You remember the kid in high school that was cool with the jocks, got pounds from the thugs, chilled with the ladies and on top of that, was in the band? Chances are Novel was that kid. Growing up with music in his blood (his mom was a back up singer for Chaka Khan and others), the Philly-bred multitasker has cut his teeth in the industry for over a decade behind the scenes working with a who’s who list of eclectic artists. Now the 28 year-old “seasoned rookie” is finally going for broke with the release of his own debut LP The AudioBiography this spring. Giving fans an appetizer in the form of his Obama-inspired Future Black President EP out now, the self-proclaimed backpacker is on his own campaign. XXLMag.com caught up with Novel to talk about writing for the likes of Beyonce, waiting his turn in the industry and why rap can’t hold all of his talents.
XXLMag: Quiet as kept, you’ve been in the industry for a while. What were you doing before you stepped into the spotlight?
Novel: I been in the game for 10 years. I got signed to Rawkus Records who then went over to MCA. MCA went under then I got picked up at Geffen records. They transferred me over to Interscope because Jimmy Iovine wanted to be involved with my project. Then from there, I left the label and I was homeless for a while. I then drove across country to stay in the south with my sister until I got things situated. Middle of the road trip I talked to Dallas Austin who told me to stop in Atlanta and I got with Rowdy records. I was there for a while and we did a joint venture with Capitol. One thing I respected about working with Dallas was that I had the opportunity to craft my production a lot better. So while going through all these changes and not having an album out, I was writing and producing for others.
XXL: Who were some of the people you wrote and produced for?
Novel: I’ve written or produced for India Arie, Joss Stone, Alicia Keys, Beyonce, Kelis…it’s a small little list but I’m proud of it.
XXL: With you working with such an accomplished list and being around for a while, what’s it like to be the “old, new artist”?
Novel: [Laughs] You know what, I do be feeling kinda old sometimes. But I like the experience of it because you see so many things. I remember being at Rawkus when they had the first Eminem record, I remember when 50 first got signed…so I feel like I grew up with hip-hop. It becomes a heartache sometimes the politics of the industry is so fucked up, but you can’t let that discourage you. It only made me a better artist. God has his time for everything.
XXL: Your first single “I Am” featuring Talib Kweli has an anthem-feel to it but not just a hip-hop vibe. Where’d you draw inspiration from for it?
Novel: I came up with the concept from listening to a Ben Folds record called “The Luckiest” and I love the hell out of that record. One day I just threw the head phones on and listened to it and just made the beat right there and I sampled ["The Luckiest"]. I don’t believe that everything should be sampled because I don’t like to fuck it up, but I wanted that so bad. I did it and an artist named Spree Wilson jumped on it with me. Sent it to Talib and he liked it. When the record got done I said lets send it to Ben Folds and see if he fucks with it. He loved it and was like ‘cool, I wanna play some pianos on it, add to the sample, sing on the hook with it.’ So it worked out good, it was good timing.
XXL: I know you wear a lot of hats…MC, singer, producer, arranger. With your debut album, The AudioBiography, what can people expect to hear?
Novel: It’s a collage of shit man. Like, when you go home, you might throw on some Kanye, you might turn around and listen to a Coldplay record…that’s the new generation. We like so many different things. But what gets me is that when artists do it, nobody gets it because it’s like you gotta stick to one formula and one style. But from my album, I got a folk song on there called “I’m Not Drunk, I’m Just Drinking” that’s very personal and funny as hell but still a deep serious song. I got some rock joints on there, a little more alternative. I got some hip-hop where I’m rhyming on a few joints. I got some soul music, some R&B music, like it’s a collage of different things that influence me. Rap has always been my first love, my first passion, though. But my thing is, it’s all cohesive. Because it might sound cluttered but once you make it cohesive and give the album a theme, it all fits as one big package.
XXL: How do you make so many different things gel? What’s the common denominator of them all?
Novel: I think just having that theme. The last album that I thought really had a good theme was Lupe’s [The Cool]. Lauryn Hill did that too and Common’s BE. As long as you have a single subject to tie it together and the subject of this record is my life. I just want people to respect me as a musician. Like, I don’t really care if the album doesn’t sell. I’d rather have that respect there. I’d rather have that than anything else.
XXL: Let me challenge you on that because a lot of artists say it’s not about the money it’s about the respect. If the record drops, only sells 1, 000 copies but yet everybody likes it, you’ll still be cool with that?
Novel: Hell yea. That’ll just be my Illmatic right there [laughs].
XXL: With you being a rapper that does more than just rap, you ever think you’re throwing too much of a curveball at people? Do you think they’ll catch on to everything and appreciate it?
Novel: I don’t know man, it’s hard to say. I hope people get it…I think they will. I think the difference between my album and [a traditional hip-hop album] is that on my album, without consciously knowing it, there’ll be pop records that might work for mainstream. Then the joints on my album with me rhyming, that are lyrically driven, those other records might open up the way for them. Sometimes it has to be like that, but not intentionally.
XXL: So being real, why should people go out and spend their money, in a recession, to go and pick up your record?
Novel: I think it’s a great time for musicianship. Fuck it, let’s face it, there’s a lot of things out there that’s not that creative. I like some ringtone stuff, but there’s a lot of shit out there that’s manufactured. This album is not manufactured. Shit, you might not like all of it, but there’s some work put into this. I’m producing 80% of the album, writing my own songs, rapping my own lyrics. Shit, people don’t even do that anymore. It’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears. It is a recession, and people wanna have fun and they want substance, that’s what I bring. For me, musically I like to try certain things if there’s a challenge there. I’m so fascinated with music period that one minute I wanna rap, the next I wanna sing. I just want to be able to add something to the music world, I hope. – Anthony Roberts