“My Art Came from Within:” An Interview with Gabe Nandez

Jayson Buford speaks to the POW Recordings artist about the tragedy that was the catalyst for his rap career, getting sober, and more.
By    March 1, 2021

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Tanzania is named after the two states that unified to create the country: Tanganyika and Zanzibar. The former comes from the Swahilli words tanga, which means ‘’sail’,’ and nyika which means ‘’wilderness.’’ It literally combines to mean ‘’to sail in the wilderness.’’ I say all this etymology not to bore you, but to tell you that Gabe ‘Nandez, who spent time in Tanzania as a child, makes music that comes from a region that collects the souls of the people who walk into it. Whether that region is in Tanzania or the streets of New York, Gabe’s bars combine a coldness and spirituality that reminds you of Mos Def if he shopped at Select Vintage in Bushwick. To hear Gabe ‘Nandez is to hear someone constantly on the move, traveling from place to place, searching for what home will finally be. 

The experiences left him frequently with culture shock. Gabe’s father is a peacekeeper in the U.N. and these constantly changing locales forced him to grow up quickly. Simultaneously, these interactions with different cultures began to seep into his music. By the time of his July 2019 release, Diplomacy,  you could hear a song like ‘’I.D.,” which somehow contains the totality of Gabe ‘Nandez in just two minutes. A balaphone sounds straight from Tanzania, which doubles as a subtle tribute to his parents. Despite how futuristic and tribal that the song can sound, Gabe smacks you back to reality with bars about not being to Wakanda and not being a guy you can put in a box. That is Gabe: Someone who is inimitable and can’t be easily pigeonholed, but still  authentic at his polyglot core. 

Diplomacy effortlessly warps through genres and countries in every track. To hear hip-hop is often to hear a specific place. But it was also about finding your place in the world, when all you knew was bouncing around from the next place to the other one, feeling lost and in awe of what was around you. As for Ox, his new EP released last week, it feels like the first time Gabe’s music has settled into a home. Ox brings back the feeling that LOX and DMX once brought to the 914 and to Uptown. The title track could start a movement that the NYPD would be too shook to stop. Gabe raps alone in the music video but if not for the pandemic, he would have a neighborhood crowd behind him following his every move like an army follows a general. It has Derek Jeter references, Starter jackets, and a hallucinogenic beat. There’s also a “Follow the Leader” reference. 

Ox marks the best rapping of Gabe’s career because of the vivid and neoclassical nature of his raps. He’s updating the biblical prophecies with sharp but direct writing, and cultural references (Nipsey, Prodigy), while spitting thunder on unconventional and hypnotic samples. On the closing track, ‘’223’’ he shouts out ‘’514’’ ‘’718’’ and ‘’914’’ which represents Montreal, The Bronx, and Westchester. That serves as a reminder: You can physically be in many places in your life, but New York is everlasting. New York is home. Ox is a portrait of a man finding his place back home, after years of traveling so much he could never find one. He has one now and he won’t let us forget it. Before this album dropped, I spoke to Gabe in Flatbush on a cold Sunday afternoon. We spoke about his upbringing, living in late capitalist New York, being sober, and Prodigy of Mobb Deep. — Jayson Buford

What was it like spending time in Haiti and Tanzania growing up?

Gabe Nandez: That shit was crazy. Especially being there from privileged status. When you’re a kid too. I was six when we moved there. I’m still processing things from there. It was beautiful. It was jarring. Things were crazy. Slums are crazy in Haiti. Haiti is a different type of poverty. I saw a lot of shit. It’s real there. South of the Hemisphere, the value system is different. They don’t worry about stuff we worry about here. In Tanzania, that’s where I had adolescence. You know what that is like. That’s when you start getting into all kind of things. I’m so detached from it. It was so far too. And I don’t really see the people there anymore. Sometimes It feels like a past life.

Is Africa as illuminating of an experience as everyone says it is?

Gabe Nandez: Yeah. One hundred percent. Especially as a black person. Even for anybody else, especially if you go deep into nature. Like, Tanzania had crazy wild life. There’s no words for it. It’s a heavy place.

What’s your origin? You are Black and Latinx, right?

Gabe Nandez: Yeah! My mom is from Mali, West Africa. My pops is from Argentina. So technically I am half European. Because Argentianian people, or my father at least, is of Spanish and Italian decent. So Latinx people are obviously from there, but that’s not my direct heritage.

It’s funny how much our color or nationalities are derived from the white man. Just from the sense of slavery and colonialism. Like, I’m darkskin but I am sure I have some white in me.

Gabe Nandez: They were all over that shit.

I also heard that you spent some time in Jerusalem. What was that like?

