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Why NIVEAU4 is a big deal for the Belgian hip hop scene

Zwangere Guy, L'Or Du Commun, TheColorGrey, Le 77, Darrell Cole, ISHA, Junior Goodfellaz & DJ Vega. On November 30, all of the aforementioned artists will perform together - on one stage - as ‘Niveau4’ at Ancienne Belgique.

Niveau4 was originally developed by Couleur Café in 2016 to unify promising and established artists within the Belgian hip hop scene. What initially seemed to be a line up of outstanding artists, soon developed into a unique phenomenon and a stepping stone for the participants. To get a better understanding of Niveau4's succes, we decided to have a little chat with Gilles Vanesse and Samy Wallens, the two master minds behind it.

Interview & text by Diana Davidova, pics by Elie Carp, Kelly Fober, Tarmac, Couleur Café, Chris Stessens & Sacha Claes, editing by Ama Kissi.

Hi Gilles and Samy, what exactly do you do for Couleur Café?

Samy: I'm responsible for the programming and production of the Niveau4 project. Besides my work at Couleur Café I'm also a musician.

Gilles: Just like Samy, I am also responsible for the programming and promotion of Niveau4.

Why do you think the world needs Niveau4?

S: Two years ago, the Dutch and French speaking Belgian hip hop scene was flourishing, yet there were not enough program slots to book everyone we wanted at Couleur Café. Because we're huge hip hop fans, and track everything concerning hip hop, we discussed this issue and soon came up with the idea to unite artists instead. That was when Niveau4 was born. After it's first edition (2016), we received a lot of positive feedback and decided it was worthwhile to keep the project going.

Where does the name Niveau4 come from?

S: It comes from 'niveau 4', the highest threat level that was prevalent in Brussels after the terrorists attacks in 2016. In a way, as Roméo Elvis stated, this project was a symbolic protest against terror. 

How do you select the members of Niveau4?

G: There are a two main criteria. First, we evaluate the quality of the musical contributions made by an artist. Second, we consider the way they perform on stage. After considering both criteria, we eventually withhold those artists that have something innovative and refreshing to offer to the audience. 

S: But not only that, we also want people to discover promising artists. Consider Roméo Elvis. When he initially performed on our stage in 2016 he wasn't known as he is now, but we very much believed in his potential and wanted to present his music to others. 


How many concerts do you attend while searching for new talent?

G: I have asked myself that question many times (laughs)! I think around ten per month, so over a 100 each year. We primarily attend concerts in Belgium, because we believe its a musically rich country.

Is the general rule ‘never book the same artist twice’?

It’s not a rule of thumb. We're more focussed on presenting what is worth discovering within the current Belgian hip hop scene. Yet, given that we did not encounter difficulties in our search for new artists for 2017, shows that our hip hop scene continues to inspire new and talented artists. 

Is there a limit on how many artists that will be included?

S: Not really. The idea is to present a hip hop collective, which consists of a similar amount of Dutch and French speaking performers.

G: We did, however, decide to limit the amount of DJ's that can take part. In fact, this year we selected two DJ's who we deemed capable of supporting both the Dutch and French speaking artist. 

S:  These DJ's are also included in the line up. We explicitly mention their names because we believe that they too deserve a place in the spotlight, seeing as they play a fundamental role in hip hop but are often insufficiently acknowledged for their contributions.


Did you have any artist who declined your invitation to take part in Niveau4?

S & G: No! We have been very lucky up until now.

Chase verses, shot during Niveau4 rehearsals at AB. 

You have an impressive collaboration with Ancienne Belgique. How did this start?

Seeing as it is Belgium's most famous venue, it was clear Ancienne Belgique (AB) would be the perfect location for our rehearsals. We are very proud of the partnership and the way it happened. AB welcomed us very openly. They let us use AB Salon for interviews, so everything was on the same level as us, level 4 (laughs)! 

Why would you say Niveau4 is a big deal?

G: Because, if we put it on a larger scale, even in the small country that we are - with our many problems and communities - I think when you come to the big city you can see that these communities live together as one. Despite the differences in religion or language, there are no borders in the streets. People don’t walk on different sidewalks, even though there are people in politics who try to spread the wrong message. 

I think Niveau4 brings a message, through music, that the borders in society that are being put in our heads, do not exist. 

I think Niveau4 brings a message, through music, that the borders in society that are being put in our heads, do not exist. But that we instead have to try to share, to collaborate and accept each other. I believe that’s the message we have to put forward: the artistic and cultural collaboration can be used as an example to create new energy. 

S: During the live performances, when you see such a positive energy between all the different acts with different backgrounds... It shows that this energy exists and can be used for something good in the future. You have to be proud of it! Have no fear, stop dividing Dutch and French. A project like Niveau4 shows that these walls are not relevant anymore, the hip hop of today exists thanks to the youth. Just look at the way French rappers are welcomed to perform in Flanders and vice versa!

G: This summer, Niveau4 was right after the show of Coely, and it was fully filled! What’s even more amazing is, that an almost family-like bond has developed among the artists. 


What is your advice for young artists who want to be included in the Niveau4 selection?

G: Firstly, you need to be certain whether you can do everything on your own. And if you can’t, you need to surround yourself with a strong team. The current artists from Niveau4 all have people who work with them: managers, sound engineers, film-makers, photographers... They all rely somehow on people who can push them to greatness. I personally think this is necessary because an artist can’t manage everything on his or her own. 

Secondly, artists have the possibility to make music anywhere and rapidly. Although that's a good thing, this should not impair the quality of your music. Nowadays young artists think that once they have made their first tracks, set up a Facebook page and put music on Spotify - which can be done by literally everyone - they are settled. No. Becoming a great artist requires hard work and dedication. You have to be willing to challenge yourself and grow in a professional manner. In each case, you have to be coherent. That is, your music, performance and career have to be integrated.  

It’s hard to get there, but today’s Belgian hip hop is doing very well. So don’t just wait for your turn. Try to progress on all levels! And once you are successful, don't forget to keep working - to keep learning. Because this line of work is hard and fragile; you can be famous today and forgotten tomorrow. It is therefore important to keep this in mind, even in the early stages of your career, and to think about alternative routes to take when your own music doesn’t cut it anymore.


Can you already tell us what’s in store for 2018?

We don’t have anything fixed yet, but looking at the ‘golden era’ of the past two years we think it'll be challenging to find better artists than we've found the previous two years. Nevertheless, our radar for new talent is open! We look forward to discovering new material and potential for 2018. 

But that’s still far away, first you have a great show planned for this year. What can we expect from the AB concert on November 30?

G: There will be a warm-up act which is not announced yet. As at Couleur Café, there will also be surprise guests.

We also managed to keep the ticket price as low as possible. It’s only 15 euros for a concert in the main hall! This is a beautiful gesture from AB. In this way we hope to stay true to our Couleur Café principles. That is, to organise concerts that attract and are accessible for everyone, ranging from youth to families with kids.

If you want to witness the NIVEAU4 show in AB, you can buy the tickets here.

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