At 23, Novelist has lived a life far beyond his years. First acquainting himself with the mic ten years ago, the lyricist became enamoured with a sound and scene that would change things forever, and for the better. Growing up in Lewisham, also known as the Blue Borough, Novelist got stabbed the same year he began his career in music, which—with the encouragement of his mother Dee—led him to take rhyming more seriously. For him, like many others, the mic was seen as a way out of a life that could’ve only ended in two ways: dead or in prison. And now, a decade later, it has all paid off.
I first met Novelist in 2015, during a set at the now-closed Radar Radio HQ. It was the year after he released “Take Time” with Mumdance, one of grime’s most impactful songs of the last decade, and a year in which he became one of the new dons of pirate radio, working closely with the likes of Jammz, Big Zuu, AJ Tracey and a select few others to fuel grime’s second coming, better known as the “resurgence.” To put it frankly, N-O-V was a cheeky kid five years ago, some might even say arrogant, but he still had a great deal of respect for those that made it possible for him to work in this field. That respect for the older gen, especially the emcees, led to him working with the best of them—Skepta, Jammer, D Double E—to a point where he is now seen as a vet within his own generation.
One of the leading forces behind grime’s mid-2010s revival, Novelist helped inspire many of the scene’s top names to push the genre forward—sonically and culturally—to become an unstoppable force in UK music. Which he was rightfully recognised for when his 2018 debut, Novelist Guy, got nominated for a Mercury Music Prize. Coming across more wise-head-on-shoulders than excitable kid (a la our first meet), Nov seems more level-headed and comfortable with his wins today. This is a man running his own race, and the inner peace that provides is very much evident.
Having worked together on various projects over the years, this was the first time Novelist and I got to properly chop it up about the ups and downs of life. Here’s what went down.
“I’ll always be a grime emcee, even if I’m not making grime, because I’m flippin’ Novelist!”
How was your headline show at Village Underground last month?
Listen, yeah, you see my music? My new music times my old music… It was a bizarre thing to see how the fans received the new music amongst the old music, as if these new songs have been out for years. They knew all the words! Yeah, man, it was sick. They were going bezerk! When I came out, I came out on “Active”, man was ballied up, hat low. They couldn’t really tell who’s who, so then I bussed out from behind one of the mandem, pulled off my balaclava and it was going bezerk as soon as “Active” dropped. It was sick, bro. I really enjoyed the whole thing.
You’re one of the most active spitters—in and out of the grime scene—that this country has. What keeps you so motivated, to always be present? Even if you’re not always putting out music, you’re always present.
I’ve seen the future already. I don’t mean that in an ambiguous way, either. I’ve literally visualised how things are going to pan out and they’re panning out like that because that’s the direction we want it to pan out in. I believe anything you can visually see in your mind is a possibility. If it wasn’t a possibility, you wouldn’t be able to see it. I’ve looked at my future and where I want to be, who I want to be, where I want my brothers to be. I really said to myself, “Okay, cool. That’s where man’s gonna take it.” That mentality has worked in my favour because that’s why I’ve even got you asking me these questions. I’ve looked forward and said, “Okay, well, the journey doesn’t stop here,” because I’ve already seen as far as I’ve seen.
How old are you now?
I just turned 23.
Okay, 23, and you’ve still been in the game for over a decade and achieved what some will probably never. You’ve seen and done a lot—how do you stay humble and grounded?
I was just raised on certain codes. I have no reason to stray from my early teachings. I look at things in a very simple way, and I look at myself and I analyse myself a lot. I’m not responsible for how other people see me, but I am responsible for my actions. I’d never want to rub someone up the wrong way because I was stunting on them or flexing. I don’t think that’s gang. That’s not a G thing to me. To me, that’s soft. I don’t really look at people how I’ve realised other people look at each other; I respect certain man for what they’ve done, but I’m not watching what other people are watching.
Do you feel like you receive enough praise for the work you’ve done to push your generation of emcees and creatives forward?
