Grand Nationxl: A Wolf Pack of Artists

Just a few of the of the folks who make up Grand Nationx, on set of a video shoot in Oakland. (Grand Nationxl)

On my first listen to the nine-track project Twice on Sunday (Season 1) by Grand Nationxl, I knew it was a significant piece of art. I had no idea it was the first shot in a series of blows that the collective, formed by over a dozen Bay Area artists, were looking to make on the preverbal rap game.

In the weeks following their first release in June, Grand Nationxl (named after a popular American-made muscle car) dropped multiple videos, appeared at the Portland-based Mic Check PDX virtual music festival, recorded podcast episodes and more.

Now that summer is coming to a close, Grand Nationxl—a wolf pack, as they sometimes refer to themselves—isn't relenting. Today they dropped an updated edition of the first album—essentially a new release with nine new tracks. They also released the audio version of their live studio session, Live From Airship Laboratories.

And recently they announced plans to open the floodgates for individual projects.

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The individuals? There's a lot of 'em. Full disclosure: A few of 'em are folks I'd consider good friends. That said, I'm writing about them because given that I've been in a silo-styled apartment writing my ass off alone for the past six months, I kind of forgot how important it is to work with friends when making art. Until they reminded me.

Grand Nationxl screens the visuals that accompany their album Twice on Sunday.
Grand Nationxl screens the visuals that accompany their album 'Twice on Sunday.' (Pendarvis Harshaw)

On a Thursday evening last month, I stopped at a red light at 17th and Telegraph in Oakland. Across the street, I noticed two artists painting a three-story mural on the backside of YR Media’s building. I’d later find out it was Rachel Wolfe Goldsmith and a friend, creating this big, bold beautiful work of art, and dancing while doing so.

I pulled through that intersection en route to a vacant parking lot on 13th Street between Broadway and Webster. That's where Grand Nationxl was screening a filmed 40-minute studio session of their latest project.

(I almost hit one of those new little plant thingies as I parked. Bounced out the car and noticed the sign for the now-shuttered Wolfman Books. Next to it, Good Mother Gallery had a mural of George Floyd on the wall. Signs of the time.)

I walked into a parking lot on the backside of the Tribune Tavern. On one wall was another Rachel Wolfe Goldsmith mural. On the other wall, the projected video images of Kevin Allen, D. Bledsoe, Ian KellyBlvck Achilles, Brookfield DueceChamp Green, Moe Green (no relation), Passwurdz , Mani Draper and more.

In addition to the real-life presence of most of the roster of artists mentioned above, about 25–30 other people filled the lot. Everyone was masked, spread at proper intervals of distance, although handshakes and hugs were definitely exchanged as people took in the multimedia presentation.

Community, coming together to celebrate music that was born out of community.

The substance in Grand Nationxl's songs range from Champ Green's poetic philosophies on navigating Bay Area public transportation to Moe Green's tribute to legendary R&B artists like Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Vallejo's Levitti.

They're also rife with artistic articulation of the current human experience for some folks living in the Bay Area. During one of the recording sessions, Ian Kelly tells me, he was late to the studio because he was running errands for his job with Instacart. So in the verse he recorded that night, he cut himself off mid-flow, saying “I would give you sixteen, but Instacart calling"—and then he answers his phone.

In the filmed studio session of the song, the other participants in Grand Nationxl vibe with Kelly through the entire verse. And then during the Instacart phone call, they get completely still. The beat drops as Kelly answers the call, allowing him to clarify that the customer's request is for whole milk and not two percent.

It's just one of many standout moments in this project. It shows how much fun they were having as a collective, and at the same time, how applicable the lyrics are to real life. “Ever seen zombies that was yo classmates?" asks Brookfield Duece on one track. “Chevron settled to kill me early,” states D. Bledsoe on another. “What happens if I stop making excuses and really grow up?” rhetorically raps Kevin Allen on the album.

The lyrical sparring in the studio sessions led to raps so layered, it inspired Special, host of the Special Delivery Podcast, to do a series of episodes breaking down the stories behind the music.

In one interview, producer DJ Basta explains that multiple artists added different instruments to influence the composition and production of each song prior to any lyrics hitting the track. In another interview, Brookfield Duece explains how a song got named: old-school style, riding around in a car with each other, listening to the song and talking about it.

In-person, collaborative creation. It's far from a revolutionary concept, but in 2020, it's rare.

D. Bledsoe, Kevin Allen, Brookfield Duece, Passwurdz, Moe Green on the set of a video shoot in North Oakland.
D. Bledsoe, Kevin Allen, Brookfield Duece, Passwurdz, Moe Green on the set of a video shoot in North Oakland. (Grand Nationxl)

In one episode, D. Bledsoe mentions a question that's come up a few times: why there are so many dudes.

It’s the same discussion he, Kevin Allen and I had a few weeks ago. My point was about reading the room in the rap world. Women have been tired of being overlooked for a while now. And that there have been a few notable compilation-type projects as of late with few or no women present, referring to J.Cole & Co.'s Revenge of the Dreamers III and E-40's Practice Makes Paper.

The first edition of Grand Nationxl's Twice on Sunday (Season One) features one woman: vocalist Kate Lamont, who appears on multiple tracks.

D. Bledsoe explained to Special during the podcast interview, as he and Kevin Allen did to me when we talked in person: the project happened organically, with a number of invites sent out widely to individuals of all backgrounds, letting them know what was in the works—tap in.

After that, a series of studio sessions were held, and whoever showed up got put on. It was that simple.

If we're being honest, there's value to any occasion that allows for a group of Black American men to come together, have fun, be vulnerable, share their truths, and create quality art for the masses.

"It's not a group," Brookfield Duece tells me in a later conversation, explaining that it's "like a TV show" with recurring characters. He says there's a certain intentionality to the parenthetical presence of "Season One."

The second version of Twice on Sunday (Season 1) features nine completely new songs, and Jane Handcock has her signature all over that project. On top of that, Jane, a vocalist and emcee from Richmond, is set to release an individual project titled Fa Real in October; that'll be the second solo release from the Grand Nationxl collective after Kevin Allen drops his Heroes Eventually Die EP next week.

Looking down the line, each member of the collective has new releases planned.

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It's an impressive assembly of artistic individuals. They've all got lives and careers that can stand on their own. They could've easily been sequestered in their apartments, writing their asses off alone, but no. They decided to come together and be part of a collective; or rather, a wolf pack.