Not to blow my own cock or anything but I have a book out . It's called 'The Periodic Table Of Hip Hop' and has been bought out by Penguin/Ebury books. It is available at all the usual places and it looks and feels beautiful. Writing it is in the main reason I haven't been able to update my blog in a while. Teaching meant I had to write it in two weeks and though inevitably, when you send off a book as a pdf or wordfile you worry like hell about whether it's actually any good, holding it in my hand and reading it . . . . I'm proud of it. Things I'd change of course but, yeah, very happy.
Kirsty Allison at DJ Magazine did an interview with me about it. The piece is in DJ Mag issue 550 along with my regular hip hop column - here's an unexpurgated transcript.
KA: Could you explain the periodic table of hip-hop...how?
NK: It’s my view of who is important in hip hop history, arranged with each artist forming one element in a traditional periodic table. Elements are related upwards and downwards and there’s a broad chronological sweep to the table. You can read the book cover to cover or dip into it at any point but it’s as much about the relationships between certain artists as it is about their stories. It’s geeky, but it’s also a personal and critical view of hip hop history so gets a bit polemical at times. I expect people to moan massively about names that are missing, there’s tons that broke my heart cos I had to leave them out. I didn’t want to write just an official ‘guide’, more an unofficial perspective.
You've been editing hip-hop on DJ Magazine since when? Do you know everything about hip-hop?
I think Carl asked me to start round about 2000? Fifteen years, blimey. Like any fan there are gaps in my knowledge which roughly coincide with my own tastes. My knowledge is biased towards the kind of hip hop I’ve always liked which tends to be the less-slick, grittier stuff. In the 90s I was firmly fixated on the East Coast, right now, I’m listening mainly to underground labels from all over the world and am happily ignorant of most of the shit that gets palmed around on Datpiff etc
How did you begin? Melody Maker?
Yup. Wrote them a letter bitching about how they weren’t covering hip hop or black music properly. They printed it as letter of the week, asking ‘do you think you can do any better?’. Being a cocky little git at the time, I thought I could, phoned them, they got me doing a few sample live reviews, all grew from there. No way on earth would anyone get hired by a music mag like that anymore. I was jammy.
You must have been the only non-white working at IPC, other than Dele Fadele...? What battles did you have to fight?
Initially always a battle to get hip hop covered, or at least covered properly. Later, a battle to get black faces on the cover, but that was a battle in which I was joined by others on the staff as well. It did strike me as odd than in 30 odd floors of a tower block devoted to magazine making, me and Dele seemed to be the only non-white staff who weren’t pushing a tea-trollery around. I don’t see them ratios as having improved much since.
Do you have a reader in mind when you're writing?
Yes, and I wouldn’t dream of guessing who they are. The only thing I assume is that they don’t want talking down to, that they’re reading because they enjoy reading, and therefore it’s my responsibility to speak on the level with them and to avoid cliche and to boost the beautiful and disdain the un-beautiful as much as possible. That’s my responsibility as a critic, my only responsibility. To love the reader, whoever they are, and treat them with respect.
You recently said that the music industry, and Big Society, is racist, The White Rock Defence League - &c - how does hip-hop fit into this in current times?
Well hip hop, like all essentially black means of expression, has to overcome major hurdles all the time to be treated with any kind of equivalence to mainstream white pop. That goes all the way from getting signed, getting playlisted, getting covered in the press, and also the nature of that coverage when it’s achieved. Nothing has changed in the 20-odd years since I started. If anything it’s getting worse. Still, nigh-on 40 years after its birthpangs, hip hop still has to overcome the prejudice that it’s ‘not real music’.
Do you DJ, or is it a strict trainspotters need to analyse? What is the drive? Where does the drive come from?
I have DJ’d in the past but really my motivation comes from being a music fan, a writing fan, and a fan of music writing. The drive comes from feeling you have something to say that no-one else is saying, and that you have a unique way of saying it. The drive also comes from always feeling that the music you love is being ignored while some terrible shit is getting boosted. If the media continues to ignore what I think it should be covering, I have to continue writing.
