Lava La Rue is a 20-year-old Londoner who does it all. She founded underground DIY arts collective NiNE8 when she was a teenager with some of her friends, and they have built a creative community that encompasses clothing, visual art, and music. "It's all about being positive and supporting each other, being inclusive and experimental," she tells us.
Today, her debut EP Letra is out, and it's a richly textured, thoughtful mixture of woozy hip-hop and R&B. Rapping and singing over warm, often funky beats, the world Letra creates is soothing, but listen carefully and she's tackling important issues ranging from systematic racism to femme representation in hip-hop.
Inspired by unapologetic artists like Erykah Badu, Bahamadia, and Three 6 Mafia's Gangsta Boo, Lava La Rue is writing her own story in London, building a movement in the most sustainable way possible—from the ground up.
Listen to the Letra EP and read an interview with the multi-talented Lava La Rue below.
What can you share with people about who you are and where you’re based?
The name is Ava Laurel aka Lava La Rue aka Lava Land TV aka mother of the house of NiNE8 collective and I'm based in West London.
How would you describe NiNE8? How did it start?
NiNE8 is an underground DIY arts collective. We make music, we make clothes, we also throw political club nights, DIY gigs, underground fashion parties. As crazy as all of those things sound we're just a group of friends who met when we were 16 and 17, around three or four years ago. Most of us met going to a shitty college together. We were just young, broke, teenage artists and we all had the idea to put in for a ghetto studio setup together. We all chipped in for a mic and put it in Macweatha's bedroom, who is the main producer of the collective.
We all started doing cyphers together, collaborating on music and the more we were swapping clothes and references and making shit for each other we had this unifying style and aesthetic that came out of it. It was a melting pot of creativity and I decided we should coin this under a name. Me and a couple of others were born in '98 so that where the name came from.
Since then we've always functioned under this idea of creative currency—you produce for me, I make these garms [clothes] for you, and then slowly through us wearing them there started being a demand for the clothes. Then with the shows and music we were throwing these parties and more and more people were coming and having fun and it grew into a cult following. It's all about being positive and supporting each other, being inclusive and experimental.
What does the Letra EP mean to you and what do you want listeners to take from it?
I got the name Letra from the Basque region in Spain. Their language is really cool because it's connected to no other language. It's not based on Latin or Arabic—it could have come from aliens! I was really fascinated with their words, and Letra literally means words or lyrics in the Basque language. My music is very wordy, you can call me a rapper but I started out very much on a spoken word level. With Letra I wanted to take the spoken word approach and put it on songs that have a more traditional song structure.
The whole thing is really an introduction to me. It's very hip-hop-y with a couple of exceptions and it's an insight to who I am and what I'm about, lyrically.
"Desktop" is an especially powerful song. How did that come together and can you give some insight into some of the things that inspired it?
"Desktop" is an extended poem that I wrote about many subjects, but specifically systematic racism and experiencing that from the position of a young person today. It was this long poem that I wrote in my diary. It's almost just like a political commentary on society. The last line is, "Get out behind your desktop," and the overall theme is that today online activism for a lot of people has served as a replacement for actually getting out onto the streets and making change.
I think it's very important to spread healthy ideologies and spread awareness but at the end of the day retweeting a hashtag is exactly what the government would rather us be doing than actually like barricading Downing Street [the official residence of the Britsh Prime Minster]. The last line is saying get out and do something and everything before that is a build up explaining what is going on and what we can do.
The song itself is an even crazier story because it was composed by me and my friend George who lives in a tall block of flats. We were on his balcony with a microphone sampling the sounds of the busy street outside and it's constant noise. We put a lot of ambiance on it until the whole street sounded like this big ocean noise and then we made a drum kit from the sound of me hitting an empty glass bottle against a skateboard deck. That's what we made the actual drum kit out of. The whole track is just us soundscaping and doing experimental sound design. It's really a bit out there and difficult to listen to but I wanted to compose that to work alongside these lyrics.
I'm really excited for the video as well because we did it totally DIY. My friend was working on a TV set and we could use the TV equipment overnight as long as we returned it by the morning and no one noticed. We shot this mad dystopian music video in the same place that scenes for A Clockwork Orange were shot.
Much of your music is rooted in hip-hop. Which rappers in particular inspire you as an artist?
Not to be that dickhead but first and foremost Bone Slim who is a rapper in NiNE8 because when he joined he came through with this proper hip-hop lyricism while I was very much spoken word. He was the one who inspired me to spit more hip-hop. I've always taken huge influence from greats like Erykah Badu, Bahamadia, all the women who were part of Three 6 Mafia and that Memphis rap scene in the '90s like Gangsta Boo, Le Chat, Princess Loko. Lyrically and rhythmically, Bahamadia is a huge inspiration because she can rap with mad double time flows and still be saying something.
We hear about issues like gentrification and raising rent prices in London. Is the city still an inspiring place to live as a young creative?
Of course it is! Just because there are issues that need to be tackled and there are things that need to be protected within our London community, it doesn't mean the community isn't there and it isn't inspiring. It's the community that brings the culture and the arts to London and that still very much is there. Living and growing up in Ladbroke Grove and seeing how the first generation Caribbeans came and brought their soundsystem culture, that's everyday inspiration for me! There are so many different people and so many different walks of life in London that there's a person for everyone and subcultures everywhere. More needs to be done to preserve it but it's still there and I still find it inspirational.
I really believe that the answer to this war on class and things becoming unaffordable for creative people isn't to move out, it's to stand our ground and fight and make it a place that artists can thrive. It's the artists that make this city beautiful and so historic.
As an artist in 2018 do you feel like the internet is a positive in that allows you to connect with other creatives and reach new audiences or a distraction from the music?
Everything is healthy in the right quantities. Of course the internet and social media has changed the music industry massively because you don't necessarily need to go to a middleman to distribute your music, you can put it up yourself. That's incredible. You can curate your own scene and find your own subcultures with the internet. Brilliant.
Of course within social media there's also a loss of human to human interactions, but you can still do things like making physical copies to give to you friends. We still burn cassettes and give them to each other, we still share music by meeting people in the flesh and telling them about our music. Not everything is totally via the internet these days.
I do definitely agree that social media as a whole is giving young people anxiety not about putting music out but about just putting themselves out there. It's really easy to overthink things.
What else can we look out for from you in 2018?
More shows, the NiNE8 mixtape, more clothes, more parties. Just more of us introducing ourselves on the scene.