The fast-rising grime MC incites sweat-drenched mania at tiny London gig
In a moment of respite at stuffy Brixton venue Airspace, 250 necks, all glossy with sweat, crane up towards the balcony. Novelist, self-certified London rudeboy, head honcho of rising Lewisham grime collective the Square, leans over the railing and surveys his kingdom. “I wanna see some squares in the building!” the 18-year-old roars. To demonstrate, his surrounding crew make boxes with their thumbs and index fingers, holding them aloft. Novelist scans the room and scowls, feigning disgust at fans’ half-arsed efforts. “No triangles,” he smirks. “I’m a grime MC from Lewisham. I don’t know nothing about no triangle.”
The man otherwise known as Kojo Kankam is receiving a hero’s welcome in the capital tonight, after a spell recording and producing his debut album in New York. Since being snapped up by XL – the label that signed Dizzee Rascal – he’s remained forward-thinking, releasing tracks primed for the underground. The Square, his playful clan, are a collective of grime nerds leavening old-school stubbornness with forays into new-wave grime nights like Boxed. And while Nov’s rhymes lack the lightbulb moments of peers like JME, his scholarly approach to pirate radio culture means he’s sharp and fierce enough to land his punches.
Tonight’s set is kept on its feet by DJ Grandmixxer’s whiplash rewinds, manic cameos by 16-year-old MC DeeCee and the crowd’s body heat. When Grandmixxer cues up ‘Pengaleng’, the Square’s flirty street anthem, two girls up front climb onto their mates’ shoulders, waggling hips precariously and clasping hands for balance. Up on the balcony, Nov’s crew celebrate every wild crowd roar by yanking him backwards, ruffling his hair and jabbing his sides.
Despite the chummy vibes, the very existence of live grime in London is, by necessity, an act of political defiance. Under the auspices of Form 696, a notorious risk assessment form that targets music events hosted by DJs and MCs, the government has stoked hostility towards black music cultures. And while lofty patronage – from Kanye West, Drake or, er, Jools Holland – is broadly welcomed, grime’s mainstream takeover might, for now at least, be overstated. Where the music feels revolutionary is in shows like these, packed with a few hundred diehards.
It’s a quiet Thursday but the venue’s alive; nary a studious, backpack-wearing dude plants himself amongst the rabble, meaning tonight’s dancefloor can be just that. There’s no setlist as such, just a crude collage of shifting, one-verse snippets, hard beats bursting out in flurries before collapsing from exhaustion. Pandemonium reigns as Grandmixxer shifts rhythms, basslines bleeding from the speakers, hi-hats skittering into 16-bar beats that jostle and clatter. Novelist favourites ‘One And Only’ and ‘Flavour’ (both collaborations with Brighton DJ Murlo) get word-for-word singalongs, while breakout single ‘1 Sec’, a Mumdance-produced banger situated between the estate and the cemetery, creeps in and out of the set with eyelash-fluttering, 30-second teases, each met with an arsenal of gun fingers.
“It’s so hot, oh my god!” cries Novelist after a bustling ‘Blackberry 1’. He’s not kidding. When, scarcely 25 minutes in, he broadcasts a five-minute warning to exit time, nobody feels short-changed. After an infernal rendition of Square theme tune ‘Lewisham McDeez’ threatens to collapse the balcony, Nov launches ‘1 Sec’ with a call-and-response in which he’s rapidly drowned out. Still, as master of the ceremonies, he has us in the palm of his hand. On his orders, the mandem and ladies make some noise for the Grandmixxer. We open a moshpit, wait for the verse to break and let ourselves get sucked in. We do our best to make squares, not triangles. Then, once he’s wrapped with a 16-bar freestyle, he beams, enters the crowd and starts signing autographs.