NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—To be hip is to know. To hop is to take action.
In March, it was lights, camera, action inside Spina Records here on Easton Avenue for the filming of performing artist Jahan Nostra’s “Dedication” music video.
The “Dedication” watch party will be held August 19 at 9 pm in Newark, and tickets are still available for the virtual watch party.
The video and song will fully arrive on Nostra’s YouTube channel and on music streaming services in September.
“Dedication,” the second release off Nostra’s forthcoming “Violet Skies” album, is about staying dedicated to one’s craft through adversity.
The video, more like a “mini movie” in his words, tells the story of two friends who take divergent paths from youth to adulthood; Nostra’s character is a version of himself, a young MC who later works in a record store.
Nostra was seeking a record store with mom-and-pop vibes for the shoot.
Primarily filmed in Newark, Nostra and his production team were turned down by several record stores in that area despite his promise that their stores would shine in the video.
Some stores were taking too long to give an answer, and Nostra’s production team was contending with its own budget and schedule.
Nostra made some calls into New Brunswick’s Spina Records, but finally at the end of production one day this spring, he drove down from Newark and popped into the store, where he found owner Andrew Spina.
“He was the only one there,” Nostra said. “And I went in and told him my name and he goes ‘Ohh! You’re the guy who’s been calling here!’”
Spina runs his shop pretty much single-handedly, and he wasn’t able to respond quickly to Nostra either. But Nostra’s persistence and in-person visit paid off.
“Andrew is independent,” Nostra said. “He embraced me, I embraced him. It’s like I knew him, you know what I mean? And the records he had, I was a fan of,” he said.
“I was already a fan of his space because I had seen it online. But when I met him and he met me, it was like a genuine connection,” Nostra said.
“I get a lot of requests,” Spina said. “Sort of from amateur college kids, amateur photography and videography. But they definitely had a lot of substantiating evidence” of their intent, including articles and past music videos.
Spina and Nostra worked out the details for the shoot – it had to happen on a day when customers wouldn’t be around, so that production could have free reign over the store. They settled on an off day in March.
The production team was professional, accommodating and courteous, in Spina’s words, conscious of the fact that they were in a business and careful not to disturb anything. And Nostra wanted to use a real record store, and not to have to rent a space and fill it with records.
“I didn’t have to cover anything up for some fake storefront,” Spina said. “They left everything as is, like Spina on the wall, my signs. So the store as portrayed in the video is going to be represented as Spina Records, which is something we were very thankful for.”
Spina afforded them privacy during the shoot, coming and going to check if everything was good. There’s even a chance of a Spina cameo, as the team sought to present some customers checking out records for environment.
Without knowing the story line, Spina says he picked up on what seemed to be a positive social message underneath it all. “Kind of like one of those tales where we started out together and look how our lives have changed,” he said.
When asked about the video’s plot line, Nostra doesn’t dispute that notion, though the lyrics of “Dedication” are geared more towards dedication to one’s craft, whether its carpentry, journalism, fashion, anything.
Some of Nostra’s music has been framed as socially conscious, much in the way one of his key influences, Tupac Shakur. The music video for Nostra’s award-winning inspirational song “Embrace the Rain” addresses youth homelessness.
“If you’re having a bad day or you’re trying to get over something, it’s like, the sun don’t come, just embrace the rain,” Nostra said. “If you’re getting hit with a lot of different things and you gotta keep pressing on. But I definitely think I speak to a lot of everyday things that definitely come off socially,” he added.
“You know, I’ve been doing it a while,” he said. “I’m a little older, I’ve got a lot of fun stuff more or less. But I do think when it comes to my content and depth, I do have a lot of range and have a lot of these socially conscious songs. I definitely wouldn’t say always. ‘Cause the first single off that album is not ‘Embrace the Rain,’ it’s a song called ‘Welcome Home,’” to date his best performing song on social media and the web.
“That’s basically a celebration song, a feel good song. I think there’s a couple lines in there but overall there’s nothing in there really socially conscious,” Nostra said. “It’s more like, dope bars and, we gonna have some fun with this, you know? I’m inspired by Pac but I’m also inspired by Pharrell, I’m inspired by Jay Cole. There’s a lot of different things.”
Tupac has that duality today, Nostra says. Some people know Tupac for socially conscious messaging. Others know him for the opposite.
