Essential Occupations: NiNE8 Collective Interviewed

Essential Occupations: NiNE8 Collective Interviewed

How lockdown forged inter-dependent bonds within one of London's most exciting arts groups...

NiNE8 is a collective forged through friendship. An inter-locking support group that now spans the Atlantic ocean, those relationships were pushed to the brink by the pandemic – but emerged strengthened, and emboldened.

- - -

- - -

For all its sprawling, seven-strong membership, NiNE8 is a collective where each role is – however loosely – defined. Lava La Rue is the self-confessed “mama bear”, whose engaging empathy and verbose creativity provides an entrance point for those around her. Mac Wetha is a producer, and now a Dirty Hit signed artist. Nayana Iz is pursuing supple, engaging neo-soul conduits. Biig Piig is out in LA, connected via Zoom and WhatsApp to her comrades. When she’s in London, her primary priority is – as she puts it – “making bare NiNE8 shit!”

But then there’s LorenzoRSV holding things down on admin, matching his studio prowess to the seemingly impossible task of shepherding this decentralised creative network. Bone Slim is a masked MC, a true hero of the London underground; DJ Sukha – or Nige to his mates – is the hinge between NiNE8 and their base at Map Studios, itself an endeavour built on the legacy of North London punk communities, and legendary pirate radio station Dread Broadcasting Corporation.

“Map is the perfect breeding ground,” Lava explains. “It’s a place where you can go to a night and there’ll be all different artists – like, this person did the cover art for someone’s record, that person worked on a session with someone you know. It works like that. It’s important to have spaces like that. Map facilitates a very organic kind of creative network.”

“A lot of our peers meet through Instagram or whatever,” she adds, with a note of disdain in her voice. “But if you meet people on socials then you’re naturally going to follow people who dress like you, and then you end up with this single view perspective on things. NiNE8 helps us to have a more well-rounded view. You create an algorithm for yourself, really, and it helps you break that.”

- - -

- - -

The collective started a little over five years ago, when the artists involved were still kids. Lava, Biig Piig, and Mac Wetha met at sixth form college – Nayana Iz was still a school girl, sneaking in underage to reggae nights. Uncertain how to progress in London’s ultra-competitive music scene, they began looking to one another for support. “We made NiNE8 because there were cliques on the scene,” Lava insists. “We didn’t want to join a clique, we wanted to make something that was co-operative, no matter who you are, or where you came from. It began more as a survival tactic, and then it blossomed into something really beautiful.”

“It’s something we’ve resented from the start,” Mac Wetha adds, “and it’s partly the reason NiNE8 was created. It was to create a movement that doesn’t have any of that – something that is community-based, and prove that art is possible without competition.”

“Even though it’s about collaboration NiNE8 promotes individualism,” states Lava. “With the collective mentality, first and foremost it came from necessity and ease. We all put a bit in so we could afford the kind of studio we could never afford if it was just one of us. And slowly through swapping and sharing resources we had a collective mentality.”

“Almost all decisions we make in NiNE8 has to be a unanimous vote,” she adds. “Even if everyone is cool with something but one person isn’t sure, we have to explore that.”

- - -

- - -

“They were just my whole foundation,” says Nayana Iz, reflecting on her first introduction to NiNE8. “They still are. The way we connect is from a very honest place. We’ve got each other’s back when we’re creating.”

“It’s an energy thing,” she adds. “When I first met them, I was just so shy. But they believed in me, and that brought me out of my shell.”  

Speaking to each member of the collective, what shines through is natural, organic friendship, and a deep, completely unexaggerated respect for one another’s abilities. “After I met them, I found this shift happening in my life,” says Biig Piig on a Zoom call from her West Coast tour. “Some stuff was happening, that I couldn’t process alone. It really bonded us. Now, when we write, it’s a place of no judgement.”  

“I think there’s a resurgence in the need for community,” she adds. “We need different spaces in London. It’s happened in the past, it happened with us, and it will continue to happen. It’s a little bit harder to find now, but it’s still there.”

- - -

- - -

“I love being in the studio with NiNE8,” smiles Mac Wetha, taking a quick break for air during our shoot. “It’s the best time. I think for a lot of us now, with our solo careers gaining more traction, there’s a lot of pressure from labels, and from yourself. The pressure you put on yourself to satisfy what you want to hear. Any of that. But with NiNE8 there is no pressure, you just make anything you want, so it’s way less intense in the studio and you’re keen to try out different ideas which then leads to better music.”

As we chat, a car roars by, a Deliveroo driver stops for directions, and a van reverses on to the pavement beside us. Rolling a cigarette, Bone Slim licks the paper and says simply: “the sound of London!”  

Indeed, it’s hard to divorce NiNE8 from their surroundings. They freely admit that they’re working with the support of platforms built in the past – Nige got his first job in London as a cloakroom attendant in Soho, working on legendary Caribbean music night Gaz’s Rocking Blues, before being inducted into the world of Map Studios, itself closely tied to the legacy of London’s subterranean punk and post-punk networks.

