London rapper Nick Brewer can't help being honest. Steering away from the vacuous, the raucous and the bravado that often come with hip hop, his lyrics are true to his experiences and values. We asked him about growing up in London, how grime influenced him, and what sets his moral compass.
Nick Brewer has the hiccups, and it's my fault. I was early for our interview, meaning he rushed through his lunch. And yet he's the one apologising to me. “I’m so sorry,” he laughs, “I had to wolf down my food, forgive me.” It’s lunchtime at Island Records’ headquarters in West London. We’re sitting in a glass-walled conference room inside the label's office, walls adorned by the Island logo. Outside, different offices blast different artists, the music clashing whenever someone opens one of the soundproof glass doors – Rihanna’s new album dominates. In my line of sight, I can spot what looks like a metal-made portrait of Amy Winehouse, framed Taio Cruz discs propped up against a wall, a juke box offering up Tom Waits, Cat Stevens and Grace Jones, and a Disclosure concert poster.
Nick Brewer’s music stands out. It’s different. Today, he looks slick, in black Pumas, jeans and a green button-up jacket. We’re talking about Berlin, my hometown: “The first time I just went for fun, with my friends. And it was a lot of fun. There’s quite a big hip hop scene over there. It reminded me of London in a lot of ways… a bit like Shoreditch. The second time I went to finish the song with Bibi. She was in the studio there working on Rihanna’s album.” Bibi, of course, is Bibi Bourelly, and the song is their 2015 collabo, Talk To Me, unavoidable last autumn, when it hit the UK Top 20. I ask him what the success of that single meant to him. He laughs: “Well, my family now think I have a career! It’s funny what your song getting played on the radio means to some people. All my aunties and uncles went from asking me when I would get a real job to saying, ‘Oh, I heard you on Radio 1, you’re really doing this, aren’t you?’. It was the first song I really pushed, and the first one that showed a fun side to my character. Many of the tracks I’ve done videos for are mellow, introspective. I hope I can make the most of the doors that Talk To Me opened for me.”
He’s right – the majority of his music is earnest, if not in sound then certainly in content. Born in Leytonstone, Nick fell in love with grime at a young age. He grew up writing rather than performing, making a few mixtapes before being contacted by the producing and songwriting team The Confect in 2009. “I wasn’t even taking music seriously, I was at uni, studying History. I wasn’t making music, but I was rapping on a few of my friends’ stuff, just for fun. And then The Confect contacted me. They said, ‘We think you really have got something, please come to the studio’. And I didn’t want to! I think I was really scared to put myself out there as an artist. But they pushed me and pushed me. Now we’ve been working together for over six years, and they still produce the majority of my stuff today.” Does he think he would be where he is now without them? “Nah. As corny as it sounds, they really believed in me before I believed in myself, or even felt like I had something to say. They saw something before I did. They’re really important in my musical journey. Initially we both had loads of ideas and talent, but none of us really knew what we were doing. But because we didn’t know what we were doing, we weren’t scared of making mistakes. There’s a freedom in not knowing what you’re doing, and we were able to work out what we wanted to do by what went well and what didn’t.”
“There’s a freedom in not knowing what you’re doing”
While he doesn’t consider himself a grime MC, its influence is undeniable, both musically and personally. His video and song for Young Man Standing are an ode to the genre. “There used to be an under 18s rave called Young Man Standing that my mum would never let me go to, because it was in Hackney, and a few kids got stabbed at these things. But it was where all my MC heroes assembled; I can’t tell you how much I wanted to go! To say grime hasn’t inspired and impacted me would be ludicrous – Wiley, Kano, those guys are hugely important to me, musically.”
Grime wasn’t what got him into rapping, though – Eminem’s Stan did that. “I always loved stories - reading, trying to write my own. That’s what drew me to hip hop, it felt like people were telling stories. Eminem paints a vivid picture in such an emotive way. That meant a lot to me. I would always go for a book over a movie because I’m able to create my own picture. Rap is like reading a story. You don’t want to stop at chapter one. Chapter 8 will reveal something more. Artists like J Cole and Drake, they can build that bigger picture.”
He was always going to differ from mainstream rap, though: “In terms of what Eminem was talking about, I never wanted to be like him. In many ways it’s cool and very clever, but it’s also very dark, and I didn’t want to go down that route.” His lyrics differ from many other rappers – no bragging, no swearing, no checking-your-morals-at-the-door. “I used to be a youth worker, and I’d always play the kids my music to get their opinion. They’d tell me, ‘You’re alright, but you’re not greezy, you’re not gritty, you’re not talking about the hood’. That always challenges me; if I was talking about that stuff, it might impress you, but it’s not what I’ve experienced, it’s not genuine. I want to be so good, and for what I’m saying to resonate so much, that no one can deny that I’m saying something of worth. It challenges me to be as good as I can.”
