“I Follow My System and Nobody Else’s”: An Interview With Gabe ‘Nandez

Kevin Crandall speaks to the New York rapper about speaking French, the mentality that helped him achieve sobriety, MF DOOM's influence on him and more.
By    May 3, 2023

Image via Qusay Al Hashemi

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Kevin Crandall will miss Rudy Gobert in a Utah Jazz jersey.

The Mahabharata is an epic poem written by the Hindu sage Vyasa. Following the details of the Kurukshetra war, it is the longest known poem in history, and has been touted as one of the most important writings ever—analogous to the Bible, the works of William Shakespeare, and Madvillainy. It is also the most recent read of Gabe ‘Nandez, the New York-via-the-world rapper whose interest in global perspective leads him to comb through Vedic epics in his free time.

‘Nandez’s childhood was punctuated by moves from continent to continent, immersing him in a slew of cultures through his father’s work as a U.N. ambassador. His first language is French, a skill he flexes throughout his works (‘Nandez credits his French-speaking with helping him get a feature on billy woods’ Aethiopes), but also represents his time spent living in Haiti. He is also an avid collector of historical art images, keeping a vault of cultural collectibles stashed on his phone that range from Indian war elephants to architectural feats.

These aspects of ‘Nandez’s identity shape his approach to music. His latest work, the heart-thumping Pangea, boasts one of these images as the cover: the Leo Belgicus map drawn by the Belgian cartographer Jodocus Hondius. The map, which consists of a series of countries crammed into the body of a lion, stood out to ‘Nandez through its intricate designs and its titular jungle cat, an animal whose strength and pride he sees in himself.

Recorded in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic amidst world-wide lockdowns, Pangea is a black hole that swallows the entirety of the human consciousness, spitting it out in ‘Nandez’s tar-stained baritone. The title of the POW Recordings release evokes the power of the supercontinent that is said to have broken apart to form the world as we know it, representing the collective emotional state we all shared when the pandemic was at its worst. Locked in with nowhere to turn but art, ‘Nandez asserts that humanity briefly shared a “yo, sit the f*ck down” moment, a cohesion rarely seen on this planet since the supercontinent in question.

Pangea also spins the idea of the titular landmass as a metaphor for New York City, ‘Nandez’s home base. The album features basement-thumping beats from NY-based underground linchpin Tony Seltzer, as well as the talents of rappers and singers from across the boroughs: YL and Vinny Fanta from Manhattan, Radamiz from Brooklyn, and Duendita from Queens. While Pangea was a melding together of the continents, Pangea is a blend of the works of ‘Nandez’s NY music community.

The result is a manic album that burst from the depths of ‘Nandez’s psyche. He discusses his history with drug use on “Transactions.” “Context” sees him muse on the moral philosophy of hustling over piano-licked boom bap. ‘Nandez is multi-faceted, and every part is authentic. The soundscape of Pangea mimics a blizzard, starting with an ominous flicker of keys before engulfing you in a flurry of bass and claps as bitter as they are soul-rattling. What follows is an ebb and flow of bell-ringing intensity and the uncanny softness of a dusty record scratch—a fitting atmosphere for a character like ‘Nandez.

The day before Pangea dropped, I spoke with ‘Nandez over the pandemic-era relic of Zoom. We talked the long-awaited project, French rap, and the importance of recovered addicts in the fight for sobriety.

Talk me through this idea of Pangea as a collective unconsciousness that we all had through the pandemic? I find the philosophy of that idea really interesting.

Gabe ‘Nandez: Word. I felt like collective human consciousness—we already have it through shit like IG. We see the same f*cking reels, we hear the same f*cking interviews, you know what I mean? But for the first time outside social media in our lives, for the most part we were all on our ass all of a sudden, like “yo sit the f*ck down.” All the mental, emotional, psychological things, all the internal shit, at once we were all feeling– not the exact same things but we were all feeling things as a result of this one thing we all had to deal with. It’s like the first time that’s happened! That’s crazy! That’s f*cking nuts, and there was a lot of togetherness about it. A lot of unison. And maybe during that time period people started realizing how important art was. I’m sure people listened to a lot of music, watched a lot of f*ckin’ movies ’cause they couldn’t do anything else. As much as we couldn’t see each other physically, telekinetically and energetically across continents motherf*ckers were going through the same shit, and you knew it.

