Ullnevano talks strategy, consistency, labels and the ever-changing face of music. In an age where streaming sales equate to success and CDs are no longer the norm, it is important to look back at just how much the music industry has transformed. Baltimore emcee shares the positives and downsides of these changes and reveals the origins behind the creative collective MGNTK…
What was the music scene like whilst growing up in Baltimore, Maryland? Which artists were you most drawn to whilst you were finding your feet in music?
I first moved to Baltimore eleven years ago. The music scene growing up in the city was very different to now. Back then, open mics were all over. There was also a lot of stiff competition in the rap battle circuit too (via Pitt Fights, Speaker Boxin). There was so much hip-hop coming in and out of the city. Today, we have more open mics that are catered to the beat culture (e.g. Baltimore Beat Club and Boom Sap Society). I was always drawn to the emcees that focused mainly on lyricism, which came as soon as I figured out my lane and what type of music I wanted to make. I stress that a lot. That is the only formula I follow. I’m drawn to Big L, Elzhi, Blu, Phonte, Roc Marciano, MF DOOM…etc.
Nice! “The name UllNevaNo is what the listener or whoever approaches my music – what they feel it is”. You said this in a past interview in 2013, when asked about the meaning of your name. Does this definition still stand now?
Yes, the definition still stands to this day! I want my name to be a mystery to listeners. Lately, I’ve been compared to GZA, Curren$y and Chuck Strangers lol.
You’ve been quite consistent with music releases, working alongside Norfolk, Virgina producer MANHE on some ‘raw hip-hop bangers’. When did you start working together and how would you describe the collaboration?
MANHE, that’s my bro! I met him through Logic Marselis, we were constantly recording in Norfolk, Virginia. We decided to do an official campaign, that’s why we were so consistent at dropping joints and keeping it a secret. Then, surprising people with the album and with the way music is moving now people will forget about you within a week. So, it’s good to keep people on their toes and guessing.
Organic connections and spontaneity, I like that! If you had to pick a favourite of the songs you have released together, which would it be and why?
We started working on it November last year. As time went by, MGNTK and MANHE developed this plan. How we were going to release the record. I believe it was well executed. I would describe the record as ‘classic boom bap sounding’. It was also a lot about me starting to find my sound in this new wave of boom bap music. It’s very in your face and raw.
Check Me Out, Fight Klub Pool Table and Time Wasted are my favourite songs from our SHAMMGOD project. Each of those records has a personal story. Check me Out was very fun to write, I wrote that record in two days. We shot the music video in Harlem at Rucker Park. I had a vision and that’s where I wanted to shoot the record, as soon as it was recorded. Fight Klub Pool Table received a lot of love on Shade 45 rap, it’s out of control. That was the song DJ Eclipse started spinning on his radio show. Time wasted was very personal and I wrote it so quick. In 20 minutes there were things I had to get out of my system, as far as being a local rapper at the age of thirty dealing with relationship issues.
So, would you say that consistency is something that is important to you and your brand? Can a musician ever be ‘too consistent’ or do the pros always outweigh the cons?
Consistency is definitely important when it boils down to releasing music. I also believe it is all about how you go about releasing music and making your brand stand out, as far as your roll out is concerned. If your music is good, then I don’t see why not to constantly drop content. This just gives eager listeners that support you what they want. Though, I think you need to be aware of what you release. You want the listener to digest whatever you’re putting out. I mean, that can sometimes work against you, because you don’t want people to become overwhelmed and tune out of your music. That is a downside of dropping way too much content. There are pros and cons when releasing music in this day and age.
Definitely. Let’s talk a bit about the ever-changing landscape of the music industry. There are now many profitable outlets and platforms to release music. We’ve seen the transition from cassette tapes, CD’s to independent labels and multiple streaming services. What’s your take on this? Do you think the music industry is experiencing a positive change? Are these new avenues ensuring maximum support for both underground and popular musicians?
