It wasn’t long after rhyming on the side of a L.A. street that Niko Is found himself recording with Action Bronson. Recently cosigned by Southern Smoke Radio’s DJ Smallz, the Rio-born, Orlando native is now prepping for the release of his aptly-titled album, Brutus, which features a track with none other than Talib Kweli – but how does one strike such connections so early in the game? On a still and breezy Miami afternoon, VIBE sat down with Niko and long-time friend/producer Thanks Joey (recently signed to DJ Smallz’ production group, The Prescription) to discuss Niko’s streak of luck. With irrefutable passion and the stance of a visionary, it’s only a matter of time until O-Town’s hip-hop hippie hits mainstream spotlight. – Stephanie Long
VIBE: To start off, tell the VIBE readers who Niko Is.
NIKO IS: Niko Is. . . . I’m just a rapper, Gemini, expressing myself through my music, living, enjoying life. The whole idea [behind] Niko Is – my name’s Nikolai – is every time I make a song or an album, I think conceptually – Niko Is “dot dot dot. . .” Last album, I happened to be Chill Cosby and that was my chill side, laid back. I kind of just adapt. I have so many sides of me. With my music I like portraying that. I feel everybody’s just too one dimensional. People are more complex than that, so by being like “Niko Is,” I always have a chance to portray a different side. There’s a more serious side, more royal. Brutus. Niko Is adaptable.
So that’s what we’re going to hear on the next project.
Yeah, and every project is a movie for me. It’s really serious. It’s music. It’s my life, my reality show. People give too much of themselves out, I think, so I try to just do it through the music and it’s up for interpretation how people want to categorize me. That’s what people do. They put people in a box. “Oh, Curren$y is weed rap. Wiz is weed rap. Niko Is a Chill Cosby weed rapper.”
You’re more than weed rap is what you’re saying.
Of course. Weed rap’s nothing, you know? I smoke weed and I rap, so naturally I’m gonna rap about smoking weed. I also rap about going to the beach. I rap about meditating. There’s different sides and personalities.
You’ve been pushing your latest project, Chill Cosby, whose lead single, “Steffi Graf,” features Action Bronson. How did that come about?
I opened a show for him in Orlando and it just happened. I’ve loved Bronson since the beginning. [He’s] refreshing. He’s just a big Albanian man with a huge, red beard that’s a RAPPER. A dope rapper. A dope chef. That’s what I’ve been missing from hip-hop – just larger-than-life figures, you know? That’s what rap was to me, and I think with all of this digital shit it just got a little mixed up. I’ve always appreciated his art.
He came to Orlando. The promoter [thought] I’d be a good fit for the bill, so I opened up the show. My people talked to his people, and we went to the studio right after the show, like 3 a.m. It was my first real experience in the industry. At that time he was definitely still up and coming. He wasn’t where he is now. It was dope! It was just a good vibe. I learned a lot just seeing him in there. It was just straight to work for him. He just got there, chilled, smoked a joint, listened to some beats, you know. He’s like “That one.” It was awesome. It was a good fit, and that’s how I like my collaborations to be. I don’t wanna just work with everyone. People work with too many people, I think, and that’s dope, I’m about unity, but it has to be right. It has to feel right. I don’t want it to be forced.
Quality over quantity.
Do you keep in contact now? Have you spoken since the collaboration?
Not really. He’s big now, you know? We just did the song and it was what it was.
You also recently met Talib Kweli.
Tell me about that.
That was awesome. That was like a movie. I’ve always loved him. You know, he’s Talib. I grew up on him. I hold him with the utmost respect, and I’ve always wanted to work with him, but to me he was always unreachable. He came to a nightclub in Orlando, Backbooth, at this event called Shake ‘N Bass – it’s like trap music, moombahton, stuff like that. It’s really dope. My homie Triska throws it. And [Talib] just came in there to check it out and Triska’s like “Oh, it’s Talib!” and took care of him and talked to him and ended up giving him a [copy of] Chill Cosby.
The next day he hit us up like “I love the music, let’s work,” and we made it happen. We got him to the studio and right when he gets there he’s like, “I just wanna say I dig the music. I really like what I heard. I like the beats, I like your raps, I really think you guys have got something.” Just hearing that was like – I’m sitting there smoking a joint like, “Fuck. What?” That’s all I need, like Talib likes my shit, you know? That says a lot. [Joey and I] sent him a few beats. We wanted him to choose this [particular] beat, but we sent him a few options and he’s like “I like this beat,” and we’re like “Yes! That’s what we pictured you on!” It’s this dope song called “Carmen,” which is my mom’s name. It’s a Brazilian sample, dirty drums, New York style. It’s refreshing. We just kicked it, you know? It was natural.
