“No matter how good you are, if you are not promoted right, you won’t be one of those remembered names” —Andy Warhol
I. It's so Cold in the D
“I seen niggas get into a fist fight over Nas and Jay. It was always that deep,” Nolan The Ninja recalls with a laugh. I laugh as well, trying to fathom the absurd image of two adult males coming to blows over “Takeover” vs. “Ether” as children and young men spectate. The memory is one of the millions the 25-year-old MC and producer has of his upbringing on the west side of Schoolcraft Ave, Michigan, where his mother raised him in her own mother’s home, the place he proudly proclaims made him who he is.
Detroit MCs are a vicious breed of lyricist. The history books are filled with monsters who approached hip-hop the way hunters approach prey. Nolan carries on the lineage of lyric-driven hip-hop with a rap voice that exudes the power of a rhinoceros colliding head-on with a charging bull. “It’s never been about making the catchiest shit,” he explains after being asked what compels him to focus his attention on lyrics over melody. “It’s always been a thing to be dope with your rhymes. Showcasing skill and showing people that you can really do some shit.”
Nolan displays the homegrown polish of an artist who grew up only thinking about being the best, bar for bar. His surroundings were cold, a reflection of the ice in his bloodstream.
"There’s no outlets here. We have local companies and brands who are great for the community, absolutely. But we don’t have offices and stuff to that effect. Our grind is double, double, double. We have to put in so much legwork, but in the midst of that, it boils down to being humble and understanding you have to work. You just can’t take a train to Manhattan, you have to take a flight. You gotta double up. Niggas just hustle hard here. It just makes the journey even more exciting."
At 13 years old, Nolan gave up his hoop dreams after resting on the bench more than running up the court. Quickly, his mentality became "fuck it, I’m going to be a rapper." In eighth grade, he started recording and passing out CDs—but only to his friends. Whatever beats he heard on BET's Rap City he would acquire through LimeWire and pen his own verses. Lunch money was always on the line, along with honor. “Battle before school, after school, and cyphers in the morning,” he reminisced. When you hear Nolan rap now, the hunger is still there as if his lunch money and honor are still on the line.
II. There Is No Point in Saying Less Than Your Predecessors
Hip-hop, like all art forms, is judged subjectively―a matter of personal taste. Beneath hip-hop’s ever-expanding cultural umbrella are brands of rap music with their own sound, style, and stigmas. All rap isn’t created equal, all rappers aren’t embraced the same, and everyone eventually ends up in a box. Perception holds an immense amount of influence once the art is given a label, especially in genres where everyone is specially defined―not always of their choosing.
On the song “Odium” from his 2017 sophomore album, Yen, Nolan acknowledges opposing perspectives surrounding boom bap rap, the category his music often falls under. In the form of a skit, you hear a disgruntled critic dismiss Nolan’s album for being boom bap bullshit―one of many insults directed toward the Detroit rapper. It's playful, intended to be humorous, but there’s a layer of truth within the jest. Beats embedded with the dust from basement crates and lyrical dexterity worthy of recognition rest between the thin line of warm nostalgia and cold passé.
Like many, I discovered Nolan in 2015 through various blogs who championed him as a lyricist cut from the backpacker's cloth. His debut album, HE(ART), was like listening to an unleashed rap machine aggressively dismantle beats. It was a boom bap bar-fest. But Yen, the excellent follow-up, exchanged wizardry for more transparency―the sophomore album is where you get to see the man. Can you progress without being stuck in a box?