In the beginning, I didn’t understand how streaming works. It is insane how quickly artists are going platinum. The industry has figured out a way to grant artists success when it comes to streaming. What I’m noticing both underground and mainstream is that an artist will release an album on all streaming platforms, as well as physical formats (such as CDs or vinyl even). This gives the consumer an open playing field. They get to decide how they want to consume the music. There are still some purists around that only listen to music on vinyl. I think having those formats available is convenient and important. I believe the music industry is experiencing a positive shift. It seems like lately streaming is involving customized playlists more and more, from listeners who enjoy listening to particular genres. I think that it is giving both underground and popular artists the maximum support and ensuring that they can eat off of releasing music.
Interesting. I think a lot of artists are profiting from customized playlists on SoundCloud and Spotify. Especially, if it is run by individuals who are respected for their music tastes or simply has a largely following. Not even just people, but organisations or various publications are using playlists to put people onto artists and in turn themselves. I do think more could be done by major music platforms like Spotify to publicise underground talent. That’s a topic for another interview. So, MGNTK. Tell us a bit about this collective? When did it all begin?
It started during the Myspace era, when we were still trying to figure things out. We were an in-house creative collective.
You’ve worked quite closely with MANHE, you’ve also rapped over some of Ohbliv’s work. So, let’s put it out there! Which producers would you like to work with that you haven’t already?
I would like to work with Ohbliv, Big Ghost, Jr Swift, Tuamie and Dibia$e.
What about rapping and making music keeps you motivated? Where does your passion come from?
I just enjoy the art form. It keeps me safe. Once I’m locked in, I literally forget everything and just focus on getting the project done. My passion comes from listening to other emcees. Honestly, they keep me motivated whether they’re a local or household name. They keep me on my toes and on point.
I’ve been looking at a lot of labels lately, studying strategy, unity, sound and much more. Which hip-hop labels stand out to you the most and if you had the chance, would like to work more closely with?
Stones Throw Records is a label I always wanted to get signed to. From the outside looking in, I just feel like that label would allow you to have creative freedom and is just about the music. Def Jam. I mean c’mon its Def Jam! It has a great machine and way of pushing artists. TDE stands out to me the most, because they remind me of MGNTK. It’s just hands on with everything, from mixing to visuals. I mean, their work ethic is insane. I would definitely like to work closely with TDE just to be a fly on a wall and grasp jewels.
I remember telling a friend that Stones Throw Records was founded in the year we were born. Even Def Jam was founded in the mid-1980s. These labels have mastered the art of longevity in their own way. This and creative freedom are some factors that I think makes Stones Throw Records so successful. It would be a mistake to even categorise the music that comes out of this independent label, as a purely hip-hop. It definitely goes beyond that.
Then, like you said there’s TDE and the talent that comes of that label is crazy. I mean, Kendrick securing the Black Panther album and practically bringing the whole TDE family in on the prize screams ‘unity’. That’s one thing you definitely can’t put past TDE. They put each other on. You don’t find that type of ‘togetherness’ just anywhere or simply these types of values. So, TDE – that’s a great choice. Aside from making music, what do you like to do in your spare time?
I’m always reading up on the latest streetwear and sneaker fashion. I try cop anything that is fire. I play basketball, but I need LA Fitness to drop that membership price though. If I’m not making music I’m at work – a regular 9 to 5.
Word. Membership price is a pain when you’re not a student anymore. I’m not ready for this life. This is usually the part of the interview where I ask what you think the future holds for you. Let’s switch things up a bit! How do you plan to give back to your community through music and is spreading positivity an important part of making music for you?
Well with MGNTK we do beat/emcee showcases in Baltimore, where we connect artists from VA to Baltimore. That’s how I feel we are giving back, because there is so much talent here. We need to help each other out; whether it’s trading shows from time to time. It is all about making those connections. Spreading positivity through music is very important, that is the beauty of making music. Everybody has a different ear, some will love your music and some may not. However, if my music reaches one person and they are digging it… then I guess I’ve done my job!