If you follow internet rap, then chances are you've heard something from Miami's latest underground phonk rapper, N3ll. Though he's been making music since 2008, word has only started getting out about the young MC these past few years.
His 2014 mixtape, Boyz N the Hood, was a SoundCloud sensation, with featured songs by Miami's current golden boy, Denzel Curry. Last week, he dropped his newest mixtape, The Screw Tape, a hazy, '90s mashup with features by Amber London and Twelve'len.
Crossfade got a chance to interview the burgeoning artist about his musical origins and future plans. Who is N3ll? we wondered. Where did he come from? How did he get into into rap, and where is he going with it? Read the interview to find out.
New Times: What is your real name?
How old are you?
I'm 20. I'm about to be 21 at the end of this month.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the heart of Miami, Carol City, where everything goes down. I've actually been in this area since I was born. You know, I've never been anywhere other than Miami unless I was traveling for music or something. This is where I've lived my whole life.
Has N3ll always been your nickname?
Yeah, that's what they've been calling me for a while. I always was N3ll. So I just took it and ran with that. I tried other nicknames, like I had a rap name.
What was it?
I used to call myself Mac 10 and Trip. It was real old-school. But I just grew out of it. I was like no, that's childish, making up names like that.
When did you start making music?
I wrote my first song, my first lyric, when I was 8 years old. I had a special book this girl gave me. She just gave me a book, and I wrote a song in it, and that was the first time I ever did that. But I don't have the book no more. I wish I did.
So then when did you seriously start to make music?
It was definitely when I turned 16. It was my 16th birthday. I was still making music when I was 14 and 15, like I was rapping at school and stuff, like from middle school to high school, but I didn't seriously start till my 16th birthday. I got a microphone from my aunt. And like ever since then, I started making music with all my friends from the neighborhood.
Awesome, and you write your own music?
Oh yeah, yeah. Everything you hear of N3ll is all me.
Do you write in a notebook still?
I like to write in a notebook, but it's better to write in my phone because it's more easier. But notebook writing is like ritual, so I love that.
What was your first project that you came out with?
My first-ever project was called No Help Wanted. It was so old, but you could still probably find it on Datpiff if you type it correctly. But it was called No Help Wanted, and I did it a long time ago.
Do you remember how long ago?
It was probably four or five years now.
Where did you record it?
In my room. I had my own microphone, my own computer. And I was just in my room recording it, and it came about. I didn't think too big of it because back then, I didn't have all type of fans going crazy. It was just something I liked to do.
How would you describe your music?
I would describe it as unorthodox. I feel like I'm not really able to be compared to a lot of recent artists and a lot of artists that are out now. I feel like you would probably find a lot of people who rap like me but you'd never hear anyone who sounds like me in terms of my style. Whenever I come out with music, it's got to be different and real complex. I always do different music. I feel like it's just organic and powerful.
What do you rap about primarily? What are your songs about if you had explain it to someone who hasn't heard your music?
Basically, it's about the life of a kid from a city that doesn't understand him and he doesn't understand it. It's more of a harsh style once you listen to it. In my music, I'm talking about me, but I do a lot of different styles. But I would say it's different.
Who do you listen to, and what artists inspire you?
Oh man, I was actually just watching the whole House of Blues 1996 video like last night. I listen to a lot of '90s music. I listen to a lot of B.G. Knocc Out, 8 Ball and MJG, Snoop Dogg. I listen to a lot of that. I like DJ Quik. A lot of different artists from the '90s. Bone Thugs N Harmony.
Any contemporary rappers or artists?
I mean, I do listen to some major artists. I like listening to underground rappers. I listen to Rick Ross; he's one of my favorite rappers. I like to listen to Curren$y, Big K.R.I.T. I like a lot of underground artists like Joey Bada$$ and Fredo Santana. But I listen to more '90s rappers than today's rappers.
You just came out with The Screw Tape. How long did it take to produce that?
The Screw Tape actually didn't take long at all because it was already finished before we put it out. It came out months after it was finished already. It probably took me a month of going straight into the studio to make The Screw Tape. It was cool. I was just working with the same people every day, doing the same thing. I think we produced something great, and I'm grateful for it.
What studio do you go into?
I actually do a lot of stuff with close friends. I don't have a certain studio that I go to right now. I've been to cool studios, like Star Boy, but I like to make music in a certain environment. Like, when I'm at my homie's crib and he's got a nice studio. I'm more about the homey feel than being at the studio trying to feel like I'm at home.
And you're unsigned right now...
Right. I'm independent.
And would you like to be signed, or do you want to stay independent?
I mean, I'm having talks. I'm in the negotiating stages right now. I'd love to be signed. I know it would change a lot of different things. I'd definitely take that route.
What is your favorite song on The Screw Tape?
"Smoke Wit Me" is probably my favorite song. Either that or "In the Game."
Do you have any interesting stories about either of those songs?
Oh yeah. "Smoke Wit Me" was actually the first song that I ever made for The Screw Tape. And when I did that song was right after Boyz N the Hood came out. That was the next song that I made. My heart is on that song.
I really liked the last song, "Coming Down," which uses instrumentals from an Erykah Badu song. Do you use samples a lot?
I used to use samples a lot. I used a lot of stuff from Bones Thugs and Three Six Mafia and some Tupac. We used to use a lot of different stuff and mix it up. But now I've actually been making my own beats, as well as getting dope producers to do stuff for me. So I like making more original music than screw tapes, but I like doing screw tapes too. It just brings me back every time.
