With a watchful eye on the streets of New York and an active pen, up and coming artist NOTAR is poised to make waves in the crowded ocean of hip-hop music. Who knew that a young trumpet player from Connecticut would evolve into one of the best rappers to hit the scene in years? His debut album, “Devil’s Playground,” seamlessly mixes all genres of music and is a breath of fresh air in hip-hop’s current era of excessive auto-tune and extravagant living. NOTAR is here to deliver a message, a message deserving attention. Steve Johnson of Icon vs. Icon recently spoke to NOTAR about his beginnings in the entertainment industry, his influences, his collaboration and friendship with Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, and his impressive debut LP “Devil’s Playground.”
First off, tell us a little about your background. Where did you grow up and how did music first come into your life?
I was born in New Haven, Connecticut. I was raised in a musical family. My grandmother, who is 89, she plays trumpet and to this day she still plays. Her son, my late father, played trumpet as well. My little sister plays piano. My older sister plays. I definitely came from a musical background, as far as being surrounded by the arts growing up. Watching my dad’s band play downstairs in the basement as a kid. Banging on stuffed animals with drumsticks and shit like that. I’ve always been surrounded by it. I’ve always loved it. I’ve always loved listening to it. I’ve always loved trying to play it. It’s kind of been an underlying theme for my entire life.
You mentioned your father is one of your influences. Are there any professional influences that helped shape you, the musician we know today?
I feel like there are almost too many to name because I like to try to dive into all of the genres. I really like a little bit of everybody. Even the stuff I don’t necessarily bump or listen to on a daily basis, I can still find something good in it. I just really like great music. I’m a huge Miles Davis fan. Buckethead, I’m a huge Buckethead fan. The Clash. Old REM. Anything I can get something from and influence me. Mostly emotional-driven music. Stuff that kind of draws emotion, whether that be The Doors, or Zeppelin, or whoever.
How did you get your start in the music industry?
I got an internship at Octone Records when I came to New York. I was basically cutting flyers and promoting concerts. It was right at the time Clive started Octone, which was a subsidiary of J Records at the time. I was working closely with Ben Berkman, Andy Suggs and Dave Boxenbaum. There was a bunch of people I was kind of working with and they kind of got me my start, as far as getting my foot in the door. After that I decided to leave them because it didn’t look like I was actually going to get hired over there in a permanent position in a grassroots place. Then an opportunity opened up at Bad Boy Records where I was able to kind of intern and eventually assist for P. Diddy for a few months. It was a short stint, but I was able to look at the music industry from the back end and kind of see what things I needed to learn, maybe what I already know, did I really want to be involved in such an industry, and things like that. After that I decided to quit. Every single opportunity dropped when I decided I really didn’t want to do music. I didn’t let anyone know that I was doing music, but I clearly wanted to do music. Instead of working in the industry, I wanted to be the industry. I felt like I can’t waste anymore time, not recording and shit. So I got in there and recorded. A couple of opportunities popped up. I made a few demos. Now here I am talking to you.
Your debut album “Devil’s Playground” recently dropped. For those not too familiar with your music, how would you best describe it?
Definitely gritty, emotional driven, hip-hop, rock with slashes of funk and jazz. It’s definitely a cornucopia of musical elements. It’s a concept record showing topics the devil would find funny or laugh at. It covers topics such as war, death, loss, sex, drugs. Anything that evil would find funny or kind of condone. I used my life as kind of a blueprint and New York City as a whole as kind of being the playground. Every track from beginning to end has something to do with that topic. If the listener takes tracks one through 13 they’ll kind of hear the story of how it develops and how it makes sense by the end.
How do you think you evolved as a musician since starting out?
I’m definitely becoming more in tune with what my sound is, as far as what I want to portray. Kind of like the flavor of what I’m putting forward. When I go in the studio now, I know exactly what I want to do and how I want to do it. I know what my style of flow is. I know what I’m good at and what I need to work on. I’ve kind of evolved in a way. I’m still evolving. Every day that you step in the studio you evolve. I always want to push the next thing. I started mixing electronica and jazz with heavy rock lately with this production team called Volts United in Jacksonville, Florida. That’s been fantastic. I’m still evolving, but I know what my core elements are. I know what makes me NOTAR. I know how to bring that to a track.
