novelist’s grime centered debut album is very bold and very needed
“Everyone is super angry right now.” Nov contemplates London violence in powerful debut album.
Novelist’s home studio, on the ground floor of his mum’s house in south London, is an intensely compact place. ‘Do everything as soon as possible + love god + give back’ is painted on the wall above his bed, alongside some scriptures and a plaque from Red Bull. Half a footstep away is a makeshift recording studio -- a hasty booth assembled from a board of wood -- and on top of the desk, among a jumble of wires, cups, a tub of Palmers, the bible and some headphones, is an infamous -- in certain circles at least -- Korg Triton rack. It’s the Triton that Wiley and Jammer recorded with back before grime had a name; it’s the Triton that Skepta dug out when he wanted to return to the origins of the sound when he made That’s Not Me.
It’s unsurprising to discover 21-year-old Novelist is the owner of such a key artifact in grime lore. Since he first made a mark back in 2013 by clashing Wiley’s brother, Cadell, the south Londoner has been a gatekeeper of the tenets of grime, helping to bring back pirate radio, instrumental grime and the art of clashing. “I grew up in the house listening to grime,” he says. “I wanted to be an MC and a producer so bad. I wanted to wear tracksuits. I wanted to be a G. That’s what I wanted to be.” He’s kept these ideas close to his heart while creating his long-awaited, grime-centered debut, Novelist Guy, which dropped at the weekend. It’s a purposeful, incredibly confident album that has more in common with Wiley’s Treddin’ On Thin Ice or Dizzee’s Boy In Da Corner than anything from latter day MCs. There’s eastern instrumentation and disgustingly grimy synths, a strict BPM of 140 and plenty of reloadable bars. It’s also deeply spiritual and often political. There’s a whole song called Stop Killing The Mandem, which includes observations such as, ‘Breaking the law ain’t cultural, breaking the law is social’ and ‘Black man are targeted global’. “People have to understand there’s social circumstances that cause certain crimes within certain cultures or within certain ethnicities or backgrounds, or whatever it may be,” explains Nov. “The crime in Ireland is going to be different to the crime in Brazil. It’s affected by what’s happening socially, no matter what colour that person is. It’s that simple. It’s not something that can really be debated.” Of the rise in stabbings this year, Nov’s point of view is clear. “Everyone is super angry right now for so many reasons, so that if you say the wrong thing, then it’s on. People who have not been pressurized by life, they can’t understand why everyone’s so angry. They just wonder why man’s a savage. But everything in man’s life has been savage from the jump.”
Novelist Guy has been a long time coming. Since Nov has been holed up here, in south London, we’ve seen the success of Stormzy and grime affiliates Dave and J Hus. Has it been frustrating at all, having to watch from the sidelines as his contemporaries have risen through the ranks? “I’ve been frustrated because I know how good I am and how good my music is. But I know the process. No pain, no gain. When you go gym, you got to pump them weights! It’s kinda the same thing with me and my album. I’ve been knowing how great it is, behind the scenes, so I’ve been looking forward to getting it out.” He hasn’t missed out on anything, he insists. “Nah, nothing! I feel like everyone’s handed me the baton! I’ve got much respect for everyone that’s come through cos they’ve opened so many doors. I see myself walking through all of the doors, so big up to everyone.”
Recorded at the prestigious Abbey Road studios “just to give it that Abbey Road touch”, the album, he says, is very much “a note to self”. The debut sits alongside other big releases from the genre over the years -- Boy In Da Corner and Raskit, Home Sweet Home and Made In The Manor, Treddin On Thin Ice and Godfather, Konnichiwa and Stormzy’s hugely successful Gang Signs & Prayers. “There's been a lot of big albums but I don’t think you can really compare Novelist Guy to what’s come before. I’m happy with it. Novelist has spoken! Everyone -- Dizzee, Wiley, Skepta, Kano, Stormzy -- has said their piece and now I’m saying my piece, It’s good that we’re able to say our piece and continue to say our piece. There’s no hierarchy to me because it’s all art. When you got into an art gallery they don’t display it as one to 10, you go into different rooms to see different expressions. My room is full of deep messages and joy.”
Below, the Lewisham lyricist talks us track by track through his inspiring debut album.
“When I made Start I was listening to a lot of classic ragga, roots music. It just rubbed off on me and I started making a riddim one day -- the Don’t Lose Faith riddim. It came to me to make a song about picking yourself up -- not sometimes -- but every morning. That’s why it’s called Start, because you have to start with that mentality. When you see a plant, remember that plant is giving you oxygen. When you see another brother, say wha-gwaan. It doesn’t matter where they’re from, be blessed. Make yourself look the part even if you’re feeling low. Just try and do your best at everything you’re doing. Don’t give yourself less than what you deserve. Think about the good things in life and maintain trying to do things honestly because it’s actually easier for your mind, for your head.”
Dot Dot Dot
“If you look at iPhones and someone’s typing, you see dot, dot, dot. So for me, Dot Dot Dot reminds me of someone thinking, it’s like leaving a space for a thought to come in. When I say, ‘God’s knocking at my door’ that’s me saying just open up to me and everything will be bless. If we look at life, the world is an evil place but the world is also full of beauty and full of love. When you actually let go of yourself and acknowledge that there’s something bigger than you -- which for me is the creator -- that’s when everything becomes free.”
