INTERVIEW: Nick Grant discusses his breakout mixtape '88 and more.
One of hip hop's most pleasant surprises of 2016 has been Nick Grant's mixtape '88. A virtual unknown until the tape's February release, Grant impressed everybody with his tenacious and lyrical style, savvy ear for beats, and unshakable confidence on the mic.
Grant grew up in Walterboro, South Carolina and currently resides in Atlanta. A lifelong hip hop head, he is more indebted to and influenced by the currents that ran through the genre in the '90s than many of his contemporaries, and as such his music can provide an agreeable change of pace from Atlanta's forward-thinking yet often-repetitive trap scene.
Now, fresh off a tour with Dave East -- his first tour ever -- the 27-year-old rapper is ready to take his career to the next level. Andre 3000 is a big fan. You should be too. Read HNHH's exclusive interview with Grant below.
What was your family like growing up? What were you into before hip hop?
I’ve pretty much been into hip-hop my whole life since I was 6 years old when I was able to comprehend and understand what certain people were saying. I grew up with my mother playing these soul samples in the house. That was like her Saturday routine. Along with what my brother was playing and what my older sister was playing, you know, Tupac, Snoop, Jay-Z, Biggie, Frankie Beverly and Maze from my mother, Hall & Oates, Earth, Wind & Fire and so on and so forth. That was like the soundtrack to my life early on for real. I gravitated towards that and fell in love with it. Not just hip-hop, but music period.
I read somewhere that you got in trouble as a kid for bringing “Doggystyle” to class. Was that because of the cover or because of all the cussing?
Definitely because of the cover. For one, I stole it from my brother. I just took it for show and tell.
How old were you?
I was like six, that was first grade.
And you were 12 when you started rapping?
Yeah. My friends had their own setup in the neighborhood, in the project we grew up in. So one day after school I went down there with them, just to kind of see what they had going on, and it was like they had this PC and a sound recorder on it. They had this rigged microphone that you could buy and put into the hard drive of the PC and they sat the speakers in the middle of the mic – they would tape the speakers around the mic. That was their studio.
When [I went] there I was like, “Man, this is so ghetto.” So when I was in there, they were like, “Man you think you can do better? Go home tonight and write this rhyme.” So I went home and wrote a rhyme, came back the next day and rapped it. They were like, “Who wrote this for you?” So that was like my introduction into like the technical part of rapping. But I always loved hip-hop. My biggest influences were like Nas and Andre 3000, Jay-Z, Biggie.
‘88 is littered with hip hop references. You reference Mobb Deep’s “Up North Flow” at one point. You seem more attracted to the mid-’90s New York style.
Definitely. ‘Cause when I was coming up, they were like running hip-hop for real. Wu-Tang. In the 90s, you had every region doing their thing, but at that time it was really heavy east coast. Method Man, Redman, Biggie. It was heavy west coast too, but I was on the east coast, I was in the south, so that’s what we would listen to.
Clearly, the way you rap and what you rap about is very much rooted in that mid-90s. Do you ever wish you were born 10 or 15 years earlier so you could have been a part of that scene?
Absolutely. I feel like I was competing with them at the time. I probably couldn’t rap, but it was like they couldn’t get a line by me. Even at 6-7 years old, it was crazy to think that a 6-7 year old kid could understand not everything, but most of what these guys were saying.
So what was your first performance ever?
My first performance ever at a high school talent show.
How’d it go?
It was weird, man (laughs). It was cool. My girl at the time, she was doing a performance and she just brought me out with her because she was a singer.
Were the people feeling it?
It's pretty clear how an athlete gets better. Basketball players lift weights and put up shots. How do you improve your craft? What do you do to improve yourself as an artist?
I listen to a lot of different things. I don’t just limit myself to hip-hop music. I listen to jazz. I listen to Miles Davis, John Coltrane. Like I said, I was heavily influenced by these people early on so that music might have me look at the world a different way – to say different things. Just hang around family, hang around older people. Elderly people have so much wisdom they might school you. They might say one thing that could trigger a whole record. You gotta do that.
