Over the past few years, Detroit emcee and producer, Nolan The Ninja, has cultivated a loyal fan-base with the impassioned hallmark evident within his music. He has forged his own path with a slew of releases via DJ Soko’s Left of Center record label including Fuck the Hype EP in 2015, he[art] in 2016 and Yen in 2017. These three projects garnered wide-spread acclaim among the underground community thanks to Nolan’s ferocious delivery and the lo-fi production that accompanied his verbal gymnastics. In-between these projects, Nolan also released a steady stream of beat tapes that demonstrated his talent for production.
He is the latest signee to Mello Music Group, reinforcing the fact that his hard work and dedication up to this point has paid dividends. As part of the MMG team, Nolan has surrounded himself with some of the most revered contemporary hip-hop artists where he will surely relish his opportunity to shine.
Nolan recently spared SOUTHSIDERS a moment of his time to talk about his influences and his upcoming Mello Music Group debut album SPORTEE. Read the interview below.
Do you feel you have found a place that you can thrive in Mello Music Group? What does it mean to you as an artist to be embraced by a label with such depth in talent with their roster?
Absolutely. I love their platform. Plus their roster is dope. From Oddisee to Apollo to Quelle & so forth. I’m honored to even be considered. I also believe that I’m the youngest artist on the roster, which is even more humbling.
You’re from Detroit and rep it pretty heavily in your music. It’s hard to speak about Detroit and hip-hop and not mention J Dilla. I can see he is a big influence with your lo-fi minimalist approach and hard, crisp drum programming.
Honestly, I didn’t get into Jay Dee until I was eighteen/ nineteen. Sure, I heard some of his jams growing up like ‘The Light’ or Tribe stuff. But in college, that’s when I understood his impact. He’s inspired me to do a lot with my creative outlook. You know, even down to digging for records that people normally wouldn’t touch. Same goes for Hieroglyphics, DITC, etc. And I’m sure I can speak for any producer I’ve worked with as well. There’s a piece of Dilla in all hip-hop musicians. No denying that. I think people sleep on his flow too. So dope.
What does it mean to you to have worked alongside Detroit veterans such as Phat Kat, Royce Da 5’9” & Guilty Simpson? It must be a pretty surreal experience to go from fan, to professional relationship, to good friends with some of these guys in a relatively short period of time?
I wouldn’t say it was too short. I knew Guilty & Kat almost a few years before we even collaborated. It’s all about organic connection, you know? I hate to be the “hey, let’s do a track” guy. I’d rather build a relationship first. See how we gel artistically. And if they contact you first, that’s an even better sign. But be grateful either way because the OG’s don’t have to fuck with anyone. They’re already solidified!
“On my earlier releases, you can tell I was learning my flow or how to approach. This time, I think I’ve nailed it and I can say that with full confidence…”
Is it important to you that you have received co-signs from the likes of Royce, Guilty, Apollo Brown and Homeboy Sandman? Does it inspire you and push you to do more or can it also be counter-productive potentially attributing to self-imposed pressure with expectations now being set?
One thing I’ve learned about co-signs is that it essentially means nothing [laughs]. What I mean by that is sure, it may be a good look for a moment however, that doesn’t mean that you’re “on”. If anything, that just means you have more to prove. Don’t make whoever regret their co-sign, you know? Again, just be grateful that you’ve reached the ears of such respected veterans. Being in their environments definitely has given me better insight on being professional. For example, I had a chance to sit in on a couple of Royce’s sessions. One of them was during PRhyme 2. And the whole time, he was focused. You can tell who really digs deep into their craft. He’s a professional. Same thing with everyone else you’ve mentioned. Everytime I left his spot, I felt inspired to go harder. To me, what you take from the experiences hold more value than a co-sign.
I’d like to talk about your inspirations and craft as an emcee. I know Redman and Black Thought are key influences for you – and it can certainly be heard through your imposing charisma and surgical multi-syllabic rhyme schemes. On the other side of the spectrum, however, there is a newer school of thought with a large section of contemporary artists that have a ‘style over substance approach’ – “Teachers always taught us to enunciate our words/ So we’re going to kick that mumble rap shit to the curb…” Do you find it difficult to pay homage to the 90’s era of hard rhyming whilst trying not to pigeonhole yourself to one specific style?
