Novelist is perched on a studio chair – the luxurious kind with wheels – behind an immense mixing desk at Abbey Road studios. “I saw someone said,” he begins – dressed in white shorts and T-shirt, pomegranate juice and a packet of crisps on deck – “and I kind of agree with this… actually I don’t kind of: I do 100 percent agree with it. Someone said the internet has messed up the roads more than crack in the 80s.”
Crack, obviously, is addictive. And so is the glaring light of a phone screen, according to Novelist’s theory, where retweets and hearts carry a back-breaking weight. “It’s one thing to hear someone is causing a problem with you, but to see it online, where other people can see it… Disrespect has always existed, and hearsay is hearsay, but now everything is all in one place.”
Nov’s words aren’t blasé or incendiary. The 21-year-old British MC speaks with conviction, and lived experience, about how to effect positive change among teenagers in the capital. But more on that later. Ostensibly, we’re here because of his debut album Novelist Guy, part of which was mastered (“by the pros”, he says with laugh) in this legendary studio – birthplace of that album by the Beatles, incubation tank for Frank Ocean’s Blonde, and records by everyone from Adele to Stevie Wonder.
The rest of the album Novelist wrote, produced and recorded in his home studio – the product of his sole vision. And yet, and because of his complete ownership over it, it’s impossible to talk about Novelist Guy, its content, without returning to the south London pavements from which it came. As our casual studio chat quickly encompasses faith, politics and the power of positive thinking, there’s a palpable sense Novelist cares about the bettering of people as much as he does music.
People can say they’re raised on grime – in fact people can say anything, that’s how life works – but that phrase means something really specific for Novelist. The genre is as much a part of his DNA as trailing tentacles are a part of a jellyfish. The white label classics of Nasty Crew’s Sharky Major, the pirate radio broadcasts of Rinse FM’s Geeneus and now-iconic DVDs ( Lord Of The Mics, Risky Roadz, Conflict) all permeated the sound of grime through his home borough of Lewisham, in southeast London.
By 16, he’d appeared on London stations Rinse FM and NTS. A year later, he released “Sniper” – an instrumental, artillery barrage of a track that lead to the release of an instrumental EP for influential grime imprint Oil Gang. Then, as the likes of BBC Radio 1Xtra began to pay attention (and a 2014 MOBO Award nomination arrived), he signed to XL Recordings for a one-off release – 2015’s 1 Sec EP. By this point, it seemed settled: Novelist was grime’s king-in-waiting, a prodigy.
But as his peers ascended, not only into grime’s upper echelon but up the charts, Novelist hit pause. “I’m not a capitalist, I make music for the joy of making music,” he says. “If I was to chase the hype that was given, I don’t think it would have done myself justice in a way I can now. I literally decided, ‘Yeah, it’s cool everyone is talking about me but I’m gonna move at my own pace.’” And without pitting artists together but also absolutely doing that – me, not Novelist – there’s a distinct contrast between the movements he was making, and that of grime’s other heir to the throne, Stormzy. While Novelist took his time, ruminated, still hopped on radio slots, Stormzy leapt towards collaborating with Little Mix, Linkin Park and Ed Sheeran.
So whether or not he’s in the charts, the crucial part of Novelist’s journey is its purpose. You can hear that all over this debut, where his intentions are vivid and clear but not so overt they become nauseating. I’ll be as direct as possible: Novelist Guy is an album about raising consciousness. God is referenced seven times on it (some choice lyrics: “I'm thankin' God I'm here today”; “Me and God alone, got my back, what's a better fact”; “Trust in God my witness”). Clearly, faith is not a subject he shies away from. Considering the subject matter of Novelist’s early tracks, where songs like “Endz” fitted slightly into the archetypal braggadocious mode of grime (“Yeah, I'm in the ends and I've got bare gash”), I ask what initiated his shift in tone, if there’s perhaps something he’s read. His reply: “The Bible is my blueprint.”
Despite the opennees in his music however, Novelist is also initially cagey – and rightly so. When I ask if he’s had a religious experience, he responds: “My personal experiences are for me, so I don’t really share them.” But that’s also a contradiction. In the years he’s been in the game, surely he’s received some kind of wisdom that set him on the right path. To this point, Novelist stalls. The air is still. Around 30 seconds pass before he answers.
“One time I was in Canada, yeah. This is when I was living my life a bit different. I was smoking. (‘What were you smoking?’) Weed. And I feel like God spoke to me and said ‘This ain’t for you’. (‘Do you mean music or weed?’) Weed. And he said ‘Do what you’re supposed to do, because you know what you’re supposed to do.’ From that moment on, I weren’t perfect after that, but I’ll never forget that. I’ll never forget when I had an internal reminder of what my mission is. Sometimes, when you’re close to the edge, that’s when you realise you’re not on the path you’re meant to be on.”
