“I mean, Lewisham’s a big borough innit, but I grew up in the Brockley area”.
Novelist, real name Kojo Kankam, is talking to me from his hotel room. He’s currently in Los Angeles, having just shot a video for a track recorded with US super producer Baauer. At 18 years old, his transition from an aspiring young artist to the torchbearer of his scene has been explosive, establishing him as a kind of unofficial, unapologetic voice for the young and disenfranchised. “When I come over to the US though, people know what I’m about straight away,” he insists. “They can see that I’ve got my own style and my own swag, and they respect that.”
Growing up in Brockley, South London was a far cry from the glamour and excess of Beverley Hills. A self-confessed ‘ends man’, Novelist’s early life was punctuated by conflict and hardship but it also provided a solid, musical grounding that he credits his family for. “I had everything played at my house,” he remembers. “East and West Coast gangsta rap, Japanese rap, soulful funk – anything that sounded good, my parents would want to play and listen to.”
It was when he was five or six that he first came into contact with grime, a type of music he, to this day, still considers ‘genre-less’. “When I was young, my uncle used to come into the house with different DVDs, tapes, CDs; it was part of the culture back then. It was the first music that I knew that was overwhelmingly UK and that was relevant to myself and my surroundings. It’s just always been there in my life.”
Novelist was 15 years old when myself and others involved in the loose, micro-scene that was developing at the time first came into contact with him – then a hungry, wide-eyed MC who was always polite and visibly focused in a way few kids at that age ever are. He’d come along to radio studios and observe everything around him, talk to us and ask us questions. There was something undoubtedly special about him. People knew it was only a matter of time before he’d break through, but as with everything he seems to turn his mind to, Novelist took his time, a phrase immortalised by the defining record of his career so far.
“I get pissed off about people in power talking so condescendingly about issues they don’t understand. All of these dickheads are on the other side of the river too”
For those paying attention to the landscape, there was a clear (but rarely discussed) divide between more conventional, MC-led grime and the blossoming, internet-driven instrumental scene. That was, until Novelist and Mumdance addressed it head on with Take Time. “I did it to captivate the industry, I wanted the industry to understand that grime wasn’t just one thing,” Novelist explains boldly. “Mumdance has a whole different demographic of fans, he’s a white, middle-class dude from North and I’m a black yute from South, but the music brought us together. We wanted to make a point.”
And make a point it did. A sparse and urgent belter, it shifted over 3000 units on vinyl released by Rinse’s label arm, the duo following it with the paranoid nocturne 1 Sec, released on XL Recordings on Novelist’s 18th birthday. Take Time was a crucial record, one widely recognised as the first to flip the whole grime continuum on its head and lay the foundations for other artists to make the same leap (see Riko Dan on Rabit’s Black Dragons). It was experimental but raw, intriguing but accessible, new but authentic. It packed a punch all of it’s own.
“I don’t give a fuck what anyone says, I’ve been a big influence on where grime is at now,” he says passionately. “The masses won’t know, but real grime fans saw my come-up and how I did grime properly. I did everything I had to do to become a good MC and producer. I’m not just a guy who’s big on YouTube, I hopped train barriers to do this shit properly.”
Alongside his recording work, Novelist has also made plenty of headway as a producer, as first evidenced by debut EP Sniper, released by influential label hub Oil Gang in 2014. “I hollered Oil Gang because he was putting out instrumental stuff from producers like Darq E Freaker and Spooky and I wanted to be the first MC and producer of my age to release on vinyl,” he tells me. “I felt it was important and it proved that I could produce as well as MC at a young age”.
Speaking to him on the phone, it’s easy to forget that this is an 18-year-old MC. Confident, collected and passionate, it feels like Novelist has more to offer than just his music, a facet of his recent output that has become a dominant theme. “I don’t wanna be some famous guy, that’s easy,” he says, ”but to make an impact on the public isn’t easy, that’s why I’ve taken things gradually. I want people who listen to my music to feel like they can be someone and achieve something. If influential people aren’t saying anything then what’s happening? After a while, grime will just get played out again. That’s no disrespect to people making grime because everyone does their thing, but for me personally, my aim is to captivate the youngers and make them understand what’s going on around them.”