100%. I believe the masses believe in me. Even though I don’t have a mass infrastructure, for those who do know of me, my reputation as a person supersedes everything. So I do believe people have high expectations of me. I don’t even take it as a pressure; I take it as a good compliment, because it means the way I’ve wanted to be as a person, that’s what people are taking me for and that makes me happy. I wouldn’t want to be perceived in a way that I haven’t been putting myself across.
Do you feel like you should be bigger right now than what you are? Or are you still on a journey?
That makes perfect sense because I’ve been aligned with different individuals who are massive now, but nah: I kinda don’t. This is how I look at it: everything’s about timing and happening at the right moments. For me, my right moments have come at different rates to other people, if that makes sense? For whatever reason, I believe it’s all working in my favour anyway. It’s an incremental journey. It’s good for me and it’s really built my character as well. I think to myself sometimes, imagine if I’d fell into a certain level of success early, I’d probably be a bit, you know... I’m just happy with how things are going. There’s always the possibility that I could be bigger or I could be doing this or doing that, but I try to quantify things in a way where I look at what do I actually have and am I satisfied with what I have? If I wasn’t satisfied with what I had, we’d be having a different conversation. I’m happy with where I’m at because I understand where I’m at and what I have for what it is. Someone on the outside might not necessarily get it because they only see what they see, but I take both things into consideration.
“I’m not responsible for how other people see me, but I am responsible for my actions. I’d never want to rub someone up the wrong way because I was stunting on them or flexing.”
We put your 2014 track, “Take Time”, high up in our list of grime’s most impactful songs of the 2010s. Some people I’ve talked to in the scene feel that you inspired a lot of the older emcees, like Skepta and Wiley, with that track, and also “1 Sec”. Would you agree?
100%! Even they would agree with that. If they didn’t, they’d be lying. One of the main reasons Skeps even extended his hand to me was to say, “You see this tune and what you’re doing, I rate it and I respect your ting.” So the proof is in the pudding. Now, me and Wiley, I’ve only started talking to Wiley recently. I’ve never had a relationship with him, for whatever reason. It might be to do with me and his little brother [Cadet] having a clash at the time or whatever, but Wiley’s not really shown man that regard until recently. I’ve shown him: “Look, bro, I’m a calm yute and I do my ting. I’m not involved in nothing other than what it is I want to do.” But I can say, for a fact, what I’ve been doing is unignorable. 100%. You see me and my guys, we’ve got a certain style—even down to the dress sense and whatnot. All of that stuff. That’s what we were consciously doing, so I can’t act like it was an accident. We’re all inspired by each other. I wouldn’t be here if there was no Wiley or Skepta. It’s a full circle ting.
Talk me through the whole 2014-16 “resurgence” time in grime, when everyone was tearing up radio sets and shelling down raves. What was it like being in that wave—and do you miss it?
We were deliberately just trying to resurrect it. We were breathing life into areas that were perceived to be dead—that’s why we were deliberately going on pirate radio. We didn’t have to do that, we could’ve stayed on YouTube, but we wanted to bring back that essence and we were having fun doing it. Then it got to the point where guys from out of town started booking us. Man was like, “What? This is a ting, yeah? People are rocking with it? Alright, we’re gonna roll with this and amplify it as much as we can in our ability.”
Out of that came your debut album, 2018’s Novelist Guy, which went on to get nominated for a Mercury Music Prize. At the time, you’re still underground, unsigned, and you’re getting all these big nods. What was that experience like?
Because of the impact I made when I first came in, people expected I would make an album around them times. They really wanted me to be another Dizzee Rascal, but I never wanted to be that. I rate Dizzee highly, to the point where Dizzee’s Dizzee. So my thing was I just wanted to get to know myself. You see Novelist Guy? There’s bare life lessons on that album, but I couldn’t have done that before I was ready to. I always wanted to make an album that when I look back in the future I can say, “Rah, I was so-and-so age and this is what I was up to.”
It was ahead of its time, for sure.
