Phillyeapolis vs. Brooklynati! (An extravagant interview w/ a bunch of dudes & Nikki Jean)

What happens when rap group Tanya Morgan takes over the mic to interview Nikki Jean at North By Northeast (NxNE) in Toronto? Nouveau Riche (French: “new rich”) is a term referring to persons who acquire wealth within their generation. Nouveau Riche the band is a collection of musicians who seem to have amassed bits and pieces from a wealth of genres, making their sound virtually indefinable. Not quite Pop, not quite Hip-Hop, not quite Rock, they fuse what they each know resulting in a delightful blend music that knows no category. Nikki Jean, the group’s front woman, lends her distinctive songwriting and melodic voice to set them apart from most genre bending bands. Those who are in tune to the underground scene, where EPs are traded online and blogs are dedicated to the new music, will have likely seen her name pop up more than once. Relatively obscure, Nouveau Riche has been quickly gaining momentum through word of mouth. We caught up with Nikki after her performance at the Gladstone Ballroom for NxNE in Toronto, Canada.

DonWill: So, Nikki Jean, before we get into what the name (Nouveau Riche) means tell us a little bit about you coming from Minneapolis to Philadelphia. Let’s talk about it... I’m DonWill by the way, and I’m a Gemini!

Nikki Jean: Little known fact, or not a little known fact actually -- that Prince is also a Gemini.

DonWill: Yes he is! Wasn’t it his birthday yesterday?!

Nikki Jean: Ok this is my interview! It’s not about Prince! [Laughs] I’m from St. Paul, Minnesota. I was born there. I lived there for the first 10-12 years of my life, and then I moved back and forth while I went to high school, traveling all over the country. The music community in Minneapolis is really incestuous so I’ve gotten the chance to work with a gang of people who have worked with Prince, Mint Condition, got to spend some time with Mujah Messiah, Atmosphere, P.O.S., Rhymesayers, a lot of poets around there, you know, so it’s home.

DonWill: Why did you move then?

Nikki Jean: You’ve got to go where the work is. My mom got a job somewhere else so I went and lived with her and then I just bounced all over going to school, chasing rainbows and all that.

Ilyas: This is Ilyas. Okay Nikki, As far as the creative process is involved. How do you create your music? How do you get your inspiration for the music that you write?

Nikki Jean: I’m very parasitic, from my own experiences. I just go and mine my dirty laundry, you know, and go through it until I find something that’s interesting enough to me to write a song about. You know this smells funky, but not stank. I have wonderful band mates that make music that I’m forced to listen to for hours on end until I come up with verses, and that in itself is an inspiration -- they’re awesome.

Von Pea: This is Von Pea. I’m a Scorpio. I enjoy long walks in the projects. Nikki, how did the group Nouveau Riche come together?

Nikki Jean: One long and stormy night in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Roots first met Dice Raw. Yes, long ago the Roots met Dice, he has been with them ever since. Also long ago, maybe six years ago, Dice met Khari (bass player and producer of the band) and then two years ago they met me. We’ve just been together ever since. It’s been quite a learning experience, you know how it is, you can’t be, like, “It’s been swell!” being in a band is not swell. But it’s beautiful, you know? It’s been beautiful.

DonWill: For people that know Dice Raw as an emcee from “The Lesson Pt. 1”, The Roots, and his solo album -- I know this is your interview, but -- can we talk a bit about his contribution to the band?

Nikki Jean: Dice is kind of like a song writing savant. Dice can write hooks off the top all day. He can just sit there and come up with hook after hook -- ten hooks for one track! So for a lot of our songs that’s an awesome contribution that he makes. In terms of how he approaches his work, while I agonize and take time constructing, Dice freestyles and if it’s a freestyle that he likes he’ll write it down afterwards. He’s probably one of the most free artists I’ve gotten to see work, he’s able to just create and then let it go.

DonWill: Do you have any solo material? If you do can you talk about that?

