Un-Cool Rap and the Aesthetics of Silence— an Interview with Pink Navel
There’s a desire to define and set the stage. Art — whether that’s music, sculpture, or articles online — we’re used to seeing in polished form, complete, mastered and articulate. No one listen’s to Beethoven’s first draft of his 9th Symphony, nor do they expect to. Creativity and mastery happen behind the scenes.
It’s no surprise to see this changing with streaming and live shows as much about process as they are the final form. But I’ll end my dissertation here. I’d like to share an interview with Pink Navel, otherwise known as Devin Bailey, or .dev — a musical artist, beat-maker, poet, rapper, streamer, and intermittent toy maker.
Coming off a string of performances and releases with hip hop’s illustrious poet gang Ruby Yacht, this interview comes in anticipation of Navel’s upcoming album EPIC, which will be performed & recorded live on August 14th.
A self-proclaimed anti-cool rapper, Pink Navel’s music dances between quirky samples, internet references, intricate beats and rhymes, spoken word, playfulness, and a sound that would be right at home in Minecraft.
This may sound like a carefully concocted collage of styles, and in a sense it is, but it’s also very simple. From making records in a single take to improvising on Twitch, spontaneity and approachability are part of what give Pink Navel’s art its distinctiveness. It’s a sort of here, pointing at this moment and incorporating time along the way.
Approachable, DIY, portable, indie (if you must), whatever you’d like to call it… one of the main ideas, I think, is to just be creative. Or anything.
Below is a transcript of our interview from this summer in July, 2021. I put the date for the sake of futurity.
Andrew Cheek: What’s your process like for writing a song or making an instrumental?
Pink Navel: My process is I feel like it’s pretty similar in the basic structure to most beat makers and rappers, but I think the idiosyncrasies of my process come with watching and taking in media while I’m working.
I like to watch YouTube videos while I’m making beats. I like to rip stuff right from like what I’m currently consuming.That also kind of comes with the bars too. I like to write about things that I’m consuming as well and think about, oh I’m really into this certain video game right now.
What are fun, interesting ways that I can, you know, analyze the content of this game while also rapping about my life?
AC: Yeah. I like that. Do things always happen in a particular order? So do you segment up making a beat, making the melody, and writing the lyrics? Or does it kind of happen as a hodgepodge per song depending on what’s most natural?
PN: Yeah definitely more hodgepodge. I just finished this record that I made called EPIC, which is all these beats that I made on stream. I was streaming on Twitch and talking to people and flipping samples on the fly really quickly.
So for that project, I took all these beats that I had made in previous time and wrote verses to them over the course of the week. In that sense it was the beat first and, you know, the verse coming afterwards. But there have definitely been times where I’ve thought about, oh, this would be a cool thing to sing over or something.
I’ve written verses for one beat that get transferred over to another, yeah. It’s definitely more of a hodgepodge. It can change, but that’s how it stays interesting.
AC: Definitely. So going off of that a little bit, you’re recording your next album, EPIC as a live show and you recorded one of your past projects (Raw Navel) in a single take. What’s the inspiration to this approach?
PN: Personally, I just like that kind of recording or performance because it’s a way for me to be like, you know, I didn’t record all these songs over the course of the year and sit on them or blend together random things… Instead, it’s more of this performance that I’ve crafted that kind of overarches.
I’ve got the whole thing down pat, there’s not one song on the record that I can’t do live. You know what I mean? It can all be recreated at any moment. And I think that’s the main thing I’m proving by performing a record in full.
AC: When you say that it can be recreated live, do you mean that that’s because the lyrics are kind of flexible to improvisation?
PN: No, I mean… there are plenty of musicians that have songs that they could not recreate, for any reason. Like, oh I don’t have the rights to this beat, or I’m not always performing with the person that sings this chorus, or I don’t know how to play this song on the guitar, but I recorded it with a friend who did. All that kind of stuff. This record for me is all music that I could do at any moment without anyone’s help.
AC: So your music, and this question has partially been answered already, but your music incorporates a lot of different styles. Styles meaning anything from just how you change your voice and the samples you use to the genres that you’re blending. Is this something that’s planned or is it more spontaneous?
PN: I would say it’s a bit planned. I know that I like to do that, you know, but it’s not meticulously planned. When I’m doing vocal takes of songs, I’m not thinking Oh I want to put this inflection here.
I’m just kind of running through the track and seeing what works and fine-tuning what I think would be the best vocal performance for said song. I mean, it’s all just music that I, that I like a lot. I grew up and still to this day I listen to a lot of emo rock and math rock, and I enjoy that kind of vocal performance a lot. I think that’s why I gravitate towards doing that in my songs frequently.
AC: And in terms of your origins with music, did you get started writing songs and rapping first? Or did you begin with beat-making and instrumentals?
PN: None of it! I started writing verse poetry in high school, and then that kind of went into me writing spoken word style poetry, like def poetry slam and long-form pieces.
I was in a poetry slam club in high school. And I was also in a couple of emo bands. My first band was this rock band that I did with a couple of friends when I was in the 10th grade.We played for like three years. So that’s where my performance origins are from, are singing for an emo band, but also playing percussion in concert band. I played the snare drum in concert band in like middle school.
