The Pride of Minneapolis – In Conversation with Nur-D

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Nur-D is the musical personification of Minneapolis-based activist Matt Allen, who routinely drops fun-in-the-sun bangers, party rock with heart, anthemic singles with a message. Allen himself seems inexhaustible, a songwriting and performing machine, engined by the love for and from his fans. His energy is electric, his mission inspired. He is, in short, a hell of a guy, like a human B12 shot—immediately likeable. Hanging out with Allen automatically puts a smile on your face. It’s no surprise that the response to Nur-D’s music and overall constitution continues to be wonderfully positive. 

But on May 25th, 2020, an unarmed George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, and the gears of the world shifted. Nur-D, famous for sick beats and uplifting rhymes, was not only compelled to address this abhorrent injustice on the masterful companion albums 38th and Chicago Avenue, but he and his friends hit the epicenter of the collective reaction—not in any destructive way, but rather providing water, support and medical attention to those injured in the melee. 

Nur-D became something of a light source—for Minneapolis and beyond.

Where are you from?

I was born in the Bronx, and we moved to Rosemount, MN, I think around 5th or 6th grade. 

Aw, man. What was that like?

It was a big transition, you know, to move from one place to another—especially how different those two places are. It’s an overall different vibe. Black kid in a mostly white town tends to come up pretty quickly. So it was a really interesting adjustment period. Also, it was just me and my mom, and she was very adamant about how I was going to act, speak, behave and stuff like that. High school was a lot better than middle school—middle school was a lot harder. But high school was great. 

What was hard about middle school?

Hey, you don’t learn empathy until you’re at least 15, 16. [laughs] I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that every kid is a sociopath until at least 15.

Oh, yeah.

And when you’re different, when you have easily definable differences, it’s like really easy to cut in on that. Growing up is a little tough. Then I started making music really early on. I was in football originally, but then… First of all, I was a defensive line, and I liked it, but I was a very theatrical kid and I went into theater instead. [laughs] I remember telling my coach, “I’m out. I’m gonna do theater.” It was very Troy Bolton situation. 

Was your coach bummed?

Yeah. There was a version of me that would’ve continued on. As people say from my shows, I have a lot of energy and a lot of flexibility—a lot of movement for a big dude. 

I was in a rock ’n roll band for a very long time. We had many different names: originally it was 3 Man Trio, then it was Saving Vinyl City, and then we were Black Genesis—which sounds like a heavy metal band, but it was actually just, like, if Phil Collins was Black. [laughs]

Really? Was it a Genesis cover band?

It wasn’t a cover band, but that was the style of music we wanted to go for. 

Like smooth dad rock?

Yeah, yeah. People always thought we were a heavy metal band, and then we’d show up. [laughs] So I did rock ’n roll for about eight years. I still love rock ’n roll—Prince is a huge influence on me, ’80s hair metal, like, feminine men dancing around—that was what I wanted to do. 

My first tape ever was Poison’s Open Up and Say…Ahh! 

Yes! I love it. My favorite song is “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger.

I mean, it’s a classic.

Classic song. But then I was like, I’m gonna try hip hop. This whole time in my life, I’ve loved hip hop, I’ve listened to it. Obviously it’s part of my culture, but I’d never really thought of doing it in front of anybody. But I decided I’d try my hand at it. There was this thing called Shut Up and Rap for Go 95.3—no longer a station—it was an open mic competition. I lost the very first time I went on, which is funny because all these people think I just came in and never lost. But the first time I showed up, I didn’t win. And then I came back the next season and just never lost. I won four in a row before they were like, Hey, you can’t come back here.

So then I was invited to play at Soundset in 2018. That was the first full set I ever did in front of anybody. I actually had to write three songs, because I had only written two. So I had to write songs because they wanted me to fill 30 minutes. They called me on the phone and asked if I want to do this, and I just said yes—in my head, I was like, I’ll figure that out

So you ended up writing three song for that—like, quickly?

Yeah. Some of the songs are like standards now—all from Mixtape Two: Electric Boogaloo. “Not Cool,” and then I wrote “Take My Picture.”

You wrote some bangers just to—

Just to fill my slot [at Soundset]. And they turned out to be some of the songs I perform pretty regularly, some of the biggest hits I have. 

After that you must’ve been like, This is my calling.

Yup. I looked out at the crowd at Soundset, seeing all those people, and I was like, Yup, that’s itI don’t know how exactly I’ll do it, but I’m gonna figure this out until this is the thing I do for a living. And so I did. But it was hard—taking anything you can, smiling, shaking hands, kissing babies, doing the whole nine. I think Prince said, “It takes 10 years for someone to be an overnight celebrity.”

