Exclusive Interview: Novelist – “If I die right now, I’m dying happy.”
We caught up with Lewisham's grime misfit for RWD Mag 151 out now...
Imagine you’re a Lewisham don, who’s been around grime since the age of six when your uncle started bringing Risky Roadz DVDs around your house and tuning the radio into Deja Vu. You’re at the point where grime far transcended a genre of music. As Skepta so elegantly put it on ‘Shutdown’, it’s your religion. Now imagine that – through a tonne of hard work – you’ve found yourself in the studio with some of your favourite MC’s. The guys you grew up listening to on Rinse FM and through the CDs that your cousin would leave lying around the house. But, they’re trying to ride the latest wave that they think will lead to a quick paycheque. It’s inauthentic. So what do you do? You take the reigns yourself and pay grime it’s proper respect. That’s exactly where we find Novelist.
“It’s kind of frustrating. But I just think to myself, ‘Let me do it instead man, they don’t get it’,” says the 18-year-old MC and producer, sat backstage at Manchester’s Parklife festival. It’s not that he has issues with anyone, quite the opposite. It’s that he knows they can do better, and he wants to see his heroes succeed. “A lot of them don’t even know themselves,” he adds. “They don’t know what they’ve done for young people. It’s kind of been passed on to people my age now, who kind of get it a bit more than them.” He pauses before illustrating his point: “You see like the first man to paint a picture yeah? He was probably just painting a picture. But now you’ve got the people who seen him paint the picture and they’re breaking down; where his influence came from, what it means… That’s my age group. We’re the people that get it a bit more than the people that actually invented it, because now we can break it down in a whole new light and incorporate into our lives man.”
“They don’t know what they’ve done for young people. It’s kind of been passed on to people my age now, who kind of get it a bit more than them.”
Novelist wants to educate his audience on grime – beyond just showing up, performing a few songs and grabbing the cash. Earlier this afternoon he and his DJ, Grandmixxer, played a pirate radio style set to a rammed tent full of kids in scruffy Vans. “When you give it to them and deliver it well, they love it,” he explains. “It’s like teaching them how it happens, how it works. They might not have ever have seen an MC do a live set like that. They might have heard the lyric and heard the beat before, but they haven’t heard the combination of the two. That’s why I like to do live sets – it’s quite spontaneous. It’s not just about pulling up the instrumental or letting me spray my heart out, it’s about actually getting a balance of both.”
“The thing is yeah, it started in a small club, and now it’s in a bigger club. So obviously the movement is working,” begins his Mumdance-produced banger ‘1 Sec’, and there isn’t really a better way to articulate Novelist’s progression. He’s gone from pirate radio to packed clubs, bursting tents to sharing the stage with Kanye West – but he isn’t fazed by any of it. “Pirate radio trained me up for these things,” he says. “It taught me not just to MC, but to give them every element of being a mic controller.”
We revisit a moment in March, at an earth-shattering surprise show in London where Novelist has his arm slung around Kanye West’s neck, vibing out as if they’ve known each other for years. In reality they’ve only just met, but Novelist’s disinterest in fame bypasses any awkwardness. “I don’t give a shit man, if I’m honest,” he says now. “I like Kanye, he’s safe – that’s the only reason why I was on the stage with him. If he was a prick artist, big or not, I wouldn’t have been on the stage with him. That show was completely spontaneous, if you base music off good vibes and you like the people that you’re working with – you don’t then have to plan as much.”
“It’s not about just putting a tune out because you like the tune. It’s about how it’s going to correlate with how the people feel at the time.”
And yet meticulous planning has played an important part in Novelist’s career. Despite his incredible influence on the current generation, he’s only released a handful of tracks. It’s another aspect of his approach that sets him apart from his peers and mentors. “It’s not about just putting a tune out because you like the tune,” he says. “It’s about how it’s going to correlate with how the people feel at the time.” This is key to why Novelist’s rare drops resonate well, he recently released a track called ‘Ignorant & Wot’ to his SoundCloud and plans to shoot a documentary surrounding the track. “I felt like it was appropriate to put that tune out after the general election innit, because the whole of the ends was frustrated after that. I made that tune because as a teenager there’s bare shit man goes through, and nobody really talks about it that much. Not really from a non-glamorous way. Everyone glamourises the mad shit that happens, but I just wanted to talk about it.”
It’s this social responsibility that has Novelist’s music in such high esteem. Not only is he demonstrating impressive technical ability as a producer and MC, but he’s actually saying something. At times, he admits, this power can be scary. “Me and Skepta and a few other guys, we’ve got the people’s love. So we can do so much that back in the day, you’d have had to rely on a big organisation to help you with. That’s quite a scary thing, because it’s like ‘Oh shit, if I do this is it going to affect all the teenagers in the country?’” He pauses, adding: “Half the country is dressing like us now. But I like that. It gives all of the young people something to believe in, and something to be a part of. It’s not like being in a gang, it’s being a part of a movement of people who don’t care and are going to follow their dreams as they see fit.”
His love of skateboarding is another aspect of his identity that promotes the importance of staying true to yourself. While the culture has bonded with hip-hop over the years, it’s never really been tied into grime. But when a young Novelist was flying through the air on Tony Hawks Pro Skater, he had to give it a go in real life, despite what his mates were doing. “I’m not trying to promote the ends and that, promote the bad shit that happens, but I’ve always been a hood yout innit. I’m from the ends we’ve had our madnesses, some of our boys have been killed, I’ve been stabbed up, we’ve done some mad shit,” he explains. “But in life, you’ve just got to be yourself man. So if my boys were to see me on a skateboard, they wouldn’t look at me like ‘Oh Nov you’re a nerd’ or ‘You’re like them white boys.’ They’d just be like ‘Yo that’s Nov doing his thing.’”
“I’m a proper skater bro,” he says. “I’ve messed up my ligaments bare times and done loads of mad things all in the name of being on four wheels.” It’s an unlikely source of inspiration for his music, but one that makes a lot of sense. “You’ve got to be ferocious with it. You’ve got to be fearless. You can’t really care about damage or hurting yourself. You’ve kind of got to bring that attitude to other things in life. That’s what I’ve brought into music: some might say it’s risky me not releasing a lot of music, but that’s like the same risk as me going down a ramp for the first time. We’ll see what happens on the other side.”
Although he usually opts not to talk too much about his anticipated debut album, he does reveal that it’s almost complete, but it’s not a ramp he plans to rush down. While label heads panic about capitalising on the world’s sudden interest in grime, Novelist is more concerned with making sure his debut is timeless. “You see a good album,” he says. “It doesn’t matter when the f**k it’s released. In fifteen years people aren’t going to remember when the hell it came out. [I’m thinking about] ‘How can I influence people? How is it going to affect them? And am I saying some real stuff?’ Because everybody can be a musician, it’s about like are you really valued? Are you going to be looked back at in years to come?”
“You see a good album. It doesn’t matter when the f**k it’s released. In fifteen years people aren’t going to remember when the hell it came out.”
While the future is on the peripheral of his thinking, right now Novelist is placed firmly in the present, already feeling a sense of fulfilment based on how far he’s come already. “I’m going to be a millionaire by the time I’m 25, I know it,” he says, drawing our conversation to a close. “But that’s not where the success is at. Success to me, is current. I’m living in success right now. I don’t see an end goal, I see it like constant. And if I die right now I’m dying happy. That’s success, happiness, piece of mind and knowing like rah, I’m the person I wanted to be. You’ve just got to follow your heart man, and go where you want to go.”
Originally published in RWD Mag 151 out now.