Intent on encapsulating what is to be growing up as a black person in Liverpool, MC NELSON is a manifestation of the generation who came of age in the midst of the thwarted coalition government. Nelson Idama was burgeoning in a society that was in both parts evolving and cracking under the social, political and cultural changes that were to follow. His music became a way of him spreading his message and commentary of that time, portraying a true reflection of his own life, in his music. Gently simmering until earlier this year, which saw the release of his single and accompanying video By The River – which has amassed over 50,000 YouTube views – he is now mechanised with the motive of digging into the past and the present to educate and progress the future of his own music, the Merseyside rap scene, and of society as a whole.
Growing up in the leafy suburbs of Aigburth, Nelson’s introduction to and relationship with music started at an early age. He recalls one of his first musical experiences: his mother playing early rap, RnB and gospel music laced with “really cheesy raps, praising god”. But it wasn’t until his brother brought home burned copies of Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner and Slick Rick’s The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick that music started to take over. Nelson immediately took to exercising this newfound obsession and started, aged nine, to write his own music. “I had a keyboard in the house where’d I’d write disgraceful raps, about my nine-year-old self,” he confesses, as we meet after his performance at Baltic Weekender. He’s relaxed when describing his first real artistic and creative realisation as a musician, beyond those baby steps as a nine-year-old: “When I was about 14 me and a couple of mates formed a grime crew. I was primarily a grime MC, but that fizzled out as it didn’t match my life at the time, so I moved to jazzier and more contemplative, lyric-focused music.” This gradual transition away from grime – which was a major component of the UK scene at the time – was inspired by the growing accessibility of other genres and the evolution of the internet. There he was able to discover De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising, Nas’ Illmatic and Madvillain’s Madvillainy, albums that he says truly made sense to him and his existence, and led him to take a more considered approach and bring lyrics to the forefront of his music.
It comes naturally for him to talk about his life and the struggles and challenges that it brings. “Things that I write about write themselves,” he tells me. “This is my life, now how do I make it rhyme.” However, the simple nature of his writing process is not reflected in the depth and acute focus of the lyrics; the issues covered in his songs are complex and difficult to portray. “I write about race, the relations between ethnic minorities, the working class and the police, even international relations. [Things] that have always been at the forefront of the news growing up and things that I’ve seen in the world, as a response to the government.” 2010 saw the start of a new coalition government that would bring with it new changes and increased racial tensions within an age of austerity and social confusion. Nelson marks the riots the following year as a major turning point in his relationship with social issues, one which forced him to be more introspective and reflect upon society.
Nelson’s first single, By The River, is an articulate deconstruction of Liverpool’s dark history with the slave trade, highlighting the tensions that surrounded the resulting racism and objectification of the black population. Nelson’s intention for the songs was to educate, unravel and bring to the surface forgotten and known unknowns, that are still so evident in Liverpool today; Penny Lane, a street named after a slave trader, and even his own school, The Bluecoat, was founded by and deeply ingrained in the economy of the slave trade. To Nelson, these things needed to be brought to the forefront of people’s minds, acknowledged and not swept under the carpet. He describes a conflicted relationship with the city he loves, and admits that he’s sensitive to potentially harming the city’s reputation, acknowledging the press’ tendency to castigate and harm the reputation of Liverpool. “I do love Liverpool, and have loved growing up here, and it’s a city that has caught a lot of flack from the media. I don’t want to compound that reputation, but it has a history that is so toxic and laced with so many things that need to be brought to light. But I want to do it in a way that represents Liverpool well, which is a hard dichotomy, like a tightrope I’m walking on.”
Shortly after the success of By The River, Nelson revealed the follow-up track, Step Mother, which delves into his family’s origins in Nigeria and the complex relationship between Britain and Africa. Sonically, the track is more uplifting, lighter and not as musically layered, creating a more relatable vehicle for the challenging themes and subjects in the lyrics. “By The River is almost a tough listen, it’s dark. With Step Mother I wanted to make a tune that tackles big issues, like colonialism and British history, but I wanted to do it in a way that you could play it in the summer when you’re chilling in Sefton Park. It’s upbeat, it’s easy to digest, even if the lyrics are quite heavy.”
