Alan "The Alchemist" Maman's discography is one of the most prolific in hip-hop history. What's the story of the man behind the beats?
Due to length, contributions are indexed as follows:
Among the earliest of collaborators with Jun, Substantial knew Jun from the very beginning, years before anyone knew who “Nujabes” was, as a hip-hop producer.
Substantial is one half of Bop Alloy, the other half being Marcus D. Hard-hitting rhymes that are raw and to-the-point is Sub’s specialty. Often covering serious topics related to current events, Substantial is a passionate musician and activist. He was the first person I pitched this idea to, about making a project about Nujabes.
Nearly 9 months later, we conducted this interview.
How did you meet Jun? How did that come about?
I met Jun through a friend in college. That friend later went on to become a rapper that people would come to know later as Sphere Of Influence. When my friend went back home to Japan, he got a gig at Jun’s record store. This was before anyone knew who “Nujabes” was.
Jun hit up my friend and asked him if there’s any rappers in New York at the time worth checking out, and my homeboy told Jun to listen to me.
My friend went on to play a mixtape that was made in school, called Disc 1, which happened to have me on it. Next thing you know, Jun calls me up out of the blue.
I thought it was a prank call. The man on the other end of the phone had a really thick accent, and I’ve got a bunch of friends which are clowns [pranksters], so I just thought it was one of my friends.
Luckily, I didn’t hang up, and I took him seriously. He requested I send him more stuff, and I sent him more of my material. After he heard it, he sent me some beats back. This was ’99. Ended up singing a contract with him shortly after, and in ’00 he flew me out to Japan for a month. That was the first time meeting him in-person. That’s when we started working on To This Union a Sun Was Born.
How did that come about? Was the chemistry flowing between you two, thus the idea of an album came up?
Jun told me flat out that his goal was to produce an album for me. Up to that point, I had not put out anything officially. I was working heavy in the underground scene in New York, doing gigs, competing in battles, things like that.
He’d come to let me know after hearing my stuff that he wanted to sign me to the label [Hydeout] and produce an album for me, and put out my first solo record.
From the minute he reached out, I knew his goal was to help me create my debut album, with him as the producer. However, as we were working on the album, because he had so much input as far as the track crafting—we didn’t use hardly any outside tracks; only Jun and Monorisick, known later as DJ Deckstream, and I had brought some outside production with me to listen to—Jun liked some, didn’t like others, and we couldn’t get on the same page with certain things.
After a while, my frustration led me to say “Hey, I’m open to bending with some things, but perhaps we should call this a Nujabes-and-Substantial album, versus just a Substantial album,” because I felt like the expectation would be that the album’s result would be how people viewed my style of music all the time.
His vision was definitely not that; he had no intention of making it [the album] about him. We clashed a bit in the studio, but I think we made great music regardless. That’s how To This Union a Son Was Born was created.
A few years later Jun ended up releasing Metaphorical Music, and you’re the star of Blessing It, the album’s opening track and arguably its most-known track. Was that recorded during the same sessions as your debut or later?
That session came later. The initial stuff with my debut album was recorded in, I want to say January of 2000? Then when I went back out there [Tokyo] to record Blessing It, I also recorded a few other tracks that were unreleased, as well as Eclipse.
We actually were supposed to start work on my second album, which would come out later, called Sacrifice. That was always the title of the album; we started working on that in 2001. What ended up happening again, was that we were in the studio, and had a slight disagreement with the way Blessing It was being crafted.
This was also the first time meeting and working with Pase Rock. It was a sort of different atmosphere to have someone from the states there seeing things in a similar way, the way I saw things, when it came to rapping. Pase ended up cosigning something Jun wasn’t agreeing on; Jun didn’t like that too much! [laughs] In the end, the song came out great. One of the compromises that came out of the song, actually, was that my verse later in the song:
“Children of the sun watch out we comin’ for ya
Rockin from the ‘natti mid-west to California
And we don’t stop, even when you’ve had enough
Pase and Substantial, dude, that’s what’s up!”
When I come in and say that part, that’s actually a hook I wrote for that beat. Actually, not for that exact beat; you see, the more popular version of Blessing It is actually a remix of the original. I wrote that as a hook for the original beat, and then Jun suggested it was too complicated to be a hook.
I agreed, and that’s when Pase came in with the Blessing It joint and we all looked at each other like “Yeah, that’s the one,” [laughs] So yeah, it was definitely a lot of compromise, but we made a lot of great music because of it.
