As rappers go, Nav is among the more mysterious talents to emerge from Toronto. Signed to the Weeknd’s XO imprint, he made his name by working on beats for the likes of Travis Scott, Lil Uzi Vert, Gunna and the Weeknd himself, Abel Tesfaye. While the 29-year-old, whose real name is Navraj Singh Goraya, confesses of once having dreamed of being a “popular producer like how Metro [Boomin] is,” he also envisioned himself on the stage.
Nav’s second studio album “Bad Habits” arrives a few months after he joined his good friend Lil Uzi Vert in “retiring” from rap, and boasts standout singles “Price On My Head” featuring the Weeknd and “Tap” featuring Meek Mill. With manager Cash handling career guidance, the project ended up being Nav’s first No. 1 album.
Still, there’s an insecurity to Nav’s success. Last year, he aired his dismay at having not being included on the XXL Freshmen list and more recently complained in a Pitchfork interview that he didn’t feel famous enough. In certain respects, Nav would rather his music to do the talking, but he spoke to Variety at length about how it came to be.
What did the Weeknd bring to “Bad Habits” as executive producer?
Everything. He helped arrange the album, helped me pick songs and change lyrics. He was fully hands-on. Even until the last minute — he noticed an error in the deluxe tracklisting that me and Cash didn’t even notice. It said “Bad Habits” featuring Uzi by mistake. Me and Cash both looked over and approved it, and Abel saw it! That’s how I knew he’s really paying attention.
What’s the dynamic like in the studio with Abel?
We really work in our own space. He does his own thing; he’s in his own space creatively. If he has something for me, he’ll be like, “Oh look, I got some stuff for you. Wanna hear this? Which one do you want to jump on?” Whereas with Gunna, we’ll go in the studio, switch headphones and finish a song together. Me and Abel both work the same way, we do our own thing. We always talk.
How did “Price On My Head” come together?
Originally, Derek Wise from 88Glam did the melody for the hook. He has writing credit on that song, Abel took his melody and put his own words. Even the kid who produced it was in 88Glam’s camp; it was really a whole in-house deal. He did his part, then there was a slot open for me.
You’ve said that Meek was the first to show you love. Can you bring us back to the moment?
When I was coming up, before I met Cash or anybody, I produced “Back to Back” for Drake. In that time, it wasn’t public knowledge who I was. My artistry started taking off right after that came out. Without knowing that I produced “Back To Back,” Meek was posting pictures with my lyrics as the caption. My friends were showing me that, and I’m like, “Shit, I should follow him.” But I didn’t know what’s going on. Because at that time, I’m just a fan. I didn’t want to ruin none of the relationships I had going in Toronto. Now we’re actually good friends. He was the first one to show me love. The next line, when I say “Cuz” at the end of the bar, that’s talking about him because that’s what people around here call him. “The first time I seen a Maybach, it was with Cuz.” I was in Atlanta and he gave us his Maybach to drive around.
What was that time of making beats like for you?
It was very painful. It was annoying because there’s no one to send beats to [in Toronto]. I knew I had good beats. Drake and the Weeknd, but that’s it. They already had their teams, they’re not gonna listen to no kid’s reckless beats. I was 18, 19 when they started taking off; it was a frustrating process.
“Off White VLONE” is one of my favorite songs. What’s your relationship with Gunna?
Our relationship is pretty organic. When I first came out to L.A. ever, Interscope flew me out for two days, got me a hotel. The first person I ever got close with was Rex Kudo, the producer. Through Rex, I met Wheezy who produces for YSL, Freebandz, everybody. One day, Wheezy came to the studio with Bari, who mixed “VLONE,” and played me Gunna’s song “Invest” from “Drip or Drown.” I’m like, “Who the hell is Gunna?” … Then I go to Australia for tour with Abel. The whole time, I was listening to Gunna. Afterparty rooms, I’m putting everybody on. I put my boy Bucks on, I put my DJ on. I come back home and had a show with Uzi in Philly. Went to Uzi’s hotel room, Gunna was sitting right there. He had his little YSL chain. I told him, “I f— with your shit,” and he was kind of surprised. Now he has his confidence, he’s big time now. Back then, he was really quiet. He’d pull up to the studio literally by himself. Now he’s got three, four people rolling with him. I always pull up by myself everywhere. I only take security if it’s a show or a club.
Does hearing about Nipsey Hussle’s death cause concern for you traveling alone?
Nipsey was a different type of person. That wasn’t supposed to happen. With me, I don’t have a Marathon clothing store in my neighborhood. I plan to do things for my neighborhood, but I haven’t done them yet. Even right now, I got no business going to my neighborhood. Really, it’s people mad at you for whatever they mad at you for, ‘cause you ain’t take them with you. Everybody’s like, “You forgot about us!” Forgot about what? I forgot about you guys when I was broke 10 years ago, when you guys weren’t talking to me? It’s not like you guys helped me get here and all of a sudden I cut everybody off. I did everything by myself. I made my own beats, I recorded myself.
Who are some of the Canadian Artists and producers we should be excited about?
