“When It’s Burning in Your Soul:” An Interview with Na-Kel

Will Hagle chops it up with Odd-Future-affiliate, Na-Kel, about his time as a pro skater, his cathartic verse on "DNA", and how he found his voice in hip-hop.
By    February 23, 2022

Image via Na-Kel Smith’s Facebook

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Only ten days after his friend Earl Sweatshirt’s Sick! came out, Na-Kel Smith quietly dropped his own short project. Skullface Bonehead is a 14-minute demonstration of Na-Kel’s advanced musical evolution. His sound has settled down from its spastic origins into something slower, more abstract, experimental, and moody. The culmination of an ongoing progression that’s been playing out in front of skateboarding and Odd Future fans, in real time. 

Na-Kel grew up in South Central, exposed to skating at a young age through his uncle, the greatest character in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater history, Kareem Campbell. After honing his craft and building hype through videos, Na-Kel entered the world of professional skating so quickly that he didn’t even need to attend high school. Supreme sponsored him, and he fell in naturally with the assorted skaters and artists who lingered on Fairfax in the mid-aughts. As Odd Future exploded, his friendship and close association with Earl, Tyler, Frank Ocean, and others led to him becoming one of the “non-musician” members of the loose collective. 

In 2013, Na-Kel was just a professional skater in the studio with Tyler, The Creator, who happened to enlist a slew of non-rapping friends like Jasper, Lee Spielman, and Lucas Vercetti to hop on “Trashwang.” The verse wasn’t a byproduct of serious ambition. Just another energetic addition to a posse cut. A fun and funny encapsulation of a chaotic studio hang. A couple of years later, Na-Kel showed up with a powerful, emotional verse on Earl Sweatshirt’s “DNA.” The story of that recording became instant musical legend, akin to George Clinton telling Eddie Hazel to “play guitar like you just found out your mother died” for the solo on “Maggot Brain.” Ten minutes after taking a tab of acid, Na-Kel found out his friend who was in the hospital had passed away. Earl wisely turned to him and said, “write about it.” 

A few more years passed, and skating remained the priority. “Trashwang” and “DNA” were anomalies. If you hang out with DIY rappers long enough, they’re bound to hand you the mic. Then, Na-Kel decided to give music a real shot. From spending time around Odd Future affiliates, as well as the other eclectic assortment of artists and producers who circulate in and out of Dro Fe’s Narco House recording space, he learned how to be an all-encompassing independent artist. Over the years, through steady practice in late night and early morning sessions surrounding long days traveling and skating, Na-Kel taught himself how to record, engineer, and make beats.

The transformation in his sound from his debut project Twothousand Nakteen to Skullface Bonehead is extraordinary. You can hear the bumps and bruises he suffered along the way to perfecting the perfect trick. Whereas he started his serious solo career screaming lyrics and making loud, fast songs that mirrored his skater background, Skullface Bonehead is calmer and more nuanced. He only raps in his own voice on the opening song, and the rest contains the textured layering of effect-heavy voices and sounds. He still considers himself an “amateur musician,” but that’s because he’s committed to perpetual growth and expansion. 

The evolution was natural. Without too much thought, Na-Kel is capable of casually transforming the sounds of the past that influenced him into the sound of a new, off-kilter future. The beat for album opener “Prayer” has a stuttering kick drum pattern reminiscent of Kanye’s “Black Skinhead,” which Na-Kel references atop them. Although he admitted he’s not too familiar with Madlib, who his friends all adore, he raps in a pitched-up vocal effect that is, through multiple generations of influence, indebted to Lord Quas. His reason for using that effect? Because the higher voice makes him happier. Simple. There’s a lightness about Na-Kel’s attitude and personality that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to an aggressive sound. A fan of the more upbeat tone of Sick!, Na-Kel claims he wants his beats to sound like a “new age, dumbed down version” of Earl Sweatshirt’s production. 

