[MAGAZINE] NOVELIST [COVER STORY]
HAILING FROM BROCKLEY, SOUTH LONDON, NOVELIST IS ONLY 19 YEARS OLD, AFTER ENTERING INTO HIS LAST YEAR AS A TEENAGER IN EARLY FEBRUARY. HE MAY JUST BE SCRAPING INTO ADULTHOOD, BUT HE’S ALREADY ONE OF THE HOTTEST GRIME MCS IN LONDON TOWN…
Novelist pulls up to our shoot on his moped shouting, having just got into a minor crash en route. He’s quick to show off the impressive set of rings he’s wearing which he bought that morning, including a white gold tiger ring with diamond eyes.
He’s a star in the making, and an instantly recognisable face these days. He’s now used to being spotted, in fact the second time I met Novelist in early 2015, I spotted him in McDonalds on Oxford Street. After I called his name, he greeted me warmly though he didn’t seem to remember me, and it was only after I said, “You were on my radio show last week” that recognition set in and I realised he’d initially taken me for a fan (which in a way is true). Even in his ends in 2016, passing cars beep their horns, his peers standing at bus stops look on in awe and reach out to spud him, unable to resist showing love to their local superstar.
Considering how much he’s achieved at such a young age, Novelist is sure to be one of the biggest musicians in the UK by the time he reaches 25. He’s modest when I make this observation, saying, “People praise me but I ain’t done shit yet. I’m here to stay so yes, I am a problem for anyone who don’t like what I’m doing. A big problem.” When asked where he hopes to be at the age of 30, his answer is admirable, “When I’m 30, happiness is what I want to have achieved, total happiness. This will mean my life is stress free in every way you can think of.”
Novelist has no plans to put out a project yet, preferring an untraditional release format. He tends to throw a SoundCloud link to his 20-something thousand followers every couple of months. The result is a steady, hungry fanbase eager to hear his self-produced tracks, which soon rack up close to 50K plays. “The music I’ve made in the UK is minimal, in the sense that there aren’t many songs of mine out there. People will see that I don’t just do grime, I produce my own sound. I’m a grime MC at base, but when it comes to creating songs, I’m just Novelist. Over time, people will see that my music hits you in that way too.”
Novelist’s “hits” – if that concept is still relevant – are ‘Endz’ and ‘WAR’, though many of his older tracks are modern-day grime classics, including ‘Lewisham McDeez’ and ‘Pengaleng’. While he’s appeared on a few songs produced by Mumdance, ‘Take Time’, ’Shook’ and ‘One Sec’, it’s rare to hear Novelist rhyming on production that isn’t his own. Having established his sound on a solo tip, he reveals plans to reduce the amount of music he makes with other producers, “I’m cutting that out for a while, I’ve showcased I can do that.”
Frequent trips to the US have seen him build up relationships with fellow MCs and producers crafting a sound far removed from grime. His observation of the sudden interest that the American music scene has paid to grime is interesting, “I feel if US heads were to try doing our cult street music they’d have to really be interested in the meaning and history of some slang and styles we use, and grasp what it means to represent [the] grime lifestyle over a sound or else it’s a finesse.” But he maintains friendships with many of the artists he’s met on his travels overseas, “Big up DonMonique, Slayter, the A$AP Mob, RatKing and the real people repping. I got much love for my New York brothers and sisters that have shown me love when I’ve gone over. I’ve got a friend named MadeInTokyo, he’s popping right now but I love that dude for his humility.”
Novelist also shows love to the musicians he hasn’t met but respects their craft, “I check for that brudda G Herbo too, he’s been popping. But [the reason] I like him, it ain’t a fame thing, it’s a real recognise real thing. He don’t say much, he just got the world feeling what he’s gone through. I like that people can expose their emotions through the music without a prideful stance. Real nigga shit.” Collaborating across genre seems like a difficult way to create music, but after working with a variety of artists from the US, Novelist is unfazed by it, saying, “It isn’t weird making music with anyone in the world if their energy is right and they respect you as a man. It will work out somehow.” Speaking on two predominantly EDM and hip hop experimentalists, he explains, “When I check for people like Baauer and Nick Hook in the US, we create a vibe that’s like the core sound but we experiment with it to give it that real Novelist feel. More than just a grime song or hip hop or trap song, it’s about innovating a new style or styles, you feel me?”
