[Interview] Frank Nitt — The View from the Underground

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[Interview] Frank Nitt — The View from the Underground

Frank Nitt, one half of Detroit hip hop duo Frank n Dank, has seen a lot in his 13+ years in the music industry. Even so, his compelling story begins years before that; starting with growing up in Detroit among greats like T3 and Baatin of Slum Village, and producer phenom, J. Dilla. Aimed at giving fans a deeper look into the man behind the music, Frank has released a memoir entitled The View from the Underground: A Memoir of my Journey in Music, and has paired it with an autobiographical album called Stadium Music. I caught up with Frank to talk about his book, his album, his experience growing up with J. Dilla, and…porn. Peep the conversation below:

When [Frank n Dank] first came out, you got a LOT of airplay in Toronto, to the point where I thought you guys were Canadian…

FN: You know, a lot people thought that! We were in Canada real active[ly], because we [signed] a record deal with a Canadian label, Needleworks Entertainment. (Shout out to the people over there at Needleworks!). We recorded the album [in Canada], we shot all the videos there. That was kinda our center; basically our launch pad. We were in Toronto, in the streets, in the club. We were around. I mean, you could basically say we were living there. Obviously we’re not Canadian…we’re Detroit cats. But we were heavy in Toronto. So, I could see that.

…what made you tap into that Canadian market, or how important was Toronto to your growth as a group?

FN: Oh man! Toronto was big [for] us as a group and [for me] as an artist. Like you said, we got a lot of airplay there. Actually, I’d say right across the country they showed us a lot of love on radio, video, tv and everything. We were able to do a lot of things that, as an underground group we wouldn’t necessarily do here in America or anywhere else. Top 10 records on the charts; hosting MTV and Much Music…as an underground group! [Canada] opened us up to a lot of different things. The most expensive video I ever shot was in Toronto! We had Lamborghinis and Hummers and all types of craziness! [Canada] just gave us a whole other vision of music. It took us to the next level. It opened us up to work with a lot of great artists: Kardinal, Saukrates; a lot of great Canadian acts…aw man, Canada was great. Canada is basically home number 2 for me! Especially Toronto, because that’s where we were for most of that trip.

Reading your memoir, I see that you started out as a dancer. What made you make that transition into an emcee?

FN: It was actually a series of events. As a dancer, we did that for a while, as a crew. Me, Dilla, Dank; and a few of the homeboys. And I went from dancing to DJing. One day after school, Dilla actually showed me how transform on a really old, big, wooden entertainment system. [It] had the record player, the radio, and the tape deck all in one crazy box. [Dilla] showed me how to transform on there and I started DJing. Me and [Dilla] would do parties. We had contracts with a couple schools in Detroit and we would go and DJ at middle schools (this was when we were in high school). That kinda got me away from dancing.

Then, I remember the day: we were sitting in the lunch room in high school. I was with members of Slum; Baatin and T3. Wajeed was there, and Que D was there as well. Everybody was rapping. We would beat on the tables to make the beat, and the emcees of the crew would rap; basically, Baatin and T3. One day, T3 just off the cuff was like: “Frank, man! You should write a verse to this song we’ve got called ‘Drop the Drum’!” They did their verses. I went home and wrote my little verse; practiced and got it ready. I went back to school and at lunch, dropped my little verse. I don’t remember what I wrote or any of that. I just think at that moment it kinda clicked with me. DJing kinda faded really fast..I wanted to be an emcee. I got the bug! It was T3, Baatin and the crew kinda saying “just do it, man. Just to it!”. That’s where the transformation kinda came from.

Talk to us a little bit more about your relationship with J. Dilla.

FN: Aww man. Well, it started in 1986…that’s when we met the first time. We all basically went to the same middle school together and it kinda blossomed from there. That was before he was making beats or any of that.

He obviously had a love for music: his family was very much in the church choir, and he had to sing and all these different things. Music was always there, but [music] as his trade? [We met] before any of that.

We were friends, and we hung out. Once we all discovered that we were all dancers, and really loved the music thing, that kinda bonded us closer. At that time, it wasn’t the “in” thing to be a rapper, or to want to be part of the hip hop thing. If you wanted to be a singer, you got a little more leeway, but an emcee, or a DJ, or a dancer, wasn’t cool. So we had to support each other.

As an artist, Dilla was always kinda leaps and bounds ahead of everybody. He led the way for us as far as the music thing. Again, he showed me how to DJ. I was cool with Slum Village because he was cool with Slum Village. I met them when [they met Dilla] and decided to start working together. A lot of these things wouldn’t have happened without me knowing him. He was the connection to a lot of steps that moved me forward musically, you know?

Right. I hear that from a lot of Detroit artists. Dilla and Proof [were] kind of a bridge between all of the underground artists in the city…

FN: Oh yeah! Them being praised by other people and having a certain level of skills as artists kind of set them apart. Then [they] were able to allow everybody to kinda mix and mingle, you know? Proof being [an employee of] the Hip Hop Shop and organizing open mics, and DJs, and having acts coming through…as hip hop kids, we didn’t have anything that was an outlet like that [until then]. Detroit wasn’t, and still isn’t a “hip hop city”. Don’t get me wrong: we have hip hop venues and places you can go to hear hip hop…but Detroit is known for techno music. So we really had to support each other, and Proof was really big on having those outlets: different venues, and open mic nights; live performances and actually having other known artists come and mix and mingle with these kids in Detroit just trying to do hip hop… before we had any major hip hop act. This is pre-Eminem, pre-Proof (other than him being known as a battle emcee). Proof really provided a place for [hip hop] because he mixed and mingled with everyone.

You made an appearance on J. Dilla’s posthumous album “The Rebirth of Detroit”, with Illa J. It seems like [on the album] there’s a mixture of [artists] who were really close to Dilla and there’s also artists who were newer and not really influenced by him. What are your thoughts on the album as a whole?

