Beatmaker Dixon Hill and rapper Noveliss have both been making waves in their own right, in their home city of Detroit and the hip hop scene at large. A touring artists with an MF Doom tattoo and a love of philosophy, Noveliss (Jarred Douglas) splices hard-hitting subjects with peaceful pronouncements and has been releasing well-crafted, Asian philosophy-tinged work since 2018. Dixon Hill is a lover of vintage mods and funky melodies, Dixon Hill’s put out a number of game-changing releases both solo and working with other artists. They came together recently in a collab that rivals any indie hip hip release out there, the recently released album, Book of Changes.
While both subject matter and sound on Book of Changes would lead some listeners to tag this album “conscious rap,” the work is also fun, danceable and works as a piece of music that’s not just about its content. That said, the content also happens to be quite expansive. You couldn’t really come away from this album without clocking some serious insight, and you wouldn’t want to.
Without drawing too many parallels with Wu Tang (and specifically Rza, his various meditations, his book The Tao of Wu and the Ghost Dog soundtrack), it seems both Noveliss and Dixon Hill wanted to work together on their interpretation of the famous I Ching of Chinese tradition, also known as the Book of Changes. With funky, semi-lofi beats from Hill and articulate, thought-provoking flows from Douglas, it seems the pair are modernizing the ancient text and contextualizing it for the modern era, and it’s none too soon with current events as they are.
Normally when introducing artists to our readership, YEDM likes to do a new artist spotlight or some other short form, but it was clear with these two artists and the quality of the record that they have a lot to say, and we wanted to hear it. We sat down with Noveliss and Dixon Hill to talk about Book of Changes, “conscious rap” and why, with this album, it just clicked.
How did the two of you come to work together on the Book of Changes album?
Noveliss: Dixon reached out to me and I checked out his work and was instantly excited to see what we could come up with.
DH: I had a connection to Detroit through my work with Guilty Simpson and I started reaching out to other emcees from ‘the D’ that I respected. I sent a batch of beats to Nov via email, having been a fan of his since the early days of Clear Soul Forces. I would periodically hear his voice in my head while making beats. He was quick to get to work, and the rest is history.
Noveliss, East Asian culture and philosophy seem to feature heavily in your work and you both have an interest in I Ching and other philosophical guides. Aside from the obvious Wu Tang influence, what is the draw for you of these texts and ideas?
Noveliss: As a longtime student and practitioner of Martial Arts, I’ve always been interested in Asian philosophy and the spiritual nature of martial arts, sometimes even more than the physical side of it. I’m always interested in reading something or practicing something that can lead me to a better version of myself.
DH: Wu-Tang is for the children.
Dixon’s style contains quite a bit of funk and melody, which is a little more smoothed out than previous Noveliss offerings and it seems to give Book of Changes a more peaceful outlook. Was it a conscious decision to smooth out the edges with more funk and lofi vibes?
DH: When I make beats, a lot of different styles and influences tend to come out of me. In one day I may make something quiet and introspective and the next beat is aggressive and rash. When I was picking beats to send to Nov for the project, I was more concerned with how his flow would match with the beat and whether or not the beat gave him enough space to be creative. I find that when you keep this in mind the beats tend to naturally fall into place and later you discover the thread that unifies them after the lyrics are added.
It was a conscious decision to sit down and make beats, but after that I’m reacting to sounds and working on instinct; it is only after the fact that I can put a label on it and tie the beat’s identity to any sort of vibe.
Noveliss: The sound of this project was all Dixon Hill, as well as the idea to tie it all into the I-Ching or the Chinese Book of Changes. We both share a mutual interest in these philosophies and it was dope to stumble upon that during the process of making this.
How did the songwriting process go in terms of working together?
Noveliss: Noveliss on the pen, Dixon Hill on the sound. We were subconsciously on the same page before we even discussed the central theme of the project. The beats he was sending and the stuff I was writing just matched up perfectly. Some of the songs required me to open up some of my books and refresh my memory. My favorite example is, in the song “Feng Shui,” the entire song is based on the five forces concept of feng shui.
