So last week I met up with rising rapper Nolan The Ninja. Nolan’s from Detroit and he was in New York doing his first ever press run, a humbling experience for the 23-year-old kid. The press run was for his newest EP/album/project F-ck The Hype which is out everywhere on the Internet, literally. We hung out for a big chunk of the day and our first stop was to an 80s style diner near Union Square. It was me Nolan and DJ Soko, whose the founder of newly formed record label Left of Center who put out this project. When Soko wasn’t imitating Suge Knight and threatening people on the street or filtering what Nolan was going to say, it was a good time.
Nolan’s sound is grimy, gritty and a perfect representation of what Detroit’s like. His music takes you there but also gives you some other treats in the process. We’ve been supporting Nolan for a while so it was good to finally meet up in person and as such, this wasn’t so much an interview, it was just a dope conversation centered around music and rap.
So how’s New York been?
Nolan The Ninja: This is the first time I’ve done a press run for a project and having an itinerary to follow and it’s amazing, it’s always love when I come out to NY.
What’s been the favorite thing you’ve done so far while you were here?
Nolan The Ninja: Shade45. Only because I came up watching the interviews, the freestyles all the time so it’s like the fact that I was in the same room that all of that happened.
I got off the elevator and I saw Redman, said what up to him, saw Ed Lover from Yo MTV Raps!, I saw Lord Sear and Young MA. Also saw MC Serch, which was on the Halftime Show and I didn’t even know he was gonna be there. You know he’s from New York but he did radio in Detroit for awhile, WJLB, so I grew up on that literally and he was real heavy in the community.
So, do you like New York better than Detroit
Would you move out here?
Nolan The Ninja: Eventually, I would move out here to be quite honest with you, it’s just more up my cultural alley. It’s a lot to get used to which is why I want to be prepared when I do make that move out here as far the money an transportation, like hopping trains and all that. I’m not used to any of that. I love it out here, it’s good vibes and so many outlets.
Exactly and there’s just so many more people in the industry in New York or Los Angeles
Nolan The Ninja: You could bump into a celebrity just walking down the street, you can’t do that in Detroit, there they’ll try and duck from you.
When you first started rapping, did you have this style, this fast paced, dark style?
Nolan The Ninja: To be quite honest it was a litter faster [the pace of rapping]. I’ve always had that fast paced sh*t. It’s because when I’m rhyming i’m more fast paced but like when I make beats it’s more chill, it’s weird.
Being only 23-years-old, what made you like the boom bap style?
Nolan The Ninja: I didn’t grow up in that era specifically but when I was a kid I would see throwback videos on BET, back when they were actually showing videos and videos like that would always resonate with me. I remember hearing Kriss Kross’ “Jump” or like [A Tribe Called Quest’s] “Bonita Applebaum” and just old school stuff. When I got older and YouTube was created I would jog my memory and go back and try to find them joints. I remember when I was a kid I saw Shabba Ranks and the videos just bugged me out because this dude is ugly as f*ck but now I think’s it’s the illest sh*t in the world. He was fly, he was iced out in his white mansion, had hoes around fanning him with wooden fans, just fly sh*t. And I loved when A$AP Ferg did the “Shabba” song in honor of him because Shabba was on some fly sh*t. YouTube I owe a lot of credit, I could spend hours on there watching old stuff and some stuff is only on YouTube.
So you’ve got Hassaan Mackey on this project, Phat Kat, Finale, pretty much all Detroit guys
Nolan The Ninja: Yeah, all in house, it’s pretty tight knit and that’s how I usually do project and for one, I don’t have a huge budget to pay for verses. On the album I have OGs as well as young up and coming dudes and just kept it all in house. These are my peoples, I’m cool with these guys like Hassaan and I did the joint when he was in Detroit for Finale’s release party. I picked him up, brought him to the studio, we smoked out for hours and recorded the joint. We had some food and just parlayed, that’s how it’s gotta be.
So now we have DJ Soko step in for a little bit to add to the discussion.
What was the point in starting a label?
DJ Soko: Initially I was just going to shop [my first album] to labels but I kind of realized that I didn’t really need to and Fat Beats was down to do the distribution so I figured why not make this a label? I’m already friends with some of the illest people, from Detroit or not and I thought to have that platform and spread the good word about music, which I already had been doing as a DJ. Nolan was the first person I reached out to. We’d been friends for like 6 years and we’d always talked about working together I just didn’t have the platform. I was still getting my foot in the door with Mello Music Group and other things I was doing in the past. It was perfect timing to make it happen.
