Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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River Nelson: It's all in the flow

River Nelson
River Nelson River Nelson

Having begun his recording career back in the Nineties when he hooked up with then-hot New York rappers Boogiemonsters to feature on said group’s classic 1994 debut LP ‘Riders Of The Storm: The Under Water Album’, Brooklyn-based MC River Nelson has since gone on to carve out a respectable following for himself playing the NYC underground circuit.

All of which has now finally resulted in the release of his critically-acclaimed debut album ‘The Rise And Fall Of River Nelson’. Which - produced by UK-raised, New York-based hip hop maestro Lewis Parker (after the two met at a listening party in downtown Manhattan for fellow NYC rapper Medina Green) - has already attracted comparisons with the likes of Talib Kweli, Common and De La Soul. As cuts like the string-laden, funky single ‘Beautiful Life’, gospel-tinged and cinematic ‘Always Winter, plus Indian sitar-laced ‘Unbeatable Foe’ combine Parker’s soulful, early-Nineties-flavoured beats with Nelson’s innovative lyric themes. Many of which reflect the daily triumphs and losses we encounter in trying to achieve our goals.

Relaxing in his publicist’s Highbury offices on a rainy Friday morning, an eloquent and deep-voiced Mr. Nelson (who signed his first record deal - with Arista - back in the mid-Nineties) gives an ever-attentive Pete Lewis the lowdown.

The title to his current, debut album ‘The Rise And Fall Of River Nelson’

“I really wanted to capture like the triumphs and failures of everyday life - particularly in terms of my own pursuits. Which is why, first and foremost, I’m dealing with the pursuit of trying to get the MUSIC heard as much as possible. You know, because there’s definitely a lotta happy times and disappointments WITHIN that pursuit, I was really interested in documenting the whole process - especially in terms of the emotional side, the psychological side... Plus of course there’s also the overall pursuit of just being the kind of person I want to BE. Where again there’s a lotta wins and failures, rises and falls when you’re reaching for something better... So yeah, that’s basically what the title ‘The Rise And Fall Of River Nelson’ symbolises. You know, it’s life and it’s CONSTANT! Some of the wins are big, some of them are small - and the same goes for the failures.”

What River wanted achieve musically

“Musically I really wanted to help bring the ARTISTRY back to hip hop again. Because it seems like a good portion of it today has deviated from the craft or, like I said, the artistry side of it. To where a lotta stuff that has nothing to DO with the music - the bling, the tattoos - has instead come to the forefront... So yeah, in trying to establish my own brand of hip hop, I was very interested to showcase actual songwriting and craftsmanship.”

His lyrical aims for ‘The Rise And Fall Of River Nelson’

“I really wanted to provide some hopeful inspiration to help people deal with whatever tough circumstances they go through. Which is why, if you notice, a lot of the songs have one recurring theme. Like ‘, ‘Hold On’ and ‘End Of The Day’ are all songs that really just tell you to keep going and to really just notice the beautiful aspects of life within turbulent times. You know, we didn’t wanna do a positive record just for the sake of doing a positive record - like some stuff I hear that’s positive, while at the same time almost ignoring the BAD stuff! Which to me is not REALISTIC! Because I feel the only way to really overcome or get through something is to ACKNOWLEDGE it, and to really have a good grasp on what the issues of the problems are!”

River’s own personal background

“My parents were born and raised in Panama and came to New York in the Sixties. So I was born in Manhattan, and then moved to the northern part of The Bronx - to a place there called Co-Op City. Which at the time was a new kind of development for working-class people. In that it was a city that had its own schools, its own post office, its own banks - so you wouldn’t have to leave and be unsafe in the crazy kinda Bronx area that surrounded it. Then, as the years passed, my dad got transferred to another company job in Connecticut - about 30 miles north of The Bronx - which was like a middle-class, completely suburban town. So it was definitely interesting for me to have that combination of city life and SUBURBAN life. But then, after I graduated from High School in Connecticut, I actually moved right back to New York… And that’s where I’ve stayed for the past almost 15 years!”

How River got his first (and to date, only) major-label deal (with Arista Records) back in the Nineties, via his friendship with then-hot New York rappers Boogiemonsters

“I first met Boogiemonsters back in the mid-Nineties. They had a deal with Pendulum Records - same label as Digable Planets - and at the time were kinda like New York darlings, in that they had a really strong hold on the city’s underground rap scene. So, with me and a friend having a group back then called Bizarre Extremes, we ended up actually featuring on the Boogiemonsters’ album... And from there one thing led to another. A rough, four-song demo-tape my friend and I had made in college ended up in the hands of Joy Bailey, who was head of black music at Arista Records. So Joy - who actually was the person who’d discovered MC Hammer - decided to have a meeting with us. And, because she really liked the tape, she set up a showcase for us at a venue in Greenwich Village called Cafe Wha? - a really famous place where people like Jimi Hendrix and The Doors had played in the Sixties… Anyway, the show was really successful. So Joy was like ‘I’m gonna talk to (then-Arista Records head) Mr. Clive Davis’… And, two weeks later Arista offered us a DEAL!”

How he now looks back on his short-lived - and ultimately unproductive - deal with Arista Records

“It was very interesting, because those were really our very first demo-tapes. So I can hardly say it was a huge struggle for us to get to that point! And, because it was all so new, I don’t think we really understood the size of it till later ON! You know, at the time we were still in our senior year at school and having Arista Records calling our dorm-room! So in the end we actually ended up dropping out of school and going to New York - where we ended up living in a house with the Boogiemonsters. And with them at the time being very successful, I guess we were just living the LIFE!... Though to be honest, looking back now, we were just so young and new to it all that I really believe we were in over our HEADS! I mean, I remember at the time just being swept up in the middle of lawyers! And what was really unconventional was, we got the deal with Arista before we had any MANAGEMENT! So we were basically just two kids dealing with this huge record deal!”

How River ultimately went on to become the independently-releasing solo MC he is today

“Well, everybody at Arista was telling us ‘You need to get management really fast’.. So we got management - a guy named Van Silk, who was a promoter for all those pioneer guys like Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow… And, to make a long story short, Arista allocated the money to him to pay for our studio time. So at first he paid the studio; we started recording the songs... Until one day we called the studio and they were like ‘You can’t come in because Van Silk hasn’t paid us our MONEY!’... So we called the management office, who told us Van was in California for one day. Then the next day we called, and it was ‘He’s still in California. We haven’t seen him’… So we continued not to hear from Van Silk; the studio wasn’t get paid; our deadline was coming up… And so we really had to go back to our foundation, and record these songs on a much lower budget in the studio we USED to go to... And I think from there the enthusiasm at the label dropped… So we sat around for a while, until eventually phonecalls didn’t get returned... And so, with no other major-label deal forthcoming, my friend and I eventually just decided to part WAYS! He dropped out and moved in with his mother... And so it became just ME!.. And I guess I’ve just continued as a solo artist ever SINCE!”

The single ‘Beautiful Life’ is released November 8. The album ‘The Rise And Fall Of River Nelson’ is out now, both through The World Of Dusty Vinyl Records

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