Words by Martin Connor
Dr. Dre, working with Eminem. Eminem, working with 50 Cent. Is the newest protégé-mentor relationship people will be talking about for the next few years the one between Brazilian-American rapper NIKO IS and living G.O.A.T. Talib Kweli?
That’s certainly what Kweli seems to think, as the living legend himself has stated, “NIKO IS is one of the greatest emcees I’ve ever heard.” That might be a good enough endorsement for you to leave this page right now and check out the unique, samba-tinged music of NIKO IS.
Now that you’re back, you should know that Niko himself certainly appreciates the compliments: “I feel absolutely blessed and overwhelmed by the love and the reception. Some people see what we’re doing, and I’m very thankful to Kweli for seeing it.” But, somehow, this emcee with Orlando roots manages to take it all in stride and stay levelheaded: “This music happens to sound powerful to some people, and some people get it. And I’m blessed for that, but it’s not really about me… I’m just a student of the game.”
Kweli certainly has an eye for up and coming talent; Kanye West contributed multiple beats to Kweli’s 2001 album Quality, years before Kanye’s debut College Dropout album won the Chicago producer-emcee his first solo Grammy award. With that kind of endorsement, there needed to be an interview.
So, just hours before a recent Florida concert, WatchLOUD caught up with Niko and Kweli to hear how their current tour is going, how they work together, and what Niko’s plans are now that his newest album, Brutus, has dropped to rave reviews.
WatchLoud: Talib, you’ve said that, “NIKO IS…is one of the greatest emcees I’ve ever heard.” What do you hear in his music that makes you love it so much?
Talib Kweli: I’m blessed to live a hip hop life, and that’s allowed me to come across and work with phenomenal MCs early, before most of the world gets to experience them. This has happened with artists like Kanye, Jay Electronica, Kendrick, J. Cole and many others. The passion that NIKO IS puts into MCing reminds me of the best of this bunch. When I realized that he’s also trilingual (English, Portuguese, Spanish) and can dip in and out of these languages during incredible off the head freestyles, I was sold.
Niko, Kweli also has these other direct quotes about you: “This album [Brutus] is going to change the game.” “NIKO IS goes off.” But nothing seems to beat that final one: “NIKO IS…is one of the greatest emcees I’ve ever heard.”
NIKO IS: Jesus Christ!
When you hear endorsements like that from a living legend, how does that make you feel?
NIKO IS: First of all, I feel absolutely blessed and overwhelmed by the love and the reception. Some people see what we’re doing, and I’m very thankful to Kweli for seeing it. But I don’t really take it like that. He understands the music. I’m just a medium for this music. This music happens to sound powerful to some people, and some people get it. And I’m blessed for that, but it’s not really about me. I’m just a byproduct of my past. I’m just a student of the game, and I’m just trying to learn as much as possible because I feel like we need it. As a rapper, I’m slowly coming. It’s been coming for a while, and this year is the beginning of it.
So you’re saying that people haven’t even seen what you’re capable of yet?
NIKO IS: No, absolutely not. And I’m aware of that. That’s cool, because I don’t really give a fuck. I don’t care anymore about that. I’m blessed. I’m having this interview with you, and you know my stuff, and I’m on a tour bus in Miami with beautiful weather, playing rap songs. I don’t really care what people think. I’m just really blessed. They’ll get it. You can’t expect a generation that eats McChicken and Taco Bell, all of these fake foods, you can’t expect them to appreciate chicken hearts. And that’s a perfect metaphor because I’m from Brazil, and I eat chicken hearts on the regular. You tell somebody that and they’re like, “Ew, chicken hearts?” Because they don’t understand, but you don’t understand the complexities of the chicken heart: how you cook it, the sauce you dip it in, and it’s not even like some wild shit, like, “This shit is weird.” It’s just delicious food, but it’s different. You can’t expect somebody who is content having Taco Bell, or that KFC Double Down sandwich bullshit…People eat those things! They love them. They go to Taco Bell all the time, they tweet about Taco Bell, so if you put chicken hearts in front of them, they might not like it. They might not understand it at first until they find it in the right context. I know a lot of people who don’t rock with my music. I know a lot of famous people who have heard it and they’re like, “Oh, I don’t get it,” because it’s about context. But then there are these other famous people who get it because they heard it in the right place at the right time. Everything is about context. So I’m not even tripping on that. I’m just blessed…and go eat chicken hearts!
You and Kweli have a show tonight in Miami, right?
NIKO IS: Absolutely!
How is it performing in your home state? Is it different at all from performing in other places?
NIKO IS: Performing in Florida is always an incredible feeling. I love the state, but I’ve been blessed. Everywhere is crazy. You’d be surprised. The smaller cities are showing a lot of love, and they’re enjoying what we’re doing, places I never thought possible. You tend to underestimate the smaller places and then you get there and you’re like, “Wow, This is crazy!” The love is everywhere.
So how has the tour gone so far?
NIKO IS: The tour is going great. We’ve sold out a majority of the shows. It’s an honor to be with Kweli and Immortal Technique, and Chino XL.
A lot of times, rappers come off tour with people and they find that their music has been affected by the people they’ve been on tour with. Do you see your tour with Talib Kweli and Immortal Technique affecting your music at all in the future?
NIKO IS: Oh, absolutely not. I don’t really get affected by anybody like that. I’m in my own world already, and I’m blessed to work with my own producers. We don’t really make American rap. So nothing that happens really affects what we do…I definitely get inspired by their work ethic. But I’m going to be me no matter what, no matter where I’m at.
One of those producers you work a lot with is Thanks Joey. He did a lot of work on your albums Good Blood and Brutus. What is it you hear in his beats that makes you want to go in on his songs?
NIKO IS: Me and Joey been working together for 12 years. We started doing this together, started battle rapping in the halls and shit. We did this together back then, so we developed a sound. This is art to me. This isn’t just, “I’m going to go in, get some money, and be out.” You keep speaking in a lot of general stuff, “A lot of rappers do this,” and I feel you, but we’re thankfully not in that world. I don’t really care about the outside world. I just want to make the best music possible, and meet incredible people doing it too. It’s a blessing to be here.
I can remember the very first time I heard your music. What really blew me away was just the sound of your voice, man! I don’t know how you do it, but it’s so smooth and mellow.
NIKO IS: Hell yeah!
That makes me think of other rappers with incredibly distinctive voices, like Chali 2na from Jurassic 5. You would never mistake him for any other —
NIKO IS: That man has the best voice!
Yeah, he should do radio talk shows or something. You reference a lot of the other rappers that might have helped shape that unique sound you have. On your song “Cherry Beamer,” you restyle some 50 Cent lines from his Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ album, and on “Floss,” you rework some Jay-Z lines. What other rappers are you listening to nowadays?
NIKO IS: This music is our culture, you know what I’m saying? So I was brought up in hip-hop. I got interviewed the other day and this guy is like, “So what was your first introduction to hip-hop? You don’t really strike me as a hip-hop dude…” I was kind of surprised, because I figured this shit is international. Universal. I know a lot of people do it for the wrong reasons, but for a lot of people, this is not like a choice. It just is what is. I want to mix all the cultures and the music. Like on “Floss,” and I’m referencing Jay-Z, little things like that remind people, “Look, yo, this is very predominant in my music, and always will be.” Those little feelings…when I hear that song, I’m like, “Aw, yeah!” Jermaine Dupri used to be one of the illest rappers out there and that was the reality then, you know? So I definitely want people to remember that.