“I Had To Absorb Everything and Learn:” An Interview with NOLAN

Pete Tosiello speaks to the rapper/producer about being a student of Detroit's hip-hop history and discovering a new sound on his latest project 'TALK SOON.'
By    March 20, 2021
Photo courtesy of Sidd Finch

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Few rappers arrive as fully formed as Nolan the Ninja did when, barely into his 20s, he unleashed 2015’s fuck the hype EP, a showcase of breathless, battle-tested rhymes and self-produced beats caked in Detroit soot. The gritty sonic distortion of 2016’s He(art) and 2017’s YEN, also released through DJ Soko’s Left of Center imprint, made for templates ideally suited to Nolan’s animated technique. 2019’s SPORTEE, released by Mello Music Group, tried on a more mature style while continuing to delve into the electro-soul sounds of his hometown.

2020’s TALK SOON, his first project recorded as NOLAN, marks a pivot for the rapper/producer. Where his earlier tapes relied on verbal acrobatics and Jeep-rattling percussion, the new album hearkens back to an even earlier ideal, with spacey drum patterns and quiet-storm vox reminiscent of a late-‘80s Rick Rubin production. The result is a remarkably intimate listen from an artist known for his brashness, a quintessential headphone experience for these unending indoor months. In March, I caught up with NOLAN by phone to discuss the record’s genesis.– Pete Tosiello

Looking back at your catalog, I’m impressed by how tapped into the Detroit scene you were at such a young age—you’d done tracks with Guilty, Phat Kat, and Finale by the time you were 19 or 20. How did you manage to establish yourself so early on?

NOLAN: Around 19, 20, I had just left college — I was attending Oakland University, it’s about an hour outside Detroit depending on where you live. So I was just going to school, I had to leave, I couldn’t afford it. School was usually my direction, so when I lost that, I was just kind of wandering aimlessly, trying to figure it out. I’d always done the music thing on the side, but I never took it serious because nobody around my way really did that.

But I just kept doing it, I got into beats, and I would meet homies around the way who were on the scene or whatever, homies around my age. They would teach me stuff and I would learn stuff from them. Eventually it got to a point where I had to learn the game and I was thinking, okay, well, what do I want to do with my music? I wanna do records, I wanna press LPs, I wanna go on tour internationally. Thinking like that, I was automatically looking at guys like Guilty and Phat Kat, who were always touring in Europe. Same thing with Apollo Brown and Elzhi, they were so tapped in overseas.

So that’s where my mind was early. I’m not really into all the extra familiar shit, I just kinda wanna stay in my little hip-hop box. I just wanna do my thing, and I still wanna travel and see the world while doing it. So naturally you’re gonna reach out to people who have experience with those things that you wanna do. It’s almost like a mentorship, but I wouldn’t even call them mentors, I get advice from everybody. I have a ton of mentors or consultants, I just take it all in. I was a poor country boy from the West Side of Detroit, man—coming to a scene, I didn’t know shit. I had to absorb everything and learn. Eventually that led to working with Royce and Blu. Up until 2016 I was just working a regular job, just trying to figure it out.

I want to talk a bit about the TALK SOON record. Most of your production from fuck the hype all the way up through SPORTEE had that SP-1200 snap to it, but this new tape has more of a digitized, early Casio sort of sound. What kind of production equipment did you use for TALK SOON?

NOLAN: I’ve been using Fruity Loops 9 for the last ten years, almost. I’ve got SP-404s, so I’ve been using that for the past few projects too. I’ve got a couple keyboards from over the years, little mini-controllers and stuff, but the main stuff is Fruity Loops 9 and SP-404s, those have been the two primary pieces for the past few years. It’s been Fruity Loops since the jump, that’s how I learned how to make music.

This project feels more like a headphone listen, which felt appropriate for 2020. But writing-wise, it’s definitely a fly-talking kind of record — was any of this freestyled?

NOLAN: Yeah, everything’s on the cusp — I was really trying to take it back to the basics of hip-hop. Even down to the cover. You look at the cover, it’s literally Too $hort’s Born to Mack, his first album. The reason for that being, obviously I’m a fan of Too $hort, he’s one of my favorite rappers, but just that era, when everything was so warm and had to have that bottom—and a lot of that was done with limited equipment, maybe an eight-track.

I remember reading DJ Quik did his first album on an eight-track or something. It’s really going back to the basics and stripping everything, and having the one-two, kick-snare-hat, just really on some hip-hop shit. Taking it back to the genesis of things, that’s always been my thing with this rap shit. Even with my older shit, I always tried to make thought-provoking shit, but now I’m really understanding how to approach the shit with how I want it to be so that it does connect with, say, whether it’s a person my age or younger, or even an O.G., someone my mom’s age or my aunt’s age. It’s not just loud and obnoxious and a bunch of curse words. It’s almost like an easy-listening type of experience.