FN: That’s kind of a touchy situation for me, personally. Again, I knew Dilla for more than 20 years of my life. Everything is really, really, personal. It’s kind of hard to be objective about certain things.

If I had it my way, would I have maybe had different artists on there? Probably so. Just because I have a more personal attachment to it, and then as well, I have knowledge of who [Dilla] messed with. I was there for those sessions, and I was there when he was working on other people’s records. Four years before I had a record deal, all I did everyday was get up and get in Dilla’s truck, and do whatever he had to do. Studio, traveling, shopping, strip club…whatever! This was before Frank n Dank put their first record out. So…I feel like I know who he really messed with.

BUT…at the end of the day, this is his mother and his label now, putting this record out and if anybody has the right to do what they see fit, it’s her. So, on the flip side, I have the utmost respect for [Mrs. Yancey] and what she did and I salute her. She had to do what she had to do. If she felt as though she wanted to give some new cats from the D some shine on a project that a lot of people would look at because it’s Dilla, then that’s what she had to do! It’s not my decision to make. My job is to do what I needed to do. My verse is there…I contributed my piece, and that’s what I need to be focused on. The rest of it is on her, because at the end of the day, without her, there’s no Dilla! So, just respect what she did and move on. Everybody has an opinion. Everybody can feel however [they] want to feel; that’s their right. But I think you gotta kinda let her do what she did.

Let’s switch gears and talk about your book, The View from the Underground: My Journey in Music. How did you end up collaborating with [adult film star] Tara Lynn Foxx for your book?

FN: *laughs*

Ah, great question! That’s my girl, man! I know people see the persona on TV and movies and draw judgements, but she’s just a really smart, really good girl. I’ve known her for a few years. We met a while ago and built a relationship based on two people just meeting and being cool. When I had the idea [for] the book, I didn’t sit down and write this book. I did it like a song: I got in the booth and really just spoke my mind on the microphone. Then she took all of that, which was me just running my mouth, and transcribed it all. Then we had to sit down and kind of edit it. Then she had to go back and put it all together with the edits I wanted to make, as well as her input on writing style and things of that nature. She kind of knew how to do that. I don’t know what she did, but somehow this girl figured out how to condense it into what I needed it to be, so I could then form it into a book.

I’m very much an organic type of dude. Nothing’s…”pre-thought”. Things happen and [I] deal with them as they go. Same thing with her, you know? It was very organic…we were just friends; despite what she [does] or what I do. We were able to kick it and talk. She was able to make me talk about certain stories because I was sitting there with my friend, understand? It was me and my friend kicking it. When I was recording, she would sit there. She had heard stories, and she knew things, so she helped me kind of bring it out. And it just so happened that, you know, *chuckles*, she’s an award-winning adult [film] actress…so I guess that’s icing on the cake!

The book comes along with an album called Stadium Music. What can fans expect from the book and also from the album?

FN: I tell people they should read the book and then listen to the album. Everybody kinda knows me from my collabs with Dilla and other artists [like] Madlib and Terrace Martin. They know me for a certain sound. But, all of that is a culmination of all of the music I’ve seen in my life. Early on, before I was making music with Dilla I was still a dancing kid! My brothers had live bands and my cousin was part of an African percussion [group]. I have a lot of influences in my life, musically. Obviously, Dilla plays a huge role in that, because as far as hip hop goes, everything I learned early on was from him. It was from me and him being in the studio, and me watching him make beats and chop up samples. Going record shopping with him and looking at the records he bought and the things that he looked for. (Even though I hated going record shopping with him because it would take forever)! Even though I wasn’t a beat maker and had no desire to make beats (because, you know…I’m riding with Dilla! What [do] I need to make beats for?). Like I said…he’s responsible for the way I approach music and the way I make music…a lot of that is him. He had a lot of the same influences that I did. We both were avid Prince fans and listened to Michael Jackson. A lot of those influences are on Stadium Music.

[The] album is not sample driven. There’s guitars and horns and all types of craziness in there. That’s based on where I come from.

I think if you read the book, you get an understanding of the mix of music that I’ve been infused with. And then you listen to Stadium Music and you can hear all the influence.

It’s like a soundtrack to the book.

FN: Yeah! That’s what it ended up being…even though I kinda started on the album first. I then took a break and recorded the book, and then I finished the album. When I went back to finish the album, I scrapped maybe about 7 songs that I had recorded already. They were cool, but it just wasn’t the right vibe.

I [also] did 95% of the production on the record. My guy in California played keys on the two of the tracks on there. Everything else was me with my MPC and my computer, making it happen. I let it all out.

You’ve been in this game for a minute. You’ve been a dancer, a DJ, you’ve been in a group, you’ve been a solo artist, now you have your book. What is the key to longevity in a hip hop career?

FN: Oh, man! First you’ve got to have a serious love for the music, because that’s gonna get you through all of [the hardships that] come with it. It’s not easy by any stretch…you have up and down times…it’s not always lights, camera, action!

You gotta pay attention. Even though I’m making a certain type of music, [I] also pay attention to what the younger generation is doing; what my peers are doing; what [artists] on a larger level as far as sales and notoriety are doing. Continue to expose [yourself] to more people and different markets. [Don’t be] afraid to get out of your comfort zone and do something else, because you never know what’s gonna come of it.

This album is that, because it has all types of different sounds and music on it, so it can attract a bunch of different listeners. That’s what I’m trying to create. Create the sounds that will fill that stadium.

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Check out the video for “Spotlite”, a song from Frank Nitt’s new album, Stadium Music, below. You can buy Frank Nitt’s new album and book on Amazon.

A. Harmony (Twitter: @AHarmonyMusic)

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