Rhyme and Reason: an Interview with Novelist

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Surreally, last month saw Drake gushing on his Instagram over old-school underground grime DVDs and the “#legend” that is Wiley. Meanwhile, Kanye West brought a huge contingent of UK grime artists on stage for two of his recent London performances; including the Brits. It seemed that innovatively boisterous, brash, bravado-filled genre — made most popular by artists like Dizzee Rascal and collective Boy Better Know — had gone a bit quiet in the past couple years, but recently it’s become apparent that grime is very much alive and well. Can this resurgence in global interest really be considered as a renaissance of the scene itself?

One of the artists who joined Kanye’s performance was rising MC and producer Novelist. At 18 years old, Novelist is part of the first generation to actually grow up in the scene. To him, the idea that grime was ever considered dead is laughable. “People say like ‘it’s a resurrection of grime rah rah rah’, but we’ve always had the music around us, and the music’s the music, regardless of what year you came,” he explains, brimming with enthusiasm over the phone. “It’s more of a culture than a genre, d’you know what I mean? The way we live is grimey! So when people say it’s a ‘new wave’ I’m like, we’ve always lived this way so I don’t understand the term.”

That Novelist is being touted as the face of this movement is accordingly somewhat problematic. The young MC is grateful to be considered as representing grime as a whole, but is ultimately still unconvinced by the “new wave” label: “It could be dismissive of a lot of people who aren’t in this ‘new wave’ — MCs who are still doing their thing. I just like being involved in the whole thing to be honest.”

There is an endearing sense of sincerity and a mature diplomacy palpable from his tone, which arguably comes in stark contrast with the aggressive reputation that is often — perhaps unfairly — associated with grime. The music itself can be pretty intense at times, and in the past several British politicians have spoken out against the violence they felt the scene was encouraging. While there is absolutely a stereotype apparent here, it is not as though the reality of Novelist’s upbringing in his South London home of Lewisham has been without its rough past: “Bare mad things have happened you know? Some of my boys got killed last year, I’ve been stabbed […] but I think it just defines who you are as a person — it makes you think in different ways, and it can make you or break you.”

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But just because Lewisham can be rough at times, does not mean he hasn’t loved growing up there. “Lewisham’s a bit like a GTA map,” he says with a laugh. “You’ve got the bad side and the good side, like anywhere really. But I’ve always loved it.” He goes on to talk about the positive upbringing he got from his mum and his uncle, whom he can talk to about everything: “I’m not misled by my people at home, so I don’t really find myself influenced by the foolishness that goes on.” The acknowledgement of said “foolishness” takes us back to that idea of violence in the scene, but for Novelist the intensely charged beats of grime aren’t about encouraging that behaviour. Instead, he sees the music as a commentary on their reality: “If you wanna write about something that people can relate to, you may as well talk about your circumstances and what’s going on,” he says, before quickly clarifying, “I’m not talking about glorifying anything, but literally just saying what’s happening, where you’re from, who you are as a person […] I talk about my area, and where I’m from, because then it’s like a glass lens into a story.”

And for Novelist, grime has always been his story. Starting professionally around age 13, he reckons he was probably 6 years old when he first tried MCing. “All the older boys would’ve been MCing so I’ve always been around it,” he explains. “When I was younger, my uncle always had all the latest grime DVDs [the scene is known for its culture of clash DVDs in which MCs go head to head in freestyling], so I always just had a clear vision of what was going on, and I said to myself when I was young ‘I want to be an MC’.” There is no denying that his dream has been realised. In the past couple years Novelist has received praises for both his production and his bars in the music press, from international blogs to the likes of Noisey and the Guardian.

People outside of the grime world have been taking special interest in the young rapper, not least in his role as a founding member of Lewisham crew The Square (not so much a “hand-in-hand crew” as a group of MCs and producers who all live in the same area and can work well together). Already big on the UK underground through his appearances on pirate radio, Novelist was nominated for Best Grime Act at the 2014 MOBO awards before being snapped up by XL Recordings with collaborator and producer Mumdance, allowing the MC to work with none other than Jamie xx on a track. The XL signing led to the fantastic 1Sec EP released earlier this year, and Novelist’s inclusion on the BBC Sound of 2015 longlist.

The purported “death” of grime some years ago arguably came in the mainstream crossover of artists like Dizzee, but Novelist isn’t inclined to join the backlash. “He wasn’t saying he was making grime music when he was working with Calvin Harris etc — he’s chosen to do that for his career,” he says thoughtfully. “So people felt that way about it because he is a representative of grime, but I think you should do everything in life with a good balance. If he was to be doing those types of tunes, but still be releasing grime tunes for the core fans then I don’t think people would’ve had a problem with it. Someone like Wiley, for example, has loads of pop hits, but then he’ll release like twenty-three grime tunes and mix up the whole game sickly! It’s about balance.”

That balance is crucial, and it seems like this next generation of artists have it down. “It’s what the first grime MCs done, but with structure,” Novelist says of current grime culture. “The first lot of MCs to come through were just doing their thing, having fun — it was a bit more trial and error, and there wasn’t an industry for them because it was a new, fresh thing and people were only just starting to understand it as a sound and a genre. Now the guys my age, we see where different generations have gone wrong and what they’ve done right and now we can kind of capitalise on that.”

The likes of Wiley, Skepta, JME and even Dizzee are still innovating at the top, but it’s the precocious, cheeky fresh faces like Stormzy, Elijah & Skilliam, Ghetts and, of course, Novelist coming in and keeping the scene healthy. It’s not that grime right now is a resurrection but, rather, an ongoing evolution from what came before — it’s not a “new wave” so much as the next generation coming in. And Novelist, with his affable nature, impressive flow and assured bars, seems the perfect person to lead this generation.

Photos by Marco Grey of Wotdoyoucall.it

Interview originally published in tn2 Magazine

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