AC: I was in orchestra. I played the violin.
PN: Oh, hell yeah. You know, it’s so funny. I did concert band for three years and snare drum. I had private lessons. I tried out for the jazz band in school, but I didn’t get in. And then that kind of turned me off to the whole academic side. Cause I was like, you know what fuck y’all! And I didn’t do marching band when I went into high school and it’s now one of my biggest regrets is not doing marching band.
If I could go back I would absolutely be in the drum line.
AC: So if you weren’t doing music, what other art or career would you be involved with?
PN: All throughout high school, I worked for a Boys & Girls Club and I originally went to college to be a teacher. So if I wasn’t rapping, I would probably be working with youth in some way. But in terms of art, I’d probably be sculpting, which is a thing that I like to do and think about a lot — making physical pieces.
“When I’m working on a figure it’s completely silent. I’m just sanding or whittling away at a tiny spot on this toy I’ve designed. There’s no performance there. It’s just me, you know, tuning something.”
AC: Yeah, I noticed you do some toy making.
PN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It kind of fell off, I had taken a big break. It’s kind of a tough thing to do DIY just with the spatial limitations and safety requirements that you need money meet, you know. A lot of the chemicals require properly ventilated workspaces that I don’t have access to.
AC: Does the toy making go in line with your music or is it something that you kind of incorporate with your platform, but as a separate thing?
PN: Definitely separate. I think what drew me towards toy making was how different it is to making music. Because even when you’re just alone working on a piece of music, you are performing for yourself. All the time you’re performing when you’re working on music up until the final climax of a musical piece which for me is the performance. So I wanted an art form that didn’t require that.
When I’m working on a figure it’s completely silent. I’m just sanding or whittling away at a tiny spot on this toy I’ve designed. There’s no performance there. It’s just me, you know, tuning something, fine-tuning something or whittling away. And I like that difference, it’s tactile.
Music, especially beat making and working on the computer, is not a very tactile art. It feels the same way that browsing on the web, as I’m doing on Facebook feeds. You know what I mean?
AC: Right, exactly. You can maybe feel the music a little bit, but it’s not something you’re literally touching.
PN: Yeah, when I make a beat I have to use my mouse and keyboard, you know, I’m still clicking things and that’s the same thing I do when I’m on amazon.com. But nobody can say the same thing about when I’m sanding a figure or mixing two chemicals together to pour into a mold. It’s completely different to me.
“I think that the stress on polish is a certain gate-keep to the industry. The way that I got into rap was that one person told me you can do this too. It’s actually pretty simple. And I would love, for as long as I’m doing this, to send that same message back out to people.”
AC: Who’s someone who really influences you and your music?
PN: Um, it’s always changed. I mean, this always, I’m always learning about new musicians, and, stuff, but lately I’ve been really into like lyrical writers. I think rap is such a lyrical, of course it is, it’s such a lyrical genre… But I feel like there are so many musicians who aren’t rappers that think like rappers.
I would say Paul Simon is one of those people. The way Paul Simon uses words in his songs, especially on Graceland. And There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, those two records. And also “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” too. He just has a really interesting way of writing songs. And, I study that and I like his music a lot.
There’s also this band Weatherbox, I feel the same exact way about. They’re an emo band, but the way that the singer Brian Warren writes music is to me, I just feel, I feel the poetic rap energy in the way that he puts words together, you know?
AC: The tradition of the arts at least, you know, in the Western world has been largely focused on curation and things being polished. How does your music exist in relation to this idea?
PN: Hmm, that’s interesting. Especially because, you know, I come from a scene of musicians that primarily put their music on cassette and nothing really sounds awesome on cassette unless you have really, really, really expensive hardware. I don’t know. I think that the stress on polish is a certain gate-keep to the industry.
A lot of people won’t even really think of something in the same way if it’s not professionally mastered and mixed. And I mean, like, luckily I’m not in that group of people or do I talk to any people that are like that or deal with any people like that, but they definitely exist. And there’s a huge part of the industry that really cares about that kind of presentation.
I think the fact that I am part of a community of musicians who are kind of skirting that and saying no, it really is open. You know, this is open source.
If it wasn’t, then there wouldn’t be the tools to do it. I think that that really is a big fuck you to the people that are trying to build all these all these fictional walls, you know?
Walls in front of people to not make music. I’ve gotten DMs from people that are like, your music is great, but it really needs a mix. How about you hire me to mix your stuff? And I’m like, okay. But then I would just be out, you know, a couple hundred dollars. If I really wanted to mix it, I can go on YouTube and figure that out myself, but I don’t really have the desire to do that. I like how it sounds.
AC: Yeah. And in a sense it’s a little more relatable too, because it’s not some polished gem that’s far away.
PN: Right. And that’s like, that’s the driving force. The way that I got into rap was that one person told me you can do this too. It’s actually pretty simple. And I would love, for as long as I’m doing this, to send that same message back out to people. I’m not doing anything that’s secret, you know, it’s all out there. Yeah. It’s very easy to find, you know?
