I'm kind of an awkward human being.
Normal, every day conversations with normal, every day people are hard enough, so you can imagine me minutes before an interview, when I'm not only talking to someone super duper famous (to a rap nerd at least) but it's recorded. Though I've done too many interviews to count now, I still get butterflies before an interview. As the interview progresses, the nerves die down a bit, but there is still that constant fear of fucking things up. The goal of an interview is to make it a conversation, and while I've had some good ones, I never really truly felt like I was just talking with someone.
Until I talked with Nikki Jean.
I don't mess around when it comes to baked goods. So I simply had to know more. I gave Nikki a call and for nearly two hours we talked about cookies, cupcakes, her EP Champagne Water, Madonna, and just about everything else humans can discuss in 120 minutes.
"I'm from Minnesota and I grew up around a lot of baking, sewing and canning, and jarring, all those things. So when I moved to Philly, I wanted something that made me feel closer to home so I started baking a lot and eventually, I became known as the cookie lady. I had these cookie socials, where I baked 20 kinds of cookies and invite my friends out, we'd play music and eat cookies. It just became this big thing. So when I went on tour with Lupe for the first time, I got a toaster oven and was baking cookies on the tour bus. I would give them to fans and stuff and it just expanded to the point that, when Columbia dropped me, I started selling cookies and it paid my rent. I thought, 'You know what there is something to this cookie thing.'
But I kind of had to slow it down because every time I went to an interview or a show or something people would say, 'I liked your album almost as much as your cookies,' and I'm like, 'I wrote a song with Bob Dylan!' or 'I have an album too!' I have so many stories about the baked goods. Like, I've met Frank Ocean several times...I don't think he knows I make music. In fact I was at a Chance show and I went outside to get this cake and there was Frank Ocean and Madonna backstage. So I brought the cake back and they were all eating it."
Wait, fucking Madonna ate your cake?!
"Yeah. She definitely had some. I think she thought I had a baking company."
It's funny you mention Madonna and Frank because I have this theory she's making a rap album.
"She was wearing a grill!"
See, that proves it! Is that the most famous person to eat your cake?
"Well, the second to last day of the Glow In the Dark Tour, I baked 18 cakes so Kanye had a lot of it. I used to make custom cupcakes for Pharrell."
What was his order?
"It was a strawberry cupcake with Mousseline Buttercream frosting."
Well...good to know... but back to the cookies. Top three kinds of cookie. Go!"
"I really like chocolate chip cookie, but a variation on it. It's called the elevator fight cookie. It has Jamison whiskey in it and little bits of pretzel."
Okay so our whole interview couldn't be about cookies, right? Right. While I could easily argue about whether pot pies are actually pies or the pros and cons of eating raw cookie dough for hours - and we did - at some point I'm sure even Nikki was wondering if I was ever going to ask her about her music. So that's what I did.
What really stood out to me about her Champagne Waters EP was the production and the overall vibe. It was a really "cool" album. That might sound pretty generic, but really it's the best way to describe it. More than a dope beat or awesome line (though those are there), Nikki uses production to set a tone and create an atmosphere; that's what I loved about the EP. The vibe I got from Champagne Water was so uniquely flavored, like her elevator fight cookie, so I had to ask about all the chefs who added their ingredients. Those chefs are some of the most talented musicians in Chicago. Guys like Nico Segal (better known as Donnie Trumpet), Double-0, Peter Cottontale, Nate Fox and even Jake One all had a hand in shaping the wonder Champagne Water. Hell, even Nikki herself helped produce the album! That's a ton of names and a ton of talent so I wondered how, to run with the baking theme, Nikki handled all those chefs in the kitchen.
"A lot of times, with those guys, I don't do production because they are such a great unit and are so used to working well with each other; it's not like I don't have input but they are a well oiled machine. Sometimes it's best when not to fuck shit up you know? It;s such a pleasure working with them because not only are they a fun group of people, but they are so talented and so creative and it is a lot less for m to think about.
