I am always on the hunt for names new to me and their connections to Barnsley’s musical and artistic history, and it was while recently researching a recent speight of graffiti in town, I came across the name Nina Bhadreshwar, mentioned in an old article about legendary Barnsley artist, Simon ‘Fista’ Sunderland. It spoke of ‘Barnsley lass Nina’ and her self-published graffiti and urban music magazine Street Scene and later, The Real State. That was enough for me to there and then start researching her instead. But here was the real surprise, Nina worked for Death Row Records between 1994 and 1996, what many consider was the golden age of Hip Hop. She is also known for having a close friendship with Tupac Shakur.
I figured that knowing that Nina grew up in Barnsley, is something similar to knowing that Anton Brookes of Bad Moon Publicity, who worked with Nirvana from 1989 and helped to break them in the UK, was a Barnsley lad. They’re often untold but inspiring stories For Barnsley’s musical youth.
Much has already been written of Nina’s friendship with Tupac ans her fiery working relationship with her boss, Death Row CEO Suge Knight. She has also released a trilogy of books chronicling the history of her work on The Real State and her time at Death Row, we well as her struggle to beat depression and Anorexia as a teenger, but I wanted to find out for myself how it all started. How does a Barnsley girl go from publishing her own zine in a small town still suffering from the after-effects of the miner’s strikes, to working for one of the most notorious record labels in the world. I spoke to Nina to find out.
So where in Barnsley did you grow up and go to school? I went to Wakefield Girls’ High School and during that time I remember only two kids of an ethnicity other than White British. I only ever remember seeing one black kid on the streets growing up and I didn’t experience friendship with folk of another race until I was in my 20s. Despite being smack bang in the middle of Wakefield, Sheffield and Leeds – all of which had thriving second and third generation communities of immigrants, Barnsley had and still has little or none. It must have been quite isolating for you?
When we first moved to Barnsley, I went to Cawthorne Primary School and lived at Rose Cottage. Then our first and last proper family home was in Gawber and I attended Gawber Primary School. I loved school! I had some great friends there. And the best teachers. Our headmaster was Mr. Bradbury who was a kind, eclectic artist and musician who loved nature and animals. We had pet club and a small holding we were responsible for. He shaped an amazing place to be educated in. The first lesson was out in the yard, him sitting strumming the guitar, playing ‘Jimmy Crack Corn’ and then ‘Kumbaya’. Assemblies always involved us being exposed to a broad range of music: folk, classical, gospel, pop, even some rock! We all just followed his lead. Then I had a brilliant schoolteacher, Mrs. Owen, who also lived across the road from us. She was a smart, strict and erudite lady, also a Magistrate. She trained me hard. Everyone who went through that school has gone on to be successful and happy. I wish there were more like them still.
Yes, there was racism and it hurt (details in my book) because I didn’t understand it and couldn’t do anything about it. I am an introvert so took it to heart. My younger sister and brother never really had an issue with it – they fitted in more. Art and music were a massive part of Barnsley life. I won first prize at an Art competition at one of our gymkhanas when I was 5 years old. I still have that painting. I haven’t really improved much since! Still paint the same way.
Prior to discovering Street Culture, which ended being a real solace for you, what kind of things were you into as a kid?
Art, dance, music, prayer and writing. They are all mixed in together. My parents didn’t disapprove exactly but the focus was on getting a good academic education so I didn’t have art classes at school; I had to take Latin and the sciences. I don’t regret it. I liked those subjects too and I am glad I got to find my own route in art and expression. I wasn’t really into the music around me at the time. I have to discover things myself – I hate having stuff imposed on me. I love finding music and a connection.
In 1992, as a twelve years old, as well as rave and rock music, I had a secret affinity with Hip Hop and New Jack Swing; Janet, Bobby Brown, R.Kelly, Massive Attack, TLC and Neneh Cherry. No one else I knew was into this stuff at the time, so it felt like it was all mine.
As a teenager with both English and Indian parents, prior to discovering the world of Street Culture, were there any British artists that influenced you?
I was in London when Neneh Cherry first came out and it was so empowering for the first time, seeing a woman who looked remotely like me (in skin color, hips and hair) as an artist and pregnant, feminine not skinny but strong. I think it was her strength and boldness which captivated me. All the artists I liked where doing something new or different and, for me, that’s what made them sexy or attractive. They were being real, they were being themselves and that takes real strength in this world. That’s where The Real State comes from. I was really into Massive Attack, Aphex Twin and lots of underground electronic music. I went to The Pixies’ concerts, Glastonbury and liked Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, The La’s and some Radiohead but that was it as far as rock. I liked Jodeci and Nas but I wasn’t a major Hip Hop/R n’ B fan to be honest.
What was your route after school? Did you go to college, university? And how did that help you on the path to The Real State?