“I think so many people get caught up in being an adult that they forget what it’s like to be a kid. And I think that art can be a way to allow yourself that brief respite from adulthood.”
AC: So how did you get started making music with the rap label and group Ruby Yacht?
PN: I met Rory and Al at a show in 2013. It would’ve been 2013 and I was just about to start my junior year of high school. And basically I just asked them a million questions that first night, like, what’s the thing that you use to make the music? Like, what is that 404? What is that box that you use? How are you on tour? Who books these shows, how do y’all travel? You know, pretty much anything I could think of to ask.
And then we kind of developed this online relationship over the years and I just got better and better. I was taking a break from college in 2000 and it would’ve been 2017 or ’18 and he [Rory (R.A.P) Ferreira] had, and he had asked me to join the crew and I dropped out of school and moved to Maine.
AC: For those unfamiliar, could you describe briefly what Ruby Yacht is and how kind of, how it exists — it’s members, some of your projects, etc.?
PN: I think the best word to say is a gang of poets that are really just living the true life of an artist in the way that, I believe, and we believe that it’s intended to be lived. Really embodying what it means to be a rapper in the modern era while also honoring, you know, the lineage of rappers that came before us.
We’re just a group of talented individuals that want to do this forever and have a deep love for it. And so we bond over that and we all kind of have a similar idea in mind of what that is and we’re, we’re not the kind of people to, you know, try to get studio time and get everything mastered the perfect way. We’re just living with the people we love and lifting them up anytime we can.
AC: Yeah, I like that. So, maybe this is the answer to my next question, and it’s definitely a subjective thing, but how do you personally determine or define good art?
PN: Personally, I like art that I can really feel the joy in. I think that joy and whimsy are some of the most powerful emotions you invoke your art. I think so many people get caught up in being an adult that they forget what it’s like to be a kid. And I think that art can be a way to allow yourself that brief respite from adulthood.
I think whimsy is something that I will always honor in terms of what I think that good art is. So I like the, I like the idea of being silly, being a little bit coy, skirting shyness in a way that kind of allows someone who might be shy to use their art to kind of say some shit they’ve wanted to say for a long time, you know?
AC: Briefly, could you talk a little about what you’re doing with Epic Club streaming on Twitch and toy making? Although we kind of already touched on that. So maybe just Epic Club and Twitch.
PN: Epic Club! Yeah, Epic Club on Twitch is similar to toy making and was a thing that I got into because of COVID. Because of, you know, being inside all the time and not knowing what else to do.
Basically, I was living alone for a long period of time. It may have been a couple months, not exactly long, but it was during COVID so it felt like an eternity. And every night I would go on Instagram live and just try to get someone to talk to me for an hour. I called it dev outside. And that was my show called dev outside.
Time goes on, I keep doing dev outside. And then I moved in with my partner and now we live in an apartment together. And I was like, what would be a funny way for me to give the idea of dev outside a punchline? What would the punchline be? So then I thought of, oh, I’ll do dev inside. Dev inside was like a Twitch stream live show that I had my friend’s band play.
And they did a stream performance, I took calls and answered questions and talked to people. Basically that turned into the Epic Club streams. Cause I was already kind of calling my fans the Epic Club on my record Andre’s Gift. I have all these allusions to the idea of reclaiming the word epic. I think that it’s used facetiously too often and like, and like ironically. But for a word that originates to describe history’s greatest stories, I don’t feel like that’s doing its due diligence.
I think “epic” should be a genuine phrase we use. So I just got really into this idea of epic and I was calling my fans The Epic Club already. So this dev inside stream ended up becoming what was called the Epic Club stream. So everyone that would come to the shows on Twitch and I’d be like, oh, you’re a part of the Epic Club. And then I started to grow like genuine relationships with these people.
I still talk with these people even though I stopped doing the streams. So I’m taking a break from it, but still I still chat with all these people. Like I’m about to go out to LA and crash at my homie Lenzo’s house, but I met him through the Epic Club. We’re going to go on a burger tour. I can’t wait.
AC: What is a burger tour? I’m guessing it’s self-explanatory?
PN: Yeah. Yeah. We’re going to go to a bunch of burger restaurants and eat different burgers.
AC: Oh yeah. The quest for the most epic burger.
PN: The most epic burger, yeah. We’re both really into, I’m really into making burgers—the art of making a good burger.
I guess that’s an interesting tidbit that some people might not know about me, but I watch a lot of YouTube videos about burger technique, all that kind of stuff.
AC: That’d be a good album title. The art of the burger.
PN: Yeah! Like the zen and the art of burger flipping.
AC: Is there anything else that you’d like to add? That’s it from my end.
PN: I would just like to add that I’m putting out this record called EPIC. Buy tickets! It’s August 14th. I’m performing the record all the way through and that’s going to be the version I bring to streaming, press the vinyl.
So if you want to be there, you know, at the moment that I record the record, I would suggest you buy a ticket. Shout out Ruby Yacht. Of course, and Epic Club, all that good stuff.