Grace Under Pressure: The Rise of NameBrand

by | Feb 14, 2019 | MUSIC

Richmond hip hop producer NameBrand has worked with many of the city’s top rap talents, including Nickelus F and Michael Millions. But his story is about a lot more than just beats and rhymes.

NameBrand is a staple figure within the hip-hop culture of Richmond. Known for his versatility and dynamism as a sample-based producer, he has worked with some of Richmond’s top talent, including Michael Millions, Nickelus F, and Radio B. Now, with his latest release, Grace, NameBrand is continuing to develop his sound and career while simultaneously paying tribute to his past and his city.

“Richmond has an amazing crop of artists that any producer should appreciate being able to work with,” NameBrand said. “And when I say ‘any’ producer, I’m not just talking about local producers, I’m talking about producers throughout the world.”

Born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, NameBrand moved with his family to Germany shortly afterwards, where he spent the first five years of his life.

While living in Germany, NameBrand’s mother would often take him to the local bakeries and open markets. Even today, certain scents still remind him of Germany and trigger a sense of nostalgia.

“Certain things that I remember, like certain smell of breads and cigars… It definitely takes me all the way back,” he said.  “That’s kind of [what] my experience with Germany is. I was so young, there’s only bits and pieces that I remember.”

NameBrand’s family relocated back to the United States and he briefly lived in Petersburg before moving to Chesterfield County in the third grade. It was after moving to Chesterfield that he was introduced to music production, and began to lay the foundation for the rest of his career.

“[I] was introduced to a host of artists and a host of different people who just had a passion for the music,” NameBrand said. “It was a really cool point for me, just being around so many artists and being so young.”

His older brother, Michael Millions, was the person who first sparked NameBrand’s interest in music production. As a kid, Millions figured out how to make a microphone out of a headset and a vacuum tube. He used this device to sample instrumentals from the radio to create a beat with. After the beat was created, Millions would rap over the music.

However, the cord on his homemade recording device was a bit too short, so he would have to lay on his stomach to record his raps. Watching Millions’s innovation and dedication to his craft motivated NameBrand to get involved. Fascinated with computers, software and beats, NameBrand naturally gravitated towards the production side of music.

“I’ve always loved beats,” he said. “When I listen to music, I listen to the beat first. If I like the beat, then I’ll go back and listen to the lyrics. In order for me to really appreciate [a song], I really had to love the beat.”

The first production software he bought was Hip Hop DJ, when he was 13. Even though he described the software as “trash,” he is still grateful that it allowed him “to get his feet wet.”

Soon after he acquired the program, Millions noticed his him working with it and invited him to come along to his recording session with local artist Illa Styles. Illa, who was working with a more advanced production program, noticed NameBrand looking over his shoulder at the software and gave it to him.

“That’s when it was like ‘Okay, now I have a tool that I can use,’” said NameBrand. “Now all I need to do is really, really study this particular tool.”

As a child, NameBrand’s passion for music was furthered by a fascination with various “real producers,” such as Dr. Dre, Puff Daddy, and Quincy Jones. In fact, the first album he ever bought for himself was Puff Daddy & The Family’s No Way Out, when he was about 12 years old. This album beget a lifelong fascination with talented producers, which started even before he began making music himself.

“I remember when I bought that album, all I could think about was how dope it was that . . . although he didn’t produce every record on there, he worked with the production team who helped to produce that particular record.”

In addition to Puff Daddy (aka P. Diddy), NameBrand also greatly appreciates Quincy Jones’ musical originality and his holistic approach to projects.

“I was introduced to [Jones] via Michael Jackson,” NameBrand said. “The way that [Jones] put those albums together with him . . . that’s how you put together an album sonically. All [those] other producers that I was fond of kinda had that same approach — they paid attention to the bigger picture.”

One of NameBrand’s favorite of his own projects is The Color Purple, an album he  released in 2011 alongside his brother, Michael Millions.

This was the second project that the pair had released together, and the first project NameBrand produced completely. For the brothers, there was a sense energy and excitement that surrounded the creation of The Color Purple that felt new and meaningful.

“It was just the mindset at that particular time,” said NameBrand. “We were new to it, but we knew that we were capable of doing it. There was this fun element there…. It felt like the beginning of something”

Another career highlight was his collaboration on Stretch Marks with Nickelus F. They first met to work at Nick’s house and wrote six or seven songs together. However, the songs were never released. Years later, NameBrand revisited the project and felt the songs had timeless sound — so he contacted Nick to discuss releasing them. Nick’s response was, according to NameBrand: “Let’s take these songs and turn them into a full-fledged project.”

Today, Nick and NameBrand are close, but when they were working on Stretch Marks, they did not have a ton of experience working together. However, they did have mutual respect for each other’s work.

“When I was first introduced to Nick, I was definitely a fan of who he was and his talent,” NameBrand said. “Being able to work with Nick was like a milestone.”

For his latest project Grace, NameBrand drew inspiration from Grace Street — more specifically from the time he spent at Donland Entertainment studio, which used to stand on Grace Street.

“That was where [my] foundation was solidified, and I started really honing in on some of the skills,” Namebrand said.

It was also at Donland Entertainment that NameBrand met his mentor, Architect.

“He was the older guy, like the vet,” NameBrand said. “He was the work horse, he made all the beats.”

During this time, NameBrand was able to focus on developing his technique by observing and learning from the different artists, engineers and producers that he was surrounded by. It was through this experience that he acquired the skills to further his own musical style.

“Production wise, I don’t really have a sound or style of music, per se,” NameBrand said. “I just enjoy making music that I like. If it sounds good to me, if it feels good to me, that’s the type of music that I make. I can make anything.”

To NameBrand, creating a beat is about creating a vibe and sparking a “constant transfer of positive energy” from creator to listener.

“I literally start from nothing, and it’s my energy being transferred into whatever,” he said. “Then that energy ultimately inspires another person to write this amazing song to it. And then that energy gets transferred out into the world, and people ultimately have whatever feeling that they receive from it.”

The biggest challenge in NameBrand’s career is figuring out how to pave his own path in the music industry.

“There is no real guideline on how to become what you ultimately want to be,” he said. “You’re making decisions every day that you hope puts you in a space that’s going to be closer to that goal.”

That ultimate goal for NameBrand is not only to succeed as a producer, but to reach out to inner-city youth and encourage them to pursue their passion, as well as higher education.

A software engineer during the day, NameBrand has a bachelor’s degree from Norfolk State University and a Master’s Degree in Tech from the Florida Institute of Technology. He hopes that he can be representative and show kids that the pursuit of education and a music career does not have to be an either-or situation.

“I feel like often times kids get posed with this idea that you have to pick one or the other,” he said. “I want ultimately [for] them to know that you can do both. You can do your passion and excel at your passion as well as achieve academically… You don’t have to just stop at high school.”

His career has grown exponentially over the past several years, and NameBrand is not slowing down. A pillar of Richmond’s vibrant hip-hop culture, NameBrand continues to flex his influence. Not only does he always have a new project in mind, but he strives to keep sight of the larger goal: to be a Grammy award-winning artist with a Master’s degree.

Photos courtesy NameBrand

Music Sponsored By Graduate Richmond

Jayla McNeill

Jayla McNeill

Jayla McNeill is a journalism student at Virginia Commonwealth University and contributor to RVA Magazine. Her writing includes politics, diversity, art, culture, and social issues.

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