Beatmaker Dixon Hill and rapper Noveliss have both made a splash in their hometown of Detroit and the hip hop scene in general. Noveliss (Jarred Douglas) is a touring artist with an MF Doom tattoo and a love of philosophy mods and funky tunes, Dixon Hill has released a number of groundbreaking releases, both solo and in collaboration with other artists. They recently formed a collaboration that can rival any indie hip-hip release, the recently released album Book of Changes.
While both the theme and the sound of Book of Changes would lead some listeners to refer to this album as "conscious rap", the work is also fun, danceable, and works as a piece of music that isn't just about its content . However, the content is also quite extensive. You couldn't really leave this album without gaining some serious insight, and neither would you want to.
Without drawing too many parallels to Wu Tang (and especially to Rza, his various meditations, his book The Tao of Wu and the soundtrack to the ghost dog), both Noveliss and Dixon Hill seem to be working on their interpretation of the famous I Ching of. Wanting to work together Chinese tradition, also known as the Book of Changes. With funky semi-lofi beats from Hill and articulate, thought-provoking flows from Douglas, the two seem to modernize the ancient text and contextualize it for the modern, and it's not too early with current events as they are.
Usually when we introduce artists to our readership, YEDM likes to do a new artist spotlight or some other shorthand, but with these two artists and the quality of the record it was clear they had a lot to say and we wanted to hear it. We sat down with Noveliss and Dixon Hill to talk about Book of Changes, “Conscious Rap” and why it just clicked on this album.
How did you two come to work together on the Book of Changes album?
Noveliss: Dixon contacted me and I looked at his work and was immediately excited to see what we could come up with.
DH: I had a connection to Detroit through my work with Guilty Simpson, and I began reaching out to other "the D" moderators that I respected. I emailed a ton of beats to Nov since I've been a fan of Clear Soul Forces' early days. I regularly heard his voice in my head while I was making beats. He was quick to work and the rest is history.
Noveliss, East Asian culture and philosophy seem to play a huge role in your work, and you are both interested in I Ching and other philosophical guides. Apart from the obvious Wu Tang influence, what is it about these texts and ideas that appeals to you?
Noveliss: As a long time student and practitioner of martial arts, I have always been interested in Asian philosophy and the spiritual nature of martial arts, sometimes even more than the physical side of it. I'm always interested in reading or practicing something that can lead me to a better version of myself.
DH: Wu-Tang is for the kids.
Left to Right: Noveliss and Dixon Hill
Dixon's style contains quite a bit of funk and melody that are a bit smoother than previous Noveliss offerings, and Book of Changes seems to give a more peaceful outlook. Was it a conscious decision to smooth the edges with more funk and Lofi vibes?
DH: When I make beats I have a lot of different styles and influences. One day I can do something calm and introspective and the next beat is aggressive and rash. When I selected beats that I sent to Nov for the project, it was more important to me how his flow fits the beat and whether the beat gives him enough space to be creative. I find with this in mind the beats tend to form on their own and later on you discover the thread that unites them after the lyrics are added.
It was a conscious choice to sit down and make beats, but after that I react to sounds and work instinctively; Only then can I put a label on it and tie the identity of the beat to any kind of vibe.
Noveliss: The sound of this project was all Dixon Hill, as was the idea to include everything in the I-Ching or the Chinese Book of Changes. We both share a common interest in these philosophies and it was stupid to stumble upon during the manufacturing process.
How did the songwriting process go in terms of collaboration?
Noveliss: Noveliss on the pen, Dixon Hill on the clay. We were subconsciously on the same page before we even discussed the central theme of the project. The beats he sent and the stuff I wrote just went together perfectly. For some songs, I had to open some of my books and refresh my memory. My favorite example is in the song "Feng Shui", the entire song is based on the five forces concept of Feng Shui.
The “metallic” power of Feng Shui has been described as a “sinking sunset”. I have a line in the song that says "Inner growth, he swam to the sinking sunset, eight immortal swords, his studies weren't finished yet …" that connects my connection with the metal force that would be my study of the sword. I am very proud of the way this song was written.
