A music enthusiast from the tender age of nine, Nick Brewer is a well-seasoned artist with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the industry. He is in no rush to be famous, nor does he have the desire to be.
“Study the greats and be greater,” is a familiar saying that can sound redundant at times, but it makes sense after the enlightening conversation-slash-music history lesson with the rapper-songwriter. Nick speaks proudly of the UK music scene and the influence from his hometown, London being the multicultural epicentre of it all. He also speaks effortlessly about and references Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Drake, J Hus, to Wretch32, and Ghetts and their contributions to the ever-evolving industry, as well as to his own music.
Conversations like this never go without also mentioning legends such as Lauryn Hill, who is still touring off the iconic Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. “She put out that one album and it’s still one the greatest albums ever made; you can listen to it now and it’s still just amazing. It didn’t come out yesterday, it will never fade,” he said admiringly.
In that respect, you can surmise what kind of artists Nick strongly admires and perhaps will morph into – that’s an artist with a purpose. It’s no coincidence that his musical heroes have a rich compendium of songs that have been reflective of their personal journeys; a mirror of their time and have risen above the noise, permeating generation after generation.
What’s endearing about the rapper is his honesty and vulnerability; which isn’t usually intrinsic to rap, especially when it’s been associated with toxic masculinity and identity politics. Nick understands that and acknowledges the responsibility that comes with the rapper title: “I believe all rappers are preachers; it just depends on what they are preaching. I think the older I’ve got, the more grounded, secure and involved I’ve gotten with my faith, it’s had a greater impact on my content,” he says. Adding another rich layer to his resume, he is a proud Christian, but he doesn’t use the “Christian card” to suggest any moral superiority; instead, he sees his faith as an extension of his personhood.
His faith doesn’t limit his creative process within the confinements of condemnation; he argues that it fuels his creativity and freedom in many ways and propels him to take his time with his lyrics to ensure they align with who he is and what he stands for, “I used to question my [artistry] and trust my manager and label – not that I worked with bad people, but no one is going to be able to understand what I’m trying to do better than myself.” It sounds simple, yet when you put all the pieces together and ask, “what does Nick Brewer stand for?” you realise that he’s an artist who has studied the greats, has made mistakes, and has grown from them.
The dialogue below unravels the many well-curated facets of the rapper who was tried and tested until he found himself and has more to offer than his music.
Jane Chanakira: How would you describe your sound?
Nick Brewer: It’s definitely a mix of influences: it has soulful, Grime aspects and is also influenced by UK garage.
JC: Where does the inspiration come from?
NB: In terms of writing, it comes from life, mistakes I’ve made, things I have seen and witnessed my friends go through. In terms of sound, I’m a huge fan of rappers Nas, Drake, J. Cole and I also love UK guys such as Wiley, Ghetts, Kano, and Wretch32. I’m also inspired by a bunch of stuff that my dad has shown me over the years. My dad has got fantastic taste in music and throws me a few curveballs every now and then.
JC: Hip-hop has such a rich history and context and its hardcore fans are very protective of its roots; some even go as far as saying that with the moguls fading, it’s dead. What is your take on this?
NB: No, I don’t think it’s dead; hip-hop is still such a young genre and if you look at the charts, there’s so much hip-hop – it’s now pop music. Most of the popular songs are hip-hop songs. As hip-hop travels around the world, it’s recreated in different ways. Hip-hop is still so influential – I see it actually as a growing organism that develops constantly.
JC: Do you think the fact that it has such an esoteric and sacred history limits you as an artist, as you try not to offend people through cultural appropriation?
NB: I have always had an understanding of where hip hop came from and what it meant. I’m a real hip-hop fan; I’ve been listening to and writing hip-hop since I was nine years old, and as a white, middle-class man, I know for myself it’s not a trivial thing, of like, “oh yeah, let me try rapping.” Whether people know my music or not, that doesn’t bother me because it is a way to express myself and I am grateful for hip-hop and its founding fathers that I just have my opportunity to use it as a form of expression. I think I show it the respect it deserves.
JC: As an up-and-coming artist, have there been occasions where you felt like you had to compromise on your values and beliefs to make it in the industry?
NB: Definitely. When I was signed to a major label, I did make some songs with a business hat on, as opposed to a “love for music hat on,” and I will never make that mistake again. There was a point where I was considering what made sense business-wise, but with music, that’s not what it should be. It’s like building a house on a bad foundation. You can build a beautiful house, but if the foundation is not right, it’s not going to stand.
JC: In the saturated creative industries, especially with the impact of the Internet and social media, is it harder to establish a solid identity and foundation?
NB: I think so. Artists used to put out albums every couple of years; Michael Jackson for example – he’s my favourite artist; he put out an album like every six years. He was the biggest artist in the world, but now an album is owed every six months. There’s so much music out there and it’s overwhelming; that’s why I emphasise the foundation idea, because I have to just keep doing what I feel like is mine to do. I don’t want to become one of those guys that depends on gimmicks and stuff other than music to get myself known.
JC: How do you think social media and the Internet have affected the industry?
NB: In many ways it’s great because it gives an equal opportunity to people that would never have had a chance to be heard before. Everything has pros and cons. Drake, for example, was just a guy from Canada who made his career thanks to the internet: Lil Wayne ended up hearing his music and the rest is history. Before the internet, that had to be a case of thousands of demos being sent to record labels and hoping that they hear it and like it; whereas now, everyone is so much more accessible, which makes talent easier to find. There are, however, dark sides to it as well. I strongly believe that “the cream always rises to the top,” if you are good, consistent, unique, and have something of value to bring to the table, then you’ll get what you deserve.
JC: Would you say we have morphed into our parents, who used to speak to the music of our generation with disdain and give us the “back in my days” anecdotes?
NB: It’s interesting because if you think back to artists like Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross – those amazing artists can’t have been the only artists of their generation. There must have been so many other amazing artists that musical history has forgotten, because maybe they weren’t the greats of their generation. There might be all this other stuff that seems like the fast-food of rap but essentially when it comes down to it, the most popular stuff is real rap music. Because it’s a business, there’s always more than what we need; that’s how this capitalism machine works – it always gives us more than we need, more than the good stuff that hangs around.
JC: If you could be a successful artist right now, who would it be?
NB: I’ve learnt that comparison is a thief of joy; there have been times when I’ve looked at artists and wished to be in their position. I really respect J. Cole – I would never compare myself to J. Cole, however, he has been so honest about his journey and he is still hugely popular. Beyond the popularity, people really resonate with him and respect what he has to say.
JC: And you don’t hear much about him in the press…
NB: Exactly, he’s just here for the music
JC: What is Talk About It? And how did it come about?
NB: A couple of years ago, I was asked by the BBC to write a poem about mental health and how it affects young people. I didn’t feel at that point that I understood how mental health affected young people, but I had an understanding of how it had affected me, so I wrote a poem about anxiety and the ways it had shown itself in my life and how I must keep being in control by talking about it through my music.
I then had the opportunity to become a patron for a charity called Anxiety UK and I started delivering workshops around working with school children and looking at what mental health, anxiety, and depression are and the ways in which we can deal with them.
JC: How can we move the discourse about mental health beyond just checking on people, because a lot of the times you don’t know if someone is struggling?
NB: I think that’s part of the problem with our world right now: that with social media there’s so much opportunity to present your own narrative out to the world, but slightly twisted: presenting a picture of how you would like to be seen rather than how you actually feel. That’s why I take my lyrics seriously, because I get a lot of messages from people telling me they can relate to them. Sometimes it takes someone else to say something, for you to realise how you’re really feeling.
Words: Jane Chanakira
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu