The risk of making progressive and prescient art is that you may be unappreciated in your lifetime. But N8NOFACE never cared. Music has been his therapeutic outlet since his teens — a means of coping with drug-fueled risks while sharing grim tales of friends and family who sell and succumb to narcotics in his hometown of Tucson, AZ.
After years of accretive but minor recognition, the 46-year-old’s aggressive, anarchic, thugged-out, occasionally depressive and sometimes romantic amalgams of synth-driven punk, rap, minimal wave and rock have spiked in popularity. Every track from Don’t Dial 911, N8’s 2020 Eyedress-produced EP, has hundreds of thousands of plays. He’s sponsored by Joker Brand, the clothing company of esteemed LA photographer Estevan Oriol, touring with punk/rap groups half his age like City Morgue and Ho99o9, and will perform at Psycho Las Vegas on the same bill as Suicidal Tendencies and several members of Wu-Tang Clan.
“People want energy right now, so I think that’s a part of [why my music’s taking off]… I get DMs from people saying ‘I don’t like punk, but I like N8NOFACE,’” N8 explains. Wearing a black Joker Brand t-shirt and hoodie, he speaks while seated at a sun-drenched picnic bench in Long Beach’s Bixby Park (Cherry Park, among locals) on an April afternoon. This evening, he’ll rehearse for his currently ongoing tour with Ho99o9, where attendees can watch him bash his head with the mic and storm the stage with his SP-404. “I don’t know why they didn’t get it 10 years ago, so that’s why I’m like, ‘It’s not me that changed. Maybe it’s the world.’ And now I’m fitting in with the times.”
Homicide (out now via Blackhouse Records), N8’s new album and fifth in as many years, distills the futuristic and post-apocalyptic sound he’s refined over the last decade — one that sonically encapsulates our increasingly dystopian present. Like much of his catalog, these 17 songs exist somewhere between the cyberpunk universe of William Gibson and Cormac McCarthy’s lawless, ruthless deserts. They are adrenaline shots that clock in around one minute. N8 bolsters walls of buzzing, ominous synths with blistering drums he’s sampled from old punk records, chopping them for minimal parts and maximum dirt. It’s the scuzzy, distorted, levels-in-the-red musical equivalent of watching a mark get clocked with a MicroKORG before they’re jacked for their chain, cocaine and robotic prosthetic.
Alternating between a serrated scream, snarling raps and a gothic Robert Smith-like croon, N8 espouses a kill-your-idols dogma (“Burn this MF”) and narrates DEA home invasions (“Poor Dom”). Maniacal minimal wave love ballads (“On My Side”) coexist with bursts of self-loathing (“Hate Me When I’m High”) and prayers for friends caught in potentially deadly turf wars and junkies in comas (“I Was Aye Aye Aye”). No subject is too taboo, no genre sacred or barred from fusing with another. It’s anti-genre music that’s more distinctive, seamless and vulnerable than anything from Hot-Topic-wearing Soundcloud rappers screaming they’re rockstars.
“I try to incorporate every genre into one song. The beat may be goth-y but the subject matter is what you might find in a narcocorrido or a rap song. I’m sampling [punk] drums the way hip-hop producers do. I’m doing it different,” N8 says. Though he discovered proto synth-punk band The Screamers later in life, they’re now his chief influence when he creates a new entry in his forward-gazing discography. “I want to make music that street punks in 2077 will listen to. Every futuristic movie is always heavy techno and shit, and I’m like, ‘No, there’s going to be some kid picking pockets doing some weird new drug. He’s the street rat, and what’s he listening to?’ It’s going to be some grimy punk shit.”
Bixby Park has faint traces of grime, but it’s Edenic compared to 7th Street. One of Long Beach’s main drags, 7th Street is where you might find addicts shuffling on trash-strewn corners or staggering to bug-infested motels. There aren’t nearly as many indigent and neglected souls as there were when N8 moved there in the early 2010s, but he spent countless weekends getting high on those corners and inside those dark motel rooms. While he hasn’t touched narcotics for a year, his slightly nasal voice still fires with methamphetamine-addled speed behind his Serpico-sized mustache. Rocketing sentences ricochet off of one another like pinballs between bumpers. Though his physical proximity to his recent past doesn’t slow his speech, it weighs on him.
