“It came from Africa. Everything came from Africa. And now it’s coming back with stars like Chronnix and Morgan Heritage but all that’s changed is the packaging. It is their music. It is African music.”
Keeping things mad international, we caught up with the ever eclectic DJ Vadim in Kampala, Uganda. We spoke on the new LP with Jman, physically travelling the word and musically tying the strands of various sonic spheres together…
It would be easy for DJ Vadim to ride the wave of his work; repackage the same successful formula and milk it for a label. But adventuring through the shrubbery of disparate sonic worlds is one common thread in an unpredictable career path. He has over twenty years of releasing music under his belt, including 15 solo albums – with Stevie Wonder, Corinne Bailey-Rae, and Foreign Beggars all leaves among a bronzed whirlwind of names he has produced for. Through all the acclaim of credits, Latin Grammy nominations, and Mixcloud DJ of the year awards, the man they call Daddy Vad has always seemed most at home with his ear to the ground on the cusp of new sounds. We meet just off the heaving Ggaba Road in Kansanga, south Kampala.
“I think coming here is stepping out of your comfort zone into the unknown. There’s something in me that has always been a great adventurer. My grandfather was a seaman and he went to, I don’t know, eighty countries. Maybe 90. He died last year – he’d been to a lot. I’ve been to 84. Ever since I can remember I’ve loved maps, I’ve loved travelling. I’m very interested in geography and going to new places. Seeing what they are like. Experiencing them. One of the most common things you’ll hear when you speak to artists – I mean emcees, singers, writers, producers – is that ‘I have a beat block. A creative block. I can’t write anything at the moment. I’m not inspired.’ That’s never happened to me. I have so much source material and ideas. I don’t have time – that’s what I lack. Time to execute the things that I want to.”
With up to 200 live shows per year, you might think a burdensome touring schedule could restrict the output of new material. Within ten minutes and one glass of red of meeting Vadim, it is clear his appetite for discovery makes “travelling all the time for DJing feed the production”. Last week Italy. Today Uganda. Next week Kenya. Spain, then Greece, Macedonia, then Glastonbury. “And that’s just June. All the time it’s very different experiences. Very different people. And that feeds itself. I come from this kind of experience, then I’m going to Macedonia and Greece where it’s the complete opposite; a complete lack of black influence. That’s gonna be interesting. Then to Glastonbury which is one of the world’s most prestigious music festivals where you literally have the crème da le crème of everything. World music, jazz, blues, soul, R&B, rock, punk, thrash. So many tents and so many stages and so many great artists to come there and see how something that developed here comes to commercial fruition there. Because everything we do in Europe musically comes from here some way or another.” His eyes light up so much his nose could be a moth. “You know, I was in the studio the other day and the guy has a fiddle. A handmade thing. It’s like a tiny little miniature bongo with a string and a little stick at the end to tune it. That’s mad because, with the little bow he had to play it, that is the basis of stringed instruments for violins, violas, you know what I mean? The basic element of classical music – Beethoven, Mozart – you are playing with an orchestra heavily using stringed quartets or multiples of. It comes from here. Everything, musically speaking. Just it’s more refined.”
Vadim’s gigs across the region were booked by Kampala based East African Records. The label’s head honcho, David Cecil, and right-hand man, Daniel Semulema, catch wind of our chat and mention how Kampala audiences can hear local music by the likes of Chamaeleon or Bobi Wine as foreign if it is played by foreign DJs. A musical take on judging a book by its cover. Amongst the elder statesmen of the East African music worlds there too is spun a trope that the authenticity of local music is diluted by external influence. Vadim adds a caveat to the cyclical theory of all sounds exampling African roots. “If I went to a club and started playing Beyonce and somebody asks me to play local music, I couldn’t say this is local just because the rhythms that Beyonce is using, through enough generations, come from Africa. It’s a bit further fetched. Like saying English and Germans should understand each other because it’s the same language.”
Broadened musical horizons only complement the soundscapes DJ Vadim was raised around. Born in Leningrad, Russia, he grew up for over fifteen years in east London – or as he puts it, “I used to live in a shithole called East Ham”. His latest LP, Likkle More, is a collaboration with long-time associate Jman and marks a convergence of the reggae and UK hip-hop Vadim grew up with. Singles have been drip fed on a monthly basis since late April, beginning with the Baltimore booty house infused ‘Heart Attack’.
The full project was put out in June and the video for ‘Bad Like This’ (featuring Shanty B) has just been released. “I met Jman at a festival in Devon about ten years ago. There was some grime tent and I walked in there and there’s a bunch of kids just going at it and he was one of them. And I was like, this is sick bruv. Let me get your number. Kept in contact. Recorded. First song we ever did was This DJ which came out in 2012. And pretty much every project I’ve done since then I’ve had him. He wasn’t on Dubcatcher actually, but he was on Dubcatcher Vol. 2 and Dubcatcher Vol. 3.”