There's often a fairly agreed history of hip-hop, from Kool Herc and the old battles in the projects with two DJs at either end of the pitch, through the different areas of New York, then the west coast battling in...to what extent is this a personal account?
I have an ellipitical relationship with that agreed history. It was important to me that the book really reflected MY experience, because I couldn’t conjure some false experience or life I never had - I don’t think that experience, though by nature an isolated one, is one no-one else had. Fundamentally, my relationship with hp hop has primarily been of a listener, someone who listens to alot of it, thinks about it alot, lets it soundtrack alot of my life. So hip hop for me is a way more introverted thing than an extroverted thing. Less about clubbing, DJing, being out there, more about being in here, listening, obsessed. With hip hop I’m just a fan, a listener, and it’s crucial to me that I’m at a slight remove from where hip hop comes from. I’m not American, I’m a spod from Coventry. My enjoyment of hip hop is partly fantasist, but partly political as well - hip hop, growing up, was the only music that seemed to touch upon the issues of race & identity that I was facing as a teenager. But for me, crucially, hip hop didn’t give me a sense of community as much as it gave me a way of figuring out what the hell it means to be non-white in the West, what the hell it meant to be me. Sounds overly heavy to put that much on music, but it was precisely that heavy. If it was all just ‘fun’, I wouldn’t have been so hooked.
What are your fave entries?
I hope I wind up fans of Jay-Z, P.Diddy, Eminem, Tupac - I don’t think what I’m saying about them is ‘controversial’, especially if you’re judging something purely artistically and not on how ‘big’ it is, but I like the idea of people being outraged by fair appraisals rather than hyperbole. Enjoyed writing about elements of hip hop technology and the pre-hip hop influences like Watts Prophets and Iceberg Slim because for me those artists are far too ignored and unheard.
It's great that Missy's in here but why no Roxanne Shante. Bit gutted there aren't more women in the book, no TLC, no Beyonce, no Destiny's Child, I'm not saying they're hip-hop - yet you do have Nicki Minaj, but no Iggy Azalea, or Azealia Banks - is it a book about rap? is hip-hop a man's game? YAYA- Salt n Pepa - please talk a lil about women in hip hop....
R’n’b groups like TLC etc deserve their own book - this is a book about rap music. I knew I’d get it in the neck about this but at the same time, I wanted the book to honestly reflect hip hop and inevitably that means women are marginalised. Hip hop, like all pop music genres, is sexist at root. The next revolution in hip hop will be when women take equivalent space. There were several female artists I considered including but to tell my story I didn’t want to crobar them in just to tick off an agenda. The ones I have included were pivotal. People like Shante, Latifah, Nefertiti, Lady Of Rage etc are mentioned but don’t get their own entries - people like Iggy and Azealia don’t make the cut for no other reason other than I think they’re shite.
It's part of a series, Ian Gittins doing heavy rock etc - did you talk through your approaches?
I’ve worked with Ian for over 20 years so we did discuss how we were going about it - for both of us though, what was initially a perplexing format started to make real sense as we got into the writing. The fiddly bit started happening when we had to jiggle our table structure around to fit what we wanted to write about. Most difficult jigsaw puzzle ever.
OK, enough self boosting - here's the music I've been wanting to talk about but haven't been able to because of time but can now. All of these are making 2015 better and better and better.
COMMODO, GANTZ, KAHN
(Deep Medi Music)
Deliciously dark deep dubstep, suffused with arabic textures and tones but British music that could only have been made now, perfect for late night aimless drives around the ring road, squinting through your tears and letting the neon smear. Makes the dark press down harder. Makes the rain slow to a timelapse crawl. Cinematises your life.