“Subconsciously I have been influenced by Japanese music, what I call Japanese jazz, that’s the only thing I can compare it too. So you might hear that influence in this track sonically. The tune is me acknowledging that everything I know and everything I grew up on was gangster. I grew up in a gangster environment, I saw mad things from a young age that people from other places wouldn’t even imagine cos it’s not part of their paradigm. It’s about me observing but choosing not to be a part of it. I could have easily been the baddest man on road, but there’s always another badder man on road.”
Clocking The Game
“You know when you watch them old 80s films like Beverly Hills Cop and the backing music sounds so sick? That’s what inspired me, the idea of making a film soundtrack in that vein. I really am a nostalgic person and I love that stuff so much The title reflects the time period I’ve spent out of the hype, around loads of people, travelling all the time and doing tours, and during that period I’ve spent time understanding what I can do and what I have to offer -- which is clocking the game. And I’ve clocked it and I’m ready to see what my score is!”
“That’s me saying, ‘Look I’m a black boy, don’t bother me’. I’m an integral guy and I keep it very simple and very clear what I’m about. If someone approaches me correctly, then I’ll approach them correctly. Simple as that -- you get what you give. It’s about who I am as a man, this is what I believe, this is what I expect from you, this is what I’m giving to you.”
Stop Killing The Mandem
“Do you know how painful it is to see your mum struggling every day, to not have both of your parents in the household? Then you’ve got some brother round the corner who thinks he’s a badman, then you’ve got that racist teacher, then you’re not getting support from the banks. And then there’s drugs. Not being able to eat properly. People not from your culture looking down on you cos they don’t understand where you’re coming from. Everything is pure compression. And what happens is everyone gets defensive and they get to the stage where they don’t know how to have faith. But the government is contingent, they’re subtle, they do things that affect your economics , that put pressure on your living circumstance. But it’s not about focusing on the enemy it’s about focusing on elevating yourself as an individual and then your own world will start to change.”
Happiness In The Cold
“Right now, all these stabbings that are going on, i was stabbed, some of my friends have been killed and I’m hearing about stabbings left, right and centre. It hurts my heart but I’m happy as an individual because I’m getting my life correct and I’m doing what I can When everyone seeks their own personal fulfillment without taking away from someone else’s plate, you’re just adding another bright colour to the picture.”
“I’m nowhere nearly who I want to be. I am who I want to be because that’s who I decide to be, but I’m not perfect. I’ve done so many things that I shouldn’t have done where I’ve had to go to God and say ‘I’m sorry for this. Can you forgive me and help me to be a better version of myself’? That’s how I pick myself up. If I left everything to my own understanding I’d be stuck on loop.”
Wait, Wait, Wait
“The thing is, in life, when you’re doing well there’s always going to be someone who feels like they genuinely deserve what you have, even when they haven’t worked for it. You deserve it if you’ve worked for it. You don’t just deserve it because you desire it. A lot of people look to who’s near to them and they desire what they see. And that’s cool. Please do. But don’t think you can get it off someone else’s plate. The only way you can eat from someone else’s table is if you bring a meal to that table as well, so that other people can eat. That’s why I’ve used the metaphor of cake -- if you want a slice of my cake, bake!”
Whole 9 Yards
“That song is about wanting everything that I deserve, through my work. If I’ve sown a seed I expect a harvest. That’s why I want the whole nine yards. It’s an old English term and a bit of a gangster term to use. I’m basically saying I’m a boss. It’s about being myself and claiming what is mine and taking what’s mine -- not anyone else’s -- but mine. That’s how it should be in life for anyone. Get it. Not rob it or steal or creep. There’s a lot of creepy dudes in the world! The want the easy way, but easy way in, easy way out.”
Man Better Jump
“I made that for Australia actually cos they treated me so nice when I was there. Being a young man and being able to tour there is such a blessing. I feel very privileged to have done that. I mention Jeremy Corbyn in there too -- ‘real to the core is what I’ve been, like Jeremy’ -- Cor/ Core. I just like who he is as a man, and I personally believe that he’s genuine. When it comes to power to the people, it’s a Jeremy Corbyn thing so that’s who I’m going with.”
Nov. Wait. Stop. Wait.
“I initially had some bleeped out bits, but they version we went with is unbleeped. They’re things that were real for me to say at the time, but because my mind frame changed a little bit since I recorded it, I wanted to bleep them. It says, ‘I’m not a sket with a label pimp.’ I didn’t want anyone on a label to feel like I’m disrespecting them because it’s not a dig at whoever’s signed. Whatever deal works for you, works for you. But with labels, their agenda with a lot of guys is to pimp them. Some people don’t see it that way because they’re looking at the monetary value, they don’t see what they can be by themselves.”
Nov B2B DeeCee
“I grew up on a certain sound of grime. That was the sound I wanted to make. Grime, people have used it as a cultural word, they’ve used it as an ethnic word, they’ve used it as all different types of connotations. But I’m only focused on the sound that I originally know. Everything in life has progression I just wanted to make sure that I expressed my first love when it comes to the underground street music of the UK.”
"I'm singing on this one! It’s about deciding to do things in a better format.”
The End (Don’t Lose Faith Riddim)
“Because it’s like, the beginning is the end, yeah. And the beginning doesn’t define your end in life. So the first song is called Start and the last is called The End, but really it’s the start as well. If you listen to the instrumental alone and dwell on it a while you’ll definitely feel some form of something good.”
Novelist Guy is out now
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.