The Conqueror Returns

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We were already knocking back our second shot of whiskey when Nickelus F walked into Commercial Taphouse (local bar in Greater Richmond Area). Sliding into the booth alongside us with a worn backpack and noticeable jet lag below his eyes, you wouldn’t suspect that he is one of the most dominant rappers on the east coast. Or that the rapper just returned from his first national tour.

At 35, Nick carries himself with a casual humility, one that is both sly and confident He doesn’t care much for his signature stagename, instead opting for a rotating name game. “I’m a master of names. Like…I’m Nickelus F, but I’m also Sweet Petey, I also go by Jellyfish Jones, Nick Fury, Bison Beckford…” He names a few more, his hands offering a different gesture for each. “Rufus Ogelthorpe, Gomez Garfunkel, Horace Hardbody…it’s my thing.” His grip on the name game starts with MF Doom, one of his top inspirations and a mentor in rap aesthetics, telling us, “You got MF Doom, but you also got Madvillain, you got fucking King Gidora.” 

Settling in for what was obviously becoming a boozy interview, we ordered another round of whiskeys, clinking glasses to his successful tour. When asked how it went, Nick popped out of his seat full of energy bringing to life the atmosphere of being on the road.

“The shows, that’s what it was for me,” Nick said, telling us that his fanbase has always been diverse which adds to the energy of the shows. Watch any of the Instagram videos Nick posted during the tour and it is not hard to see that kinetic energy on full display. Yet he also acknowledged how his verse adds to the accessibility of his music. “I feel like a lot of things I talk about are human truths. So doing those shows, I love the energy.”

While no stranger to performing, this was his first continuous tour and while Richmond is always close to his heart, he said the tour stops in Memphis, New Orleans, Houston, and Atlanta were some of his favorite shows, describing Philly as “fucking insane.” 

 “It was very eye-opening. It is hard to see it all if you are not getting out there touching people in these different cities. That was the powerful part for me,” he said. 

Pointing out how intense some of the shows could be, he said, “I tapped myself out early! I lost my voice from performing way too hard after my third show and my knee was still sore from stage diving.” That’s not hard to imagine if you’ve ever been to one of Nickelus F’s shows. His presence on stage is confrontational, visceral, and totally engaged with the audience.  

Recently heralded by Pitchfork as a leading figure of Richmond’s rap scene, Nick is seeing some major airtime and rightfully so. The veteran rapper, who dropped his eighth studio album, “Stuck” back in May,  has cultivated a strong following from nearly two decades in the scene and is quick to admit that everyone is talking about Richmond. “This is the place. Even if you go anywhere else, even in the 757, Northern Virginia, they’re all talking about the Richmond scene.”

Yet success doesn’t happen in a vacuum and according to Nick, collaboration is key for artists and something they need to embrace in a small city. “[I want] to grow this city, to grow the culture. I want to work with more people, do more collaborations, I love brainstorming and throwing ideas around,” he said. The rapper said he’s been in talks with Richmond metal band Division of Mind about a potential collaboration. “We talked about it on the tour, I really fuck with what they’re doing,” he said.

That’s the River City grind which is putting Richmond on the map.

Joining Nickelus F on tour was fellow Richmond native and hip-hop heavyweight, Lil Ugly Mane. Back in 2015, the two joined forces to release a joint album, “Trick Dice,” which was distributed as a cassette throughout Richmond and sold out in almost an hour.

“Ugly Mane is like a crazy genius, he’s well versed and he comes from the punk scene, he’s a pure dude with a high integrity level in the music he creates,” he said. “When we did ‘Trick Dice’ together, none of those songs sounded the way they did when I initially recorded them.”

Comparing Ugly Mane to Frankenstein, Nick described him as “the doctor who created the monster.”

While many artists from the River City look elsewhere for the break, striking out for New York or Los Angeles, Nick still loves the grit of Richmond. While he was quick to mention some of the other scene pioneers like Slapdash who created Epic Fest, he also talked about how culture acts as the connective tissue for the entire rap community. “What’s going to blow people up from out of here is light being on the whole scene, that’s what makes it special. It is not just going to be one person. People are going to fall in love with the culture of the city the same way they did with Atlanta, Houston, and the Bay Area. The culture blows an area up.”

Yet its not just the music that keeps Nick grounded. Being a father to two sets of twins is only one of Nick’s accomplishments. Add that to eight studio productions, an induction into the 106 and Park Freestyle Friday Hall of Fame, and a recent degree from VCU in strategic advertising and Nick is well placed for what’s next.

And even though he just got off an intense tour, Nickelus F isn’t ready to relax just yet. He said he wants to tour more often, but wants to fly solo for his next trip on the road. For this, he made another investment shortly after graduation – an investment in himself to better market his brand. “I took what I have and what I learned about websites, made an LLC, I got Illustrator and Photoshop, I made shirts. With what I have now, I feel much more liberated and less worried about the future.”

With the growing rap and hip-hop community starting to extend past the creative confines of New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles, more eyes have been put on smaller communities to enrich the market with genuine originality.

And with few cities able to compete on the grounds of tension and controversy, Richmond has the resources to incubate the next wave of artistry. Few know this better than Nick, who has articulated his challenges into the narratives and verse he is now known for.

“Before I went back to school, I went through dead-end warehouse jobs,” he said. “I’ve always worked hard jobs where I was easily replaceable – they could chop me and fill somebody else in – and it happened, right after I had my babies.” All of his hard work has started to pay off though and for the first time, Nick has started to see a return on his rap career, telling us, “It’s amazing because I’ve made more money since graduating [last May] than I have in a long time – like, since ever.”  

After several more drinks and some off-the-record banter, we got up to leave. On the walk, a person or two would break away from their tables to shake Nick’s hand. Some simply wanted to congratulate him on a successful tour, while the bar owner told Nick the next time he came in the first round was on him.

A short time later we rendezvoused at the house of our managing partner to bullshit over some more whiskey and a joint. I gave him one more question, asking him what’s next?  

He answered confidently, “A whole lot of ruckus.” 

In the meantime, catch Nickelus F at Vinyl Conflict’s upcoming Customer Appreciation Day concert Sat., August 25 alongside hardcore punk bands Bib, Nosebleed, Deviant, and Slump.

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