The edge Nov was on wasn’t dramatic, was more standard life bullshit, but it changed his way of thinking (he’s since quit smoking). From then on, he felt it was his duty to be positive. Novelist Guy is the direct product of this shift. Though it shares similarities with early classics like Wiley’s Treddin’ On Thin Ice or Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner, it also comes from a lighter, brighter world. Not strictly a grime album, it takes in elements of ragga (“Start”), “old school dancehall, 80s pop, english pop”, Memphis rap, his self-created Ruff Sound genre – and culminates in a release that sounds like the better parts of summer time spent in the city. If Ice Cube’s iconic Good Day could be bottled up as an energy source and repurposed as a British album released in 2018, this is it.
It’s the antithesis to what’s happening in a lot of current British music, he says. “Everyone is talking about negative stuff, that’s what sells. But I’m over that in my life, so that’s what my record is about.” Even if you haven’t heard them, the track titles signal their content, with names like “Happiness In The Cold”, “Smiles”, “Better Way” – the latter of which samples an ice cream van (the grand signalling of the great British summer day) before Nov speaks about “showing love to get rid of the pain.”
Still, the album is political. Seeking happiness is, after all, a political, social act as much as it is a personal one. And so, following on from the 2016 release of “Street Politician” and into this album’s “Stop Killing The Mandem” – not just a song but a message Novelist scrawled onto a placard, held aloft at a 2016 #BlackLivesMatter protest – our talk turns to politics, back to the statements made at the beginning of this piece. This song, he says, is directed not just to police and politicians but to everyone and anyone. “The youngers, yeah – and obviously there’s mandem my age perpetrating – but the youngers are going bananas. They’re going nuts right now. I can’t believe it. I thought my generation was nuts until I see how these younger ones are stabbing each other left right and centre and I’m like, ‘Fam’.”
But wasn’t this happening in the same way, 10 or 15 years ago? Back in the postcode war days? “Nah, not like this. Bro, seven people died in one night. Seven, cuz. I got stabbed when I was 13. My boys have been stabbed. Some of my boys are in jail for stabbing; some of my boys are in jail for other stuff. Some of my friends have died. But I wouldn’t want to be younger than me right now. Even when I go on Instagram or I see the news or whatever and see the knives that have been seized, like: Where do you get a shank that looks like that? Some of the knives have come straight out of a video game, bruv.”
At this point Novelist’s mum – also his manager, sitting quietly in the corner so far – interjects: “it’s like kung-fu.”
“Right, like, what would you even do with that knife other than to kill? I’m not on it. I’m not going to be in my tunes talking rough. Life has been rough. I’m from an area where things have happened that I can speak about but I’m not going to because it’s not necessary for me to.”
Before arriving at Abbey Road studios, I scrolled through Novelist’s Twitter. Awash with retweets, as per the standard for an MC on the promo trail, one stood out: “Real talk @Novelist's new album is 🔥 He sounds like the good angel on every roadman's left shoulder.” That made Novelist laugh. His mum enjoyed it too. If we’re to take the word of Twitter user @unseenflirt as gospel, what does Novelist think needs to change to fix the problems we’re seeing among the young people who grow in London’s deprived areas?
“Everyone has to change their world and then the world will change. Everyone has to do their part in their community and say this is the way forward. Once that starts happening you’ll see crime rates decrease, people will be more business minded – putting their mind to positive causes, feeding the homeless, doing things that are actually important, rather than jumping in the booth and talking pure narcissistic talk. I can jump in the booth all day long and say, ‘Yeah, I made this much money, I’ve done this and that’. But that’s not really helping anything.”
As soon as the album cycle finishes, Novelist says he’s getting a Nokia. There are just three posts on his Instagram; he doesn’t follow anyone on Twitter. In some ways, his approach to the medium is similar to one of his idols, JME. The release of Novelist Guy has been a long time coming and though he’s kept his ups-and-downs close to his chest, the young MC has surely been through his share of them, riding the wave of the music industry apparatus.
Today, though, Novelist is on the other side, album out, grinning; and if you believe in auras, his is golden. In a perfect scenario, all he wants is for people – not just himself – to reach nirvana, their own version of the place he hopes to find himself, which for him is hanging out in nature and at peace. “That way,” he says, “what do you have to think about other than wake up, be nice to each other, cook food and help whoever else needs help. Just keep it simple. None of this, ‘Ah, yeah: I’ve gotta wear the biggest chain, I gotta have this new this, Ferrari this’ – chasing that is long, bruv.”
You can find Ryan on Twitter.