Every so often, Milwaukee, the unassuming city by the lake, frequently overshadowed by its Midwestern cultural hub counterparts in Chicago and Detroit, churns out a musical act that generates a good amount of buzz beyond the borders of Lake Michigan: take hardcore gone alterna-group Die Kreuzen, folk-meets-country-meets-punk trio Violent Femmes, ’90s emo all-stars The Promise Ring, or Coo Coo Cal, the rapper behind 2002’s hot single “My Projects.” The city and its music scene, now flourishing more brilliantly than ever, have become the subjects of much attention once again, but that one act standing out above the rest is New Age Narcissism, an eight member, multi-genre DIY collective.
NAN is comprised of rappers Lorde Freddee and WebsterX, singers Lex Allen and Siren, bassist and background vocalist Bo Triplex, percussionist Chris G., saxophonist Jay Anderson, and producer and keyboardist Q the Sun. The squad collaboratively crafts and performs material that boasts hints of experimental hip-hop, neo soul, funk, R&B, downtempo, and jazz (see the balance of Lex Allen’s smooth, soulful range with Lord Freddee’s gravely verse paired with Q the Sun’s skillful production on songs like “This is Our Year”, or WebsterX’s “doomsday” backed by electronic bass drum blasts and Siren’s jazzy, mezzo-soprano vocals).
“Being from Milwaukee, where there’s no real lineage or legacy of music really known outside of Milwaukee, actually gives us more of a creative freedom in a way,” Q states. “We can go in any kind of direction and be confident with it.”
When NAN performs as a unit, the results are impressive. It’s intimate. It’s interactive. It’s chaotic. And it requires each individual member of the audience to become an active participant of the performance with the squad, whether through WebsterX, Lorde Freddee, Lex Allen, and Siren’s call-and-choral-response as they criss-cross the stage, or through blurring the boundaries of artist vs. spectator when both ends merge for a festive free-for-all of jumping and dancing as Bo, Q, Jay and Chris ardently hold down the rhythm section during a set. “You get so many different genres. It’s like a variety hour,” Lex Allen declares.
“We all play such different kinds of music. Having us all come together as a cohesive whole always confuses people because we’re all so different,” says Siren, sitting among the rest of the squad sitting in the practice space of their Riverwest headquarters. “But at the same time, it makes a lot of sense that we all came together because we’re all so different. [To Lex] Us two singers don’t sound anything alike, but we work together super well.”
Although audiences have been generally receptive to NAN performances, the group does encounter an occasional onlooker who leaves a show a little bit perplexed.
Chris G. remembers one in particular following one of NAN’s first shows in Chicago. “He came up to me afterwards and asked me, What did I just watch? I thought this was hip-hop? He was just entirely and utterly confused about what he just experienced.” One could easily argue that NAN’s pro-free expression philosophy picks up where artists like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest left off over 20 years ago, but rather than confine NAN to the limitations of one genre, Chris G. refers to their music as ‘vibe music.’ “It’s whatever you feel and what you take from it. It’s not supposed to make you feel the same exact way as the person next to you.”
Prior to their contributions as NAN, each member was known for their individual musical projects, which still continue. “The thing about all of our relationships is that they’re all kind of webbed together,” WebsterX says. The other 7 members of NAN, huddled around him, share a laugh at the accidental pun. He shakes his head and continues, saying that the assemblage of New Age Narcissism naturally evolved into a unified group project not much longer than a year ago. “The quality of sound that we can create as a whole is what really brought us together,” Triplex adds.
“Everything was so serendipitous, like how we met and everything.” Lorde Freddee says. “It’s a time thing, you know? Each person is trying to make their own lane, so we were all gonna end up in the same room at some point.”
The coolest thing is being at shows, and looking at people who would never talk to each other actually talk to each other. That for me is the best part about [NAN]. We get to erase those barriers.
