Wiki and Navy Blue chat creating ‘Half God’, creative communities, critics, and being defined as underground
New York city is the mecca of rap music. The genre began in the Bronx, where MCs would host parties and rap over the breaks in disco and funk records. The genre rose and blossomed out of the post-industrial era of the South Bronx, as a form of expression for disenfranchised youth to enter political and public discourse. By the late 70s, the underground genre became mainstream, and spread across the world as one of the most revolutionary art forms in history. Despite the rapid growth, commercialisation, changes in sonic territories and expansion of the genre, its fundamental core still remains true in so many communities. The essence of New York, its landscape, its people, its culture, its community have a significant place in mainstream culture, while also acting as the hot bed for a new, generation of golden era inspired, rap music. No artist personifies this more, than the cities very own, Wiki.
Wiki has been a fixture of New York rap since the age of 17 years old, where he broke through with his boundary defining internet famous group, RATKING, whose aggressive and distinct sound showcased the energy of a new generation of creatives in the city. Their debut single, ‘Canal’ was named after the iconic, bustling Chinatown street. Since then, he’s established an unfiltered discography of mature and conscious rap material. After years of studying, learning and establishing his position in the global force that we know as hip-hop, he’s provided listeners with his strongest, most personal and creative album to date, ‘Half God’.
With ‘Half God’ Wiki pulls from some of underground raps most acclaimed names. None more so than Navy Blue, who produces the album from front to back. Navy Blue (Sage Elsesser) is a rapper, producer, skateboarder, visual artist from Brooklyn New York. First seen on the scene alongside Earl Sweatshirt with Odd Future, Elsesser has become known for his modelling work for the likes of Converse and Supreme, and handling the art direction or Earl Sweatshirt’s album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside in 2015. Amongst all his achievements, Navy Blue has become mainstay in New Yorks creative scene, acting as a centrepiece to the cities most famous creative outputs. On the musical front, he founded independent record label Freedom Sounds, and released a trio of introspective studio records.
Hence, Wiki and Navy Blue’s connection makes for a match made in heaven. Together, they capture the raw essence of life in New York over the past 18 months. Wiki examines the gruelling nature of his city, his coloured journey to success, and utilising his second chances through the realities of his comfortable present. The result is a homecoming for Wiki, both in him tackling his personal connection to the city he grew up in, but also an artistic revolution and reinvigoration.
To dissect ‘Half God’ we chat to Wiki and Navy Blue about the birth what we came to know as the album, how creative communities and and friendship inspired the record, the effect of critics on motivation, and unpacking the idea of being considered underground.
Parry: How are you both?
Wiki: Pretty good, just chilling. Everything’s good, seasons are changing.
Navy Blue: I’m good too. Too blessed to be stressed.
Parry: You two have known each other for a little while now. How was this project born? How did you develop trust in the creative process?
Wiki: For me, we’ve been meaning to work for a while. We made one track, and it was really sick. I did a feature for him too and it went really well. From there I kept sending him stuff back. Then we realised, oh wait can this become a project. It was really organic and it just turned into what it is. I knew it would become an album really early on. Once we finished ‘Roof’ and then we had ‘Remarkably’, ‘Never Fall Off’, and I knew it was going to be a a joint.
Navy Blue: How long ago did we meet?
Wiki: I don’t even know, I feel like we met mad long ago.
Navy Blue: Would’ve been like 8 or 9 years ago.
Wiki: That’s the thing. We were in the city. It’s like going to school in the city. They know someone who knows someone. We knew each other in passing, and we developed a friendship over time. We then reconnected with Earl. Over time it became a closer friendship and started working organically. To me, it made so much sense, based on the relationship, and based off the type of music I was making. He was helping get stuff out of me. It made sense, that’s the thing. We just did it.
Navy Blue: I’ve been listening to Wiki for a long time, before we were really acquainted. Rat King was my shit. Once the Rat King died out, I had no idea what would happen. My first introduction to you musically was this 8 Ball Freestyle. So I was always a fan. Me and Earl used to talk about you a lot. Don’t take it the wrong way, but you were working in this overly thought out process with XL Records.
Wiki: With Rat King, I was just a good front man for that rapping. I didn’t have much of a say of the creative direction of the sound of those projects, which was fine. I was always the type that didn’t want to mess with the vibe, I just wanted to rap on stuff. That’s all cool and fun, but with this process, it felt way more concise and focussed. I felt this weight come off my shoulders.
