Mel D. Cole
So let's get right to it. Ninjasonik is weird. Not in that all too cliché, "What the hell was Lady Gaga wearing last night?" weird, but in a "Wow! These guys are a record executive's worst dream." They're somewhere between an Albino R&B singer and a heavy metal polka band. And that's what makes the electro rap duo of DJ-vocalist Jah-Jah and rhymer Telli so intriguing. A product of the Brooklyn underground dance, hardcore and hip-hop scene, Ninjasonik doesn't stick to any one particular script. The tandem's brazenly unpredictable 'Peter Pan Syndrome,' due in early 2012 -- the album follow-up to their provocative and at times hilarious 2010 debut, 'Art School Girls' -- takes hysterical and witty jumps to house music, rock, rap, punk and everything else in between.
While you wait for that unconventional offering to drop, you can check out Ninjasonik's last mixtape, 'No Swords or Masks,' released in July and features the likes of mainstream pop-synth explorers Cobra Starship and eclectic Brooklyn MC Theophilus London. It's no doubt a left-field statement. But as The BoomBox finds out from Ninjasonik's spirited interview, the guys wouldn't have it any other way.
Let's start with coming out of Brooklyn and being a part of the whole electronica-hip-hop scene. How hard was it for you to get record labels to pay attention to you given that you have never fit into a particular musical box?
Jah-Jah: Well, we come from a D.I.Y. scene out of Brooklyn, where the shows we were playing the majority of the time were with hardcore and punk rock bands. Just that alone, traveling through that scene and playing with different genres of bands, once we started getting recognition from the labels, it was really hard. People don't know where to fit us. They don't know if we are an electro band or a rap band or a punk rock band.
That mish-mash style is tough to get across. How hard was it?
Telli: But it's always a constant battle. We are always fighting for our music when we get onstage. When we perform, there are the cool people that know about us, and sometimes they don't. It reminds me of when Jimi Hendrix played 'The Star-Spangled Banner' and killed it. But then the next week, he played in Harlem and nobody knew who he was. That's the constant fight. We are always fighting for our survival, but I feel like our consistency is going to help us in the long run... maybe not this generation, but the next generation. People will see that we actually merged cultures as one. Music is not a fling or a hobby for us... this is our passion. Everyday we get onstage we perform like it's our last show.
Jah-Jah: Really, when we first started, we were a DJ band playing at dance parties then we added the rap element to the band. That really twisted the whole sound around and gave it more of a voice and an explanation. I feel like now the way music has been changing around, with hip-hop using more of the electronic sound, there's more leeway for us. We were being ourselves from the beginning, so now the music industry is starting to understand why the kids like our sound so much.
Jah-Jah, you met up with Telli when you were DJing around Brooklyn. Did you guys have an instant connection?
Jah-Jah: It's a funny story. It's a story of fate. When I met Telli in 2006, I was wearing a particular shirt that he liked. He was like, "Oh, that shirt is dope. I think I've seen you around a lot." I would skate through his block everyday. It was later that Telli met our former bandmate who was working on some Ninjasonik music at a friend's basement. And he was like, "Oh, check this out. This is what I do." And it was this song 'Tight Pants,' and Telli was like, "I have to meet this kid." I came home one day and Telli is at my house and I'm like, "Oh snap! I know you!" It was crazy how that happened.
Your sound is all over the place. You must have a gumbo of influences?
Jah-Jah: I listened to a lot of Minor Threat, Black Flag, Morrissey, Michael Jackson, of course, and the Wu-Tang Clan. I was all over the table, man.
Telli: That's what makes Ninjasonik original. Jah-Jah is the punk and I'm the rapper. I come from the 'Video Music Box' era. Of course, there was Michael Jackson, but I was also listening to people like Chubb Rock, Big Daddy Kane, Wu-Tang. I'm talking about the era of hip-hop when you could only really do it if you were nice. What was out there was top quality like the whole Native Tongues crew. My first tape I got was Slick Rick's 'Children's Story' I got from my uncle. I remember for Christmas, my mom brought me a Walkman and N.W.A. and LL Cool J. She didn't know N.W.A. had curse words on it [laughs]. I was even listening to Prince and Earth, Wind & Fire back when The Wiz store was open. And then I was a church kid. I sang in the kid's choir. So music was always there.
