While their music pops with raw, stoic flows above minimal, woozy beats but an ethos of positivity runs tight through London's NiNE8 Collective as they strive to create an open platform of collaboration and opportunity
When I first meet the hyped London collective NiNE8 on Brighton’s beachfront the first thing that strikes me is both their youth and a palpable self-assurance.
Perhaps it’s heightened in contrast to my own tired and haggard self on day three of The Great Escape Festival, where at least ten of them have gathered for a special headline performance on NOTION's stage, but as they talk to me with candour and confidence there is a sense of justice and assertiveness in their tone and demeanor that belies their years – their name references 1998, the year most of them were born – and suggests the extent to which they’ve worked and have waited to be here.
Together the group create low-fi, alternative hip hop, model, design clothes and create visual art, and consists of nine key figures: the inimitable Lava La Rue, MC Niall Williams (aka NIGE), the already acclaimed Irish rapper Biig Piig, producers Mac Wetha and KXRN, masked rapper Bone Slim, MC and producer Libaan (aka L!BAAN), plus vocalist and MCs Nayana Sharma (aka IZ) and Lorenzo (aka LorenzoRSV). “There's nine of us in the initial group,” Lava tells me, “NiNE8 Collective is the actual collective of people making music but outside of that there's the House of NiNE8, our external family, our community, the artists that we collaborate with, other creatives who aren't necessarily musicians.”
As I sit with them in two different groups, some members come and go at their will, sitting quietly and nodding in agreement before leaving to talk to someone else in the periphery. The joining process for NiNE8 is not a formal one but a natural result of collaboration, which as Bone Slim notes, is the whole point: “We made music initially, but with NiNE8 it was all about collaboration so we just wanted to make a platform whether you made music or not, whether you were the best in your art class at college or even if you were the worst, we tried to make a platform that is equal on all terms. Music is great for everyone but if you're deaf you can't hear it. With NiNE8 it kinda feels like we can cater for any person whether you can hear it or not. We're trying to achieve something that is for the masses.”
On their website the collective have a ‘contact us’ section for those “interested in getting involved with the movement”, and NIGE tells me about a few of the different artists from around the country who have shown their interest. Such an open-source approach has been key to its growth of output and opportunities. “There's a collective pragmatism to it too with creative currency; by bashing heads together you can create a product you wouldn't be able to do yourself; that's the whole DIY ethos of it, we're not a collective because that's what's 'in'. If you exchange and barter stuff without money with other creatives you can go places.”
But regardless of the artistic benefit of such an approach, Lava is keen to stress that before anything the collective is a friendship group, and so the same natural shaping and growth applies.“It's weird telling the story of how we got together because it was organic. I was chilling with Libaan for ages but there was never a moment where I was like, 'Hey Libaan you're officially in NiNE8.'” Libaan laughs and nods in agreement. “If you have a friendship circle there's never a moment where you announce to someone that they're part of the circle, it just happens doesn't it?”
Though its boundaries may be fluid and it ethos democratic, it’s clear that 21-year-old Lava has a leading role. The foundations of the group were laid when she was sixteen and put in a music tech class at college in west London with Mac Wetha, who would become the collective’s main producer, and Biig Piig. Gelling instantly and bonding over a shared appreciation for similar niches in music and fashion, they began to hold small freestyle sessions and get-togethers. "The places I was staying at the time I'd have little ciphers when nobody was home. First ten people came, then twenty people came, then fifty people came and then I was like 'Shit I need to throw an event or something.'” These ciphers began to snowball in both attendance and talent, and a mixture of entrepreneurial spirit and simply the need for a birthday party venue lead her to hire out a space for what would become the first Nine8 show. “It was this tiny thing I put on when I was seventeen and it just looked something like Boiler Room tries to achieve or something, so I was like 'Wow this should actually become a movement.'”
The first show was where they met Lorenzo, Lava tells me, and continues to list how each member consecutively joined after meeting each other at shows, shoots, the skatepark, or just through other friends. Though comparisons have been drawn to other, more internationally renowned collectives such as Brockhampton, it’s clear they’re proud of the way they’ve developed as friends first. “We all appreciate real life spaces,” Lava continues. “More and more today you're meeting couple who met on Tinder or groups that have met off Twitter and Instagram, but I think the way we've all met, you could put us in any other decade, the '80s, the '90s, and we still could have met the same way. By meeting in real spaces we got to know each other from the get-go, but those who have come together from the internet might not know each other, they just know their sounds or aesthetics. We all really fuck with each other, do you know what I mean?”
They talk about each other frankly in terms of what the experience has meant for them and how far they’ve come. Nineteen-year-old Nayana, the youngest in the group, admits with striking honesty how getting involved with the collective helped her deal with serious issues. “I started making music as it really helped with my mental health. I was getting bullied for my music at first, people were making fun of it. I mean everyone has to start somewhere, and I was kinda whack to be honest, but now you can listen and decide for yourself,” she laughs. “But the music just helped me so much, expressing everything through it took so much weight off everything I had in my head”.
Though ‘London collective’ is often attached to the group, they seem to agree that though their city is integral to their individual identities and development, the term is a bit of a misconception, as its members come from all four corners of the vastly diverse city, and representing and promoting each other’s different perspectives is far more important. Having just released their first official mixtape No Smoke, Bone Slim is hopeful it will prove “that we're not just repping London or England or Europe. It's not just for one place, it's supposed to be enjoyed wherever.”
“In our name it says collective, we can do performances together, but we also do our own thing, which is why it's a platform. The way streaming algorithms work these days, if you play one of my songs and then another members song will pop up after just by being affiliated. Making networks with other people on an independent level like that is only going to be beneficial.”
Though they have made music together in various guises before, the mixtape is the first time the group has blocked out a serious amount of time to record a full release. Fittingly it’s made up of nine songs, each with its own wavy, low-fi glow; though there’s a kind of muddled melancholic air throughout it is often ballsy, funny and rhythmic. It’s opener and lead single “Take Off” is its catchiest, and aptly captures the air of excitement and confidence I felt when meeting them: “Leave behind whatever you don’t want, we ain’t fading no / We’re levelling up, we’re levelling up.”
As well as No Smoke and a string of upcoming shows in the past year the collective have also had high-profile collaborations with Converse, Asos, Tate Modern and London Fashion Week. I wonder if they hope to break into more ventures this year or rather take what they’ve already got onto a bigger scale? Surprisingly they all seem giggly and coy when trying to give me a proper answer, like they know something I don’t, but seeing my search for a response Bone Slim obliges. “I want Nine8 to blow up like the vape industry did but never plateau. I want to be in every corner shop and every off-licence, something NiNE8 in there. A tape, a drink, a sweet, an alcohol. Even one day making the cigarette package images, that would be cool.” Everyone laughs, but I don’t think he’s joking.
For all their friendly bravado NiNE8 seem to have their heads screwed on, driven by the unifying idea that “this feels right”, and keeping themselves in check by putting their friendships first and remembering that they would still be up to the same tricks even if no one was watching. Libaan, who has remained relatively quiet throughout, argues that not viewing it as a regimented brand or business has been key to their collective success so far. “There's never any pressure. As time has gone on and we've got older I'd say it's come more natural, like we know we have to do X, Y and Z and just get it done. If we let it get to that point it's going to ruin it, you kind of have to stand outside of it and see if you're doing it for the right reasons. We all started doing this for fun, and that's our aim.”