So you’d say listening is as important to practicing writing and rapping?
Definitely when it comes to getting better. I’m definitely about getting better and just being the best. I always say, “If you ain’t trying to be the best, then why are you doing it?” You know what I mean? That’s the number one thing.
Do you measure yourself more against your contemporaries, like the popular rappers of today, or are you still measuring against yourself against those older dudes? The Mobb Deeps, the Method Mans, the Biggies.
I’m a hard person to impress lyrically. You gotta say some like amazing stuff to get a reaction out of me. That’s just how I am as a hip-hop fan. Hip-hop wise, I just kind of take from people who give me those reactions like, “Ah man, play that back. Did you hear what he just said?” That would be like Andre 3000 or Nas or Jay-Z, you know, even Lil Wayne. Even Lil Wayne will say stuff I’ve never heard before. Cyhi the Prince. Those types of guys. So you kind of just take from them and add your own thing to it, you know? Just make it fit you and the best way you can is to keep moving. But also having a message in what you’re doing at the same time. Not just showboating lyrically, but have something to say with it.
Do you ever feel like you’re fighting a battle on behalf of lyrically-minded rappers?
I don’t necessarily feel like I’m fighting a battle, but I feel like people could say more stuff (laughs). They could speak about more issues, you know? I’m the type of person who can carry all the weight. I can say whatever I need to say cause there is so much stuff to talk about. So I feel like by them doing it and me doing it, it kind of like makes me look good in a way.
What do you do for fun when you’re not listening to hip-hop or in the studio? What do you do to just relax?
Man, I just hang around family. Like I said, just getting that wisdom from older people. Like right now, I feel like I’m in the prime of my life for real. So it’s all about work right now.
You know, fun comes last, so everything is about work. Even when I’m hanging with my family, I’m thinking about the next record or the next thing I can put out or the next sample. It’s kind of weird because it’s kind of hard to really enjoy stuff cause you’re always thinking about work but it’s fun at the same time. When you’re so focused, it’s hard to enjoy life but I think that’s a good thing.
What’s your writing process like? Do you write lyrics down? Or do you just go in the booth and vibe off the beat?
That’s like the number one way. It can just come from anywhere though. It can come from no beat though, just in my phone writing certain lines. I might hear somebody say something and I’ll be like, “That’s a dope rap line,” and I’ll get my phone or write it down. But mainly it’s what the beat inspires me to say to it.
Do you freestyle at all? If you rap as well as you do just going into the booth, you must be pretty decent at just freestyling.
Yeah, definitely I can. I can freestyle. I feel like you have to. I feel like to be the greatest emcee ever, you have to come from that school of freestyling and battling. All those other elements are a plus, but to be the greatest you have to know how to freestyle, how to battle rap. Because it’s all about competitiveness, and those are the early stages of being competitive in hip-hop.
How many projects had you released before you dropped ‘88?
I had released like – I had another rap name that I don’t really care to speak on – three other projects before this one. ‘88was kind of like me revamping my whole situation.
How was it revamped? What makes ‘88 different than those other projects?
Just discovering myself as an artist. That’s why I wanted to revamp everything. Then I changed my name to my real name. Just really a new chapter, but with better music and better quality.
What triggered you to want to to step up your artistry? Was there a moment of clarity?
Nah, definitely not. Because if you listen to that project, then you’ll really understand, “Okay I see what he’s saying.” I just think it’s better music, and learning yourself. I’m blessed to even be able to do that. If people were to caught on to the first one, it would have been hard to stick with me. Not saying it was terrible, but it’s just so much better now. And even if you listen to my earlier projects, it got better.
On ‘88 you have lines like “fuck the fame,” “don’t need the deal,” stuff like that. Navigating the industry can be really frustrating because making music is only twenty percent of the work. Do have a problem with the fame, social media promotion, or any aspect of rap besides actually rapping?