More than any previous project, Skullface Bonehead fits in with the experimental lo-fi scene that artists like Earl spearhead. It does so without compromising the carefree, positive attitude that distinguishes him from the friends who’ve helped give him this platform. The project is unique and true to him because, for the first time, he did it all himself. – Will Hagle

This album feels more mellow or subdued than your previous projects. Was that intentional?

Na-Kel: Yeah, I guess. I don’t like listening to music with people yelling at me all the time. So I’m not gonna make music yelling at people all the time. It’s a different type of energy. Different type of vibe. The words matter more. The song matters more. Like, you can make a turnt song and people are gonna bob their heads and be like, ‘damn this shit’s crazy.’ But if you can make, like, a more mellow song, it’s something that you can sit with. And that’s what I was trying to do.

Did you like listening to music with people yelling at you growing up?

Na-Kel: Hell yeah. I listened to so much different music growing up. I guess when I really think about it, like when I really sit down and think about it, it’s probably because I wanted to be heard so bad before. Like, if we dig deep into the origin of why I started making music, and my personal challenge with it, like finding your voice, finding your thought process, and being able to articulate it… I feel like that’s why I yelled a lot before because I was like: hear me, hear me, hear me, hear me, hear me. And now I’m more like: listen to me. Check me out. This is what I got going on. It’s less about other people. And more about my opinion on the songs and the direction. Even though it always was. Also everybody’s making turnt ass fast crazy music. When I started making turnt shit, n**s acted like nobody had ever made that before, because the vibe of music was’t like that. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just energy. I think it might just be my personal energy, and how people look at me. Because I’m a skater and shit.

Skating is obviously associated with hip-hop to an extent but also punk music and loud fast songs. I was wondering if you think the music from that world played into your evolution as an artist.

Na-Kel: Yeah, I believe so. With skate videos, you got a whole different arrangement of inspirations. You hear all different types of music, because there are so many different personalities within it. If you look at a team of 15 dudes in one video, and everybody’s picking a favorite song, or a song that they like that means something to them, then you’re gonna have a very eclectic playlist to go along with your viewing experience.

I’ve heard you talk about wanting to be a skater, and you accomplished that. And then you approached music in a similar way. Could you break down that process?

Na-Kel: When I wanted to become a pro skater, I had to learn the industry. I had to learn what good tricks were, I had to learn what bad tricks were. I had to learn through other people’s moves and decisions that they made. What a good sponsor is and what a bad sponsor is. That’s when I understood the levels. Like Meek Mill said, there’s levels to this shit. It’s the same thing as a record deal. Some people might take a record deal. Okay, you’ve got a record deal. But it’s not a good one. So that’s a part of what I mean when I say that. And that’s on top of just learning the craft. You’ve gotta learn the craft, always. Once you learn the craft, you’ve got to run a business behind it. I’m not sitting here saying, ‘that’s how I mastered it…’ I’m still trying to learn this shit. But I’m gonna keep trying to learn until I figure it out. I’m getting closer and closer to understanding it at a professional level. I feel like I’m an amateur musician in a sense.

Did you record this album at Narco House?

Na-Kel: Hell nah. I made Twothousand Nakteen there. I made a couple songs off of Threethousand Nakteen there. But then I started making music at my own house around the Threethousand Nakteen era. I learned how to record myself. I made A Dream No Longer Deferred there. I made a couple other projects that haven’t come out yet there. I moved. That’s when I met racecar stuntman, and I started producing and shit. Then I moved again. I made Skullface Bonehead in my current house.

Can you tell the people who racecar stuntman is?

Na-Kel: It’s my friend.

That’s it? That’s all we need to know?

Na-Kel: That’s my friend. If you support me, support racecar

stuntman. Because that’s my twin.

Does racecar stuntman have any personality that’s different than yours?

Na-Kel: Nah, he’s literally just like me. He likes to drive fast. He’s crazy. He just be chillin.

Nice. Since you did have to learn how to make beats and produce and record yourself, what kind of equipment are you using?

Na-Kel: Ableton. The first thing I got was Logic. I didn’t understand it good enough to say ‘alright, this is where I’m at. I found my sound and I know how to do this shit.’ Then I started doing FL Studio and I came a little bit closer to finding it. Then Ableton helped me understand beats and music differently. Just the way the program is set up.