I feel like it’s the freshest shit out! Obviously, it’s my shit, but once folks understand what I’m trying do with this NOLAN thing, because the Nolan the Ninja shit, that shit is dead. I’m still Nolan the Ninja obviously, some people will recognize me as that forever. I want to showcase more layers off of that. I put out TALK SOON completely independent, I put up all the money, I got the wax printed up, I didn’t need a middleman, so TALK SOON was also a growing experience for me, just being a professional in this industry. And really just knowing and understanding certain things and stuff that I would’ve needed help on in the past, I can do it myself and comprehend everything that’s going on. I can negotiate myself, I can be vocal about my stuff. I just want people to listen to it, absorb it. It’s nothing but a demo, it’s not the best thing since sliced bread, and if you listen to it and treat it as such, you’ll see what I’m talking about.

In the past, people have liked and supported my music, and I appreciate that. But I feel like I was young, I just had a lot of energy, and I didn’t know myself yet. I didn’t realize yet how I wanted to be heard, I just did what I thought would get me heard instead of just being myself and being organic and letting everything flow—which I’ve been doing since 2018, 2019, heavy. So TALK SOON is like a demo—think of a demo in like, ‘87, ‘88. Hip-hop shit, like a four-track. The artist did all the beats, he had a couple homies who came and helped him here and there, but it’s some knockin’ shit.

So in retiring the Nolan the Ninja name and brand—what inspired that? Did you feel like you were associated with a sound or persona you didn’t want to be associated with anymore?

NOLAN: The Nolan the Ninja thing, it kind of made a wave of its own. It just started off as my Twitter name, back when I first got Twitter back in like ‘09. At the time, me and a couple homies from school were on the Wii Ninjas. We were fans of Lupe Fiasco, that was our thing, we was on that shit. So that’s where the whole Nolan the Ninja thing came from, it just started as a Twitter name. But as I started doing local stuff, networking and building or whatever, people would book me for shows as Nolan the Ninja. Shit just kinda kept going.

But I’ve had people think I was talking about ninjas, like, I’m a ninja and I wear ninja suits. There’s people thought I was into like, samurai and all of that. No disrespect, I fuck with it. But my ninja, “the ninja,” came from Wii Ninjas and me and the homies being on the Lupe Fiasco wave back in like ‘08, ‘09. Now the shit’s like, verified and shit. Shit just happens. But my name is Nolan, I feel like that’s more fitting for what I’m trying to do currently and moving forward, and I feel like the more that I have to present with this NOLAN stuff will showcase more layers, and make people more cognizant of exactly what I’m trying to do instead of just rapping all the time, rapping over hardcore boom-bap beats or whatever. I ain’t did that shit since I was like, young young! I’m grown now, I wanna do other cool shit.

I’m doing everything man, working on music, on videos, I’m writing a TV show on the low. I’m going to finish my college degree within the next couple years. That’s why I need this shit that I’m doing to marinate the right way because I don’t want people to get it fucked up. And TALK SOON is the start of all of that. You might as well say it’s my first tape all over again. I’m more mature, the approach is just more sound. It’s not a young guy full of energy, just being a little curmudgeon. I’ve created my own sound.

TALK SOON is mixed the way it’s mixed because I was studying shit from Native Tongues, shit from the ‘80s—hearing that shit just hit me different, like, yo, this shit is bumpin’. I know exactly the feel now. I know how to make my shit, channel that energy—not copy it, but channel it. You listen to like, Digable Planets’ second album, how that shit is mixed. That inspired me to mix TALK SOON the way i mixed it. Low End Theory, that inspired me to mix it how I mixed it. Smif-n-Wessun Dah Shinin’, that inspired me to mix it how I mixed it. I’m not sitting with a top-notch engineer and he’s hookin’ it up. Im literally doing the vocal clipping, I’m turning the snares up and turning that shit down, im EQing this, flipping that. I’m doing all of it. I need it to hit the right way.

You put out a succession of projects with a few prestigious indies—DJ Soko’s label, through Fatbeats, and SPORTEE on Mello Music. Did any of those experiences inspire you to self-release TALK SOON?

NOLAN: Everything is a lesson. I didn’t come from shit, so i appreciate all the opportunities I’ve obtained, because I’ve learned something from each of them and I’ve also learned about myself, what I’m gonna go for and what I’m not gonna go for. Soko’s label was a step up from where I was prior to getting with him. Mello was a step up from where I was at with Left of Center. And the experience that I got through both of those, I can apply it to doing my own thing. The third time, it’s like, it’s on me now. I understand where the money needs to be located, I got it.

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