I feel like that respect for the arts and humanities happened because there was a lot of leaning on these other worlds that are created through music and TV since the world we were in was shit and we couldn’t leave our house.

Gabe ‘Nandez: 100%. I think objectively it’s f*ckin true. Shit got us through it. Whether we forgot after is another story [laughs] but during? We probably realized.

Do you like to approach your projects with a holistic view? Making sure it’s all really cohesive?

Gabe ‘Nandez: Yeah definitely. I just love albums. Albums create a universe. It’s not just a bunch of songs, though there’s a lot of that going on. Like, here’s ten songs, here’s five songs. But the shit I grew up on, Rage Against the Machine albums, a f*cking Bowie album, everything’s connected. It has to match. Even when I’m writing a super clear concept album like Diplomacy, which was a super personal album because it was basically the story of my life. Or it might be a little bit looser like Pangea. There’s a concept there. It’s not like Dark Side of the Moon, but there’s a concept there. I need to write around a world, I need to create a world.

Do you take inspiration from the music you listened to growing up?

Gabe ‘Nandez: Definitely. The shit that I listened to as a child is so ingrained in me, subconsciously, that I think I can’t not. Lately I haven’t been listening to music; I’ve been listening to my shit, beats, and silence. But yeah, New York rappers too. Raekwon, Prodigy, DOOM, Roc Marci, Jadakiss, so many. Not only their music but them—their minds, their interviews, their stories. The way they told their story. I feel like it’s my duty, definitely as an emcee, to know shit about other emcees. To be a good artist, you need to know how people did it. There’s no blueprint or whatever, but just to see how it’s done. There is no blueprint but there is a foundation.

On “Risk” you have that line: “keep our name in your mouths and spell it in all caps.” Can you talk a little about the influence DOOM had on your life and what he means to you?

Gabe ‘Nandez: DOOM man. Yeah, that bar was before he passed too… DOOM is everything. DOOM, that whole thing with the mask and that symbolism. He has this interview with Madlib where they’re like in a record shop and they ask him about the mask and he talks about how now, music is more about what you look like, and that shit is even more true now. I get booked for shows, and I’ll get booked as the opener because my Instagram is not as popping, but people listen to my music more. They stream my shit. People see you make music and they go to your Instagram first. That’s just– it is what it is. Yeah. And just the way he rapped. I heard Danny Brown say some shit that when he heard Madvillainy he didn’t know you could just rap like that.

There’s a few people I heard rap and I thought, “I didn’t know you could do this.” DOOM, Roc Marciano—the first time I heard Roc Marci I was like, “who the f*ck is this?” I’d never heard this. It just expands the possibility. DOOM says shit sometimes, especially on Madvillainy, like that song “Figaro,” he has parts where he just leaves the tradition of rap and goes into creative writing and poetry. Some of the shit he’s saying, you might not even know what he’s talking about necessarily, but it doesn’t f*cking matter because he breaks the rules. Then also just the shit that happened in his personal life with his bro. He and his bro were tight and then his bro passed and the whole DOOM shit happened. I lost my brother when I was a little younger than he was and that shit always resonated with me because I understand that grief and what that shit can do to a person.

Do you try and emulate that kind of breaking the rules–“I didn’t know he could do that shit” with your music? Or is it more something you respect and admire but don’t try to do necessarily?