Is he mentoring you now?
Nah, not at all. He’s a busy guy. He’s Talib Kweli, but he definitely mentored me in that session. It was surreal, so I’m excited. I can’t wait to release [“Carmen”]. It’s a genuine song. It’s not like a “single.” It’s not even gonna be a single. It’s an album song, a great album song, and that’s what it was. Just seeing someone like that work, like how he recorded, you know, I definitely picked up a lot. It was a learning experience for me, definitely.
I read that you recently met DJ Smallz and he agreed to help propel your career. As an artist still coming onto the scene, how does it feel to already be receiving that sort of support and recognition?
It’s a blessing. Smallz is the man and he’s been real supportive. He’s been definitely mentoring a lot and just showing me a lot of stuff. There’s the music world and there’s the industry, and this is a music business. Whether I like it or not, it’s a business, and I’ve definitely been learning a lot of ropes and it’s great. The cosigns are great, for the music. I just want people to dig the music, you know? It’s what we do. It’s me. When you get the music, you get me, you get Joey, you get us, our circle. It’s exciting.
Taking it back a bit, who did you grow up listening to?
I grew up listening to Biggie. Biggie and Jay are the gods to me. I listen to a lot of Brazilian music, like dope 70’s psychedelic samba. Obscure shit. I love Outkast. I love Andre. I love people who just do different [things]. I’m open to all that. I’m a big Pink Floyd fan. The Beatles, obviously. I study The Beatles. I had my Beatles era where every song, every note, I’d just listen to it and try to take these inspirations and make them genuine and bring them back out.
Word. And you’re originally from Brazil?
I’m half Brazilian and Argentinean and I was born in Rio, so with Brutus we used a lot of Brazilian influences. I’ve been saving that. We’ve been experimenting with Brazilian sounds for a long time, but we’ve been waiting for the right platform for this project because this project is our baby. It’s all produced by Thanks Joey, and it’s very southern, it’s very New York, but it’s also very Brazilian. You know, it’s just like a hybrid. That’s what people want. You have Big KRIT who’s the best at making great southern music with substance. You go to him for that. You go to Joey Bada$$ for that raw New York. I wanna be that guy where you can take this and take that, all different angles, without trying [too hard]. I think that’s where artists go wrong. They try too hard to capitalize on all markets and they end up losing themselves in the mix.
You were in Brazil for how long?
I was in Brazil for seven years and then I went back every summer to play soccer and shit.
How has that influenced the general sound of your music?
It’s opened my eyes to a lot. I had a life-changing experience when I was like 18. I grew up in Orlando, very hip-hop. Maybe too hip-hop, and I was kind of closed to experimenting with new things up until I was like 17/18. Then I went to Brazil and that’s when I became an adult and I was free. I graduated high school, started smoking weed religiously, started listening to other music, experimenting and reading more, and it just gave more levels to my music and to me as a person. Growth.
And you can kind of hear that. You sampled Warpaint in one of your songs.
I did! On an early album.
Yeah! I think I sampled another song, too, on that album. That’s dope! Warpaint’s dope. I love taking [from] that world. A person that can cross over the right way can take from the hood and take from the suburbs and create a happy medium for people. It still has that little hood undertone, but it still has that yuppie vibe.
You started rapping at a young age and would, I quote from your bio, “intentionally receive detentions” so you could “sit and write rhymes for hours.”
I write too many rhymes. I don’t stop writing. I think in rhyme. I think in metaphors. I think in puns. It’s beautiful. It’s a curse, too, because I used to tend to over think and try to do too much, and now it’s perfect. I’m getting to a point where I can fully express myself how I want. I’m starting to gain a bigger platform. People are actually interested in hearing something, so it works for me, definitely.
You were even once on the side of a L.A. street rapping for money for studio time.
Yeah! I moved to L.A. I fell out of love with hip-hop for a little bit – not so much [with] hip-hop, but my involvement in hip-hop. I was just lost. Me and Joey started experimenting with really weird shit. We started listening to a lot of like Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, and we were just doing some really experimental shit and we were trying to drift from hip-hop for a second. And then I kind of lost myself and was like “Okay, I need to go to L.A. and find myself,” and I went there and experienced it. I got a job at American Apparel. I managed American Apparel in downtown L.A., Little Tokyo. It was great. Then I lost my job, lost my apartment, became homeless – the artist life. It was good! Because I met so many musicians. L.A. is just crowded with awesome musicians. And we would just go in the streets, smoke weed and rap on the streets. I had long-ass hair and [there’d be] people playing guitar, you know, spoken word shit. It was awesome. People care about that there.
