Hangar 18 is a crew from the Capital of Hip-hop: New York City. Over the past several years of live shows, staying at my house, drinking, and shit-talking, the emcees — Alaska and WindnBreeze — have become good friends of mine. I’ve been wanting to nail down an interview with them for a minute now, and, finally, Alaska conceded.
I’ve seen Hangar 18 (whom Alaska insists is named after the Megadeth song) alternately backed up by DJ Big Wiz, a DAT, and an iPod. Now, it’s DJ Ktel handling the 1s and 2s, but it never seems to matter who or what is backing them up. They always kill it live.
What follows is an epic email exchange in which we discover the behind-the-scenes structure and working relationship of The Hangar, how they’ve grown into the Hip-hop powerhouse that they are today, and how Alaska really feels about Hip-hop in the ’08.
Roy Christopher: So, explain the set-up of The Hangar. I’ve been down with you guys for a minute, but I’ve never met this dude paWL, and when I’ve tried to contact him, he’s blown me off. What’s up with that cat?
Alaska: Well, the set up of Hangar 18 is basically me and Wind at this point. We continue to work with paWL, and he has produced the lion’s share share of the new record, but his role in the group has changed. Originally it was myself and Wind. We met paWL, whom I had actually started working on a solo album with. Ian (WindnBreeze) had come in to get down on a track that we were working on, and we hit it off. paWL had the sound that we were looking for.
So, he officially joined the group for the first record through the recording process. As we moved forward and went on, paWL took a more of a background role in the day-to-day of Hangar 18. Wind and I pretty much hit the road full time for the past three years, and paWL isn’t a fan of being on the road and has other things going on in his life. He is married, has a great job creating commercials and original content for TV shows. He also just had a beautiful daughter. So his priorities are now different than they were almost five years ago when we made The Multi-Platinum Debut Album (Def Jux, 2004).
So we recorded the new record, and after recording, we all talked came to a new working agreement. While paWL is no longer in the group, he still is our main producer. We all see it as a relationship similar to blockhead and Aes — where we can both do our own thing, but it is expected by all of us and hopefully the fans that they will see us all working together through the years.
Also, paWL never got back to you because he doesn’t like gingers.
RC: Does that mean paWL doesn’t like El or Despot either?
A: paWL actually likes them. They are what he calls “good” gingers. You know, not like all the other ones. We are trying to work with paWL to help him get past this issue, but some of his off handed remarks to the media about gingers controlling the media or the seven ginger bankers that rule the world aren’t helping the matter. We decided to go forward and start an organization to address the issues of ginger discrimination or as we like to call it “Ginger Nation.” The group is called the NAAGP, the National Association for the Advancement of Ginger People. We try to educate people about the issues that affect gingers on a daily basis. You know, like sun burn, freckles, the fact that they have trouble growing convincing facial hair, and the fact that they always look like nine-year olds.
RC: Point taken… What’s different about Sweep the Leg (Def Jux, 2007) as opposed to past projects? What did you guys do differently?
A: I think its a very different album than past records. I think the sound and the writing is very different than the last record. The MPDA was through-and-through a record of three guys who never did this before, liked to get drunk, and liked Rap, putting together a record. Most of those songs were made as a unit, the three of us in a room together, drinking, recording, and busting each other’s balls. It created a very raw energy because lets face it, we were raw. We knew we had talent but didn’t know what to do with it, so we just threw a bunch of shit at the wall to see what stuck. Luckily we were able to get a lot of tracks out of that.
By the time we finished the last record, we had a general idea of what to do when making a song. So paWL started feeding us beats. By our third tour we had the lion’s share of the beats, which meant we drove around the country a lot and listened to them and really conceptualized the songs and the album. We realized that we wanted to make something a bit more serious and focused. On the first record a lot of the songs had themes, but they were loose and a bit everywhere. With this one, we really sat and constructed songs that really stuck to topics and ideas. We also wanted to show we could be a bit more serious and had more on our minds than just getting fucked-up — although we still do, and a few of those songs made the record as well.
I just think there was a level of maturity that we achieved as we got older. I mean, we started recording The MPDA in 2002, it came out in 2004, and we started work on this one in 2006. Four years passed and we all had a lot of changes in our lives. You sort of grow up. I’m not one to frown on going out and getting fucked-up, ’cause lord knows I still do it, and I still love doing it, but sometimes you want to explore other sides of yourself. This album was such a case.
