From somewhere below London’s dank, recession-ravaged streets, an unconventional hip hop contemporary has emerged with his debut offering, 93, and as I sit here soaking up his complex brand of lyricism, I know it’s the start of something…
The press release promises many things about his work, but perhaps the most ambitious claim laid is that ’93 will be a breath of fresh air for those disillusioned with the current state of hip hop, in which all too many artists subscribe to the same tired and stale format.’ Variations on this statement are seemingly fed to us hip hop fans far too often, and with no just warrant. Enter Mowgli.
As an artist, his approach to hip hop focuses on expression, vision and individuality. These principles are delivered to the music via his sporadic yet passionate stream-of-consciousness style rhymes, and the multi-layered tapestries of thought conjured by his demonstrable freedom of mind.
Social critique plays a large part in his work, but Mowgli’s vibrant illustrations seep through to the listener from a wide variance of directions and perspectives, revealing more subtle references and realisations on each listen.
UKHH.com caught up with Mowgli to talk about the UK hip hop tradition, “quite interesting” beats, and how to market a left-field sound…
Everything about your style and the way you do things indicates that you’re exploding with creativity, from the intensity of your rhyming style to your involvement in making the album. The tracks on 93 span over the past half-decade nearly; did this make it a complex process putting the album together?
Yea there were definitely tracks that I knew I wanted to release at some point, and originally they were just gona’ be singles, and then it turned into an EP and then eventually an album. A lot of the tracks I didn’t really have time to work on when I wrote them, so they kind of got left over and I thought they should be on a release. I tried to bring it all together with some newer tracks, and make it sound relevant and coherent.
Tell us a bit about how you’ve built your reputation as an artist so far, who you’ve toured with, and what your highlights have been.
I think I’ve done quite a lot of it on my own, to be honest. A couple of years ago I came across Platitas and Miss Moss who are two producers, I did a course with them at uni, and they introduced me to the rest of 4i2i, who I’ve played a lot of gigs with recently, but before that I was doing a lot of solo shows with all kinds of people. Since I’ve released 93 I’m quickly making a lot more contacts, so that should help with getting my music into the right areas.
Why did you call the album 93?
It’s got nothing to do with the year… There is a reason but I don’t really wana’ say, because it’s more fun when people find out, if they come across it… But it’s nothing to do with the year.
You describe your style as ‘pretty left field,’ although, on a creative level, I see your music as representing more perhaps the direction in which hip hop should be moving, but isn’t… Do you think that in this day and age a lot of artists are too preoccupied with acquiring a commercially viable sound, that they neglect the depth of lyricism in their work?
Yea, I think there was a string of average releases for quite a while, and everyone was trying to sound like something; and even people who were innovative decided to be less so and do the minimum that they could, and that’s a sad thing. I think that’s what’s killed the scene of in a way as people have begun looking elsewhere. I just do what I feel to do at the time, and I always feel to do something different that I haven’t done before, and whether that’s being innovative I don’t know… But a lot of artists have been slacking and fans have been putting up with average releases, so average artists have become relatively big, when really – if you ask me – there shouldn’t be that much interest in some of them.
I think the last couple of years there have been a lot more artists to celebrate in terms of innovation, and I think people are becoming sick of the mundane which has inspired a lot more independents to come through.
There’s stuff coming through now but there was quite a blank space for a while… Even grime artists; they could have everybody eating out the palm of their hand, but they all aim at the wrong things. They’ve created a music that they could do anything they want with, but then they aim to be on a major label and produce R&B when they don’t have to. If they were on their own label people would still buy their records.
Do you think that the sheer size/length of your album represents the scale of your ambition as an artist?
Yea, I mean a lot of people said make it shorter – just select the best tracks, and I thought: I’ve got quite an uncompromising style anyway; if people can’t sit through it then they probably shouldn’t be listening to me. There’s too much disposable music at the moment, and a lot of artists don’t make albums, they make little tracks and disposable things for download. I wanted to give something to someone that they can listen to for a while, not necessarily in one go, and hope that they’ll get something new from it each time they listen.
Like you say, there’s a lot of disposable music out there right now, and people who don’t appreciate albums are missing out because that’s really when you get to the core of an artist; when you experience the whole journey of their work.
An album’s supposed to be a complete package, not just a flash, so I didn’t really mind my album being the length that it is; it’s something I chose to do.
What are your views on the UK hip hop scene at present?
There’s a few people coming through, but to be honest, the people I really like at the moment are the people I know. A lot of the older UK artists I used to listen to have died off, and there’s not really a scene. I mean a lot of the people getting the respect in UK hip hop right now I don’t really feel, and I’m not just gona’ say they’re good because they’re the only people who are doing something.
What’s your involvement with Dodeca Records?
I just wanted to set up something for myself, to put out this record, and then use it to put out other artists who are on a similar vibe – cos’ I think there are some, and I know who they are, so I think I can probably make something happen. I think there’s a potential market, but they’re not looking for it yet, so it’s about how to reach the right people.
