Grime is in a good place again because no longer are its main torch-bearers begging for mainstream appeal. If authentic grime gets mainstream looks now—if anything—it's a bonus, and not the other way around. In between Skepta stripping back the genre to its early elements (see: "Shutdown", "That's Not Me"), and Jme showing that you can go to university, be independent, and live off your grind—grime has grown to become proud of its roots on a worldwide stage, which is a pleasure to see from long-time fan standpoint. Novelist, 18, is another one who hasn't watered down the formula for a coin, coming up the ranks where every true grime MC takes their first steps as a mic man: pirate radio.
With his first couple of releases being put out by the likes of Rinse FM ("Take Time") and XL Recordings ("1 Sec"), Novelist has himself opened doors and pushed boundaries so that others can come through and receive the same level of press attention/commercial looks. Starting at home, in Lewisham, with The Square. While out in Barcelona to report on Sonar Festival, we caught up with Novelist before and after his epic day performance on the Red Bull Music Academy stage. We had a few too many drinks (he's legal now; sue us!), ran around some of Barcelona's finest architecture and tasted some of the finest Spanish cuisine while quizzing him on Tory policies, the uniqueness of radio sets, and how one should govern themselves in a dance.
Interview and photography: Laura 'Hyperfrank' Brosnan
What's the ultimate sign of respect from a crowd?
When you tell them to do something and they do it straight away. At Sonar, I told everyone to jump and everyone started jumping. When they follow the order of the rave and when they're actually interested in what's going on, on the stage—I like that, man. I don't understand raves where people turn up and just stand still; I just don't get that.
You've been performing in and out of England a lot, recently, but what's been your favourite place so far?
Sonar, definitely! I loved that performance. It was so fun from start to finish. I'm a music man, so I don't go onto the stage until I hear an instrumental that I like. When I hear that instrumental, it's mad because I know what I want to do with it.
I don't fuck with that half-trap, half-grime stuff. Nah: straight off-key music over here! And that's essentially what grime is—off key.
What's that one beat that'll always get you excited to jump up on-stage?
DJ Trends' "Hypnotize"—that's the remix of the Biggie classic, and I proper love it. I'm basically the first MC to really shut down that beat from Grandmixxer's Flex FM days. I was spitting on that beat every week, so when I hear that beat now I get gassed straight away [laughs]. When you do that much pirate radio, you lose the fear of not knowing what to do when the beat comes in because you've done it so many times. But I know what I'm doing, and it translates in the rave. Put in the hours and what comes out of it is knowing how to govern yourself in a dance.
How do you govern yourself in a dance, though?
Just take time and shutdown, man. Being a shutdown MC isn't hard at all. You just have to keep doing it and you have to practice to the point you're not scared anymore.
Do you think that's what was happening for a while in grime—MCs were missing out on that vital stage of going on pirate radio and putting in the practice hours?
Yes! That's why everyone was spitting like a wasteman. The whole sound of it, at that time, didn't sound good. Even being on pirate radio, it gives you a certain type of energy—and what people don't realise is that energy is the core part of the whole genre. When you miss out that energy, the people lose interest, and that's what happened for ages. That energy just wasn't there, so people weren't feeling it and they didn't know why they didn't feel it. But it was really down to the energy not being there.
I voted Labour. I don't like the Conservative's format, reason being—for people like myself and people from my demographic—it's not tailored to help us in any way.
I suppose everyone was just trying to catch a deal, make tracks, and make money.
But that's not what the sound's about. This whole thing's not just a sound, it's a whole culture. I hate that word now because everyone's using it in the wrong way, these days. I always bring it back to punk. Punk's have their hair spikey, they listen to hardcore rock music that the average guy wouldn't listen to, and when you see them with all their tattoos, you identify with them and know what they're on. Grime's the same thing, but just a different expression of it.
Why do you think young people are now starting to like grime again? It was a straight road rap thing for a good while.
