Interview: Nina Chanel Abney & Charlie Roberts

Image via Kravets|Wehby.

Image via Kravets|Webhy.

Enigmatic like a Das EFX song, the bold, colorful works that Chicagoan visual artist, Nina Chanel Abney creates, blur the lines of abstract and figurative art. A coded deconstruction of contemporary culture, Abney’s work leaves her viewers investigating every inch of the paper or canvas, actively attempting to decipher the meaning of the numerology, iconography, portraiture, masked figures, hard lines, and shapes that she paints.
This, juxtaposed against the wood totem pole sculptures and the detailed character developments that are widely found in the work of visual artist, Charlie Roberts. A Hutchison, Kansas-native, Roberts is, well, “not in Kansas anymore”, but he’s familiar with the territory that he draws inspiration from to paint and build his stories.
Like a “pop cultural DJ” of sorts (think Alex Katz), Roberts’ large portraiture and oil paintings of elongated, fluid figures have a re-mixed Paul Gauguin-esque ethereal quality to them, yet they seem to be distressed in nature due to the washout/scratches integrated in his painting technique.
These Midwesterners seem like an unlikely pair, but Nina Chanel Abney and Charlie Roberts brought their anomalous styles and teamed up like Chaka Khan and Rufus to collaborate on a duet show at New York’s Kravets|Wehby gallery, entitled, “Stacks on Decks.”
The exhibition, which runs from October 17th-November 16, 2013 explores the artists’ love for hip hop, rap, and trap music, and analyzes the thematics in its lyrics, such as T.I.’s braggadocios “Stacks on Deck,” Rick Ross’s ostentatiousness, Lil Wayne’s classic cup of purple syzzurp, and Kanye West’s “eyes on the dollar like Illumanati.” Interviewing Nina Chanel Abney and Charlie Roberts had me laughing, doing the “Wild Wild West” dance, and going down memory lane, while spitting classic rap and hip hop lyrics. Besides my growing affection for the “Hair Weave Killer”, I have yet to feel connected to the trap music genre, so Charlie put me on to some music happening just 45 minutes away from me in Chicago; I hear the rap scene is pretty beastie over there.
The visual artists chatted with Saint Heron on the analogous nature of the art and music business, mixtapes, Kool Moe Dee, Gucci Mane, “Picasso Baby,” and cultural appreciation vs. cultural appropriation. Here’s what happens when rap hits the canvas.

Your duet exhibition, “Stacks on Deck”, opened on October 17th at Kravets|Wehby Gallery in Chelsea: how did this group show form, and how was the theme produced?

Nina Chanel Abney [NCA]: One day I was hanging out at Kravets|Wehby, and [the gallerists] mentioned that there was an open date for a show that they had yet to fill. So, I immediately suggested that they give the show to Charlie and I. I’ve wanted to collaborate with Charlie for some time now; when the opportunity came I took it. As far as the theme, Charlie and I pretty much share the exact same taste in music, so it just seemed like the perfect starting point.

Charlie Roberts [CR]: Every time Nina Chanel Abney and I are in the same room, it’s rap talk right away. I love Nina’s work, it made good sense.

How were you introduced to painting? How were you introduced to rap and hip hop music? How old were you?

NCA: I have been drawing since I was a child. I wanted to be a cartoonist, but I started painting once I found an old paint set in the basement that belonged to my mom. I don’t know how old I was when I was introduced to rap, pretty young. My favorite rapper was Kool Moe Dee. Then I, of course, became a fan of Salt n Pepa, MC Lyte, and Queen Latifah. But, I guess that stuff was more PG. The early 90s were the best! Bone Thugs N Harmony’s Creepin on Ah Come Up: I can’t tell you how many times I played “Thuggish Ruggish Bone.” I remember hiding the insert to Snoop’s Doggystyle tape from my mom. In high school I would have parties where we would gather to watch movies like Master P’s “I’m Bout It.” I was into anything that came from Cash Money; I remember loving their CD cases because they were bright neon colors. Not too long ago, I watched Kool Moe Dees “Wild Wild West” video on YouTube. I couldn’t believe how ancient it looked. The evolution of rap and hip hop music has been tremendous.

CR: I always liked making stuff, looking at pictures. The artist, Peter Schuyff, taught me alot about “capital P painting.” My first real rap memory was seeing the “Ain’t Nuthin’ But A G Thang” video on MTV (maybe the best rap video ever made, definitely in the conversation), but I was mesmerized—hooked. I was probably 9 or 10 years old, my adolescence was soundtracked by rap. It went from G-funk stuff, to Wu Tang, and the backpack rap when I was 15 to 17, to the Cash Money stuff, and all of the Houston stuff around 18. I love it, can’t get enough, and I feel like right now we are living through an incredibly creative and explosive moment in rap; so much going on…the Chicago scene!

"Gandolph", Charlie Roberts.

“Gandolph”, Charlie Roberts.

Do you consider yourselves DJs or MCs in your own right? How do you engage with rap outside of your body of work?

NCA: In undergrad I amassed a huge collection of songs and CDs; I always managed to get my hands on new music, so I became the go-to person on campus for mixtapes. I would also DJ parties every once in a while. I have almost 13,000 songs in my iTunes, so I am still the go-to person amongst my friends for music. Outside of that, I go on DatPiff, and WORLDSTARHIPHOP daily to stay up to speed on the rappers that I am into. They aren’t usually played on the radio.

CR: I am. I have been putting out mixtapes and playing shows with Jim Bones under the name ChopGang for the last two years. Check out soundcloud.com/chopgang. I DJ occasionally.