What’s happening around them is of great concern to Novelist too. He tells me he’s far from political, but tracks like Ignorant And Wot – a single he made to reinforce the irony of his and others’ situations on the roads, tagged on his Soundcloud with the words ‘don’t give a shit about the law’ – as well as new single Endz are rebellious and empowering, both fuelled with underlying anti-establishment energy. “I speak about what’s around me and I don’t like any of the Tory policies,” he says venomously. “My mates in the ends are getting stabbed and can’t get to A&E because the departments are being closed. There’s no youth clubs. No one has anywhere to meet any more. Communities are supposed to have spaces where people can get together and meet each other but slowly that’s going, especially in Lewisham. I get pissed off about people in power talking so condescendingly about issues they don’t understand. All of these dickheads are on the other side of the river too.”
It’s this splintered political rhetoric that seems to have inspired Endz – a gritty, grainy ode to the grime he grew up with. With a beat and video both produced and directed by Novelist himself, it feels all the more personal too. “That’s how man did it back in the day,” he explains. “I got my young G to do the video, we got the ped and the dog and just did what we usually do, but with a camera rolling. I did it to show people what life looks like in the ends and anyone who listened to grime back in the day, they’ll understand it. Some people have commented saying I’ve bitten Crazy Titch references or stuff like ‘it looks just like Channel U’ but back in ’04 and ’05, this is what every grime video looked like. I wasn’t trying to be nostalgic, I wanted to remind people of what it’s like to be a teenager on the block.”
Clearly bound by his roots, but willing to test the waters of grime’s musical possibilities, there is something refreshing about Novelist’s approach. He seems to unite the best of early grime with the best of what it could become, all at 18 years old. What’s more, as with other grime artists who’ve shunned the industry (Skepta, JME, Stormzy) in favour of self-made, DIY success, Novelist feels the same passion about treading his own path.
“I’m not in this whole grime game. You can’t put me in a box. I’ve always made music that half of these MCs would never make, so in that respect, I’m not in the industry. People pay me a lot more respect in a different way, they’ll consider what I have to say due to my stance on approaching music. I’m not just an MC to them, they’re looking at me as a producer, a musician. If grime hit a brick wall, I’m the type of guy to make a whole new genre, based on the same principles we used to make this one.”
"I want to remind people of what it’s like to be a teenager on the block”
Bold claims they may be, but lets not forget that Novelist was one of the faces to be spotted sharing a stage with Kanye West at this year’s Brit Awards, his trademark hi-top visible amidst the blacked-out mass of tracksuits that stood behind Kanye while he performed All Day. Also present on stage with him that night were Skepta, Jammer and Krept & Konan, all of whom have welcomed Novelist into grime’s upper reaches, offering him both guidance and support. Where others have found the door to that world closed, Novelist has been welcomed with open arms.
For more fame-hungry MCs, this would surely be a career highlight. But, asking Novelist about his most memorable achievement so far, his answer offers an insight into how he now sees himself. “To be honest, my favourite moment was when everybody doing grime started to dress like me. I’m not arrogant, but I started to notice people copying my style and at that point, I realised I had a certain level of influence – and that made me feel good.”
While he’s left the days of The Square – the Lewisham crew he fronted so proudly and with whom he recorded viral tracks like Pengaleng and the infamous Lewisham McDeez – behind him to focus on solo pursuits, Novelist’s aims are still just as humble as they were when I first met him back in 2013. Far from a careerist, Novelist wants to inspire, and most importantly leave a legacy that both he and his fans can look back on with pride.
“I want to make music that’s listened to in years to come,” he explains before we draw the interview to a close. “I want the young kids to hear me and understand what I’m trying to tell them, to listen to me because I sound good not because you see me with this guy or that guy. It’s the music that matters.
“What happens when people stop tweeting about me?” he asks aloud. “I don’t care about magazines or social media opinions or false perceptions – I care about the kids and the people. Furthermore, fuck the feds, fuck the rules. Educate yourself, don’t always trust your teachers. Take small steps and you’ll get there. Look at me. My teachers would have told me to do completely different things, but I’m here. I don’t feel it’s right to only do music, I feel like I need to talk about this shit.”
Novelist appears at The Warehouse Project, Manchester, 11 December. Endz is featured on The Sound of Rinse FM compilation, released 13 November
Crack Magazine Issue 58 is out now across the UK and Berlin