DH: The process went smoothly in terms of production technology. I trusted Nov to care about his verses because he was serious about his craft. The only time I asked him to repeat a verse was when he told me he knew he could do better. I could see he was pushing himself and that makes me feel good because I know he took the project as seriously as I did.
On the other hand, Nov respected my production decisions and allowed me to get creative with the concept. Every song is a puzzle and there are always challenges trying to complete a project, but this project represents us at our best because we have had the freedom to experiment. Nov left some gaps in "Feng Shui" so I sang a hook at the end. That was never the plan, but that's how it happened. The process just felt natural.
Noveliss, you seem to have a knack for talking about difficult subjects, but balancing it with philosophy or spiritual ideas. How important is it for you to implement your ideas in this way? Is this a balance that you would like to achieve in your own life / experience?
Noveliss: Absolutely, everything is connected. I always try to offer perspective, learn from each experience, and apply everything to achieve the best version of myself. Balancing these difficult issues through the lens of spiritual nature or philosophy is just connecting the dots and trying to understand things that we really don't understand.
Speaking of heavy issues versus spiritual equilibrium, since you two seem to be on the indie edge of hip-hop, how do you feel about the whole genre or style of "conscious rap"? Do you think it has to be marked as such? Do you have any criticism of the current mainstream hip hop culture / themes / sound?
Noveliss: In my opinion, there is no such thing as “conscious rap”. Be conscious? What does the label mean anyway? To me it means that in hip hop it's rare to be aware of the world around you and to share your views, and that's just not true. Sure, we may not like what other people are talking about or the way they get their message across, but it's all "conscious" whatever it is.
DH: Labeling music is a marketing decision. When we name a piece of music, we are essentially negating the nuances and details of it. It's handy to group styles of music into genres, but it doesn't get to the core of what we actually experience when we listen to a particular piece of music. It's very easy for rap music to become overly self-referential or stagnant by its own traditionalism, and the more artists devote themselves to hip-hop genres, the more we, as listeners, tend to be bombarded with the same repackaged content.
Hip-hop has always been a style of music that has represented creative freedom for me, and I find that hip-hop, which is referred to as "conscious rap," mostly captures that freedom for me. I think when you step out of the generally accepted subject of hip hop you tend to hit people's ears with something fresh, and sometimes that is just reduced to "conscious rap". Rap, which encourages people to look at their world differently, is exciting and should be celebrated for its courage and detail, not for convenience. Oh yeah … and mainstream music is mostly rubbish.
Dixon, how was this project different for you and how did you adapt your style? Was it easier or more difficult to incorporate your beloved vintage equipment on this album?
DH: This project was different in some key ways. Working with Noveliss has been great like I said, he takes his craft seriously and I feel like he responds precisely to the mood of my beats.
I've had situations where I send someone an introspective beat and they come back with a verse about sending tail pictures and I think to myself, "Did we hear the same beat?" That was never a problem in November.
In terms of arranging the album, the process fitted easily into my career as an artist. My last instrumental album (Holodeck Beats: Program 3) I consciously tried to combine the beats with a narrative and to make the album feel like a whole with beautiful bookends and transitions. Book of Changes was a full accomplishment of the same goal and part of that was the wealth of raw materials I had and the environment in which I worked. Of course I still rocked with my tape machines and old equipment, but I was isolated in a hut in the desert, with no internet, completely involved in the album and the I Ching concept.
What's next for each of you? Are there any plans to work together again?
DH: I always have music in the works. Some collaborations are on the horizon, though I can't say too much just yet. I would love to work with Nov again, I think we can keep making great music together. He was a great employee and I'm proud of what we did.
Noveliss: Hopefully I'll get back on tour and keep working on more things. Would definitely like to work together again, I think there's something here that isn't available elsewhere.
Book of Changes is available now and can be streamed or purchased here on multiple platforms. Check out other work by Noveliss and Dixon Hill by clicking on their respective names.