Novelist’s musical journey began at a young age. Born in 1997 in Lewisham, London, the MC and producer (real name Kojo Kankam) was nominated as Best Grime Act at the MOBOs in 2014 at the age of 17, before going on to co-write and feature on a track on Skepta’s ‘Konnichiwa’ album, make the BBC Sound Of 2015 shortlist and release his first EP ‘1 Sec’ with producer Mumdance on XL Recordings. But for the release of his debut full-length album, ‘Novelist Guy’, he was adamant that he wanted to keep things fiercely independent.
Released via his own imprint, Mmm Yeh Records, the album’s fifteen tracks were written, produced and performed by Novelist himself and mastered at Abbey Road. Offering conscious lyricism and inimitable flow, the album fuses together genres such as Grime, UK garage, RnB, as well as Novelist’s self-described genre of ‘Ruff Sound’, engaging with political and social issues whilst still retaining an accessible flair.
Ahead of the 2018 Hyundai Mercury Prize award show this month, we spoke to Novelist to about his shortlisted album ‘Novelist Guy’ in more detail.
How did you feel when you found out you’d made the shortlist?
I started thanking God. It was really special for me. I don’t get excited by much but I actually got excited! I felt accomplished, not because I’d got shortlisted but because the music was considered as great. That’s my main focus. When I’m making music I want there to be an understanding as well as the entertainment, you know?
Because I produced it myself, I wrote the whole thing myself, I mixed it and then I bought it to Abbey Road, for people to consider it with the greats when it was all DIY, it kind of gave me that great feeling of accomplishment. I wasn’t surprised [to make the shortlist though] because of what the Mercury stands for. [It] perfectly fits into the criteria for what it stands for.
I like doing things that are unexpected, so when I put it out there that I’m dropping an album, no one expected that. I like that though. It keeps an air of mystery.
So when you were working on your debut, what was going through your mind?
I mean, my album speaks expressively about my experiences and my views on stuff, but when I was actually making it, I just thought to myself, I don’t just wanna make something for entertainment purposes or for entertainment’s sake. I want to make something that resonates with people [who] don’t come from that background but people from my background as well. So I wanted to merge the two worlds. I’m very clear about my emotions and what I think and that’s actually why I wanted to produce my debut album so people could feel as well as kind of hear that feeling.
“I don’t just wanna make something for entertainment purposes or for entertainment’s sake. I want to make something that resonates with people.”
And how do you think doing it all independently influenced the final record?
It’s like if you give a child and a paper and some colours and they come back with something you just don’t expect, because they’ve had no influence. No-one’s told them ‘this is what you have to do’. I really like working with that level of pure inspiration, because when I go to make a beat, I don’t know what I’m going to make! But I always love the end result, so that’s why I wanted to do it independently, so when I look back in the future on my debut, I’ll be like, yeah, that was really me. Like a time stamp on my life.
What themes did you fins yourself tackling on the album?
Just life on the whole, man. People go through so much on the day to day and in the entertainment industry there’s a lot of music, but [it’s] not based on people’s true emotions. So when I was making my album, I was talking about my local experiences, what I see in the news and how that affected me and what I think. But I didn’t want to directly do it in way that was like I’m ‘tackling’ subjects. I wanted it to be more like ‘this is my life’. Everyone’s life is similar in the sense that we go through stuff, I don’t feel like it’s exclusive to my opinion.
‘Stop Killing The Mandem’. That’s something I tackled on my album. ‘Stop Killing The Mandem’ is just about violence on the whole. The topic stemmed from police brutality but it’s not just about police brutality, it’s just about violence, like mandem stop killing each other. Someone’s gotta say it. So that’s something I spoke about because it’s something that I go through. I can’t talk about stuff I don’t go through, because I have to be able to see the truth.
What was your songwriting process like?
Sometimes I’ll make a beat and I just can’t write to it. Dwell on that beat for ages and then the song will come. Art is weird. I always compare it to art, because it is a form of art, but without paint. It’s like painters, sometimes they start a painting and then they don’t finish it for years, it’s cause they know how it’s supposed to look, they just don’t have it yet. Sometimes it’s like that, or sometimes I’ll make something so… I’ll just scratch my head afterwards and go ‘did I do this?!’ So that’s kind of how it works.
“I was talking about my local experiences, what I see in the news and how that affected me and what I think.”
Being shortlisted at 21 must be a really amazing experience but you’ve been doing music for years. Does it feel like you’re really that young?
No, it doesn’t sometimes. But recently I’ve really connected with my age. Because you know when you’re young, you take it for granted that you’re young. You think you’ve got to be older, but because I’ve done so much at a young age, I said to myself, I’m just going to enjoy normal stuff now like… going out for a bike ride. Simple things like that. I kind of do feel like a 21-year-old but at the same time, maybe because of my experiences, the ups and downs, I might have a few years on my peers.
If someone had never listened to your album, and you had to describe it to them, what would you say?
I would say that someone with total creative control has put their heart on their sleeve in audio form. For anyone who wants to have an understanding of who I am, my album would be a good start, because it was all me, there’s not really much confusion. I clearly know what I think, as well, that’s how I’d describe it.
Novelist has been shortlisted for the 2018 Hyundai Mercury Prize. For more information on this year’s Prize, head to mercuryprize.hyundai.co.uk.
Brought to you as part of our media partnership with Hyundai.
The 2018 Hyundai Mercury Prize Awards Show is on Thursday, 20 September at the Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith featuring live performances from many of the shortlisted artists. Tickets are available here: bit.ly/2018HMPTickets