So had a full-length collaboration always been in the works? “I didn’t think when we started recording that this is going to be an album. It was like, ‘oh, we’ve got four tracks’. I live in Spain and he lives in Exeter and I was like, well come back over let’s see what happens. He was just really into recording. We had a good vibe. It was easy.” The recording sessions began in January 2018 when Jman was polishing up three features for Dubcatcher Vol. 3. “I flew him to Spain to record for Dubcatcher 3 just to finish his tracks. He’s the kind of guy where if I send him the beats it’s gonna take ages. He’s just on some slow thing. I live in Barcelona and so does Sr. Wilson. He’s a Spanish singer who works a lot with O.B.F, so I got him to come through to do some choruses. I said to J it went really well with Sr. Wilson, we’ve got four tracks done. I told him I was thinking of getting another singer in because it helps him and it helps me to get the creative juices flowing. So I got this Lacai guy over. He’s Spanish, he’s from Madrid. Got him a train, he came in. Then Jman was like ‘I’ve written all these tracks; I don’t know what I’m going to do. I feel a bit uncomfortable. Are you going to do tracks with him or me?’. So, for the first day he was a little bit reticent. And I was like, yeah, I don’t know. Fuck. Shit. Thinking I shouldn’t have really got a singer in because it’s deviating from our plan. But then it just clicked. Everything fell into place. And before you know it, we recorded six tracks – six really good tracks.” Vadim’s knack for fusion sees Lacai’s soothing vocals cradle verse after verse of snappy Jman delivery.
Back in 2012 Jman featured on the Devilman track, ‘Jackiechan’, and delicately illustrated the image of cumming in his girlfriend’s Tetley tea. “I know J can kill the verses. No doubt. That’s not a problem. The choruses; I’m more interested in getting those right. He is 25 now. That’s what, seven years ago? When you are 18, that angry and young. I don’t think he’s that kid now. I’ll have to tell him about that though.” Vadim is twice a winner of the Sony Award for best album artwork and this time around the release has himself and Jman as chefs flipping pancakes – or chapatis if you are in Uganda. “It was a French guy that Jman found somewhere, somehow. We gave him the album and asked if he wanted to do this and he said yes. And the next day he basically delivered 90% of the album cover. Drawings all coloured in.” Not like waiting for a Jman verse? “No! Every time I do an album I try to think about the packaging, think about the artwork, try to make something decent – something people want to get.” Given how Jman makes his teas you can only hope zero pancakes were eaten in the production of this record.
On the skippy and bouncing Dubcatcher Vol. 3 collaboration, ‘No Hype Man’, former Roll Deep member Killa P shares mic duties with Jman. There have been previous forays into the grime world of Vadim’s hometown too, with the 2009 UK Flex remix of ‘Soldier’ featuring Tottenham’s own Wretch 32, as well as Kyza Smirnoff and Foreign Beggar Orifice Vulgatron. Could a strictly grime project be on the cards? “Grime emcees that I like are always the ones that are more on a reggae flow. So I love Rico Dan, Flowdan, Killa obviously, Jamacabi. I like Maxsta. D Double E just has the most incredible voice.” And ad-libs, right? “Yeah, him and his ad-libs are just insane. Footsie’s good. And the guy Jah Model is really good. Devilman. The only thing with some of the grime emcees is you have got to know them personally. It’s a very closed community. I’ve tried to approach some people before and unless you have a personal contact or you have met them it’s really, really hard. It’s not like that in hip-hop. It’s not like that in reggae.” Two breaths and the sonic laterality of Vadim’s mind is up and running again. “The same can be said about drum and bass. I remember Demolition Man telling me that. When drum and bass fused off from jungle in about ’97 – Roni Size signed by Talking Loud and drum and bass was really going up – it was controlled by certain DJs. And if you look at the DJs that made it from there it was a very close-knit community. And the only people outside the UK that were ever allowed in that club were DJ Marky from Brazil and his partner. It was all about whatever was happening in the UK. It’s the same if you look at the 90s. Hip-hop wise everybody was fixated on what was happening in New York. Fatbeats Records. Mos Def, Talib Kweli. That type of thing. So, the closeness of the drum and bass scene is a bit similar to the closeness of the grime scene.”
