While rappers running out of things to say are still telling anyone who’ll listen that “hip-hop is dead,” Giant Panda’s busy bringing living proof to the fact that nothing could be further than the truth. As part of a new revival of socially-conscious rhymes that don’t have anything to do with guns, bitches and bling, Giant Panda (Alex Newman, Jamaan “Maanumental” McLaren and Chikara “Chicaramanga” Kurahashi) sets a bold example for others to follow in the world of hip-hop, through total commitment to vibe and flow- not some masturbatory self-promotional rhyme laid over an uptempo club beat.
After moving from Seattle to California to go to school, Newman befriended Chikaramanga and Superbrush 427, both of which shared a fondness for comic books and hip-hop. Newman’s childhood friend Maanumental was hard at work laying tracks with his brother Sir Kado at the time, and the two groups eventually joined forces to become Giant Panda.
After releasing their instant-classic debut Fly School Reunion in 2005, Kado and Superbrush moved on to other projects, thinning the group to the trio it is today. The album was adored by critics and fans alike, emboldening Giant Panda to step up their sample-heavy sound even further for their tremendous sophomore album, Electric Laser, released in May. Despite splitting down to three members, Electric Laser is evidence that the flow has been anything but compromised; the group’s ability to feed off one another has only been honed over time.
We caught up with Newman recently to discuss the new album, how he became an MC, and why you shouldn’t be afraid to write bad songs.
Antiquiet: Your myspace bio reads that Giant Panda is still a symbol of remembering traditions without forgetting progression- expand on that?
Newman: We’re still sample-based. That’s one way that we uphold tradition, and I think it’s important to try and reach out and be unique. I think that’s one of the traditional elements of hip-hop that’s been totally lost. It used to be that if you sounded even remotely similar to somebody else, people would kinda look at you funny. But today, with the access of music that’s available, there’s so many exciting things that can be done with the technology. But the history of it all can get lost in the process, and we’re just trying to uphold tradition while taking it to a level that will keep it around for another twenty, forty years.
Antiquiet: How did you find your voice as an MC?
Newman: It took a lot of bad songs… (laughs) Nah, musically, I feel like I was born to make rhythms, but finding my voice as an MC definitely took a lot longer. I definitely owe a lot to Maanumental and Chickara and Maanumental’s brother Kato for helping me progress. I think a lot of it also was just writing a lot of songs and being like ‘well that sucks, I don’t wanna do that again.’
Antiquiet: Who are some of the artists you came up on?
Newman: Definitely A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, De La, EMPD… man, so many. But those are the ones I’ve stuck with from day one and are still with me today. Ice Cube was a big influence on me. The musical styles of NWA and Public Enemy all had a huge impact on me and the way I approach music in general.
Antiquiet: Was there a turning point or pivotal moment that made you decide to become a musician?
Newman: I would say, in a strange way, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien. And I say that because I got a chance to hang out with him once when I was in college. He was just real cool. I got to hang out with him for, like, hours on end. And when I left there, I went to a party that was still goin on. I walked into the party and a friend of mine just handed me a mic, and I just started rapping. I just rapped for like an hour straight.
The combination of meeting Del and having the experience of performing right after that… I just remember going over to my girlfriend’s house at the time and tellin’ her ‘fuck it, I’m gonna be a rapper.’ She just looked at me like I was crazy.
Antiquiet: How do you feel about the state of the industry, being in the position you’re in? I wouldn’t have heard your album without downloading it.
Newman: (laughs) Well, it brought us here, didn’t it? I mean, if you look at the big picture, things have needed to change from the very beginning. Things just got off on the wrong foot for the record industry. It seems like it’s starting to try to correct itself, but nobody really knows exactly what that’s going to look like. And there’s so many people involved that are just looking to make money. But if you look at the change that’s happening, if you look at some of the bigger musicians trying out new things and doing really well with it, it’s inspiring.
Antiquiet: They’re doing it by themselves, without ten glad-handing middlemen siphoning profits and diluting the message.
Antiquiet: Artists and labels can’t hide behind one track and trick kids into buying their shit anymore. I remember getting amped about a group when I was a kid, hearing one song on the radio, and the only way to hear more was to go drop 18, 19 bucks on a record. More often than not, it was a waste of money, and you just felt tricked and fucked by the industry. But people are catching on to this ‘take the power back’ approach.
