Kareem Denis was 17 when he first silenced us in 2003 on the airwaves from Radio 1. At that moment as he laced those few bars with Doc Brown we were introduced to the formidable talent known as Lowkey. Since then he’s blessed us with a string of goodness ‘Key to the Game’ vol 1, 2, and 3 ,the last of which had the heartfelt ‘Bars for my Brother’, and his work as part of the rhyming heavyweights Poisonous Poets…
I’ve changed hugely since those days. I think then I was just rapping just for the hype at that age, as other people do. Now what I’m trying to do is leave a legacy, where every song has to be 100% from the heart. Now I’m striving to think more as a musician does, to make music that after I’m dead people can look back and get a unique picture of who I am.
Benjamin Zephaniah has called him ‘one the best lyricists in the Western Hemisphere’ and sure there are not many fans of UK HipHop or indeed MC’s, so many of which he’s collaborated with, that could have disputed his talent or potential. But after the last instalment of Key to the Game a cloud lingered over his work and Lowkey suffered a writer’s block
I’d made a lot of songs. And I think after while it gets to the point where you’re trying to better yourself and you write something down and you think that’s no good. I can do better. Sometimes you get to a stage where you feel you can’t get any further.
But thankfully a corner was turned, and in 2008 Lowkey got back to writing.
Just getting out and experiencing more life, I think it’s very dangerous in this society that we live in to become a weed smoking hermit. More UK legends have been ruined by weed then anything else in the world, and if they’re honest they’d tell you themselves. I’m glad I don’t smoke weed anymore. I gave up on the 1st of January 2005. I just got to the stage that when my brother died if I kept doing this I’m either gonna go crazy or I’m just gonna die
Although he will deny he ever went away, the London lyricist is back lyrically braver and stronger then ever before with a new solo album ‘Dear Listener’ and the collaboration album ‘Better Than Heavy’ under his exciting new band ‘Mongrel’ a partnership he’s itching to explain.
John McClure from Reverend and The Makers got a hold of two of my mix CD’s and liked them a lot and wanted to meet me. So I went down to the studio one day to meet him and it just so happened that same day he was in the studio with Mat from the Arctic Monkeys, Andy Nicolson that used to be in the Arctic Monkeys, Drew from Babyshambles making a record. That day we formulated the idea of the band, I met him, we filmed a little video of the birth of Mongrel which is on YouTube and came back and recorded some tracks….that was in April 2008.
Like yourself John McClure is known for being outspoken. Were there any clashes personality wise?
Yeah, we’ve had plenty of disagreements and arguments along the way in the course of this album but you know at the end of the day I’ve got love for him regardless because he’s done something that he didn’t have to do, it’s born outta of love, it’s born out of wanting to help a situation and the end of the day we both have distinct ideas of what we want to do.
Like the thing is with this album you are not gonna hear anything that’s similar to a Reverend and the Makers album, anything that’s similar to Lowkey’s album, it’s literally a meeting of minds it’s a mongrel!
Is it continuous or a one album project?
It’s continuous. The second album we are going to Venezuela to record with Venezuelan musicians and Hugo Chavez, we are gonna go on Hola Presidente and see Chavez.
Rappers have collaborated with indie heads before, what would you say makes this project different?
What makes it different is the scope, because I think if you look at other people that have done it in the past, i.e. Gorillaz, and that’s not to take it away from them because it’s great, but you’re dealing with so many facts and ingredients with Mongrel. Like Arctic Monkeys and Babyshambles are involved and these are completely different bands and sound completely different from each other. So it’s the birth of something new.
Tor and Skinnyman also appear on ‘Better then Heavy’, was it always clear for Mongrel to work with other UK rappers?
The way it came about was ‘Alphabet Assassin’ my track. The guys from the band wanted to record the original, but nah I’d rather record a remix with all my favourite rappers. And so yeah man, there’s Wretch 32, Kyza, Poisonous on there, Purple, Mike Wright, Righteous. Loads of them. I just thought at the end of the day this album is gonna have far more reaching potential than any of the albums I’ve been involved in and albums I’ve made thus far. And I don’t really want to eat alone I want to bring the people through because at best I want my career to act as a bridge that people can cross. I don’t just want to go through the door and shut it because that’s not real success.
Recently you’ve gained a lot of media exposure and with a heavy tour schedule set over the next couple of months how do feel about the increased workload and publicity?
Yeah, I mean it’s a privilege being in the position that one minute I can be going to meet the president of a country and next to go on tour. We’re doing the snowbombing festival where they are gonna teach us to ski and snowboard, I’ve never been skiing or snowboarding so its just stuff like that, that’s opening doors for me.
The album itself was given away on the front cover of the Independent on 7th March. 1/4 of million albums sold first day, it’s free with the newspaper but it’s a huge statement. I thought if I’m gonna have that level of exposure I want all my friends to have that level of exposure too.
To think middle class Briton will be exposed to the talent of great UK rappers and Mongrel’s rebellious sound over their morning munch is enough to crack a smile with any Hip-Hop enthusiast.
It’s true that Andy Nicholson and John McClure in their previous respective bands have been able to sell more records then even the most established UK rappers can dream off, but it’s that reputation of the other members in the group and the ability of the group to place Lowkey on a stronger platform that is so interesting.
Professionally do you think it’s taken a collaboration like this to really exposure who Lowkey is on a professional note?