I asked DJ Soko, Nolan’s manager/DJ/label head, how he defines his artist’s music:
"I definitely didn't see him as this 'new age boom bap backpacker' at all. I saw him as a kid from Detroit who liked to do regular shit but was nice at this rap shit. His outlook didn't strike me as a backpacker, and I hate that term to be honest. Are some of his influences drawn from '90s artists? Sure, and I think that was apparent in his early music, but I think that it's grown so much that you can't really just box it into 'boom bap' or 'backpack.' I think he's done a great job of naturally progressing and evolving his sound over time without compromising who he is, which is a kid who loves all types of music, from Sampha to A$AP Twelvyy to Roc Marciano to Knxwledge." —DJ Soko
III. Same, Same, but Different
You can hear it in Nolan’s raps, the passion of a writer who takes pride in his pen. You can hear it in his beat selection, his gravitation toward soul samples, loops, and breakbeats. He’s a student of the old, inspired by Nasty Nas and The Notorious B.I.G., yet, while listening to Yen, he isn’t without a sense of moxie from the present. The way he speaks of poverty and the yearn of wealth isn’t a far cry from the themes found in modern street rap music—Nolan’s pursuit of acquiring a Lexus isn’t so different from 2 Chainz bragging about the joy of acquiring a Rolls-Royce Wraith; the way he immortalizes Schoolcraft Ave aligns with the same homely homage Gucci carries for East Atlanta’s Bouldercrest Road. The approach, sound, and style may differ, but the message found in most street rap is still within the same realm as Nolan's 'backpacker'―overcoming, representing, and prospering.
“They say I’m trying to be '90s,” Nolan confesses, his tone not giving away any emotion of pride or distaste. “Then you got some people who see it as dope hip-hop. And some people don’t want to hear it at all because they don't listen to that music by any artist.”
Imagine all the artists who offer more than what their box is labeled but are unable to convince listeners to see beyond their celebrated identifier. Nolan’s intentions were never to fit into a brand of music, nor to become the savior of real hip-hop; his goal has always been to make music he genuinely felt was dope. As we discuss labels and stigmas, he doesn’t break into a rant about the flaws of the mainstream hip-hop infrastructure or how his skill set makes him more worthy of attention than the melodic counterparts bragging about their Gucci gangs. Instead, he expressed optimism:
"Everything is in a weird place, but there's definitely a lane for everything. Don’t think because something isn’t popular or isn’t the standard doesn’t mean it won’t happen. You just got to find your market and tap into it. That’s what me and Soko been trying to do for the last few years. Just finding the market and tackle them. Now niggas can say they’ve traveled and did shows. You have to remember you’re in a boat of millions who want to do this shit. To even be considered on certain platforms is a blessing to me. For people to fuck with the shit and hear it inspires me." —Nolan The Ninja
IV. Yearning for Eternal Nirvana
From speaking with Nolan and DJ Soko, I got the impression that the duo only cares about making the best possible music, fitting of their brand of hip-hop, and still seeing success underneath the nose of the more notarized. The two have known each other for seven years—since Nolan was 18 years old.
Soko watched gradually as he grew, seeing his growth from open mics to microphone monster. When it was time to reach back and foster a business relationship, Soko started off as his DJ, eventually signed Nolan to his label, Left Of Center, and finally became his manager. The grind has been gradual, but rewarding. They have built a concrete foundation with writers, artistic peers, and a growing fanbase.
"You focus on hard data that lets you know where the most sales are coming from and you focus on demographics for streams too. All of that is very important. Playlists too, those are the future. Whether they're curated by the actual artists, the platforms, or the fans, it's all key. For example, our biggest markets for vinyl and tapes are LA and Germany, so you keep that in mind and you do a limited run of white tapes and icy clear vinyl. You focus on formats and demographics for sales. I hate focusing on that but it's so key for your survival in the indie landscape or music in general." —DJ Soko
Success has encouraged Nolan to dream bigger, to envision the acquisition of luxury items and symbols of status that he associates with wealth. One item is the Lexus, an object of affection that first caught his eye in the music video for Nas' “The World Is Yours (Remix).” For all the earthly symbols of wealth yearned for in his music, Nolan speaks frankly about remaining wealthy of the mind, and humble within the soul. When asked what he yearns for in 2018, Nolan took almost no time to respond: “Progression.”
With his new production team, Cold Game, working in the shadows and eyes upon Europe as the next potential destination for a tour, owning that Lexus might be closer than he thinks.
By Yoh, aka Yoh The Samurai, aka @Yoh31