Then [in 2020] we headlined First Avenue’s Best New Bands show in the Main Room to a sold-out crowd. So many people, beautiful night. It was—we thought—the start of the biggest year of our lives. [laughs] I quit my job.

Which was?

I was working at a call center for an orthopedic place. And I hated it there. [laughs]

Then there was a random Friday in March [2020], I got a call from the Minnesota United [pro soccer team] because I was supposed to open their season.

That’s huge.

It was gonna be huge. We were really excited about it. But they give me a call and say, “Yeah, Nur-D, the season’s canceled.” And that weekend I lost every single show for 2020. They canceled every single show, and that was my entire income. 

So I called my DJ—DJ Hayes—and I was like, Yo, we have to do something. Because my first thought was: If I’m feeling this way, there are other artists who are feeling this way. And that’s when we started MN Artists Relief, livestreaming concerts—we were some of the first people to jump on the livestreaming train, as far as local artists in Minnesota. 

Were people responsive?

Oh, yeah. People were really into it. We were able to raise over $4,000 for local artists, to give them money—no questions asked. 

I think one of the strongest attributes of the Black community as a whole is the mentality of reaching out and helping others. I learned that a lot from my grandfather. One of the things he told me that’s stuck with me my whole life was: If no one did it for you, then you should do it for someone else. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, a lot of these people were fighting and dying for stuff that they’d never even get to experience. They were doing that for my benefit. So my thought process is that I’m gonna do the same thing, as often as I can. 

It’s the same thing with the LGBTQ movement. Here we are, we’re marching, we’re fighting. A lot of the freedoms that we have now came off the backs of people who never got to experience the freedoms that me, my friends, their partners get to experience. 

Can you talk about your work during the protests following George Floyd’s murder?

So I tell people there have been two times I’ve looked around and thought, Wow, this is the end of the world. One is comedic and one is serious. The comedic one is when I saw a Walmart going out of business, and everything was like 75% off. 

But then there was the march to the 3rd Precinct from 38th and Chicago. I heard my friend had gotten hurt, so we go out to give milk and stuff—at the time, we thought milk was the best thing for pepper spray and mace; it’s not, by the way: just use water. Anyway, we go out and I’m walking to go see my friend Nathan who was meeting me out there, we’re in the parking lot of the Dollar Tree, and that Wells Fargo is on fire. Fireworks are going off, people are running around, people are just destroying property. And we look at each other, and we’re like, It’s the end of the world. This whole city’s gonna blow up. 

And okay. There are so many narratives about that time period, but no one’s gonna tell you any different from the one’s who were physically there. And it was hell. People are bleeding, we’re stopping to patch people up on our way to our friend. They weren’t sending first-aid people or ambulances, and the police were given free rein to be as violent as they possibly could—not understanding that it was only feeding the flames of what was happening. I’ll go out on a limb and say that what burned down Minneapolis was more the apathy of the 3rd Precinct when we showed up. The police weren’t there. There was no representative from the police saying, you know, “I know you guys are angry. We’re looking into what’s going on.” Literally anything. But no one came out to say anything, and that was it.

Again, this was a peaceful march from 38th to the Precinct, and while some people started to destroy the building, the police were firing gas into people who were just there. I remember watching a woman pushing her stroller through this cloud of gas, and crying and screaming and choking, trying to cover her baby. It was hell. There was no law and order to that; [the police] just responded with as much violence as they possibly could to try and shut people up. Historically that works, but in this instance the anger was too great.

So, we put a bunch of medical supplies on a reappropriated shopping cart from Target, and we just wheeled around with flashlights, patching people up because the ambulances wouldn’t come. It was fire and blood and pain, and we were out there every day for at least three weeks.

I was working with my group Justice Frontline Aid—our current President is a woman by the name of Deshann Sanchez; a strong, queer, Latina woman just kickin ass and being the best—and together we really pushed for the inclusivity of the movement, but also more protection for our people who are out there fighting for what is right. And throughout that, I saw my music shift, and I wrote 38th and Chicago Avenue—kind of a one-two punch, a two-sided coin of what I was feeling: the anger, the frustration, the desire for not only justice but also vengeance on 38th, but also optimistic, where-do-we-go-from-here, let’s rebuild on Chicago Avenue

Not a lot of optimism during that time.

It was hard. I just knew there had to be hope, or else I’d get lost in despair. So while 38th was really easy to write, Chicago Avenue took a lot more struggle and push and grit to get through. As an artist I felt like it was part of my responsibility. It’s really easy to feel what everybody’s feeling when everybody’s feeling it—it’s not easy to feel what you think you will be feeling tomorrow or two months from now or a year from now and write that down for people right now. 

Peep the stellar Mixtape Three: Just For Fun, out now. For more information, check out www.nurdrocks.com and www.justicefrontlineaid.org

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