My heart is always with people who play instruments, because with my songwriting background, I like to be able to change. I don't like beats that don't change because it locks me in as a songwriter, you know? If you can't change the song as it moves it's frustrating. People have mastered it, but I like the freedom. They are wonderful for those kind of things."
So, with the hands off approach, do you just received beats from them? What's the give and take there?
"Well, for example, with 'Rivers' the keyboard part you are hearing Nico came up with in my first hole in the wall apartment in L.A. We were hangin out all day and Double-O came over and they worked on the beat while I wrote the song, so it evolved organically and we tightened it later on. Then we asked them to add stuff to Champagne Water. For 'Cool On You' it started with a beat Like from Pac Div had given me a long time ago. I started to write this song and I changed around the chords a little bit. So I asked him if we could use it as a jumping of point and then we had this session.
I really only invited Nico and Peter, but they came with the crew, like Nate and JT. It was like Christmas! They came through and blessed the track and transformed it. It's hard for me to pinpoint who did what because they all worked together. It was amazing for me to be able to sit down and play what I made for Peter and have him take it and transform it while still incorporating Like's beat. Still, there are times to where I've written to something Nico or Peter made. I never went into a situation with them and not walked out with something that didn't made me say 'Oh shit!'"
Now, Nikki does have the freedom to hang out with Nico, craft a cool beat, and then call up Peter and turn it into something dope. But there was a time, when she was signed to Columbia, where she simply didn't have that freedom. While signed, Nikki released Pennies In a Jar, and while discussing what it means to support an artist (AKA giving an artist your dollars) she surprised me with this:
"I tell people not to buy Pennies In A Jar."
"Yeah. I don't see any of that money. People always say, 'I want to support you, I'm gonna buy it,' and I'm like, 'I appreciate your support but you don't need to buy it.' I don't know where that money is going but it's not going to me at all."
Do you still like that project? Are you proud of it?
"I'm so honored I got to work with all those people. Man, I got to write songs with my heroes; that's the takeaway for me. That's not anything I could possible regret. I feel like I'm a better songwriter having done it."
Are you more proud of Champagne Water?
"What I hold dear about Pennies In A Jar isn't the recording; it's the experience. Champagne Water wouldn't be possible without Pennies In A Jar. Every moment of Champagne Waters is something I've been able to listen to, scrutinize, and put myself into and I had zero creative control over Pennies In a Jar. That's the price I paid to work with my heroes. I paid the toll to cross the bridge. I don't regret that. At the same time I feel great about being able to put out something that is so very me.
Bitterness and art don't go well together for me."
Hip-hop heads villainize major labels, which is something I'm guilty of it too. I assumed that she would love Champagne Water over Pennies In A Jar because it's indie and it's her project. To hear her speak on Pennies with such a different, refreshing point of view was astonishing. I always pit major label albums against indie albums, but I never really thought of them as part of the same story until Nikki brought it up.
Really though, I shouldn't be surprised because everything about Nikki is different. Champagne Water had a unique vibe, I had never done an interview this long, this expansive and to put it simply, this dope. Interviews are fun for me in a challenging way, but this was enjoyable in a way where I felt like I was just talking to an old friend. I wasn't scrambling for questions, or ideas, in fact I didn't look at my cheat sheet one time; the only time when I went to my computer was to write down the name Troi, an artist she put me on to. Still, like Champagne Waters, more than any specific quote or story, it was Nikki's vibe that got me. I instantly related to and with her. It didn't feel like I was taking to an artist, but rather a fellow music lover. Rest assured though, Nikki is an artist, in every sense of the word.
If you missed Champagne Waters, you should download it right this very second. If you already have it, and are excited for more, Nikki has a project in the works which should drop in the coming months. About the project Nikki admitted, "I'm working on it. I have no idea what's going to be on it and I have no idea what it's going to sound like." Not a lot to go on, but if it's anything like Champagne Water - or her elevator fight cookie - it will be unlike anything else you've experienced.
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is College Dropout but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]