“Pac had a real social approach, but if you look at ‘All Eyez on Me’ or if people study him, he also had a real gangster approach. There’s some people that only know Pac for ‘All Eyez on Me’ and that’s about a guy on the street, gets shot, a tough guy. He’s not talking anything about uplifting. He’s talking about, let’s get popping,” he said.
“But I think overall, in his core he was very uplifting and I do think at my core that I have that. I don’t think I’m only that though. I think I’m pretty versatile, and ‘Welcome Home’ kind of shows it,” Nostra said.
“‘Embrace the Rain’, I was inspired to talk about what a lot of the youth are going through on the streets. But ‘Welcome Home,’ that was like, let’s get busy, let’s rap. What’s up with these bars? You know what I mean? What’s good with you. So it’s always good to see the range. I definitely wouldn’t run from a socially conscious title though.”
Whether a song touches on a social issue or not, it boils down to “essence” for Nostra.
Essence in his mind is the core, authentic hip hop and rap from when the genre was first ushered in.
There’s a direct throughline from then to now on Nostra’s “Dedication,” via his collaborator Tahmell. Tahmell’s father, Rakim, was the pioneering stylist in the late 80’s and early 90’s hip hop duo Eric B. & Rakim, best known for 1987’s “Paid in Full” and 1992’s “Don’t Sweat The Technique.”
In practice, that early hip hop essence translates into Nostra’s music and lyrical styles: “I have these principles… reflect reality; prove that I’m the illest; and uplift for the future. That’s what I try to do with my music and craft.”
Nostra studied music and journalism as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina. A lot of his early support and music was cultivated in that environment, amongst the many colleges and intellectuals in that region that are very open to things and free-spirited, he said.
He felt a similar connection during his visits in New Brunswick, in Rutgers graduate Andrew Spina, and in talking to people outside the store.
“Cities that have a very universal approach, those are the places I tend to excel at. From what I’ve seen, I got that vibe,” Nostra said. “I felt real at home in the city. New Brunswick, up here in Jersey reminded me of [Carolina] a bit.”
In New Brunswick, there’s always been a hip hop scene, though it’s perhaps been even more underground and more decentralized than the city’s robust and chronicled history with rock and roll.
Hip hop in New Brunswick “goes back really far,” said local MC and current Piscataway resident Silent Knight. “But a lot of it, I’m not sure if it’s undocumented, not really underappreciated, but underreported or undershared.”
Silent Knight has been a fixture in this city’s hip hop scene since the early 2000’s in various groups and partnerships.
“Even if there’s a lively scene, I think sometimes unless it’s tied together specifically and people know each other, meet each other, it’s easy to think that what you do is like the end all be all of the scene in that area,” he told New Brunswick Today.
“Meanwhile there could be multiple thriving scenes, even within hip hop and some people that are not really in the loop with each other.”
The rock scene as a whole burst open in the early 1980’s at the city’s many now defunct clubs and bars, including the Melody Bar, the Court Tavern and a dozen others, leading many music fans to enjoy live music seven nights a week.
And long before rock took over, jazz was on top in this city: there were once about 20 jazz venues in New Brunswick, according to music journalist Bob Makin
The 1920’s were another notable period that saw the rise to international stardom of Rutgers alumnus Paul Robeson concurrent with the composition of the unofficial soundtrack to the roaring 1920’s, “The Charleston,” by New Brunswick-born pianist James P. Johnson.
This millennium, the most rocking locale for hip hop was the former Old Bay Restaurant on Church Street. Old Bay, with its New Orleans-style architecture, had gained prominence for drawing in national blues performers like Johnny Copeland in the 1990’s.
A recurring hip hop show called Lyrical Graffiti began there in 2003, run by a friend of Silent Knight’s named Nabil West. “That was a DJ and other featured acts, everything from pioneer legends in hip hop to up and comers,” Knight said.
Silent Knight and his group The Band Called Fuse started performing at Old Bay starting around 2009, becoming more or less the house band, through to and beyond when it closed at the end of 2017 and became the Blackthorn Restaurant.
The Band Called Fuse thing, Silent Knight says, is hip hop, soul, rock and a mixture of stuff. The sound comparison they hear most is a mixture of Rage Against the Machine and The Roots. In recent years they’ve performed primarily in New York City and New Brunswick, and as far out as the 2017 South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
“Some of the songs we do and some of the parts of the songs are harder like rock, like Rage [Against the Machine] type of style, whether it’s the mic delivery or the guitars and the music.”
“And then some of the songs or even within a song it will be more soulful. Like our singer K. Desireé is kind of soul, a gospel kind of singer,” he said. “It’s definitely a mixture but we always get the comparison. We’ve done one or two Rage covers over the years.”
