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“Let’s walk to the dry cleaners,” Nines suggests after I arrive at his Church End address in Harlesden, North West London. Meeting for his first ever press interview, we set off from his living room, which stores little more than two sofas, a TV and a used ashtray. “This is just where I chill,” he says, leading me out through the front door. Outside, children scatter across pavements and high streets, travelling home from school on a hot June afternoon. “My mum doesn’t live around here no more but it’s good to have a place to visit.”

Despite being one of the biggest rappers in the UK, at first Nines seems surprisingly shy and reserved. As we make our way across the grounds of the estate, he points to a climbing frame, from which two young boys wave excitedly at him. “I’m gonna rebuild it myself, because no one else will.” He becomes animated suddenly, clapping his hands together, channelling the power of speaking hope into existence. “That’s what this is all about. Building up my community.”

The local businesses, cafés and shops on nearby Church Road paint a portrait of suburban-yet-neglected London; of tight-knit, multicultural co-subsistence. In the outer-city, low building density means on sunny days the blue sky is clearly visible – as it is this afternoon, like it is in the iconic video for Nines’ 2015 hit Can’t Blame Me, which currently sits on over 13 million YouTube views. When we arrive at the dry cleaners, Nines strolls behind the counter to change his clothes. The owner, an ageing South Asian man sat sewing in the corner, holding the thread between his teeth, continues without a stir. “This place is my wardrobe, and that guy is family,” Nines tells me as we leave, the grin on his face underlining the sparkle in his eye.

© Jack Bridgland

Within minutes he greets two mothers walking their children home from school. “She’s your youngest fan!” one says to him. So he bends down to high-five her daughter, who can’t be older than five. “I see you shining,” he says softly. Recognising his words as the hook to I See You Shining, the lead single from his recent sophomore album Crop Circle, I ask about the expression. “It’s been my catchphrase, it uplifts people,” he replies. “I see you shining!” he calls again, pointing to a group of teenagers in school uniform stood outside a chicken shop. “This place does slushies, you want one?” he asks, and obviously I nod.

Nines seems positively carefree today, but this wasn’t the case five years ago. After being charged with the intention to supply cannabis in early 2013, Nines was sat in HMP Wormwood Scrubs, a crumbling Victorian-era prison in west London, when his Fire In The Booth freestyle became his first video to reach one million views on YouTube. “I wasn’t letting that happen again,” he tells me, shaking his head, reliving the frustration of his stifled rise. “I was safe, I had my people in there, but it was shit.”

Until then, Nines had been firmly underground; a respected name amongst NW postcodes and rap heads, unrefined but aspirational as a troubled wordsmith attempting to transcend the trappings of his upbringing. “I never planned to do music. I went to college for a couple of weeks but that wasn’t really for me. Then my mum was onto me to do something positive with my life, so I told her I’d become a rapper.” He grins, recognising the fact that pursuing a career in road rap probably wasn’t quite what she meant. “I’m still the same guy as before, it doesn’t matter how big I get,” he adds. But if he’s so humble, why brag so much in his music? “That’s marketing,” he says matter-of-factly, shrugging his shoulders as we head back to the estate.

The buzz of Church Road falls into the distance as we greet a group of his close friends. They are perched in the front garden of the same house that Nines’ character steals a birdcage from in the short film that came out with the release of Crop Circle. Written and directed by Nines himself, the film features musical snippets from the album – including its noteworthy tracks Oh My with SL, Yung Fume and Tiggs Da Author, nighttime reflection Liz, and braggadocio-filled Trapstar – while telling a comical short story that pivots around life on Church End Estate. It pokes fun at themes usually denounced as unsavoury in urban social commentary: absent fathers, drug-money debts and the tensions of claustrophobic multiculturalism. I ask why he made the film. “It was something new, I always need to feel like I’m moving forward. Next we’re filming a series.”

His debut mixtape From Church Road To Hollywood came out in 2012, featuring proud street anthems My Hood, AJ’d Out and CR, all with conceptual videos that present him as a man of the people. He can be seen distributing turkeys from the back of a van at Christmas in the former, buying his “young bucks” clothing from JD Sports in the second, and giving out embezzled teeth grills to them in the latter. “I was doing stuff like that off camera way before the videos,” he says, deflecting any potential virtue-signalling. “But when the music started taking off I thought, ‘why not?’”