Your album was mixed by the guys at Dented Records, how did that come about?
Yea they mastered it, Platitas did most of the mixing and I helped put it together. Those guys liked it, and quite a few people have liked it since then. I put the album up on the UKHH.com forum, and some others. I don’t generally go on forums at all, but I wanted to inform some people in case there was anyone looking. And yea, I got a good response. I didn’t believe the idea that everyone on forums are complete idiots… but, by the third or fourth post, some guy was bitchin’ about my name, and I thought; this is why people don’t bother with this. But yea, there’s been a lot of good response from that.
In comparison to the majority of UK hip hop being churned out, you bring a sound that contains multi-layered philosophical insights and social commentary which reveal more texture on every listen. Who would you say have been your main influences/inspirations in the formation of this album, whether inside or outside of hip hop and music.
Well I’ve always liked all different kinds of music, from sound art to hip hop. But like I said earlier, growing up hip hop-wise I did just listen to UK hip hop, I wouldn’t have known who a lot of US artists were. I mean I only heard of Def Jux four months ago, and people compared me to those artists when I didn’t even know who they were, and never cared to know. I guess when I first started rhyming it was UK artists who influenced me. But now, listening back to the things that probably influenced me to start with, my style’s nothing like that any more, and I think; how did that ever influence me? But I like lyricists in general; poets and writers, and I guess they’ve all played a part. I’d say that non-musical things have influenced me more than anything else on this release.
What are your ambitions for 93, and where do you want it to take you?
I want it to get to as many ears as possible, which is a bit difficult seeing as no one’s looking out for UK hip hop. The next releases aren’t gona’ be as, let’s say, traditionally hip hop as 93, but I think I had to make this album before moving on elsewhere. I just want to work with a load of different artists, not necessarily hip hop artists, but people from all different kinds of music backgrounds. My aim is just to get it out as much as I can.
Talk us through the collabos you’ve got on the album; Jamm Baxter of Contact Play, Stowaway, Flames Flutterby, Nicole Rowley, Sound Scientists…
Yea Sound Scientists are definitely coming through, and the stuff that they’re looking to release is quite interesting. Sort of spoken word acoustic stuff, and they’re experimenting quite a lot as well. I’ve known them for quite a while and wanted to do a couple of tracks with them, and I like their beats as well. Jamm Baxter, I think he’s sick so I wanted to include him, and we work quite well together on a track – we’ve got a couple of other tracks that aren’t on any releases yet.
So you’re feeling Contact Play’s album, Champion Fraff?
Yea I liked it definitely, it’s a strong release. There’s a lot of humour in their work and I don’t think a lot of people really get it. I read quite a bad review, and they clearly just didn’t get it at all. I think they took it a little bit too seriously, but then everyone else completely rates it.
So who else is on the album?
Stowaway, I wanted to include him as well, and people from 4i2i because I think they’re a strong collective of people, and to be honest that’s why I like working with them. There were a lot of solo tracks that I wanted to put on there so the collaborations were kept to a minimum.
You’ve worked with a number of talented and original producers on the album, including Platitas, Miss Moss, Chris Fader, Jimmy Whagwarn, and Fred Fades. What’s your background with them and how did you first hook up?
Some of them I’ve known for years, and some I’ve met through the internet or through other people. Sometimes I just hear a beat and ask people for it, and other times I’ll get given a load of beats and choose.
Are social networking sites quite active tools for you in hooking up with producers?
Out of all the producers I’ve worked with on the album, probably only one of them I actually met through the internet. The rest are just friends of friends. There wasn’t just one producer I wanted to work with for the entire album, although I may do that in the future, I just picked beats that I liked really. But yea, they’re all sick producers.
How would you describe your debut album in one sentence?
I find it really difficult to describe myself, and my own stuff in any way, without thinking I’m being an idiot. Maybe an unorthodox hip hop album, or just a creative hip hop album. And although a lot of cheesy artists say ‘I don’t wana’ be defined,’ really they are unbelievably definable, and I think maybe this CD will show that I could move into that field of being able to work with a wider range of musicians, and make good music rather than just good UK hip hop.
Would you say that a lot of up and coming artists don’t necessarily want to be classified as UK hip hop MCs, but would rather being seen as artists that can appeal to a wider range of people?
I like to think I’m versatile enough to be able to play to a lot of different types of audiences, from a hip hop crowd to people who would never even think to listen to hip hop, and I think I could put together a wide enough range of sets to cater for people with different tastes. That might not come across on the album; it is a pretty standard hip hop album in a lot of ways, but hopefully people will get the idea that there’s something a little bit more behind it.
Are you touring with the album?