Nikki Jean: I do solo work. My first instrument is piano, I play some piano and guitar. So my solo music is more like real singer/songwriter type stuff. Like Carol King, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nero. I love to just sit at the piano and play, but I’m really dealing with a musical genius when I talk about Khari (our bass player/producer). I mean, I don’t know any other 19 year olds that had 4 tracks on a Roots record, that’s incredible. His first instrument was the cello, but he plays every instrument. Working with him, I don’t need to make music for the band, why would I? I feel really privileged to be a part of his career because I think he’s going to be legendary. I think he’s just on an incredible tangent, so I’m pleased to kind of be at the centre of his early work. My solo stuff I’m really proud of, it’s really different. The stuff I do with the band, it’s the first time I had to write to track, so it’s more lyrically dense than the stuff I do by myself.

Von Pea: I’d like to talk about the [EP] album... the recording process...

Nikki Jean: We have an EP that was released in Jan of 2006 called Long Tail that has a lot of songs on it, but the configuration of the band was different then, we had people on it that aren’t with us now -- it’s not really reflective of what we sound like now. So, when we sold out of it we were, like, let’s not get it printed again. Let’s focus on recording the new one. The EP was really Khari and another producer working together and that was it -- that was the whole sound. It wasn’t live, it wasn’t anything. But Khari really has a connection -- we all do -- with Joe and Dominic, the guitarist and drummer, and now they’re a part of the recording process. When we record they’re going to be the musicians on the recording so that’s part of the reason why it’s taking long for the record to be birthed. We don’t really believe in rushing, when we have a group of songs that go together, that we love, and they’re done then we’ll put it out and until then we won’t.

Ilyas: One word to describe each member of your band.

Nikki Jean: Oh! Wow! Can I just use “wow” for all four of them? Okay...

Dominic: Idealist; Joe: Pragmatist; Dice: Raw; Khari: Perfectionist.

Ilyas: And you?

Nikki Jean: Sweet? [laughs] Innocent? I don’t know!

Liberator: Being a woman in a somewhat male dominated industry how does it affect your work on day to day basis?

Nikki Jean: When I first joined the band, I used to come to the studio everyday, and we had free range, we could kind of do whatever we wanted at the Roots’ studio. We could rehearse there for free, record there for free, you know we were very privileged. I used to come every day and sit in a room and drink red wine and write... over time though you get to see everything, like, you get to see everything. If it goes on between the guys and the women -- and it’s being in a band with all guys too -- you just you see so much. For me it really just started to eat away at me, I felt like it was eating away at my humanity. I just stopped going to the studio and I don’t go anymore unless I’m there to rehearse and then I’m just there for a certain number of hours or if I’m going to record I just go to record. Not all studios are like that but all studios that I’ve been in have some degree of that and it just eats at you. I mean when you see women being treated inhumanely over and over and you hear the lyrics and they’re the same over and over. You’re sitting there and, you know, people are saying, “I don’t respect no bitches” and you know that they can’t ever really respect you. They might say they respect you, but they can’t ever really respect you. I’ve tried to take a stand by not being on songs where I disagree with what the message is. I try and remove myself from it as much as I can. I don’t overexpose myself to that and just surround myself with people who are not like that.

DonWill: I recall that you had a YouTube campaign for the homeless, a walk for the homeless. I just wanted to know how that turned out.

Nikki Jean: The walk went well, a lot of people came together for it. I was moved. Moved by people who would see a video about the homeless people in Philadelphia and send their money all the way from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, it turned into a global thing. It touched people. I was also pleased that I was able to really bring out some of the Philly music community, because there’s a disconnect. We live and work there, but people are in and out of town. And I think artists are naturally, we’re creators -- we nurture our creative spirit so I just feel like people want to help, but a lot of times they don’t know how, so just being able to present people with an easy opportunity to participate and do something good was really great.

Von Pea: The question that people always ask us, and it’s a wack question, but I’ll ask it anyways: What are your closing remarks? What do you want people to know when it’s all said and done about Nikki Jean and Nouveau Riche? What do you want people to remember?

Nikki Jean: My thesis in terms of all my art is finding the beauty in the ugly truth. Just find the beauty in realism and what’s there. Instead of trying to see what’s not there, instead of living in a fantasy, see what’s really there and find the beauty in that.

{ exclusive feature}
by Safia Siad w/ DonWill, Ilyas, and Von Pea of Tanya Morgan
{The Liberator Magazine 6.4 #20, 2007}

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