Inspiration for the song came from when Nelson visited Nigeria last year. It provoked deeper thoughts of origin, the importance of history and the transitioning narrative of immigration from the time of British colonialism to the current day in the wake of the Windrush scandal and Brexit. Nigeria also has a rich musical vein that has run throughout the years of the nation’s past and has served as a big inspiration for Nelson’s music. “[There was] a lot of Nigerian music, a lot of Fela Kuti played growing up, and the lineage of black music, even hip hop, the really early remnants of it, can be heard in West African music.”
Storytelling is the biggest factor in Nelson’s music, as he develops ideas that are too complex to nod to in just one bar of verse. He admits to previously showing little regard for the live and visual aspect of his music. However, this year, calling upon childhood friends Leech Video, he has effectively curated visual journeys with his videos, to amplify the messages hidden within the words. Using Childish Gambino’s This Is America as an example of how visuals can be a method of projecting and amplifying an artist’s message with more power and focus, Nelson elaborates on the sheer power of deeply layered videos as a tool. “If you listen to [This Is America] by itself it’s not even half the experience without the video,” he says. “Similarly, with the video, if you take the song by itself you only get a slither of what he’s trying to say. You get a completely different experience with both mediums. If you have a song that is message-focused, there is so much you can do visually that underlines the song.”
Nelson says he never intended to play live shows, but has already supported the likes of Ghostface Killah, The Pharcyde and Loyle Carner. Performing has helped him develop the way he projects his music, and his live show is now a major focus going forward, evidenced by his powerful set on Africa Oyé’s main stage this year as one of their Oyé Introduces artists. He speaks glowingly of the gratification of people being receptive to his music in a live environment. “Tearing yourself apart and trying to find something insightful to say is exhausting – but when you get to share that with the world, and people actually enjoy it, it’s so gratifying.”
Despite a recent move to London, Liverpool will always remain a major influence on his way of thinking and producing music. “Even if I don’t write a song about Liverpool, it’s always going to be Scouse hip hop at the end of the day, it’s always about Liverpool and a representation of Liverpool in some way.” Although his move to London wasn’t entirely musically focused, the advantages of stretching out and interacting with different cities is one that is unfortunately necessary for a young hip hop artist from Liverpool.
Although the Liverpool scene is in what he describes as a healthy position, he believes there is still room for improvement. “We have Tremz and Aystar, who are definitely doing their thing in Liverpool, but there’s no reason that Liverpool shouldn’t have acts that are a national success.” He suggests home-grown artists moving away can help turn heads elsewhere in recognising Liverpool’s talent, by spreading the message and breaking down preconceived barriers around Liverpool, as a result of the city’s guitar-focused music history and a national stigma towards the region’s urban scene. There hasn’t been a rap artist that has come close to the success of Merseyside’s bands of the past, so nobody looks to Liverpool as an authority in the rap genre.
Similar prejudices that previously faced UK grime in America, are still relevant to Scouse rap from those south of the M62. The Scouse twang is something that needs a bit more exposure in rap music for people to become for familiar to it, as the dialect, the hard consonants, the slit t’s and rising vowels are foreign and unfamiliar, but can offer a distinctiveness, character and a uniqueness that differs from the now familiar sound of London grime. Part of Nelson’s vison is to break down these barriers, and not just for his own success, but for the people around him and the ones yet to come. “I’d like to kick down some doors, not just for myself, but there’ll be a kid in school that doesn’t know it yet – by the time they come of age and start making music it’ll be even easier for them.”
Energised by the positive reaction that he has been amassing across the country, Nelson’s not ready to rest on his recent success. He’s working on his first comprehensive body of work and, while he remains coy on the format of that release, he intends to tie a conceptual thread throughout all the songs, promising to continue pushing boundaries through his inquisitive tone of voice. Whatever the form his project may take, he insists it will all be threaded together by some common themes: immigration, colonialism, Liverpool, growing up black in the North and, ultimately, asking what it means to be British in 2018.