Lava La Rue Is The West London Queer Femme Rapper to Watch
West London rapper and singer, Lava La Rue is a jack of all trades. With creative direction, modeling, music, and an art collective (NiNE8 collective) under her belt at the age of 20, she’s set to continue making a positive impact on the UK art scene. This month, she curated and performed at a show for the British Fashion Council during Men’s Fashion Week in London, and, finally, released her debut EP LETRA last week. To find out more about Lava’s collective, what her experience has been like as a queer femme rapper, and what advice she has for struggling students, read our full interview below. Oh—and don’t forget to check out her EP, LETRA, here.
So Lava La Rue is an anagram of your real name Ava Laurel—when did you first scramble these letters and come up with this name?
Oh my God, I think that was one of the ones where I was just really bored in like math class. It would have been in college. It literally would have been on the top of a paper that I was supposed to be focusing on. Ava Laurel, if you just take the “L” at the end of “Laurel” and put it in front of “Ava” it makes “Lava”. I think that was when I kind of figured it out and it’s crazy because I didn’t even realize that “la rue” means “the street” in French. I didn’t know that until well into me using that name.
You dropped out of art school after three months—what advice do you have for students that are struggling to fit in the education system?
That’s a good question, let me think. Everybody develops at their own pace. Everybody learns in different ways, and again, the current educational system, especially when it comes to creativity is one interpretation of how people must be creative, and it’s based on an academic system. Not a lot of people work in that way. It’s funny because I was studying fashion promotion and fashion communication and their whole perspective of it was kind of like training people to be a certain person within the industry, you know? When actually what makes you thrive is taking that and bringing your own uniqueness to it. Some people need guidance for that, and some people need experience.
I’d say listen to your mental health first because that was the biggest thing for me; that pressure to feel like I’m putting my creativity into deadlines. That was really getting to me. It can give people crippling anxiety, and a lot of people just think, “This is the way, this is the only way,” and they ignore what they’re actually feeling to the point where it’s really affecting them.
You just have to listen to yourself, listen to your own path, figure out what your own path is and don’t base it on what other people are doing really.
Tell us about NiNE8 Collective. I know the 98 comes from your birth year (1998).
Yep. After I left secondary school and I was in college for a bit, I found myself around creatives where we were all swapping creative currency. I’ll do a cover for you, you model for me, I’ll make some garms for you, you produced this track for me. And the more we were swapping references, the more we kind of had this unifying style and aesthetic. I was just like, “Yeah, we should really coin this onto something.” And I brought it together, and I was like, “Yeah, let’s call it nine eight,” because that was my birth year and the birth year of a couple of others who were in the collective when I started it. That’s it, really.
On the NiNE8 Collective website, it asks if you’re “interested in getting involved in the movement”—how do the clothes, music, and artwork that come out of this collective transcend into a movement?
I always say that there’s NiNE8 collective, who are like the actual physical functioning body, they’re like the group of people, and then there’s House of NiNE8, which I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but that’s like a little Hashtag we always use. House of NiNE8 is about the clothes we wear, the parties we go to, the culture behind what we actually do. I suppose it is a culture where we are totally self-sufficient in that we are our own producers. We are our own creative directors. We are own designers. We are our own clothing line. It’s all within us, but I think we do it just out of necessity; we do it out of accessibility. The clothes that we make are the clothes we had access to, to make, and revamp, and turn it into ours. It’s the DIY culture, but it’s all within ourselves. I suppose you could call it an ideology. It’s what actually brings us together, because we’re all from completely different parts of London and you know, our ages vary, but what brings us together is this unifying kind of outlook towards life. I don’t know if you’ve met a lot of NiNE8, but we all try and keep it super positive and we try to be a healthy support to each other. We’re all actually friends, we’re all really close. Like even though Jess is my coworker and I make music with BiigPiig, at the same time, she’s my best fucking mate.
When shit gets tough, we’re there for each other. When people don’t have a home, they come here and stay here, you know? And this is the House of NiNE8, this is the HQ and I’m always like, “All right, if you’re going to stay in the House of NiNE8, if you’re gonna stay in my flat, you’re going to be mad creative. You’re not going to contact any people that are toxic in your life, you know, and we’re gonna create art together and swap clothes and make songs about it. And then they do that and then carry on with their life with that NiNE8 ethos. That’s what makes it a movement in a way. We curate a safe space to be creative.
We curate a safe space to be creative.
What is the importance of DIY culture and how does it inform your work?
The DIY ethos comes out of accessibility and necessity. It does have its own style. Us making low-fi music wasn’t like, “Oh yeah, you know, low-fi hip hop, alternative pop is in right now.” It’s out of having a really shit mic and a ghetto-as-fuck set-up on my laptop in our bedroom.
That’s how the DIY experiment sound came out of it. With DIY, it doesn’t go the way you want when you work with it. It’s the same with the clothes we make, like you drop a bit of paint on something and it turns into a whole different type of beast. You know, something rips and you go to the shop, and they don’t have your size, so you tailor it with pins because you love that. They don’t have your size, but it’s only £5.00, and it’s one of one. You’re going to make it work.