Frost, Trouble and Money Musik. Money Musik is a 19-year-old Indian kid from Brampton I found on DM. He produced on every single song on my album. He does really good drums. He asked me, “I wanna start making beats, what should I do?” This was when I had 5,000 followers. I never answer people but I answered him for some reason. I didn’t tell him any bullshit. Told him, “Get this USB keyboard, get yourself Fruity Loops, learn a little piano, get some speakers.” Next thing you know, I start hearing about him in the city. His beats were hard! Made him pull up to the studio one day; now he’s stuck with me.
How does being Punjabi in the current political climate affect your art?
It was more of a challenge before; I feel like I broke through now. It’s cool to be an Indian rapper, but it’s a challenge and a responsibility, too, because you have to represent everything the right way. You can’t f— it up for everybody. There’s a lot of pressure on my shoulders people don’t really think about or appreciate. My people especially, they don’t understand how deep this is — how much it takes, how much I have to think before I do something. I have to think 30 times before I do or say anything because I’m representing a whole race to the world in hip-hop, which is crazy.
What do your parents think?
They’re just happy I’m not doing the shit I was doing before. I’m the black sheep in my family; I’m the least educated. All my cousins are pharmacists and lawyers. I had the least hope. Everyone’s looking at me like, “what’s he gonna do?” My mama gave me time and said, “If you’re sure, then do your thing.” I wanted to go to audio engineering school; they paid for it. They were always doubtful until now.
On “Tension,” you say, “I respect my OGs so they practice what they preach.” Who are the OGs you looked up to?
The people who aren’t brand name people. I won’t even say their names. They know who they are. I’m talking about back in Toronto and the new ones back in NY. The line also means I don’t respect the OGs that don’t practice what they preach. There’s a lot of them. I’m not gonna say that either, but my friends reading this are definitely gonna have a laugh.
What is the tension you feel?
Just anxiety; everybody has it. Shout out to weed!
You mentioned at times not wanting to go to the studio. How do you push through that?
In any creative process, the hardest thing is putting the pen to paper. You walk around the room staring at a blank piece like, “What if I don’t make a good song? What if I don’t make a good book? What if I don’t make a good painting?” You just gotta put your pen to the paper and not judge your work. Show up every day. I do two or three songs and keep making them and I won’t even judge them after when we take a break and forgot what everything sounds like. I’ll play it back and out of the three, I’ll pick the hardest one.
At what point while you were producing did you decide you want to rap?
First I did a demo for Trouble, who was an artist at the time. He said he couldn’t repeat it the way I did, couldn’t make the song the same way. I put it out and always thought my voice sounded weird — like it was a curse. But it ended up being a gift because now I’m comfortable with hearing my own voice on records. No one likes hearing themselves talk on the microphone; same thing with rapping. Once I got comfortable, I noticed I cut through on every record I’m featured on because they’ll know exactly who it is right away.
Was that what you’re going for?
It was a blessing in disguise. I wasn’t going for that, that’s just how I sound. A lot of people say I use too much autotune but no, my voice is just robotic. I say a word with one flat note… I don’t do vibrato. You can hear me, you know what it is.
What does Cash bring to your career?
He has the craziest work ethic I’ve ever seen in my life. I don’t know how he does it. He’s always on the phone, always working. He’ll put that on me. If I go to dinner or go to the club two nights in a row, he’ll be like “Yo, what’re you doing bro? Go to the studio.” Which is good, it keeps me in check. Plus his imagination is insane because he’s still a big kid. He still watches WWF, still plays video games like Fortnite, even at his age. That gets me excited. He looks at us like wrestlers. “What’s his special move?” It’s dope; he literally translates wrestling into music.
What is your outlook on fame and paparazzi now?
Honestly, the interview everyone knows about is not worded exactly how I said it. It’s all good. I didn’t look at it like, “OMG, this is terrible.” I just didn’t care. When I go outside, I said sick. Sick like they’re not taking pictures. Maybe it got twisted, but it’s cool. My outlook’s the same. I don’t want the attention. What I said is sick and what they said is “I get sick.” I didn’t want to make myself look salty ‘cause I wasn’t salty. So much shitty stuff gets said about me every day; you read my comments and I just don’t give a shit. As long as my bank account keeps going up, my mom’s good, my friends are good, I don’t care what nobody has to say.
Being Canadian, how do you view Drake’s success? How does it influence or motivate you ?
It’s crazy; he really kicked down the door for us. He started everything. There’s always gonna be appreciation for what he’s done for us. It made shit feel like it’s possible. When Abel came through, he made me feel even more possible. He’s an underdog too. An Ethiopian kid from Toronto making drugged-out music like it was new. Luckily, Toronto is very hip to shit. Kids are very cultured and cool and they like new sounds.
What do you hope your legacy will be?
I want to be the first brown boy to get it poppin’. [Laughs.] I just want people to appreciate how much I actually did. People don’t see it, I don’t talk about it. I don’t brag about it. I want people to see how much I really love music and what went into it. It might take a video of me in the studio showing my process one day, but we’ll just baby step it [to] keep everybody interested and guessing what’s next.