The building on the corner of Custer and St. Antoine is like other industrial spaces in Detroit's North End — you know lots of folks are using it, but you're not exactly sure for what.
Today, rapper and producer Nolan Chapman, aka Nolan The Ninja, is on the spacious but cold second floor shooting a video for his single "Oranges." He's surrounded by 40 candles, 20 oranges, and a sprinkle of rose floral arrangements. A giant hanging softbox illuminates him from above, while a woman in a sleeveless sheer top wearing a biblical-looking halo crown sits motionless in front of him. The scene looks more like an ancient sacrificial ceremony than a music video shoot.
The film crew shoots five more takes before the director decides to take a 20-minute break to move around cameras, props, and lighting. Chapman steps away from the scene and pulls out HotHands hand warmers to fight off chill from the heatless warehouse.
"I'm just kind of doing what I see in my head, like just bringing my vision to life," he says. "Now I can do over the top stuff."
Last January the 27 year-old Detroit native signed a record deal with the Arizona-based Mello Music Group. The record deal was a milestone accomplishment for Chapman, who's been rapping since his early teens.
"You know, man, when I started rapping it was something I did just for fun," he says. "It kind of transitioned into my livelihood. I had never saw myself rapping this long. I was just kind of going with the flow. I had to leave college, and rapping was the next thing I did to fill up my time and then stuff just started happening."
Though Chapman was a diehard Detroit eastsider, he didn't necessarily get pulled into trap and street music. Whether inside or outside the studio, he's always been a throwback millennial. The kind of cat who would stay up till 5 a.m. on YouTube going down a Pharcyde or J. Dilla wormhole.
"Coming up, nobody from my area was on the shit that I was on," he says. "I was always in search of that placement of that community that fit me. When I discovered Detroit hip-hop as a 17-year-old and 18-year-old, I felt at home."
By 2012 Chapman had made a name for himself. His self-produced beats were reminiscent of Beatnuts and Jurassic Five cuts, while his flow was thick with 90a ferocity and wordplay. Even at the risk of being pigeonholed, he stuck with making the kind of music he was inspired by. "That's the bed I made for myself," he says. "I'm never going to knock it because it's helped me lay the foundation. That's where I come from; digging in the crates and looping stuff and catching samples."
By the time 2017 arrived, Chapman had more than 10 projects under his belt, along with a solid cosign from Detroit vet Royce da 5'9''. "Royce hit me out of the blue on Twitter, we exchanged info," he says. "I met him in person a couple of months later. He invited me to a couple of his studio sessions, one of them being PRhyme 2. Premier was there, I was like 'What the fuck?' He definitely showed me love."
Chapman had also begun to receive attention from the national media and radio. He was featured on Hip-Hop DX, Ambrosia for Heads, Sway in the Morning, and DJ Tony Touch's "Toca Tuesday." Chapman was trending upward as things were organically falling into place. But as 2018 got going, Chapman's momentum had started to quietly unravel. His singles "Phoenix" and "Numb" were excellent songs, but both deviated from his signature sound. "Around that time I really didn't know if I felt like rapping," he says. "It was a weird year for me. Very humbling. ... I was in limbo, I had split ties with my management. I was going in a whole different direction."
In the midst of this storm, Mello Music Group — a boutique indie label that operates on a budget bigger than most — reached out to Chapman. They have a history of working with Detroit artists, like Guilty Simpson and Apollo Brown. The deal wasn't a complete surprise, because he had worked with Mello in the past doing production work.
"They were familiar with who I was. It's all about timing," he says. "When they hit me up it was perfect timing. Things were in limbo. I didn't know what direction I wanted to go in. That got me back on track to my essence. In fact I don't think Sportee was even going to come out like that. I was probably going to throw it on a free mixtape."
Sportee is traditional Nolan the Ninja with a touch of mellowness and awareness. He's reflective and inspirational in cuts like "Bloom" and "Poe," but fires off lyrical M80s in "SP1200 Freestyle" and "Hermit." He has amped up his wit and charm, but he's parted ways with the aggressive screams and growls that used to sometimes get in the way of what he was actually saying. Overall, Sportee is his most mature offering thus far.
Someone yells out "5 minutes" and people start to get in place. "Sportee is all lo-fi and gritty stuff," he says. "People know the traditional Nolan the Ninja sound. I want to keep doing that, but I want to bring modernized elements to a traditional approach. The video is going to reflect like Nickelodeon, PBS programs, the holy trinity, and stuff. Just bringing raw hip-hop and dope creative direction, and meshing it together."
Chapman also talks about one day transitioning into doing music video treatments, regaining his confidence, his continued battles with anxiety, and weight loss (he's down 50 pounds due to better eating and working out).
"To be quite honest with you, even as stuff starts to happen, my anxiety is still there," he says. "But I'm optimistic. It's just you're getting older and you realized you're taking on bigger responsibilities. That's all that is, but I'm definitely going to do me fearlessly instead of doing stuff to be accepted or approved."
Nolan The Ninja's Sportee will be released on April 19 on Mello Music Group and features collaborations with Chuck Inglish (Cool Kids), T3 (Slum Village), Jaye Prime, Boog Brown & Charlie Smarts of Kooley High.
Stay on top of Detroit news and views. Sign up for our weekly issue newsletter delivered each Wednesday.