Nur-D: The Comic Book Loving Rapper that Wants to Take You to Space Camp
Matt Allen, more familiar to his fans as Nur-D, met me at a St. Paul café proudly sporting the Flash symbol on both his shirt and hat. This uniform is integral to Nur-D’s image, one informed by comic book heroes and professional wrestling. Allen is quickly on the rise in the Twin Cities’ music scene with his new brand of hip-hop, one that is, well, nerdy.
Matt Allen was resting at home on a Sunday night when he received a congratulatory message from a friend. Attached to that message was a photo taken of an article music writers from the Star Tribune, the Twin Cities’ most prominent newspaper, had published that morning. Allen rushed out of bed to the nearest newsstand to pick up a copy. Upon opening, he saw his name and his self-released debut album, Songs About Stuff, listen amongst the “10 Best Minnesota Albums of 2019 So Far,” a list he shared with Dua Saleh, Dizzy Fae, and the latest posthumous release from Minneapolis’s favorite son, Prince. “It’s one thing to make a song that your friends like, it’s even one thing to make a song that strangers like … it’s another feeling entirely to have someone whose job it is to look at music and say ‘wow, this is really good,’” Allen stated. For him, it lends credibility to the affirmation he had been receiving prior. It was not all just hype. He still keeps that article on his nightstand as a reminder.
No stranger to recent success, Nur-D had been collecting accolades and accomplishments even before the Star Tribune article, including doing an in-studio session at The Current, Minnesota’s independent focused radio station, as well as playing at First Avenue’s smaller stage, the 7th Street Entry. One achievement of special note, however, would be his performance at Soundset Festival, a long-running annual Minneapolis event dedicated to hip-hop. It’s one of the largest of its kind in the country. “Soundset was 100% the thing that proved to me that I was on the right path,” he explained. “I had people come up to me and say ‘we were going to see Wu-Tang Clan, but we heard you and stopped and stayed here instead. That was beyond comprehension.” That year he shared the stage with names such as Eykah Badu, Tyler, the Creator, and Migos.
Notably of course, his outward aesthetic paying tribute to his favorite superheroes plays into his unique persona as an artist. “With great power comes great responsibility,” the famous line from the Spiderman series is what Allen claims to be the very first scripture he ever learned. But there is much more to Nur-D than his references and whimsical outfits. He sees himself existing outside of the accepted realm of braggadocio and machismo often associated with hip-hop. “Today the myth of the untouchable macho-man is slowly crumbling away,” he observes. Nur-D often tells his supporters that he is their “seventh favorite hip-hop person,” a statement far from the boastfulness you’d expect from a performing MC.
Nur-D looks at Tyler, the Creator, most specifically his latest project IGOR, a self-reflective hip-hop album that stands as a direct rejection of the tough guy rapper archetype. “I didn’t feel the need to pretend to be this hard, gangster person,” Allen said. “For a lot of people, that is genuinely who they are, and that’s dope. But I’m just not that guy… there is nothing that I can say about that particular version of the world and life that has not already been said or could be said by someone better than me.”
Sonically, Nur-D wields a jovial, melodic flow that he attributes to his early gospel roots singing in churches and choirs. “I think a lot of hip-hop and gospel are more intertwined than people realize,” Allen says. “It’s not even being part of a faith system necessarily. It’s about how the cadence came out.” In gospel church settings, it is custom to give testimonies, a pronouncement of something good or something perceived as miraculous in one’s life experiences. A lot of times in the heat of emotion, according to Nur-D, that can come out very rhythmically. “’Straight Outta Compton’ is testimony. Even something like ‘Dear Mama’ is a testimony. You don’t have to be a singer to be a gospel person.” While showing of his pure rapping chops, Nur-D, like off the track “Rebecca” off of Songs About Stuff, can find compelling ways to also dive into soulful balladry.
