Chances are that if you’re from Harlesden in North West London – more specifically an area called Church Road – you’ll be familiar with the name, Nines; “everyone there kinda knows me”, he says warmly. Born and bred in the Church Road estate to Jamaican and Somali parents, everything about Nines – one of the UK’s most fabled and important rappers of recent years – feels intrinsically linked to the streets he’s grown up in; every verse on every on track on every mixtape, CD, album he’s ever released is a product of his environment. And he never forgets when he came from.
His big break came might have come by way of 2017 debut album, ‘One Foot Out’, which peaked at 4 on the UK Album Charts on its release, but Nines’ impact could be felt across London and beyond many years before. Inspired by elders who used to rap on the estate, as well as the early grime crews of his childhood like So Solid Crew and Pay As U Go, his relationship with wider rap cultures was first brokered when he was only 10 years old. “I remember seeing UK artists on TV and it was like ohhhh shit”, he says, before breaking into chorus; “Oh No that’s the word … Oh No that’s the word” he half-sings, sheepishly – a reference to So Solid Crew’s 2001 classic, ‘Oh No’.
Grime may have been his first love but it wasn’t long before he discovered Nas and later, 50 Cent via his ‘Diary Of A Soldier Tape’ – his entry point into the world of sludgy, slower-paced US rap. In the background, he’d started to rap at school and with friends on the estate too; “I was barring from about 7 or 8 years old at school when I think about it”, he recalls, “and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Despite taking a short break during his early teens, he remembers one specific freestyle – the first he ever recorded professionally – that caught the imagination of everyone in Church Road. Recording under the moniker Little Nines, he’d been spending more and more time at a local studio as part of a probation program. “I recorded it with some random guys also on the same program and I didn’t actually take the song with me”, he admits, “but somehow the whole hood got hold of it and started playing it. Everyone was gassed.”
While the footage may have been lost, it was a freestyle that put Nines on the map and crystalized his unique, languid-style flow for the first time. Energised by its reaction, he found himself recording at another local studio – this time owned by the man responsible for the sample in Wyclef Jean, The Rock & Melky Sedeck’s classic ‘It Doesn’t Matter’ – and his reputation grew bigger and bigger with every freestyle.
Despite the hood heat, it wasn’t until Nines turned 21 that he started to look at releasing music more seriously. By that point, he’d become a part CRS – or Church Road Soldiers – a collective that also included rappers like Skrapz who’d put out music videos regularly on YouTube. “I’d always hide in the videos”, says Nines, “so one day when I decided to shoot my own video on the block, no one believed that I’d go on camera. I wanted to invest in something I cared about too, so I got everyone who came down a pair of trainers.” His first video did ‘pretty well’ by his own admission, forming the catalyst for a raft of new music, freestyles and videos; with every drop, the noise around Nines’ music intensified.
Now the torch paper was lit, full-length mixtapes would follow over the next five years, including 2012’s breakout tape ‘Church Road To Hollywood’ – “I wanted to put the hood on the map because prior to that release, no one had ever heard of it” – and 2015’s ‘One Foot In’; his fourth self-released tape and a record that’d later form the pre-cursor to his debut album. Lauded for his gritty, lived-in narratives and laid back, near-horizontal, conversational flow, Nines’ mixtapes immediately stood out from those of his contemporaries; he was clearly a natural, special talent.
While unassuming in persona, his voice was a dominant one in the early 2010s – you’d be hard pressed to go anywhere in North West London and not hear a Nines’ tape blaring out from
someone’s car stereo, or from open windows on the Church Road estate. His development had caught the ears of XL Recordings too, who were so impressed by not only his music, but his desire to represent for his community. Nines went onto sign with XL in 2016, leaning against Church Road estate signage to pen his signature to the contract; a symbol of how indebted his music was to the area.
He released his critically-acclaimed debut album ‘One Foot Out’ – a natural extension of the ground covered on 2015’s ‘One Foot In’ – via XL in 2017, with the record hitting a peak chart position of 4 on the UK Album Chart. Features on the record were minimal in all, although standout tracks with J Hus and Akala nodded to the esteem in which other rappers held him, and its success also gave him the chance to perform live for the first time in his career. But Nines didn’t make his bow at popular London proving grounds like Scala or KOKO; instead he flew to Seoul in South Korea and performed as part of a live Boiler Room broadcast. “Loads of people were touching me and grabbing me in the crowd while I was rapping, it was crazy”, he recalls fondly, “and I hadn’t even rehearsed!”. This ground swell of acclaim would ultimately lay the perfect foundations for 2018 follow up, ‘Crop Circle’ – an album that’d also spawn his first breakthrough chart single.
‘I See You Shining’ – a bouncy, infectious hood anthem produced by Steel Banglez and Zeph Ellis – spent nine weeks on the UK Singles Chart in 2018, peaking at 37 and earning significant radio co-signs and play-listing from across the BBC R1 and 1Xtra networks. ‘Crop Circle’ itself entered the UK Album Charts at 4, mirroring the success of ‘One Foot Out’ and reinforcing Nines’ credentials as one of the UK’s most sought after and capable rappers.
Never afraid to think outside the box, Nines also directed an accompanying, 26-minute ‘Crop Circle’ film – shot and produced by Jungle’s music video director, Charlie Di Placido – that depicted grainy footage of every day life on the block in Church Road, complete with music from the new record. The film premiered at Leicester Square and featured cameos from fellow rappers MIST, Ghetts, Mostack, Skrazp and even Kurupt FM’s MC Grindah. “I’d been writing bars so I can write a film, or that’s what I thought anyway”, says Nines, “I just thought I should go for it because I knew I had to come harder than the last album. People always think I’m the type of rapper who can just drop music when he wants but it’s not like that. I wanna be better always.”
After the success he enjoyed with XL, Nines signed with Warner Records late in 2018 with ambitions to scale even greater heights than last time out. ‘Crabs In A Bucket’, his forthcoming third studio album, feels like his most ambitious and decisive yet. Drawing on a difficult period of time that saw Nines caught up in needless situations on the block – “I could have been chilling on any beach in the world but I found myself back there just chatting shit” – it’s an album of self-reflection, a promise to himself never to let things slide again.
Sonically, it represents his most viscerally expansive record yet too, taking in the gritty rap stories he excels at telling, as well as slick, colourful afro wave collaborations with NSG and smoked-out trap cuts with artists like Nafe Smallz and Canadian rapper, Roy Woods. There are also nods to the next generation in North London rappers like Clavish and NorthSideBenji, both artists that Nines is helping to develop behind-the-scenes. “I’m hoping for another Champions League spot”, says Nines of the new album, a reference to football and the top 4 qualifying positions in the Premier League, “I’m coming for the top four definitely”. Relaxed, confident and making the best music of his career so far, there’s every chance he’ll go one better.