The upcoming new album from south London rapper Novelist, real name Kojo Kankam, combines grime with eclectic influences – funk, garage, even jazz – and could turn the 21-year-old into a bonafide star. ‘Novelist Guy’ was partly mixed at the legendary Abbey Road Studios in north London, a big step for an artist who has previously been staunchly DIY. But, as NME learns, he couldn’t care less if it makes him the next big name; he’s just doing his thing.
How did it feel to work at Abbey Road Studios?
I don’t care about Abbey Road the brand; I like the people at Abbey Road. But it’s cool now that I’m involved in it. I feel like I’m in WWE – I just got tapped into the ring. Some people come in here and kiss the floor. When I was in college, my teachers always used to talk about Abbey Road as if it was a place that didn’t exist in our realm. I’m not a respectful person in that sense. If it’s my uncle’s helping to tweak a sound [to] how it’s supposed to sound, then my uncle is Abbey Road, you know what I’m saying? But it’s been nothing but straight positivity here. The staff are music heads; they’ve been really interested in what I’ve been doing.
Novelist Guy is a very diverse-sounding record…
It’s a curation of my hard drive. I could put out EPs or albums of each style. I wasn’t just brought up on jungle, garage or grime – I was brought up on Japanese jazz, funk and more. My uncle passed all this music onto me. He’s the original bedroom producer. When he decides to put out his music, I will be a part of that journey. If you’re not chasing the fame, you’re making art.
Do you reckon the mainstream success of grime has made it easier for UK rap as a whole to break through?
I do feel like what was done under grime has opened doors for different types of underground music in the UK. But I’m trying to show people the true sound of grime. What was originally grime. Everyone needs to know there’s a difference. It’s like: West Coast G-funk is not New York boom-bap, although it comes under the same umbrella. Grime is its own thing.
Do you feel that term is often misused?
Grime is just a word now. For a minute, everyone knew what it was. Then, as soon as the word started to make more money, they don’t want to tie the word to the actual original sound. If it’s life-changing to people, that’s good – but I’m kinda old-school. I grew up on actual grime. Pirate radio. I hopped train barriers to do this shit. I’m not really trying to please the masses. If I wanted to do that, I could have popped off in a major way ages ago. I know everyone. Guys are still asking [for features]. But I work with a certain level of integrity. When you go with the flow, you have to change when the flow changes. My path hasn’t changed.
What would you like to achieve with ‘Novelist Guy’?
The fans have been drip-fed; now they’ve got a whole plate. I hope they enjoy the music, first of all, and after that I just want to earn enough money to be set apart, have my own household and have my own equipment, so I can make music freely and not have to compromise and be told to make a certain sound. To me, that’s a real career.
But don’t you look at, say, Stormzy killing it at on the world’s stage at the BRIT Awards and think, ‘That should be me’?
No, not at all. The only reason I was at the BRITS last time [in 2015] was because I was with Skepta. We were chilling. And then Virgil [Abloh, the DJ] called us and said, ‘Yo, jump on the stage with your boys [for Kanye West’s performance of ‘All Day’].’ I was there, but I don’t care about none of that shit. I came to the NME Awards and that was fun, but awards shows don’t validate a thing. If my mum says it’s sick, that’s the biggest award. She’s the one that’s gotta endure all the noise that I’m making.
DJ Semtex wrote a piece for NME that claimed the BRITS are more diverse and relevant than ever. Do you agree?
Yeah, a hundred per cent. It gives people a lot of hope, like: ‘Yeah – I can get there.’ That’s probably what Stormzy wanted to do, so that’s a massive achievement for him. Everyone does things for different reasons. Some people just wanna sit in their house and play the bass guitar. They don’t wanna be famous. They sit around and sing songs with their family. I’m one of those guys.
You have been very outspoken, politically, in the past. Don’t you crave that kind of platform to express those opinions?
Not at all. Anyone that wants to hear, they will hear. I don’t wanna force anything. There’s a Bible scripture that says you shouldn’t give pearls to swine. When you do that, they’re gonna trample on it and turn around and gnash at you. That’s a parable of what it’s like in life. When you give people things they didn’t ask for, they can be negative and turn it into something that it isn’t meant to be. I don’t feel the need to shout. You heard what I said. If you cared about it, you would have paid attention. If you didn’t care about it, then it’s not for you.
— Andrew Soar (@andrewsoar) July 9, 2016
What did you think about the way Stormzy criticised the government for their perceived inaction over Grenfell?
He weren’t lying. He’s telling the truth innit. You see, Stormzy, that’s his job. He’s Stormzy – he’s the storm. I’m the quiet one.. You heard what I said when I said it, so I’m not repeating myself, blud. Stormzy’s meant to evoke people’s emotions. He’s got the attitude of endurance. I don’t even wanna contend with people. I don’t have time. You see how the media’s onto him and he gets all those racist comments? I have no time for that. I’d rather be quiet and be like a sonic boom. Stormzy possesses that kind of energy. I don’t possess that energy.
And yet, musically you’re very direct and outspoken. The message behind ‘Stop Killing The Mandem’ – taken from ‘Novelist Guy’ – is pretty unambiguous.
Yeah – I don’t need a platform to make those statements. There’s a picture of me that went viral. I was on the Black Lives Matter march [in London, 2016] with a banner that said, “Stop Killing the Mandem.” I didn’t realise that people would care what I said. I wrote that because that’s how I felt. Why am I seeing so much man dying at the hands of police? Violence on the road, that’s always gonna happen. That’s just life; we can’t stop that. But when it’s coming from the authorities, they’re supposed to be counter to that. It’s like you’re in two wars now. When I step outside my house, am I gonna get killed by a mandem or by the Feds?
RT @Novelist: Seriously, everyone Vote for Jeremy Corbyn.
— Jme (@JmeBBK) April 23, 2017
Did you see that kind of violence from a young age?
When I was 13, I got stabbed in my chest. I’ve been stabbed other times, too. The thing about growing up in south [London] is that you don’t even have to be gang-related to get into that kind of problem. Everyone’s got a shank on them. It’s common. People have so much fear. And a lot of them didn’t even mean to do it. They either want to inflict damage or defend themselves. If you’re coming out of your house with a shank, you’re scared in the first place. Personally I’ve never carried. It’s not my ting; I’ve known how to fight since I was young.
In 2016 you tweeted Jeremy Corbyn to say you supported him. What do you like about him?
I like his character and what he has to say. I was Deputy Young Mayor of my borough [Lewisham] in 2013 and I know how hard it is to get anything through. On a major scale, it must be even harder. You have guys in your own camp playing for the other side. I don’t agree with everything he says – no-one’s perfect, except for God – but Corbyn’s a man who, if I saw him on the road, I feel like he’d stop and talk to me. I don’t have that feeling from any other politicians. The UK government have lost their way. But all I can do is my charitable works in my life and do what I can to change the small [things] and hopefully expand that.
‘Novelist Guy’ will be released on April 13