The Triumphant Resurrection of Nickie P
When Nickie P is on the mic, she commands a room.
The hip-hop artist also known as Nicole Price Smith stalks the stage with supreme confidence, projecting joy as she rips through speedy rhymes with the confidence of a Formula 1 car hugging the pavement.
But when she was younger, the 36-year-old Smith wanted to belt out tunes, not rap them.
"When I first started performing, I wanted to be a pop singer," she said in an email interview. "I took vocal lessons as a kid and studied genres like Italian opera and Broadway, which is what they had me perform at local music events. But at the time, I really wanted to be a big pop singer like Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera, who were very popular at the time."
It was her brother and Seven Chakraz bandmate Kevin, aka Esque, who shifted Smith's attention to hip-hop.
"He would pull me in his room and play me tracks by Wu-Tang Clan, KRS-One, Mobb Deep, early Eminem, and the like," Smith said. "From there I started listening to artists such as Bahamadia, Lil Kim, Jean Gray, and Lauren Hill ... [whose] vocal stylings paired with her colossal rhyme style is unforgettable and it has driven me for many years. More recently, I have really been influenced by artists like Atmosphere, Sa-Roc, and Brother Ali on the Rhymesayers record label."
Like Hill, Smith blends her rapping and singing talents into a compelling whole on a new EP, The Collective Thought. The record was a long-time coming, too: It's been five years since Smith's last single, "Soma," which was more of a soulful singer-songwriter tune, and eight years since her album, the rap-based The Triumphant Rise & Tragic Existence of Sick Nick.
The answer to why there's been big a gap between releases is layered and complicated.
"A lot of it comes down to time. I’ve put a lot of focus into my education and working to make a decent living for myself and my family. The grind was hard to keep up with and my hussle was definitely affected by it," Smith said, who's based out of Whitmore Lake. "But I have also had a long-standing battle with creative motivation and mental illness. There are a few musicians in the area that know me very well and are familiar with my anxiety and depression issues. I have battled with anxiety since I was about 20 years old when I was first diagnosed with an acute anxiety disorder."
It was around the time of her diagnosis that the local rap collective Seven Chakraz was ending, and while that alone wasn't the cause of Smith's anxiety, it didn't help the situation.
"There was a time where it was hard to even leave the house, let alone find inspiration to create," she said. "My anxiety kept me from going out to enjoy shows and to support the musicians that I loved and soon after a consuming bout of depression further stifled my creative flame. It came in waves, rearing its nasty head usually right at the end of producing and releasing projects, that sent me back into a creative lull for months or years at a time."
So while new songs were tough to come by for Smith, she would still hit area stages with fire even if she spent her some of pre-performance moments in the cold embrace of severe anxiety.
"There were definitely some shows where I spent much of my time outside waiting to go on stage or in the green room fighting back a panic attack," Smith said. "I still found some time to do features on some other artist tracks as well, but it didn’t leave me with much space for my own creations. It has been a wild and bumpy ride, but right now I am grateful to be riding a positive wave and I hope that it stays with me for a while."
Smith, who once studied high-performance auto mechanics and wanted to build race cars, currently attends Eastern Michigan University, majoring in arts and entertainment administration and management with a minor in entrepreneurship. She works at Ann Arbor's Leon Speakers as a customer service rep, helping with technical issues, installations, and orders as well as assisting in the broadcast studio for the shop's performance space, The Loft, which hosts events for the long-running syndicated radio program Acoustic Cafe.
While Smith is planning a new single—a collaboration with her Seven Chakraz bandmate and local hip-hop impresario Duke Newcomb—and maybe even another full-length album before the year ends, right now her focus is on The Collective Thought, which includes a comic book by Ypsi's Kam Komics, aka Kamron Reynolds, that illustrates the songs' lyrics. The EP is very personal to Smith—even a love letter of sorts, to her creative process ("Won!," "Ink Drop," "Do It Like This"), the local scene ("This Place"), and to her husband, who's the subject of the EP's opening track, "You're the One."
"This is a collection of tracks that I have been building since the release of The Triumphant Rise & Tragic Existence of Sick Nick ," Smith said. "Each track sort of welcomes you into various sections of my life throughout the last six or seven years. The first track on the EP is definitely introducing a very important factor in my life: my husband. That dude has been one of the leading supports in my life and has been there to pull me out of some of my darkest moments. ... It sort of leads the album with one of the key things that provided me with the strength to move forward. From there, that strength shows its face in the rest of the story."
The majority of The Collective Thought was produced by Adam Weiss, aka A Bomb, who Smith has worked with since she was 18 years old, starting with Seven Chakraz.
"We were the youngest in the group, and so for a long time we called ourselves 'The Kids Table,'" Smith said. "That nickname actually came about during a friend's Thanksgiving dinner where we found ourselves sitting at a tiny table separated from the rest of the 'adults.' The name has sort of stuck ever since."
The only song on the EP that wasn’t produced by A Bomb is “This Place,” which was done by Steffen Gelletly, aka DIY.
"He is the owner of Vox Box studio and Seven Dirty Four apparel and also the co-founder of the Alibi Crew," Smith said. "Steffen is also responsible for the audio recording and much of the mixing on this album. The final mix and master was completed by Alex Taam, another good friend and amazing local musician."
While the production is stellar throughout The Collective Thought—it has the organic feel of 1990s sample-based hip-hop rather than the made-inside-the-computer sound of modern rap—the undeniable star of the record is Nickie P, who could flow over a beat from a Fisher-Price keyboard and still make your body rock.
The Collective Thought is all about the triumphant rise of Nick's sick rhymes and the woman herself, with any notions of a tragic existence be damned to the past.
"One thing in me that has changed is my willingness to grow beyond my current space," Smith said. "I’ve never felt like I was confined to Michigan or that I had any type of sentence tying me to the music or the people or the places that I fill my life with. But my eyes have opened more to what the world has to offer and I feel like I have been gaining a lot of inspiration from that. Although I haven’t released anything new until now, I am hoping that the change and evolution that I’ve experienced over the last several years will start to produce fruit. My only hope is that it tastes as sweet as it feels."
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.