Music

The Wolf Pack

Kevin Allen formed Grand Nationxl to showcase the talent, growth and maturity of the East Bay's veteran rap scene

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Many people may not be familiar with rapper Kevin Allen. In 2017, he released the Kevin Allen Project, which was a local favorite though it didn't get much air-play on mainstream radio. The album was the mature reflection of a veteran rapper who had seen the dark side of the limelight and was seeking something better both within the industry and within himself.

Another reason why the album might have slipped under the radar is because most people are more familiar with Allen's national success in the early 2000s when he went by the name Erk tha Jerk. In 2009, his song "Right Here" spent three weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. After such a promising start, Allen took a surprising hiatus at the height of his fame. When he returned, he came back with a vision.

"I saw a lot of crews coming up, just growing up," Allen says. "Whether it be Nelly, DMX, Hov, Puffy, Cash Money, No Limit; there's always a crew. I thought that there was no way that all these dope artists that I know, both through music and personally, could not have worked together yet. It didn't make any sense.

"So, I said, 'We're going to work. We are going to work in my line, because conversations can only go so far. We're not sending emails. We're not doing that. We need to pull up on each other.' And then once the record started being made, it started sounding like something crazy. So, part of it was thought out and a lot of it was organic."

Released on June 26, Twice On Sundays (Season 1) is the debut of East Bay hip hop's newest collective, Grand Nationxl, which includes Allen, Brookfield Duece, D. Bledsoe, Roux Shankle, Mani Draper, Champ Green and other genre veterans. The album sounds "crazy" considering the current conversation taking place in hip-hop culture, especially what's expected from the Bay Area or the West Coast. As opposed to the frenetic up-tempos typified by the "Hyphy" style associated with Oakland, the beats are methodical and hypnotic with almost contagious understatements. The lyrics are mature and contemplative, telling of lives that have been touched by hardships finally overcome. Mani Draper attributes the forming of Grand Nationxl to Allen's leadership.

"Kevin had a vision about doing a collective and bringing the best artists together and an extensive list of people that were invited—but most stopped coming because they didn't have the similar attitude," Draper says. "That's what formed the vibes of our process. What it's all built around is our admiration for Erk tha Jerk and his transformation and evolution not just as an artist, but also as a man. I think if you listen to Jay Z's 4:44, anything The Roots' Black Thought has done, we're getting to watch hip hop age in a way that I don't think rock and roll did.

"Jazz aged gracefully, but as a fan, watching our leaders, like Hov (Jay Z), go from 'Money, Cash, Hoes' to making a 4:44, which has some of the most important imagery I've ever experienced, shows hip hop has room for maturity. Getting to watch Kevin do that, as a fan and as a brother, has been some of the most inspirational shit you could ever imagine. You're watching somebody who has had the radio success go, 'Now I want to be better. And I want to demonstrate that.' So, that's really the place of origin of Grand Nationxl."

Released on June 14, a video for the song "Wings-n-Things" shows the crew hanging out in the backyard of Oakland's Regulars Only on an afternoon playing dominoes, eating food and sipping drinks, a far cry from both the materialistic imagery and the manufactured threats of violence that flood the airwaves. The album also focuses on positivity and upliftment while so many others seem to be filled with hyper-competitive braggadocio.

Songs like "Upper Room," "Positivity" and "Young, Black, and Beautiful" seem like they were created to counterbalance bad messaging, while also acknowledging the hard realities of Black life in America. The song "Baby In The Green Dress," a heartbreakingly beautiful and lush track embellished with almost serene live instrumentation, was inspired by witnessing a Black Lives Matter march while making the album.

"It was on East 14th on a Sunday," Allen says. "It was a caravan protest on E14, and it's all white people. I've never been more confused in my life. Like, why y'all didn't do that shit in Piedmont? Why y'all didn't do that shit in Temescal? Why are you doing this over here? They've already been doing construction on E14 for 20 years, so what's going on? It was like a movie.

"We look to the protest on our left, we look to our right, and there's a young working girl in broad daylight and her green dress stops at her waist. And we're like, 'Yo, you can't care about Black lives if you are protesting here, as this was going on. You don't even know where you are.' We called the song 'Baby In The Green Dress' because it was literally about a baby in a green dress."

It's the combination of all of these elements that caught the eye of the Grammy Nominating Committee. Nominations are determined by voting members through the first-round ballot or through either the Nominations Review Committee or Craft Nominating Committee processes. Just to be considered for a nomination with a debut album speaks to the immediate impact Twice On Sundays (Season 1) has already made.

Next to Kevin Allen, the most recognized member of Grand Nationxl is Brookfield Duece, who dropped two albums last year, America's Orphans and 2016, through Front Page Music, the label formed by him and his cousin, NBA star and Oakland native Damian Lillard. Since that time, Duece has been doing cameos with rising stars like Kev Choice while focusing on the mission of Grand Nationxl.

"The goal is to be bigger than the virus, to be bigger than Covid," he says. "We've been so used to listening to the things that the radio is perpetuating on us. That's telling us to hate each other. They're telling us to hurt our community, but you need to hear this because this is going to change the way things are going on outside.

"If we can get enough people that's willing to do that the same way we've been doing, by addressing social injustice and saying Black lives matter, then we can continue to start the fire and tell people to wave the flag. Whether it's one person or a thousand people, it'll grow, because we're all confident enough to continue to create, spread the truth and remain creative."

Though all of the artists consider themselves students of "reality rap," they do not simply chronicle what they've been through and witnessed. The intention is to give support to their community.

"We can't be too concerned with everybody else around the world," Draper says. "But our region has specifically asked for a particular thing to be proud of, to represent and stand behind; and we deliver."

Even the process of naming of the group had elements of uplifting each other through mutual support.

"We came to the name by sitting around with 15 to 20 names on a board, trying to find the best thing that describes all of us, because it's not just Oakland, it's all of these different cities that speak to the Bay Area," Duece says. "We were trying to figure out something that was rare, something that was classic, something that'd be able to last for a long time and maintain its quality and elegance to it, but also have the street element to it, too. So, we asked ourselves, 'What said all of that?' And we were like, 'Well, the best thing is probably the Buick Grand National.'

"You know, when you see that car in the street, it's an extra classic car. When you see somebody with that, you know they're serious about their cars. You know they're serious about what kind of car they got. But it's also one of those cars where if you're driving slow and you see it, you're like, 'I respect that.' You know what that car means. That car means respect."

Like Draper, Duece credits Allen with crafting the initial vision and intent of the group.

"Kev was the frontrunner on implementing the persona of Grand Nationxl, which is the wolf," Duece says. "The logo is about hanging with people that are strong-minded and strong-willed, that don't let people tell them what they want to do. We do what we want to do musically and in real life. The wolf gets this negative connotation of being a solitary, almost evil animal, but wolves are the strongest when they are in a pack together.

"If you can come together with people that are determined, strong-willed people like you, then you could be militant, you could be the Black Panthers, you could be the Chicago Seven. Grand Nationxl is bigger than any one person in the collective. We're saying that once you remove your ego, you can come together and look like something unstoppable."

Twice On Sundays (Season 1) is available on Apple Music, Spotify and Deezer.

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