Gabe Nandez: I was so young in Jerusalem. I was born in New York and then we slid when I was three. I remember one thing. I remember this chameleon and it was on this branch, and it just turned from green to brown. This is all I remember. Everything else is just energy. But that was the illest metaphor for me. Because that is me going through life, speaking French here, going here, doing this here.

I saw an interview where you said you first spoke French and English is actually your second language.

Gabe Nandez: Someone recently asked my moms this. Apparently, I just learned English one day through television. We went to Jerusalem, then Haiti, and everything was in French. It was just pop culture man. No one taught me.

With that being said, you are a New Yorker. Where in the New York area are you from?

Gabe Nandez: So I actually grew up in New Rochelle. In Westchester. But I was in the city a lot.

I went to high school in the Bronx. Me and my dawgs would go to New Ro and just start issues bro. Did you go to New Ro High?

Gabe Nandez: Yes! I went to New Ro High. That school was crazy. It was like 3,000 kids. Shout out to New Ro High man. Crazy school. There’s a certain vibe they have in Westchester. It is a weird mix. You have really rich people and then you have projects. When we moved back to New York, I said, yo I’m not going back to a private school, because that is where I went when I was abroad.

What’s the biggest difference from when you first started living in NYC to what it is like now, for you personally?

Gabe Nandez: Holy shit man. Things have changed. I remember, for example, Astor Place, we used to chill there, smoke blunts. Do all types of crazy shit. I stayed there one night and shacked up next to these homeless dudes. And now that stuff just doesn’t exist. In that whole strip. They just don’t allow that anymore.

There’s like, Starbucks there now. They don’t allow you to do anything.

Gabe Nandez: Yeah, you can’t pull up and do something regular like use bathrooms now. You can’t do anything. And obviously the rent has gotten more expensive. It’s crazy. Even Union Square, like – I don’t smoke anymore or anything, but still, it’s getting tamer. That’s the main part for me.

It’s just a regular capitalist American city now. I know that Jimi Hendrix was your first favorite musician. What is your favorite Hendrix album?

Gabe Nandez: Probably Axis [Bold as Love]. Electric Ladyland too. That actually might be the one. That’s definitely the one. I heard a posthumous albums he did, usually those suck, but it was actually really tight. Both Sides of the Sky or some shit. It was tight.

I know New York rap is what you fell in love with. Are you a Prodigy fan like I am? Because you said RIP Prodigy on ‘’Ox.’’

Gabe Nandez: Prodigy changed my life. So, Moving back to New York from Tanzania, it was rough. It was cold again. I was in a school with 3,000 people. I didn’t know anybody. That’s when I started to get deep into hip-hop. I was running through Illmatic and all the classics. And that period of life, turned me into Gabe ‘Nandez in a lot of ways. And Prodigy, the way he just expressed his pain–

This is a trope they do with rappers, but Prodigy genuinely feels like an author to me. Melville has “Call me Ishamel.” Prodigy has “The Rotten Apple made me like this. I shoot a nigga down. I cut a nigga up.” It’s just hard sentences back to back.

Gabe Nandez: I see you. I see you. That’s ill right there. It’s just so direct. It’s matter of fact. “Shook Ones” like that.

“Rock in your face, stab your brain with your nose.” What type of sentence is that bro?

Gabe Nandez: Like, get the fuck out of here bro. And it is the delivery. His accent. Prodigy taught me how to rap. And you can jack that. It just happens. He was so authentic. I started using drugs when I was around that age too. I come from a nice family but I started to get into that world. And when you are dealing with stuff like that, you can really only listen to Prodigy or AZ. What else am I going to listen to?

I saw that your pops brought you Madvillainy. How did DOOM’s death affect you?

Gabe Nandez: I cried for three days. When he died my friend told me, and like, death is a transition, and when it happens I’m like, man it’s all good, and then went to sleep and woke up at five in the morning and I started to listening to DOOM and I just broke down. A part of me died. He was such a big part of my life. And it is like, and this bugs me out, DOOM had a brother that died. He got hit by a car. My brother died, who rapped, who was nice. He was hit by a train. That’s why I started rapping. I was like, oh I have to rap. I feel like DOOM and I were kindred spirits. And the mask too, as black men, the mask is deep, we’re the villains in this society, so it is like fuck y’all, I’m embracing this. He was on his graffiti/drugs shit too. That’s the type of shit I was on too.

You spoke about your brother. How did him dying change your life?