The “metal” force of feng shui has been described as the “sinking sunset.” I have a line in the song that reads “Internal growth, he swam to the sinking sunset, eight Immortal Sword, his studying wasn’t done yet…” that ties in my connection to the metal force which would be my studying of the sword. I’m extremely proud of the way this song was written.
DH: The process was smooth from a production standpoint. I trusted Nov to take care of his verses, because he takes his craft seriously. The only time I asked him to re-do a verse was when he told me he knew he could better. I could tell he was pushing himself and that makes me feel good because I know he was taking the project as seriously as I was.
On the flipside, Nov respected my production decisions and allowed me to get creative with the concept. Every song is a puzzle and there are always challenges when trying to make a project feel complete but this project represents us at our absolute best because we had the freedom to experiment. Nov left some spaces on “Feng Shui” so I ended up singing a hook. That was never the plan, but that’s what happened. The process just felt natural.
Noveliss, you seem to have a knack for being able to speak about heavy subjects but balancing it with philosophy or spiritual ideas. How important is it for you to get your ideas out in this way? Is this a balance you feel you like to strike in your own life/experience?
Noveliss: Absolutely, everything is connected. I always try to provide a perspective of learning from each experience and applying everything to achieving the best version of yourself. Balancing these heavy subjects through the lens of spiritual nature or philosophy is just connecting the dots, trying to make sense of things we really don’t understand.
Speaking of heavy subjects versus spiritual balance, as both of you seem to be on the indie edge of hip hop, how do you feel about the whole “conscious rap” genre or style? Do you think it needs to be labeled as such? Do you have any criticism of the current mainstream hip hop culture/subject matter/sound?
Noveliss: In my opinion, there is no such thing as “conscious rap.” To be conscious? Like what does that label even mean? To me, it implies that being aware of the world around you, and sharing your view is rare in hip hop and that’s just not true. Sure, we might not like what other people talk about or how they get their message out but it’s all “conscious,” whatever it is.
DH: Labeling music is a marketing decision. When we label a piece of music we essentially negate the nuance and details of it. It is convenient to corral music styles into genres, but it doesn’t get to the bone of what we actually experience when we hear any particular piece of music. Its very easy for rap music to become too self-referential or stagnant by way of its own traditionalism, and the more artists that ascribe to genres of hip hop the more we as listeners tend to get bombarded with the same repackaged content.
Hip Hop has always been a style of music that represented creative freedom for me and I find that most of the time, hip hop that is labelled “conscious rap” captures that freedom more often for me. I think if you step outside of the commonly accepted subject matter of hip-hop you tend to hit peoples ear’s with something fresh, and sometimes that just gets boiled down to “conscious rap”. Rap that encourages people to look at their world differently is exciting and should be celebrated for its courage and its detail, not labeled for convenience sake. Oh yeah….and mainstream music is mostly garbage.
Dixon, how was this project different for you and how did you adapt your style? Was it easier or more difficult to incorporate your beloved vintage equipment on this album?
DH: This project was different in a few key ways. Noveliss was great to work with, like I said before, he takes his craft seriously and I feel he reacts to the mood of my beats accurately.
I have had situations where I send an introspective beat to someone and they come back with a verse about sending dick pics, and I think to myself “were we listening to the same beat?” That was never a problem with Nov.
As far as arranging the album, the process fit easily into my trajectory as an artist. My last instrumental album (Holodeck Beats: Program 3) I made a conscious effort to tie the beats together with a narrative, and have the album feel like a complete whole with nice bookends and transitions. Book of Changes was a full realization of that same goal and part of that was the wealth of raw materials I had and the environment in which I was working. I still rocked with my tape machines and old gear for sure, but I was isolated in a cabin in the desert, with no internet, completely locked in on the album and the I Ching concept.
What’s up next for each of you? Any plans to work together again?
DH: I always have music in the works. Some collabs are on the horizon although I cannot say too much yet. I would love to work with Nov again, I think we can continue to make great music together. He was a great collaborator and I am proud of what we made.
Noveliss: Hopefully getting back to touring, always working on more stuff. Definitely would love to work together again, I think there’s something here that doesn’t exist elsewhere.