The Shape-Shifting Sounds of Nelson Bandela

Nelson Bandela. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I'm pretty sure that the first time I heard Nelson Bandela's music was on a cold night in the winter of 2014. Performing at LAVA, the Lancaster AVenue Autonomous Space in West Philly, the artist—whose real name is Nelson Nance—held the small crowd of 30 or so people captivated with his tender vocals, while coaxing a striking mixture of glitched-out rhythms and hulking bass from his laptop and controller.

As the sound bounced off the walls and filled up the room, my spirit moved and my mind attempted to make sense of all that I was hearing. The rhythmic influence of the LA beat scene was apparent, but the chords suggested R&B. The sheer weight and power of Nance's bass sounds bore the mark of dubstep, but the earnestness and intimacy of his performance that night held the distinctly spiritual air of gospel.

Fast forward to 2021 and Nance has built up a massive catalog of releases that retain elements of his older work while taking listeners through a world of stylistic twists and turns.

On earlier releases made under his former Norvis Junior moniker—like 2013's Songs in the Key of Chos and 2016's Pyrrhic Victory Disc 03—Nance's soulful vocals moved beautifully throughout dynamic landscapes of electronic sound. On projects like PRINCEROGERSNELSONSRABBIT and 4 All You Royalty, Nance used micro-chopped samples of sounds from Prince's vast catalog to create minimal but impossibly catchy glitch beats that pulled Prince's sensual and sacred tunes into the 21st century.

Last year, Nance released GET UP!!, an album where he put his own spin on the Deep House sound pioneered by Larry Heard while 2021's 55555 is full of delightfully weird electronic instrumentals.

When we spoke for this piece, Nance explained that his creative foundation was established early on growing up in a family of musicians in Dallas, Texas. "It was a family thing," he says. "My dad played percussion and guitar for leisure and my uncles would watch me while my parents were at work. They were musicians in a band."

An early part of Nance's musical education was the time he spent performing in choir at a performing arts high school where his mom taught. At the same time, his uncle was operating a DIY recording studio out of his garage, and it was here that Nance would get his first experience working with recording equipment.

"He used to record a lot of different people. He would record rappers that I knew from junior high, and he didn't want to do that [laughs]—so he taught me how to use Cakewalk Sonar and he showed me how to record for extra money. It was cool because I liked being in the studio and I was really into studio culture as a result of him and that experience," he says.

From there, Nance would become interested in live sound, learning to work a Yamaha mixing board at church. "I was working at church in the video department and there was this other dude named Arthur Porter working there at the time. Eventually he let me sit and learn the board. That was how I learned different frequencies and everything," Nance says.

With an ever-expanding curiosity about all aspects of music-making, Nance continued to experiment—recording, crafting his own beats, and learning more about the world of sound.

E-Mu MP-7
E-Mu MP-7

"When I was 16 or 17, I took a MIDI class at school. They were making computer music in the MIDI ensemble and I thought that was cool. So I took the Introduction to MIDI class and we started to learn how to make MIDI songs on this program called Digital Performer. That same year, my uncle had a drum machine called the E-Mu MP-7 and he taught me how to use it over spring break."

Armed with this unique and varied musical foundation and years of perfecting his craft, Nance's sound is unlike anything else. Today, he uses Ableton Live as his primary DAW, with a setup that includes a Roland SP-404SX and Numark Portable Turntable for vinyl sampling, synths like a Novation Bass Station II, a Moog Werkstatt-01, and a Dave Smith Instruments (Sequential) Prophet-08.

This rig is rounded out with a Novation Launchpad 2, a Launchkey controller, Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 interface and a Blackstar mini-amplifier.

When asked about the process behind his beatmaking, Nance's explanation gives an insight into the dynamic, twisting-and-turning character of his music. After building up multiple sounds performed with his voice, he arranges his songs by way of a process of subtraction, propelling the song forward by first removing and then introducing new musical ideas.

"I'll just start with an element that's in my head. It may be a drum beat or a melody or what sounds like chords, even though it's just a note, somehow in my mind I'll hear the chord," he says. "I'll start beatboxing something out and then I lay it down in Ableton, put it on loop, and figure out the BPM. And then I'll just build from that. So I'll replace the beatbox with actual sounds or I'll play out the pattern on my drum kit."

Nance continues: "Once I get to a point, I'll remove a bunch of elements. I want to make a moving composition—I want to have different parts and different harmonies coming in and out. I'll have six, or eight, or 12 channels of different things going on, then I'll take out at least half of them, then make it pivot into a new section of the song."

On his latest album, God Dad Bod Nance takes us on a loving and sometimes uncomfortable journey of self-realization. Not only does he share vocal duties with artists like Nappy Nina and Pink Siifu, Nance recruits producers like Malik Abdul Rahman, Swarvy, Illingsworth, MNDSGN, and others to contribute to the production.

As a result of these collaborations, the album reflects the boundless creative spirit that Nance has weaved throughout his work for years. Unsurprisingly, Nance's thoughts on God Dad Bod's particular sound read like a description of his body of work as a whole:

"The music is undefinable. There are elements of funk, techno, rap, and R&B, footwork—but it's none of those things. I wanted to make something that is ideally genreless while wholly embracing as many genres as possible."

Keep up-to-date with Nance's work at NelsonBandela.com or his Bandcamp page.

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