The first song I ever heard form you was "RTV Respect" from Boyz N the Hood. It was so good, and I didn't even know who you were at the time, but it made me look you up. Do you have any stories about the song and how it came about?
Oh man, yeah, like I actually got that beat from a friend, Lofty 305, and Lofty 305 actually got the beat from my homie Tommy Kruise. I never got to meet Tommy Kruise; that's why it's so crazy -- I never met him yet. But he gave the beat to Lofty, and he passed it down to me. It was first only gonna be me on the song. I was supposed to do two verses. And then I ran into Denzel Curry at the studio, and he wanted to do the song. He wanted to get on it with me. He actually fell in love with the song, and so he did his thing on it, and we made it into a classic.
Did you know Denzel Curry before you met him that day?
Oh yeah, yeah, I knew Denzel Curry for years now. He's always been a close homie even before we was getting big in the rap game.
Oh, OK. So who else have you performed with and done songs with?
I've done a lot with Curry, for one, and my brother R3ll. I work with Twelve'Len. But more artists I actually work with are Trademark Da Skydiver, Chris Childs, and Spaceghostpurrp. A lot of different artists that are big now.
I heard that you performed with Odd Future and Trash Talk. How was that?
I did a show with them in L.A. I think it was the first-ever show for Ham on Everything. That's actually the first time I met Trash Talk. And actually we did do a show with them when they came down here; that was in 2014.
What are your musical goals?
Honestly, I want to be nominated for the Grammys or something like that. I really want to do something outstanding when it comes to music. I know how powerful it is to have a brand, like I've talked to a lot of people about that. I want to branch out into the world more. I don't want to only be stuck in music. I want to do other things too.
Are there any artists or producers that you'd like to work with or wish you could work with?
Oh, definitely. I've been working with producers like El Camino Black and Show Off Beats, but one producer that I would really love to work with, that I've always wanted to work with, is Dr. Dre. I've always wanted to be on a Dr. Dre beat. Or if you want to get more realistic, I would love Hood Rich King.
Any rappers or artists you'd really want to collaborate with on a song?
Oh yeah, I want to do stuff with a lot of different people. I want to work with Rick Ross. I want to work with serious artists, like Bone Thugs N Harmony. People who are real deep in the game. Like Snoop Dogg, Meek Mill, Kendrick Lamar, Big K.R.I.T. People that I look up to, like Curren$y. And I really want to go deeper in the game and collaborate with people like Bun B. Like I want to learn from people like them who've been in the game for a long time, not really new artists. All they're really doing is staying big, but I really want to work with the older guys that know a little more. Artists like Pharrell. There's a lot of different artists I want to work with because I want to expand my craft and be a solid rapper.
When did you start getting fans?
I started getting fans probably around my first year out of high school. Cuz when I was in high school, I used to do sports and stuff, but like when I got out of school is when I started taking music more seriously and really making it to represent me as a person. So I started getting fans out of ground working and putting my music on YouTube and Twitter and SoundCloud and all that stuff. And that's when I started really generating fans. People coming around to my Twitter around 2008, 2009. But, like, when I started really getting bigger was through different people that I've met and doing different things on that level. It really boosted it up.
Are you talking about in terms of collaborating with other musicians or meeting people who are well-connected?
Yeah, that helped, and I got connected as I started doing different things with different artists. I got connected through the people that I met through the music I produced with other artists. So it happened in that order.
Who are your fans typically?
I mean, I have so many fans. I've got fans all over L.A., New York, and more. Based on the statistics, I've got fans all over, but I can't point out each and every one. But I can give you the sections and places that people who listen to my music come from. It's like mainly Miami, D.C., New York, Houston, and the West Coast strongly. I know a lot of young kids listen to my music, but I get 18 and up most of the time. We also get young kids trying to come up to the shows and can't get in, so it be like that.
What do you think the most helpful form of social media for spreading your music has been?
I think SoundCloud is the new wave right now. But YouTube always shows love, and Twitter shows the most love to me. But SoundCloud is always the wave in terms of releasing new music.
How else do you share your music?
I do a lot of groundwork where I go to inner-city areas, like Carol City or like local gas stations, or we go to the beach and hand out mixtapes to that type of crowd. I go a lot to the strip clubs throughout the city and pass 'em out and stuff and try to like get more fans.
What else do you with your life when you're not rapping and making music? What else are you into?
That's a nice question because I'm never really into stuff other than music, unless I'm going out. I like to go out to the clubs with my friends or go out to the beach and stuff and chill. But I'm never really not doing music. I'm always doing it like every day.
Wow, that's some dedication.
I know. It's been like that for a while now too.
Did you always know you wanted to make music? Was music something you always loved?
Yeah, because I was really forced into sports growing up, and music was the only thing I knew I could do other than sports. And I was always looking up to my brother cuz he was like king and also doing sports. But I really wanted to do something different. I didn't want to follow in his footsteps. I wanted to be my own person. And that's the only other thing I was able to do. So I pretty much always knew I was gonna make music for a living; it just took me a long time to make it.
What's the age difference between you and your brother?
He's like 11 months older.
His rap name is Rell, but what's his real first name?
His name is Darrell.
Tell me about this upcoming project you're doing with your brother.
That's gonna be something amazing. We haven't collab'd on a project for a while now because he's been doing a lot of his stuff. He's working on his Europe tour. So we've got a project coming that's going to be different from any other. It's going to be pure and new. Me and him together in the studio. It hasn't been like that for a while now.
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