NYKU IN LOS ANGELES, JULY 2015. PHOTOS: CARA ROBBINS. STYLING: LISA MADONNA. GROOMING: MARISSA MACHADO/ART DEPARTMENT.
In May of 2014, an unknown rapper named Nyku released a self-produced track called “Traffic.” It’s a song about survival: “Take a second to look around and get to know the view/ ’cause any second you could disappear and nobody remembers you/ you just another hood n—- with hood dreams that ended up dying at 17.”
The voice rapping these battle-hardened lyrics is a young one; watch the video and he looks like a kid. And at the time, Nyku was a kid, just 15 years old. But music, and hip-hop in particular, has always been an integral part of Nyku’s history. His mother is Leila Steinberg, a close friend and former manager of Tupac who currently works with Earl Sweatshirt and runs a non-profit that helps at-risk teens through music and the arts.
In the year and a half since releasing “Traffic,” a lot has happened in Nyku’s music life: he’s played shows with British rapper Little Simz, toured with Earl Sweatshirt, and released another track, “Unspoken,” produced by Lord Quest. Here, just a few days after his 17th birthday, the Oakland-born, L.A.-raised rapper premieres his latest work, “Day Meets Rain,” produced by Al B Smoov.
“I met up with Al B Smoov, who I was introduced to through Warm Brew, and he played me his beats and we just started building from there every Monday and Wednesday,” Nyku explains. “I would walk from school straight to his studio in the Valley and record and this is one of the songs we’ve made. I wrote this song from experience, and it’s how I was feeling at the time.”
LITTLE SIMZ: This is Little Simz. I’m just here chillin’ with Nyku. We already know each other, but we’re going to get to know each other a little bit better. So how did we first meet? When was the first time I met you?
NYKU: South by Southwest [in 2015] in Texas. I think you were coming to visit and my mom introduced me.
LITTLE SIMZ: Oh yeah, that was the first time. Since then, I saw you again when I came to L.A. and then you came to London, came to my show, hung out with some of my friends. And here again, we meet for the fourth time… So, you’ve been a fan of Earl [Sweatshirt] for a longtime. You introduced your mom to him at first?
NYKU: I wasn’t a fan of him at first. It was more like he was the talk of the time. Everyone was talking about Earl and I showed my mom the video that everyone was watching. After that, she happened to meet his mom, and his mom was talking to my mom about how he got sent to Samoa because he got into some trouble at the high school he went to, which I also went to. My mom was talking about maybe going to get him from Samoa and helping him with his music. It all went uphill from there.
There was a moment where she first started working with Earl and told me not to talk about it much because it was on the low. No one really knew. There was this whole thing going on with OF, Earl, and my mom. It was kind of just “keep your mouth shut.”
LITTLE SIMZ: So talk to me about growing up. I know your mom was heavily involved in the business side of music. What was that like? Who were some of the first musicians you ever heard? And how did you start making your own music? That’s a lot to answer…
NYKU: My mom has always been in the music business, so I grew up in it. I used to go to her music classes every week. There were a couple music videos my mom got me in. I was in a Snoop Dogg video when I was eight—”Cheah Beah” featuring this other artist named Young Dre. I didn’t really want to [do it], I was shy, but my mom brought me to the video shoot and I was just watching, seeing how it went down. Then they asked me if I could be in a scene and I ended up being in it. I was in a few videos in the Bay area, because I had a lot of family up north and my mom, when she was managing Tupac, was around that area a lot. I can’t tell you all the people’s videos I was in, but Snoop Dogg’s the one I remember most.
So I was always surrounded by music. I think that’s why I got into it; I always loved music, I would always write and make songs, but I never took it seriously until I was about 14. Now I’m thinking about how I’m going to make money, what I like to do, what I’m interested in. I finish school soon and I want my career to be music. I’ve already been in it; now I just have to take it a little more seriously.
LITTLE SIMZ: So you’re 16. In your life so far, what would you say the biggest challenge you’ve faced is?
NYKU: School. I just couldn’t stand school. I never wanted to do homework. I didn’t want to be in class. I’ve always had a problem with school. I’m a fan of education because I like to learn, but I’ve never been a fan of going to school—waking up at 7, going to school until 3, having to be at there that long and dealing with all that. I don’t think I want to go to college for music. I’m still thinking about college, I’m not sure though.
LITTLE SIMZ: Fair enough. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
NYKU: To trust in myself. I like when people tell me to trust myself, because sometimes it’s hard to trust in myself. That’s good advice to give. Not everyone can trust themselves and that’s why some people get held back and fail.
LITTLE SIMZ: Touching on the school subject, you’re now homeschooled right?
