Detroit producer/MC Nolan the Ninja speaks to us about the influence of old school legends – Redman, Tribe and JAY-Z – on his distinctive style, how Knxledge inspires him and the way his hometown continues to shape his drive. Words by Madeleine Byrne.
The word nostalgic is often used in relation to your music and you’ve used it as well. This surprises me, because I don’t think your work has got a “nostalgic” sound or feel. What do you think about this?
You know I’m a huge fan of 90s culture, even 2000s culture. I was born in 1992, but a lot of my roots lie in that era, I am 26 so I don’t want to front like I’m a triple OG, I’m still fairly young, but I have appreciation for the new school, as well as the old. My music, I guess, shows the traditional edge, like, hey I like to dig records, you know what I’m saying? I make sure all this stays part of the music.
You said that JAY-Z’s Reasonable Doubt was a major influence on your record YEN from last year, can you expand on that?
Yeah, I mean not in a way like I want to do this album over, but the genesis and the way the whole campaign was set up for JAY-Z’s record, you know. You’re talking about a guy who was almost 30 years-old and hadn’t dropped his first album yet so that’s just really inspiring – that’s more the influence, showing that things take patience and take time. Just because it takes a while it doesn’t mean that it won’t happen, and then it may happen in a bigger way than you can imagine.
And the album is talking about the same things as me; it’s talking about when you’re young and all the things happening in the city where you live. It’s the same thing, a kid from around the way trying to rise up above his conditions, his current conditions.
You’ve mentioned that your favorite rappers are Nas, Black Thought, Redman and A Tribe Called Quest. Could you choose one, maybe one we wouldn’t expect and explain how he inspires you?
Ok, I’ll talk about Redman and his animated style. When I first started out my whole thing was to be fast. It was all about energy on the mic and on stage. Redman influenced me a lot, but I also love Black Thought for his delivery and how he puts stuff together. A Tribe Called Quest inspires me too, I’m influenced by the beats and the individual members of the group. And you’re also talking about a group that put J Dilla under their wing early, J Dilla is a real vital part when you come to talking about Detroit hip-hop and everything.
I listened to YEN again today and what appeals to me is the way you are so speedy, so energetic. Your style is really distinctive.
Well, it all started because I used to be the rapper who was not too loud and then one time in a cypher around my way when I was a teenager, I went up on the stage and then when it was my turn the guy said, “yo, you got to get louder, you got to be more lively.” So ever since then, when I jumped on the stage I tried to be loud – not loud – but to project.
Added to that is the idea of being a ninja, well ninjas are like trained assassins, you don’t see them coming so that’s how I feel my music resonates, you know, it really simmers and takes you from different angles, expressions when you’re talking about lyrics and beats. It’s just different, but it’s me at the same time. You can ask anybody that knows me. I’ve always been hip to the same things. It’s not me trying to do anything, it’s me being who I am.
That’d probably be the only way I’d link you in with the 90s sound and culture, all those characters that were in groups like A Tribe Called Quest or Wu-Tang …
Yeah, absolutely. I heard a lot of Wu-Tang comparisons you know people want to connect to the ninja side of it, martial arts, kung fu. Wu-Tang is another influence when I started making beats I was trying to be like RZA, Tribe, Q-Tip and J Dilla, I was looking to these guys cause they really know how to make jams. Those are influences, they taught me how to do things musically, for one, they told me to innovate, all those people changed the game in a major way. None of them were here for a minute then gone.
One of my favorite tracks of yours is the instrumental Elation. It’s the one song that has a nostalgic feel with the vocal sample at the top, using the classic early hip-hop refrain.
Yeah, it starts with the Common sample from I Used to Love H.E.R the .. “yes, yes, y’all and you don’t stop.” That track was on a tape that was my introduction to the whole underground scene. Fat Beats put it out on cassette and it sold out. Dart Adams and DJ Soko helped me do the digital release, that tape was called Lo-Fi Loops and it was me making dope music, something for a head nod, to do a homework edit.
When I make beats that’s my goal, I look at guys like J Dilla and Madlib and see how their beats are still being heard in 2018 and one of them has passed away. I want my beats to be like that, heard all over the world. I just want my beats out there. With that release back in 2015, I got my name out a little bit more, then I dropped my first LP eight months later.
Now turning to your latest release – it’s one of two, the second is called $UD$ but we’ll just focus in on one – CRUD, that’s slang for dope, for marijuana in Michigan, right?
