Xchel Lara

Nineties hip-hop legends, Jurassic 5 turntablist DJ Nu-Mark (Mark Potsic) and former Pharcyde member Slimkid3 (Tre Hardson) have taken young emcee Austin Antoine into their fold for TRDMRK, a new musical project from the trio, which also features a handful of other guest vocalists such as Detroit rapper Guilty Simpson. The result is the best of old skool rap with a bristling new edge, often in the form of Antoine’s direct, politically-charge rhymes, the perfect foil to Slimkid3’s earthier flow.

As a hip-hop unit they don’t spit rhymes to eviscerate the other. The elder rapper offers a different perspective from the fast-rising cypher and nicely elevates the collective and their cause. Their eponymous EP drops today (Feb 15). And on it, they tackle today’s most pertinent -isms, from racism, consumerism to capitalism and how that impacts the Black experience—or the American experience—at this cultural pinch point moment, without being preachy.

It’s this trinity and everyone who will join them against apathy, with the relentless pursuit of money on the opposing side. On “Hands Up,” the first single, Slimkid3 illustrates this equilibrium with a virtuoso coupling “don’t fuck with the shallow, I’m not one to follow” and Antoine responds with “I know I’m automatic, real raw. Got the kind of passion that these rappers would kill for.” Thanks to prolific beatmaster DJ Nu-Mark, it’s also a studied exercise in how to keep striving for creativity in the medium and still produce an epic banger for the dancefloor.

The EP was originally planned as a follow up to DJ Nu-Mark and Slimkid3’s eponymous 2014 album. However, it quickly became apparent that Antoine was leaning in and becoming a bigger part of the project. We spoke to DJ Nu-Mark, who breaks down how the trio built the songs together, the merits of bringing Antoine as a TRDMRK member and why they decided to drop an EP over an album.

”Hands Up” is unmistakably old skool but it also feels very off-the-moment and vital. How did the song come together – did it start with a loop, sample or lyrics?

I was trying to stay rooted in what I’m known for obviously, but I wanted it to sound current, and the term you used – vital. I was just tinkering around with beats and different time signatures and was wondering what would happen if I made a 3 bar beat just for the hook. Which could potentially confuse people – it’s supposed to be the simplest part that people can grab and sink their teeth into.

But you wanted to push the listener a little?

Yes. I wanted to see if I could still get the listener to follow along with me if I drop an extra bar there. The parts where the guys are rhyming is the regular 4 bar structure but I wanted to see what would happen if I kinda just dropped an extra bar there and then it looped around, turned around in a way that felt good to me and to the guys – the emcees – we were just like, “God!” And then we just started mumbling phrases, once we had the hook I was telling them, I’m hearing the cadence like these (makes sound of beat) and the guys sort of worked out the hook and what should be said there. I initially wanted to call it “Racked Up” like racking up the chips, racking up the money, but the hands up part kept being repeated so I thought “Hands Up” is probably better. It was a real step-by-step thing but incredibly organic. I think once the hook came in, we just decided that we should pour some time into the song. It was giving us a lot back for the little we were putting into it.

“Racked Up” suggests more of a gamble and risk whereas “Hands Up” has a more communal feel-good vibe to it.

Yeah, I think there’s something about the arpeggiated synths – it was also bringing me back to an art piece that I had seen. I ended up commissioning the artist – a guy called John Karborn – to do our cover. The sound felt like the album cover to me. And all the songs just came after it. Actually, there’s a whole album’s worth, but we just picked our seven favorites. Although I’m kind of gutted as I heard a bunch of songs that I like on the album two days ago. I was listening to it and was like, there are some really good songs in there that didn’t make the EP; ah damn, I think I fucked up. There’s one song that Austin’s kind of running the show – he’s amazing, he can sing, he can rhyme, there’s just a great tambor to his voice – and he sounds so great on this song “How To Survive At 22.” This is going to have to make an appearance somehow, somewhere down the line.

Do you want to see how the EP does and release an album later down the line?

No, everything’s done. I’ve just been seeing the ongoing trends of shrinking attention spans. There’s no disrespect to anybody. I myself will watch a clip for maybe a minute, tops (laughs) – so I started to figure it out when I released my Zodiac track series (live mixes using vinyl to wish as many happy birthday’s to many influential artists and musicians under any one astrological sign). Before that, I had asked my Facebook family which they would prefer I release, an album or steady content. Ninety percent picked album but I know now this is bullshit because nothing moved the dialed for me when it came to social media engagement like these bite-size mixes of steady content. With the Zodiac tracks, my followers quadrupled and I had previously released albums, singles, re-edits, long mixes (45 mins to one-and-a-half hours) like New Crack City that did well, but nothing moved the needle and got me talking to my followers like Zodiac tracks. So I took a big chance and went, “No, this is just what you guys are used to – expecting albums.” We all discussed it and went with an EP instead. Then I needed an exclusive song to kick it off, so I used the Zodiac Killah featuring Method Man track. At the end of the day, TRDMRK really is a passion project. It wasn’t like featuring Bruno Mars on anything like that (laughs) – it really comes from my heart. And the same for the other guys. I don’t know if an album is palatable for such a passion project. So we talked about releasing a bunch of singles and keeping it bite-size. It’s sort of follow-up to Slimkid3 and DJ Nu-Mark album on Delicious Vinyl a few years back. But with this one we brought in Austin on this new EP, and he brought in a new color – that was the decision making process of why we decided to not go with an album.

