Interview by Ian Morales. Promo photos provided by Thanis Maretis.
New Haven, Connecticut native and New York based M.C., Notar, was raised in a musical family. He is the son of jazz trumpet player, Michael Notarfranceso, who was well respected in the East Coast jazz scene. Like his father, Notar is also a trumpet player. With that background and training, Notar earned a full music scholarship to The University of Ohio at Dayton.
Fast forward to 2010, Notar now has a new label and a new EP under his belt. His self-titled debut EP was released on Tyrannosaurus Records, a label founded by Adam Duritz of Counting Crows. The EP was produced by veteran hip-hop beat-smith, MGeeZy (T-Payne, Paul Wall and Wyclef) and features guest appearances from Chris Carraba of Dashboard Confessional, Adam Duritz, Walt Laffy and Young Cash of Nappy Boy Entertainment. Notar’s full length debut, The Devil’s Playground, is due out next year. He is currently living in New York City while wrapping up the album with MGeeZy.
We spoke with Notar recently to talk about his love of hip hop, getting signed by Tyrannosaurus Records, performing live and his upcoming full length album. We talk about some other stuff too…
When did you first discover your love of hip hop?
Notar: It was definitely middle school. My older sister was listening to a lot of Slick Rick and stuff like that at the time, so I had older people whom I looked up to already listening to it. When I first started rhyming, I saw these cats behind a turn table and they were just all freestyling. I left the party after I saw them rip, then went to my dorm room and started writing rhymes. When I saw the older kids and some friends doing it, I knew that is what I wanted to do. That’s kind of how it started.
What were your first hip hop records?
Notar: I would have to say Ed O.G. & Da Bulldogs, Ice Cube’s Predator album and everything Wu-Tang Clan has ever done. I’m a huge fan of GZA. Liquid Swords is one of the top notch albums that turned me on to rhyme schemes, symbolism and how to take something and say it eight different ways.
When you did you first decide to pursue, I mean really pursue professionally, a career as an MC?
Notar: I never really made a conscious decision to do that. The passion that I had for hip hop made the decision for me. I never said I am going to go out and pursue this as a profession. That doesn’t mean I didn’t want to. I love being able to take the early steps of doing that now. What came out of working at it, writing and doing my thing was just one thing leading to another. I don’t know the exact moment in time where I thought I could do this professionally, it kind of just transformed into what it is now.
When did you start performing as “Notar” and start doing shows?
Notar: Well I was in a band in college, so I was already performing while I was in college. I wasn’t Notar at that point. My first rap name was “Observation.” That is what I used to go by because I used to go to these open mic nights and watch people, never really saying anything. I started performing as Notar in the last four or five years.
Who wrote the songs on your EP? Where does the inspiration for your writing as far as the content come from?
Notar: I wrote all the lyrics on the EP. Even if someone else is signing something, I wrote their part. As far as the content, I usually draw off of real life experiences or stuff that I’ve witnessed. I also get inspired just walking down the street and from the world we live in. For instance, with “Stranger” I managed to capture three characters in one man: my brother in law, a friend and someone I made up after reading a bunch of stories about the war. That made me pretty passionate about trying to support our troops. I wanted to write a song that kind of pulled all of those things together. My brother-law-in-law was in Iraq, my sister had a kid and another one on the way while he was gone. I think may be the third verse in that was about the feeling she had when she saw him walk into the door after coming back from war. I try to paint those kind of pictures. If it is not something from my life directly, it definitely something from people in my life that I love or care about that I am trying to represent.
How exactly were you “discovered” by Adam Duritz? What did he say he liked about you? Why did he want to sign you?
Notar: He heard one of my demos, just some old tracks I had. He liked the imagery and the stories I was telling. One thing kind of led to another. A mutual friend played on the demo. I think he (Duritz) picked me because he wants to help me grow as an artist. He sees something in me and he knows I got balls. He obviously saw something in my imagery and understood the stuff I was trying to put across. He’s done a great job of helping me kind of guide my career. I think the tour we did with them (Counting Crows) put the nail in the coffin for him.