You use a lot of pitched-up or pitched-down vocals on the new album. Was that all done in Ableton?

Na-Kel: Yeah I did all that in Ableton. I’ll make the beat and record to it in the same session. If I like the beat I’ll just write to it and rap or start rapping. Then I arrange it. I do everything in one go. Then I might go back and add something or switch something up. But usually it’s just levels or chops and edits and shit. Sometimes a song might feel too mellow. The way that the vocals are arranged, and how they double and triple or repeat and stuff? I don’t really know the music term for it. I just like how it sounds. You know when you listen to a project from somebody, and every single song on there is their voice in different flows it still kind of gets boring. I don’t want my shit to get boring. But it’s also just the energy. I feel like it makes me happier when the voice is higher.

When some people make a project with no features and it’s just the same voice in the same cadence over and over again that does get boring. But you kind of started your career off with some big features. Then this project doesn’t have any. Do you think you’re going to stick with making your own beats and not having any features, or will it just depend on the project?

Na-Kel: I only make music with people that I hang out with. And actually fuck with. Most of the time, I’ll be less on music feature shit with my friends because we just coolin. But then sometimes we actually end up making some shit. But I’m definitely into features. I’m interested to see if people hit me up like, ‘yo I was fucking with this.’ Like other people who make music and shit. But I don’t know how to reach out to people. I’m not about to be spending no hella money on no features. Because I just feel like that’s not genuine. Unless it’s like, yo, I got the budget and I need this artist on there. Then you’re producing the song that you want to create. But me right now? Hell no. But I do want to make beats for people.

What do you like more, producing or rapping? Because with this project, it feels to me like a producer project even though you are rapping on it. Just because you use all the effects and crazy vocals and it’s really well arranged. So are you interested in going down that lane more?

Na-Kel: I don’t know if n**s understand that when ya’ll first heard me rapping on “Trashwang” that wasn’t no planned shit for real. It was planned, but it wasn’t like “alright I be skating but I’m trying to rap too.” No. My friend asked me to hop on the song and I hopped on that motherfucker and did my shit because I guess I had a secret talent. More than anything, it’s just the energy. It’s not even like “damn, you’re the most lyrical.” I just did my little rap shit and people fucked with it. Turned up. Then I did not rap ever again until “DNA.” Then I did not rap again. I went on tour with Thebe and I was rapping his lyrics. But I was not rapping. I wasn’t writing shit down. I’d freestyle and shit with the homies, but that’s on some fun shit. That’s not like in the studio freestyling. It’s like we’re all sitting around freestyling dumb shit. And then a couple years after that, I was like… how do I do this shit? Now I wanna do it. It took me a year and a half, two years probably to finally get to a place to make music that was good enough to drop. That was Twothousand Nakteen. Ever since then, I just be working on this shit all the time. Learning something new. Every project I put out I learn something new. The first project was me learning how to rap. For 7 songs, 8 songs. Not just like, okay you got one verse off.. two sixteens off.. Like, this is your shit. What you gonna do? How you gonna lay out your shit? Then, the second [album, 3000Nakteen], by that time I had started recording myself. I think I might have helped on a beat too. I for sure helped on “Stay Away.” So I got my little co-producer [credit], I add my little shit in there. Then, A Dream No Longer Deferred, I damn near recorded that whole shit by myself. So that’s when I learned how to engineer. Like using Pro Tools and shit. But then I didn’t like Pro Tools because you can’t make a beat in Pro Tools. If you can’t make a beat then you can’t create your own sound for real, because you don’t even know what to tell the producer.

Then for Skullface Bonehead you switched over to Ableton and did everything?

