Na-Kel Smith appears in our Winter 2023 Issue with cover stars Green Day, 070 Shake, Militarie Gun, and Arlo Parks. Head to the AP Shop to grab a copy.
Na-Kel Smith, like the relentlessly talented pro skateboarder that he is, knows what it feels like to have drive and, even more so, to harness it. He is well versed in the art of practicing, failing, getting back up, and trying again. And again. Until he’s landed the trick. And it’s with this same dedication to craft, to his goals and passions, that Smith makes music. Though, perhaps unlike skateboarding or acting — which Smith proved to have an incredible prowess for with his debut role in Jonah Hill’s mid90s — music has allowed him to tap into the truest parts of himself, to show up authentically and tell his own story, and perhaps experience catharsis along the way.
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“All of my music is about my family and my experience,” he says, flashing his hand tattoo of Bad Brains’ self-titled cover graphic — an ode to his mother, who “put him onto” the band, as well as groups like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. Though his career in the industry began by hopping on Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt tracks, Smith’s sound on his own tapes has forever been his own. From his first drop to the most recent tape, STAND ALONE STUNTMAN, he balances fast-paced, raw honesty, rough and emotive, with peaceful, slower rhythms, danceable as it is deep, making the most of “music as therapy,” for both the artist and the audience.
You do so much — acting, skating… Where has the music fit in along the way? How did it start?
When I was younger, my dad used to make me rap. It was a thing we did together. We would freestyle, and he’d recite this one rap to me, and I learned it. My mom, she was a rapper in a group called Urban Prop, and when I was young, I used to [perform] with her sometimes. I actually rapped the rap that me and my dad rehearsed — somebody just put me on the stage, gave me the mic, and I rapped. I had to be around 5 or 6. But that’s just little kid shit — I grew up, and I learned what embarrassment is.
Thing is, I never wanted to be a musician or rapper in the first place — I wanted to be a pro skater, and I didn’t want anything clogging my dreams. While I was on the path to becoming a pro, though, that’s when I met Tyler, [the Creator] and Thebe [Earl Sweatshirt]. I was at a turning point in my life, and I looked at them and thought, “Damn, y’all doing something really cool, creating music that is going to come out, making videos… This is tight. Y’all doing positive shit.”
I had been skateboarding and hanging out, having fun, going to parties, and going to shows — and I’d go to the studio, just to chill in there. But one day, Tyler’s like, “I need you on the song.” I didn’t rap, but everybody would fuck around freestyling shit. I’m like, “Oh, shit. But that’s my bro…” So I did it. That’s the first time I’ve ever recorded a song for real, and that track came out on Wolf.
Then Thebe asked me to be on “DNA.” During that time, one day we go slide to the studio, and my homie pulled up on me with some acid. So I take some, and I’m sitting there for 10 minutes, and then I get a text message — my friend, who had been in the hospital because he got shot, he’s gone. I had damn near forgot I took the acid, and that text unlocked my trip.
At the same time, Thebe is reworking the beat. I’m frying, I’m crying, I’m laughing, I’m thinking about good times, I’m thinking about negative times. I said, “Bro, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to feel.” Thebe looked over at me, and he’s like, “Just write about it.” And that is when I learned how to use music as therapy. I got to say everything that I could think in that moment that I would want to say to my friend. That song means so much more to me than anybody who sings the lyrics could ever know.
That’s what makes music so fucking crazy. I don’t know many other things that can transmit feelings so powerfully, without even needing others to have the shared experience.
After the album came out, I went on tour with Thebe as his hype man. I was young. I got a lot of energy. But when the tour ended, I was like, “Damn, I miss that feeling. I like performing. That shit is fun.” I started to think about, “How do I, on my own, go out and make music?” I can’t be like, “Bro, let me hop on a song.” I ain’t looking for no favors, no handouts, no shortcuts. I’m going to work hard, the same way everybody else does, with skating, with everything. So I get a computer, and I get Logic, because that’s what my friends use, and I start trying to figure it out.
This process is probably a lot like skating — learning, failing, falling, and getting back up. Trying until it works.
Exactly. So all of 2018, I was trying to figure out how to make music. By 2019, I dropped my first tape. It was all produced by other people, and I ran that for two, three tapes because I just wanted to see if I could make more than one song, and learn how to build a project — from my lyricism to my production.
Let’s talk about the latest project, STAND ALONE STUNTMAN. Which you did produce, as “Racecarstuntman.”
Well, now I produce my own music, which I started doing on RACECARSTUNTMAN222, the tape. After that, I found my sound, my wave, and what makes music interesting for me — so I just dove in. I don’t care what people think about me or my life, or what they think I should do, or how I should feel about things, because my life has been real this whole time. It’s hard to sum up STAND ALONE STUNTMAN, but it follows FREE POPS FR just to a place where my mind is at today. It’s not rage music — it’s just honest. There’s no mood board. There’s no reference points for anything outside of my actual life. All I can say is that I get better each tape, and that’s what I’m proud of.
I definitely don’t think all music has to have an explanation. Some of the best music doesn’t. And the beauty often is that it allows people to spend time with it, think about it, and experience it themselves.
I’ve realized that sometimes I’m not witty at all. I’m just trying to understand my mind — that’s another reason why I started making music. I came up skating. I’m an athlete, and nobody gives a fuck about what athletes think — they only care about what we do. But I’m my own person. Can’t no opportunity change how I feel about myself or change the fact that I am myself. Ultimately, I wanted to learn how to communicate better. I wanted to learn how to use words. That’s why I make music. You can’t take five bars to explain one point. You have to find an artistic way. You have to take the scenic route.