RXK Nephew Interview: New Albums, 'American Tterroristt' - Rolling Stone
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‘There’s No Limit to the Music’: RXK Nephew Is Rap’s Beat Generation Poet

The “American TTerroristt” rapper and internet sensation captures the free-floating energy of right now. Call him hip-hop’s Kerouac

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Deawnne Buckmire*

The Rochester, New York rapper RXK Nephew released about 400 songs in 2021. “Probably more than that,” he says via Zoom. “I was going crazy. Every day.”

Neph’s steady pace of projects, which are often free-flowing raps that straddle earnestness and provocation, share a creative framework with Lil B, an early adopter of the internet’s less polished and more high-volume sensibility. But the music he makes has as much a place in the real world as it does in niche corners of the web. His catalog, which takes the length of an average song to even scroll through, feels more like the type of productivity associated with Lil Wayne and Young Thug early in their careers, when a new flurry of new mixtapes could spell the demise of an upstart hip-hop blog’s servers. 

All of which is to say there’s something new going on with RXK Nephew. He even has a hunch as to what it might be. “What’s the poets that go up there on stage and they do their poem and everybody snaps their fingers at them?” he asks. “I’m trying to do shit like that.”

In a 1958 essay titled “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” Jack Kerouac advocated a practice of writing that involved “no pause to think of proper word but the infantile pileup of scatological buildup words till satisfaction is gained.” It’s a great way to describe RXK Nephew’s approach to rapping. “I record in the car, the house, outside, anywhere,” he says. In fact, he’s talking to me from a car right now. Neph points his phone’s camera to a pared-down mobile recording setup. “I can charge my laptop right here,” he says, showing me a rig connected to the car’s console. 

He cites tracks called “Bipolar Trapper” and “Out of the Car” as the highlights of his vehicular musings. “‘Bipolar Trapper’ really means something to me because I was going through something and I had to pull over and record,” Neph says. “I had to record ASAP so I could listen to something. Like a stress reliever.”

RXK Nephew was raised in Rochester by his grandmother, who was the source of his musical curiosity.  “A lot of gifts from my grandma was music shit, like a karaoke machine, a piano, or a guitar,” he says. “I actually liked it. It wasn’t boring to me, so I learned how to play piano. I didn’t go too crazy on guitar, but I learned. I know how to play by ear and make notes and shit.”

At the start of this year, he put out a collection of tracks inspired by Quiet Storm R&B and the family that he grew up with.  “The blues and old school, that’s what my people listen to. My auntie and my grandma’s brothers and shit,” he says. “So I did beats from their favorite songs, so they can show up and they be happy and shit. It be a lot of other people’s favorite song, too.”

Despite his productivity, music hasn’t been a priority for Neph for all that long. A string of familiar hustles dotted his life until, after one arrest too many, he made an effort to find income the legit way. Using the internet as his sounding board, he started making music every single day. After a while, he noticed something peculiar. 

“My DM would be flooded with a whole bunch of people saying they got beats. I appreciated it — I was hyped that everybody would want to give me their beats — but it’s too many people to work with at one time,” he says. “So I was thinking, ‘Yo, if you pay me a couple dollars, I’ll rap on your beat first.’ It would speed the process up.”

Since he had this insight, business has been booming. “I tell them one price and they pay me extra on top of that,” he says. “It became another source of income I don’t got to do in the street.”

The practice has also made RXK a reliable source of online entertainment, as producers sometimes get songs back where Neph insults them over their own creation.  “I be wondering what made the producers send me those kinds of beats. I be wondering if they really listen to me, if they know what kind of artist I am, and they just want to send me a crazy beat,” he explains. 

Slitherman Activated, released last summer on New York dance music label Towhead Recordings and featuring production work from a number of well-known dance music acts, presaged the genre’s post-PinkPantheress fixation on high-speed drum and bass production. It sounded great, never mind Neph’s persistent and vocal frustration with the beats on the album. 

“It’s like expanded creativity, trying different things, connecting with the people,” he says. “I did the EDM, I’m doing pop, I remixed Taylor Swift. I just want to keep on going, there’s no limit to the music at all.”

When we talk on Zoom, he’s preparing for a concert in New York that ends up being a packed-out affair replete with rap nerds, downtown kids, and everyone in between. 

The crowd was probably there because of Nephew’s most famous single, “American TTerroristt,” released on the winter solstice of 2020, and stuffed with metaphysical anxiety. The nearly 10-minute treatise rolls seamlessly through a slate of inquiries, each with an escalating sense of urgency and absurdity: “How the fuck all of y’all awake?” Neph ponders about Jehovah’s Witnesses on the track.

He succeeds at achieving a vernacular for a culture with an abundance of reasons to feel suspicious of authority and received wisdom.  “Explain to me why the fuck Benjamin Franklin stood his ass up on the roof,” he raps, thinking through the discovery of electricity. “How he discover somethin’ out the sky?/If that’s the case, T-Rex discovered it/If you ask me, this shit made up.” 

Musically, Neph provides gentle hypnosis. Despite the song’s wandering flow, he treats the beat with intention, landing punchlines on unexpected downbeats, and in turn revealing new horizons of thought. 

“That was straight off the couch at the crib,” he says. “That was one of those open speech poems. Because there obviously wasn’t no hook, I wasn’t trying to make a song.”

“American TTerroristt” is more than a song. Delivered in a monotonic, almost spooky deadpan, the track has the feeling of poetry or performance art. It inflicts a feeling of expansion, of understanding and perspective. “I was just preaching and speaking from my point of view,” Neph says. “And then it happened to be a lot of people see it the same way I see it.”

Part of the lore around the track is just how freely Neph lets his mind wander as he raps. It’s a style that defies the prevailing uneasiness around controversial topics for fear of public embarrassment. On “American TTerroristt,” Neph utters the cancel-able with the type of abandon that has the power to reconfigure your mind. He’s not red-pilling in any alt-right or political sense, but it sure feels like witnessing a ripple in the Matrix.  

Even when the song veers into more troubling territory — a line about Chris Brown lands with an almost self-aware beat switch — RXK finds new ground within the provocative. He anticipated listeners being more shocked than they were. “I’m not a domestic violence person,” he clarifies. “When they’re at first hearing it, they might be like, ‘What the fuck.’ They might be like, ‘This is crazy.’ But when they listen to the whole thing, they understand that I’m just expressing what’s going on in the world. That was just, like, an alter ego, somebody that expresses themselves through words.”.

Neph believes that just because he thinks something about the world doesn’t mean he needs to push it onto others. “You would be so selfish if you move like that,” he says. “Then that would turn into a cult.” Still, with growing influence comes growing responsibility. “I’m realizing how much work I have. It’s hard to accept. I never thought any of this would happen,” he says. “But I’m just trying to enjoy it and stay alive and stay happy.”

For now, he’s got insane productivity goals for 2022. “I’m going to be more strategic this year, and I want to give them more projects that are really put together with good videos and invest into it,” he says. “But I’m definitely going to drop a lot of projects, though. My album, I’m going to have 40 out before the year’s over.”

And, thankfully, he says we can expect to see “American TTerroristt” expanded into a full EP.

“I feel like I could have kept going on that song, period. I swear I could have kept it going,” he says. “There’s a whole lot to say. The world is spinning every day.”

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