(Top Dawg Entertainment)
So now that folk will have to start saying that Kendrick's overrated (inevitable result of being a genius) folk will also have to start saying who's the most underrated member of the TDE crew. For me that's a toss-up between Schoolboy Q and the mad-overlooked Isaiah Rashad (who is btw BACK with 'Nelly' - hypnotic, heavy, soulful meditative rap music which suggests whatever's about to drop won't puncture the magic, will only amplify the intrigue - and if you missed 2014's sublime 'Civilia Demo EP' and 'Pieces Of A Kid' mixtapen catch up pronto) BUT have to say I'm absolutely lovin' the Jay Rock newie. It's not the most important or worthy album of the year but for me it's the most pleasurable, the most instant - has firmly booted Papoose's similarly rushed/ravishing 'You Can't Stop Destiny' out of my car stereo. On tracks like 'Vice City' it goes beyond pure pleasure, does a new thing with narrative, the sotto voce rejoinders to every line pulling apart every cliche, giving every cliche's truth extra weight. The external and internal voice depicted in a way that's structurally compelling, musically tripped out and oozing in all the right places. Get the album. It still sounds like it could've done with just a little more time, another couple of months finessing and sequencing it properly, fleshing it out a little so its narrative makes more cohesive sense BUT when it hits it hits gloriously, intoxicatingly, addictively hard. Perfect for car, home and head.
(CMSN/David Burd Music)
No, not just for old farts like me missing 3rd Bass. For fans of Jewish comedy and hip hop everywhere and there are fans of Jewish hip hop and comedy everywhere. David Burd initiated his rap career to get noticed as a comedian but 'Professional Rapper' reveals way more than just a dilletante's doodling. It really is funny as fuck - there are several moments on PR where you will laugh out loud, clasp your hand to your mouth with the shock and the gasping guffaws. It works precisely because Burd pushes his persona to the point where that rub between exploiting hip hop for comedic ends and using comedy for hip hop ends gets nice and frictive and blurred. It recalls Black Sheep in its mordancy and oddballness - and the music is refreshingly free of the kind of boombap cliches you might expect with this kind of content - it's up to date, occassionally engagingly unique, often deliciously direct. The cut-ins of phone-conversations with his lovely Jewish mom & pop are heartwarmingly lovely - you start feeling as if you're in on this outrageous thing he's creating, a friend giggling along with each twist and turn he takes. And he's a great rapper, fast, funny, able to absolutely create the stop-start wanings and wiltings of real conversation. On the astonishing ten-minute 'Pillow Talking' he conducts a post-coital discussion with himself that accelerates into arguments, philosophical digressions, logical absurdities - you keep listening tremulous, wondering how long he's going to keep documenting this, feeling intrusive, unable to turn away.
Along Came Joyner
Something of a companion piece for me to Lil' Dicky, but where LD you feel will probably be little more than a curio, East-Coast new-comer Joyner Lucas sounds too ambitious to be a footnote or forgotten by 2016, sounds already like he should be a star. 'Along Came Joyner' is flush with fantastic beats, incredible wordplay and stories, a beautifully hung together sub-narrative set of skits about he and his friend's journey to planet earth and comes across as one of the most cohesive, dazzling mixtapes of the year. A reminder of a time not so long ago when mixtapes at their best were not cameo-stuffed yawnfests (how many fuckin' mixtapes do I have to run across where the tracklisting is in alphabetical order - dead giveaway how lazy the culture's getting) but were focussed free expression, joyous because entirely unfettered by industry interference. I pray that Lucas can keep his talent intact, his art as smart and sumptuous and staggering and catchy-as-fuck as he manages on this tape, either on his own, or despite the record-company interest that is bound to be happening by now, that will doubtless be compromising his broke-assed brilliance even as I type. Music and words that are frantic with detail. Absorb yourself until he gets signed and it all fucks up.