No one's ever really disliked grime—it just wasn't cool to do it. But now you have real showerman's making grime, so it's all starting to connect again. I'm not a wasteman in my ends, Stormzy's not a wasteman, and you can tell a wasteman from a mile off. We're respected and we're not talking the maddest talks, because certain talks you have to walk the walk innit. But when you're a musician, you haven't got time to walk that walk. So people respect that we're doing something for the young people and that's why it's cool now. The whole sound that we're coming with now, it's authentic, and it's original. I don't fuck with that half-trap, half-grime stuff. Nah: straight off-key music over here! And that's essentially what grime is—off key. It's different and it's not supposed to always make sense.
Some things aren't for everyone.
Exactly, that's why when people were trying to make grime go mainstream, I'm like: "What the fuck are they doing, bruv? They're clearly not getting what this is." Man have tried to turn popularity into an actual sound and that is a myth.
It's good to win over new audiences though, no?
Yes, but to a certain extent. Sometimes I want to be so ignorant and I like it because there is style in being ignorant. You gotta get the balance right. In the music, you sometimes have to be ignorant because that's what people want to hear. It wouldn't be wise to talk about what goes on in my area on a record. It would be quite ignorant to do that. But fuck it! Man's gonna do it anyway because that's the reality. That's why I made "Ignorant and Wot", which is one of my favourite tracks I've made. I didn't put it out on iTunes or anything, it's just on my SoundCloud so everyone could just hear it instantly and feel what I was feeling at the time. I wrote that after the General Election.
Who did you vote for?
I voted Labour. I don't like the Conservative's format, reason being—for people like myself and people from my demographic—it's not tailored to help us in any way. I understand it helps you if you're in a certain money bracket, and if you're voting for your own personal reasons, then do that, but for me—I don't fuck with that. There's a clear misunderstanding with what's really going on in the ends; if you lot understood, some of your policies wouldn't be there. For example, how are you going to sell off so much of the NHS? Say I get shanked on the road side and there's no A&E... Like, I've been shanked before and thank God there was an A&E to help me. The thing is, in a lot of people's worlds, that's not the reality of their everyday life. If they step on a plug or fuck up their toe walking down the stairs they can pay for that. It's a totally different thing when it's life or death over nothing and that's what it is in the ends, so that's one example of why I don't fuck with the Tory policies.
Smart guy. You're doing your first headline tour with Red Bull Studios in July, right? How did that come about?
For my 18th birthday, I contacted Red Bull and was like "Yo, could you guys get involved? Can I just get some flyers, stickers or something?" and they were into the idea and got fully involved. They ended up putting £500 behind the bar, got the whole night shot by a photographer, and that made me feel like I could do more with them. I started talking to my agency about incorporating more people into what I'm doing. I wanted to start putting on nights and obviously Red Bull are the main guys, so what's happening is Red Bull has put a lot of time into finding these new venues in Brixton. I'm from south London as well so it just makes sense.
So, Wiley's got Eskimo Dance and now Nov has his?
Yeah, I now have my own thing but it won't be like Eskimo Dance. It's going to be, like, something different but within the same culture of what Eskimo Dance was.
You're 18 now, and grime has been around for over a decade. How did you absorb the genre's early years?
I never had to catch up or backtrack. When it came out, that's what man was watching. Bare of my cousins are MCs as well, even N.E from Essentials—rest in peace—that's my older cousin. Grime is just part of being a teenager in London, to be honest. It wasn't a thing of man had to search for it, I'd just turn on the radio and all the olders from the area would be barring on Rinse and Deja. I remember getting given the Risky Roadz DVD from my uncle, when I was like 7 or 8. That was normal—it was like getting a Dipset DVD given to you. I knew all the big-boy instrumentals as well, and was always on people like Tempa T and JME's MySpace pages looking for their next release. So, yeah, you can call me that real grime boy [laughs].