Gabe ‘Nandez: It happens more naturally when I’m rapping on boom bap production, like no big bass. When you have big bass on a rap song, I’ve noticed that when I’m writing it’s just different. It’s a different song. It’s 808s & Heartbreak versus A Tribe Called Quest—you don’t rap the same. For some reason, when I’m rapping on drumless or boom bap shit without big 808s, the lyrics are deeper. Pangea, I’m always saying shit but there’s levels. I’m really going on some philosopher king shit on these next joints, and that’s just because of the production. When I’m in that bag? Yes. There’s some really esoteric shit, or I’m referencing some shit that you really have to know some shit to understand. If you can’t it’s whatever, but if you do? For the motherf*ckers that do? It’s like, “oh shit, he just said that.” But as far as trying to emulate it, I think I’m just like that naturally, too. I gravitate towards kindred spirits in life. I follow my system and nobody else’s. I’m not a follower.

In that sphere, I know you had that track with billy woods and Boldy James, who are both definitely on that level. How did that track come about? How was it working with those two and how did that influence your part on that song?

Gabe ‘Nandez: First of all, woods is a f*ckin’ apex predator. He is objectively one of the greatest writers in hip-hop, period. There’s an account on Twitter that just tweets woods’ lyrics and it doesn’t even need music. He’s on some William Blake shit. To be on his album meant a lot for me because I’ve been in different bags, and for him to co-sign it? We played a show together—that’s how we met, I opened for Armand Hammer when they dropped Paraffin. I just kept doing my thing, and then I got E L U C I D on a song, and I just kept rhyming.

Then one day he hit me up and we spoke on the phone, and he was like, “you know Preservation?” and I was like, “yeah.” “You know Boldy James?” “Yeah.” And I’m like, “where the f*ck is this going?! [laughing] What you mean!? What! He just told me, and I just thought this was so sick. And I don’t know Boldy, we never met. Shoutout to Boldy though, holy shit. F*ck, like, I’m really on a track with him. I don’t know him but he okayed it. That’s a highlight of my life right there. Big, big deal. But yeah, woods let me know that that song “Ox” I have is one of those songs where you don’t change anything, it’s perfect. And coming from woods, that shit will always stick with me. So yeah, that’s how that came about.

Have you ever thought about putting out a predominantly French album?

Gabe ‘Nandez: I’ve thought about it. I think I’ll do it one day for sure. Gotta really get on first, and then at some point for sure, that would be dope as f*ck. It would make sense. My best friend who’s featured on a lot of my music, Ze Nkoma Mpaga Ni Ngoko, he’s dropping an album and he raps in French. I have some songs with verses from him that are all in French.

He was on that EP you put out last year, right?

Gabe ‘Nandez: Yeah, he rapped in English on that one.

Yeah, I remember him because he was the guest verse that stuck out to me the most and I made a note to listen to more of his music.

Gabe ‘Nandez: I can’t wait for him to start dropping. He’s like me. We both have a similar background and he raps in both languages. He’s sick.

Do you have any other French rappers you’d want to put people onto? The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Oxmo Puccino ’cause he’s like, the JAY-Z legend of French rap.

Gabe ‘Nandez: Outside of that? I would say Booba. Oxmo I would say lyrically yes, but career-wise this guy Booba is the Hov of French rap. He’s been running shit since the 90s so his music has changed a lot, but Booba, he is the best French rapper. He has a monopoly on French rap. No one in the West has a career you can compare to him. He’s like a tyrant. There’s some others, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head since I haven’t been listening to music recently.

I noticed all of your features on Pangea are New York artists. Did that happen organically? Or did you want to rep New York specifically on this?

Gabe ‘Nandez: Yeah I did. That’s the other thing about Pangea. Loosely, in terms of the features, for the length it’s the most feature-heavy thing I’ve done. It was definitely coming together. That’s another play on Pangea: here’s people in the same community and we’re linking and making music. That was definitely intentional.

How did the Duendita feature come about? That was a cool collaboration I’d love to hear more about.

