NIKO IS talks Tom Waits, “The People’s Champion” tour and Eugene

Photos by Todd Cooper

NIKO IS (aka Nikolai Paiva), signed to Javotti Media by Talib Kweli, came to Eugene with “The People’s Champion” tour—along with Kweli Immortal Technique. Eugene Weekly spoke with both headliners before the show, read here. When we spoke, Kweli told us that he is focusing on NIKO IS right now, and called him “one of the best rappers” he had ever heard. We spoke with Paiva for the blog.

We got a chance to see you perform at WOW Hall, which was an awesome opportunity to see hip-hop thrive in Eugene. What was the energy like at that show? What do you typically do to get the crowd hyped?

The energy in Eugene was incredible. I’d never been there before. The people were just receptive to what we were doing. I really enjoyed Oregon. A lot of good vibes, you know? It really set the tone for the show. So I just try and keep it organic, and do what I do and give an accurate depiction of what we do on stage and let the crowd find itself.

The People’s Champion” tour has given you an opportunity to tour with two legendary rappers. What have you learned from this tour now that you’re nearly halfway through?

I learned how to stay consistent. These artists are incredible figures, not just in the music industry but also in the industry of following your own heart and not compromising your art. So I think that really set the tone for what we’re trying to do, and it’s really inspiring to see Kweli on his thirteenth album and still better. And Technique — being vocal about what he believes in. So it’s definitely a blessing.

You’re signed to Javotti Media, which is Talib Kweli’s record label. What are some advantages of working with someone like Kweli, who you admired growing up?

Working with Kweli is already such a good advantage. It’s real motivating, for me, to see how far we’ve gone. And now I’m lying in the tour bus, relaxing my feet up on “The People’s Champion” tour. It’s pretty surreal, you know, and it’s definitely a blessing to have Kweli’s blessing when we do what we do.

I’d love to hear more about the name NIKO IS. You told VIBE Magazine that “NIKO IS dot dot dot” and I’m curious, what do you think NIKO is?

Well, the name behind what we’re doing is NIKO IS. And I think that NIKO IS is just one of the outlets of expression that we have. It’s like, we’re making movies and with every record, we make a new movie. And every movie, NIKO is somebody different. You know what I’m saying? From Chill Cosby [2012] to Good Blood [2013] to Brutus [2015], it’s always something different, and explores different sides of the personality that we focus on. I feel like people are way more complex than they give themselves credit for. They just, kind of, go in the studio and don’t really care. Which is great, because that makes great music. Because the more you care, the more it sounds prepared. But they also don’t care about the bigger picture. Which is doing this all for us. So I feel with having an outlet like this for us, it’s easier to express different sides of the artistry.

Your music pulls from an assortment of genres, including funk and jazz, definitely a lot of hip hop and even a global sound. What are some of the sonic influences you’ve gained as an artist born in Brazil?

Well, Brazil is a big gumbo pot of all these different spices, flavors, vegetables, meats. It’s just this cornucopia of styles, all of the regions of Brazil. I’ve always had a lot to draw from. There are always different types of people pushing the envelope there. There’s Western music and Eastern music and native sounds and it’s really inspiring to listen to that and try and create my own fusion.

You’ve worked with artists like Action Bronson and Casey Veggies. But you also sample artists like Warpaint. I’ve also read that you’ve studied the greats, ranging everywhere from The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Pink Floyd. Who are some of the other newer artists that you’re listening to right now?

Well, I’m a “new-is-old” man. You know what I’m saying? I definitely check out what is going on. I mainly listen to what the mood requires. I have been listening to a lot of Tom Waits. He’s a big influence on what I do. Both aesthetically and lyrically, I’m a big fan of him. I like Devendra Banhart, and a lot of stuff he does with his music that’s so different. I like hip hop. I like rock. There’s a lot of great stuff, it’s just a matter of being patient. You have to find something. It’s like a puzzle.

I’d love to hear more about how Tom Waits has translated into your own style.

Yeah! He’s great, man. He definitely opened a lot of doors in my brain for writing songs and how you can approach it. You don’t have to follow format. You can do what you want. I’m a big fan of him, like Rain Dogs [1985].

And then what’s one of the jazzier influences that you’ve had?

I have a lot of jazz influences. That’s kind of what we do. It’s a jazzier take on hip hop. I’ve always been really into Return to Forever (1972), which is a jazz-fusion album by Chick Corea.

Readers who have not seen you perform have not seen your iconic hairstyle. Tell me more about how long you’ve grown that style and how long you’ve had the long hair?

When I was eighteen, I decided to have long hair. And from then, it’s just been kind off and on. Around when I was 20 or something, I had to get a real person job so I had to cut the hair off once or twice. But then eventually, I had to come back to it. It’s the hair, you know? The hair set a tone.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add or promote?

Everything we do is in house. I’m very blessed to have such an incredible team coming to the concert. What we do is collective. That’s one thing that really sets us apart from everybody else. Thanks Joey is the producer of the records. We’re really blessed to work with incredible musicians to push us forward.