The man behind Pan: Leron Thomas’ transition from jaded jazz musician to creator of an underground rap masterwork

Following a short but hilarious skit with Christopher Walken’s Pulp Fiction character, Captain Koons, Pan Amsterdam’s memorable debut The Pocket Watch gives us our first glimpse of its secretive creator. “What’s good, this is Pan Amsterdam. I’d like to introduce myself, but I really don’t think I should.” From that point on, our journey is guided by this cloaked, straight-talking and witty storyteller, his biting rhymes and extraordinary trumpet lines painting a picture of a talented artist, peripheral to the status quo. Much like MF Doom, Pan Amsterdam was the persona that would separate the art from its creator, the contents of the rhyme from the inner feelings of its author. But eventually, word got out. Now, we’re overjoyed to be able speak with Leron Thomas, the multi-talented musician behind the project, to discuss the circumstances surrounding the creation of The Pocket Watch and the people who made it possible. Pan Amsterdam performs live at YES on 23rd October, supported by Manchester’s own Blind MIC.

On Landlord Elijah you spit some hard truths about life prior to Pan Amsterdam, culminating in the line ‘a jazz musician died, Pan Am was born.’ Can you tell us a little more about the creative transition you underwent and the events that led to this project?

LT: ‘Just your run of the mill jazz musician realizing that I didn’t vibrate well on the NYC jazz scene, with a sympathetic girlfriend paying the rent in a shitty apartment and watching her become resentful and bitter. I’m not dogging the great musicians in the scene because there are some amazing players in the New York jazz world that do not get their due. Many of them I look up to. But some of the gatekeepers that say what goes and what stays (i.e. club owners, labels, bookers, promoters) have overstayed their welcome. But even that corruption was to be inevitable. That’s the nature of many things: kingdoms, civilizations, institutions and systems.

I try to not take it personally, because there is always a bigger agenda at play. It’s just that one of the ways that I don’t take it too much to heart is to get that anger and frustration out. With the politics in the jazz scene you have to play a very tricky Dawson’s Creek, One Tree Hill-like game with everybody. I suck at that shit. I’m better at it now but back then when I was hitting sessions and stuff, I socially was horrible. It had largely to do with a clique that I was in and I didn’t like my position in the clique. So to outsiders I was very dark and confrontational at times, even.

But it forced me to understand that I had to be more in tune with my human/artistic side or else I was gonna seriously hurt myself and very possibly someone else. Jazz became more politics than music to my ear, right down to the solos I would hear. I couldn’t play good anymore, often times at jam sessions I would play very loud and flat. I became more interested in the night life fast lifestyle of the late night observers than the actual music. Then after some close disaster experiences I had to check if I even still loved music anymore. I quickly realized that I did and from there I threw myself in to styles and even started singing, and I knew I couldn’t sing. I didn’t give a fuck, I enjoyed it. I really needed joy during those tough times. And so on and so forth into Pan Amsterdam.’

How did yourself and Thatmanmonkz become acquainted and begin exchanging ideas? Did you work collaboratively on the instrumentals or did Thatmanmonkz send you ideas he felt would get the juices flowing?

LT: ‘My very close friend, brother and frequent musical collaborator Malik Ameer Crumpler put me in contact with Scott [the man behind Thatmanmonkz]. I’ll be honest about how it went down. Quite frankly I was jealous of Madison Washington. Fuck it, it’s true. Right when I had a bit of a career set back (so I thought at the time) with these people in France that I was working with and singing disco and funk tunes, Malik and Scott had cooked up Madison Washington. I didn’t know about this until I saw them doing an interview with Gilles Peterson on 6Music and Worldwide FM. I was shocked. Malik works so fast and is so busy in so many different worlds (even the literary world) that you don’t always know what he’s up to. He’s not being secretive or shady, he just driven as fuck.

So when I peripherally, expressed my jealousy in a conversation with him, he put me in contact with Scott in a very noble gesture. Now I still didn’t think that I would be rapping. I assumed that Scott knew of my singer-songwriter background and would give me some house beats to sing some dumbass but clever hooks on. I love taking the piss out of house music. And especially since he is a known house DJ, I was ready for him to bring it on. But naw. Dude gave me these vintage 90’s hip-hop sounding beats. I was a runaway field slave in headlights. I mean that literally. Because I didn’t realize how much of a field slave I felt like while working under this one dude in France until I heard these beats in which I was to do something with, that Scott gave me. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t the French dude’s fault, and I do love to sing funk and disco. It’s just that somewhere along the touring I felt that I was obligated to only sing that stuff. And before the French [artist] I thought by a few people that I was “obligated” to only be a crooner.

