Little Simz in conversation with Novelist: Call the shots

© Daniel Regan

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Little Simz and Novelist met a long time ago, but neither of them can pinpoint the exact time and place. Was it at a birthday party? Was it at a studio five years ago? They don’t land on a consensus. “Simz is someone that I’ve always just seen,” says Novelist. “For as long as I’ve been doing music, I’ve always looked at Simz like, ‘Ah, Simz is on her own ting as well.’ ‘Cause I’m on my own ting.”

The two rappers have had similar career trajectories – both started out very young, coming up in the UK grime scene, their names often spoken in the same breath as the likes of Stormzy and Skepta. And they’re both celebrating well-received albums released in the past year. Novelist released Novelist Guy, an entirely self-written, self-produced debut that showcases his talent for aggressive flow and creative wordplay, earning him a Mercury Prize nomination, while Little Simz put out her third studio album Grey Area in January, a sharp, coming-of-age work that cemented her as one of the UK’s most promising MCs.

As each artist pulled up to a house in Venice Beach, California, they were dressed the same, both in black sweats and hoodies, though the sun was out and beating strongly – an unplanned coincidence. For our conversation, they spoke about the struggles of remaining independent, making music and what it means to be an outsider in the music industry.

© Daniel Regan

Novelist: How old are you, Simz?

Little Simz: 25. How old are you? Wait, I was at your birthday!

N: I was turning 22. My 22nd birthday was basically celebrating my album.

LS: So, what’s it like for you [in the music industry] then, because I feel like you’re like me, in a sense, you’re the black sheep. Do you get what I mean?

N: I know exactly what you mean. I like things to be natural. And a lot of the stuff in the music game is not natural. It’s people pulling strings to meet things, or go a certain way. My whole career, I’ve never had to do anything I didn’t feel like doing. And I’m still here. Being independent and working with your family members and just doing things DIY is going to be more strenuous than having a whole big team of people. But I prefer that because you learn more. You make decisions based on factors that aren’t just to do with likes and numbers. You make real long-term decisions.

I’ve enjoyed the process of going through the hard stuff as well as really being able to stand up and say, ‘Yeah, we did this, we made this happen.’ But to onlookers, they might not understand it. You can’t waste your time convincing people, you’ve just got to be it and then at the end of the tunnel, they’ll see the light.

Same back at you, why would you consider yourself [a black sheep]? Like outside, looking in?

© Daniel Regan

LS: I don’t know, people have struggled with finding where to place me. Do you know what I mean? Like, ‘What even is she, though? I don’t get it.’ And I think that’s also because I don’t even know where I fit. I don’t feel like I fit in anywhere, do you get what I mean? But also, we’re both indie, innit. So our route by default is not traditional or like…

N: It’s a big freestyle!

LS: Yeah! It’s a lot of improv and figuring it out on the job. It’s sick because not only do I have the perspective as an artist but I have the perspective of a business owner, do you know what I mean? You don’t really get taught that in the industry, to manage your business.

N: Who do you go to for that?

LS: No one!

N: Bare people don’t understand how I’m still here. I’ve barely released music. I only release music when I really feel like doing it, do you know what I’m saying? But I’ve got… [laughs] I’ve got so much music! If I wanted to just drop music, I could do that, but there’s an appointed time for everything.

LS: This was your debut, innit. And it was Mercury-nominated? Where were you when you found that out?

N: My mum’s bedroom. We was chilling. I think my mum made a loud noise, like an excitement noise. And then she told me, and I was like, ‘Ah, that’s heavy’.

LS: Reaaally?

“People have struggled with finding where to place me. Like ‘What even is she, though?’”

N: Do you know why that was important to me, yeah? Because I know what I can do. But not everyone understands unless you’re killing it with views or doing mad tours and features and what not. But I produce everything myself. I write everything myself. I virtually mix down everything myself. I register my music myself. I try and learn through myself… And also the message!

LS: Mmm.

N: That’s the main thing. The message of the music. I didn’t want that to be something that’s overlooked because it’s contrary to what most people put out, so when that was given a valuable accolade…

LS: Very valuable.

N: It was a stamp, like, ‘Yep! He’s certified.’ And I’ve never reached for them things in my life. I’ve never been like, ‘Yes, I need to get all these different awards.’ First award I ever got, I went there in my tracksuit, fam. Yeah, when all the mandem had tracksuits. I don’t really care about that stuff. Does the mixdown sound hard? That’s what gets me tingling. But I did really feel happy and proud when I was put on that platform, ’cause it’s not easy to come by.