The title of your forthcoming album, 'Peter Pan Syndrome,' speaks to being young at heart, right?
Jah-Jah: Yeah. Basically we are trying to show people that you can be grown and have responsibilities and take care of them, but that doesn't mean you lose your artistic imagination. You have to handle your business and pay bills, but don't forget we are all kids.
Telli: 'Peter Pan Syndrome' is really about not growing up. We will be 50 years old and still be cool and building that bridge between the kids and us. We will still be there giving off that positive energy.
There's been a lot of buzz about your single, 'Mosh Pit.' How did you hook up with the Dutch DJ duo The Partysquad for that track?
Jah-Jah: Well, when we went overseas, our tour manager had been good friends with The Partysquad for a long while. He told Telli and I, "Yo, you gotta meet these kids. They are awesome." So when we got in the studio with them, we just clicked. It was just amazing. It was almost as if we were reading each others' minds. The music that we are making, the sound of it is so close to home. There was no way in the world that we were not going to do this. It's supposed to happen.
Telli: We also got production [from everyone from] Jimmy Harry to Cobra Starship on the album. They produced some records for us. We also have Disco Pusher and Unstoppable Death Machines. They are a real hard band.
You were also able to bring in some pretty high-profile artists like Theophilus London and Cobra Starship, who Telli already mentioned, for your mixtape, 'No Swords or Masks.' How were you able to recruit such mainstream acts for a mixtape?
Jah-Jah: I think it comes down to respect. But also, Theo is our close friend. Cobra Starship are close friends. A lot of the bands that we have worked with in the past, like Matt & Kim, these are not only fellow musicians, but they are close friends. We go to see their shows and they come to see our shows. It's so organic. We feel honored to know these successful acts and for them to have the same respect they had for us before they got bigger. They promote our music as well.
What has been the best moment thus far on the road? Has there been one particular show where you looked at each other and said, 'Holy s---! We made it!'
Telli: I still think, "Oh, we made it?" [laughs] But me personally, when we went to Paris for the second time for a show, the driver took us to the wrong hotel, the wheel on my bag broke and while we were waiting, one guy comes up to us and says, "Ninjasonik!" Then another guy walks up to us and says, "Ninjasonik!" And I'm like, "This is serious."
Jah-Jah: You just think, 'Wow, I'm not even in my country right now.' We've only been in France once before and eight months later we are recognizable? That's crazy. We have a language barrier, but that's not stopping communication.
You are set to perform at the Brooklyn Afro-Punk Festival with Cee Lo Green and Janelle Monae in late August. What is it like being on the same bill as such critically acclaimed acts who have also garnered immense mainstream praise?
Jah-Jah: It's great, dude. Last year when we played Afro-Punk we met the Bad Brains, which was like, "Whoa!" I listened to those guys like everyday.
Telli: Me personally, I'm an idol killer [laughs]. I don't get freaked out by a lot of big musicians. Now, if I met Bill Compton from 'True Blood,' that would freak me out. But I'm at a point now where we are fighting for our music and I'm in such a zone that we will soak it up all later. I'm so hungry for respect. I just want to let everybody know how good we are.
How far do you want to take Ninjasonik?
Telli: We are not going to go nowhere. We have mastered the art of evolving. Some people may even call us legendary before it's all said and done because we have created something that has allowed so many people to be themselves. Our work is never done. We want to keep inspiring people through our lifestyle and our music. I'm pretty sure we will be around forever, if not physically, our body of work will be there.
Jah-Jah: Where music is going now, it's all a part of the visual and tech media as well. Kids want to see you and hear you. And that's something we do well: presenting a visual whether it's onstage or online. We are constantly leaking videos and looking to create short films. We are all over the place, even fashion. We take our music to be more of a culture than just the sound itself. Ninjasonik stands for a lot.