But above all, I am a fan. I’ve been rap crazy since I was 15, driving around small town Kansas in my ‘76 Impala, with my 6x9s, knocking out to the Wu. I keep up with what I am into with regular visits to GBE300.com, DatPiff, and WORLDSTARHIPHOP, and I go to shows when something good comes to Oslo [Norway]. I just saw Waka and DJ Ace at a small venue in town:.A++++. Amazing showmen!

During a typical studio day/night, do you listen to rap music while you work, if so, how does that meta process work?

NCA: It really depends on my mood, or what I am working on. But I mostly listen to jazz, rap, or R&B while I’m painting. Occasionally, I listen to “The Read” podcast. I’m currently shuffling through the following CDs: Pusha T’s My Name Is My Name, K. Michelle’s Rebellious Soul, Drake’s Nothing Was The Same, Kanye West’s Yeezus, Robert Glasper’s Black Radio 2, MMG’s Self Made Vol. 3, Gucci Mane’s Diary of a Trap God, Chella H’s The Realest Bitch In It, Soulja Boy’s Loud, and Lil Kim’s Hardcore.

CR: Only Rap and RnB in the studio. Nothing else works. Top ten records in the studio right now: Chief Keef’s Bang 2 and Almighty So, Lil Durk’s Signed to the Streets, Gucci Mane’s Diary of a Trap God, Jeezy and Cash Out’s mixtape, Boss Yo Life Up, Soulja Boy’s Loud, King Louie’s Drilluminati, Tink’s Winter’s Diary, Tity Boi’s Codeine Cowboy, and Charli XCX’s True Romance.

let's hoop-abney

“Let’s Go Hoop”, Nina Chanel Abney.

What are the parallelisms between music and painting?

NCA: When I’m explaining the art business to someone for the first time, I usually directly compare it to the music business. There are so many similarities in how we function as people making a living from our artistry, that it is usually intensely personal. Additionally, how our businesses operate: a group of painters may be represented by a gallery, like rappers are signed to a label. The rap world has its Jay-Zs and Diddys, like we have our Jeff Koons and Damien Hirsts. A rapper may come out with a CD once every year or so, and drop mixtapes simultaneously. We have a solo exhibition once every year or so, and participate in groups shows, simultaneously. We share similar sensibilities and concerns about the future of our culture, like our debates and qualms about artists becoming “too commercial.”

In our globalized world, where everyone seems to be a global citizen, is there still a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation? If so, what are the differences?

NCA: I don’t necessarily see a difference between to the two. I see cultural appropriation now more as someone coming late to the party, so to speak, to appreciate the culture. But rather late or not, I think it’s [a] genuine appreciation for an interest in the culture nonetheless.

CR: I’m a White guy who loves rap and makes rap, so maybe I am a little too close to the question to answer it, but I have noticed that most of the handwringing in the press about these issues (i.e. Miley Cyrus) comes from the White media. It feels that hip hop and rap have opened up a lot in the Internet age, with regards to race, gender and sexual orientation.

blueberry-roberts

“Blueberry”, Charlie Roberts.

How has being a Black American, who listens to and interprets rap and hip hop music, which is culturally Black American music, affected your artwork and your view on urban, Black American culture?

NCA: I find the “hustler’s mentality”, that most rappers have, very motivating and inspiring. Of course, they have more than their fair share of fun, but their work ethic is admirable. A lot of these rappers are completely immersed in the culture and are creating 24/7. Think about the amount of songs Tupac created. And with music being so accessible now, artists are coming out with mixtapes every other week. Listening to rap while I paint motivates me to take that same approach when I’m working in the studio.

How has being a White American, Norwegian transplant, who listens to and interprets rap and hip hop music, which is culturally Black American music, affected your artwork and your view on urban, Black American culture?

CR: I was raised in Kansas; I’ve been in Norway for the past 7 years. Kansas is not a hotbed of rap. We have Tech N9ne, and the town I grew up in was more directly influenced by Mexican culture; [rapper] South Park Mexican was a favorite of ours. I grew up in the MTV Rap video era, [so] for kids like us, in the middle-of-nowhere small-town USA, it was aspirational. So much of hip hop is about changing your situation (now, it is primarily about how the situation has changed), and it struck a chord with us. We wanted more than the cards we had been dealt. I love that striving sentiment in rap, it is such an American sentiment: “We started from the bottom, now we here.”

"Mic Check", Nina Chanel Abney.

“Mic Check”, Nina Chanel Abney.

Nina, you attended Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby” performance at Pace Gallery. What did you think of the “performance art” piece, the audience, and Jay-Z’s reach into connecting the art world to urban Black culture through music?

NCA: I thought it was really cool. In seeing videos and pictures of Basquiat and Keith Haring, it appeared that music and art used to go hand-in-hand. Grace Jones in her collaboration with Haring, Basquiat, and his band, Gray… I don’t know why that has changed over time, but I’m excited about the idea of music and art connecting again. Particularly, within urban Black culture, because there is such a lack of African American students pursuing Fine Arts. I don’t think they know that you can make a living, and a good living as an artist. So, I applaud artists like Jay-Z, Swizz Beatz, Pharrell, Kanye, Santigold, and Solange for taking steps towards bridging that gap.

Lastly, fill in the blank: You know it’s rap when______, you know it’s hip hop when, ______ and you know it’s trap music when__________.

NCA: You know it’s rap when you are satisfied with just a good beat and hook, you know it’s hip hop when you are concentrating on the lyrics, and you know it’s trap music when you are compelled to turn the bass up.

CR: You know it’s rap when you can dance to it, you know it’s hip hop when you can’t dance to it, and you know it’s trap music when you hear all the machine gun hi hat runs.

Nina Chanel Abney and Charlie Roberts’ show, “Stacks on Deck”, is still on view at Kravets|Wehby until November 16th, 2013.

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