ABOVE: THE PHYSICS. IMAGE COURTESY OF CANH SOLO
"There was barely a hip-hop scene in Seattle," Macklemore told Interview's Dan Buyanovsky in October. Things have changed since then—the 29-year-old rapper's passionately received debut offering, The Heist, dethroned Florida's Rick Ross from the coveted number-one spot on iTunes—all without the support of a major label. Macklemore's success story helped shine light on a scene that few outside its city limits know exist, and provided other aspiring emcees with an outlet to be heard.
Somewhere between Lonely Planet and The Low End Theory, you'll find The Physics: real-life acquaintances of Macklemore and proud Seattle hip-hop boosters in their own right. "Seattle is where I'm from," declares Physics emcee Thig Natural within the opening seconds of his group's most recent release, Tomorrow People. The record, an unapologetic love letter to hip-hop's golden age as well as the group's stormy hometown, name checks specific Seattle streets, restaurants, parks—even Natural's first romance, also from the Emerald City ("The first girl I ever fell in love with was from the District," he confides).
Interview caught up with two-thirds of the hardworking Seattle hip hop trio—Thig Natural and Just D'Amato—on break at Natural's day job, where they spoke to us from a parked car about nicknames, playing music in front of their parents, opening for Mos Def, conflict resolution, and strip clubs.
HOMETOWN: Seattle, WA
AGES: We been around long enough to remember life without cell phones and the Internet.
LOCATION AT TIME OF INTERVIEW: We're in Seattle. I'm actually at work, in my day job.
SHARING THE STAGE WITH MOS DEF: Natural: We played with Mos Def like a month and a half ago. Which was great, because he's someone that we listened to growing up. We're big fans.
D'Amato: We saw him in the break room real briefly. We just said, "What's up."
WHAT'S IN A NAME: Natural: My name is Gathigi, so "Thig Natural" is just a nickname that people have been calling me for, you know, ever since elementary school. I'm a pretty laid-back guy. Some people say my flow is kind of natural, smooth, not forced... so it kind of works out well with my personality.
D'Amato: It's a rendition of my birth name, which is Justin. A friend of mine, who sings with us, one day called me "Just D'Amato," which is a derivative of "Justo" plus D'Amato, who was a famous, old-school boxing trainer. He trained Mike Tyson and a couple of champions in the '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s. [My friend] called me that because I coach people in the studio. Like, I take that role and try to help people, give my own insight—he saw that as kind of being like a coach, and the boxing I used to do when I was a kid, so he called me "Just D'Amato." I like that name; not a lot of people are able to pronounce it, so I normally go by "Justo."
WE CAN WORK IT OUT: Natural: I think, as a group, you go through ups and downs. And, there's different personalities, so you get into arguments about the music. There's other kinds of small things.
D'Amato: In the studio, I just give my opinion. It's not always the correct opinion... but sometimes it is. [Thig laughs] We're real honest with each other, so it's real easy. Thig might say, "I don't like that beat." I might say, "I don't like this word." We don't take it personally, but I usually have the leisure of being able to sit back and watch what's going on while he's just writing lyrics. So that's where I'm at currently, when the coaching aspect comes into play. It's definitely a collaborative thing, though. We all get together, and we're friends. We steer each other along as the music is being developed, and have fun doing it, for sure.
CONFLICT RESOLUTION: Natural: When we were picking out songs for the album Tomorrow People, we had a disagreement on what songs should be cut, and I think we might have done Rock, Paper, Scissors.
D'Amato: It was Rock, Paper, Scissors. Thig won, and I can't remember what song it was for, but it was one of the songs that he liked, and it ended up on the album because I lost the Rock, Paper, Scissors match.
Natural: I won. I won that one. [laughs] It was with dynamite.
KEEP IT NATURAL: Natural: We try not to force anything, and sometimes we get in the studio, and try to do things that are different. A lot of times, we don't know how it will turn out. Sometimes it turns out whack, and we just throw the track away. Sometimes it actually works out, and ends up sounding dope, and we end up keeping it. So I think that's kind of one of those [things].
IF YOUR FLOW WERE A COGNAC...: Natural: It would be Hennessy. Remy Martin's cool. I like Courvoisier, too.
HOME BASE: Natural: Me and my bro [Monk Wordsmith], both our parents are from Kenya, so we have that Kenyan heritage. And, Justo is Filipino, also. He's half-Filipino.
D'Amato: Yeah, I'm half-Filipino. Most people, when they meet me, can't tell. But my mom was born in the Philippines, and so it's part of my culture. No one ever knows that I'm Fillipino. Every once in a while, someone will be able to guess, but only very rarely. I know how that is.
Natural: I've known Justo for a long time, and I don't think anyone's ever been like, "Are you half-Fillipino?" [Justo laughs]
ALL IN THE FAMILY: Natural: [Monk and I] have a lot of family out there in Kenya, so the last time we were out there was two years ago, and we spent a couple of weeks there. It's always good reconnecting with family—my family, they've kind of seen our journey with the music over the last 15 years. So, they know how important it is to us. My family isn't really musical; my parents, at least, aren't real musical. My brother and I, our musical talent is kind of random. But they definitely get it, as far as the music and what it means to us.
PARENTAL ADVISORY: Natural: Yeah, I played [our music] for them. My mom doesn't really understand the words. [laughs] They like the beats, but they don't really know. Except for the curse words, my mom hears the curse words. That's all she hears.
JOURNEY OF THE DRUM: Natural: My brother [Monk] wrote ["Journey of the Drum"] a couple of years ago. It's on a topic that's personal and relevant to us—I think it's about a couple of different journeys; one being Monk Wordsmith starts off in his verse talking about how he grew up in the south end of Seattle, and how he was made fun of by his peers about his name. It's foreign for people who grow up in America to hear and to see different cultures, and I think he was speaking to his parents' journey from Kenya, Africa to different parts of the globe, and ending up in Seattle—how that culture and that journey affected his life growing up.
D'Amato: Also, I think the song connects to the journey of the drum in music. Musical heritages from different parts of the globe—of course, African culture being a very influential part of American music and worldwide music, and also, Filipino culture being a very musical culture, and us doing music the way that we do connects to those roots without us even knowing. [Monk] talks about how the 808 is a repeat of a culture of drum-based music, very big in different types of African music, and I think he just makes a connection: stating that the drum has made it all the way from his parents' roots to what we're doing today, and how it all connects. I think that's what the journey of the drum is about. It's about these different journeys ending up in a certain place, and being able to make that music also reach other people in the journey as well.
PERFORMANCE ART: Natural: [My coworkers] ask me if I dance. [laughs] I just say, "I don't dance. I rap." And then they give me this look like, "Oh." But they're still confused. I'm a pretty low-key person. You know, at work, I do my own thing, so it's probably hard for them to imagine the whole performance art. I'm a real chill dude, but performance is different. It's like getting in a whole different mode. It's exciting. It's like how everybody has different sides to themselves. I guess, for me, I'm kind of the more reserved, laid-back, calm and collected vibe.
CLUB APPROVED: D'Amato: I did see a Physics sticker in a bathroom at a strip club one time. That's all.
THE PHYSICS WILL PLAY BOWERY BALLROOM IN NEW YORK TOMORROW, DECEMBER 13. FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE TRIO, PLEASE VISIT THE PHYSICS' WEBSITE.