“I’ll walk along 7th Street and see people I smoked with,” he says. “I’ll clench my nails deep into my palms because I’ll get a memory of… I mean, I was in some dark places, bro.”
N8’s Tucson childhood was much brighter. He and his older brother, who makes cholo-approved modern funk as Zackey Force Funk, shot BB guns and acted out TV shows while roaming the desert. For a time, they took bicoastal flights from their Mexican mother’s home to visit their Jewish father, who lived in several East Coast cities. Though Zackey was a natural athlete who excelled in boxing, N8 was a “weirdo creative” from the beginning, drawing comics and writing short stories.
All was okay until N8 and Zackey’s father died suddenly during their early teens. That traumatic event — coupled with the fact that they lived in a cartel-affiliated city with easy access to large quantities of cocaine — perhaps made their respective involvement with drugs inevitable. By the time they were in high school together, Zackey was moving weight and N8 had taken his first bumps.
N8’s first hits coincided with his first foray into music. A lifelong rap fan, he recorded rhymes on a karaoke machine before purchasing an SP-1200 from the back of The Source magazine and building an in-home studio with money his family and friends made hustling. With no in-person instruction or YouTube tutorials, he taught himself as much as he could through trial and error, a process he’s never abandoned.
“I still have professional engineers coming to my spot going, ‘Dude, you’re recording like this? The way you’re saving your shit is all wrong,’” he says. “Thirty years later, I still don’t know what I’m doing. It’s all about, ‘How do I record, man?’ That’s all I need to do. I just need to get this emotion out.”
Suicidal Tendencies’ genre-mashing thrash turned N8 on to punk in high school, but he didn’t make anything like it until meeting producer and tech wizard Tony Nicoletta, better known as Scumbag Tony, in the late 2000s. Between and during coke binges, they created as CRIMEKILLZ, Tony soundtracking N8’s earliest screams, raps and croons with beats made using Nintendo Game Boys. Their “8-bit punk” was a hybrid of a glitching video game, punk repetition, and the faster beats coming out of the Los Angeles beat scene. After Zackey put CRIMEKILLZ songs on his Myspace page, LA label Hit+Run began releasing both Zackey and N8’s music.
CRIMEKILLZ songs achieved some mainstream success when they appeared on the TV show Workaholics, but N8’s no-sleep weekends fueled by meth, crack and coke wreaked havoc on the group and his body. After multiple hospitalizations, he got a job alongside Zackey fixing the interiors of airplanes for an aviation company that employed numerous felons. He worked hard and learned his trade well, but he lost the job after one too many failed drug tests. Around the time that CRIMEKILLZ disbanded, friends gave him a brick of cocaine to sell in LA. N8 left Arizona with a blanket, a pillow, and his laptop. The weight met him in South Central.
The next several years were a blur. He lived in South Central and sold heroin for a friend who allowed him to live rent-free until gangs ran him out of the neighborhood. Through some combination of scammer ingenuity and hard-earned ability, he wound up working on private planes for Gulfstream Aerospace. Weekend binges persisted, but his girlfriend, Valerie, stuck by his side, pushed him to continue recording in the closet of their studio apartment, and tried to help him get clean.
“She’s an angel if I’ve ever seen one,” N8 says. “I finally found someone who really wants me to win and succeed and helps me with my art. She’s always asking ‘How can we do this better? What can I help you with?’ She’s just my savior.”
N8 lost his job at Gulfstream during the pandemic, but the blow coincided with his largest boost in notoriety. Since the release of Don’t Dial 911, he’s become a full-time musician. While Valerie runs his merch tables, books hotel rooms and more, N8 works at his sobriety and continues to record albums like Homicide at a prolific clip. He’s also reconnected with his 30-year-old daughter, who proudly posts about her dad’s music on social media. Though N8 worried that sobriety would negatively impact his creativity, he’s gladly learned the opposite is true.
“I thought ‘If I’m not depressed because of a three-day binge I just went on, how can I write?’” he admits. “Now, I realize that if you’re clear-headed, you can tap into any emotion. It might be a homie venting or telling me about the first time he kissed this girl, and I’ll take their story and write it from my perspective. Either I put myself in his shoes, her shoes, or someone watching it. There’s inspiration everywhere.”