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MC Nelson Knows How to Get Deep Without Ever Being Boring

Get to know the Liverpool rapper who can marry British history with clattering, jazz-inflected beats.

Tshepo Mokoena

One of the best things about Liverpool rapper MC Nelson’s first music video of 2018 is how much its thumbnail fucks with your perception of what you’re about to see. The image crops a tight shot around his face, suspended in water of a faded yellow as though he’s been lying in it for hours. Purple petals frame his face and his eyes are closed. It’s the sort of still that makes you think, ‘cool, this is going to be slightly soft-focus and romantic, maybe featuring a bit of millennial pink or a washed-out cerulean background, slow motion and a colour contrast that’s been pulled right down to make everything dreamlike.’

Lol sorry, you’re wrong – or, to be clear, I was wrong because that’s how I envisioned the 23-year-old's “By the River” video might play out. Instead, it’s a clattering, fidgety journey from the seaside to a bathtub to a raft floating on a body of water on which MC Nelson casually spits over a warm sax and jangling guitar beat, as though that’s what we all do when punting down a river. Everything is shot in a crystal-clear focus that almost flattens the image in the way those little metallic point-and-shoot cameras used to in the early to mid-00s. It’s refreshing and tactile and beautifully married with his live-instrumentation production.

“The overarching thing that informs my music is growing up black in Liverpool,” he says over the phone, when I hassled him for his number minutes after spotting the video online. “A lot of people don’t even know that Liverpool has the oldest black population in Europe; everyone assumes it would be London or something, but it’s a story that’s not told.” So the song, and its heavily water-featuring video, pay homage to that narrative, to remembering the role played by water and port cities in bringing the spoils from slavery over to Britain from its settled colonies. “And I think it can be hard to tell a story like that purely through music,” he continues. “I love Billy Bragg, you know, I love his music but I’m not always in the mood to listen to like a ten-minute song called something like ‘Thatcherite’.”

That’s where music like his can step in, when you may want to listen to something with a story that goes beyond the personal but doesn't necessarily smash you over the head with a copy of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. “By the River” nods along with both jazz and shoegaze-y elements tumbling over each other. It retains some of what Nelson describes as his “super rappity rapper, all about BARS” roots, when he still took himself a bit too seriously. But it’s also got a looseness to it, which will probably make you think of composition flourishes recently used by King Krule, guitarist Austin Feinstein on Flower Boy or Blond(e) and the many collaborators who imbued Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly with its jazz finesse.

For now, Nelson’s doing this all DIY – no label, no management, lots of collaboration with mates (like the members of south Liverpool collective LEECH, who made the video with him). He’s grown since first getting into rap, “when I was nine years old and my brother brought home a burned CD of Boy in Da Corner. There was something about it that spoke to me on, like, a visceral level. I could understand that this was a black person from the same country I’m from, who’s on a platform and who’s out there.” If he continues to mess with our ideas of what Merseyside rap can be, and what it can look like, he may pull himself up to being on a new level of “out there” too.

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