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Bishop Nehru Isn’t Going to “Save” Hip Hop

He made a record with MF DOOM, Nas adores him, he’s even received the Kendrick Lamar seal of approval. But Bishop Nehru is only here for his own uncompromising vision.

I met Bishop Nehru – long touted as a boom bap messiah, destined to save the style from the poisonous fangs of progression – at a West London flat the afternoon after his show with BADBADNOTGOOD. For a young guy who has been billed as the future phenomenon of rap, he was noticeably passive.

“I’m really tired, man. Didn’t get to sleep ‘till late last night”, he mumbles, thumbing TV controls with a glaze-eyed distance. A sense of apathy hangs over Nehru in the opening minutes of our meeting and it’s not purely down to a lack of sleep. If you read between the lines of some of his past Q&As, the disinterest is palpable. However, as our conversation continues, sparks of enthusiasm being to ignite, and an excited young 19-year-old, agog with possibilities and ambition, bubbles and shatters the apathy.


Nehru began gathering clout from the tender age of 16 with a freestyle over Mos Def’s “Mathematics”, which was championed by the proving ground of WorldStarHipHop. A string of accolades followed from DJs who cherish the piety of the golden age, and before he knew it, Nehru found himself opening for Wu Tang Clan’s 20th Anniversary European Tour. That’s when the narrative of Nehru as a hip-hop messiah started to develop. His debut mixtape Nehruvia followed, with production credits from a pool of producers dripping with golden era credentials including DJ Premier and Madlib. And it was this 13-track introduction that piqued the interest of hip hop’s most enigmatic son: DOOM.

After hearing Nehru cut tracks over some of his beats in Nehruvia, DOOM sought out the young prodigy at a Converse-sponsored show in London, and the pair subsequently met for dinner via Lex Records. During this meeting, NehruvianDOOM – by far Nehru’s most successful and noticeable project – was spawned. The relationship they fostered was a nurturing, almost parental one in which DOOM helped build the foundations for a well-rounded rap visionary. “It was such a good experience because I was working with someone who I was a fan of for a while,” Nehru mutters, still enamoured with the TV. “I came away with the knowledge that I could do this on my own, for sure.” Away from the nitty gritty of the project, they shared thoughts on the intricacies of meditation and spirituality, as well as the importance of artistic vision. DOOM instilled in him a mantra of self-determination.


This was a philosophy that transcended from theory to practise during Nehru’s brief flirtation with Mass Appeal – the Nas affiliated label. Shortly after another dinner meeting, a deal was struck and a plan put in place to release an album. Nas and Nehru’s working relationship was far less paternal, with much of their conversations happening outside the studio. These conversations did, however, touch similar ground to the ones with DOOM, centering around the ideals of self-governance. However, the circumstances in which Nehru left Mass Appeal muddies them slightly. “I was interested in making a project that was a ‘Bishop Nehru’ project”, he says, “I felt that they wanted me to work with Mass Appeal producers the whole time and they didn’t really have the sound that I was looking for… I guess when you already have something you know you wanna do, and someone else has an idea as well, it’s gonna be kind of hard to meet midway”.

Now he’s retained complete autonomy for his latest project Magic 19; an 11-track mixtape that has been in creation piecemeal for some time and steps away from the purist boom bap sound that Nehru was forged in. The reassuring kick-snare pulse of his previous work – which stretches from 2013’s Nehruvia to last year’s The Nehruvian EP – has been replaced by a kaleidoscopic tapestry of uncharacteristic sounds. The spine percussion of a large majority of tracks is built by hats rather than kicks, there’s digital augmentation on many of the vocals and pitch-shifted samples underline and punctuate much of the work. The result is cosmic. For fans of Nehru’s work, it’s an unfamiliar sound; at times it’s cluttered, but it also shows development and growth away from the sacred ground of archetypal hip-hop. So is this change a reactionary bounce from a growing sense of inertia in Nehru’s music, or has his bullish sense of independence been percolating under the surface for some time?


Analysing Nehru’s story as rap’s young saviour through the lens of his career only paints half the picture. Nehru grew up in the “medium pace” of Upstate New York’s Rock County, in a house bouncing to the sound of LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, DMX, soul and rock. Although Nehru’s memory doesn’t stretch back far enough to a definitive point where he became a fan of hip hop, he can trace the lineage of his involvement in it. “I wrote a song in first grade and then I started recording in 7th grade”, he says. So a full decade before his first professional foray into the world of music, the then Markel Scott wrote his first track.