I studied Physiology and Psychology at Birmingham University but, although I scored in the top ten of the cohort in my grades, I was an utter mess: anorexic, depressed and still mourning my mum who had died when I was seventeen. Also, I wanted to be a writer not a doctor, so I left before my second year, went to London to be a garage mechanic’s assistant, attended night-school to learn shorthand and typing. Reapplied for Uni to read English at King’s College and started writing for a range of papers, magazines etc. I was asked to edit Casey L, the King’s College magazine so I did that a couple of years and worked as a reporter on the local paper, The Barnsley Chronicle, every college vacation. After my finals, they offered me a paid indentureship, so I started work as a journalist straight away.
That was a great training ground as they were old school hacks. A room full of chain-smoking black coffee-drinking, male hacks who were hard on me, taught me the fundamentals of finding a good story, how to structure it. They were totally dismissive of academics and told me I had to unlearn that way of writing. That’s where I learnt structure and how to get information, real information. I had a great photographer comrade in Anton Want, who was in the same position as me. He was extremely talented, great at sports photos but with an artistic eye too and there was Andrew [Harrod], now the editor, who was a proper journalist even at eighteen. There were a lot of good times when it was busy but it was hard work when it was slack. We had to work Saturdays on a rota too so it was a very lonely existence. I felt disconnected from everything, always having to write about something new every day, never able to commit. That’s not my thing.
In the first issue of Street Sense (1992), you wrote an honest and enlightening look at youth employment in South Yorkshire. It reads like it could have been written today. What are your memories of looking for work back then and do you see any similarities between then and now in opportunities in the arts?
I think that’s when I started to move away from the institutions of Barnsley because, the more I was out and about ferreting for stories, the more I saw the injustices and the fall-out after the closures of the mines, the decimation of our community. It hurt. I couldn’t not do anything, I couldn’t just COMMENT. I needed to get involved. I am a shy person with limited social skills so I just took what I had and did the best I could. A town that used to be full of skilled artisans with expert knowledge in cricket, football, art, music, nature suddenly had had its livelihood scooped out and it was collapsing in on itself. It wasn’t just about jobs – it was about the whole structure of our lives and community. How can you replace that with service industries and fake promises? And folk didn’t know what to do with their redundancy pay – they had no knowledge of building business or community so that’s when heroin moved in. The rage and anger of the unheard youth was only expressed through graffiti – in Sheffield, they’d lost the steel, in Barnsley it was the mines. And the graffiti was slammed down on. It was a crime. So how we felt was a crime. Being an artist now truly was a crime because the institutions had changed. We were having to start all over from scratch. That was the whole point of the music, the art, how we structured business was because the institutions were not supporting us – in fact, they were our enemies.
What facilities were available to you back then, in order to produce a magazine? How many copies were you throwing out and where were they sold?
None. I couldn’t qualify for The Prince’s Trust as I had a bit of savings. I used them. I was unemployed and using my savings. My dad was furious. I had a typewriter, dictaphone, colored pencils, crayons, paper. A car. My legs, ears and a hunger for stories to show what was really happening. What else do you need? I sold about 1500. Distributed across South Yorkshire, largely in small record shops. When the graffiti artists started to like it, they took it all over. That’s when it took off. Nobody really bought magazines like that in Sheffield and Barnsley. As soon as I started moving about, I found my audience and quadrupled my output.
The started The Real State in 1993. Were you still in Barnsley at this point?
Barnsley, Sheffield, Italy, New York, London. All over the place. I had about 12 addresses between 1992-1994. I wasn’t happy or settled though. I felt irrelevant in the UK and unheard. I couldn’t connect with anything.
Was there any kind of urban music scene in Barnsley then or was this something you had to travel to find?
No, I just went to the raves.
And the art? Obviously Simon Sunderland was probably the most prominent around here, but who were the other key players both here and around the region?
Sheffield graffiti artists; Mist 1, Such Des or Des 1, Easel, TDK…tons but I had to travel to find them. No others in Barnsley.
How long was it until your work was spotted and you started to get work offers from elsewhere?
I was always getting offers for my writing but I wanted to keep my own vision. Record companies were always asking me to write reviews etc. obviously. That happens at newspapers too – just press release rewrites but I didn’t do that. I wanted to hear and experience things and then write about it. Tupac was the first person who got me and where I was coming from, what I was trying to do. I liked him just because of that – before I knew anything else really. He was a kind, supportive and sensitive artist who got me.
Were your parents supportive of your writing and especially your move to the states? Did you ever have second thoughts about moving to L.A.?
My mum died when I was 17. My poor dad was not at all happy. He was terrified for me running my own international business and not having a settled job. But he was also supportive of me being an independent working woman. He just said, ‘Always remember whose you are and where you come from.’ That has stuck with me. I belong to the Lord and I come from sturdy working stock and I have a family.
He went off to be a missionary doctor in Bangladesh and Nepal so he had his own agenda and obstacles. I was truly on my own.
Were you ever made aware of what it was about your work that caught Death Row’s eye – an article or interview, particular style?
