“…I mean Rakim is my favourite MC of all time. Kris of course i.e KRS 1 and then Run DMC. Those three artists as a little kid drew me to Hip Hop…Mouth open, mind blown right!”
Brooklyn raised MC River Nelson has served his Hip Hop apprenticeship by touring with and soaking up lyrical vibes from the likes of Common, De La Soul and Talib Kweli to name just three. Though yet to raise his head above the parapet on the UK scene, River has teamed up with good friend and exalted UK producer Lewis Parker (Massive Attack, Ghostface Killah, Wu Tan Clan) to put out an ear-catching, head nodding and thought provoking album entitled. ‘The Rise and Fall of River Nelson.’
Michael ‘The Dood’ Edwards tracked down RN just before he set the microphone and stage alight with his firebrand lyrics at YoYo’s in Notting Hill, London adding more followers to the River Nelson sound in the process.
The Dood: Speak to me. What is your full name and why did you adopt the name ‘River’ Nelson. I believe it’s because your rhymes flow like a river?
River Nelson: My full name is River Nelson. Nelson is my actual last name, my Surname.
The Dood: So were you christened River?
River Nelson: No. Darryl is my first name…I chose the name River because if you look at a body of water like a River, or any body of water, it can be powerful; strong; it can be serene; it can cover you; it can form into different shapes…So think about the body of water of a river, i want to be that as an MC – powerful, serene…Kind of when you look at a river you feel a peacefulness, a strength. Like you said it flows which is also connected to the lyrical flow. It’s a multi definition kind of a name. And also I just like the way it sounded phonetically.
The Dood: Let’s go back to growing up in New York and the underground rap scene?
River Nelson: I was born in Manhattan, I lived in the Bronx and I lived in Queens…I spent most of my years in Brooklyn. The last fifteen years I was in Brooklyn. I first got into the game through a group called the Boogiemonsters. I was on their first record and that was like in the mid nineties. Being on that first record I got my first deal with Arista.
The Dood: You missed out a whole lotta people there, you missed out Supernatural, Mos Def and the ciphers you were part of?
Supernatural and Michael ‘The Dood’ Edwards
River Nelson: Oh Man! You did your home work! Basically even before I got to Arista i used to rhyme with Mos Def and those guys. Just growing up and being a fan.
The Dood: So you were listening to Eric B & Rakim, Kool Moe Dee, and KRS 1 – The originals?
KRS 1 prior to tearing up London’s Jazz Cafe alongside Supernatural
River Nelson: Exactly! The original guys, those guys blew my mind. I was just so immersed in the scene, so you didn’t really separate yourself as an artist, you were just into Hip-Hop. I mean Rakim is my favourite MC of all time, Kris of course i.e. KRS 1 and then Run DMC. Those three artists as a little kid drew me to Hip Hop…Mouth open, mind blown right! From there unlike other genres of music Hip Hop is one which forces you to participate on some level right. You can beat box, you can DJ, you can spray somethin’, break dance whatever. My participation was via words – like the spoken word aspect of Hip Hop. And that really started after the fan era, I wanted to try for myself. I wanted to see what it would be like if I wrote down some thoughts in a note book.
At that point I wasn’t even thinking about chasing a career, it was just like, let me see if I can write a rhyme that I like and I can spit to all my friends – even if it’s just one. So that’s where it started, where I wrote my first rhyme and I just carried that rhyme around with me for two years! (Laughs)
The Dood: So you were about ten years old or there about?
River Nelson: Sixth grade, so I was about twelve…and then I went to University, having eventually graduated High School. I was still a fan and I rhymed but kept it to myself.
The Dood: Were your parents a keen on academic achievement?
River Nelson – Live showcase at YoYo’s, London
River Nelson: My parents are from Panama, so education was always important to them. So I got to my senior year of University and that’s when I got my deal with Clive Davis. So I left in my senior year to chase that dream. Even before I graduated I met up with the Boogiemonsters who went to the same school. We became a clique at school. And they were the first persons I knew who weren’t famous actually doing shows.
The Dood: So this is the underground scene you were talking about?
