Bishop Nehru is taking a more direct-to-fan approach for his upcoming album, Elevators Act I & Act II, which will feature production from the elusive and inimitable MF Doom and electronic star Kaytranada.
Last month, Nehru hosted a series of intimate in-studio pizza parties for his fans so they can preview the album ahead of its March 16 release date. The sessions were held in London, Toronto, Los Angeles, and New York, giving Nehru the opportunity to hear instant feedback about each song. “It was a way to engage the fans into having them tell what the project is about, instead of going to critics to know what it is about,” Nehru says. “People really liked it. It was cool. Chill vibe. I don’t think I got any complaints or anything.”
While Nehru was in New York, Billboard was invited to a Soho House performance to see Nehru perform selected tracks from Elevators for the first time. Backed by a keyboardist and a drummer, Nehru opened with the Kaytranada portion of the album. “Driftin’” contains elegant flutes and a smooth bass line and sounds like a hazy dream that you don’t want to forget. Nehru layers well-constructed rhymes for the hip-hop heads: “I’ve been going HAM like I’m playing in the clutch / I got the Kyrie stepback when actors acting up.” Meanwhile on “Get Away,” Nehru delivers an energetic banger done his way — jumping on stage, as he gets into his lyrics about his aspirations and leaving all his burdens behind.
Lion Babe — the duo of Jillian Hervey and Lucas Goodman — joined Nehru for the track “Up, Up and Away.” It’s another dreamy song, like you’re soaring through space, perfect for Harvey’s singing. As Nehru transitions to the MF Doom half of the album, he’s comfortable, eating up the sample-based DOOM beats with ease, especially on standouts “Again and Again” and “Rollercoasting.” His final song, “Rooftops,” best represents the theme of Elevators, a focused MC whose lyrical showcases signify his competitiveness shouldn’t be ignored.
Below, Billboard spoke with Nehru about meeting Doom, his inspiration for the set’s title, if he listens to any new-school rappers, and his advice for the youth in the game now. You can also purchase tickets for his Los Angeles show at the Echoplex on April 10 here, and his New York City show at the Mercury Lounge on April 19 here.
Talk about your relationship with Doom. He had some beats on your first project, Nehruvia.
Back then, during [the making of] Nehruvia, those beats I was just using from YouTube at the time, that were on his Special Herbs projects or whatever. So to be able to work with him after that… I did a show [in London] and opened up for him. It was an amazing feeling for sure. Even now, to be able to just hit him up for advice or to get book recommendations and stuff like that, it’s definitely dope.
Were you always a fan of Doom?
Yeah, even before I even met him or anything, I used to argue with kids on the bus in high school about who was the best rapper at the time and I always said it was Doom. We didn’t know who he was, so nobody really agreed, but I definitely was always a fan.
You once told me you liked Nas and MF Doom for the way they painted pictures. And you liked ‘Pac for his stories and emotions. Now that you’ve worked with Doom, what has he taught you about songwriting?
Pretty much to do what you feel. Don’t really overthink it. There are times when bars would come to me and he said there are times when bars would come to him, and he would sit and think if the bars were actually fire for a while. Or writing and keeping the flow going and coming up with newer and newer things. So that was something that he told me — to not overthink when writing. That’s pretty much the start of writer’s block. Just overthinking.
How did you meet him in London?
I literally went there just for that show to open up for him and Ghostface [Killah]. It was through Converse [at the 100 Club]. I pretty much went out there for the show and ended up meeting Doom… He had heard my music before and knew that I worked on [his] stuff.
I think he had someone on his team who looked at everybody who rapped on his stuff for copyright issues or whatever. I guess he heard my s–t and he liked it. Ever since then, I pretty much had that connection. We ended up working on NehruvianDoom.
Why did you decide to name the album, Elevators?
Well, I pretty much had a dream where I was in an elevator that was climbing up really high floors and then dropping. It just kept going up and down, up and down, up and down, until I figured out how to get out of the elevator. I had to push the button to where it got to the floor. That’s how I stopped it from free-falling. It took me a while to figure it out.
Just the feeling of that — like, I’m afraid of heights. I don’t really like heights like that. Just the feeling of that, it was something that I felt was significant, and I had to figure out what the dream was about… So I pretty much put it into the music and the title.
Why did you want to get Kaytranada on the album to complement MF Doom’s beats?
I pretty much did a song with Kaytranada’s brother [Lou Phelps], and ever since then we’ve been pretty cool. We linked up in L.A. It was pretty much the same environment when I linked up with Doom. We made a track on the spot. And he told me, “We should do an EP.” Because he had a lot of beats that he wanted people to hear that weren’t really what he’s known for. Or dance [sounding]. So he said he wanted to do an EP, and I told him I was down for sure.
This started out as an EP before you decided to put it together?
Right. It wasn’t really thought out as an EP. We were just going to do a project. But I already had some stuff in the works for a while that I was already working on. But I ended up putting that project to the side for this one. Just because obviously the name of the producers.
Would this new project be similar to what you did on Magic 19?
Well, it’d probably be something mostly produced by myself honestly. I already started it and I had Act I and Act II. Actually, I had three acts for that project. I just didn’t want the idea to get taken from the time Elevators came out. I’ll just use this idea for this project. This idea is new and this is something that I came up with before it happens elsewhere. That’s pretty much where I got Elevators: Act I & Act II from.