His production is as distinctive as his gruff vocals, and displays an obvious technical skill that separates Novelist from many artists that rhyme and produce their own tracks. He’s a natural at both and neither are new skills, he explains, citing his uncle as the person that set him on this path to success. “I started to MC and produce when I was around six years old because of the music my uncle exposed me to as a young boy. I saw and heard the older generation from when they started doing their thing and it inspired me to make the same music, not knowing one day it would be my career. I gotta love my uncle for ever and pay homage because of that too. People will never know what it means to me to be able to be myself at all times and still earn money and love my life.”
His uncle also introduced him to another passion, skateboarding, something he displayed his ability in for his ‘Endz’ video. “I’ve skated since I was young, my uncle gave me my first nineties style board. I like the feeling, that’s all, I respect the culture and I won’t fake that I’m into it more than I am. You can’t be a part of every cult movement to the fullest and be genuine, you feel me.” He says, making one of the most genuine cultural observations I’ve heard in a while.
Novelist’s sound is distinct enough to separate him from every other MC in the grime scene,“I’ve almost got my own genre that I do, I created my own sound, ‘cause people made grime kinda shit. Turning it into some pop culture shit.” He’s brought a new style to grime, forcing the evolution of the genre to expand beyond the sound that it began with. If grime is the UK’s answer to hip hop, then why has it failed to adapt and expand from it’s original sound in the fifteen years since it’s inception? Novelist is the one that’s about to push the genre to new boundaries.
Novelist’s confidence comes from knowing that no one in the UK is offering up the same quality produce as him. “No one that’s supposedly up and coming in the UK is on this level yet, when it comes to production and making songs a certain way. I’m not taking it for granted but I do feel like there’s a massive door for me to come and blow things out of proportion.” He laments the copy cat culture in the UK music scene, with a whole crop of artists attempting to mimic the sound that Novelist’s peers are doing so well. ”Man are gonna hit a brick wall, if everyone keeps copying each other. People are using their eyes and not their ears enough and I refuse to do that.”
The new music he’s created has a faster BPM than grime but is slower in sound. He plays me a couple of songs, which sound distinctly more polished than the tracks he’s uploaded to SoundCloud. Speaking on the latest recordings he’s been working on, he admits, “The only person that’s ever touched on a sound like this is probably Dizzee Rascal. And he only did it once, he didn’t make a thing out of it.” Of the two songs he plays me, one is a love song dedicated to his girlfriend, while the other that harks back to a sound that hasn’t been heard since ‘Boy In Da Corner’.
Recognising that a cohesive body of work is more than having a collection of sick songs, he senses that the atmosphere he’s creating with his current recordings will eventually be the landscape of his future releases. “A whole set of that style would sound sick, so that’s what I’m tryna produce now, a set of riddims like that.” Agreeing that the songs doesn’t sound stereotypically grimy, I observe that an album doesn’t have to be one genre provided the production is of a similar mood.
When we connect on FaceTime, he shows me his brand new camera, bought as an investment allowing him to shoot his own visuals. He’s currently exploring a new sonic landscape and plotting out his next music video, a self-produced song he’s listening to on a loop to figure out what the song’s visual representation should be. Though he doesn’t have a great deal of music videos under his belt, the ones he does have are impressive. Most notable is the ‘Endz’ video, released in October 2015, showing Novelist in a South London estate, surrounded by friends. The video is nostalgic, with a mobile phone number scrolling across the screen, and for those viewers old enough to remember the days of Channel U it was easy to feel transported back to the mid-2000s. Until you see a Segway and find yourself back in 2016. Friends told me they knew people who text the number and got a reply from Nov, or at least they thought it was Nov. This is where his skill truly lies, understanding his audience – both older and younger than him. Speaking on his releases so far, Novelist admits, ‘I’ve never put out a shit video. But I’m not going to though!”
The quality control he has over his music is impressive, there are no ‘yes men’ in Novelist’s camp and you can tell that while it isn’t contrived, there’s a great deal of thought that goes into his releases. He’s reluctant to sign to a label, especially as he’s aware of his own power without one. “The label shit’s not me man, I can make my own label and sign myself.” He’s not immune from label partnership however, having released an EP with XL Records on his 18th birthday in February 2015. Even now, Novelist knows how to further his career with the right association and isn’t opposed to collaborating with a label when the time is right. He explains, “Even when I dropped shit with XL, I dropped it with XL, I’m not signed by them and I could drop more shit with them if I want to.”