Austin holds the Guinness World Record for the longest freestyle at 16 hours! How did you first hear of him and what made you and Tre want to work and include him as a core member of TRDMRK?

I heard Austin on a song he did with Tre called “Double LieF” of the Bizarre Ride project. The song blew me away. LA Jay absolutely annihilated the beat but there was something about Austin’s voice. He has a good play with words and the tone of his voice. I was hinting at Tre when we were about to head into the studio, we should bring in other writers for hooks and catchy bridges, and he said, “We should really bring in Austin, he’s really good at those things.”

So we got Austin to spit a verse on this album. It ended up being Austin on half the album. And then we were like, “Why don’t we just bring him in? Let’s not think about it too tight. Let him do what he does and open up more creativity as he gets more invested.” And sure enough that is what happened; he really poured his all into the project because he really looks up to Tre, and the Pharcyde, and definitely knew who Jurassic 5 was. It was just one of those things, it fit the mould. And he rounded out Tre as an emcee a little bit, allowed Tre to breathe a little bit, and bounce off someone else in the studio, but also on the mic. I guess he brings out a friendly competitiveness – like with Wu Tang, they’re just all going for it, they know the next guy is just going to murder it. These guys were doing that, going back and forth, it just felt right.

That definitely comes across when listening to the EP.

I started feeling a real balance when we got to “Broken Artists.” Once I heard Austin’s rhymes on that, I thought this is really going to round out this record. We really need his energy. Tre tends to be more whimsical, talking about women, he’s more free and earthy. Austin can get down to a direct fact, a clean and cohesive train of thought, and I really like that in him. They just balance each other out.

With your solo album Broken Sunlight you had parameters in terms of specific themes when working with emcees/vocalists. With TRDMRK, did you give them direction in the same way, or did you just give them the beats and let them loose?

There was maybe one or two things I did in front of them beat-wise. But for the most part I go into my cave, have a bunch of ideas and create beats by myself. Then I have this filing system, like that’s good for Method Man, or TRDMRK or this one is good to shop to an emcee, or this one’s good for Drop The Mic … I don’t try to make a TRDMRK beat, per se. But there are a few themes that really stood out. Once you’ve produced music, you hear it over and over again, you know it better than the management team or label, ‘cause you’ve created the beat and heard it over and over again. Then you’re tracking it and mixing it, creating beats from scratch. Then you’re mastering it and performing it. On “Broken Artists,” I was hearing struggle on that one. And so I was like, “Austin, can I hear you do something solo on that theme?” Then in the case of “Pick It Up” – that was an interesting one – it was a trap-py beat thing but I was trying to marry it with my classic breaks and beat, this kind of world where the hook or bridge comes around, there’s a lot of raw drum breaks and cuts, you don’t hear that in a lot of current music now. I was telling the guys this should be more club, or party and fun. I tend to hint at the vibe unless someone says something different…and I go, “Oh, oh, I really am tripping, let’s go with that instead!” But first the guys have to feel it, otherwise it’s not even a discussion.

One of my favorites on the EP is “Fall In Numbers,” which has Detroit legend Guilty Simpson.

Tre and I were really building on that one before Austin came in. We were like, “We should really bring Guilty Simpson on this because it has a Detroit vibe.” It had this digital world, mass production vibe, I can’t explain it… we were listening to it and it felt like numbers, we’re all just numbers – we started talking about fall in numbers – and how hard it is to keep friends on social media. We’ve both been in our respective groups, it’s hard to keep all these relationships growing strong. Or just regular relationships. It was all kind of derivative of what the beat was in the studio. Then we needed somebody to just drive the point home – we didn’t get that with Guilty, he gaves us a real spaced out vibe that we loved but we needed something else. And once we brought in Austin, we were like we need to bring in this guy into the group proper. He’s batting average was amazing, he was like our clinch hitter every time.

Who is the female voice on “Temptation?”

That’s my friend M3. I worked with one of her partners on my Broken Sunlight album – Erica Dee. I heard M3’s voice and kept hearing her on many tracks. I was like, “Gosh, she has such a nice voice, kind of like an Adele, a raspy thing and lots of other flavors going on.” We were having a tough time with “Temptations”; the beat was giving us that temptations vibe – temptations on the road, avoiding the cookie-cutter traps in music. I really like Tre’s style on that, he came from a whole different style, flexible, malleable, different feelings in different tracks; he’ll try anything. We kept hearing a female voice on the hook and she came in and repeated that back. It stuck. Then Austin came in and backed her vocals up a little bit.

But you brought M3 in to sound like the sample?

Yes, there tends to be a lot of that in my studio now that I think about it – getting people to come in and say, “Hey, sound like the sample. Just blend in with that.” (Laughs)

Get the EP here or listen to it below.