River Nelson: This is the underground, well at least the start of it. Through them I really got connected to that underground scene. And in Washington Square Park at that time – Washington Square Park is the campus of New York University – it’s a famous park.
The Dood: Yeah! This is all the heavy hitters hung out – Supernatural, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli etc
River Nelson: All those guys – everyday they would be there.
The Dood: So they were your peers at the time?
River Nelson: Yeah man absolutely! I always say we come from the same underground class…From that scene like you said there was Mos Def, Talib Kweli. The leaders of that scene were definitely Supernatural, he owned those ciphers and those battles out there. He’s the best freestyler I’ve ever heard in my life! I don’t know if you’re familiar with Supernatural…He’s world famous for being a freestyler. He’s won competitions – he’s the best in world probably.
The Dood: From off the top of the Dome?
River Nelson: Off the top of the dome! So he ran that scene. There was another guy named Khaliyl aka Mister Man from a group called Da Bush Babees. Mister Man was really cool with Mos Def and Talib Kweli because they were from the same neighbourhood in Flat Bush, Brooklyn…I Knew Khaliyl (Mr Man) just from running around and I always used to see Mos Def with him. He didn’t say much, but any time he rhymed you paid attention. I noticed Kweli was more of a presence at that time with being on the battle scene, being on that cipher scene. I remember spittin’ right next to Kweli, right next to Mos, Supernatural, and Jean Gray came from that scene. None of us were signed yet. Eventually, I guess the scene must have kinda got out to the industry folks.
I can’t even say that we were crew or anything. We were just kids from different areas of New York who would show up every day at this place. Like a lot the kids battle now where they try to take each other out, back then it was what we called ciphers – everyone gets in a circle and you get maybe sixteen verses then the next man goes.
The Dood: So it was more of a friendly vibe?
River Nelson: A friendly kinda vibe, we call it building. What do bring to the table lyrically? We’ll give you five minutes…So imagine River Nelson – blah blah blah blah, rhyming, Kweli – blah blah blah blah, then you go!
The Dood: Okay, it’s like playing tag?
River Nelson: It’s like tag and it goes around the circle.
The Dood: So how did the Clive Davis connection come about?
River Nelson: Well, the Boogiemonsters eventually got signed to Pendulum Records, who also had Digable Planets on that label. We were on that record and at that time they were really the darlings of the New York underground up and coming MC’s. Out of all of us, they were the first ones to really get signed, out of that downtown scene.
The Dood: So what year we talking about here?
River Nelson: This was ’95. So we were on their album and just through the industry grapevines people started hearing about us. At that time it was me and another guy and we had a group called Bizarre Extremes. So after being on their record and their record spreading out, people started hearing us on their record. Then there was a point where one of the members of the Boogie monsters introduced us to one of the receptionist at Arista Records named Miss Lesvia Castro. She was the receptionist for the head of black music, Joy Daley. Joy Daley discovered MC Hammer okay.
Lesvia was the first person to really show interest in our music. She heard a demo tape and gave it to her boss like the next day…From there we met with Joy Bailey and she was blown away by our demo tape. She played it to Clive Davis, who was of course at the helm of Arista Records.
The Dood: The man with the midus touch?
River Nelson: Oh! My gosh! He’s a genius! Before she even played it for Clive she set up a showcase for us at a very famous club called ‘Cafe Wha?’ in Greenwich Village. Jimi Hendrix played there, The Doors played there…We tore that showcase down! We tore it down in front of industry executives. Nearly 2 weeks later we signed on the dotted line. Now, that’s the RISE okay!
The Dood: The wake-up call came when then?
River Nelson: Well what happened was we had a manager called Van Silk. Van Silk was a promoter/manager for Grand Master Flash and a lot of those pioneer guys. He had heard of our deal. It was very unconventional because we got a deal before we actually had management or any representation. So we kinda rushed to get a manager. That manager turned out to take half our money from us. The label had allocated us a certain amount of money to turn in half of the album – three singles and two other songs. So he took half of the money that the label gave us to do that. They gave him the money to allocate and pay for the studio.