The artists didn’t like or trust the media. Snoop had just got a murder case and the media were vilifying him and everyone else to do with Death Row. The artists trusted and opened up to me and I got the information, crafted the stories which presented them as real artists with vision and purpose, technique and connections. They showed another side. I had a heart for the gangs and the situation going on in LA at that time, had spent eighteen months immersed in it, lived in Watts so they knew I wasn’t part of the other lot. They claimed me and that was that.
Were there many other women working at Death Row?
They came and went, usually within 2-4 months. Angela, the marketing manager, stayed a while.
What did your job consist of initially and how did that change throughout your time there?
Magazine editor, biographer, press creator for George Pryce, secretary for Roy Tesfay (Suge’s assistant) and Norris Anderson, general drafter of anything legible, printable, logger of purchase orders, check requisitions, developer of content for radio drops, liaising with studio, developer of briefs for videos, reader of scripts, organizing photo shoots, writing, printing, faxing, answering the phone, running for food, Fed Exing, collecting mail for Interscope Records, general entertainment of stressed out staff! Whatever needed doing.
Whether the image is a true one or not, Hip Hop is generally known as being sexist. Did you experience much of it at Death Row and if so, was there a difference between the way you were treated by artists and by company management?
No. The absolute opposite. It was the most empowering place I have ever worked in as a woman. It made me what I am today. Made me demand equality and expect it. Suge treated me like a player from day one. For that alone, I am grateful. All the guys, from both sides, were respectful. The male artists were all very respectful. The women less so! I wasn’t that attractive though – not much of a temptation. I’d just hit puberty remember!
nb. Nina started puberty at 25, after living with Anorexia Nervosa for 14 years.
It must have been pretty nerve-racking meeting Suge Knight for the first time?
No. I had lived in Watts, East London and East Oakland beforehand. There are more frightening characters out there.
Were people at all suspicious of a young British woman, new to LA, being offer a position such as yours at Death Row?
I guess so but I’ve been eyed with suspicion since I was born. It doesn’t really phase me.
What do you remember about first moving from the UK to L.A., especially in the aftermath of the L.A. riots. Was the tension there something that was obvious straight away? It must have been quite a shock to the system?
I loved it. It was real, raw and made me come alive. The injustice was so obvious, so in-your-face. There was no way you could sugar-coat it. I loved the whole culture and folk’s openness to discuss. Also, their love of story.
You returned to Yorkshire a few times and considering its possible to retain a career as a journalist and writer online, what keeps pulling you back to L.A.?
It’s my home. I have never fitted in, in the UK and never will. Cali is the place of my purpose and calling.
Finally, something for myself here; D’Angelo, Azealia Banks, Kendrick Lemar and Death Grips have produced some of my favourite albums of the last year. Which other acts should I be looking out for?
Cali Smoov, Nyku. Fana, The LBC and all the unreleased real west coast sounds. C Style still has and is down to release. C Style is the real mastermind behind that whole sound. He brought Nate, Snoop and Warren G to Dre and Suge, was there for Deep Cover, stuck by Snoop when Interscope and Death Row were going to drop him during his court case. Treason why Suge could never re-create his empire on his own- because he wasn’t the one putting all the elements together. Oh and producer Kurt Kobane’s new productions.
Nina Bhadreshwar is a British writer and spraypaint artist who worked for Death Row Records between 1994 and 1996.
You can find out more about Nina by visitng her website, www.therealstate.co.uk.
You can download copies of The Real State magazine and the first issue of Street Sense from 1992, here: http://www.therealstate.co.uk/3/13/Back-Catalogue/BACK-ISSUES-OF-THE-REAL-STATE-FROM-1992.html
The Real State and Death Row Records Chronicles Trilogy and How To Survive Puberty at 25 are available from amazon for Kindle.
I asked Nina to compile a mixtape to soundtrack her career. She graciously accepted my request and this is the result.
#mixtapemonday Nina Bhadreshwar: Barnsley, The Real State, Death Row and Beyond
1. The Korgis – If I Had You
2. Orbital – Chime
3. The House of Love – Girl with the Loneliest Eyes
4. Nine Inch Nails – Head like a Hole
5. 2Pac – Holla If You Hear Me
6. Bobby Womack – Across 110th Street
7. 2Pac – Definition of a Thug Nigga
8. 2Pac – Str8 Ballin
9. The Roots – The Seed (2.0) ft. Cody ChesnuTT
10. The Smiths – Nowhere Fast
11. The La’s – I am the Key
12. Nas – Hip Hop is Dead ft Will.I.am
13. Oasis – Hello
14. Oasis – Champagne Supernova
15. LBC Crew – Beware of my Crew
16. The View – Superstar Tradesman
17. The View – Walls
18. 2Pac – Only Fear of Death
19. Kendrick Lamar – M.A.A.D. City ft MC Eiht
20. Tommy James and the Shondelles – Crimson and Clover