"It's been an okay week," sighs Jesse Robinson, "in the middle of a fucked-up month." According to Robinson, better known to his fans as the larger-than-life stoner-goon Nacho Picasso, it's been "hospitals and funeral homes all fucking month"—at the same party in Rainier Beach, his cousin was shot in the face and his friend Sherry ("The sweetest fucking girl I've ever known in my life") was killed. One of his best friends just lost his grandfather. "It all just makes me wanna go harder now," he explains. "I just gotta keep writing and keep my mind off this shit."
Nacho, with production duo Blue Sky Black Death, has released three acclaimed albums of drug-induced thug noir in the past year (the latest being the masterful Exalted), getting burn in everything from Pitchfork to Spin to this month's XXL. To the yang that characterizes some of Seattle's most well-known hiphop—bright, ultra-posi, upward-seeking—Nacho and BSBD are the yin: dark, colder, seeking the low places. When Nacho rails against rappers "using Cobain in vain," mistaking that name as just another signifier for "rock star," I know exactly what he means. "You ain't grow up in the rain," he spits, "so you prolly ain't the same."
BSBD's Kingston and Young God have been making music since 2003, well before they linked up with Nacho, putting out albums via the labels Mush and Babygrande. Collaborations with Jedi Mind Tricks' Jus Allah, Wu-Tang satellite affiliate Holocaust, and Jean Grae had already made them a name in the indie-rap underground. "When I linked up with Kingston, he was out of that phase," Nacho recalls. "He was saying he wasn't working with rappers anymore. He knew I rapped. He knew my cousin [the producer Raised by Wolves, who's contributed to all of the Nacho projects to date]. We were all friends, but I'm not no nigga that pushes my music on anybody, and I don't really talk about music that much unless I'm working. We just got high and fucked bitches at parties for a year straight!"
"We actually met the first time through a drug deal," Kingston says via e-mail. An attempt to have BSBD remix a track from Nacho's RBW-produced Blunt Raps release turned into the song "Benjamin Segal." "I wanted to call the song 'Bugsy,'" Nacho deadpans, "but I didn't want his ghost to come sock the shit out of me."
The resulting album, For the Glory, quickly commanded the local scene's attention. Though he'd been around via Blunt Raps and the BAYB album Ziploc Hip-Hop, Glory was the truest representation of Nacho's outlandish persona, a combination of his two favorite rappers: the belligerent Harlem don Cam'ron and the drug-guru, gangsta-goofball Mac Dre—with an unsatisfied, over-it undertone ("All the drugs I've abused, and I'm still not amused"). However, it's the ancient menace in BSBD's washed-out synthscapes that turn Nacho's smirking boasts into bronze-era mythology. Adding to that was the visual component: the outlandish Frank Frazetta jack on the cover (an armored Nacho on horseback, with three naked nubiles tethered to the bridle) to the grimy, eye-popping videos, all shot by Kingston—by necessity, not design.
"The videos, like the art, are just another extension of the music," Kingston explains. "To make the music more tangible, or to use popular music lexicon, it's 'branding'—but not in a disingenuous way. We just had to ask ourselves how we can convey Nacho's unique vibe and our production and perspective into a visual medium.
"He's a real comic head, and his favorite artist is Frank Frazetta. Of course, we're not just using that aesthetic because Nacho loves him; it had to make sense with the music, too. And it does. We liked the dichotomy of dark, menacing production with Nacho's somewhat goofy, tongue-in-cheek, hyperbolic rhymes. And you see that in the covers, too. They're dark, but they're humorous, too. That's kind of the overall product. It's brilliant ignorance, or the highbrow/lowbrow thing," Kingston concludes, referencing the aesthetic once championed by Rick Rubin during Def Jam's first glory years. Lord of the Fly, an even more ignorant epic poem, followed mere months later. With all the attention that resulted, Nacho says, "A nigga had to wash his face."
He drops hints ("I've been a bad guy, since my dad died"), but it's only close up that you can make out the details: The poet father he barely knew died of AIDS when Nacho was 16. He's smoked weed since age 9—his Rasta mother gave him a hit on Christmas morning to take his mind off her abusive boyfriend taking all his presents. He was taken from his mom by CPS at age 11 and was placed with his cousins. The villains of lore often came up hard—but he laughs all the same.
"I've dealt with a lot of shit. People get mad when I laugh. People tell me, 'You're only laughing to cover up the pain.' No, man, shit is funny! What I went through in my life, nobody would make it through. But shit was so hard from the beginning—if CPS wouldn't have told me that my upbringing was different than everyone else's, I wouldn't have noticed. I was a happy little kid. Even though some shit was fucked up. I still laugh at all the shit I've been through. Yeah, I'm laughing. I'm here, so I can."