Nolan The Ninja: And another thing is, I believe in a vision. I feel like what Soko is doing with Left of Center is the right platform and vision to associate with my brand and what I’m trying to do. I felt like I can help, I felt like he could help me and together we could build from the ground up. Now mind you, Left of Center is his, I just feel it’s the right train to hop. I’ve been told by a few OGs that we’re onto something with Left of Center. We’re forming something that’s not there right now. Especially considering we’re both fairly young guys compared to some of the OGs. We don’t have PR behind us, we don’t have investors, we’re not paying anybody, it’s all organic. So if we’re making this all happen organically, i’m excited to see where we’ll be a year from now, 2 years from now, a couple projects from now.
DJ Soko: Not only are me and Nolan friends but I look at him as a business partner for the label, not just an artist.
What’s next for the label?
DJ Soko: More projects. After Nolan’s album we have Noveliss from Clear Soul Forces, I’m putting out his album as well. I’ve been talking with my booking agent over in Europe. We’re just trying to spread the music so they get hip to try to figure out some things for when album time comes. When it’s album time you have to have a tour behind it, you have to have a press run, you have to have all the things that are necessary to push the album.
Nolan The Ninja: Loosie dropping is dead. It’s not doing things because everyone’s doing that. You have to come out of the gate and make an impact and it might mean statistically but you need to prove why should someone listen to you. I feel like we’re proving that because 6 months ago, labels probably would’ve shook their head at the project we were trying to push. Now we have people on deck that know what’s going on.
How does it affect you that there’s so many other projects dropping the same week as you? Does it matter to you guys?
Nolan The NinJa: No it doesn’t matter because our stuff is going to do what it do regardless. That’s why people have fanbases and supporters. Everybody doesn’t listen to the same thing. Like Redman’s album dropped today, his supporters aren’t my supporters. Missy Elliott dropped a video yesterday, it doesn’t mean the world stops, everybody doesn’t listen to Missy.
Where do your fanbase is at now? How’s the support been so far?
Nolan The Ninja: I definitely feel like I have a nice little base of supporters that buy the music when it drops and support me and it’s definitely been growing over the past few months. Overseas they really f*ck with me.
DJ Soko: Things are also very strategic too. People knew me from the Gas Mask album (The Left) and now I put out a new project, I made sure to have Nolan on it, I made sure to have the video drop a week before his first single. I wanted to draw people in like “I know Soko from The Left, so I bought his album, I’m a fan of his album, now I see Nolan, I know Nolan from Soko’s album” and so on and so forth. That way he has his own organic fanbase that can be started from the ground up but at the same time there will be some listeners that are willing to check him out because they heard him on my album.
Nolan The Ninja: And another thing is, a lot of people just listen to stuff based off of co-signs. You got some people that only gave me a chance because I was on his [Soko’s] album and from there they like it or not.
DJ Soko: Nolan’s got a lot of co-signs now. Vinnie Paz, Mr. Porter, MC Serch, DJ Eclipse, Tony Touch, he’s got a lot of co-signs now.
Do you have any plans to work with any of these people?
Nolan The Ninja: Who knows what the future holds. Like I said we’re all about organic so if it happens it happens if it doesn’t it’s all love.
Have you done shows outside of Detroit/Michigan area yet?
Nolan The Ninja: I performed here in New York at Mercury Lounge, that was my first time performing here in New York, that was cool. I did A3C in Atlanta.
DJ Soko: He did my album release party, that was crazy.
Nolan The Ninja: I’m always doing shows. At home I’m usually doing one to two a month to put some extra money in my pocket but rarely is a show a slapper.
DJ Soko: I’m trying to get him to Europe this Summer. That’s going to happen, I’m going to speak it into existence. My goal is to do Noveliss’ tour for his album around the time Nolan’s album comes out. I ideally want to have both Nolan and Noveliss on the road because Noveliss’ album will be getting ready to come out and Nolan’s album will have come out.
Do you feel like Detroit’s hip hop community is tight knit? Do you know everybody in the community for the most part?
Nolan The Ninja: I’m getting there. Pretty much.
Who of the big names from Detroit haven’t you met yet?
