(Photo by Jacob Mulka)
Anybody with an ear for Detroit Hip-Hop knows of Nolan the Ninja. With a series of solid releases including Lo-Fi Flips from January of this year, his most recent project YEN is a prime example of old-school in the modern age. A deeply personal collection of songs that bumps enough to ride to, it simultaneously represents his progression as an artist and as a person. I had the pleasure of chatting with Nolan about the album, the work that went into it, and what he hopes it will mean for the people that listen to it.
B: Alright, so how you been doin, how’s New York?
N: Everything’s cool, I been out here in New York, like, about a month and a half now. Just been tryna promote the album, linking up, I spent a lot of time with Denmark Vessey and Quelle Chris, who are also on the album and, you know, we just been recording a bunch of stuff and brainstorming, bouncing ideas off. And of course I’ve been cooking up a bunch of rhymes, a bunch of beats, a bunch of shit nahmsayin’. Just working man, just working. I got more things out here as far as shows and stuff, so I’m just working until that pops off.
B: Is this the first time you’ve been out in New York like that?
N: I mean, this is the longest I’ve been out here. Usually when I come out to NY it’s real quick, like a week or a weekend to do press for an album or something. This time I’m really honing it in, taking trains and shit like that, you know. So it’s a nice little change of pace, definitely different from Detroit as most would assume.
B: Yep, it certainly is. Alright so let’s get into this album. I was listening to “Lex,” and I was wondering what made you choose that as the opener for the album?
N: It was just a real heavy song, and I felt like it gave a good synopsis for the whole album. If you notice the second track, I labelled that “intro,” cuz originally that was supposed to be the intro, but when we made “Lex” I was like, yo, I wanna open my album with this. Cuz the whole album is dealing with yearning, wanting more, striving and things like that. I feel like “Lex” is just a great representation of the meaning of the album, it really grasps the concept. And the Lexus, it’s such an infamous car. If you got a Lexus, you’re doin a lil’ sumn, you know.
B: Yeah, I definitely felt like there was a different kind of delivery you were doing on that song. You’ve got a certain intensity to your raps, this one was a little heavier.
N: Yeah. And another thing, most of my music is sample-based, and that joint’s sample free, you know so, I just wanted to kick the album off with that, sorta out of left-field, like, yo this is sample-free, it’s not just rappidy-rap, it’s a lot slower than a lot of my other stuff, so. It’s real dope.
B: Yeah, great. So then getting into “Exodus,” you’ve got a line where you say, “I’m tryna write my book into Exodus through the text.”
N: Text meaning my rhymes, just meaning that I want to make my stance, make an appearance. The book of Exodus is an infamous story in the bible, which is an infamous book itself. I just wanna have that same effect on people, am I tryna write a bible? No, but it’s just more so creating something for people to look to or believe in, you know?
B: Yeah, absolutely. I think I read it in a bit of a different way, like, the skit on “Odium” features a dude talkin smack and calling you boom-bap as if it’s a negative thing, and you’re very much rooted in old school from what I can tell. But you’re obviously making music in the Soundcloud age right now…
B: So i thought it was like a mix of the two, like you’ve got Exodus, the history, legendary historical text, and I’m thinking “writing through the text” like you’re on your phone, maybe taking down notes for rhymes, maybe texting your story to somebody, I don’t know. I appreciate you clearing that up.
N: Sure, you could look at it like that.
B: I guess it’s one of those things where people can see different things in it, but I definitely appreciate knowing what you were thinking when you were writing it.
N: Yeah, that makes sense as well (laughs) it’s whatever, like honestly, I know how I write stuff and all that, but however the listener comprehends it, as long as they fuck with it, but for clarification I like to put that on the table.
B: Absolutely, I wanna know that and I know the fans do too. Do you have a favorite track on the record?
N: I would probably just say “Lex,” you know. It would either be “Lex” or “Schoolcraft.” For the sake of the argument I’m just gonna say “Schoolcraft,” cuz it’s where I’m from. That area impacted who I’ve become as a person, and it’s definitely helped me with writing this album. And “Schoolcraft” is the last joint, technically the last joint is “Modesty” but that’s a bonus track. I just wanna represent for my people around the way where I grow up, you know, all my people that’s no longer in that neighborhood cuz they’re either dead or locked up. As you heard on the track, like, I drop some names. People that I grew up with, grew up around, some of those guys are gone now, you know what I’m sayin? Like forever. And a lot of the kids around my age, they’re in jail, so, I just wanted to touch on that. I feel like a lot of my past stuff is more so…everybody’s just like, “oh, ok you can rap.” With this album I wanted to take more of an introspective route, really bringing people into the personal side of things, rather than just rappidy-rappin.
(Photo by Jacob Mulka)
B: Right on. Alright, you know I had to ask, so you got the line on “Calisthenics” about Prhyme and Royce. You got a favorite track on that album?
N: Yeah absolutely, I would probably say “You Should Know” featuring Dwele, (sings chorus), like that song almost made me cry one of the first times I heard it, it was real dope. Yeah, so I would say that or, the joint with…I think it was the joint with Jay Electronica? (Sings chorus of “To Me, To You”), but I would probably say “You Should Know” though, that song is just real dope, the way Dwele’s vocals just laid on that shit.
B: For sure, I was bumping that album for months after it came out. They really did something special with that one.
N: It’s a real dope piece man. And it’s an honor that Royce was able to get on the album (YEN), I also met DJ Premier through Royce at his studio while I was in town, which was another dope thing cuz, on that song I’m like “a year ago I was playing Prhyme, now I got Nickle 9 on the line,” so like, that’s some real shit. Like I was working a weak-ass job, listening to Prhyme, like yo I’m tryna get it, so it like instilled another battery in the back, you know, I just went harder And then a year or so later Royce is on the album, and he’s actually become a friend as well as a mentor. A year ago that wasn’t nowhere in my reality, I was just a fan.
B: Damn, that’s amazing. So you mentioned earlier you were chillin with Quelle and Denmark, how did you all link up and how’s that been working with them?
N: Me and Denmark linked up, I believe it was my manager Soko, he’d known Denmark for a while, they were already cool, and Soko was just telling Denmark about what we was doing with LOC and shit, so I reached out like yo man, we don’t know each other that well but I’d love to work, I got production and I’m a huge fan. And from there we honestly just linked up, he came to Detroit and he was like near downtown, he just pulled up! Cuz I hit him up, you know just on some twitter shit, and then when he landed in town he was like yo bro, like let’s link up, and I’m like yo! I’m at such and such and he’s like yo I’m bout to Uber over there, and he did. And from there we just got shit crackin. Whenever we got time to chop it up and link up we do that.
B: Yeah man, he’s a cool guy. I brought him out a few years ago around the time Martin Lucid Dream came out, great dude.
N: Yeah man, I just came from his crib actually (laughs) we made some ill shit.
B: I believe it. So I’m looking at the title track now, I heard that line about Focus: Hope, which came up a couple of times in the album. What’s the connection there?
N: Yeah, it’s not really a shout out, it’s kinda just honest you know. Like growing up, my grandma had a big part in raising me, so Focus: Hope was one of those spots where she went to go get her groceries, so we talking like the off-brand milk and apple-juice and all that shit, you know what I’m sayin, so that’s just real rap. It’s just growing up that’s just all I knew. Now granted, we had other groceries, and then EBT is a whole nother part of the game, you know, but yeah. It’s just a nod to how I grew up.
B: Yeah, I’m sure they’d be happy to know they were able to help people out like that.
N: Well and another thing, I heard Dej [Loaf] talk about Focus Hope, dropping it in a line, so that just goes to show you that clearly, you know, due to our environment, that’s what we grow up on. And Dej is from the East side, I believe, but still, she still got that Focus: Hope cheese. And I’m sure there’s more rappers that probably haven’t spoke on it, you know.
B: Definitely. So Yearning Eternal Nirvana, that’s where YEN comes from, I’m curious what that means to you, and what you hope that means to the fans, that kind of thing.
N: The whole album is dealing with yearning, and yearning means to want, and then like eternal, forever, and nirvana is synonymous with paradise, so, it’s just wanting to have everlasting bliss, and just being joyful with what you’re doing, you know, and just enhancing your condition period. Whether you a rapper, or a doctor, or a cook, whatever the case may be, we have bigger aspirations that we want to follow.
B: Yeah, definitely. So I think this will be the last one, last night I was chillin at the Shigeto album release show..
N: Yeah, Shigeto’s the homie man. Good people.
B: Fasho, and I was talking to Lexi from Video7, and we were just talking about rappers and how it’s crazy that some of them can produce for themselves, and the balance between using your own beats versus collaborating with others. Care to elaborate on that?
N: It’s real dope, I love the whole idea of being self-sufficient, and so I think it’s real dope when an emcee can make their own beats, and honestly YEN was about to be produced all by me, if you notice about half of the tracks I produced, so, but you know I love collabin’, intertwining ideas, cuz another artist may have an aspect that I don’t even pay attention to, so, it’s dope to just blend everything and come up with some ill shit. You know but, also, if I’m collabin’ with somebody I want it to be organic as well. Like, I don’t want it to be a hit-up. All the people I’ve collabed with on the album, or in general, period, it was all organic, not like “I’ve got you in mind for this record,” it was more so like, you know, just vibing out, shit just takes off, one step to another, then the joint is done.
B: Yeah man, the natural process is the way to go. Alright man, any last words for the people out there?
N: Yeah man, just continue to support YEN. Buy it, stream it, whatever. It’s all love! More to come…
(Photo by Jacob Mulka)
Be sure to check out YEN on your preferred music platform, and catch him at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor on November 17th with Royce da 5’9″, Tru Classik, and DJ Chill Will.