So when I heard what Scott sent I took that freedom as an insult and called Malik on some “Motherfucker did you put Scott up to this” shit. Malik don’t play anyone coming at him that way, but for some reason he entertained my bullshit and said, “No what did he send you.” That’s when I realized that as much as I have been a genre crossing artist this whole time in my career, I didn’t know how to deal with the energy finally giving way and that I was free and people looked at me like I can do anything, musically.

So I started playing around with this accent over one of Scott’s beats and called myself “Pan Amsterdam” and “Plus One” was made.’

We understand you’re laying low in Upper Manhattan. Is your neighbourhood one that’s conducive to creativity; a nice place to write, think, be artistic…or is it a challenging place to be based?

LT: ‘It’s a bit of both. First of all the rent kicks my ass. I live around Columbia University. So the young girls and optimism in eyes and in voices at the college bars can be inspirational if I want to be g-rated. If I wanna be me about it, well it’s where the dark night life and rich meet, and the innocent lose their innocence. Harlem and especially above Harlem into the Bronx come to my area and mingle with the rich and the young and naive. The rich need their kinks and drugs, too and they can afford them on top of that. Supply and Demand.

I leave the rest for a Pan Am rhyme one day.’

It’s clear from your lyrics that your music knowledge runs deep. When did you first begin taking an interest in music, buying or hearing records and eventually arrive in a space where you can drop lyrical references left, right and centre?

LT: ‘I must say that has largely to do with my family. My Mom and Dad listen to tons of music. It’s fun now with the internet, when I go home we have a good drink and do a musical shootout and my parents to this day, still throw me on how much they listen to and know. Many different styles. My Dad’s vinyl collection is ace. Some of the album covers got me through puberty.

Also the strong Baptist Church element in my family. When you listen to good Sermons, and hear how they can put stories into sound points. It was always a breathtaking experience.

You learn the influence of words and the dance they can make within themselves. Then you learn how to do less as opposed to more with words because they do a lot of dances by themselves and you really have to do very little work. We all understand this stuff, but some study this truth more intensely than others.

I love people who think and aren’t afraid to think out loud when the moment is right. I love the mystery behind how they know when to think out loud. When to wake up. When to play sleep. It’s interesting to check human nature out.’

Thanks to guys like DJ Amir, we’re starting to hear music from the Strata-East catalogue that was either hard to access or languishing in obscurity, having never been released. You’ve met and worked with the musicians involved in that record label, what are your thoughts on the Strata-East catalogue and its relevance today?

LT: ‘Charles Tolliver was my trumpet teacher in college, my big band director in college, my Art Blakey Ensemble director in college, and eventually my bandleader once I started working professionally. I was very pigheaded and driven back then, and he understood my determination and knew it to not be mere ambition and vanity, but rather, that it was a deep intuition inside of me that I am a black male and I have one shot at this and I have to make it happen.

He didn’t judge me for this, because of what the industry did to him as a successful black record label owner. We still get blacklisted by gatekeepers, promoters, and DJs to this very day. There will always be brats in an institution and corruption will have its season.

But it’s a sweet thing when you see people like Charles Tolliver having endured that season to still be kicking strong and getting his due. And the music! Man the music! Right on, Right on, Right on.’

You’re playing some U.S. shows with Open Mike Eagle in November, which seems like a tremendous fit. What else is on the horizon for Pan Amsterdam?

LT: ‘Yeah Open Mike Eagle really has welcomed me into his world and because he digs the work. You know how many people will try and put you down or “out of sight, out of mind” your ass when you are good at something, especially in the music world. Open Mike Eagle wasn’t like this at all and that means he is quite a genuine human being and I am very grateful and look forward to rockin’ with him on the tour. We also have a collaborative single that we did that will be released very soon. Another highly genuine person is Iggy Pop.

Iggy Pop discovered Pan Amsterdam through a close mutual friend and kick ass music critic. So we’re doin a lil somethin’ of dopeness on a track together. That project should be out sometime in 2019. It’s fun working with your elders, even in Jazz it was. They let you try so much. Iggy is definitely the most giving human being I have ever met in the music industry and for that alone I’m really blessed to know him. But in our creed of art, he is even more giving and I had the freedom to try a different kind of thing, and he was totally with it. So I can’t wait to share that with the people.’