeah I know, I was bumping it in Tanzania, I didn’t cop it there. He brought it back and I was like, “hmm what’s this” and that was one of the first Hip Hop albums that I really sat through. But it almost didn’t feel like hip-hop. I showed it to my friends that were listening to death metal and they were like, “This is cool, this guy’s wearing a mask. It’s like Slipknot [laughs]

In terms of you spitting bars, how do you approach your craft?

Gabe Nandez: Freestyling is how I discovered I could rap well. As soon as I found that out I’d freestyle all the time. Then I got to writing, because I wanted to get nicer and I felt inspired. I practice a lot. I write a lot. I look inside myself and outside for inspiration.

Sifu, you had one producer and that gave it a vibe. On “Something,” you had a different producer, different kind of style. In terms of where you want to go musically, I know that’s a lot on your collaborators, but what direction do you think you’re heading in now?

Gabe Nandez: A good one for sure. I’m still finding my voice. There’s lots of different sides to me that I’ve yet to translate through my music. I grow as a person, my craft grows with it.

So that’s the next project, Diplomacy. Tell us a bit about that if you can.

Gabe Nandez: Diplomacy is defined as the art of dealing with people in a sensitive and effective way. That resonates with me a lot. It’s gonna be dope, yo.

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