Navy Blue: This is Wiki
Wiki: Finally felt like I was on another level. It’s a whole other level. That’s why I’m hyped.
Navy Blue: I didn’t really even acknowledge that the project was happening until it was really you.
Wiki: Once the project became real, I just kept sending stuff back and forth. We met up to do a couple of records, like ‘Wik The God’. I’m so glad we did that together in real life because I would’ve taken a hundred takes of that shit. It wouldn’t have sounded the same. It was a dope process. It was quick and easy. Not that I wasn’t putting everything into it, but it was natural. It wasn’t this super deep or heavy concept, we were really free flowing about it. That made me have more trust in Navy Blue. Anything we both weren’t fucking with we scrapped. People can be precious with their art, but it can become a whole thing.
Navy Blue: We went well off topic. (laughs).
Parry: It’s becoming such a common trope on your side of rap music. Fire rapper, gun producer. Wiki you’ve done it a couple of times, look at what Madlib has done, look at what The Alchemist is doing now. The album with Akai Solo. You name it. How do you reflect on this current appreciation for beatmakers in rap? Do producers get enough credit?
Navy Blue: Ultimately, people probably don’t get the credit they deserve. I don’t think The Alchemist is even in that context. He is in the top five.
Wiki: At the same time, he is at the forefront of that. There’s so much respect for him, so he is changing a lot. He is a legend though so he is separate with his own legacy.
Navy Blue: Earl Sweatshirt and Alchemist were the first people that I was playing the music we made to. He was encouraging me to be more involved.
Wiki: All the times we had chances to meet up and work on it, it was so special.
Navy Blue: Even at the listening events, people were telling me that I killed it. To me they’re just beats. I’m still grateful that I could play a part in it, but I’m such a big fan that I wasn’t making it mine. It’s not as romantic as people make it out to be.
Wiki: When you get too deep into that, that’s when you get too scientific with it.
Navy Blue: Producers definitely deserve credit. I understand my role and part in bringing the project to fruiting. At the same time I just laid out the groundwork, and songs aren’t songs until Wiki laid the bars on it. Another thing about me, that might sound funny, but maybe because I am generally humble. I’ve become accustomed to certain success.
Wiki: It’s good to not have your head in that space.
Navy Blue: I don’t want to feel satisfied. For our stuff, I was just grateful I could help out. I feel like we’ve all been wanting a record like this from you, so even if it is your record, I remove myself like I’m just listening as a fan.
Wiki: I also like that some of the beats weren’t even made specifically for me. That I could hear what I wanted from the beats and it brought a unique feeling out of me. It’s on some fate shit.
Navy Blue: I don’t want to speak for you in this regard, but I’m a rapper and a producer too. When I make beats I rap on, I’m already creating the atmosphere for what I’m going to say. I like when a producer sends a beat, and the name of the beat is what you end up writing to. When I rap on other peoples beats I can give more of myself. It was nice to give 100% to making the beats knowing you’d give them everything.
Wiki: The trust thing is massive in that process. I feel like you’re a critical person, that you know what you like. It gave me confidence.
Navy Blue: Like with the intro, ‘Not Today’. I said that had to be the intro.
Wiki: And what I wrote was from the perspective of it being the intro. This got to be the first joint.
Parry: One thing I love about this record, that makes it stand out to me, is it’s simple. It’s simple to follow, everything is put to good use from the bars to the beats, most of the tracks are just bars. How much do you think the simplicity in the creative process helped in creating the end product?
Wiki: It goes back to not overthinking. Ignoring structure was important. Going with the feeling was everything. The writing was speaking for itself. As long as it sounds good, it’s good. Like on ‘Remarkably’, hearing people in the background made it feel so much better. Even me messing up the hook, made it feel so much better. Stuff like that made the joint. There wasn’t much redoing, just a lot of doing. Also, Navy Blue brought it out of me too because I was confident in our ideas with restraining me getting too complex with it.
Parry: On my early listens, Can’t Do This Alone sticks out so heavy. Even just the title. ‘Can’t Do This Alone’ is so prevalent in the song’s meaning, but also how your collaboration brings out the best out of the both of you. Could you have done this alone without your respective communities? How does that reflect in ‘Half God’?
