Sweeping glass panels from an office space reflected the Brooklyn Queens Expressway above me as I removed my earbuds to combat the already deafening noise of the cityscape. Checking my phone, I collected my thoughts and reviewed the few facts about this evening I was sure of: I was early to this meeting, the meeting location was on this block, and I would be shadowing the Brooklyn-based artist, musician, and producer Nas Leber.
All Photos Courtesy of Nashish Scott.
“This album is a reflection of my life and how it’s been since shit has opened up again. It’s not even about COVID but the opportunity to get into the NYC scene again and move away from playing underground gigs. The last two years, I’ve DJ’d more than I ever have in my life. It encapsulates riding that high, while simultaneously being burnt out. It’s a high and a comedown too. Sometimes you need to take a step back and just get your shit together.”– Nas Leber
Although this was enough to work with, the night’s variables began to unfold in my mind, and I wondered how the next two-to-six hours would transpire. Double-checking the address, I surveyed the office space in front of me—tall ceilings, glass walls, fin-tech fancy—and sent the text that I had arrived. I peered into the glass lobby in anticipation before hearing a “psst” to the side of the building. Standing at a subterranean entrance, a man with black hair and a sparkling gold grill propped the underground door open and invited me in.
Nas Leber’s studio, which he shares with three other musicians, was dimly lit with shadows creeping from his collection of guitars, studio equipment, and Sazerac whiskey bottles. We were joined by Nas’s friend and frequent collaborator Andrew Adames, a painter whose work blends pop culture icons with smeared expressions of futility and agony, à la Francis Bacon. Acting together under the name AKA The Darknight, they had released the track “Is This The Line For The Bathroom?”, which despite its modest streaming numbers, had been making its rounds at the hip clubs and in-the-know-circles of NYC. The hook for this drum-and-bass track, which goes “I be serving cocaine to the Bushwick, Brooklyn Bitches”, verges on comedic but is also balanced by a hard-hitting combination of synths, drums, and Andrew’s vocal performance.
Although the track feels like an inside joke between friends in the studio, it also demands to be taken seriously with its anthemic club potential. In many ways, “Is This The Line For The Bathroom?”, with its electronic and punk tones, represents Nas Leber’s willingness to adapt musically, which he explains, “Right now, a lot of the music I have out doesn’t really reflect who I am and how I feel at this stage of life, and I want to put something out that better shows what I really enjoy doing. Ultimately, I want to make what I want to hear and that’s just different from how I was even two years ago.”
Nas Leber, a proud Bronx native, recognizes that this recent AKA The Darknight track, alongside his solo upcoming album I’ll Try Harder, is an artistic departure from his previous work. Nas affably explains that “We are two Dominican guys from the Bronx, making post-punk music and sounding like Elvis. It’s fun to surprise people and play stuff that I can play in clubs but still sounds fresh.” Andrew joined in, adding, “Being Dominicans from the Bronx, our parents only spoke Spanish and we only listened to Spanish music growing up, not really even knowing that there were other options. But the first time I checked Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, or Jay-Z, it kind of opened my eyes to the idea of different scenes or styles for me.”
As a producer, Nas Leber continues to build on the variety of his musical influences, resulting in a patchwork of unorthodox and exciting beats and vocals. Walking me through his upcoming album, which is slated to release this summer, he said, “I’m obviously very inspired by hip hop, but alternative music gives me more freedom to create and diversify as a producer. People like Toro Y Moi and Kevin Parker ride the lines between hip-hop and alternative right now, and I want to build on that direction.” I was surprised to hear elements of post-punk and new wave in some of the album’s tracks, with driving harmonies that blend into feedback-heavy guitar solos. The album possessed a clear narrative about the highs of nightlife, while also exploring the bodily and mental costs which often follow.
Commenting on I’ll Try Harder’s message, Nas Leber explained, “This album is a reflection of my life and how it’s been since shit has opened up again. It’s not even about COVID but the opportunity to get into the NYC scene again and move away from playing underground gigs. The last two years, I’ve DJ’d more than I ever have in my life. It encapsulates riding that high, while simultaneously being burnt out. It’s a high and a comedown too. Sometimes you need to take a step back and just get your shit together.”
The studio we were in had an electric pulse, and the volume only got louder as we continued to review music, listen to unreleased tracks, talk about Aronofsky, going to private school, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Evanescence. Suddenly, we decided to commence the night and emerged from our underground bunker, acquiring tall-boy Presidentes and dollar slices before ascending to the JMZ line over Brooklyn and into the Lower East Side.
Emerging from the Delancey/Essex stop, we meandered down Ludlow Street, joined now by our photographer, Nashish Scott, and a small coterie of nightlife revelers. Nas Leber and Andrew seemed to know every bouncer on the corner of these fabled LES streets, dapping past doorways at spots like Kind Regards and being intermittently illuminated by the flash of a Canon. They laughed and told me about getting turned away from Pianos as 18-year-olds in sweaty Hanes white tees and backpacks.
Andrew joked, “They would always tell me to come back with more ladies, that showing up as a couple of sweaty dudes was not it. But I’m pretty sure they also knew we were underage, so that’s a little suspect in the long run.” Luckily, we had no such troubles, as we were led along the VIP doorway so that Nas could set up his DJ residency on Piano’s second floor.
Reggaeton, trance, rap, D&B, and alt-rock reverberated off the club’s dance floor and the room quickly began to fill out around midnight on a Wednesday. The diverse array of people who inhabited the dance floor rolled with each and every genre shift, amassing sweat as the promise of Thursday morning continued to ring in. Pulling my phone out and reviewing it with one eye open, I realized that it was time for me to pack it up and begin my adventure home. However, it was reassuring to know that in my absence the people in this room would undoubtedly continue to supply this bustling city with promising new pulses.