L.A.-based rapper Nova Rockafeller has a well-deserved reputation for being provocative, but she's actually got a decade of hard work under her belt, and just played a series of wildly successful CMJ shows in New York.
Ahead of her free show tonight at the Improv, we talked with the Boardwalk/Mercury emcee about linking up with tastemaker manager Jensen Karp, rap battles and how many people she's punched in the face.
Growing up in Edmonton, Alberta Canada, what was your first exposure to hip-hop?
This is going to sound really, really corny. You know those text [rap] battles in [internet messageboard] forums that people did? I'd smash fools. I just thought all of the local rappers from my city were really terrible. I thought "I could do that." I really loved music, but I didn't think I could sing and had no confidence to say I was talented, so I was a backpack rapper for a few years.
Then, I started singing hooks on underground super-local rap records. I remember listening to Kanye records and thinking "this is SO GOOD. Why am I not this good?" I tried to write verses. Nobody would book me shows, so when I was 18 I started throwing my own shows. I would literally walk four hours to hand out flyers, I'd hand out 3,000 over the course of a month, and come the day of the show it would be a 150 capacity venue and there would be a line down the block. It shows you from the beginning that hard work pays off.
How did you find those online battles?
I was really into the internet. I used to design websites when I was 12. I found a piece of paper that said what I wanted to be when I grew up: #1 a web designer and #2 a singer. Now I run my own blog and everything's good, I accomplished everything. #3 was a lawyer, but that's never going to happen. I dropped out at grade eight.
And you were big in the battle circuit for a time.
Yeah, King of the Dot, which is Canada's biggest battle circuit. I was very involved from the beginning with them. Their first Alberta battle, I was a judge at. I was very good at promotion even though I wasn't very good at rapping, and I was one of the few people who they knew who I was.
Do you remember the first time you rocked a show and felt like you nailed it?
I was on tour with R.A. the Rugged Man and Killah Priest in winter, 2011. Every show would get exponentially better, and right after I released my first album, Insufficient Funds, I was in Toronto with some of my best friends. I knew and loved the material so well. I remember getting off stage and people saying they connected to me. I have crazy social anxiety and freak out trying to talk to people, so when I'm on stage I'm expressing myself the only way I know how.
How about the first time someone you really respected gave you props?
I was on tour with Killah Priest, and he had never really heard me rap or knew anything about me. I booked the tour with some friends in the middle of winter in a terrible situation with the ice a foot deep. We had a show in Vancouver somewhere, and the next morning he said, "You really killed it, I didn't know what I was expecting." People had always been trying to knock me down, and the first time someone that respected said something nice about me made me feel like I could do it.
How did you decide on your name?
I was drunk, touring in Canada. Someone said to me "YOU NEED TO CHANGE YOUR RAP NAME!" I said "OK, what is it?" They said "NOVA ROCKAFELLER" and I said "That's pretty good. Cool."
You've been in L.A. for a year-and-a-half now, how does it compare to your time in the scenes in Canada and New York?
Moving to L.A., I still had no idea what the music industry was like. Now, I'm a signed artist and, everywhere else that feels like a big thing, but in L.A. I'm one of a million so I feel anything can happen still. There's very little security. Everyone aspires to get signed thinking "That's it," but I have friends who have the worst horror stories about getting dropped.
What was the process like taking meetings with different labels?
It was really weird. I do OK in meetings because when I freak out I tell jokes, and when I don't know what the fuck I'm supposed to say, I just tell you all the stories about how I can't play soccer. I'm very comfortable seeming, but I'm just dying inside from social anxiety. I had some bad meetings, I had some great meetings and in the end I wound up exactly where I should be, signed to Mercury and Boardwalk.
What makes a meeting good or bad?
One guy told me to stop playing with my ball-in-a-cup, and so I just held it and stared at him for two minutes.
Many in the States first saw you with R.A. the Rugged Man. How did you meet him?
I made out with him on stage when he was in Edmonton. But, then we stayed friends and people were really mean to me about it. I didn't talk to him for two years after it, but then he saw people were being mean about it and, like a good person, reached out and said "Don't listen to them. Stick with your music and you can really be something." I reached out to him when I moved to New York and we ended up dating.
How did you first link up with Jensen Karp?
He used to rap as Hot Karl and was really good friends with R.A. the Rugged Man. He fully understood it the second he heard my music. He said he was down and wanted to help.
You just put out the video to your song "Problem." How important is putting your visual touch on your music?
I want to do everything. I just love all art from web design to directing videos. I just love it, you know?
A recurring theme in your music is how crazy you are. What's the most insane thing you've ever done?
Fuck. I don't know. One time I threw a kettle full of boiling water at someone's head. I had a conversation a few weeks ago about the number of people we've punched in the face, and my number was, like, 25. The other girl in the room had never punched anybody in the face and I couldn't believe it. Things like that. I'm a very violent, troubled past kid and I'm just trying to work it out.
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