New Kingdom: Tripping Towards Paradise

The psychedelic NYC duo of Nosaj and Sebastian Laws on taking hip hop on a trip via two mind-expanding LPs in the’90s

Nosaj + Sebastian Laws of New Kingdom Courtesy of the artist

“I went through this phase where I was only buying albums with ‘Live at the Fillmore’ in the title,” remembers Jason Furlow AKA Nosaj of psychedelic NYC rap group New Kingdom. It was 1994, and Furlow was renting a cavernous Williamsburg loft with Sebastian Laws, his best friend and partner-in-rhyme. The loft was sparsely decorated: a couple of posters on the walls, a tent set up in the middle of the floor.

One night that summer, Furlow cued up Miles Davis at Fillmore on the turntable and, as spooked, spaced-out fusion perfumed the room, retreated to the tent with his notepad and gazed up at a Jimi Hendrix poster on the wall. A heavy mood descended, and he began to scrawl down an electric stream-of-consciousness, jump-cutting from that Hendrix poster to the death of Kurt Cobain earlier that year to an imagined afterlife encounter with Miles Davis. Set to a lysergic, guitar-soaked dirge-beat, the words he wrote later became “Animal,” a dank, meditative standout from New Kingdom’s 1996 second album Paradise Don’t Come Cheap. A sly reference to Cobain’s suicide note in the first verse also underscored the seriousness of the group’s ambitions, as Nosaj growled “Heroes fade away, real legends never die.”

New Kingdom - Animal

“I told people, ‘We gonna be legends, we’re never gonna go away,’” reflects Furlow two decades later. “We’re gonna be just like Jimi, just like Miles, because it’s gonna last forever. Shit was real.”

While that might sound like hubris today – especially considering Paradise Don’t Come Cheap remains the group’s final statement – New Kingdom’s fierce ambition and psychedelic vision yielded two sublime albums that remain as out-there and inspired as when they arrived two decades ago.

Furlow and Laws met in the late ’80s working at Soho vintage outlet Canal Jeans, where they bonded over music and a shared hatred of retail. Canned for “boosting shit from the store,” Furlow says they realised, “We need money. We could rob a bank. Or we could start a group, which was kind of the same thing. We wrote a manifesto, and we didn’t have a name or a goddamn song yet. But we had an intent.” The duo scoured their record collections for sounds, plastering vinyl with Post-Its to mark anything they could sample: a ticking clock, a marching band, that terrifying drone that opens Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” “There were no filters,” says Laws. “We didn’t know what we couldn’t do, no one to tell us, ‘This is not cool.’” The job of turning all this Post-It-pocked vinyl into music fell to an engineer Furlow had met while helping friends record a demo at renowned NYC recording studio Calliope.

Scott Harding AKA Scotty Hard was a Vancouver native with deep connections to New York hip hop cognoscenti, working with Jungle Brothers and Ultramagnetic MCs. He soon realised he was in the presence of kindred spirits. “They were interested in being experimental, and they weren’t just sampling James Brown like everyone else,” he remembers. “They were different, and adventurous, and we had the same goal: to do things that broke all the rules.”

“Scotty was like our gravitational pull,” adds Laws. “Our ideas were flying around in haphazard fashion; he helped us focus. We had a million puzzle pieces; Scotty put them together. Like, boom. He figured it out.”

Scotty also put the duo in touch with Jon Baker, honcho of Gee Street Records, which had hit big with U.K. hip hop group Stereo MCs and was now building a U.S. roster, beginning with tripped-out New Jersey rappers PM Dawn. Baker dug the two idiosyncratic MCs, with their growly cadences, dense, dusted rhymes and freeform influences: Furlow equally indebted to Divine Styler and Stetsasonic’s Daddy-O, Laws having spent his youth bouncing between the New York hardcore scene at CBGBs and Great Gildersleeves and hip hop nights at the Latin Quarter and the Milky Way. “I loved Zeppelin and Motorhead, and also hip hop,” Laws remembers. “And no one else was putting those together. Oh, you had some rhyming over AC/DC riffs, sure.” New Kingdom’s fusion, however, would go deeper, weirder and wilder.

“I wanted our records to stand up next to records by Pink Floyd and Hendrix,” says Furlow. “I wanted people to be, like, ‘Holy shit, we are about to get LIFTED and listen to this record.’”

Baker financed a demo, then a development deal, then an album. Furlow and Laws got to work turning their manifesto into music. “A lot of it I don’t remember,” admits Furlow, “because there was so much acid and mushrooms and shit.” But the duo put their psychedelic experiences to work. “We’d listen to music while tripping, and things would stick out, stuff that was us. We had this awareness of sound, like a visionary thing. It helped, in a lot of ways.”

With the development money, Harding bought Prince Paul’s old Akai S900 sampler, a hundred dollar drum machine and a 4-track tape recorder. “We drove up to a Bronx record store where one of Ultramagnetic MCs worked and bought the entire Ultimate Breaks And Beats series,” he grins. They set up in Laws’ Park Slope apartment, lit some incense and began assembling the disparate samples, dousing the tracks with heavy bass and psychedelic, dub-informed effects. “Long delays, reverse reverb, druggy weird stuff,” says Harding, who approached the project “from a psychedelic, experimental context. Captain Beefheart. Rammellzee and K-Rob.”

“On headphones,” adds Furlow, “It sounded like a trip.”

New Kingdom - Mars

Heavy Load dropped in 1993, a bold debut that revelled in its off-centre funk, psychedelic ambience and heavy-rock heft, segueing from the woozy hedonism of “Good Times” to spaced-out ecological spiel “Mother Nature” to stoned and immaculate dub-hop epic “Lazy Smoke.” Today, it sounds like the lost thread linking the spliff-soaked rap of Cypress Hill to the esoteric excursions of the then-nascent trip-hop scene. The album was audacious. “Mars” swung from swaggering dancefloor stomp to lilting headnod sharply enough to give listeners the bends – and gleefully enough to make it work.