It’s dope! It grounded me. I came back and was like “Okay, this is what I have to do.” It took a year to build back up, but me and Joe finally got back together. [L.A.] was a missing link.
So Joey’s been around for a minute then.
NIKO IS: Since the beginning. We started together.
THANKS JOEY: We started making music together when we were like 14.
NIKO IS: And he didn’t even make beats then. He just beat boxed. And we’d just be in high school walking through the hallways. He would beat box, I’d be rapping, we had this kid named Chris who would break dance. You know, so it was like Krush Groove. Then Joe started making beats. He sucked at first. I sucked at rapping. I used to battle [and] get embarrassed. We grew together. It was great. We drifted a few times. We stopped and we would venture and experiment with different mediums and now we’re back and we’ve been on the same wavelength for a while. That’s my producer.
[To Thanks Joey] Being that you’ve been with him for such a long time, what kind of growth have you seen in Niko?
THANKS JOEY: I mean, just as a person, a tremendous amount of growth. What’s funny is when I first met him he was listening to a lot of Three Six Mafia and a lot of southern stuff and I was on my New York – straight Biggie, Jay, Nas, New York staple pieces, and I was like “Man, you gotta get on this!”
NIKO IS: He played me “Special Delivery” in 8th grade in French class before we even made music, and he had these HUGE headphones, which was a taboo in 8th grade. And with these big-ass headphones he’s like “Listen to this,” and I swear it was like a movie. He just gives me these big-ass headphones and it was like “Spe-cial delivery!” and I was just like “Unh!... Unh!” [Bobbing head]
THANKS JOEY: [Laughing] Changed his life.
Nice. Flashing forward, what can listeners expect in the next year or so?
Incredible music. Incredible mind-blowing, genre-bending rap music. A lot of growth. A lot of dope work. We have this project coming out, Brutus, that’s all produced by Thanks Joey. He has a studio, the Red Head Piano Room, and that’s where we’ve been working, just me and him every day, crunching, making this album perfect. We have a bunch of songs coming out, music videos. [I’ve been] experimenting. I’ve been directing music videos, just trying new things. I wanna get the right visuals for it. We just shot the first video for Brutus, and it’s inspiring to finally see our masterpiece see the light of day. It’s awesome. Couldn’t be better.
Anything else you want the world to know?
Brutus. Brutus is our masterpiece. I’m really excited for people to see the transition of my music because you get one side of me and it’s easy to typecast me. When you hear Chill Cosby, it’s very laid back, it’s non-threatening, it’s chill, you know? It’s me having a good time. These new songs I’m gonna start releasing are a bit more aggressive, a bit more subjective. You get the more strong side of my personality. Brutus is like the culmination of a bunch of Nikos. It’s more royal. It’s regal. It’s a different level of musicianship – the way it sounds, the production, the features, the instruments. We were very meticulous with this project as opposed to other ones. We worked hand-in-hand for a year making a great album. I think people are really gonna open [their] eyes with Brutus. It’s gonna be the stamp, my first official project. Niko Is Brutus.
And when can we expect that? Tentatively.
THANKS JOEY: Probably late summer.
NIKO IS: We wanna do it the right way, you know? Talib’s already on there, and that was the first song we recorded for Brutus.
That like foreshadowed everything.
We weren’t even expecting that. The best things come in surprises. DJ Smallz told me that. He’s like, “I believe in surprises,” and I’m like, “Word.” And I met Smallz as a surprise. We had a listening party [at Plush Studios] for Chill Cosby, and he just happened to be there. People don’t understand what’s about to happen. I have a lot of plans. I really wanna do a lot with rap music and hip-hop and take it somewhere its been kind of. We need more Outkasts. We need another Andre. We need another eccentric figure that just drops these amazing [songs], and it’s just real, it’s natural. There’s a reason why he’s respected like that. I’m dying to work with Andre 3000.
Everybody is [laughs].
Who isn’t? Jay Electronica. Please put that in there. [Subtly banging on table] I wanna work with Jay Electronica I wanna work with Ab-Soul. We’re fro brothers. I have this crazy concept that when we meet it’s gonna be like doppelganger, like “What?” The hair brothers. And everyone’s young, man. There’s so much young blood in hip-hop and we need to take advantage of that. We need to push it to get hip-hop where it needs to be, where it’s getting. It’s getting so respected. They need to think of hip-hop musicians as jazz musicians. You know, you tell somebody you play jazz and they’re like “Oh. Woa. You’re a jazz musician. You must know how to play really well.” That’s how it has to be with hip-hop, you know?