Ah, you’re referring to ‘NUMB’ [laughs]. It was fun when I made it but honestly, I somewhat regret it now. Not really but just a little bit. The timing of it was weird. I just put it out. Honestly, it’s not even fully mastered. That’s how much preparation I didn’t put into it. It’s like I was publicly experimenting, which has its pros & cons. Sometimes, you lose your focus when you don’t even know it. It also deals with my surroundings at the time. During that period, I wasn’t around underground heads like I usually was. So that played a part as well. I don’t know. I just want to make dope hip-hop MY way. As long as people listen, that’s essentially all you can ask for. But it’s up to you to capitalise on the listens and create bigger opportunities.
You are not only an emcee but you also produce. Personally, when listening to your beat tapes I’m reminded of producers such as Knxwledge, Dibia$e and of course, Jay Dee. Who are some of the key figures that inspired you and continue to do so in this field?
Knxwledge is an influence, for sure. Same with Jay Dee, Tuamie etc. I’m influenced by producers featured on Godsconnect. That’s how I even got into the lo-fi wave back in ’13/ ‘14. Shit was life-changing. It spoke to me, you know? Twisted flips, remixes, crazy drums etc. It’s like an exclusive community. Many people still aren’t up on it…
Do you find any major differences in the creative process of writing compared to producing?
Yeah, I have to be in the mood to write. When I was younger, I could write about anything all day, every day. But now, I have to take my time. Truthfully, I’ve been falling back on the rapping to take up producing more. I feel like I can channel my creativity better that way. Especially since I’m getting older. In a way, I feel rapped out [laughs]. That’s not to say that I’ll stop rapping but you know…
Your latest single ‘Oranges’, produced by 5ynoT off the upcoming album SPORTEE, is a ridiculously crisp beat. If I’m not mistaken it samples Dee Dee Bridgewater’s ‘Afro Blue’ that Dilla and Pete Rock flipped for ‘Once Upon a Time’ off Slum Village’s classic Fan-Tas-Tic, Vol. 2? It feels to me that you are bringing new life to music that already has its place in the annals of hip-hop history. Can you speak a little about this new single and what we can expect from SPORTEE?
Yeah, I love ‘Oranges’. That was the last track I recorded for SPORTEE. Actually, it was around this time last year. The album is just dope beats and raps. On a more personal note, it dealt with me finding that pocket. On my earlier releases, you can tell I was learning my flow or how to approach. This time, I think I’ve nailed it and I can say that with full confidence; feeling very ‘sporty’. [laughs] As for sound, me & Tony S. (5ynoT) are huge fans of Madlib & the collab projects he’s done. So we came together & made something reflective of that direction. It was minimal set-up too. He had the SP-303 and I had a mic. Raw hip-hop shit. No other way to label it. But at the same time, it gives that colourful groove. It’s not just “in your face raps”. There’s grit, humour, colours, bars, concepts etc. I think it’s my best effort to date. And no, that’s not the sample. [laughs]
What do you have in rotation at the moment?
Elaquent, Clear Soul Forces & Ras G to name a few.
Nolan The Ninja? I have a few theories on your name. Either Ninja is in reference to the razor sharp precision of your rhyming or it’s a nod to The Wu and their kung-fu imprint they left on hip-hop, or both…
It’s actually neither. It was a name I came up with as a teenager in reference to Wee Ninjas. I was sporting them daily around school and wherever I was hanging out. And when I started hustling with the music, people just thought that was my stage name since it was my Twitter username. So I just rolled with it and it stuck, I guess.
We like to end our interviews on a recurring note. More than anything it’s to help settle a debate among the writers at the blog. What album would do you prefer between Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and GZA’s Liquid Swords?
I gotta go with Chef…
SPORTEE is scheduled for release 19.04.19. Pre-order the album HERE and check out Nolan’s brand new single ‘2 CENTS’ feat. Chuck Inglish below.