“He's probably the biggest direct influence in my life.” Novelist is talking about his uncle Rukai, the man responsible for introducing him to grime in 2002 when the genre was still in its infancy. Novelist, real name Kojo Kankam, was only just out of his, but, while most six-year-old boys were spinning Beyblades, he was being schooled by his uncle on a genre that had one of its most momentous years in 2015. Watching MCs clashing on DVDs was part of his revision, as was experimenting with production software. “It’s obviously not the norm for some people, but if you’re from the ’hood, that’s just what goes on,” he says. “People reading this interview will probably be thinking: ‘What the fuck, why was he doing music from so young?’” That may well be the case, but who’s complaining?
In 2014, at 17, the South London-born MC was being compared to ‘Boy In Da Corner’-era Dizzee Rascal due to his raw, rigorous and potent lyricism on Mumdance collaboration ‘Take Time’. Released on Rinse, it was a sharply unconventional breath of fresh air and probably would have been grime Tune Of The Year had Skepta & JME not pipped them to it with ‘That’s Not Me’. Still, it earned him bookings all over, from Outlook and Sónar to Glastonbury and Alexandra Palace, where he joined Mumdance as support for Major Lazer’s headline show last October. The ‘1 Sec’ EP (another Mumdance collab) on XL was the follow-up release, with a collaboration with ‘Harlem Shake’ producer Baauer penned and a spot on Chase And Status’ London Bars project with ‘Bigger Man Sound’.
He might have kicked it with a duo who have transitioned from underground club producers into globe-trotting megastars but although “making millions for me and my people to enjoy” is on his wish list, he won’t be taking a similar path trodden to urban pop stardom by Dizzee, Wiley and Tinchy Stryder in the late 00s. Potential record labels teeing up a big-money deal – on the condition he waters down his sound for commercial gain – for the teenager can expect a similar response to someone cold-calling to sell fake payment protection insurance. “I’d block the number,” Novelist says adamantly, in the lobby of Shoreditch’s Ace Hotel. “I feel insulted that people don’t rate what I bring to the world. I don’t like people who look at me as a business plan. What I do is art. You couldn’t have made Picasso do something other than what he felt. At least let me make my art first and show it to the world before you try and put a price on it.”
Minutes before, he welcomed us with the type of greeting you’d imagine happens with his DJ and “go-to guy”, Grandmixxer. “Yes bruv! You good?” he beamed, his mischievous, explosive smile spreading from cheek to cheek, embracing us with a thumb-clasping handshake. While we’ve got used to seeing him head-to-toe in Nike tracksuits, today he’s swapped the sportswear for a look not too dissimilar to Mekhi Phifer in 8 Mile: head topped with a thick-knit beanie, upper body cosied up in a baggy, quilted Joyrich jacket and lengthy rosary bead chain around his neck, it’s an outfit screaming confidence. We already knew he’s got bags of it – “one day I’m going to be the greatest,” a recent tweet reads – and it’s even more evident when we ask whether his wish to stay independent could restrict his career possibilities.
“What’s holding me back?” he asks. “Some people say ‘Ah, you might not get big, you need more promotion’. Why do I? I want people to care about me. I don’t want to be shoved in someone’s face so they like me because they think I’m cool. The music game is mine to lose, but how the hell can I lose if I’m not a loser? I’ll only be a loser when I start doing what they [the music industry] want me to do.”
He speaks with the authority of someone who was deputy young mayor of his home borough of Lewisham when he was 16. The main hardship growing up in one of London’s most diverse, youngest and lowest income boroughs he describes quite simply: “everyone was poor”. But despite admitting to being in “a few mad situations”, which he laughs off when we ask for details, he says he’s blessed with a tight-knit family that a lot of others in the area don’t have. His father lives in Ghana but, growing up with his Antiguan mother, he remembers rap, funk and “anything that sounded good” being played during his childhood.