Just a few years ago, Nikolai Paiva (NIKO IS) found himself on the side of a Los Angeles road rapping for money. After losing a retail job and his apartment, he was in fact living the life of a starving artist, toking the spliff in fellowship with other musicians just to get by. NIKO today is more than just a dope MC signed to Talib Kweli’s indie label Javotti Media. Traveling the world on the strength of his word, he’s a redemption song to a samba dance, and a southern fried hymn echoing around a concrete jungle.
NIKO IS was born in Rio de Janeiro and moved to Orlando at the tender age of seven, after which with his mom’s blessing bought his first-ever hip-hop album at the now-defunct records franchise of Sam Goody. 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me would introduce NIKO to a new world of music and lyrics, one in which he would easily build a home.
“It was a transitional time. People moved to Orlando to try something new. There were people from New York and people from the Caribbean, all with so many different vibes and ethnicities,” he says on coming up with a single immigrant mom in a foreign country. “We only spoke Portuguese at home. I don’t speak English with her.”
The long-haired wordsmith adjusts his sizable 5’11 frame before recounting his early battle rap days of high school, where he met longtime producer friend Thanks Joey. “I was easily influenced by the Diplomats and G-Unit. [Laughs] I was very heavy into that and very susceptible to that as a kid,” he muses. “I was just always causing trouble, skipping school, and getting kicked out of class. I turned to the streets and rapping, and [even though] I was getting into trouble growing up, the music was always there—hip-hop really saved my life.”
After graduating, and a short stint in LA, NIKO – also part Argentinian – returned to the East Coast and gathered his crew to create Colours of the Culture. “We’re brothers. We’re creators. We created Colours of the Culture together,” he explains eagerly between swigs of New Amsterdam Gin. “Colours of the Culture is just a gathering of likeminded individuals who create. We’re from all walks of life, all of us have different vibes. I’m really glad that connection was made.”
The indie group consists of Chazmere a singer from the Bronx, producer extraordinaire Thanks Joey, NIKO himself and other vital members who contribute to mixing and mastering. “I’m extremely shocked at how good everything fits,” he added. “It took a long a time to find all the right pieces. Now we’re killing it. It’s amazing to work with these people.”
In an age where carefree hippie culture is so bought and sold, NIKO is not ‘trying’ to be different. He just is, assuming a distinctive rap cadence and musical steez all the while, which gained him recognition as a notable songwriter and exceptional freestyler. “I want that sound that you can’t put a finger on—it’s so Brazil, you know, but it’s so Florida, but it’s still kinda New York, but it’s also Puerto Rican and Cuban,” he says. “I’m the cornucopia of influences, you know, the gumbo pot.”
More holistic influences – ingredients – are essential to NIKO’s proverbial melting pot of sazón. No prepackaged sh*t allowed in his kitchen, he’s the soul food mercenary.
“I love Migos as much as the next person, I’m not knocking anyone. Everything plays a role and in the right context it’ll be great,” he says while admitting he doesn’t listen to radio so as to keep from tainting his boom bap meets tropical style. “There’s always going to be wack sh*t. There’s an agenda of people who push wack sh*t. They invest millions into wack sh*t because people also buy cheeseburgers. But I don’t eat McChickens. I’m not that guy that gets a dollar sandwich. That’s just not how we cook over here.”
NIKO IS—a conceptual idiom symbolizing his many experienced personas and identities, recorded previous projects Chill Cosby and Good Blood while simultaneously working on Brutus, his formal debut released at the top of 2015. As he travels between Brazil and Puerto Rico and New York, NIKO and his team ready a new EP called Good Air (Buenos Aires), which he describes as “third world music” or Argentinian hip-hop. What’s more Uniko, featuring Puerto Rican reggaetoñero Tego Calderon and rap veteran Talib Kweli, is a full-length LP slated to drop this summer as well.
“I want to keep doing these global collabos. I want to do some wild sh*t, break the rules. It’s 2016, nobody cares. We don’t have to answer to nobody anymore, we’re independent. I just want to create. If Frank Sinatra sang in Arabic—I want to rap in Portuguese and Spanish. Why not?”