LS: Of course! Part of me also feels like people know [about me], they’re just quiet.

N: That’s not a feeling, it’s the truth because people open their mouth and say what they like.

LS: Yeah, the same shit. Especially where we’re from as well, it’s so small. Everyone knows everyone. I remember when I came to your birthday – obviously I listened to the album but hearing it live is always different, innit. I feel like it cuts through the noise. You’re so different. I don’t feel like anyone’s really making what you’re making.

“Being independent is going to be more strenuous. But you learn more”

Crack: I know you spend a lot of time in the US. How do the two places compare for you?

LS: I think home is always going to be home. But when I first started coming out here, I just felt like I had all the odds against me. I’m black, I’m a woman, I rap, I’m British… And so I didn’t feel like it was going to work until I started coming more and found [they were] being more receptive, because there’s a realness to it. So as I started coming back out they were just embracing me loads. One thing I like about Americans is that they’re not quick to write something off. I think us Brits, as soon as we hear something or see something, if we’re not on it we’re just like, ‘Aight, over it.’ We’re not patient enough. In my experience, I’ve found Americans will give you that chance.

N: We appreciate it when someone external to our team will look in and say, ‘Yeah, this is good.’ That’s highly appreciated.

LS: Yeah, yeah.

N: But I feel like fans are a by-product of the music. I’m making the music for me, but to share with you. Whereas a lot of music is being made for them. I wouldn’t make anything that I don’t want to listen to. I’ve got one tune, you know No Weapons?

LS: Mmm.

N: There’s not one time I hear that song and I don’t get gassed.

LS: [laughs]

N: Not one time! I can’t count how many times I’ve played that song since I made it. But I get the same feeling listening to it.

Crack: Have you both thought about getting signed, or do you want to stay independent?

LS: I’ve considered it, definitely.

N: Everyone’s considered it.

LS: Yeah! 100 percent. And if I were to do a deal now, I think I’d be happy I’ve done it this way. I’m happy I’ve experienced the real essence of independence. I don’t know what it feels like to be a signed artist, I’ve been independent my whole life.

N: I’ve never said I hate labels, I’ve said I’m independent! Do you know what I’m saying! Big difference.

LS: But people take that as…

N: ‘Ah, you don’t like labels!’ They think man are being anti. But man’s not being anti! I’m fully not. All I’ve seen my whole life is artists talking about how much they hated being signed.

LS: But why though? N: Pssh. Structure innit.

LS: But I feel like record labels are all the same, personally. I don’t think you’re gonna get told anything different. I think you’re gonna walk in there and they’re all gonna tell you that you can have creative control. They’re gonna tell you, ‘We want you to win.’ It’s all the same thing, but I think it just depends on you, and how you manoeuvre within that.

N: I think you’ve still got to move like you’re independent when you’re signed.

LS: Yeah.

N: You’ve still got to grind in the fashion that you would if you didn’t have that.

LS: I just think it’s important to gain knowledge on what you’re getting into, for a start. That’s another thing, I don’t think a lot of knowledge is given to artists before they go and sign a deal. Or they don’t self-educate themselves enough about what they’re getting into. Do you think you could ever play a role where you would executive produce?

N: Why, do you need some beats?

LS: [laughs]

N: [laughs] I can do all of that!

LS: So like fully craft someone else’s album?

N: Yeah. I’m better at doing that than trying to take control of all my own stuff. I can easily help other people, that’s not hard for me. I spent most of my life doing that. There’s so many artists that I’ve spent time around and given them direction and I’ve seen it pay off. Have you ever thought of doing something like that?

LS: Yeah, I would love to! I’ve done that as well. Same thing in the past, just orchestrating it, but it’s not my ting and I don’t mind that. I can play instruments though, I can play a bassline.

N: That’s producing. You might just not be on Logic patenting the ting.

LS: Nah, I’ve definitely been on Logic, doing it up.

N: You’re a producer then.

LS: Is it?

N: Yeah, you just gotta claim it. You’re actually a producer, ’cause that’s what producing is: making the beat, making the song. Dr Dre will be in a room full of people who are technically on point, but he’ll just be telling them, ‘I want this to sound like this, I want this to sound like that,’ and at the end of the day, you’ve got a Dr Dre record. But it was pieced together by workers. It’s like being an architect; they’re not the ones who lay the bricks.

LS: I probably missed out on hella credits.

N: Me too, but you know what it is. When it’s time to go in life, the story will get told. Or it won’t! But we know what it is.

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