The foundation of Nines’ steady career trajectory was built upon successive bodies of work: Loyal To The Soil in 2014, One Foot In a year later, and after being signed by XL Recordings, his breakthrough debut album One Foot Out in 2017, which reached number 2 in the UK iTunes album chart. Each level-up in his rise, and the increased visibility of his personal brand, have been the result of converting single releases – Money On My Mind, Yay, Trapper Of The Year – into gripping music videos.

Lyrically, Nines’ playful similes have made light work of heavy topics, such as using music as a vehicle of social mobility or to explore the grittier depths of his past. His verses about the contradictions of experiencing fame alongside the lagging temptation of making big money from illicit-means, despite now having a viable career as a musician, are as vivid and honest as you will find. “I just made six-figures off of streams/ Still dealing with the fiends ‘cause I got bigger dreams,” he raps in Crop Circle’s introductory track, Pictures In A Frame.

His craft is a coping mechanism for what appears to be a transitional period of his life. The release of Crop Circle came after over a year of radio silence. It included a period of time in which legal restrictions prevented Nines from playing in the UK, despite having played Glastonbury in 2017 and toured elsewhere, including South Korea. This sort of heavy policing of the intersection between alleged criminality and musical expression is a type of conservatism that the London music scene, especially music made by black and working class artists, has long been caught in a treacherous grapple with. Fellow road rapper Giggs’ shows were aborted in 2010 after police warned about danger, and J Hus was once banned from performing gigs in London for fear of public disturbance. In the weeks leading up to our interview, the situation reached new levels of intensity when the current moral panic surrounding the rise of drill music and its accused connection to youth violence prompted a ban upon Ladbroke Grove crew 1011 (in an unprecedented court order) and the removal of over thirty drill videos from YouTube.

© Jack Bridgland

“It was frustrating,” Nines says, reflecting on his state of mind last year, looking down at the floor and shuffling his feet. “I was playing FIFA, seeing my peers’ music on the game, and my bredrins were like, ‘Where’s your music?’ Then I’d hear about other people performing at festivals, people who look up to me, while I was sat at home. I almost gave up, but that’s why I had to make Crop Circle: to move things on, to keep growing,” he continues. “I’m still new to performing, playing to audiences who might not know my music, having to win them over. Poland was where we really learned how to rock a crowd,” he says, as a couple of his friends laugh, reminiscing on their tour antics. In any case, there are promising signs that Nines is moving on from the restrictions in his rear-view. His upcoming show in London’s Kentish Town Forum sold out within five minutes, prompting a second date to be added.

Before I leave, we talk more explicitly about Nines’ connection to the local community. It not only seems so important to his music, but it has also defined my experience with him. An endless stream of greetings from residents of the estate, teenagers and elders alike, punctuates our afternoon together.

“Church End has a rep but there isn’t trouble here unless someone from outside brings it in,” one of Nines’ friends says, leaning against the windowsill, receiving mutters of agreement from the group. “There is nowhere like this place in London. Everywhere else is madness right now, but we even get people from other places coming back here again and again because they like the old school, laidback feel to it, you know? There is respect. If someone steps out of line, they get a talking to or told to leave.” This frontline perspective certainly reshapes the perhaps unfair impression many have always had of this part of the city. When I told my father, a GP in suburban west London, that I was heading to Church End to interview one of my favourite rappers, he recalled how his colleagues would have to be accompanied on medical visits there in the 90s, for fear of getting robbed.

I tell Nines about my experiences as a youth worker in south London, where territorial youth violence is soaring. Nines responds: “I speak to the young bucks here. I chill with them, and sometimes I might just listen, but other times I’ll have words. Don’t get me wrong, they get into trouble. But they’ve got us to listen to. And it was the same for us, we had the elders.” His friends all nod in agreement. “I’m not surprised because I’ve seen London getting worse for years. They’re not doing anything for the kids. And it’s not ideal, but up here we’ve all grown up looking up to trappers. My young bucks, they want 50 Gs to buy a car or a chain. But in other places, like in south [London], youngers don’t just want the money, they want a gun, and they can’t walk anywhere without looking over their shoulder,” he adds, turning his head left-and-right, acting out his words.

We make our way back to the flat, spotting the climbing frame we passed earlier. “You got a ball? You better be there when I get back so we can play sixty seconds!” Nines yells to the boys on it. Before I leave the estate, I ask if there is anything else he would like to say. “Just that if my people, my community, if they’re not progressing, I’m not progressing. That’s never changed.”