‘We’re probably the only estate left in London with a concrete pitch,” says Courtney Freckleton, better known as the rapper Nines. He is talking about Church End in Harlesden, north-west London. At the far end of the estate’s concrete sprawl of low-rise towers and terraced housing is a fading grey pitch with painted basketball and football lines, fenced in by high black railings. “We always complain, but now I’m in a position to help.”
He is aiming to regenerate the local community hub, the Church End & Roundwood Unity Centre, with proposals that include converting the concrete pitches to astroturf and staging a series of career workshops about the entertainment industry, from music law to scriptwriting. The kids in the area, he says, “need to know that you can be in the music industry and you don’t need to be a rapper. But I’m only one person, and there’s a million estates just like mine all over the country.”
Nines has propelled the sprawling estate in which he was raised into British rap folklore by weaving subtle social commentary into punchline-rich street diaries. His third album, Crabs in a Bucket, is likely to go Top 5, as did his 2017 debut, One Foot Out, and Crop Circle the following year. The title of the new album alludes to the tensions and difficulties of leaving his surroundings: last summer, Nines was stabbed in Maida Vale, a few miles from the estate.
We meet by the community centre and eventually settle in a friend’s house on the estate. When he was growing up, summertime would mean street parties: bashment would rip through the air, a six-year-old Nines would seize the microphone and “the whole hood would be like: braaap!” But amid the bright community, there was a bleakness. Church Road, as it is known locally, wrestles with some of the worst levels of deprivation in the borough of Brent, and unemployment figures well above the London average.
The real-life fallout from those statistics is told in Nines’ music. On Lights, he shares early memories of women selling themselves by traffic lights. On Handle It (from his second mixtape, Gone Till November), it’s “fiends in staircases”, no electricity in his home, and the “saddest night” after the murder of an older brother. “I grew up way too fast,” he tells me of his early years. “My house got shot up and shit like that as a kid. My life wasn’t normal from then.”
He hustled to try to outrun his surroundings, and started selling weed aged 13. “I just cared about financial freedom,” he says. “Everyone used to go party, and I stood on the corner and stayed trapping, because I was like: ‘Blud, I need to get out of this shit one day.’”
Nines pushed his American-dream rap fantasies through a London filter. “From young I knew I would get money,” he tells me, and remembers making thousands of pounds in his early teens. But his thirst for money was tempered with foresight; a quiet realisation that in the glamorous depictions of kingpins in the films and TV series he grew up on, such as Scarface and The Wire, “none of them end up like the flipping Hangover – no one drives off into the sunset”.
So he turned more seriously towards music. Back in 2011, British rap was a few years away from its current golden age and participation seemed more like sport than a commercial career. At the time, his friends told him: “You’re crazy if you’re putting your money into rap.” But he could feel a change rattling down the line: increasing access to the internet was growing the audience. “In the back of my head I was like: ‘I can make myself a star one day.’ It’s self-made shit.”
His debut mixtape, 2012’s From Church Road to Hollywood, was a signal of his intentions. Across 20 songs, he shares experiences in Church End over mellow, drum-light instrumentals. Early videos cast him as a big-hearted baron of north-west London – in My Hood, for example, he passes out Christmas turkeys to estate residents. “I always wanted to take the hood with me and help everyone out,” he says, “I wanted to make the ends feel part of it.”
Nines’ career faltered in 2013 when he was charged with intent to supply cannabis. He was told on a Friday afternoon that he would be sentenced the following Monday, and knew a stint behind bars was looming. With a few days of freedom remaining, where “everyone was like: ‘Let’s go party, let’s go strip club,’” he turned to music. “I was like: ‘Fuck that, I’m going studio.’”
He turned around 15 songs in a frantic weekend. The Gone Till November mixtape, released while he was away, remains among his most celebrated, with candid reflections on friends and family lost to street warfare or serving decades in prison, and how, amid the chaos of his lifestyle, he one day hopes to be free.
Nines served five months, writing TV scripts to pass the time. His prison address was posted to his Twitter account, and prison officers would have to empty bin liners full of envelopes into his cell. The mail came from Bournemouth and Bermondsey, Luton and Liverpool, and he gratefully read notes from supporters eager to pull him through his sentence.
After release, Nines secured a deal with XL Recordings and scored his two hit albums as he flitted between life in Church Road and national recognition. In 2018, he performed his track I See You Shining to 80,000 people at Wembley stadium as the walk-out music for the boxer Anthony Joshua, and then was “back on the block” not long after.
That tension is echoed throughout Crabs in a Bucket, an account of uncomfortable adjustments as old habits are left behind. “Hood’s got me institutionalised,” he raps on the intro. He sees his stabbing last June as a consequence of that wider tension.
“After that success I could have been anywhere in the world,” he says. “I could have booked a flight and been chilling on a beach, but I’m hanging on the estate every day, top of the charts, and look, I ended up getting stabbed. I feel like I had a crab mentality too” – the one in a bucket who can’t clamber out.
The upheaval of new money and fame demands rappers like Nines pivot, and break routines that have become an instinct. But he didn’t want to move away from the community he was raised in, and that was all he knew. Bored, he would find himself drifting back to Church Road from his new home outside the estate, hanging around for hours, “chatting shit, smoking weed. Honestly, I didn’t have no friends anywhere else. Now I do, but prior to that, all my friends were literally trapping while I’m trying to tap out.”
Success is not certain, he says, until his family are out of harm’s way. A few weeks back, cousins of his – he doesn’t detail who – were shot in the area, “and they’re kids”. But Nines is adapting. As well as music, writing and releasing short films has given him focus, with comedy-drama shorts Crop Circle and Crop Circle 2 offering takes on life in Church Road. When boredom now looms, “I find something on Netflix,” he says, “like everyone else.” And he’ll push on with the regeneration project, still handing out turkeys – figuratively speaking – to his estate.