When Silent Knight first appeared in the Hub City scene in the early 2000’s, coming down from his hometown of New York City before settling in the area, he found a nurturing environment.
“I would be performing with different people that I knew, and some bigger names too that were putting us under their wings,” he said.
“There’s stuff like, ‘What? This person, that person was in New Brunswick?’ And they were performing in places like Harvest Moon, and Old Bay, and Court Tavern too and some other spots.”
Some of the local hip hoppers that remain active from those early days are Cymar Simmons, aka Cymarshall Law, who celebrates a birthday party show with Silent Knight at the end of August every year (their birthdays are August 29 and 30), Eloh Kush of Angelz Inc., and John “Lil Sci” Robinson of Scienz of Life.
Silent Knight was wearing a Scienz of Life hat while we spoke. That hip hop trio got its start in the late nineties and had a longtime collaboration with the late MF DOOM. They also turned up at the Old Bay as recently as 2015.
Silent Knight counts John Robinson of that group and Eloh Kush, collaborators themselves, amongst his closest peers and mentors. Now SK become a local hip hop figurehead in his own right.
Apart from performances, he has partnered with the Arts Institute of Middlesex County on a series of virtual programs over the past year. That includes The ART of Storytelling, under the Hub City Music Festival umbrella, which highlights local stories and music while raising money for social programs.
Silent Knight often begins and ends those events by DJ’ing a track or two. Some of the virtual events are expressly music-centric, including one held in February called “Beatmakers & Barrier Breakers: Creating Communities through Music,” co-hosted by him and Derrick Braxton.
“The one thing that’s cool has been being able to book different artists” for the virtual events, Silent Knight said. “So we’ve booked like over a hundred, I don’t even know how many, DJs, MCs, and not just hip hop but singers and bands.”
The Band Called Fuse is working on new material to perform and record this fall, while Silent Knight has recently returned to stage at local places like the Blackthorn Restaurant on July 30, the George Street Ale House on July 31 and at the New Brunswick Heart Festival on August 14.
“I’m optimistic about what I see, whether it’s younger generations or just people doing their thing. I love the fact that there’s record stores, like Spina on Easton, Chamber 43 downtown,” he said.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, a handful of Hub City records operated simultaneously before the vinyl market crashed. Once unthinkable, there were no record stores in New Brunswick for about 15 years until Andrew Spina opened his on Easton Avenue in 2014. Then Chamber 43 came to the Hub City this February after several years in Highland Park.
A “Day in the Life” of Spina Records was profiled in this newspaper in November 2020, and the store celebrated its seventh anniversary in July.
Jahan Nostra has an idea of how Spina has been able to succeed.
“Andrew is essence, Andrew is essence. It’s not about a color, it’s not about a person, it’s not about an individual. He’s essence,” Nostra said.
“He’ll take a chance. He understands the aspects of being independent and how to connect with people on a different level so everybody wins. So I got nothing but respect for him, and those types of people are hard to find,” Nostra said. “He’s definitely not one-track minded. He understands as an entrepreneur where to go with his thoughts and creations. So, big ups to him.”
What’s essential to the identity of New Brunswick is its long history of musical roots. It has changed vastly over the years, from the jazz era to the rock era to the present underground era.
That last transition, when city leaders practically condemned the entire nightclub scene as a blighted area in need of development, is where the scene remains largely relegated to through today. It’s at another inflection point now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that just won’t quit, but there are plenty of signs of life.
A handful of restaurants have been staging live performances for months, most notably under the big tents on George Street, a welcome pandemic innovation.
Some rock bands have even returned to a few underground shows in Hub City basements of late. And Chamber 43 has become a respected aboveground venue for the underground scene and beyond in short order, including “Record Riots” on Wednesdays where Silent Knight and others have performed hip hop sets.
“Usually when you have people that like rock, they also love the underground, independent hip hop,” Nostra said. “True essence hip hop,” in particular, is a diverse combination of jazz, rock, soul, bebop, all intertwined together with those beats.
Will hip hop play a role in New Brunswick’s next musical era, out from isolation, up from the underground?
It remains up to the artists themselves. In Jahan Nostra’s words, it takes embracing the rain, and it takes dedication.
Ben Kelly reports on music for New Brunswick Today. In 2022, he won the first place award for Best Arts & Entertainment Coverage for his coverage of the New Brunswick music scene, from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists.