The city of Oakland is as essential to Bay Area rapper Mani Draper’s existence as water is to fish.
“There’s something magical about the bay,” Draper said in an interview with The Harvard Crimson. “In the Bay, you can be an entrepreneur, you can be a creative, you can be an owner. There are all these opportunities and people come here to explore this part of themselves.
For Draper, Oakland is his home and his creative engine, a city with deep musical roots that are often overlooked. After all, Oakland is the birthplace of the world’s first true rap star, MC Hammer.
“We have an opportunity to rewrite how our legacy in the Bay is commemorated,” Draper said. “With MC Hammer there is a disservice to his legacy of being the first rap star. Like it’s not Run DMC. It’s not Snoop Dogg. They are not people from other regions. Rap’s first superstar was MC Hammer, who went Diamond for God’s sake. He’s from East Oakland.
As an artist, Draper said he was the product of those who came before him. He is as much a rapper as a producer. Oakland’s rich artistic history predates the invention of hip-hop. The likes of Richard Pryor and James Brown regularly stopped by the city to test their actions in order to improve.
Draper is a founding member of Grand Nationxl, an Oakland hip-hop collective formed in 2020. Similar to Wu-Tang Clan or Danny Brown’s Bruiser Brigade, Grand Nationxl is a rap team focused on providing bars of high quality on group and solo projects. look alike. Founding member Kevin Allen released his acclaimed solo album “Nothing Lasts Forever” under the Grand Nationxl banner last October. The Oakland team has also integrated a creative agency into the Grand Nationxl brand which is designed to identify and nurture local talent in the Bay Area and beyond through teamwork and collaboration – think that Griselda Records meets Kendrick Lamar’s pgLang.
Draper’s latest solo effort, “Communion,” released March 11, is indicative of the collective mindset of Grand Nationxl. The title of the album and the inspiration for the project came from Draper’s examination of communion as a creative concept.
“I’m exceeding all my dreams as a creative, I’m just part of something bigger,” the rapper said. “And then you start thinking about Death Row, Dreamville, Odd Future, TDE. You realize that you can benefit from being part of a system. If you’re the sixth or eighth man for the Jordan Chicago Bulls, you’re still part of one of the best teams in history.
“Communion” is as much a Mani Draper album as it is a Grand Nationxl album, according to the rapper. With six songs, the project includes features from Allen and fellow Grand Nationxl members Brookfield Duece and Passwurdz.
The album is produced entirely by Allen, who has been a close collaborator of Draper for several years. The project’s fourth track, “Favor Weighs a Ton,” sees Draper and Allen go bar for bar, a sonic sequel to the duo’s “Glass House” collaboration on “Nothing Lasts Forever.” Draper was an executive producer on “Nothing Lasts Forever.”
Draper’s latest effort hears the rapper comment on the rapidly changing world around him: modernities like Oakland, church service, the hip-hop landscape, NFTs and the Metaverse. “AT’s Gospel,” which features Duece and Passwurdz, is Draper’s tribute to the late Memphis legend Adolph Thornton, whose stage name was Young Dolph. “WL NFT (DOC’s Gospel),” the final track from “Communion,” is the rapper’s tribute to the NWA’s first affiliate, The DOC — an ode to his father’s favorite ’90s rapper, according to Draper.
Still, this was not the album Draper intended to release. The version of “Communion” released last month was recorded in just three days, a stark contrast to the meticulously crafted approach Draper took in his role as executive producer for “Nothing Lasts Forever.” The reason for the change was not in Draper’s hands and has to do with the recent increase in carjackings throughout the Bay Area. “Bipping” is the colloquial term locals have given to motor vehicle theft. In December 2021, Draper’s car was paged, along with all of his laptops and drives, which in many cases contained unique copies of his intellectual property.
“In December, Grand Nationxl was on its way to one of the biggest meetings in the company’s existence,” Draper said. “Part of the meeting was set up for me to do a demo of the music that was made for Kev’s album. As we’re having coffee before the meeting, we hear someone smash my car window .
Immediately, Draper and the rest of Grand Nationxl ran outside. A high-speed chase through East Oakland ensued. It was ultimately futile. The work Draper had planned to incorporate into “Communion” was gone. The thieves had also taken music that Draper had written for other artists, including Duece, as well as longtime collaborators Rexx Life Raj, P-Lo, and Iamsu!.
“I have records for people on my hard drives that they’re waiting to be mixed and mastered and all the shit that they trust me to do,” Draper said. “I was just sick because they were gone.”
Draper credits Allen for pulling him out of a post-carjacking slump. To create “Communion,” Draper and Allen ditched the luxury Oakland studio used to produce previous Grand Nationxl projects for a back-to-basics approach, sometimes recording until six or seven in the morning.
“Kev stopped by my girlfriend’s house in Richmond,” Draper said. “We recorded ‘Communion’ in my daughter’s mother’s hair salon which is attached to their house. We settled there for a week and ‘Communion’ was recorded in three days.
The car theft was demoralizing for Draper, but he said the incident gave him a chance to reflect and reconnect with his creative roots. Giving up was never an option.
“There is a time to cry and be sad, but there was also a strange celebration at that time,” the rapper said. “I wanted to make sure I captured a bit of both.”
“Communion” is about Draper’s boundless passion for the music he makes. It’s another piece of hardware in the ever-expanding Grand Nationxl trophy case. It can be streamed here.
Writer Ryan S. Kim can be reached at [email protected]