Newman: I think it’s fantastic. But the next step needs to be taken, where somebody like Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails can take that platform they’ve developed and use it to point their fans in the direction of other artists who don’t have that kind of access or built-in base. That seems like a logical progression for this new medium.
I know this band from Seattle called Thee Emergency, this garage rock type group that just rips it, man. If someone like Radiohead were into them, they could host their album on their server and give it away, and all of a sudden Thee Emergency has millions of new ears, just based on the good faith of the bands they’re into.
Antiquiet: That creates a whole new element of interaction between artist and fan, because bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have a devoted core that would love to know what their favorite bands are into. But if the band starts getting sponsored recommendations, the entire idea folds in on itself. It would have to be based on trust. That would create a whole new kind of relationship between the source and the listener.
Newman: Yeah, man. That’s fucking brilliant. It seems that for this whole new independence movement to work it’s gonna take groups like that using their power and influence to help other groups.
Antiquiet: Good music will sell itself, but a fire’s gotta start somewhere.
Antiquiet: Hip-hop seems to be the one place in music nowadays where people can truly speak their mind and write a protest song of sorts without being called unpatriotic. How do you feel about the protest song in the land of Bush Americana?
Newman: It’s pretty scary. I feel like there’s a lot of music coming out these days that’s getting more mass attention. It’s definitely reflective of this fucked up weird situation we’re living in right now, thanks to eight years of Dubya.
Antiquiet: It’s almost over…
Newman: Yeah, it’s almost over, and I feel that the sense that it’s almost over, as well as the anger over the developments and deteriorations of our nation and the world on a whole has produced some great music. A lot of it has been able to rise to the top, but we’re living in tragic times right now, and we need some change. The way that things are going in Iraq, and with the gas prices, the shit has infiltrated every household. People are aware that shit is fucked up.
Antiquiet: What inspires you to write?
Newman: Friends of mine who make music, really. I know some people who get jealous or feel threatened when their friends make music, but I never feel that way. If I hear music that a friend of mine has made that’s good, it’s the best feeling on Earth. It makes me wanna go create so I can have something to share with them. It’s always energizing for me to hear something great that somebody that I know has done.
Antiquiet: Electric Laser was recorded entirely on analog, right?
Newman: Yeah, we recorded on 2″ tape at this studio in Portland that our friend runs called Old Standard Sounds. It was a treat, man. There were moments when the tape machine got a little haywire for a minute, and you have to wonder ‘wow, is this really worth it?’ (laughs) But in the end, I really love the way it sounds and I feel like it has a warmth that doesn’t exist on other records. Using machines with tubes and lights and all kinds of wild shit was really kind of fun. I love the imperfection of it all.
Antiquiet: I saw you guys toured with People Under The Stairs, Ugly Duckling and such. Have you learned anything from the bands you’ve been on the road with?
Newman: We’ve learned an infinite amount of things from People Under The Stairs. They’ve just been so generous with their time and their resources and their knowledge. I’d say what I learned most from them was to have fun and just stay free as much as possible in the music, whether writing or performing.
Antiquiet: What’s the rest of the year looking like for you? Any new material in the works?
Newman: I’ve got an album coming out in October with our friend Shawn Jackson. It’s called New Jack Hustle, and we’re really looking forward to that. So between keeping on promoting Electric Laser and promoting the New Jack Hustle album.
Antiquiet: Anybody you’re listening to now that people should know about?
Newman: Blu. He’s got a few things out right now that are really good. There’s a guy out named Ta-Raath, and they have an album out called Crac. I love it. To me, it’s just the most punk rock, fuck-your-expectations album ever made. Crown City’s supertight, can’t go wrong with them, and Time Machine’s hot too. Also check out Shawn Jackson’s new album First Of All– shit is sick. [We did, and it is.]
Antiquiet: What do you say to a kid trying to put a rhyme together or write a song but doesn’t know how?
Newman: There’s a million ways to express yourself, and there’s a world of possibilities out there. If the music doesn’t come naturally, don’t force it. Find something else that inspires you and allows you to express yourself without going through hell. But if you’ve got it in you, stick to what you do and stay true. Don’t follow anything but your heart.
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