To make a long story short we weren’t able to turn in the songs on time. We ended up having to do a demo ourselves because he took the money for the big studio. So we got with our demo people and tried to turn in those songs, they didn’t like the songs, we never put out a record and we lost the deal.
The Dood: So when did you lose the deal?
River Nelson: Now this was in ’97. In 1997 my friend had enough of the music business, we were struggling too hard. Let me remind you after we lost the deal, it was like a year that we were striving to get another deal – being starving artists. So after two years he had basically had enough of the music industry and I was on my own – River Nelson. So then I basically started approaching record execs myself, made demos, did that whole thing. But at this time the tables were turning. As we got closer to the two thousands, independent music started to become bigger. The major labels were still needed but you didn’t need them as much
So that was when I sunk back into the underground of New York City and played Open Mike’s and more ciphers and little shows here and there. I made a small name for myself on the underground at least on a certain scene.
The Dood: So we discussed the rise and the fall. And now this is the rise again. It’s like life?
River Nelson: It’s like life…it’s a constant up and down. So working the underground, I eventually got a publicist and my publicist introduced me to Lewis Parker.
The Dood: Yes, L.P, ‘The Man with the Golden Sound!’ and the World of Dusty Vinyl. Details please?
River Nelson: L.P ‘The Man with the Golden Sound.’ He’s a British legend – responsible for Massive Attack’s sound and many others. The World of Dusty Vinyl is his Record Label. I met him in about 2004, my individual struggle being a good three or four years. He gave me a beats CD and I really liked his beats. Then he asked me to spit for him and he really liked my rhymes. So the first plan was he was gonna do two beats for my record and I was gonna do two verses for his compilation album. When we started doing that the chemistry was so good, it was like man we gotta keep going. And we ended up doing a record called, ‘The Rise and Fall of River Nelson.’
The Dood: What does Lewis Parker bring to the party? What makes him unique?
River Nelson: I think what first linked us is that we have a unique combination of being die hard B-Boys, but also being very artistic. The art of creating music is just as important as the Hip-Hop swagger and the B-Boy swagger. And you don’t meet a lot of people like that. Usually it’s one of the other – you have people so artsy that you can’t relate or you have people so B-Boy that the art gets ignored or the actual craft gets ignored. So I think we’re similar in that we really wanted to bring artistry to the music.
The Dood: And you both know and love different genres and types of music, because I can hear all the various influences in the production.
River Nelson: Absolutely! We love all of the same seventies funk, the blackploitation flicks, the James Bond flicks, all of those things. So that was first. And then our work ethics are very similar, we’re both studio fans, we love to work in the studio. We just clicked man. And he said this, ‘The way you sound over my beats, just brings my beats out even more and makes me sound bigger.’
The Dood: A studio match made in heaven?
River Nelson: It was a match made in heaven. We were truly musical soul mates. So he definitely brings that to the table.
The Dood: At the beginning of the album you quote, ‘you’re gonna hear some original black poetry.’ Are you of the belief that Hip Hop is lyrical poetry? Artists like KRS 1 and The Last Poets.
River Nelson: The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron all those guys were the foundation. And that’s what’s unique about Hip Hop too because in other forms of music a lot of times the backing music is the most important thing, like in a lot of live Rock music and Country music and other genres, which is just as beautiful, just beautiful in a different way. Hip-Hop is unique in that the spoken word is really showcased. If you think about the spoken word – about world history even, forget Hip-Hop. The spoken word has started revolutions; World change; World leaders have created wars all because of the spoken word. So a big deal of the record is lyrical poetry – absolutely!
The Dood: Are you of the belief that you can educate and reach out to the youth via this medium and build a legacy ala Rakim etc?
River Nelson: First and foremost I want to educate and show the youth not to run from intelligence. Don’t run from intelligence and think it’s un-cool and don’t run from being yourself. I think that’s the most important thing because a lot of people are afraid to be them self. So if I could educate anybody, it’s just in what you bring to the table, your intellect, your being a nice guy, your being from the suburbs. Wherever you’re from it’s your story and it’s unique to you. So use that!