Proper! And that’s why even certain accolades that people say it could’ve got, I’m like: “Bro, this is so in the future it might not even click with what man’s expectations are now.”
You had an interview with RWD when you were promoting that album, where you said that it wasn’t a grime album. To me, sonically, even though the BPM might’ve varied on certain songs, it’s still a grime album. You could ride a techno beat and that would still be grime in my eyes.
I understand. You know what, though? That’s me: I’m the grime in the album. For example, you see all the stuff we were doing when man was coming through? That was just the natural essence of… People were like: “Nov, you’re so old-school,” but they don’t understand this is what man grew up in. It’s not even old-school to me. That’s always going to leak out in the sound and in the vibe to where man might even say that’s a grime ting. But for me, I’m trying to stretch the sounds to merge my different influences to the point where I’ve got tunes just called ‘Novelist music’.
Would you class yourself as a grime emcee today?
I’ll always be a grime emcee, even if I’m not making grime, because I’m flippin’ Novelist!
Do you know why I ask you that? There was an interview AJ Tracey did with Esquire the same year you put out Novelist Guy, and the headline read: “Just don’t call me a grime artist.” But he entered the game as a grime emcee. For you to go to a publication, one far removed from our scene and culture, and say something like that was disrespectful. I’m still not over it [laughs]. I’m all for respecting your roots, no matter the genre, and I didn’t rate that one bit. So that’s why I ask where you’re at with the grime tag now.
I’m already an artist. Anyone who listens to my music, the proof is in the pudding. My production’s hard. I make all kinds of things. But at the same time, no emcee is standing up next to me and feeling totally, 100% comfortable, unless they’re like D Double E or something. That’s how I want my ting to be. So I’d definitely say I’m a grime artist, but I don’t just make grime; there are other elements that I put into my music. But I’m never gonna denounce the ting. There’s been times where I’ve been tempted to denounce the ting because I don’t like how guys in the scene go on, but when it comes to the actual sound—nah, I could never give up that element.
Your latest project, Inferno, that has a lot of trap elements to it but, again: the grime shines through. What kind of space are you currently in with music?
I don’t know, you know... I don’t actually know. All I know is that when I go in to record, I’m making something that’s hard. I’ve got to the point where I proper don’t care what no one thinks. Man can’t really tell me nothing. Not in an ignorant way, but it’s like you’ve really got to be coming with something for me to even pay attention because I know the smoke that I’m on.
So, #52WeeksOfFire—what was that thinking behind that? What made you say, “I’m going to release new music every week for 52 weeks straight”?
I’ll tell you the reals: I was praying and the idea just came to me. I didn’t think about it. I’m telling you: the whole package, the whole idea, came at once. The logo; everything. It was like a divine download. I’ve just got to be disciplined and carry on because I see the whole idea and the essence of it is working in my favour. People like it a lot. We’re gonna let this 52 weeks be your fire.
You’re still independent, right? Is that out of choice? I know you had a couple of single deals with XL Recordings a few years back, but you must have had some decent offers since? What is it that’s kept you on this unsigned, independent path?
Because I always see the same shit, ever since I was little. I’ve seen artists get big, have their fun and then be repenting about signing. That’s long! “We got bumped, reh reh reh...” I’m not being prejudiced against labels, because if someone comes with the right amount of money, the right deal, something that could work in my favour, and is morally intact with how I want to get down, then 100% I’d consider. But as for the standard now, a lot of these guys are gonna have their ten minutes of fun and then be pissed later on when they can or can’t do certain things, which is not my portion. I’m absolutely not against the current infrastructure, but man have to really make it work in my favour for me to come into agreement with something. The kind of deals I’m hearing certain man are taking is like, “Do these man not know wagwan?” It is what it is, though. I don’t really talk on that stuff because it’s not actually my business.
How has your circumstances changed since you found music?