“I was really fascinated by autotune back then”, he says – a twinkle of enthusiasm finally illuminating his mannerisms – “I wouldn’t do it singing, I would still rap just with autotune on it, kind of like how Lil Wayne does.” What followed were a string of tracks influenced by Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak, and fuelled by nothing other than the same sense of self-determination that would be instilled years later by one of his greatest heroes.

This bent for self-teaching and independence punctuated Nehru’s school life. Having ADHD means that he struggles to keep his mind focussed, and a disillusion with structured education soon followed. “It pretty much seemed like jail. You just did what they told you to do,” he says. “It wasn’t really about what you wanted to become, it was more about what they were trying to make you do.” But then a teacher called Mr Arnold introduced him to the world of jazz, and these musical interests became the seed of him completing projects outside of class. “I was rebellious, I guess – I was always good at learning, they just didn’t like it because I had bad behaviour.” Soon after, Nehru began a stint of voracious independent learning: reading, writing poetry, self-teaching his way around production software and educating himself in music as a way to retain his independence. “That definitely translates to my music because I just do whatever I want to do anyway.”


In some ways, there is a correlation between Nehru’s relationship with education and his career as a musician. He wasn’t satisfied with the regulations of school, so he took his own route into education; and he wasn’t satisfied with Mass Appeal and the sound they were pushing on to him, so he rejected the label on the basis “I already knew what I wanted to do, so why not just get on and do it?” It’s this mindset that forms the bedrock for Magic 19, which is a largely self-produced and nebulous rejection of mundanity, a pine for freedom to do what he wants, when he wants, to be the master of his kingdom.

Listening to the new record, it feels like at least some of the stylistic shackles of boom bap have been shaken free. That said, this gasp of freedom retains enough of his inherent sound to continue to whet the appetite of his fans. There are teething problems for sure: some of the beats feel disordered, some segments jar uncomfortably and some of the dead space is left hanging for too long, but it is undoubtedly a statement of change. Sonically, Nehru steers clear of citing any hip hop influence on the record. Although it obviously exists, he is more interested in stretching the parameters of his work.

“'Planet Caravan' [by Black Sabbath] influenced me a lot on Magic 19 with the adlibs. I was taking the Lesley Cabinet that Ozzy Osbourne used on the main vocals and I was putting it on my adlibs. All I wanna do is be a musician. I don’t really care to be a rapper or a hip hop artist, I wanna make rap or hip hop that sounds like rock, or jazzy, or EDM or metal even.”

Another key influence for the record, which speaks volumes about Nehru’s ethos, was the film The Matrix; a story about enlightenment and self-discovery. Nehru doesn’t see the record as experimental, because he has approached it with the same spontaneity that he does everything, but it nevertheless marks a meandering tangent in his career. So where does Nehru think he fits in hip-hop’s current brigade? Especially since Kendrick Lamar has previously praised him as one of the few young artists to understand the essence of hip-hop?

“I feel like people can’t decide what I make, so to me it doesn’t really matter. The only thing I think when I listen to a certain type of beat or anything is ‘how can I kill this song?’ Not, how can I make this song my style, how can I get boom bap on this…It’s how a real artist would think of it. Like Picasso or Da Vinci or anybody, you know what I mean?” Everytime we speak about art, it becomes clear that what really matters to Nehru is integrity. “I don’t worry about saving hip hop or anything like that, that’s not my calling”, he adds. He doesn’t want to be considered a “party rapper” either. “I just keep it spontaneous and just do it and see what happens… I want to make sure that I’m putting out my vision and not someone else’s, you know what I mean?”

It’s easy to contemplate Nehru through the guise of his boom bap credentials and, too often, he is only remembered for NehruvianDOOM. What becomes obvious when you examine his story though, is that for any shy or apathetic exterior, there is a fierce and determined person with a tunnel-vision for success who wants to be judged on his merits and versatility. He is no boom bap messiah and is actively transcending his role on the hip hop stage to someone who wants to craft an empire on his own terms. Put simply: it’s that or nothing.

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