Nolan The Ninja: Elzhi. Definitely want to meet Elzhi. That’s probably the only person. I met Royce, I met Black Milk. I think Elzhi is last on my list because you never see him. It’s a funny story because I had a session at Nick Speed’s house. Me and my homeboy went to his crib and we were playing Elzhi on the way there so we came in rhyming and Elzhi and Nick Speed says “Man you just missed him” I said “what you mean we just missed him, did he have a show or something?” and Nick said “no he was literally just at my house, he literally left about five minutes ago”. Well aint that bout a b*tch.
One thing I want to put on record about Detroit we don’t have media outlets in Detroit. We don’t have XXL, Shade45 etc. out in Detroit. The sites that we do have is real limited. I feel like Detroit needs to open up and embrace more of the artists that are coming out. We have Doughboyz Cashout, Icewear Vezzo and they’re doing their thing but that’s one realm of music in Detroit. We have guys like Kanye West in Detroit. We have guys like Nas in Detroit. We have very talented people in Detroit that aren’t getting the exposure because they’re not making what’s in demand. I feel like if that changed, Detroit would improve on a major scale. Once they open up and embrace others, that’s when they’re really going to prosper. I’ve never heard Clear Soul Forces on local radio, I’ve never heard Black Milk or Apollo Brown and these guys actually have joints that you could play on the radio that have a message behind it. I don’t always wanna hear about flossin’ and sh*t. Like, tell me something, speak to me, connect to my spirit.
Like I’m a young guy so I hear everything. Just like I know about Nas Illmatic I know about Rae Sremmurd. I watch MTV Jams, or BET Jams as it’s now called so I see the videos, I hear this stuff, so I know it. Like I have I not been singing Jumpman the last couple of days? I’m young, I’m embracing it.
*Nolan then proceeds to sing “Jumpman”*
DJ Soko: We’re not grumpy, out of touch hip hop purists, we just like good music and I personally think the whole spectrum needs to be represented.
There’s always going to be a niche for you guys I just feel it needs to be bigger
DJ Soko: I remember the days when I would see the “Back That Azz Up” video on Rap City but then a few videos later I would see like “One-Nine-Nine-Nine” with Common and Sadat X from Soundbombing 2. Like I would see a Mos Def or a Kweli video sprinkled into the rotation in between some Juvenile, Cash Money or No Limit.
Nolan The Ninja: It’s too one-sided, not enough balance.
Even in the 90s or 80s you had MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice but then you also had Wu-Tang clan.
Nolan The Ninja: Or you had a poetic prophecy like Nas but then you had gimmick stuff back then too. Like The Afros.
DJ Soko: I never liked PM Dawn
Nolan The Ninja: There’s been a bunch of groups that fell into obscurity after one LP.
But I never wanna be that one dude that’s like “I can’t hear anything that’s after 1998.
DJ Soko: It’s kind of weird how if you make a certain type of music, or you’re just into good music, people kind of put you in that box. Oh you don’t mess with the trap sh*t so you mad old school.
Before we wrap up, would you ever sign to a major?
Nolan The Ninja: Listen man, I’m never going to say never because you never know. I was, indie indie indie and it could still be like that but there’s ways of going major but still keeping ownership of your sh*t. Now when you say major are you talking about like a Def Jam records major or like a major distribution deal because we could do a merger as Left of Center with Sony RED. We keep our ownership and use them as a distribution and still get the same treatment as any other major label.
Let’s say you’ve got a really good offer to sign to a major but they want you to change up your sound a bit
Nolan The Ninja: Imma put it like this. I’m not signing anything that I’m not comfortable with no matter how good it may sound. You can wave a $50,000 advance in my face but if that means giving up everything in the future, it’s stupid.
DJ Soko: Like I said if anybody tries to bring anything to the table we’d do a merger.
Nolan The Ninja: Oh now he being like Suge Knight.
DJ Soko: I’m just saying it would be like what Roc A Fella did with Def Jam.
Nolan The Ninja: I don’t want to be told what to do when it comes to creation. I’ll take advice and things like that on how to move strategically but I don’t want nobody to tell me how to make this record.
With the Left Of Center, are you trying to create a specific sound for the label or do you want to be more diverse
Nolan The Ninja: I’m definitely bringing some refreshing sh*t to the table, nobody’s doing what I’m doing. There may be similarities but nobody has what I have and I got clarification about that from a major executive (TEASING US). That’s what I find exciting, bringing some refreshing sh*t. Like if you listen to some of my records like The Books or some of that stuff i’ve released over the past couple of years. No bassline type beats, not even a filtered bass line, just kicks. Refreshing sh*t is always going to win.