Na-Kel: Exactly. And that was my whole goal. Because I’m a traveling professional skateboarder. I don’t want to be like, I need to find a studio here, I need to find a studio there. That’s not my schedule. That shit cost money. And that shit make it not fun. I want to be able to be like, alright, we’re gonna go skate all day? Alright we back at the hotel? Damn. Alright, I’ma cook up a beat. I’ma make a song from the hotel. I’ma drop this bitch. So now I got it to where I got my little portable studio. That shit damn near fit in one bag. I just like being able to make my music on the fly. Right when you’re feeling it. Right when it’s burning in your soul.

So you don’t stick to a schedule?

Na-Kel: I kind of do. I usually wake up at like 5am. Anywhere between like 4, 5, some shit like that. I wake up and either make a beat or rap on a beat that I fuckin went to sleep making. Or finish a beat. I just start working on music until right around now, when it’s time to go skate, at like 12:30, 1 o’clock.

So you told me what you learned and accomplished from each of the projects you put out. Do you have anything in mind for what might come next? Some aspect of the process or even the business side that you think you can master better than you have now?

Na-Kel: From the business side, I’m understanding how the process of dropping works. Okay, make your music. Get it mixed and mastered. Shoot your video. Get your art ready. Now I’m building more resources. [Alch?] put me in contact with a dude that does vinyl, CDs and cassettes, so hard copies is coming. I’m doing things most people need a record deal to figure out. But because I look learn and listen, and I ask people the right questions and I tell people what I’m doing, and I’m doing my shit the right way and I’m not too pushy with my shit, I just do my shit and people want to help me. So now I’m like, okay, cool. I actually could do this shit independently. At least until it’s like okay, now I need a different level of budget or some shit like that.

Since you talked about getting everything prepared before you put out a project, do you ever get the urge to just finish a song and post it online?

Na-Kel: Of course. Every single song. That’s when I hop on Live and I play it. Some songs I don’t do that, because I’m like okay this song is too good. I want this to be a surprise. But sometimes I gotta let ya’ll know what I’m on right now. I think it’s really because I be surprised with myself because I really never thought I would be this good at making music. Not saying I’m Michael Jackson or Prince or goddamn Frank Ocean, but for me, coming from where I come from… Not on some ‘my struggle’ type shit, but coming from, I’m just a skater… to now… My tape got over 300,000 streams right now, only between Apple Music and Spotify. So, somebody likes it. To do that, I’m proud of myself. To even have a catalog of music to compare… I’m proud of myself. When I first started, n**as probably ain’t think I was serious or something. I’m just proud of myself that I could do it. I was searching for that. How am I gonna make some shit that’s good? Or how am I going to make a song that people will say, damn this shit sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before but it’s fire.

Do you feel like Skullface Bonehead demonstrates what you’re capable of doing?

Na-Kel: Hell yeah. This feels like my first project ever. I produced this bitch head to toe. Everything. I arranged it. Then Zeroh came in and cleaned it up. [SOMEONE] helped me on a song. But for the main part, the real meat of this shit is all me. By myself. Alone. Just trying shit. Seeing what I like. It’s not like I’m telling a n**a this is what we’re gonna do right here. I’m really doing this shit. There’s people who are real real rappers in the game, who won’t even think about doing that. And I’m happy because I’m an independent artist so it’s like, damn. I can eat off that. This is my music. It’s not no five n**s on one beat. It’s all me. That shit is so beautiful to me.

On the beat from “Prayer” you make a Kanye “Black Skinhead” reference. After you do that, the drums do sound like that song. Which came first?

Na-Kel: The beat came first. Vince Staples said in an interview that most of the music you make, you’re trying to recreate another song. Like your favorite song. That’s goddamn “Black Skinhead.” If that’s the song that I referenced. Not saying that’s my favorite song. I do really love Kanye West’s music. But it’s meaningful and it makes sense. It might make more sense for me than it made sense for Kanye West to say it. When I made the beat, I let that shit loop. I’m freestyling, whatever. I’m doing my shit. I didn’t really put too much thought into it. The most thought I be thinking when I do this shit is just, like, yeah that’s hard because I fuck with this song. But it’s not like I tried to do it on purpose. I listened to that song a lot. So I feel like your favorite songs, your favorite flows, the shit that people do with their voice and shit, you pick up on. That shit stay in your brain when you’re making music. It’s always a reference. You’re always trying to figure it out and dance around it and do it your own way.

Were there any other producers or artists that influenced you to use the pitched up or down vocals and other effects you use?

Na-Kel: From the production side of it, my influence and inspiration is probably Thebe. I almost want to say I’m trying to make a new age Earl Sweatshirt beat. Even though his beats are very new age. His beats are so fire. But I want to make, I guess a dumbed down version.

You’re credited on “Titanic” on Sick! What was the process of recording that song?

Na-Kel: N**a made that shit. I was in there. N**a was spazzin. We were kind of just shooting the shit. Like, go in there and throw some adlibs on there. Then, alright – keep those. Do this one for me. I love Sick! I love that album. It’s like a rebirth of my brother. It’s a breath of fresh air. Because these past couple years been hard for my n**a, so to hear his music sound bubbly… He’s still speaking his mind. He’s still speaking his heart and his truth. But you can vibe with it a little different.

I know you’ve told the story about the making of “DNA,” so we don’t need to get into that. But I was wondering if you ever heard the story behind the Funkadelic song “Maggot Brain.” They were tripping on acid and George Clinton told the guitarist Eddie Hazel to play like he just found out his mother died. I don’t know if you’ve heard that song, but—

Na-Kel: Fuck yeah I’ve heard “Maggot Brain.” That’s one of my favorite albums. I remember being fucking amazed because you remember that song that’s like [sings Sleigh Bells’ “Rill Rill”]? When I heard the fuckin Funkadelic song I was like “oh shit!” But yeah I really love “Maggot Brain.” The intro on that shit is crazy. Like [George Clinton voice: “I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe.”] That’s crazy that they told him to play like his mother died. That’s so mean. While you’re on drugs, fool, like what?

But if you listen back with that context, it kind of makes sense and takes on new meaning, which I feel is similar to your verse on “DNA” after hearing the backstory.

Na-Kel: I can see how you say that. I feel you. In that moment, it’s a feeling. I want to make music like that. That’s what I’m going to grow into. I want to be able to make music with a band. And like, jam. And like, party in a live room where we all chilling and that shit sound like “Funky Good Time.” James Brown. Like directing traffic. [James brown voice: Feel’s Good!] That shit’s fire.

You could be the band leader.

Na-Kel: Exactly. And you can go in and speak when you got something to say. You don’t have to sit there and worry about verse, hook, verse. [James Brown voice: Boom. Here’s four bars. Give me that guitar! Uhhhh!] You can do all that live. Then, when you come up with those words, it’s just like, ‘yo, you just blacked out. You just made a full song, what the fuck?’

Yeah like when you’re jamming and in the zone, you kind of lose a sense of time. Which is different than when you’re sitting in front of your computer by yourself editing a song over and over again.

Na-Kel: I mean, that’s fun too. It’s all fun, but I just feel like that’s the next level. When I was making “Live N The Light,” towards the end, when the chords come in and it’s all beautiful, that shit was like… oh my God… This could grow into… Not like sampling shit, it’s like…. It’s what Tyler’s doing. It’s what Tyler does. He took making beats on his computer to making a full piece right now. Like Beethoven.

On his new album there’s the whole instrumental section without any words where it keeps changing up but all blends together.

Na-Kel: Yeah, bro, because he played the game. I don’t know if he played the game on hard or easy. Because he’s playing the game on hard for everybody else, but it seems like he’s playing the game on easy for himself. That’s my guy. My biggest inspiration.

Since I just saw Jackass and Jasper and Tyler were in it, and since you’re a skater, would you ever do any Jackass stunts?

Na-Kel: I don’t know. Jackass be funny, but sometimes it looks like they get hurt. I’d be mad as fuck if I can’t go skate because I was doing some non-skater-related shit, for real.

Speaking of skating, I’ll let you go because you said it’s skate time right now. But last question, where did the title Skullface Bonehead come from?

Na-Kel: Feeling dead. Feeling dead and stupid. Dead and dumb.

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