Yea, at the moment I’ve been figuring out how to put together an exciting solo set. I’ll be touring with 4i2i, and we’re trying to get things sorted this month to try and tour next year, in the UK to start with and then Europe afterwards. But it’s gona’ be a different hip hop set, not just your standard ‘this is the DJ playing the guy’s beats and this is the MC,’ it’s gona’ be something a bit more exciting, featuring all sort of electronics and musicians. We’re trying to incorporate both electronic and organic musicians in the set, but a lot of guys that use musicians end up with a very cheesy band arrangement and it never works, and there are very few people who can pull it off. We want to make people want to come and see something that’s new, exciting and live, not just the same stuff that’s being churned out. I know lot of the guys from 4i2i have done spoken word stuff, and we’re looking to put together a spoken word set.
Have you got any tour dates yet?
Not yet, but they’ll be up in the next month. I’ll be touring with 4i2i but I’ll be pushing the album and doing a lot of my solo stuff. Also the guys from 4i2i are doing a lot of other things; Gluvs and Stowaway are doing an EP together, and a 4i2i mixtape or mix CD of some sort is on the way. But yea, at the moment the album’s gona’ be in stores early January, so I’m looking to have a tour sorted by the start of next year to coincide with the release. But don’t worry, you can buy it online now @ www.mowglihiphop.com
In the past you’ve been involved in a lot of different creative areas which use music in a variation of forms. Tell us about the work you have done in sound art performance and sound design.
Well I’ve always been into art, and I’ve done a lot of exhibitions. I did a sound-art course at uni, where I met Platitas and Miss Moss, so I do like experimental sound stuff separately; sound installations etc, but I’ve kinda’ put all that on hold since focussing on the album. But that’s what hip hop should be; sound-art relates to hip hop so much, and I mean people like David Toop who wrote Rap Attack but is also a sound artist, and I think a lot of guys who know a little more about hip hop realise that. Some of the best hip hop mix-tapes I’ve heard have been anything, cos’ hip hop should be anything from punk to soul, from samples to artwork, and I think people forget that nowadays and think there’s a certain sound that hip hop should be, when it ain’t like that.
So in terms of your artwork, is that something in the future that you’d like to promote alongside your music?
Yea definitely, and I think we’re going to try to incorporate art into the live shows eventually, but it’s an interesting concept and I’d even say it’s influenced my lyric writing to an extent. I love sourcing sound, sampling and the ways that sound can be used in general.
Hexstatic are pretty impressive with their VJ’ing; they use their images in such an interactive way that works on what’s being referenced in the tune at the time, I think it’s good that it’s getting to the stage where visuals can actually enhance or change the perspective of the messages within music.
I think a lot of hip hop artists are scared of doing something new… something like that, and so they’re clinging to something that’s not very good. I’m not really scared of doing anything, I just want to make good quality creative music.
What’s next for you? Future ambitions?
Well, as well as the album I’ve got a little EP on the way which I think will be quite exciting, that hasn’t really been done before. Especially the beats are gona’ be quite interesting… I don’t wana’ say too much about it, but I wana’ get it done pretty quickly – it’s about halfway written, and I’m gona’ try and get it done in time for the 93 tour. I’m writing a lot of new material to include in the shows, so I won’t just be touring with tracks from the album.
A word on your overall style, and some of the messages you felt important to convey on the album.
My work is abstract and there are things that I’m trying to say that people won’t always get, but I don’t really think it’s necessary for people to always get it. Every time I write a track there’s something that’s influenced me to write it, and hopefully it’s something that I haven’t done before; that doesn’t mean that it’s better than what I’ve done before but it’s different. My views on all things develop over time but they’re still connected. I rate albums in general where years later you listen to the same track and say – ‘I never realised they did that,’ or ‘I never realised that’s what they meant.’
With your style of rhyming I think listeners will get that kind of experience in that something new will emerge with each listen, or an increasing number of listens. People will take some messages from your work straight away, but the album has that slow-burning quality where more texture is released over time.
I haven’t picked up a hip hop CD for while, that… When I was younger you used to rewind back over what someone had said and go; ‘what the hell did he just say?’ I haven’t had that experience for ages and I think it’s a shame. If you get everything that they’ve said the first time they say it, then I’m not gona’ listen twice.
Any shouts and big ups?
Definitely the rest of 4i2i, who you should definitely look out for cos’ there’s some good artists there including Gluvs and Stowaway. Shout to Jamm Baxter and Contact Play, watch them. Platitas and Miss Moss, Chris Fader, Chosen Fume, MABN and Luke Bird who helped me put the design work together.
Mowgli is an artist who is swelling with ambition, but also satisfaction, in being surrounded by a group of contemporaries who are some of the most inventive lyricists and musicians around. With inspiration never far away, it’s clear to see that 93 will be the first of many increasingly experimental compositions for this artist. He is someone who must be listened to by any new age hip hop fan, lyricist, writer, artist or fan of genuine music. Hip hop and beyond.
Mowgli’s album, 93, is available now from his website – www.mowglihiphop.com, and will reach stores in January 2010.