During his high school years in Rosemount, Minnesota, Matt would hang out with his brother and friends who would engage in friendly, low stakes rap battles. He found, learning through proximity from his hip-hop loving friends, that he had a knack for rapping. In college, Allen served as the lead vocalist and keyboardist for a rock band. Writing for that band, he would often work with hip-hop beats because he found that to be the most efficient way to get words out on paper. When Allen’s band dissolved, Matt knew he did not wanted to be part of another. At the same time, he also was fully aware that music was all that he wanted to do. “When you are in a band, you have to make sure everyone is running in the same direction,” according to Allen. “In hip-hop, the only person keeping you from being yourself is you.” Honesty is a calling card for Nur-D, and hip-hop, he believes, is the best medium to present his pure self.
While still fronting his band, and without telling anyone, Matt Allen entered into an open-mic rap competition put on by a Minnesota based hip-hop radio station. Prior to that night, he had never rapped in front of anyone before. He did not win the competition that night, but he got to meet and talk with Mr. Peter Parker, a longtime voice in Minnesota hip-hop who had been in attendance. Parker instilled in Nur-D some inspiring advice, to not only be hungry and dedicated, but to lean more into a character and a defining persona. Parker compared Allen to Missy Elliot. The next season of the competition, Nur-D returned and won five straight times. He was winning so much that the organizers of the competition told him that he could not compete anymore.
When considering character and how it plays into his own music, he looks to his love of hard rock and glam metal, bands including Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC, and Night Ranger. “It was all about the spectacle. It was about giving the people to escape into, not just listen to,” Allen explained. “I think there was a backlash to the spectacle, but we are in a day and age where that is going to be more appreciated.”
Although not associated with hard rock, Matt Allen considers the funk legends Parliament-Funkadelic to be the best at putting on a spectacle for audiences. “George Clinton pretty much thought he was an alien,” I joked to Allen. “He IS an alien,” he responded. “That man is in outer space right now.”
Within Nur-D’s music, he looks to implement elements of subtlety and subtext in a subversive fashion, and he finds that inspiration from comic books. “One of the things that Stan Lee did,” Allen begins to explain, “is to tell the story of the black experience in America to white people, not letting them know that’s what they are doing. This got [white readers] hooked on the idea of fairness and equality.” According to Allen, these ideas of justice are what the X-Men series is truly about. “This is what I want to do with my music,” he adds.
Most recently, Allen is riding off of the recent release of his single “You Suck (Be Better).” The entire song was written in a day after he was overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions. Nur-D talks about a lost friend, one previously involved in the local music scene, one that Allen explains had hurt many women that he had been in contact with. “I started to question a lot. I started hearing stories from the women that were affected and friends who were affected,” he explains. “I woke up and said ‘I want to write about this.’” At this point in his career, Nur-D looks to make music that can enact social change. “My music has allowed me to gain a certain amount of fans that respond and listen when I say things. This felt like one of those things I could speak to … I’m glad that the commentary on that version of male predatory behavior is out there.”
Nur-D, still relatively new to the hip-hop community but quickly ascending, still has a lot he is aiming for. He sums it up best when he states, “I don’t want to lose another Stan Lee or another Prince before I can meet them.” While he has become a mainstay at the 7th Street Entry, Nur-D is passionate about soon headlining the main room of First Avenue, the iconic space that Prince christened in the film Purple Rain. But in the immediate future, Nur-D is excited to record and release his live vinyl record being put out by Solsta Records, a Minneapolis based record store. That is set to come out in November.
On social media, Nur-D often tags his post with #SpaceCamp. This is highly symbolic of Nur-D’s past and present. When Matt Allen was younger, he always dreamed of attending space camp, but never had the opportunity to go because of growing up too poor. “As I got older I said to myself, ‘I can make other things my space camp,’” Allen passionately states. Through his music, he can now live that dream vicariously. Playing a benefit show at a local brewery, Nur-D was able to raise money for kids to attend space camp who could not afford it. “I’m living my dream. This is about to be space camp for me, and it can be space camp for you,” Allen says with a wide-eyed mysticism. “We are going to experience something that people said we never would be able to do.”