The Dood: Your album has that retro feel as if giving a nod to the golden years and artists of Hip Hop such as Stetsosonic, Chubb Rock, and Big Daddy Kane etc. Was that intentional?
River Nelson: Yeah, it was intentional. We really wanted to make a classic kinda nineties feel Hip Hop album with a 2010 twist. We wanted to marry the classic golden era with the new stuff now.
The Dood: The thread that runs throughout this album is one of optimism and hope in increasingly stressful modern times. Tracks such as, ’Beautiful Life,’ ‘Hold On.’ What is your goal for this your debut project?
River Nelson: My goal is to get people to understand who River Nelson is, what he’s about, which is hopefulness and a communication throughout all groups of people regardless of external or internal differences. I want to dialogue through Hip-Hop music and show that the kinda music I’m making can really create some change in the world with a dialogue. And that dialogue starts with Hip-Hop music. It’s some sort of change. We may not change the world completely, but at least start a dialogue, because if you’re talking about things that’s already change in itself.
The Dood: Gotcha! Is this a vibe you intend to follow on future albums?
River Nelson: Absolutely! There will be different themes, there will different sounds of course, but I’m always gonna come from a place of where I’m at in life and in this music struggle and what surroundings and the people around me are going through.
River Nelson – Live showcase at YoYo’s, London
The Dood: Is the album solely a UK release or is it coming out stateside as well?
River Nelson: Both. We attack the UK first because that is where Lewis (Parker) is from, but there will be a US release, then all throughout Europe and Japan. But initially we really wanted to touch base with Lewis’ fan base.
The Dood: What’s your take on your conscious Hip-Hop peers like Talib Kweli and Common etc?
River Nelson: To me they are legends… These guys were doing it longer than me in terms of being seen by the people. We had all been struggling in the underground together but these guys have broken industry doors – shattered them! So these guys are legends because it’s so challenging to make the kinda music we make and for it to get mass appeal. So these guys are legends and I salute them.
The Dood: Who on the scene now inspires you creatively?
River Nelson: There’s a cat called Blu from L.A. He’s really dope; really lyrical…I get the same feeling as when I first heard Blackstar. I get the same feeling from him. I’m going crazy for Jay Electronica right now. I don’t how large he is out here (UK), but in the States everyone is going crazy for him. He’s underground and on his way up. His girlfriend is Erykah Badu.
The Dood: What about Madlib?
River Nelson: Madlib is dope! I love Madlib. I like the stuff Drake is doing right now. Drake to me is showing what lyricism is in this Hip-Hop thing. And of course Kanye West and Jay-Z…People that are carrying it right now and they’re all pushing lyricism to the forefront once again.
The Dood: Tell me about the track ‘Strange Things’ which is not on the album?
River Nelson: ‘Strange Things’ is a side project I’m doing with a producer named Bias who is also a British guy. We’re gonna release that in a couple of months on Canteen records.
The Dood: What advice would you give to young and up-coming artist starting out on this career path given the ups and downs of your career? Is it a case of persistence overcomes resistance?
River Nelson: Absolutely! That’s a great saying man. Really start making your music and getting it to the people as soon as you can before reaching out to the record executives.
The Dood: Get your game tight?
River Nelson – Live showcase at YoYo’s, London
River Nelson: Get your game tight. Get some sort of following even if it’s twenty people that listen to you and buy your music and come see you. That’s when people give you confidence. And ‘You Tube’ and the like, access all that stuff. This is the time when reaching out to the record executives is the second thing you want to do. Gaining your own buzz in order to have some leverage to bring to the record labels is what you want to establish. So work on your craft, work on your art – make that the first and most important thing that you focus on. Once you have that tight and you have some sort of buzz, it may even be a small buzz and then you can reach out to the record companies.
The Dood: Thank you River and I’m looking forward to the showcase.
River Nelson: It’s been a pleasure brother!
Michael ‘The Dood’ Edwards
River Nelson and Michael ‘The Dood’ Edwards
Essential Album: The Rise and fall of River Nelson (2010 – The Ever Expanding World of Dusty Vinyl)