Gabe ‘Nandez: Yeah she’s dope. Same thing [as with woods], I played a show at this spot called Cafe Erzulie in 2018, 2019, and yeah we got along, she was mad cool. We’ve just been seeing each other at shows, kicked it once and made some music. She was just part of the people in my cipher I could reach out to and had respect and love for each other, so it was a no-brainer. I loved how it came out too with her as a sample, basically, on the song. She doesn’t have any lyrics or anything. Shoutout to her, she is very talented.

Did you play guitar on this album?

Gabe ‘Nandez: No, not on this album. I showed it to show that “woah, he can play guitar?” before, but I’m rapping until I bust it back out again on some different shit.

What role does playing guitar play in your life?

Gabe ‘Nandez: It’s changed over time. When I started at 11, it was my world. The fretboard was the entire universe and that was life. When I dropped Grove, the EP where I play guitar, and during the pandemic, I was playing shit tons of guitar. So, when I was making Pangea, I was playing a lot of guitar. Lately, I haven’t been playing as much because I’ve been really focused on writing. Through university I really focused on writing and didn’t play much as well. It’s always been there and it always will be, and it will come back. It’s this compass. It set the course, and I will always remember that. It influenced my musicality too, my flows and shit. I got flows. Some rappers—and this isn’t a knock or anything, but it’s one flow, and that’s fine. Some of my favorite rappers it’s one flow, one style, maybe two. You listen to my music, I’m hitting MAD flows, different flows. I’m not saying that makes me better in some sense, but it’s informed by the guitar. That’s where my musicality comes from. It doesn’t come from rapping.

For sure, and I think that speaks to your versatility as a rapper. Are there any flows or cadences or types of beats you haven’t done but want to try? Not even necessarily to put out, but just to try it out and see what you sound like.

Gabe ‘Nandez: Yeah I try that a lot, just writing bars to write. I haven’t done that in a bit because I’ve had music I need to write, but yeah. I started rapping by freestyling too. Just smoke blunts in the cipher and freestyle before I really started writing. I’m not trying to rap on all types of shit though. There’s shit I’m not interested in putting out musically, like “trappier” shit. I’ve rapped over shit like that in the past, and Pangea has that big sound, but it’s still within that swing and tempo of a boom bap beat.

It has big-ass 808s or whatever you want to call it—Tony just has crazy shit. Shoutout to Tony, that guy is a f*cking animal, and a great person too. But yeah I like that lane, and even like “Transactions.” The lane I really like is early 2000s, Ruff Ryder shit. “Transactions” is a Jadakiss beat to me. Clipse/Jadakiss beat. That post-boom-bap pre-trap era, I like that. The newer shit I have is more Roc Marci type beats, samples. I’m always open to shit, but I try to keep it within that sphere.

Pivoting from there, how does the creation of your music videos come about? Are you heavily involved in that process to keep that cohesion?

Gabe ‘Nandez: I’ve had a directing hand in most of my videos for sure. I put a co-directing credit on some of them ’cause I come up with the treatments, wardrobe, locations sometimes. I’ve made the treatments. But other times, like the “Transactions” video, that was my boy. He pulled up on me in Montreal—my old college homie, shoutout to my man Will—he pulled up on me with his gear. That’s one of those videos I basically just rapped. We just made it happen in two hours. He was like, “you want to shoot a video?” and I was like, “yeah, cool.” Other times, it’s like, shit, it’s my face on the f*cking camera. I gotta have a part of it; I don’t understand how you couldn’t, as an artist, have a role. It’s like producing. Directing and producing, they’re broad. Directing is not just the guy with the clipboard storyboarding everything. I’m not just an actor.

The video that intrigued me the most from Pangea is the “Pitboss” video, that was nuts. What made you want to utilize that deepfake-like tech?

Gabe ‘Nandez: So the way it came about was kind of last minute too. It started as just a one-take video. My good friend and collaborator Losmose, we shot it and he was editing it, and he was like, “we don’t have a video here,” which we thought we might not. We just had a camcorder so we shot something, then he took it there. I’m not gonna say he used that exact technique but he used AI, and he merged it with data that belongs to me, and that’s what it came up with. When he first sent it to me, I was like, “who are these faces? Where’d you get these faces?” because it feels like you recognize people.

