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's all these opportunities and people come here to explore that part of themselves.”
For Draper, Oakland is his home and his creative lifeblood, a city with deep musical roots that are often overlooked. After all, Oakland is the town that birthed the world’s first bona fide rap star, MC Hammer.
“We have an opportunity to rewrite how our legacy in the Bay is remembered,” Draper said. “With MC Hammer, there’s a disservice done to his legacy for being the first rap star. Like it’s not Run DMC. It’s not Snoop Dogg. It's not people from other regions. The first rap superstar is MC Hammer, who went Diamond for fuck’s sake. He’s from East Oakland.”
As an artist, Draper said that he is a product of those who came before him. He is as much a rapper as he is a producer. Oakland’s rich artistic history pre-dates the invention of hip-hop. The likes of Richard Pryor and James Brown would regularly make stops in the city as an opportunity to crowd-test their acts for improvement.
Draper is a founding member of Grand Nationxl, an Oakland hip-hop collective created in 2020. Akin to the Wu-Tang Clan or Danny Brown’s Bruiser Brigade, Grand Nationxl is a rap crew focused on delivering high-quality bars on posse and solo projects alike. Founding member Kevin Allen dropped his acclaimed solo album “Nothing Lasts Forever” under the Grand Nationxl banner last October. The Oakland crew has also integrated a creative agency into the Grand Nationxl brand that is designed to identify and uplift local talent from the Bay Area and beyond through teamwork and collaboration — think Griselda Records meets Kendrick Lamar’s pgLang.
Draper’s latest solo effort “Communion,” which was released on March 11, is indicative of Grand Nationxl’s collective mindset. The album title and inspiration for the project came from Draper’s examination of communion as a creative concept.
“I am exceeding all of my dreams as a creative, just being a part of something bigger,” the rapper said. “And so then one starts thinking about Death Row, Dreamville, Odd Future, TDE. You realize you can benefit from being a part of a system. If you're the sixth man or the eighth man on 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 one, according to the rapper. With six songs in length, the project boasts features from Allen and fellow Grand Nationxl members Brookfield Duece and Passwurdz.
The album is fully produced by Allen, who has been a close collaborator of Draper’s for the last several years. The fourth track on the project, “Favor Weighs a Ton” sees Draper and Allen go bar-for-bar, a sonic follow-up to the pair’s “Glass House” collaboration on “Nothing Lasts Forever.” Draper was an executive producer on “Nothing Lasts Forever.”
Draper’s latest effort hears the rapper commenting on the rapidly changing world around him: modernities like Oakland, church service, the hip-hop landscape, NFTs, and the Metaverse. “A.T.’s Gospel,” which features Duece and Passwurdz, is Draper’s tribute to the late Memphis legend Adolph Thornton, whose stage name was Young Dolph. “W.L. NFT (D.O.C.’s Gospel),” the final track on “Communion,” is the rapper’s homage to early N.W.A.-affiliate The D.O.C. — an ode to his father’s favorite ’90s rapper, according to Draper.
Yet, this was not the album Draper intended to put out. The version of “Communion” released to the public last month was recorded in just three days, a stark contrast to the meticulously crafted approach that Draper took in his executive producing role for “Nothing Lasts Forever.” The reason for the switch was out of Draper’s hands and is tied to the recent rise in car-jackings throughout the Bay Area. “Bipping” is the colloquial term locals have assigned to motor vehicle theft. In December 2021, Draper’s car was bipped, along with all his laptops and drives, which in many cases held one-of-one copies of his intellectual property.
“In December, Grand Nationxl was on our way to one of the biggest meetings of 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 break the glass in my car.”
Immediately, Draper and the rest of Grand Nationxl ran outside. A high-speed chase through East Oakland ensued. It was ultimately futile. The work that 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 got records for people on my hard drives that they're waiting to get mixed and mastered and all the shit that they're trusting me to get done,” Draper said. “I was just sick because they were gone.”
Draper credits Allen with lifting him out of a slump after the car-jacking. To create “Communion,” Draper and Allen abandoned 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 pulled up to my girl's house in Richmond,” Draper said. “We recorded all of ‘Communion’ at my girl’s mother's hair salon that's attached to their house. We set up shop there for a week and ‘Communion’ was recorded in three days.”
The car theft was demoralizing for Draper, but he said that the incident gave him the opportunity to reflect upon and reconnect with his creative roots. Giving up was never an option.
“There’s a time to mourn and be sad, but there was also some strange celebration in the moment,” the rapper said. “I wanted to make sure to capture a little bit of both.”
“Communion” speaks to Draper’s limitless passion for the music he makes. It is another piece of hardware in the ever-expanding Grand Nationxl trophy case. It can be streamed here.
Staff writer Ryan S. Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.