What’s the scale of music that you two made together, you and Jun? Is it an album’s worth?
Yeah. Let me put it this way—To This Union a Son was Born is I think, 13 tracks? When I went out there, we made 25 songs together. That doesn’t include 3 of the 5 songs that we did during the sessions Blessing It and Eclipse was made, nor does that include 2 or 3 other songs done at the time I did Hikari.
Yeah, man; there’s basically enough for an album and an EP. I think it’s safe to say we made between 30 and 40 songs. I’d have to go back and look at everything, but that number isn’t even including remixes. We had 3 songs we were considering to be released as singles for the first album, and while considering, Jun did remixes of those songs… at least 3, 4, 5 remixes unreleased.
Perhaps 20+- unreleased songs, something like that.
That’s a ton of music that we as listeners have never heard. In regards to working with Pase, I assume you two connected right away and it clicked?
Yeah, Pase is just an easy-going dude. I wouldn’t say he’s not a serious artist. I would say that he’s an artist who doesn’t take himself too seriously, if that makes sense. He makes serious artistry, but is carefree with it [in a positive way]. He seemed like a really chill dude.
Then, we did City Lights much later. Jun had nearly that whole song laid out; he had the beat, and Pase’s lyrics already set to go. Like in that verse where we’re passing it back and forth, it was already paced out just the way Pase delivered it. I had to write to it, and I think it came out great.
He [Jun] wasn’t present when I laid down the rhymes for City Lights, but it really did all come together. I really love that song.
Who would you say influenced you the most during the era where you were starting to record sacrifice, and had released your debut album? So, from 2001 to 2008 or so.
Sure. I would say that while I was working on the first record, the biggest musical influence for me was Common. I just grew up listening to him from my early high school years to even now. That’s why Cim on To This Union a Son Was Born is a blatant rip-off of I Used To love H.E.R. by Common. It’s funny—whenever people say that to me, I’m like “Come on, man!” [laughs]
I literally wrote that song when I was maybe 16 or 17, so there are several songs that were on To This Union [a Son was Born] written in high school. At the time of making the record I was about 21. The songs I wrote in high school, I felt were able to be held up lyrically, so I revamped them a bit to work for the record, but there were rhymes at the time me and Jun did that record, which were already 4 or 5 years old. Just waiting for that moment to lay everything down.
There were also records like Home Sweet Home, Ain’t No Happy Endings, The Love Song, which I wrote when I was there in Japan. A song like If I Was Your Mic was one I wrote when I was 17.
Again, I was listening to a lot of Common, so clever misdirection was something I thought of often for my rhymes. By the time I started working on Sacrifice, the rappers who I surrounded myself with and spent a lot of time with, were starting to influence me more. Tone Deff, Pack FM, etc.
Another rapper that influenced me from a young age I would say is Redman. I always loved his punchlines and raw delivery. I would say the content I make is more serious with more introspective, so there’s that. However, in terms of my delivery with punchlines, wordplay, and delivery, definitely Common and Redman.
In regards to visiting Japan, which was across the world and a different culture entirely, what would you say is an aspect of the culture you took the most interest in or felt close to while there?
I liked how humble folks were about things they knew they could do well, but there wasn’t much bragging. If someone said they could do something, that meant they could do it very well.
I got into some trouble at one point because I said that the best Jamaican food is in Japan. [laughs] Which is crazy, because I’ve been to Jamaica, and I lived in Flatbush, Brooklyn. I’ve had a lot of Jamaican food. I had some jerk chicken, back when I still ate chicken, in Tokyo hangin’ with Jun, and it was some of the best jerk chicken I’ve had in my life.
This carried into people who produced or did music. I can’t speak on the new guys, this is just my initial experience when I interacted with the people I did. If they said they could do something, they were extremely thorough and took it very serious.
People weren’t bragging about it. They were humble about it. You could see it when they were in their element. Confident in their ability.
Even with the people who you could ask if they spoke English. They would reply “Ah, very little,” with a heavy Japanese accent, but they could speak a lot more than you initially would think. They weren’t downplaying it.
That was a major takeaway for me. You can be great and humble at the same time.
Is there any anecdotes you’d like to share which you had with Jun?
[laughs] One thing that comes to mind is this, and it happened after the movie Memento came out. I love that film, so did Jun. Our little inside joke after that movie came out, and it was this, which happened anytime either of us forgot something or made a minor mistake:
For example, would set up a time to meet up in the studio, then later I would say something like “Alright, I’ll see you in the studio at 2:00PM,” and Jun would say “Oh, no Stan, no Stan, we’re starting at noon,” and I’d look at him and he’d laugh and say “You got Memento!””