I think it’s pretty chill. It’s not pandemonium, but people recognize me and know my words. If I could keep [it like] this forever, and still make all the money in the world, that would be like the dopest shit. I haven’t reached that level where people go crazy and the fame gets frustrating, you know. But it’s definitely coming. But I’m just at a point where people know the words and respect it and love the art.
It’s all about the music right now. I just feel like when it becomes everything else [other than the music], that’s when it becomes frustrating.
You were born in 1988. Does that number have any significance besides being your birth year.
When I was coming up, people said that was a dope hip-hop year. You had Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick, Rakim, Biz Markie, all these guys making dope quality music. It wasn’t really a lot of whack rappers in that year putting out music, so you had all these elite rappers at one time. And it’s no coincidence I was born in that year.
Do you think that could have been because in retrospect no one remembers the whack rappers? There had to be a few.
I mean, I would say not as much in that year as any other year. That was like the first peaking year for hip-hop.
How do you think the value system in hip-hop has changed from 1988 to 2016?
Man, it’s not a lot of authenticity anymore. People just only care about the beats. Nobody cares about lyrics. Nobody’s passionate. Nobody takes their time with every word anymore. Nobody cares about feeding the people, having substance in their music. Even with the party records, [the rappers in 1988] had substance somehow. There’s a lot of things, man, that people don’t care about no more that they used to.
Do you think that’s a passing trend, or are you worried that has a more lasting deep influence?
I think it’s been like that for a while now. But people ain’t really caring about that type of stuff because all the stuff that’s going on in the world. It’s coming back though. Because the guys that are really rap are really saying something, like Kendrick and J.Cole, those guys actually talk about stuff, man. I was reading something earlier that Lil Wayne was saying like nobody’s trying anymore. I thought that was interesting him saying that.
You got Killer Mike, Big KRIT, and Young Dro on the mixtape. How did you link up with them?
That was just solely my manager’s thing. Linking us together and getting me those relationships. That’s what that was.
Were you able to spend time with them?
In the studio, we just vibed out. Outside of the studio, not so much because those guys are so busy. But definitely building with them in the studio and working with them, absolutely.
So, now that you’ve released ’88, what’s next for the rest of the year?
You know, if it were up to me, I would put out something every month. That’s just how I am as an artist. But fortunately, I got a team that helps me make better decisions, so I think it’s just staying consistent with the music. How could I be better? I think that’s all it is ‘cause the music lasts even when you gone. So I think it’s about that, making better music, outdoing your last body of work, or your last single, or your last verse. As long as I keep that going, I’ll be good.
Do you think the general sound on your next project will be different at all? ‘88 had a lot of old school beats. There was an Erykah Badu sample, a D’Angelo sample. Are you planning to evolve that sound?
I’m definitely going to evolve, but I’ll always stay in that lane because that’s who I am, I can’t really change that. But I think it’s going to be bigger. I just think everything’s gonna be bigger. There’s so much good stuff or good music that you could sample and create. Nobody done this shit. I look at things like a plus. Like I have to take all of that and do it, if you’re not gonna do it. And get all the credit for it, cool.
What artists that you respect have reached out and shown love?
Andre 3000, Nas, BJ the Chicago Kid. Talib Kweli.
You must be doing something right if those guys are giving you daps. Those are the only people you want to impress at the end of the day, your heroes.
Yeah man, exactly.
When can we expect the next project from Nick Grant?
Very soon, very soon.
How soon would you say?
I can’t say right now. I’m in the studio, though.
You just finished your first tour. Was that a challenge? Did you improve as a performer?
Absolutely. The performances on that tour were the best ever. We had Andre 3000 coming out in Dallas. He came out to watch me and it was equivalent to high school basketball player to Michael Jordan. I almost messed up a few times just performing.
Did you get to meet Andre after the show?
Oh yeah. He came for me.