Historically, Milwaukee has only had a small group of artists that have gone on to achieve national success, and an even smaller group has had the luxury of a stable career with continued audience interest. While this may in part be due to artists attempting to fit in with existing trends as opposed to establishing a style of their own, the last few years have seen Milwaukee’s rap and R&B artists step forward and deliver some of the city’s most interesting music. At the forefront of this is a collective of artists who perform under the moniker New Age Narcissism. Slowly but surely, New Age Narcissism is taking over.
The Riverwest-based group — who’s members include WebsterX, Lex Allen, Siren, Q the Sun, Lord Freddee, Jay Anderson, Bo Triplex, and Christopher Gilbert – came together as New Age Narcissism (NAN for short) earlier this year, adding members as the year progressed. Some had worked together previously while others saw kindred spirits in their peers. Regardless of the slight difference in age amongst its members, with ages ranging from early 20s to early 30s, what matters most is chemistry. The group are tight-knit, well-rehearsed unit with all members contributing to a singular vision.
“We like to refer to ourselves as a squad,” says Q The Sun.
“I like to use the analogy of a body,” says WebsterX. “Each of us has our own role, but the outcome is the result of us all working together.”
“Another word is certainly ‘family,’” says Christopher Gilbert. “I’ve never felt closer to anyone outside of my own family than I do with all of them.”
NAN’s music is rooted in hip-hop and harkens back to a time before the dominance of gangsta rap. The group’s unique approach recalls artists like Arrested Development and De La Soul, two acts who reinvented both the look and sound of hip-hop in the early 90s, while also drawing from an eclectic mix of music from the past two decades.
“We were playing in Chicago a while back and this guy said to me ‘So, what is this exactly? I thought this was hip hop but now I’m not sure,’” says Gilbert. “And that was the best thing he could have said to me. I’m glad that it’s hard to classify, because then we won’t be confined to being any one specific thing”.
“We’re influenced by so many things, which gives the music complexity,” adds Webster X. “A lot of acts draw from multiple influences, but I think we do it in a way that’s easy to digest.”
“Radiohead is the best example of a band that continues to grow by studying music and the art of making records,” says Q the Sun. “At the end of the day, we’re all music nerds and we’re always studying different methods of music making.”
NAN will be featured twice in this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival, with WebsterX’s “Doomsday” and Lex Allen’s “This is Our Year” videos being included as part of “The Milwaukee Music Video Show,” a new part of the festival’s “Cream City Cinema.”
“I honestly wasn’t expecting us to have anything in the film festival,” says Lex Allen. “It’s great to see something in there that you created with your family.”
“Those two do an incredible job of bringing our ideas to life,” says Q the Sun. “They’re a huge part of the visual aspect of the group.”
It’s not hard to see why the videos were chosen to be a part of the festival. They serve as reminders that the music video can be a true artistic medium and not merely a promotional tool. To NAN, recordings and videos can be both substantial as well as effective promotional tools, with that promotion leading to what members see as a the group’s key element: the live show.
“You have to see us to really get the full experience,” says Q the Sun. “It’s so crucial because it illustrates what we’re about, which is being comfortable with yourself and not conforming to what other people want you to be.”
The group aims put on an intensive live show that’s anything but predictable.
“We all thrive in a live setting,” says Siren. “We never want our audience to be able to predict what’s going to come next”.
“When we craft the setlist, I’ll intentionally put a slow ballad after something that’s really turnt up and energetic,” says Q the Sun. “We like having those highs and lows.”
Since their formation, NAN has been bringing their live show to virtually any stage that will have them. Mad Planet, Hotel Foster, Cocoon Room as well as countless outdoor summer festivals have all hosted the group. No matter how large the venue, though, the group insists on a performance that emphasizes audience interaction.
“I feel like some people try to make it this whole egotistical thing where it’s just about them performing while the audience just stands there, and then they tell them to throw their hands up or whatever,” says Lord Freddee. “The audience should feel the urge to raise their hands and join in without being told. The music should be out there for more than just you, you should do something that your audience can relate to.”
The recordings, videos and live shows have helped boost the group’s profile in Wisconsin and beyond. The group’s breakout performer has thusfar proven to be WebsterX, whose videos have received coverage from Complex and Entertainment Weekly. He recently signed with national booking agent Surefire, which boasts a diverse roster including noise music trio Wolf Eyes and ambient songstress Noveller. And there’s more to come from him in the months ahead.
“There are a lot of things happening right now that are helping us build this platform, so when the releases come out in the fall it’s gonna be crazy,” says WebsterX.
This fall will see the release of Lord Freddee’s Hexagrams of Encouragement and Lex Allen’s Cream and Sugar.
WebsterX’s individual success has been no fluke, and it serves as part of the group’s larger plan.
“We’re working on building WebsterX to reach that next level of popularity first,” says Q the Sun. “I can see all of us individually and NAN as a whole being in all of those same outlets once he gets to that level.”
Is their ultimate goal to attract the attention of major labels? Not exactly, and with a group as self-contained as NAN, the need for the assistance of a larger entity is dubious.
“As long as you stay organized and have clear communication with these different entities, you can be your own label, in a sense,” says Q the Sun. “Our biggest fear is being in the position of being told what to do by someone who has nothing to do with the group.”
There’s something very punk about NAN. Emphasizing self-sufficiency and an intense live show is certainly a departure from many of the attitudes of 2000’s mainstream hip-hop, with many artists making their onstage debut only after securing a record deal. There’s a certain fearlessness in the group’s approach and it seems the group has only begun its ascent.
“We had a really great summer where we headlined every festival that Milwaukee has to offer,” says Q the Sun. “Now we’re all in the studio working and getting ready to hit with a ton of releases.”
As observed earlier this year by Kevin Mueller, the group’s release schedule is indeed methodical, focusing on quality over quantity. Albums will come when the group feels ready to do so; as of now the group is focusing on developing its voice.
“We’re just trying to lead by example,” says Q the Sun. “The best example we can set is to be who we really are”
WebsterX’s “Doomsday” and Lex Allen’s “This is Our Year” will be screening as part of the 2015 Milwaukee Film Festival’s “Milwaukee Music Video Show”on Wednesday, Sept. 30, at the Oriental Theatre.