NYKU: From pre-school to middle school I was in public school. High school I did private school freshman year. I didn’t really like private school because I couldn’t be myself. I couldn’t express myself at the private school, but I got a scholarship [for] sports. I used to play football, basketball, and baseball all the time, but I kind of just stopped playing sports. I still play basketball for fun, and football, but I don’t play seriously anymore. Now I’m doing homeschooling so I can travel and work on my music.
LITTLE SIMZ: Have you always lived in L.A.?
NYKU: I was born in the Bay and then I moved out to Venice. I kept going back and forth. My grandmother is out in the Bay and my dad usually lived in the Bay and my brothers, so I’d be in the Bay a lot. But I also spent a lot of time in Venice and L.A…I think it shaped me a lot. If you put people in regions, I’m a West Coast kid. I grew up on the West Coast, so I love the West Coast.
LITTLE SIMZ: Where do you find your inspiration? Where does a song begin or end for you?
NYKU: When I’m going through something, I say I usually get inspiration from writing. But when I really want to make a song, when I’m trying to get inspiration for a song, I say instruments. Listening to different instruments inspires me. Working on a beat, or hearing a beat, starts to inspire me, and I start thinking of ideas.
LITTLE SIMZ: So you just got back from a tour in Europe. How was that?
NYKU: I loved it. But I was tired the whole time because of the time difference. We had to move around a lot from city to city, and take planes everywhere. It was super tiring. I liked London. I got to go to South Bank and the river. I got to see the Palace and a couple different things, but I think my favorite might have been Amsterdam. I loved Amsterdam. Out of all the places I went, it was the most warming. I felt at home when I was there. So that was my first time really leaving the country, besides [going to] Samoa two years ago.
LITTLE SIMZ: What’re your studio essentials? What do you bring to the studio?
NYKU: My backpack, my computer charger, my phone charger, my phone, and maybe a writing pad.
LITTLE SIMZ: Do you write on your phone?
NYKU: Both. Sometimes I’ll be writing on my phone or computer, but I usually write on my pad at home. When I’m at the studio, it’s just quicker for me to write on my phone or computer.
LITTLE SIMZ: Is there anything people don’t know about you that’s a fun fact they should know?
NYKU: I don’t like too much attention…
LITTLE SIMZ: You’re gonna get a lot of it!
NYKU: I love performing and people enjoying performances and the music, but I don’t like too much attention. I like people paying attention to my music.
LITTLE SIMZ: What star sign are you?
NYKU: Capricorn. Now I want to ask you some questions. When did you first start rapping?
LITTLE SIMZ: I got into rap when I was nine, started at my local youth club, and from nine to 14 it was just a hobby, something I enjoyed doing just to do. Then from 14 to 21 I took it more seriously and saw this as a career—what I wanted to do in the future and what I want my life to be.
NYKU: Do you think you’re always going to want to rap?
LITTLE SIMZ: I think I’ll always have a burning desire to rap, but whether or not I continue it forever is a different story. I think as I grow older, I’ll take on different things. There’s so many things I want to do in this life opposed to just music. I think it comes with growth. Right now I’m just enjoying this stage and making music and creating.
NYKU: Do you produce at all?
LIL SIMZ: I’ve actually started producing, but low, low, low, low key. No one knows. I don’t think I’m ready to share that with the world just yet. I’m going to silently work on that and master that. There’s no rush.
NYKU: If you could pick two of your favorite artists, who would you pick?
LITTLE SIMZ: Just two?! Come on… Tracy Chapman and Bob Marley.
NYKU: If you could give viewers and listeners a reason of why they should listen to you, what would that be?
LITTLE SIMZ: If you want honesty, if you want someone who will wear their heart on their sleeve, if you want someone that will openly share their experiences with you and talk about their challenges and their life and be very personal, if you want someone that isn’t afraid to say anything and just says how they feel, then I’m that person. However, if you don’t want that, then you probably shouldn’t listen to me because that’s all I have to offer—honesty, and truth, and a positive message… Let’s do random, quick fire questions: What’s your favorite color?
LITTLE SIMZ: What’s your favorite animal?
NYKU: I can’t think of my favorite animal right now. [laughs] Let me ask you one: what was your favorite cartoon growing up?
LITTLE SIMZ: Either The Cramp Twins or The Powerpuff Girls. It’s a tie. Or Tom and Jerry. If you were stranded on an island, what are the three things you would be sure to have with you?
NYKU: Something I could write stuff down on.
LITTLE SIMZ: That would count as two.
FOR MORE ON NYKU, VISIT HIS SOUNDCLOUD.