Bruv, I’ve always been Novelist. I was Novelist in the hood before the music ting. I’ve always been a spitter. I’m the kind of guy that’ll make two niggas who don’t like each other be in the same room and not have no problem. That’s just me. I’ve always been like that, so music has just amplified my character. Sometimes previous opps, so to speak, or man who I’ve had really contentious problems with, they’ll see me and be like: “Yes, blud, how’s it going? How’s the music ting?” The music gives people something to respect. I’ve always stuck to it as well; I’ve never changed. Man have never seen me go on and off. I’ve always just stuck to it.
“I just study the Word. I study the Word and I let the Holy Spirit tell me what to do and what not to do.”
Let’s talk about faith. Recently, you’ve been very…
Yeah, you could say that. What made you want to become more vocal about your Christian faith and share it with your fans?
I’ve always had faith, since I was a yute. But there comes a time where if you’ve really got faith, you’ve got to take your own thing seriously. Not necessarily in the sight of other men, but just generally. Because I make music, I’m in the sight of people, so there’s going to be things I blatantly stand for that I can’t really ignore. Also, when you believe in something, you can’t have no shame in that thing you believe. So I happily give honour to Jesus anywhere I’m at, because that’s what I believe in. I believe in him; I believe in God Almighty. I believe he loves everyone and wants everyone to be reconciled to him, because there’s some people who don’t believe he even exists…
—which is sad.
Yeah, and you know, we’ve all got flaws, but man can’t be so focused on our flaws to the point where we don’t do what we’re supposed to do. That’s how faith comes into the picture.
How have you found balancing your walk with God with being in the music business? Speaking from experience, it’s hard going to church on a Sunday when you’ve been out raving the night before, living your best life.
I just study the Word. I study the Word and I let the Holy Spirit tell me what to do and what not to do. Every time I slip up, I believe God is able to forgive me of my sins and cleanse me of any unrighteous thinking that I have. But it’s not a thing where you can just run around and constantly do the wrong thing, thinking you can get a pass. It’s really about me striving to be the best version of myself and do that with my chest… People probably think I’m mad, some people probably respect it. But that’s not the point.
So what does the future hold for N-O-V? What’s the next five, ten years looking like for you?
The next decade, man is here! I’m here; no matter what guys think this is, I know what I’m bringing to the table. I don’t care about no kind of warfare. I don’t care about no contention. Nothing, blud. I’m on what I’m on. If I’ve got a deal and God’s in my corner, I’ll be the boy of my corner. That’s what I’m on. I’ll use Drake as an example: Drake is a great inspiration in terms of character. I don’t know my man like that, I only met him a couple times, but he showed me regard. He showed me hospitality and he was kind when I met him, but the point I’m making is I remember early on I wasn’t really on a Drake ting when I was coming up because I was more listening to thugged-out music. I didn’t wanna hear that kind of emotional music, nothing tender, but for a man who was easily overlooked or even at times disrespected... I look at Drake as one of those dudes who’s like a stone that the builder refused. I feel like I’m one of those characters as well. Niggas who know, they respect the ting. And because I’m real, I don’t over-assert myself in terms of, “Hey, guys! Look at me! I’m here.” I’m just doing what I’m doing and it’s gonna get to the point where many cannot deny, under any circumstance. I feel like that’s what Drake’s done, and I intend to do that as well.
I could see you doing things outside of music, too, like acting. On a Top Boy flex!
Yeah, 100! I’m about to.
100, fam! I believe I can. Because I know myself enough to be whoever I want to be when I want to be that person, but I’m still me.
Who else are you rating in the UK music scene right now?
You know, man must bless up SBK every time. I’ve always rated Big Zuu, from early. I’ve got to big him up because he’s got his cookery thing going on, a show that’s coming out on the Dave channel. Them man there inspire me. They’re showing different avenues, following their own paths and then turning it into something that’s actually tangible.
And how’s radio going? I know you just got your own show on BBC Radio 1Xtra—that’s a nice look.
Being on 1Xtra, they’re a blessing to my whole life. I get to express myself and have conversations with those that I’m interested in, so I definitely respect the ting. A lot’s happening for me and I’m grateful for where I’m at in life.