(Left Of Center)
L'ORANGE Ft. KOOL KEITH
(Mello Music Group)
DR YEN LO
Days With Dr Yen Lo
In that order, ascending, the best underground hip hop albums of the year thus far I'd say. Soko and Simpson do nothing groundshaking but do it brilliantly - both albums ear-razingly pungent hits from the leftfield of rap, instant heat and frantic fury. For this Kool Keith obsessive I think 'Time? Astonishing!' is one of the best things he's done in a long while - L'Orange cooks up a truly mindbending broth of twisted jazz, weed-infused funk, a production that like a fragile labarynth gives way at the slightest touch to whole new antechambers of intrigue you hadn't known existed. Keith's words, as ever, only deepen that intrigue. Dr Yen Lo is Ka spitting some of his most moving and captivating rhymes yet, over this astonishing almost-beatless backdrop (I'm reminded of DC Basehead at times) of chromatic shadow and still, almost stately Gil Evans-style arrangement. Anything that heftily samples the dialogue from 'Manchurian Candidate' (the original natch) is going to entrance me but Ka really spins some astonishing tales, and some revelatory raw honest rhymes here, over music absolutely unlike pretty much anything else in hip hop history. Don't let 2015 pass you by without hearing it.
(Honorable mentions before we leave hip hop alone go to Verbal Kent's 'Anesthesia' set -which I know I should know better than to dig but can't resist - and the strange realisation that I'm actually digging everything I'm hearing from Jeezy's 'Church In The Streets'. I know. I'm kind of freaked out by that as well BUT there's no denying it. Wouldn't go so far as to say he's learned from his recent brushes with the law, more a change of focus, an intent for liberation that pushes his lyricism a bit deeper than normal, a sense of purpose beyond big bucks. This, and the brilliantly odd first single 'GOD' make for an intriguing glimpse at something different for a talent who'd spread himself way too thin. 'Gold Bottles' is ostensibly a party track, but there's something foggy, as if glimpsed through a dream haze, about the festivities. Something that ties money, to gold, to chains, to excess, to more and more chains. Need to hear it in context of the album but have never felt that about Jeezy before — he might just finally pull on my time a little longer than a single.)
My two fave slabs of racket this year thus far - Khost I've written about here but haven't had a chance yet to say that Monolord's 'Vaenir' is just sublime. Last year's 'Empress Rising' was a stunning salvo of pure, no-frills, doom - suffused with tons of atmosphere but never losing its brain-pummeling purpose. 'Vaenir' is even better, somehow they've managed to better the fantastic production of last year's bomb and craft something that pushes and pulls and encrusts and landslides you like nothing else. Grand Magus, Entombed, Electric Wizard all spring to my mind but to be honest I prefer Monolord to all of them. Unstoppable as fungus. Engulfing as fungus. Powerful as fungus. Sorry, watched a fungus documentary last night. That stuff is incredible.
OMGodfathers - what the fuck are music critics talking about saying this album isn't 'inventive' enough? Fuck's sake - always with the fucking 'invention' - what's wrong with actually being comfortable with your voice, with yourself? What's wrong with the comfort that comes from hearing someone in control of their powers? What's wrong with knowing what you're getting and loving it? Sick to the back teeth of this expectation that every album must be a progression - although those that don't think 'Woman', her first album since 2011, is a move on for Scott, is a refinement and purification of her brilliance, need to clean the shit out of their ears. For me she's eradicated all waffle and wibble, is crafting her art into an incisive, gorgeous jewel - far more than her more 'exploratory' early work, 'Woman' is a truly great r'n'b/soul masterpiece for 2015. It just keeps hitting you with melody and grooves. It grows until it towers. And then leans in for the dig in the ribs, the poke in the heart, the arm over the shoulder. It's music that lives in your house, takes over rooms and flows up and down the stairs and rings the walls and keeps the whole family bumpin'.
There's no wastage on 'Woman'. It's all diamond tight, beautifully produced (mainly by Andre Harris) and crucially it's an album for grown ups. Folk who need and want to hear hooks, belief, confidence. I recommend it to anyone who had a heart or a funky bone in their body. Love it.