What can you tell us about the writing process for the record? How did it initially come together?
The writing process is weird, especially these days. A lot of times I go in. I write a lot. Sometimes my thoughts are only a word or rhyme scheme that might work for me, but I never try to stayed married to the paper for too long. I find there’s a whole lot of perfection in imperfection. A lot of times I get in there and go off the top of my head as much as possible. I always stay on top of what the song is about. I kind of write an outline of what I want the song to be and what point I want to come across. As far as the writing process, sometimes it’s me on a New York City street with a pen and a pad. Other times it’s me in the park just kind of thinking to myself. Sometimes I’ll pop on TV and it will inspire me. The newspaper. I kind of draw influence from life itself. I try to put that all into one thing.
Were there any challenges to making the album?
Definitely man. This business is treacherous! It’s some bullshit. Patience was a huge factor in creating this record. Creating it was the fun part, but when you get the creative all done and then you leave, you’re like, “Who’s going to use it? Where’s it going to go? What’s happening?” I don’t really think of that stuff during the creative process. I think about it after. I’m like, “Alright, I did this. Where is it?” It was definitely trouble. Being broke, getting closed out of studios, deadlines. All that kind of stuff. In the end it is totally worth it if you have a great project.
It’s definitely a good album. I dig it.
Thanks brother! I appreciate it!
You worked with Adam Duritz of Counting Crows on the album. Tell us a little about how you guys became collaborators/friends.
We met through mutual friends. He heard my demo through my attorney at the time. He played Adam my stuff, Adam heard something in my writing and he asked me if I wanted to make some music together. So I said, “Alright. Cool!” It was a really weird path. It went through three or four people and it finally got in Adam’s hands. It seemed to work, so we started making songs together. The first song we did was “Stranger.”
What has it been like working alongside Adam? Have you learned from him?
Yeah. Just his composure and how he goes about things. The way he’s been able to keep a band for so long at the forefront of it. He’s like a mentor, you know? He’s like an older brother to me. If I need advice or guidance in any way, shape, or form, he supplies that for me. It’s nice. My dad passed when I was little and I didn’t grow up with a male influence, like an older brother or father-type deal. This chapter of my life is a gift that I do not take for granted.
When and where can people catch up with you? Do you plan to tour in support of the album?
I’m definitely going to be touring. I’ve got a few local shows I’m setting up in New York now. I should be hitting the mid-west and stuff. If they want to check it out, all of the tour information will be located on notarnyc.com.
What do you hope people take away from seeing your live show?
I hope they leave with chills down their spine. I like to get the energy rolling. I try to leave it all out on stage when I’m performing. High impact. High energy. I kind of want them to come back to the next one, you know?
What do you consider the defining moment of your career so far?
Basically this project. I’d have to say it is the defining moment of my career. Touring last summer with The Crows was the best time of my life. Being able to know that I can hold down a crowd of 50- or 60,000 people is pretty remarkable for a kid from Connecticut that played trumpet for a small band class growing up. I think this project and having something in the marketplace right now is the biggest part of my career. We’ll see how it goes. I’m really, really proud of it and really happy that people seem to be digging it.
What is the best piece of advice someone gave you along the way in your career?
Just to keep pushing. There are so many times when you want to stop, where you want to quit, where you want to say, “Fuck this! I want to throw in the towel.” It seems like the person who is able to keep going no matter what the adversity or what the trouble is, like running on empty … If you keep pushing, someone will recognize it. I think that’s really been the foundation of my career up to this point. I just keep pushing. I’m relentless. Just be relentless.
Do you have any last words for our readers out there?
Definitely pick up “Devil’s Playground.” I think it’s a record of the times and I think it’s a record people need to hear. I hope you enjoy it and I appreciate everybodys support.
Thanks for your time NOTAR! We wish you all the best!
I appreciate it bro. Thanks for your time.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.