Totally—now regarding social media, it definitely has its ups and downs. However, amazing relationships and collaborations can come out of it. In what ways have you experienced this?
In terms of social media, I think it is good because you can have access to subcultures or people in different parts of the world that are doing what you’re doing. Like for me, it played a whole bit, specifically with my single “Widdit” off my new EP, because when I ended up in Tokyo, I just thought I was gonna go there totally to just do my own thing and write. And then through social media, a collective who does legit the exact same shit we do here in London, found me. For me, I only really like to follow, not just creatives, but people in my life who inspire me. I feel like social media can be really toxic when you’re looking at false lives and things that aren’t inspiring. And you just end up in this abyss of scrolling through cat videos and stuff that’s really toxic. You get this short-term social media gratification where you feel like you’re being productive, but you’re not. In that aspect, it can be really dangerous. It wastes time.
Right now, what I’ve done, is curated a scene around me and people who are incredible. Through that, I was able to reach out to people in different parts of the world like Marley and Tokyo Vitamin.
For any people that feel like they’re getting a bit of toxic vibes from social media, you don’t have to follow your friends from my high school if they are up to bullshit and it’s not important, and you don’t have to follow supermodels, and you don’t have to follow celebrities. Follow accounts of people that promote positivity and are doing what you want to be doing. So every time you look at it, it’s like, “Oh yeah, I want to be on my shit.” And then you quit the app, and then you go on and be on your shit. You know what I mean? I just follow artists who are doing crazy stuff, and I see them with their big studios, and I’m like, “I want my own big studio like that.” Then it just inspires me to make a painting or some shit.
The DIY ethos comes out of accessibility and necessity.
What has your experience been like trying to navigate and create a more femme experience in the trap/grime/garage scenes in London? Globally?
Obviously it’s super male-dominated just in terms of M.C.s, festival lineups, even the showcase nights I used to go. You would have one female on the lineup, and she’s kind of like a half R&B hip-hoppy singer. It would just be her by herself, with maybe like the DJ at the back, and a couple of her friends at the front. And she’d go like, “Hi Guys, my name is this. I’m gonna play a couple of songs.” And then after she’s done, there will be like 10 men who come up on stage with all their mandom and suddenly all the guys in the room are like, “Oh yeah!” And they put on some hype music. Both of them are just as good as each other, but the moment the male energy is there, suddenly the whole room seems vibrant and it’s kind of like a code, like a mate and call, for all of the other men in the room to be like, “Okay, we can all start moshing now.”
And I’ll go, and I’ll join, and I’ll mosh. But, I’m so upset that I’m moshing to the guys, and I never got to mosh to the girls. And furthermore, why was the female opening? Do you know what I mean? Because they’re trying to curate the vibe, so it gets heavier through the night.
So I wanted to make some stuff where people could dance and also where I was ripping up mosh pits, and I was having all female mosh pits as well. It’s funny—when all the women are happy and everybody in between, all the queer room are happy, the whole room is vibrant. When it’s just like loads of sweaty cis straight boys, you see loads of people get pushed to the side. It’s not a space where everybody can feel like they can just do their thing.
Naturally with my girls, we all freestyle; we were making stuff that was just like dancey, and like grimy and drilly. I just started every Wednesday, doing these little sessions where we will do writing sessions together and they just bring all of their other local, female hip hop artists. I know girls who are so good at rapping, and there’ll be an all-guy cipher, and they’ll get cut in, and they won’t speak up, and they won’t go because it’s just like an intimidating zone. So when I’m out with my friends, I try to create an environment that’s literally the opposite to that. We have these writing sessions we do together and whenever I’m at my shows I make sure they’re all on stage with me.
And with that representation, you see a real shift in the mood. It comes quite naturally though, at our own NiNE8 shows, I don’t have to do that as much because the kind of like cult following we have, and the people that come to shows, know that they can expect that. But when I’m being booked for shows that have a male-dominated lineup and maybe it’s already sold out so they don’t know who I am. A lot of the time because I’m a hip hop artist, maybe the act that’s performing after me has like mad misogynistic lyrics, you know? Or I’ll be playing before an act who’s like, “Put a dick in my mouth, Whoa.” Do you know what I mean? Just shit like that.
Because the hip hop that I create is from a queer perspective, already not everybody in the room will be even agreeing with what I’m saying, but I try and open up the conversation. Having that femme representation and women by me, and women at the front really helps that be more fluid, I guess.
You just performed for the British Fashion Council at LFWM—how was it? Set the scene.
That was mad for me because I was putting together half of the collection, which was a boutique DIY collection under our NiNE8 garms division, and I was also doing the set design, the projections show visuals, modeling, I was performing, and I was setting up the lineup-set. That was kind of like the biggest project I had done. Because I dropped out of art school, that felt like my final.
Which is funny because when I dropped out of fashion communication, they were like, “Oh yeah, by the end of this course, after like five years or three years of studying,” you might be able to work with these people. And I was just like, I did it with no fucking qualifications. It felt like a champion moment.