But he was like, “nah, that’s just the machine that did that with the data that belongs to you that I meshed with it.” So it’s actually a byproduct of the music. It’s a visualizer off the music. So in that one, we directed in the sense that we picked this location and said “let’s shoot here.” Moments like that I don’t feel like I need a director’s credit, even though it’s always like that. No one is doing it for me. Everything that is Gabe ‘Nandez, I have a hand in. I’m like the CEO of the company. It’s always collaborative, ’cause who’s gonna take care of your shit except for you?

I know you’ve talked about expanding into filmmaking in the past. What would you want to make?

Gabe ‘Nandez: I definitely want to make a film with underworld themes. Safdie Brothers type shit but not Safdie. What I’m trying to do has been done before, but I just want to tell stories of shit that I’ve been through. Kind of like “Transactions” but in film form with characters. I would basically like to play myself and have people play people that I knew, and just make a movie on how we used to get down. I’m excited to do that once people know who I am a bit more. Kind of like Em in 8 Mile.

I don’t need a blockbuster 8 Mile though, it could just be some cool indie shit, an internet film. I feel like it could help people too with drug addiction and stuff. When I was strung out on drugs and struggling to get sober, what helped me get sober was seeing people that used to be addicts that were sober because that shit was inconceivable to me. No exaggeration, I didn’t know what it looked like. Some shit like that, where it’s not beat you over the head preachy, it’s raw. Like I said, I like what the Safdie Brothers do a lot, Good Time is really sick. With time it will come together, and it will be super sick. I also want to do a documentary. I’m a journalism major, so I definitely want to use that degree to do shit too.

Going back to your recovery and “Transactions,” I know you described it as you taking an objective look at drug use, not painting it as good or bad. When I was watching the music video, especially towards the end of it, you had a lot of shots of you doing pushups shirtless and shit. I thought that was an awesome way of portraying the progress you’ve made in your recovery, like you used to have this debilitating addiction and now you’re doing f*cking clap pushups into a fisheye camera.

Gabe ‘Nandez: Straight up, you right! I didn’t think about it like that but that’s who I am now. And the shirt off thing too, I didn’t think about it like that but that strength, I’m speaking on it from a position of strength now, not being controlled by a substance. And yeah, working out is a HUGE part of what I need to do to be sane. All that energy that went into drugs, that dopamine release, I need to put it elsewhere. I was telling my homie earlier that it feels like I’m not even sober because of the way I abuse caffeine. Obviously I am sober, but yeah that’s some real shit. I would say even though it wasn’t meant like that, it’s accurate. It shows my transformation. You can google it. You can see how strung out I looked on “Scumbag.” It’s progression.

Do you think people seeing you as a recovered addict: sober, strong, doing pushups into this fisheye lens, do you think that could be inspirational for people who were in the position you were in?

Gabe ‘Nandez: 100%. I was so weak physically, emotionally and psychologically, and that manifested in the way I looked for sure. And that’s the thing about being a drug addict, all that energy you use, if it’s reapplied? Drug addicts have this opportunity to really be extraordinary people if the energy in their life is redistributed. If that imbalance gets balanced? Drug addicts know how to hustle! [laughs] The ultimate hustler is a f*cking junkie, so if you take the drugs out, it’s huge.

I was on some crazy shit, like I’d go to the gym on molly and shit. To me, it’s all holistic. The way you look, the way you feel, the way you think, it’s all connected. Same with the kids in my group. We had this counselor, shoutout to Jonathan, he was big, strong, sharp, kind, and wise. And that’s the thing, when you go through all this shit, if you get out you have all this wisdom you can share with other people. I see people strung out on the street and stuff, and sometimes I connect with people. They can tell that I understand, and sometimes I give them bread or whatever. It’s about helping people.

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