Rising Artists: Jamal Gray Brings Futuristic Sounds and Art To The District
Interview by Jordan Snowden
Jamal Gray doesn’t just create music that sounds timely, but feels ahead of its time. As a member of Nag Champa and CMPVTR CLVB, the D.C. native has used his ingenuity to bridge the gap between the city’s underground art and music scenes.
With Nag Champa, Gray along with a group of talented musicians create an otherworldly sound that can best be described as futuristic funk, blending house music with jazz, hip-hop, go-go and more elements that sounds like something from another universe. He also devotes his time to CMPVTR CLVB, a local DJ and media collective that transcends a traditional concert experience into a visual/sonic utopia, bringing together progressive artists with up-and-coming musicians.
As he continues to push the creative boundaries, Gray along with the rest of Nag Champa will bring that next-level experimentation to the Smithsonian American Art Museum this Thursday. Don’t just expect to see a show–it’s going to be more of a full-on multi-sensory experience, with movement specialist and performance artist Ra Nubi also joining the band for the museum’s last Luce Unplugged event of the year.
Before the show on Thursday, I spoke with Gray about his innovative contributions to the city’s arts scene and what his next moves are.
DC Music Download: Tell me about yourself.
Jamal Gray: Jamal Gray, born and raised in Washington D.C. The majority of that time was spent in the Kenilworth Park neighborhood of Northeast and the Kennedy Street/Brightwood area of Northwest.
DCMD: You studied psychology at Temple University prior to returning to D.C. What made you decide to get into the art/music scene?
JG: Both of my parents were deeply involved in D.C.’s art and music community. My father was a jazz producer and radio personality from the ‘70s through the late ‘90s. He worked at legendary jazz record labels like Blue Note, Flying Dutchman and Strata-East Records. My mother was deeply involved in the jazz and theater community as a curator, so they exposed me early on to all the culture that D.C. had to offer. Through them I was granted access to a world that most of my peers weren’t privy to, and that gave me a broader perspective.
Studying psychology was more about understanding people, most importantly understanding myself. I had been writing music and dabbling in audio production while at Temple, and started to experience the Philly art scene, which was really vibrant and thriving. I opened a small studio out of my house on the edges of the Mount Airy neighborhood in Philly, and just started producing and recording for a bunch of local hip-hop artists. That only lasted a couple years, and got stagnant quickly, as all my energy was going towards building other artists’ visions. I felt constricted.
Ultimately D.C. is my home, and that’s the lens I will always see from. I feel an undying need to represent my city on a grand scale, but through art not politics. In 2009 I decided to move back to D.C. and see what I could contribute to the burgeoning hip-hop scene. As soon as I came home I started helping my friend who was organizing a weekly open mic. Whatever was needed I did, whether it be DJ for the night, collect money at the door or pass out flyers. That helped me to get an idea of what the state of hip-hop music in the city was at that point. Later that year, I started throwing an event of my own called The Beat Clash, which was a showcase for local producers and rap artists. Since then, I’ve been active in cultivating a community of progressively-minded young artists and patrons in and around D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
DCMD: What is it like working on two projects at once (Nag Champa and CMPVTR CLVB)? Can you describe them in more detail?
JG: Working on both projects is challenging for sure. But for somebody like me with an overactive imagination, it helps me focus my energy better. Both projects are on completely different frequencies, meaning they pull from different creative aesthetics, and evoke different energies and emotions. The beauty of it is when both projects are able to complement each other and create opportunities for one another. Everywhere I go I’m carrying the banners for Nag Champa and CMPVTR CLVB.
Nag Champa is a project we’ve been working on for two years. It’s essentially a futuristic-funk fusion band, where the lead instrument is a laptop. Nag Champa is deeply rooted in jazz, soul, African rhythms, go-go and house music, so the emphasis is on feeling and movement. We want to make you think, but while you’re dancing. Consider me to be the creative director of Nag Champa. I produce the tracks that develop into the songs that Nag Champa performs. The core group consists of Allen Jones on drums, Miles Lewis on percussion, Elijah Easton on saxophone and keys, Kweku Lee on vocals, Andrew Flores on Rhodes keyboard and Jamel Zuniga on guitar, while I’m manipulating electronic sounds and samples. Nag Champa is probably the more challenging of the two because it’s much more personal. Some of these tracks have been sitting on my laptop since 2011, so the music reflects all of that growth and experience from then to now.