Even today, with the popularity of the 360 deal, it’s rare for an artist to retain this much control of their sound and image. But for Novelist, you couldn’t pay him to take the control from him, “It’s very important that I have 99.9% creative control over the way people perceive me and what I’m doing through music. I want people to know who I really am without someone else’s input, it will deter people from who I truly am. Music, videography, it’s all the same to me. It shows who you are.”
Of all the artists that have risen to prominence in the last decade, the only one that you can compare Novelist to naturally is an artist that possesses an entirely different sound; Tyler, the Creator. Though it took me a while to see the similarities, their effortless embodiment of their music, combined with their overall creative control, not to mention their young rise to prominence, are on a par. Novelist is surprised at the comparison, but naturally flattered. “People have never really said I’m like Tyler, the Creator through behaviour and shit like that, but definitely in work ethic and care towards what I’m doing. I respect bro for it too, I take it as a compliment.”
It’s rare that a 19-year-old is this self-aware but Novelist’s confidence essentially comes down to the fact that he’s already planned out his path to success and knows which steps to take in order to make it. “The game’s changed, man can make millions doing my own thing anyway. Before, them man couldn’t really do it.” Despite this, he admits that money’s not the end goal for him, explaining, “Some people wanna make mad figures, I wanna maintain and expand.”
Not only is he incredibly confident, Novelist remains a student of the music scene and it’s ever-changing landscape. Growing up a decade after grime exploded onto the UK music scene in the early noughties, Novelist witnessed Wiley, Dizzee Rascal, Kano and Skepta gracing the charts. He continued observing as the genre dipped back into obscurity and the pop chart pendulum swung back to rock bands. “You can not get big in music over here unless people want you to.” He explains the British attitude to music perfectly adding, “We respect exclusivity and a cult brand. You can’t be a one hit wonder in London. You have to actually put in work, people won’t respect you. You can’t get big unless you’ve got stripes.”
Despite being a grime musician, the genre’s attention from a US audience, in addition to various collaborations with American artists, have Novelist actively studying the music industry both at home and abroad. The differences between the two scenes is obvious to him, and explains why our own British music scene is so fractured. “I’m trying to understand why we don’t really wanna big up each other. I’m tryna figure out a way where I can eradicate that and bring star status to everyone.”
He really intends to change the game, not just for himself but for the entire scene he represents. Days before our interview took place, Novelist came up to me in the middle of a party and said simply, “I need to figure out a way to make everyone in the UK scene rich.” The statement blew my mind, I mean it was nearly 2am and most people around me were drunk. But these aren’t the thoughts the average 19 year old has in a club. But as I said, Novelist isn’t the average 19 year old.
His presence is regal, and despite his friendliness and habit of showing love to everyone, there’s something noble about him. When you discover that Novelist’s great grandmother was the last Arawak in Antigua, Novelist’s demeanor makes perfect sense. He commands attention without the slightest display of ego or attitude, “My brand is very credible because of how I am as a man. People can see my aura and hear what I’m about in my music so I would never be broke ’cause I know how to capitalise on that.”
He’s set to lead the next generation of grime MCs, following in the footsteps of the pioneers of the genre. Even the OGs in his scene like Skepta treat him more like a peer than a younger. The admiration that the scene’s pioneers have for him extends all the way to Novelist’s management, headed up by Rinse FM’s founder, Geeneus. He says of his manager,“I respect Geeneus as an innovator of the genre I fell in love with as a child. I get along with the don too so it’s all bless me working with him. I met him a couple times, got to talking and it was love. In life everyone’s got their stories but I’m a man of truth and energies, I get a good energy from G.” He continues, “All of the pioneers that respect me are clued up and switched on and I will always respect them for what they’ve done by laying foundations for kids like me to move forward. I’m glad I can represent truthfully.”
Testament to his future success, many of his early inspirations are now more like peers to him, especially in the case of Skepta and JME. But he explains that though there is a friendship, it’s a friendship that came about through their careers. “Skepta, Stormzy and all the other MCs you may see me around aren’t my day-to-day boys that I kick it with, but our relationships [go beyond] artist to artist. We’d like to build a big team and all win, it’s not a game with one spot, it doesn’t work like that. I’m not fighting for a UK top spot or to be big in the charts, I’m going to do what I can to take this worldwide. So it’s love when I see my brothers elevating. Pure good energy to them, we’re all the same at the end of the day.”
