How Tego Calderon and Talib Kweli Wound Up on Brazilian Rapper NIKO IS’ Song

Two words: Argan oil. That’s the secret to the “best hair in the biz,” a title appropriately held by Brazilian-born emcee NIKO IS. “I don’t like products in the food, I don’t like products in my hair, I don’t like products in my body. I try to keep it very natural,” shared the Orlando-based rapper.

From his creative process to his working relationships, “natural” is a theme that remains constant in Niko’s life. He’s made a name for himself by following his own rules, even after signing to hip-hop veteran Talib Kweli’s label Javotti Media. For many, it’s easy to get lost in the shadow of an established giant, but Niko, along with longtime producer Thanks Joey, continued to make music their way. “He’s not here to dictate or to change,” said the trilingual lyricist of his relationship with his label boss. “Kweli loves what it is.” So much so, that it was only natural when Kweli joined Niko’s colorful collective Colours of the Culture (COTC) and collaborated on two songs off the crew’s first project, ROYGBIV: What A Colorful World.

We caught up with NIKO IS to gain more insight on his collective Colours of the Culture and how a collaboration with Tego Calderon went from a dream to reality.

How would you describe Colours of the Culture to someone you just met?
You can call it a collective, but it’s just a gathering of like-minded creators producing content. I’ve been working with these guys since high school, since I was 13 years old. Thanks Joey was the producer and creative director and he came up with the idea. Me and him have been partners since the beginning.

We recruited all our people, and it’s just a bunch of immigrants, really. Joey is Syrian from Brooklyn. My engineer is Mexican. We all come from different walks of life…we have a need to create. There’s so much bullshit out. McChickens being sold to the people. Cheap food, bad ingredients. It’s up to us, at least, to do something, so what do we do? We create.

It sounds like you’re not a fan of ingredients in general. How do you keep your music pure?
You’re Peruvian. You probably love ceviche, right? When you have that perfect ceviche that has scallops and shrimp, it’s so refreshing and you feel like you’re on a beach. That’s a feeling you should be getting from music and art. When you get other shit in it, it’s so disposable. There’s so much music out now. It makes it harder for the people who are out here really making the ceviche, you know?

“In Brazil, there’s an appreciation for life, family, and things that are not tangible.”

With COTC being such a large group of creators, what was the process of making ROYGBIV: What A Colorful World?
Everything we do is in-house. This is one thing I learned: if you’re going to do something, it has to make sense. You have to do it with the right people. If you’re trying to outsource, and have all these different pieces, it’s not really cohesive. You can pay for the best beats and all the rap features in the world, but if that shit is not organic, people are going to see through it.

These people know my sound and my vision…For ROYGBIV, I wanted to release something with everybody, a little taste of everything. It’s a little gumbo; you got everyone mixed in there.

What are you working on right now in the studio?
We’re going to drop an EP in two weeks. It’s called Good Air. The first one we dropped through Javotti was a free album titled Good Blood. It was all Brazilian samples – real good paradise music. The follow up is called Good Air and it’s all Argentinean samples, like Buenos Aires, good air. The guy who we sampled and really focused on – his name is Gato Barbieri. He just died so rest in peace to him…We’re really inspired by his work and it’s our take [on] what he does.

Has life as NIKO IS the creator changed after linking up with Talib Kweli?
Working with Kweli is an incredible honor. Before I worked with Kweli, [Thanks Joey and I did] this since high school. We’ve been creating and in the studio, but that just amplified everything. This is Kweli we’re talking about; this is my idol, somebody I grew up listening to religiously and now, I’m working with him.

I’m still learning and seeing how the industry is. I just want to create. Kweli loves what it is. He’s not here to dictate or to change. He’s recording with my engineer. My producers do joints for him. It’s a very symbiotic relationship.

“Working with Kweli is an incredible honor.”

Rumor has it – aka Wikipedia told me – that you were born in Rio de Janeiro. How was the culture shock when you moved to the States for the first time?
I also lived in Argentina – I’m half Argentinean – so I lived in Buenos Aires for two to three years. I was 7 when I [went] to Orlando. Orlando is like Little Brazil. There’s so many Brazilians here and every summer I got to go to Brazil for two months. I was always speaking Portuguese at home so I had a very Brazilian upbringing in America. You know how us immigrants are, we attract each other.

Have you gone back to perform in Brazil?
I just played there in November or December of last year. I played a show in São Paulo, me and Kweli. It was a great vibe. It was my first time playing there and there were tons of people. The energy was just great. It’s my country, you know? We stayed there another week and a half and recorded the album Uniko, which we’re releasing in the summer. It has Tego Calderon. It was a life-changing experience for me to get Tego on a song; I got Tego and Kweli on the same song. It’s not even reggaeton – it’s like next level shit, and Tego’s Spanglish rapping. I’ve been manifesting that since I was 15 years old.

Is it different going back as an artist?
I was always constantly back, but it is a Third World country so it’s difficult. I want to enjoy it and I see it as paradise, but it’s suffering a lot. But there’s an appreciation for life, family, and things that are not tangible. Things that we take for granted here. There, there’s a really big sense of togetherness.