Gabe Nandez: It completely changed my entire being. Especially when some shit happens like that when you’re young. I’ve said this before but at the end of his funeral. Some traumatic as shit. We go to put the ashes in the thing. And then his homie just pulls up. Hits play on this fucking cassette. And just himself, spitting in acapella. And like, we’re all just standing there. And I listen to that shit still sometimes. It’s like damn. It changed me. As I get older, it gets realer. I really wish this nigga was here. But I’m also blessed for it because nothing could fucking top me now. I’m not scared of shit. My purpose is just… I’m a mountain.

Black kids in New York, we have to be fearless. We have to be. Or, what are we going to do?

Gabe Nandez: Facts. We’re rugged. We have to be bro. Dog eat dog.

I believe rappers know things about being alive that other people don’t know. Because they just come from a different place than the rest of the world.

Gabe Nandez: Writers in general. Look at you. That part of the brain you’re exercising and how it affects how you see things because subconsciously you’re a writer and you’re just different.

Do you think that musically your brother lives within you?

Gabe Nandez: My brother? He is still my favorite rapper. That’s my nigga. I have him as my background. He is reincarnated. I’m just him. And what’s crazy about him is we really live like the same type of shit. I’m not gonna front. He was like, on another level, but I got away with all the shit. It’s crazy. It’s like all this shit he didn’t get away with. It’s like, he died so I can live.

Somebody dying real young. It could turn someone who’s a really faithful person into someone with a cold heart.

Gabe Nandez: What’s crazy about that is that it was the opposite for me. Which is crazy. Like it was. And you know, I know people sometimes believe in things to cope. But that’s not it. Like I’m not with that. I’m not with, escaping. I was a kid. But the time I was 16, the spirits pulled up. It’s all spirit. That’s what art is too. I don’t know if I can take credit for some of my art. It came from within. It comes from the spirit.

What direction are you going in with this next EP?

Gabe Nandez: I don’t think I have one hook on this thing. I just barred out. I can do anything. When I go into making something, I just let it happen. I can make pop songs but I don’t go in there with that attention. But this time, I wanted to show people that I am one of the greatest and I could do hook stuff but that you can’t seem me on these bars. I had this picture of the album art. I was just going through my disposable rolls and a bunch of shit had just happened and things were crazy that month. That picture was taken during that month and it was the end of the month. And I’m just looking at this picture in my hands and actually wrote the music around the picture. You know, it was me with the Ruff Ryders shirt and I was walking around with that shirt one day in the summer and bro, the amount of salutes I got was fucking crazy.

When you got sober, how did that change your overall being and health?

Gabe Nandez: Like, it’s crazy because in a lot of ways it didn’t change me. I’m just addicted to different things now. I’m addicted to staying on point. And caffeine. It just made me mad brolic, bro. That’s what made me get sober. People say that pride can be a bad thing – and it can be – but that’s what made me get sober. I was skinny as fuck. I had OD’d twice in a week. I was just weak. I was like, I’m not trying to be weak. I gotta be strong. I think the thing about when I was a user, a junkie, whatever you want to call it, it’s like, since I was 11, I always was gaming it like in my head. I’m getting like, in my head, I’m a champ already. Like, I knew what I wanted to do at 11. So through drugs and shit, I was a lost soul. But I knew I had purpose and I had vision. I was doing shit. I graduated college. When I stopped, it isn’t like I had to find myself. I just got brolic and focused.

Has COVID affected you mentally?

Gabe Nandez: I’m in a better place now, but I think last year was fucked up for everybody.

We put therapy on a pedestal and like don’t get me wrong – It’s a good thing. And I’m glad I’m in therapy. Because I need it. I have trauma and a lot of pain in my life. I’ve had friends die too, and it’s really hurt me. But like, capitalism is why niggas are stressed. Yeah, therapy can help me but money can fucking help me more.

Gabe Nandez: Yeah, at the end of the day, we trying to get this bread. They say money can’t buy happiness, get the fuck out of here with that man. Sure, it can’t buy happiness but it kind of does. You could go to your session and leave and then still broke. And if you have no health insurance, you can’t do anything at all. It’s a crime against humanity. The healthcare system doesn’t want get you to get better.

What’s next for you music-wise?

Gabe Nandez: So I’m working on this fucking project right now. I just hit the studio last night. I’m working on two projects, but for the next shit I’m working with my boy Williams. He’s from Jersey. He’s ill. So I’m working on that. But then I’m working on a full length too. They’re different bags. And that’s always what it’s gonna be naturally. I’m not gonna say that’s what I want to do but, I can’t back to back give you the same thing. I’m too versatile for that. Like, why the fuck would I do that? I really like how Freddie gives us shit. He really taps into Madlib shit. But then he’ll do like Big Sean shit. Like that’s really inspires me.

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