Yeah, but crud literally means unclean, filthy, or dirt, we also use it to refer to marijuana, but crud literally means filth, and CRUD if you listen to it is dirty, not smooth … Dirty and unclean that’s all it is. But it does also mean weed, a lot of those beats I made when I was high, so it makes sense.
What kinds of words would you use to describe this release?
Raw, traditional, gritty, filthy, different, refreshing, honest … Don’t want to say addictive because we’re talking about music that simmers, but those words I’d use. I’m just doing me man, the main thing I’m concerned about with my music is authenticity, I’m not really concerned about playing political games. I just want to do what I want. I’m just happy where I am, I’m excelling and my people are excelling.
Which track would you pick as the one you feel close to?
There’s a few, but my favorite beat on there is probably going to be Crud, Luh and then Chef’s Rap that’s got Raekwon’s verse on John Blaze by Fat Joe. I just took out Rae’s verse.
Yeah, that’s something that interests me because a lot of the time on CRUD you have these extended samples from another rapper, Chef’s Rap is one example of this. Usually a producer takes a tiny snippet as a sample from another rapper’s track, here there are complete verses, but the tracks aren’t remixes. What’s happening here?
I tried not to overdo it, but I do like to remix records that I grew up with, I’m a fan of, but I’m not trying to recreate the song, just if there are ill moments. Raekwon is another MC I look up to in terms of lyrics, I loved his verse on John Blaze. It was real ill, so I just put it together. It’s trial and error, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I trust my instincts and if it comes out fresh, it’s cool.
This is something Knxledge does too. I saw that DJ Soko said you’re inspired by Knxledge, is that still true?
Absolutely, he is like the current person I look up to, I really admire his work. I love what he does with Anderson .Paak, but there are a lot of producers around now, Tuamie is a dope producer. I love his work, same with Knx, Dibia$e, ovrkast and more. Then there are the triple OGs that you have to give respect to like Pete Rock, or DJ Premier… It really depends what you want to look at, but yeah I’m heavily inspired by Knxledge just the way he moves. I met him once, Earl Sweatshirt had a show at a festival in Detroit, Knxledge was off in the shadows and I had a chance to chop it up with him. I’m the same way, I’m not like “hey look at me” I just want to work; that’s the vibe he gives me. I feel like Knxledge gets it, the introverted nature of the art, you put yourself in the work rather than being political with everybody.
The track Sleigh on CRUD is a stand out for me. You’ve talked about the dirtiness of the album, but like any great hip-hop song it’s got the high and low end, there are the bell sounds, can you talk through the process of creating that track?
All of the stuff I used on that came from records, I literally got everything from wax. I made that beat a couple of years ago, but I knew that when I was making another beat tape it’d be on there, it’s real dope. I think it was a Tom Browne sample, I probably started with the drums first and built the beat around it, a lot of times it’s the other way around it. I just added the extra horns, I think the horns were from a Fugees record.
Thinking about YEN now, it’s such a Detroit record, with all the well-known Detroit MCs (Royce Da 5’9, Denmark Vessey, Quelle Chris) and Black Milk doing some production on it. How does it fit into the so-called “Detroit sound”?
Well, it’s very hip-hop oriented with traditional standards. Following people like Black Milk, J Dilla, Royce da 5’9 that’s probably where I fit in. In that sense, absolutely it’s a very Detroit record, every shop I’ve been in in Detroit stocks it which is dope because that’s never happened for me before, at least not with my release before it. But I also tried to branch out and connect with others, you know you see how Blu is also on the album: I try not to keep it too Detroit because I still want to touch other places.
As for the sound it’s just very rugged, very gritty, just really hard, cause you’ve got to look at Detroit, the city where we come from. It’s not sunshine and palm trees like on the West Coast, nor is it known for all this famous stuff like New York.
The community of MCs here, it’s like we’re for the opportunity, we just go hard, we’re non-stop hustlers making anything happen, we don’t give a fuck. Thinking of someone who shows both sides and is from Detroit, I’d say someone like Danny Brown. I like the way he maintains his originality and who he is as a person with where he comes from.
But until we get businesses down-own, until in Detroit we get the same offices or resources as New York or L.A. we have to hustle three times harder from jump, but nobody’s complaining about it, you know. I enjoy the challenge. Having to do more makes it all more worth it in the end, cause you know nothing was handed to you.
CRUD and $UD$ are out now. Buy from Nolan The Ninja’s Bandcamp.
Paris-based journalist Madeleine Byrne writes on music and politics for her site, http://madeleinebyrne.com . Her reviews, interviews, articles and essays have appeared in Passion of the Weiss, The Wire, Okayplayer and Ambrosia For Heads. Follow Madeleine on Twitter here.