The collective also operates under a shared vision of community engagement, though no one quite intended for it to work out that way in NAN’s beginning stages. Lorde Freddee says that initially, NAN went by a “let’s go make noise over there, in this part of town” mentality, but the group is already changing disconnected, racially-segregated Milwaukee by linking the various art and music communities across town, most notably the North Side (the core of Milwaukee’s street rap world) and the DIY communities of the South and East Sides. Chris G. notes that the different appearances of those within the NAN squad often serve as indicators of what side of town each person is coming from. “People never expect all these kinds of people to be together, and you go back to the whole classification thing—our worlds aren’t supposed to mesh together. The coolest thing is being at shows, and looking at people who would never talk to each other actually talk to each other. That for me is the best part about [NAN]. We get to erase those barriers.”
“I think with us naturally wanting to go against the barriers, us getting together different sides of town just happened as a result of that,” Q says, adding that getting to know each other’s stories of alienation by friends or family, played a huge role in the group developing a strong sense of kinship. “For the first time, at least for me, we can actually be comfortable fully being ourselves. Most people never get to fully be themselves, or put themselves out there because they don’t feel safe to. We made ourselves feel safe to do that, and that’s what people are really responding to.” For Q, there is also the added bonus of utilizing the internet to build a foundation of community and an audience that isn’t always able to exist in real life. WebsterX, who has one of the biggest internet presences within the group, (you might have seen or read positive reviews about the collaborations between him, Cody LaPlant and Damien Gram, for the visually stunning “Lately” video earlier this year), says that ideally, he would like to continue building a following and “cook it all up with the live shows to a point where I don’t even have to be on the internet anymore.”
Q adds that the next year is going to be extremely crucial, given the rapid success of artists like WebsterX and another contemporary Milwaukee rapper, IshDarr (the 19-year-old rapper, with an EP, a mixtape and a handful of songs under his belt, just recently embarked on a world tour). “We’re still at that moment before the teapot goes off. No one is making any real money. But everyone feels like there’s a few people that are on the cusp, so that within the scene is going to make a change. Milwaukee is trying to make itself a culture and arts city, like Austin or Portland. We’re getting the opportunity to catch up with these people now.”
That’s a huge part of DIY, having a space where younger kids go in there, have equipment, cuss as loud as they want and put on a show for each other. That’s what I think sets it apart from just another after school program—it’s a free space. It’s whatever you want to make it.
“I think something really cool that’s happening right now is that the music scene in Milwaukee is basically being run by twenty-somethings. Nobody’s trying to go play the bigger venues here. All of us in the age groups of 16-30 are really trying to put something on for one another now,” says Siren. The increasingly-thriving Milwaukee DIY scene has been encountering a couple of setbacks, like the recent closure of all-ages venue the Cocoon Room, and the on-and-off operating of The Borg Ward. “We don’t have a really big all ages venue right now. And that’s something that [Webster X] is really working on right now with Vince Gaa [of the bands Blonder and Cousins] and [their current project] Free Space.”
WebsterX notes the importance of establishing a fixed, all-ages venue in the city in order to promote youth engagement and enable a self-sufficient and self-sustainable DIY community in Milwaukee. “That’s a huge part of DIY, having a space where younger kids go in there, have equipment, cuss as loud as they want and put on a show for each other. That’s what I think sets it apart from just another after school program—it’s a free space. It’s whatever you want to make it.”
In addition to securing a home for Free Space, NAN has compiled a long list of plans to keep them busy throughout the fall—mapping out tours in new cities, new releases from every member of the squad, a video for Lex Allen’s “Cream and Sugar” (Allen states that the single grapples with sexuality and duality), and partaking in the Midwest Orbit series, a mini tour that connects up and coming hip-hop artists in Chicago, St. Paul and Milwaukee (NAN will be headlining the closing date on Halloween in their hometown).
“There’s gonna be a lot of content for November. We’re gonna keep ‘em hot in the Winter,” WebsterX jokes.