The only feature on the album is Lion Babe. What was it like working with them?
They’re cool. We’d actually been cool for some time. It was only going to be a matter of time until we got some stuff done. I linked up with them in Brooklyn. [Jillian Hervey] laid the chorus down. Lucas [Goodman] did the guitar at the end.
How has your creative process changed over the years? Every year, you’re putting out something different.
I tried to take that inspiration from Kanye, and try to think outside the box and try to do something that nobody would do… I feel like I already know what I can do as far as the lines of music theory, and making a good project that people would like on a lyrical level. So I kind of want to experiment with different things and have fun with that as well.
What’s been pulling you for inspiration?
A lot of rock, honestly. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is very good. That influenced a lot of Elevators. “Porcelain” by Red Hot Chili Peppers. I’ve just been trying to use more of the resources I have as far as being able to get instruments and expand music theory. That’s what pretty much I’ve been trying to do.
How long have you been studying music theory?
For a couple years now. I’ve been reading a lot of books on it and things like that.
What are you reading?
Honestly, just complete guides to music theory. Just trying to sharpen it up. There’s a lot that I already knew but there’s a lot that I didn’t know and still don’t know.
How did you approach the record lyrically?
I just feel like on more of the Doom side that was the focus on lyricism. But on the Kaytranada side, I tried to focus more on music theory. I definitely put more time into it, trying to make it perfect. Other than that, I don’t think it was too much of a difference. I still always approach my music with the same motion, same energy.
How is this album being put out?
I’m putting it out under [my label] Nehruvia.
And how long have you been independent?
Magic 19 was independent too. A couple years now, three maybe.
In 2014, it was announced you, Boldy James, and Fashawn were signed to Mass Appeal. What happened with that deal?
Well, I just feel like creatively, we were going two different directions. That’s pretty much it. It wasn’t anything too crazy. A lot of it was what I wanted to do wasn’t what they saw me doing. I was just more for doing what I wanted to do.
During that time, Nas was calling you the future. And there were talks of you doing an album with him as an executive producer. Did anything come out of that?
Yeah, we linked up a couple of times. Most of the time we linked up, I was recording in the sessions, playing beats and stuff. I’m not too sure what was going on. I know it wasn’t anything as far as me messing up in the studio. That’s really the only part that I care about. I even told him that I just wanted to make tracks. Put the tracks out and let people hear the music. I don’t know. It must’ve been something with that as far as creative.
Would you want to work with Nas again in the future?
Yeah, he’s my favorite rapper. You feel me? It’s not changing my perspective. It was just a business decision.
What are your thoughts on these new, buzzing rappers who aren’t necessarily lyrical like yourself?
I listen to some of them. I feel like everybody has their own lane, everybody does their own thing. Even when Kendrick [Lamar] was coming up, there were people like that who were making s–t for the buzz and the hype at the time. I feel like eventually people see what shines through the darkness. Not that all that stuff is bad, I feel like it is a different lane than stuff that’s highly praised and critically acclaimed.
Do you still like when people call you a boom-bap savior?
I mean, it doesn’t really matter to me to be honest. When I first started making music, that was what I was doing it for. That was what I was listening to and nobody was listening to it. But I feel like I passed that point where people are making that type of music now. I feel like now I have different goals to pass.
Do you care about the term “mumble rap?”
Not really. I get the term, but I feel like it is to describe a certain sound. There’s terms for everything. There’s jazz rap. When they said mumble rap, that’s what I was thinking as far as what kind of rap this would be. I was trying to make music that was honestly, Grammy-winning music. That was my inspiration for the whole album. When people say mumble rap, I would say that this is Grammy rap. I put the opposite twist to it.
Puff was talking about how rappers are sounding the same, and they are saying the same thing. Do you agree with what Puff is saying?
I think everything is because of the Internet. There’s people making [stuff] who want to be YouTube stars. People who want to be Instagram models. People who want to be everything. I feel like everything is oversaturated, but I think that’s because of the internet.
We don’t really see you out often. Why do you keep such a low profile?
I’m just not into it. That’s not really why I make music. I don’t really like to be on the scene. It’d be cool to be on the scene, but I look at myself like more of a Prince. Like a Michael Jackson. I’m trying to be in that type of realm as an artist. They weren’t people that you just saw all the time, unless you had to see them.
They weren’t out in the streets—
They were in the studio! That’s kind of like how I look at it. I just want to make music, really.
Is there anyone you like? Do you like Tay-K or any of the new guys?
Yeah, I bump Tay-K. I definitely listen to Tay-K. Hoodrich Pablo Juan I listen to. That’s probably my favorite out of all the trap artists. Other than that, I still listen to old stuff like Alicia Keys. I wanted her to be on “Game of Life.” If she could like remix that, that’d be sick.
You’ve been in the game since you were 16. What’s one thing you’d want to pass down to somebody younger that’s coming up?
Always keep your heart in it. Sometimes you gotta low-key not play the role, but you have to do what you’re supposed to do to get to where you want to be. And that’s something that I am not really good with. I have a very rebellious mind. It’s either my way or the highway. Just learning to accept other people’s ideas and other people’s opinions. [It] definitely helps in the long run.