Novelist was one of numerous grime MCs that were invited on stage during Kanye West’s performance at the 2015 Brit Awards. What was arguably a great moment for the grime scene was marred by confused white people, scared by what they saw as aggressive posturing. The event became one of the most iconic moments in recent Brit history, more so once it morphed into a big middle finger to a ceremony that show little to no recognition of our grime and hip hop scene. He explains how it felt to be on stage in that moment saying, “At the Brits I was glad that we could say ‘Fuck you’ to the industry like, ‘We still got on to your shit stage anyway’. I don’t care about all the hype man. Yeah safe, dun know Kanye, but other than that, it’s nothing long. I just wish Lukey was here to see where everything has gone since that day,” he says, paying tribute to Lukey Maxwell, a friend of many MCs in the industry who passed away shortly before the event.
I ask if there’s anyone whose career he’d like to mimic in some way and he says no one. Then remembering the benchmark one of the icons of the scene has set, he replies, “The only person I could probably say that about is Jamie, JME.” The younger Adenuga brother is the perfect role model for Novelist, having established himself as a grime MC and producer that’s remained independent throughout his career. With his music entirely self-funded, JME has built a cult following by anyone’s standards.
The recognition goes way deeper into the scene, with iconic grime cameraman, Risky Roadz – in semi retirement after capturing the early days of grime in a pre-Internet age DVD series – came out to capture Nov’s birthday set on Radar Radio. That’s how special the young MC is. Though he was in primary school at grime’s peak, he embodies the same grittiness and energy brought the genre to prominence in at the dawn of the millennium.
Novelist’s fanbase has built naturally so it’s no surprise when he compares the release of music to the steps that parents take to wean their baby. He explains, “You can’t give a baby loads of food, you gotta start with tiny teaspoons. It’s the same thing with fans, you feed them then hit them with a project.” Looking critically at the ways some artists choose to bombard their fans with a constant stream of releases, he emphasises the importance of giving fans the full package. “This whole culture of dropping albums, that’s through the roof ‘cause if they see you and they like who you are, that’s whats gonna make them come to your show where you get the bulk of your pay.”
Novelist’s latest music expresses an interest in politics via his disdain for Prime Minister David Cameron. He even sampled the Conservative leader on his recent track, ’Street Politician’. I jokingly ask if Novelist has received a response track from Cameron yet. He replies, “I enjoy being who I am, I have no fears, David Cameron and his fleet of blue tie dons can’t really put fear in a man like me.” It’s hard not to admire the young MC’s stance on voting, especially the fact he’s using his voice to encourage young voters. It’s frustrating when musicians let their lacklustre attitude towards politics influence young fans so I’m glad to hear that Novelist is not one to use a political learning simply for attention. Though he’s been eligible to vote for a few years, Novelist is using his voice legitimately, “I believe in voting, Labour is my team.” He realises the power he possesses and chooses to use it as positively as he can, explaining, “When I speak I use projection so I am heard because what I have to say is valuable, people listen to me. I don’t want to use my voice for ignorance so I speak on matters of the world sometimes in my music, just to make people start to lean towards getting control of their own life situations.”
Once of the most unexpected statements to come out of our interview was when Novelist told me he was relieved when he didn’t win a MOBO award for Best Grime Act in 2014. “I came second and I was so happy. People didn’t understand, it sounds like such a weird thing to say.” He explained, “I was at a place in my life where I was like, I don’t wanna win a MOBO, that’s just gas, that’s all it amounts to, it won’t be beneficial.” The result hasn’t affected his career either, with the biggest benefit being that he still retains an under the radar edge that is essential for any grime MC. Though he doesn’t promote violence or drugs much more than the average rapper, he’s genuine enough to be trusted by road men and hipsters alike. Novelist’s fanbase straddles many levels of society, with them representing a rainbow cast of the British population. And with these elements combined, it’s easy to see why he has the future of grime in the palm of his hand.
As Novelist says every time he touches a stage… flavour, he’s got the flavour.
Photos by Vicky Grout
Words by Lily Mercer
This is an extract from the Spring Summer 16 Issue of Viper Magazine. Read more from the magazine here. Buy physical and digital copies here.