CMPVTR CLVB is a creative collective that’s evolving into a multimedia production company. It started out in 2014 as five friends that were performing and curating events together around D.C. and felt it was time to elevate and move as a concentrated unit. Now the team has grown to 10 of us, all producers, DJs, visual artists, graphic designers, IT professionals, musicians, you name it. All progressive minded, all playing an active role in shaping the future through art technology. Since joining forces as CMPVTR CLVB we’ve played shows up and down the East Coast including six shows in New York this year alone.
DCMD: Where did the names Nag Champa and CMPVTR CLVB come from?
JG: Nag Champa actually comes from a type of incense created by Eastern spiritual leader Sai Baba. It’s used a lot in meditation and spiritual practices. It’s my favorite scent, and is great to burn when you want to take time for reflection. It’s also the name of a song J Dilla produced for Common’s Like Water For Chocolate. The song “Nag Champa” and J Dilla’s production in general are one of the primary influences on the sound of the band.
CMPVTR CLVB, I can’t even pinpoint exactly who came up with that name. The original five members were Exaktly, Saint Clair Castro, Jamel Zuniga aka SexGod 1977, Txny Kill and myself. We’re all a part of this electronic music revolution, which some call the “bedroom producer” era, and are always locked in our smartphones and laptops. CMPVTR CLVB reflects where our generation currently is, and how intimately humans are tied to their devices. But we still want to make sure that the human element remains at the forefront as far as the art is concerned.
DCMD: You work as both a musician and an artist. Is there one you enjoy more?
JG: Creating music is much more enjoyable for me, because music is a communal experience. I’m definitely more in tune with the music aspect of things, but I don’t have a formal education in either, so the process has been strictly experimental with creating music and creating graphic art. Music is definitely a priority over the visual stuff I do, because it gives me more of a purpose. It’s me carrying on the traditions of my father, so it has a greater significance. I have been creating music since I was 10 years old. Writing raps was the first thing that gave me confidence and a true sense of identity. I don’t really even claim the title of visual artist. I was never a stand-out visual artist at any point in my life. But technology makes everything accessible. I started doing photo blends and collages on a bunch of iPhone apps, and incorporated images that reflected the energy and aesthetic of Nag Champa and CMPVTR CLVB. Really, I just wanted to learn so I could design something for a future project.
DCMD: What inspirations/influences have contributed to your musical sound and artist vision?
JG: Like most people I’m inspired by all the endless information that has been accessible to me. At home there was constantly jazz, funk and soul playing from my dad’s collection. He had over 10,000 records in his library. My older brother put me on to the ‘90s hip-hop, my mom was into everything from Chaka Khan to Yo-Yo Ma. Plus I was a TV kid so whatever was on MTV or BET back then was inspiring me. Even local D.C. radio was still good, up to about 2003. Eventually you grow, develop your own taste and start to filter out the stuff you don’t need. Hopefully.
Musically I’m inspired by eras more than particular artists. Music is like anthropology to me, because it can tell you a lot about what people were experiencing when a particular sound or genre was popular. Most of my work incorporates sampling, so it’s me reinterpreting or reconstructing someone else’s work through my own lens.
Artists that inspire where I am currently would be Sun Ra, Parliament-Funkadelic, Madlib, J Dilla, Giorgio Moroder, Horace Silver, The Neptunes/ N.E.R.D , Thelonious Monk, Toro Y Moi, A Tribe Called Quest, Radiohead and countless others.
Video from a recent show by Gray
DCMD: What is it like working with a multitude of creative people? How has it affected you personally?
JG: It’s awesome when the people you’re around are capable of challenging you and inspiring you. I definitely have that with both crews. You have to look at it like an ecosystem, and everyone plays an integral part of keeping this thing sustainable. There’s also this competitive energy present, cause we’re all trying to outdo the next and impress each other, so in this case it’s worked out. In any partnership you have to make sure you never lose your individual identity. It has definitely affected me personally, because I’m interlocking my destiny and purpose with that of nine other people, or five other people. It’s a real investment.
DCMD: Where do you see yourself going?
JG: I think D.C. can be culturally as significant as New York, L.A., London, Paris or any other city, but beyond the world of politics. I want to see D.C.’s artists share a global stage; playing my role now as an artist, curator and cultural ambassador.