Pushed on the appeal of collective creative, LorenzoRSV takes his time while formulating an answer. “It’s easy, when you’re by yourself, to be narrow-minded and think what you’re doing is right or wrong. When you’re surrounded by other people that come from different backgrounds I guess they take you out of your comfort zone. It’s growth. Sometimes they’ll get me to think about situations that happened a while ago, through their concept of a song. It’s all a group effort in a sense, in that we all have each other to create and think about things that we basically wouldn’t do in our own projects.”

“I don’t think it’s ever easy to get your foot in the door without connections, and we all started without connections,” he asserts. “My overall ambition is to create the spaces to give back to the next generation.”

- - -

- - -

The closeness of the collective is evident throughout each conversation. When Lava is brought up, for example, each member of NiNE8 smiles, before offering a reminiscence about how they first met – whether that’s an open mic night, being introduced by mutuals, of hitting it off in the classroom. When Nayana Iz played her first headline show after the pandemic recently, every single member came down to show support – with Lava offering the first hug backstage.

“It’s so beautiful how we bounce off each other,” Nayana offers. “The way that my brain is around them, is just different. I feel so comfortable, and so confident in myself that when we bounce off each other it’s at a higher vibration. I think that’s my favourite thing about making music together.”

“I don’t think we really talk about it,” she smiles. “We just do our ting!”

For masked rapper Bone Slim, the bond is perhaps the key element of his creative life. Sure, his own solo cuts sit in their own lane – rugged penmanship matched to inquisitive production – but NiNE8 activity seems to bring him a quiet form of completion. “It’s like a family,” he explains. “I can always call one of them, basically. Putting a lot of emotion and soul into something that you love so much, like music, can be quite draining on the mind. So having a group like NiNE8 is crazy.”

He starts to laugh, bowled over by the positive impact of the whole endeavour: “NiNE8 over everything, that’s what I always say!”

- - -

- - -

Yet the pandemic brought a unique set of challenges. With lockdown the group were separated for the first time, forced to reduce their communication to emails, WhatsApp, and the occasional Zoom. “I feel like last year was a huge blur,” gasps Biig Piig. “I honestly would have lost my mind had the others not been there for me!”

Gradually, though, the world opened up. Unable to work from home, NiNE8 coalesced around Map Studios, traveling on empty tubes and walking deserted North London streets to seek solace in one another. “In our line of work, we still have to go into the studio,” Bone Slim explains. “So it was still essential. There were times when we were going to the studio, and everything was closed, the whole city was empty… but we still had to meet in order to make music. Because that’s how we do it. We’re not really online artists, per se. No one is tweeting at each other. It’s all about capturing it in the moment.”

“We all care so much about it,” says Nige. “When we get together in a specific place in a condensed period of time that is when the best music happens.”

For Mac Wetha, the pandemic broke him out of his shell. An adept producer, he was also a formidable member of Biig Piig’s live ensemble – but with gigs cancelled, he was forced to retreat inwards, and work on his solo material. A deal with Dirty Hit – the label behind The 1975, beabadobee, Wolf Alice, and more – followed, but he credits his solo exposure to the impact of the collective.  

“I was in my family flat, had nothing to do for months, so I thought: this is the time to work on my own music. Then I started making some stuff that I really, really liked. After all that started gaining momentum, I thought: this is what I want to do now. It set the stage for what I want in my life.”

“It’s all learning,” he says. “You put yourself into a way of thinking, but then you see how other people are in their own box, and then you smash each other’s boxes and suddenly you learn something.”

- - -

- - -

Chatting to each member of NiNE8 separately, Clash listens intently to a series of metaphors about the collective’s inner workings. It’s a maze, they admit; it’s a real-life social network, some point out. But perhaps it’s more like a garden – separate entities entwined, growing together, individual lives becoming enmeshed into a whole. “I feel like there’s just more freedom to express yourself in NiNE8,” says Biig Piig at one point during our call. “That’s not to disavow my solo material – but when I’m with the others, we just run with what feels right. It’s instinct. The whole idea of the collective is that we don’t limit each other. It’s not a control thing. We’re always learning from each other.”

A project of continual reinvestment, Biig Piig and Lava La Rue are on-hand to help Nayana IZ; LorenzoRSV and Nige are there to foster the studio buzz, while Bone Slim and Mac Wetha are spinning idiosyncratic solo webs. At any point of the day and night, you’ll find that they’re always there for one another. “Everyone has had breakthrough moments at different times, which is really helpful,” Nige admits. “Biig Piig and Lava coming up a bit sooner than Nayana gives a bit of perspective, just because people have had different experiences at different points in time. And spacing that out allows us to feedback what we’ve learned.“

Speaking from her tour bus, the benefit of distance allows Biig Piig to reach towards the poetic. “It’s a beautiful thing to watch your friends make their dreams come true,” she says softly. “Coming back to NiNE8… it simply reinforces the decision we made to start this thing in the first place.”

As we begin to wrap up the shoot, Clash invites Lava La Rue outside for a few final questions. It’s her that she delivers the coup de grace, the defining phrase of a day in the life of NiNE8. “Alone you can move quicker,” she says slowly, “but together you move further.” 

- - -

- - -

Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Elliott Morgan
Styling: Harry Clements
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

- - -

Follow Clash

Buy Clash Magazine