In addition to the broader topics, we also worked very differently. paWL gave us the beats and then we would sit with them at Ian’s place. We would lay out the track, record, re-record, etc. Once all the tracks were recorded, we sent them back to paWL so he could sequence them. The only time all three of us were ever in the studio together for this record was at the very end. On the first record there wasn’t a moment that all of us weren’t present. I think of the first record there was a lot more of me and paWL making the calls and creating the direction of the tracks. This record was more Wind and I, and Wind had a huge role in a lot of the structuring and laying out of songs. I think he worked he hardest out of all of us on this record. He sat with it constantly and worked on ways and ideas to make every song better from start to finish. He was amazing.
RC: Hip-hop is so good right now. Why are people so nostalgic about older Hip-hop?
A: I’ve thought about this a lot and I tend to go back and forth as to whether or not Hip-hop is actually good right now.
Lately, I’ve been thinking it’s not that good. There are a few stand out acts but outside of that, it’s kinda shitty. I know that there are really good acts out there but there aren’t that many, and for the most part most of them aren’t doing anything new or exciting. You have a handful of people that are making exciting music right now, and it’s not really enough to keep things going proper. I’ve actually never felt Hip-hop was dead in all those years people were claiming it, but I think we might be in the worst stage of Hip-hop ever right now.
I think it needs to go away for a while. The whole archetype seems played to me. It might be that the emcees are just falling into one of five or six types of emcee right now, but for me — stylistically and lyrically — nobody is really doing anything that fresh. I mean, Andre 3000 is the only cat I get excited about when I hear him rhyme now. I think he is doing something really interesting with his style and content. There is a level of honesty in his work that is right out in the open, not hidden behind metaphors and language or some sick, layered, multisyllabic flow. I think Kanye is kinda there too, not so much with the new album, but the Late Registration album was an amazingly written album. Hell’s Winter was too. I think that style of emceeing is going to help bring things back. I liked what Wayne was doing stylistically for a minute, but he hasn’t branched off to develop anything exciting.
I think the real innovation is coming in the production department. I think that’s where the excitement is going to come. Unfortunately most emcees aren’t creating on the same level the producers are. Where the producers are getting away from the old sound and creating new soundscapes, emcees are stuck in the same bullshit. Despite advancements in style, we are still stuck in 1996 on the emceeing front: You are either super underground, super-spiritual and conscious, a baller, or a thug. It’s pretty sad and boring. Is that really all that Hip-hop artists have to offer and do these roles even matter in todays world? I don’t really think they do. It’s played-out. There is nobody to give a real voice to these great soundtracks that are being created. So you end up with some bullshit.
I think Hip-hop needs people like Quincy Jones, Mutt Lange, and Phil Specter, people that can help really produce a record. The idea that the person making the beats is the producer is fucking weak. That person makes the beats writes the music. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you need to have someone that can help create an exciting marriage of the beats and lyrics. A lot of great emcees are just making boring music because they don’t understand what needs to be done to craft a great song, and a lot of great producers are stuck making a song with a shitty hook and emcee because there just aren’t that many good emcees out there. I mean, could you imagine if a cat like Lupe had one of these completely innovative producers working his whole shit? Like Lupe with El, or Lupe with Whoomp? It would be insane! Unfortunately right now that’s not popping and nobody is doing anything to bring these people together.
It could also be that the music is seen as disposable now, a quick hit or two and then out. Very few people are making lasting works, and I think thats why people are looking back to the older shit because, A. It was innovative and exciting, and B. It actually meant something…
I’m just ranting like an old man now.
RC: What do you guys do outside of The Hangar? What are other interests that keep you going?
A: Well right now it’s pretty much The Hangar. Wind and his fiancée have a side business that they run and paWL, as you know, writes, produces, and directs commercials and content for networks. I have been doing a lot of writing, I want to get into sketch comedy Reggie and I have written a few sketch shows here and there but that’s something I am getting more into. Just sort of learning how to create on that level. I find that I need other avenues to let of creativity. Hip-hop is kinda limiting on that front.
A: Just want to thank everyone who has supported us over the years. Everyone at Jux and Jesus… Ha.
Check our new record, Sweep the Leg.
Here’s a clip for “Highly Anticipated” from Sweep the Leg (runtime: 2:52), complete with mad tour antics and plenty of Alaska-vs-Mr. Dibbs action (as well as a brief cameo by yours truly):
Here’s the video for “Bakin Soda” (runtime 2:24) from Sweep the Leg, which was banned from MTV for its drug references (For the record, the line “Move that crack” in this song refers to shaking your ass, not to selling drugs):
And this is the video that made me a Hangar fan. I saw this on the Def Jux site in 2004 and immediately went out and copped The Multi-Platinum Debut Album (runtime: 2:50):
Do my boys know how to have fun, or what?
[photos by Todd Westphal]