A dollop of thinking time and Vadim is again realigning the hymn sheets from disparate genres. “Grime is a type of hip-hop. They say it’s not but bollocks to that. It’s complete hip-hop. They are rapping. Not singing. Not yodelling. They are rapping. When Dizzee released his first album that was a specific grime sound. That 8-bit, really distorted 808s. Very punky. No grime sounds like that now. It’s much more refined. Is Stormzy a grime emcee? Listen to ‘Vossi Bop’, that’s a hip-hop beat. It’s coming full circle because grime emcees came from speed garage. There’s always been emceeing in the UK from dancehall and reggae; soundclash culture. Same in America. But in America when Kool Herc was setting up in the heart of the Bronx he inadvertently created hip-hop with people rapping over the breaks. Whereas in the UK we appreciated that and listened to Public Enemy and BDP and all of that kind of thing. But then we had rave culture mixed with dancehall culture. So, from dancehall and the early pioneers of Saxon, Tippa Irie and all of that going on, then you have got General Levy on the jungle back in what, ’93, ’94? Ragga Twins, £10 To Get In, that’s what? ‘92? And Rebel MC. When you listen back to those records you can see the progression – just slightly faster hip-hop. Then come in a few funny acid sounds. Beep beep beep. And the beat just gets faster and faster before you develop into jungle. Jungle at that point was quite ragga. It wasn’t quite so emcee lead. And then garage was big in the 90s all the time and they sped it up to become speed garage. And then people are hosting it.” As in a traditional emcee, master of ceremonies? “Exactly. The emcees went from ‘hey, big up my DJ, throw your hands in the air’, suddenly flipped to starting to write lyrics. And So Solid were I guess the first ones to commercially do it well mixing garage with emceeing. Because they weren’t like that duo, Oxide and Neutrino. If you listen to their big hit it’s quite catchy. But it’s kind of a bit like a school rhymes verse.”
The evolution Vadim recalls can be heard when you listen back to Tunnel Vision mixtapes or Lord of the Mics. In fact, when Kano was asked for his favourite grime verse of all time, he opted for Wiley’s contribution on Champagne Dance by the Pay As U Go garage crew. It is a UKG beat. “I’ve always been interested in that because for me it’s all emcee culture. I used to live in New York and yeah you have funk and soul and jazz and blues. Incredible artists. From Parliament to Billie Holiday to James Brown to all kinds of fantastic people. But it was very much, ‘the funk is over here, and here is the soul’. So, the soul boys never accepted James Brown as a singer. They segregated their music. In Chicago they created Chicago house. In New York you had the garage with Larry Levan. Between the two they created techno. At the same time as that’s happening in what, ’86, you’ve got the Hacienda in Manchester mixing things like The Cure and a long history of the UK’s electronic music. That is one of the reasons for me why the UK is the most inspiring music scene.”
This notion of shared histories is the integral building block for Vadim’s approach to experiencing and creating music. He sees percussive rhythms and punching basslines as lost bridges connecting peoples and lands. Fifteen years ago, when he was likely heading for a half century on his nation trotting list, Vadim visited the not so Democratic Republic of Congo. East African Records work with festivals in the eastern DRC Kivu regions to market artists across the border, and we all chat about the ancestry of Congolese ‘rumba’ and its Cuban namesake. During the Belgian colonial era only a toddler’s handful of radio stations were accessible across the DRC. One played Cuban son. The rhythm guitar and percussion of Congolese rumba are so evocative of its Cuban forefather that the two strands are mutually intelligible. If you were to play Cuban son to the Congolese or Congolese rumba to Cubans they would raise their respective glasses of Primus lager or Havana Club and toast to national heritage.
“They say Kinshasa is the birthplace of African music. They say Kinshasa is the heartbeat of Africa.” Arteries pump music around the globe and veins return these kindred sounds with new tones, colours, and flavours. The full circle travels of music. It is in these offbeat tangents that Vadim radiates the fascination of a little nipper encountering Lego for the first time. Away from the pretence of Royal Academies and ivory tower ethnomusicology, he lives this unravelling of musical history and breathes it into his formation of our musical present. From Chicago to Manchester, Kingston to London, Havana to Lubumbashi; DJ Vadim finds himself diving in the depths of musical pasts and crashing waves into shores we find ourselves dancing on today. He boasts an irrepressible love for discovery, which, when mixed with his zeal for beats and bars the world over, coalesces to form a sonic cartographer figure. The Jeanne Baret of soundscapes.
“I worked with Demolition Man. He’s a reggae, ragga, dancehall sing-J; DJ and singer. One of his nicknames is motormouth because can go insanely fast. I was playing him some double time American things from Abstract Rude, Tribe Unique, Aceyalone. Some LA stuff. Busdriver. Now it is fashionable to go double time but I’m talking about 2003. Before grime. People were rapping over 95 or 100 BPM hip-hop. And dancehall was up there too. He’d never heard it. Two different cities at the same time where artists were inspired to do something similar and they are not connected. There’s not a common producer. They are completely unbeknown to each other. I think this human development has happened more than once. There wasn’t one guy who invented the knife, in one village. It must have happened at around the same time when people realised they could take something and use it as a utensil to kill animals. It wasn’t one person who invented the wheel. It was probably many around the same time of human consciousness that realised they were fed up of lugging this shit around. Somehow our musical spirit is connected.” Admittedly, Vadim doesn’t quite explain why it took us so long to whack a pair of wheels on a suitcase, but he would be the first to say he doesn’t have all the answers. The joy is in posing the questions.
DJ Vadim is playing The Full Moon and Attic in Bristol tomorrow (October 4th) and he and Jman will be playing The 100 Club in London on December 16th (tickets here). Likkle More with Jman is available now, and you can order it here.