They took the album on the road; Harding hired a drummer, percussionist and DJ and played dub master at the mixing desk. “Our percussionist wanted to light a gong on fire onstage,” says Harding. “No one let us do it, but we ended up with a gong, and it sounded good.” A blur of afros, sideburns and checked shirts, the MCs attacked the stage with what Furlow describes as “a Stooges, punk rock mentality of, ‘We’re gonna be as wild as the music takes us.’” When the PA died at one early gig, they led the crowd out to the car-park and rapped from the roof of the van. Other shows saw the duo racing about the stage, “a two-man mosh-pit.” A memorable appearance on U.K. TV show The Word ended with an anarchic stage invasion. “Shit got chaotic,” says Furlow. “Everyone was open, too, because everyone was smoking weed. People seemed open to new ideas. We killed it.”

New Kingdom on The Word

The sheer massiveness of New Kingdom’s live sound directly fed into its follow-up; Laws describes their mindset as “let’s be grand, embrace the tidal wave, build up the intergalactic sound.” Jon Baker encouraged their ambitions, and the group began shaping their magnum opus, a darkly psychedelic hip hop vision of the film Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia.

Paradise Don’t Come Cheap had a concept, of sorts. Furlow’s lyrics to three tracks – “Mexico Or Bust,” the title track and “Animal” – followed a man on the run, “fuelled by liquid courage,” breaking for the border and onto his doom. The other tracks echoed this edgy drama, serving as “windows into what we were going through,” says Laws. “Travelling the world, being thrust into this strange stuff, all these new experiences, opening minds and having our minds opened. The songs were all connected, we just all had a different idea of how.”

This time, live instruments augmented the samples and beats, Harding sharing guitar duties with avant-jazzer John Medeski, lending sleazy blues rasp to the brokedown rumble of “Mexico Or Bust” and layering “Animal” in hallucinatory solos. Their beats continued to push boundaries: “Infested’s” bleak, broken funk felt on the edge of collapsing in on itself; “Kickin’ Like Bruce Lee’s” brawny 85 seconds ran “Rock The Bells” through a psychedelic mangle. The album’s second side, meanwhile, went further out than the trio (and, indeed, most hip hop) had ever dared, “Suspended In Air” and “Journey To The Sun” mapping their own courses far from any pigeonhole. “Sonic Youth were working at the same studio,” says Furlow. “Kim Gordon told us, ‘Every time your door opens it sounds like fucking monsters are coming out of there!’”

Furlow remembers a conversation while the group were touring Paradise Don’t Come Cheap. “Like, ‘What next? What record should we make?’ We’d exhausted so many possibilities, it was hard to think what to do next. There was a feeling of, like, ‘Shit. We did it. We did what we wanted to do.’” Solo projects were pursued: Furlow recorded an unreleased album with DJ Starchild as the Freak Brothers; Laws cut some EPs with a new band, Truckstop; Harding released a solo album, The Return Of Kill Dog E. They collaborated, individually, with artists like Bill Laswell, Morcheeba and Kevin Martin. Real life intervened. Furlow started a family. Laws’ father fell ill, so Sebastian stepped in to run his shop. Harding was seriously injured in a car accident in 2008.

New Kingdom - Journey To The Sun

“New Kingdom didn’t fall apart, says Laws. “It just separated, for a bit.” The members are aware that their brief, brilliant discography has earned a cult following. “My daughter wore a New Kingdom T-shirt to high school,” laughs Furlow, “and a kid there offered her a hundred dollars for it, and refused to believe her dad was Nosaj.” U.K. rapper Kid Acne, meanwhile, travelled to NYC to track down Laws, and the pair have spent the last decade collaborating as Mongrels, whose long-awaited debut album, Attack The Monolith, arrives May 2016. “Kid Acne is one of the family,” grins Laws. “He belongs.”

Harding continues to produce and engineer, while Furlow has begun a new solo project, NiggasIsArt, which he describes as a fusion of “Cab Calloway-style shout blues and Dylan melodies, get-your-attention shit.” Recently, though, there has been talk between the group of fresh New Kingdom activity. “Everybody is sort of getting on the same page,” says Laws. “It’s moving in that direction.” “We should just go in the studio and do some new New Kingdom demos,” adds Furlow. “I think the time is right. Obviously, our ideas are still crazy.”

“It was really uncharted territory,” says Laws now, of the spheres New Kingdom navigated. “There was no one operating in the same vein. And there isn’t, to this day. And it got a good response. I don’t know if the label wanted to sell more records, but it was enough for us. I’m really proud.”

New Kingdom Courtesy of the artist

“There was no precedent for what we did,” adds Furlow. “Certainly not in hip hop. We didn’t have a locker-room mentality, no ‘male ego’ approach. We had a Beefheart mentality. People called us ‘rap-rock’, but it wasn’t a Judgment Night deal, you know? It was the opposite of cheese.”

Age hasn’t withered those two albums: their skull-caving funk, their psychedelic adventurousness, the sulphurous discourses of Nosaj and Sebastian as impactful and thrilling today as two decades before, New Kingdom’s grand ambition paying infinite dividends. “I wanted our records to stand up next to records by Pink Floyd and Hendrix,” says Furlow. “I wanted people to be, like, ‘Holy shit, we are about to get LIFTED and listen to this record.’” Like Sebastian and I did, when we worked at Canal Jeans. Like the stories my uncles would tell me: ‘We’d get together in the basement, ‘Maggot Brain’ came out – wooooo! Changed my life!’ And thankfully, that’s what happened.”

By Stevie Chick on May 11, 2016

On a different note