That doesn’t come easy to him, speaking about being “so good”. He slips into self-deprecation a lot. “English people are good at that, we don’t really like to big ourselves up,” Nick smiles. “People are often more aware of what they’re bad at. We’re afraid to say what we are good at, because we don’t want to be arrogant. I never used to be able to say I’m a good rapper, but now I feel I can confidently say that. Not because I want to big myself up,” he’s quick to add, “but because once I believe that, I can write something that actually means something.”
Growing up, he used writing to overcome his shyness. “I had a lot of ideas and thoughts, but I didn’t have the confidence to talk about them. With writing, I could just write it down and put it away. Maybe show my mum. Show my sister. It gradually helped build my confidence. When I write, I can be a bit inside,” he adds, gesturing towards his chest.
“It’s easy to become a slave to people’s opinions”
Family helps, but so does his faith. “If I wasn’t a Christian, I think I’d be a depressed person. I can be quite up and down, and in music, you put yourself out there so much – how it’s received dictates how well you do. So it’s easy to become a slave to people’s opinions. You find validation in which tracks do well. But my validation doesn’t come through that. Of course it’s important, but I don’t feel like God loves me any more or any less if a song does really well or does really bad. I know that He loves me regardless of whether I’m a good rapper or a bad rapper. It’s still a challenge; sometimes I can find myself falling into ‘I need this person to like me’, and I think if I didn’t have my faith, that would take over.”
Growing up in London moulded his musical outlook. “When I was growing up, my circle of friends, we’d always be making little mixtapes and MCing. That’s just what we did in our spare time, and I don’t know if I would’ve necessarily done that if I was from somewhere else. I might’ve been a guitarist in a band or something. Growing up, I knew someone that knew someone that knew Kano, so it felt very close to home. It felt real. I have a lot of family up North in Yorkshire, and as a kid I’d play them some rap stuff I was listening to and they’d say ‘What the hell is this?! They couldn’t relate to it.”
And he likes to share his love of hip hop. Nick’s new single Never Say Never featuring Sinead Harnett is another in a long list of collaborations he has been a part of. “I love working with other artists. It always challenges me and pushes me to be more creative. It’s amazing getting to work with people that I’m a fan of, like Shakka, Stormzy and Tink.”
Working with so many different artists means he’s right on the pulse of which new ones to look out for, too. “There are so many talented artists coming out of London at the moment. In terms of rappers, guys like Barney Artist, Jay Prince, Loyle Carner, they’re making really good, heart-felt hip hop. And great vocalists, too – Ray BLK, Jordan Rakei. London’s a really exciting place musically at the moment. It’s inundated.”
“It took me a long time to accept that I was a rapper”
At this point a man walks past the glass wall we’re sat behind, doing a gun-hands-wine from one end of the room to the other – we burst out in laughter. He’s the man that signed Nick. They’re currently working hard to complete his debut album. The title? Recreation. “It has two meanings, it’s a play on words. It took me a long time to accept that I was a rapper, and I used to always say I was just rapping for fun. I didn’t want people to think I was taking it seriously because then I was setting myself up for failure. ‘Nah, it’s just recreation’. Also, in the past I’ve always tried to grow myself into what people wanted me to be, and recreate myself, but then I realised that this is what I’m here to do and I don’t need to try to be anyone else, that’s when things started happening for me.”
Even with all that is happening for him at the moment, our conversation circles back to self belief: “I’ve realised that a lack of self belief is a very selfish way of looking at life, because you’re just thinking about yourself. I was never opening myself up to the idea that what I do could help someone else. I never thought anyone would care about what I had to say, but people have told me that words I’ve written have meant something to them.”
Exuding a sense of morality and concern, he speaks with a huge amount of animation and genuine excitement (his eyes sparkle when discussing Nas’s NY State of Mind), but when he has to speak about himself, every word is carefully chosen.
Nick Brewer is a whole lot of things – polite, genuine, great at telling stories (he’s got one about running from a kid wielding a knife and an oven glove that will make you laugh and gasp), thoughtful, confident about some things and insecure about others. He really needn’t be. Before we say our goodbyes, I ask what he wants his career to do. Money, girls, notoriety? Nah. “I want young people to believe that they can create a thing that might spark a change here or a reaction there. We can all do something and make a difference.”