The biggest test for any rising artist is to come to terms with relevancy. Chance The Rapper, YG, and Joey Bada$$ can attest to that because while hip-hop used to be a flailing genre in recent years – latching on to self-appointed “backpack rappers” and “mixtape veterans” to verify it’s in good health – the blueprint for success has changed. It’s less formulaic and more reliable on “hustle” with various artists fortifying techniques that will either land them the biggest radio single in a two-week period, or allow them to establish a project that’s more daring than simulated.
NY’s BISHOP NEHRU is certainly caught in the crossfire of others searching for a “moment”, but that rarely phases him. The 17-year-old, born Markel Scott, has been patient with honing his craft and it’s helped deliver two mixtapes (The Mixtape, strictlyFLOWZ), notable collabs (Madlib, Disclosure), and an anticipated project with MF DOOM. Like Nas and Kendrick have subtly noted, Nehru is a dedicated old soul. To find some truth in that, we met with the MC at South By Southwest and addressed New York, his work ethic, and the task of sustaining a presence in hip-hop.
You’ve said before that you’re strictly about the music – which the intro to “The Music” on Nehruvia: The Mixtape corroborates – do you think that idea is lost with artists today?
Yeah, they’re not solely focused on music. There’s a lot of materialism around it. I can see why people get caught up in it, though, but I at least try to focus completely on the music.
Do you find you’re conscious of what you’re wearing and putting forth because of your fan base?
Not really, I just do what I do. If a person doesn’t feel right about what I’m wearing, then they’re not with me. I kind of try to stay true to myself and do my own thing and let everyone else just float around me.
Would you consider yourself a conscious rapper?
(Pause) I don’t know… I think I’m a real rapper, that’s what it is. I don’t think it’s conscious. I mean, it’s conscious, but at the same time it’s not. A lot of people, when they rap, think conscious rap is the underground, the all-about-yourself shit. I don’t really like to rap all about myself. I like to talk about me, other people, my worries, things that happen in the news, things I want to change. I like to address everything.
What kind of change are you looking for?
I just want – for me, at least – to leave peacefully. Peacefully and happily. That’s all I’m looking for.
How did you find your sound?
It took a while until I found something I felt comfortable with. I was working with a couple projects before Nehruvia and they were beat projects, back when I used to make beats and not raps. I kind of didn’t know which direction to take it because at the time, being 14 or 15, you see only what’s being shown to you. Back then it was trap music, so I was kind of trying to see which lane I felt most comfortable in. It was hard for me to do it and figure it out, but I feel like I’ve found it now. I can’t listen to the other stuff – my old stuff – because I’m not comfortable with it, you know?
Do you think people can sense – listening to your body of work as a whole – that you’re more comfortable now?
I don’t think so. It’s probably more noticeable live. I think the songs are so real to me that they hit me hard. So if I hear something that I say about myself, it affects me, you know? But better me than anyone else.
I’m excited to see you touring with Earl and collaborating with MF Doom, who I group together as incredible lyricists and find you heading in that direction as well. Do they influence you?
100 per cent. Doom has influenced me to the maximum. That’s my main (laughs). Pac, Nas, Wu-Tang, Doom – those are influences for sure. They’ve shaped who I am.
Are they your go-to music, as opposed to what’s been coming out now?
Oddly I listen to a lot more new stuff than old school, I kind of switched it. Before I used to listen to more old stuff, but now I don’t. I mean, I try to listen to both at the same time, but one started to outweigh the other and now one is starting to outweigh the other side (laughs). I try to switch it up a lot.
I’ve gone through so many phases where I overkill albums or artists. It’s bad.
You gotta switch it up now and then, balance that out (laughs).
As for SXSW, what performances are you most excited to see?
I saw Tyler, The Creator yesterday and that was the first time I ever got to see him. The show was weak as hell though (laughs). It wasn’t one of the ones where everybody gets crazy because it was like 1 a.m. in the morning and everybody was tired (laughs). I missed that Thrasher show. I was outside the venue at that one, and one of the asshole security guards said the show was over, so I left. Then one of Tyler’s guys hit up my manager later and was like, “Yo, where are you guys? The show just ended”, and it was just like – fuck, that show would’ve been awesome. He even said during the set I saw that the Thrasher show was way better.
Do you have any words of advice for future first-time performers at the festival?
I don’t know… I don’t really like to give advice because if you give the wrong advice, people will say you’re an asshole (laughs). I just like telling my story or things from my point of view. With South By, all you really gotta do is do your own thing and perform. Do your own thing, have your own experience, and be yourself. If you can be yourself and feel comfortable in what you’re doing, people are going to notice you. My shows, when I was performing at first, they were kind of empty. When I started performing more and being more present on stage, they started filling up, and I was just like – oh shit, I’m doing something right. And that felt good.
Tell me about your collaboration with Disclosure.
They said in an interview with MTV that they wanted to work with me, and I saw it so I hit them up. They sent me a beat first, and I was just listening to it and vibing to it. Then we met up at the end of their concert at Terminal 5 and talked more about the record. Then I opened for them and we talked about the record a little bit more.
I know you like jazz; what about a collaboration with BadBadNotGood?
Yup, we’re like good friends, it’s so awesome. I saw them in London – it was a show with me, BadBadNotGood and Doom, and I was literally in the front row in front of the fans taking videos (laughs). And the fans were all like, “Weren’t you just on stage? Why you filming them?” (laughs). We were supposed to work on something for some show, but I’m definitely gonna’ put something together with them. And they’re fans as well, so it’s bound to happen.
I’ve read that you think New York has lost its identity in hip hop. Can it be regained, if at all?
There’s gotta be an artist that comes out and does their own thing from New York. Like, back in the day, there were so many people from so many places in the city – like Mobb Deep, Nas, Biggie, Jay – and it’s just like they were all from different spots. Every borough from New York had their own artist and their own thing that they could respect, and I don’t see that anymore. New York rappers don’t even make New York or East Coat rap. There’s rappers making southern rap and west coast rap. I mean, I think we just gotta take it back and perfect what made the East Coast.
So is it more important to section off your sound based on where you’re from?
No, I think music as a whole – if you like a certain sound, no matter where you’re from – you should go for. But if you’re a New York rapper who is saying you’re a New York rapper with a New York sound, then you gotta have that sound. You can’t have a sound from somewhere else and claim you’re New York, cause you’re not.
Being as young as you are and having accomplished as much as you have, do you worry about maintaining a long-term presence in hip hop?
I don’t want to just fizzle out at all. I want to be around for the long run and I think that’s gonna happen. As long as I keep thinking it’s going to happen, it’ll happen.