That whole trip, my second time out there, he’d go with that. [laughs]
Definitely, little things like that. Always. Jun was a huge foodie; anytime he’d find a good spot to eat at—he loved curry—there was this place, this restaurant that we’d always go, and it was called Bowery Kitchen. We loved that spot; think we hit it up twice a week.
A lot of listeners believed that Jun influenced many things in hip-hop. However, when you speak to those closest to him, they’ll tell you the opposite—that he was a true-to-the-core student of hip-hop, and was more heavily influenced by artists’ sounds and approaches. Could you give some insight into that for those unaware?
Sure. The biggest indication of this is that he owned a record store. Regular people don’t really want to own a record store, or strive to do so. People who are music nerds, those who have a deep genuine passion for music, own record stores. Jun was always digging for new music, and was a huge Dilla fan. He was also a big fan of Fat Jon. He started to play flute because he found out that Fat Jon played flute.
It’s that friendly competition. I would say that the greatest artists usually keep great company, and almost always are influenced by those they work closely with. Fans in general, not just for Nujabes, have a misconception that within a circle of any given artists, when one of those artists makes it and surpasses the others, that they hold outright influence over the others within that same circle. They’re right to an extent, however, what they need to also recognize is the influence each artist in that circle had on each other, and vice-versa. Both ways.
You can hear a difference in Jun’s music prior to working with me, and after. Same thing with when him and Funky DL collaborated. Same thing with his collaboration with Fat Jon, especially—you can hear a lot of dance music feelings in his work, something Fat Jon was already doing before Nujabes had technically put something out.
There is always an exchange, and even if we’re not talking Nujabes. For example, if I’m working with Oddisee, or Tone Deff, whoever you’re working with.
In most cases, if someone wants to work with you, and vice-versa, there’s respect involved. 9 times out of 10. Of course, money plays a part at some point, but great artists have a mutual respect and therein lies an exchange of culture and technique.
Perhaps some need to lose the fantasy that the one person within a circle that is the most famous, or most known of any others, holds absolute influence over everyone else. We all learn from each other.
Well said, I agree wholeheartedly with that. Winding things up here, what will you remember Jun for, and what do you think his legacy will be going forward?
I think his legacy will be something more than hip-hop. It started with hip-hop, but it became something more. Self-exploration, if you well, beyond music. Jun really figured out how to morph his physical being into audio form.
I listen to his music, and I don’t feel some specific way. When I say his music, I don’t mean his older records, I mean his work with other artists. When you hear his music, you hear parts of the man himself, in all different places. There are certain beats where you can hear the happiness, the sadness, others just relaxing, some chaotic.
We sometimes—it’s sometimes easy for people to assume that each human is just one note. That’s not the person I knew. I find it interesting when I see people who are capable of transforming their physical being into something sonic, something everlasting. It’ll be amazing to see his musical legacy and how it lives on, and what it does. How it inspires the next generation of artists—something it’s already done, to inspire certain movements, and that’s a beautiful thing.
How I’ll remember him—to me it’s much more tangible than a listener that only knows the music. I have real physical memories of him. Things, physical things that he gave me, when we spent time together. It’s just one of those things, looking at things that we shared together. His handwriting, or when you get new phones and your numbers are transferred over and you happen to look at old text messages or contacts, and you may not have heard someone’s voice in a while, then you come across some old voicemail or email you may have.
It is easy for us to remember the positive, or the easy times; the smiles and laughs. I shed tears in front of that man [Jun]. We had fallouts, real fallouts, raising our voices at each other, but we made sure to come back around and break bread after.
I feel like that’s a full relationship; the good and bad. The people who I love the most, am the closest to, and have had the most powerful experiences with, it wasn’t just one-sided, or one way all the time. It was a spectrum of emotions, and I’m glad I had all the experiences with him. From the good, to the not-so-good.
I guess for me, it’s not this dream thing. It’s still a very real thing. My wife, which Eclipse is about, who I’ve been with for 20 years, she got to meet him in my second trip. When someone close to you—because obviously I don’t see Pase or Funky DL or Shingo often—to have somebody next to me, on a regular basis in my life, someone who has seen the challenges we faced and how we overcame those challenges together, it makes it that much more real for me.