Wiki: For me it’s everything. Whenever I lose track of myself I go back to the block or neighbourhood. Regular shit is important. Whether it’s your close friends, or its just simple connections. That stuff is mad important, it’s all that matters at the end of the day.
Navy Blue: That reminds me, one studio session we took a break to eat, and when we came back I played out a beat. I played the track and instantaneously we started writing.
Wiki: It’s because we went to this fire restaurant, and we were feeling good. The food was fire. The day before we had some bullshit, but eating well, taking a break and just having a good time as friends made us feel healthier to write. That was also one of the first ones that wasn’t necessarily for ‘Half God’. It felt like a fire lit under my ass. It started the whole perspective of where I’m coming from on the album.
Navy Blue: Definitely can’t do it alone. Even when I feel alone, I know I’m not alone. Even when I’m stuck in my solitude, I know there is something greater. I don’t know if you believe in a higher power, whatever it is, I know nothing happens in this world by accident. When I feel alone, I know somebody is going through what I’m going through. In that sense I try to keep it simple. I can be self centred. When I try to control everything, it usually falls apart. When I surrender to the fact I’m not alone, and I’m blessed to have people in my life that’s willing to help me out, I’m super grateful.
Wiki: I never felt like I’ve wanted to listen to my shit as much as now. I never thought I’d be making music like the music I was listening to when I fell in love with hip-hop. It’s got a classic vibe to it. That is what I love. That’s what we did. Even the name of the record came from a conversation I had with a friend about God and spirituality. The minds around this project definitely made it what it was.
Navy Blue: That speaks to what I was saying about god and spirituality too. It was a God moment when we were eating that food that night. People like to overcomplicate things.
Wiki: I needed that, for it to be smooth.
Parry: In your chat with Fantano…
Navy Blue: You spoke to Fantano?
Wiki: Yeah, he was chill, I think he only spoke to me because he liked the record.
Navy Blue: What did he give it?
Wiki: He gave it an 8. You know him, he can be an asshole. I knew he was coming on nice because he liked the record.
Navy Blue: I was grateful he reviewed my stuff, but the way he reviewed MIKE’s stuff, gave me a strong resentment. Even on my album, I rapped, ‘Never phased by a white critic’, like how can you speak on an experience you haven’t lived?
Wiki: It’s cool that he liked it, and other critics too. But at the end of the day, It doesn’t make a difference because it’s not for a critic. Who I want quoting my shit is someone on the block or someone in the neighbourhood. A regular fool. I don’t care if you typed it off, say it.
Parry: I also want to touch on, and I think it’s definitely this idea of being underrated and underground. The underground essence of a lot of your crews and community are what makes it so authentic. Mike, Navy Blue, What Earl has done, Mavi, ZelooperZ etc. Or generally, what do you think of the term underground? Isn’t it all hip-hop at the end of the day?
Navy Blue: Labels are always funny.
Wiki: It’s semantics
Navy Blue: Kids will group it in and call it Slums, a group that MIKE and his friends made. People will always have their own opinion.
Wiki: It makes it easier for them to process.
Navy Blue: Is Griselda underground rap still?
Parry: I don’t think so, they’re making waves across the world in Australia so I’m not sure how. I prefer that they aren’t underground
Wiki: I do like the term underground on some hip-hop shit.
Navy Blue: My studio is literally underneath my crib. I was talking to an OG about this, and he called me a conscious rapper. You’re conscious of what you’re saying. I do speak on a lot of political things. I don’t mind underground, because it’s what I’m inspired by.
Wiki: I think it’s more about a mindset than an amount of money you’re making. It’s more about not letting the industry sway you over what you are. It’s about making what feels good. It’s not success but mindset. As long as you’re not trying to get looks or sell yourself for bullshit. Not to make it cliche, but it’s more industry stuff. Just be real.
Navy Blue: Be honest, stay honest. This record for me was really honest. As much as you were being honest with yourself before, maybe you were trying to bend it to other people.
Wiki: I feel that, getting stuck in the mindset of trying to make music a type of way.
Navy Blue: Even with Earl’s discography, he’s always remained honest, but he had to make his first two records to make his magnum opus, ‘Some Rap Songs’. He isn’t an underground rapper though, he is a well known rapper. He’s in my opinion the best.
Words by PARRY TRITSINIOTIS