Let’s talk a little about the EP. You have five songs, each of five different styles.
Notar: Absolutely. Some people dig that, some don’t. To me, I don’t like the whole genrefication of music. I’m not a white rapper, I’m an M.C. I’m a rapper. There is no need to do something the same way every time. I want to do different shit. I want to be creative and innovative. For me to regurgitate the same thing on every joint would be boring to me. Rap is a tool, a tool that should be used in all types of different music. I mean, I’m a musician. I grew up around musicians and people who studied music. Why not take all my musical influences and put them in my music? With the EP I just want to give everyone a little piece of where I’m coming from, not just lyrically but also on the auditory side of things. I think the EP works. I think the EP gives everybody something. I’m not going after one certain demographic. I’m covering the whole spectrum of what I want to do musically.
You brought in the Emo poster boy, Chris Carraba, for your track “Reach.” How did the idea of getting Chris on the track come about and how did you make it actually happen?
Notar: Adam and Chris have done music together and toured before. When I was in Jacksonville recording “Reach,” I was working with Young Cash from Nappy Boy Entertainment. I wrote the hook but it was a little bit out my vocal range. I couldn’t get it in there enough to reference it for someone to give it a listen and consider singing it. So, Young Cash referenced it for me. We loved the way the hook sounded and knew it had crazy potential. When Adam heard it he thought Chris would be perfect for it. Adam then relayed the message to Chris and sent him the MP3. Chris listened to it and really ended up loving it. I think it turned out really great and we ended up going with it. I just wish we could have worked together in the studio. I like Dashboard Confessional a lot and am a big fan of Chris’s.
Now you have a video for your song alcoholic. Why did you choose to make an official video for that song over the others?
Notar: There was no real plan with that. People kind of get turned off by the abrasiveness of “Alcoholic”. Originally the song wasn’t going to even be on the EP, but I was planning on using it as a precursor to the album. The reason we shot a video for “Alcoholic” was because the song resonated with the guy Thanis Maretis, who shot the video. It was fun and real low budget. We banged it out one afternoon with me, a camera, a couple of sites and that’s it. We also did it because I dig that song. I think the lyrics in that song, if you really listen to them, some of the metaphors and wordplay are stupid (meaning good). Because it was a song where I was standing on my own two vocally, it just made sense to bang it out.
How do you usually perform live with all the different elements of rock, hip hop, funk, etc? With a DJ or a live band?
Notar: Always with a live band, as I have a great live band. It makes for a super high energy show, real balls to the wall the entire way. I want to faint after one of our sets. I give it all every time I get on stage and feel like I ran a marathon after. I also like the camaraderie you get with a band that you don’t get with a DJ.
Now I understand you have a new full length album currently in the works, The Devil’s Playground. Are these five songs on the EP going on the full length? What more are you going to give listeners on the full length that we haven’t heard on the EP?
Notar: People are going to get more of the story I was trying to tell, more of like an audio movie. People will get the full story and not just a sampling the EP gave them. “Stranger” and “Reach” are going to make it to The Devil’s Playground as well. I think with this day and age of the music business, people are only buying one song at a time anyway and those are strong singles.
Are there any new guest collaborations aside from the ones from the EP?
Notar: There is a song on the album I did about my dad called “You Went Away” that I actually ended up recording with his old roommate from his college days at The Berkeley School of Music. His name is Victor Vanacore and he did the string arrangement on it. It was kind of cool to write a song about my father passing and his father passing with my dad’s best friend. Victor is a phenomenal composer and musician and a phenomenal guy. With everything else, I hold the weight up on my own.
About when can we expect The Devil’s Playground to be released?
Notar: Right now, we are looking at early March 2011.
That just happens to coincide with South By Southwest. Will we be seeing you in Austin this March then? Or perhaps on a nationwide tour?
Notar: That is all I really want to do is play South By Southwest. We’ll see. I know I that I will be leaking out new singles form the album before then and want to shoot a video for “Stranger”. Until then I am just trying to put in as much work as possible. I have to stay focused and hungry. The rest will hopefully take care of itself.