I really wanted to create an audio-visual setting that was a physical embodiment of the culture of the whole house of NiNE8. So it started off with some live beat-making by our producer Mac Wetha, who was playing on the SB-404, just literally making beats as people were entering the room and we had a projection show of us just doing our thing.
The guy who I made the collection with, he’s a 17-year-old skater, and tailor, and painter. We just kind of brought all of that into the room. So, we had our paintings; we had collages all over the wall. We had the whole room floodlighted; we had loads of glow-lights and then all of our clothes hanging from the chain. And then after Mac Wetha finished playing his live beats, we did a little showcase of songs. It was almost like a mini-party vibe; something colorful and creative. I think it’s important that when the British Fashion Council interviewed us after they were like, “Yeah, we hadn’t seen anything like that at fashion week before.”
That meant a lot to me. I don’t really think they put on people like us too much and I think it really showed them how important it is to bridge the gap within fashion and show a different perspective, because both of us had never formally been trained but we still did our thing, and that is very much fashion as well. We were self-taught; just sort of like having a vibe where there were no models, you know, like the week coming up, loads of modeling agencies were like, “Oh yeah, here’s a little package of all of our boys.” And I was like, “No, I want my lot” because everybody in that room who was wearing the clothes was either in the collective or a producer or a skater. We just stayed true to that.
Because the hip hop that I create is from a queer perspective, already not everybody in the room will be even agreeing with what I’m saying, but I try and open up the conversation.
When you’re not creating clothing, music, visual arts and creative directing, what media and art do you consume?
I think that was a really interestingly put question. And what do you consume? I like to eat a lot of Erykah Badu..that food for thought. There are some other collectives and groups in London who I think are incredible and I love to go to their shows and support their thing. I’m really about supporting local talent or people who are kind of at a similar level of doing their thing because I think that in itself is a scene, you know?
There’s a lot of people who are huge who inspire me, like Erykah and Sade, and you know Neneh Cherry. I love Neneh Cherry so much. I keep seeing her around West, and I’m like just trying to like bump into her and just be like, “Yooo, love you.” And looking into the past as well, like Dread Broadcasting, the radio platforms that brought big sound systems to UK culture. That was like the birth of pirate radio. You know, for me, I still see the remains of that heritage, and I think a lot of people who are making music and are my age, don’t really look to that for inspiration or they don’t know how to. I think it’s really important to know the roots of where your current music is coming from. Especially, as a UK hip hop artist—obviously I love a lot of 90s hip hop, like D’Angelo and Bahamadia are huge inspirations to me—but I think it’s really important to recognize the UK scene in its heritage, right now. A lot of people are acting like, “Oh yeah, you know, the UK is just getting recognition within hip hop right now.” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s sick,” but also look where the actual UK hip hop came from, rather than just recognizing it now that it’s been in platformed by American artists.
I was watching a Soul II Soul documentary the other day. My grandma is the first generation Jamaican in my family, but she raised me so she’s like my mum. So I think learning the history from that Windrush generation and the music they brought over here, for me, I always sort of like that to resonate in my music in small ways. So, a couple of my friends are working on projects at the moment that are paying homage to that and I’m just supporting that a lot as well and going to those shows.
Babes are crazy collective, they deejay and curate safe-space nights; I love to go to their nights so much. There are some other collectives like 237, Virgil Hawkins—that’s my boy—Elevation Meditation, west side—yeah, love them.
I’ve just got a Walkman as well. So I’m just getting loads of CDs. There’s a couple of trade shops, there’s a couple of comic book shops that do CDs. I love buying comics and anime and shit as well. So yeah, that’s it really. What media and art do you consume? I have a Nintendo DS. Love a bit of that. Just typical fucking kid.
Tell us about your debut EP. What should we expect?
Exciting stuff—it’s funny because the first track on the EP is totally different to the rest of it. The first track is like a soundscape I made with my friends on his balcony over Shepherd’s Bush, where we were sampling the sounds around us. The drum kit is literally me smashing a bottle on the deck of a skateboard, and we’d just like pitched everything. It’s one extended spoken-word piece about so many different topics politically; mostly institutionalized racism, but a perspective of it that really—it’s called “Desktops”—so it really just speaks about the importance of in-real-life action and not just like twitter hashtags and stuff. It’s like actually getting out, because, for me, that’s how real change is made.
So it starts off like that, and then there’s a real homage I pay to 90s hip hop because that’s kinda like my roots. So there’s a couple of songs that are alternative hip hop, and experimental R&B takes on the music that inspires me. I collaborated with Tariq Disu, he produced on it. I feel like this whole EP is one big introduction of who I am. I do quite a lot of different genres, but I feel like this one is more like, “Hey, so I’m Lava. This is where I’m from. This is a small taste of what I believe in.” I kind of like to ingrain or hide little political messages and ideologies on top of really sweet beats and really happy flows, so it doesn’t feel too heavy, but also it’s staying true to what I’m trying to say. “Touch” is an example of that, where it’s like, “Touch my mind”, and it’s like really happy and sing-y, but I’m actually talking about surveillance and like some Black Mirror shit and sort of like staying positive. So yeah, just expect a little taster about my background and who I am—some sweet tunes.
Images courtesy of Simonas Berukstis
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