Umm…yeah maybe. It’s true that Indie is a dominant force in this country, but the thing is about this album is that it’s trying to get away from that quality which is so inherent in this country’s music industry. It is ridiculous. An Indie band on an Indie label that flops sells more than the most successful UK Hip-Hop artist. And that’s just terrible and I think that comes down to the taste makers, the people making the decision who to invest in.
There’s no prototype of the British MC. Now you have Dizzee Rascal and Mike Skinner that is a positive thing, but I think in general they are very reluctant to invest because there has been no humungous exception to the rule. Before Eminem came out right, white rappers were something that major labels would never invest in. Their last example of that was Vanilla Ice and he was a flop because people didn’t think he was credible
Now it didn’t take a major label to invest in Eminem It took Dr Dre. He was the biggest exception to the rule there has ever been. He’s gone into areas that other rappers have never even dreamt off. It’s interesting it’s always the artist that has to introduce the exception to the rule.
You are also known for your strong political lyrics. Where does this voice stem from?
Just me bruv, from me as a human being there are certain things that I can’t abide by. And at the end of the day I don’t know how people expect me to look at the world. One side of my family is British the other side is Arab. I’m never gonna be able to look at the world in a simple view. I have to choose where I stand on these things because they affect me in my life.
You’ve recently voiced your strong protest at the atrocities in Gaza. Why do you feel such an attachment to the people of Palestine?
Because I think they’ve been so wildly and grossly oppressed for the last 60-70 years and what really bothers me about it is that how a citizen of this country I’m complicit to their oppression. Complicit to things that take place through my money because at the end of the day money talks. You and me could sit here and rant all day about our feelings about it, but our money, where is our money going? Our money is going to Israel. That’s something that makes me sick to my stomach.
I have so many Jewish brothers and sisters that stand with me when it’s time to protest, and are exactly on the same stance as me. Certain sections of the media have a certain interest in making it out to appear as something that it’s not. They have an interest in slandering certain things about you.
That’s something you carry going to Palestine right?
Yes, well basically I’m going out there and I’m part of a project called Project Hip-Hop for Palestine. It’s a tour taking place from the 27th February to the 3rd March. On the 28th March we are doing three shows in Ramallah. The next day we are doing two shows, the next two more and the next one show. If it all goes to plan we will break the Guinness Book of World Records for most live performance shows in an area where travel is restricted.
I am, I’m not gonna lie, I am.
At the end of the day what is meant to be will be and what happens will happen. It’s bigger then me, it’s more important then me. Their plight was around before I was born and will probably be around after I die.
It’s something that individual feelings are neither here nor there, you don’t really have time to be sentimental about these things. The whole world is against them, literally.
Do you think Obama can change anything?
When it comes to Obama, he’s a move towards the left away from the Republicans…everyone knows that. But at the same time he pandered heavily to aid the Israeli lobby before he came into power. He promised them an extra 30 billion over the next 10 years which is an increase in aid to what George Bush was giving them. On average what Bush was giving them was 6 million per day American aid.
Now when you compare that to the fact 75% of Palestinian live on less than 1 pound sterling a day, this is ridiculous. We are taking about a country that is the size of Wales.
I look at him in a similar way I regard someone like Clinton. He talks very positive things, and generally he’s more likable then George Bush, and his domestic policies are good. But I think at the end of the day someone who is gonna hand over to the Israel lobby is not a friend of mine, and I know he wouldn’t have been able to get into the presidency if he hadn’t done that but I still look very sceptical upon him.
I’d rather be the pessimistic fool proved wrong then the optimistic idiot proved wrong.
Lowkey the politician?
I do believe music isn’t the ‘be and end all’ of what I’d like to do with my life. There are bigger things and bigger fish to fry. But I think everything right now is a bonus, whether its poetry or play writing or music or political activism. Anything I can get involved in and do something positive in some way then I’m there.
Moving away from politics, with your new LP ‘Dear Listener’ and the track ‘I’m back’ you clearly address your return. Was it a hard album to write?
I think it was slightly rushed. It could have been stronger as a whole piece. Unlike Key to the Game vol. 3 it’s more of a collection of songs. Making a complete album is like making a complete picture where every song is a corner of that picture. Where as that was a collection of songs the next album I’m making is a complete picture. I’ve got about five tracks done so far, and I’m toying with two different names. It has more of a beginning, middle and end and for an album to be classic it has to be that.
So what can we expect from that new album production wise?
The new album’s beats are already made, but I’m gonna get them replayed by live instruments because I think that is very valuable especially for live performance. I want an album that I can tour and take to Glastonbury not an album that I can take to Cargo.
The scene isn’t what it used to be and I just wanna make an album that can stand up to people like the Beatles. I think being around a different type of musician I‘ve seen how production in Hip-Hop is ridiculed.
If you can pay 700 quid for a studio, or over a grand and half a day for musicians so obviously the sound is gonna be sonically different. Something I’m gonna try and achieve now.
And that’s where you see the maturity and influence gained by Lowkey now working in different circles. Wether it’s a new found artistic confidence that was always there or that has been nurtured by his peers you can’t help but feel that 2009 is Lowkey’s time to shine.
As Lowkey takes a brief pause from past projects he’s clear that it’s not the end to his and Logic’s Peoples Army or work with Stylah and Doc Brown in Poisonous poets.
I have to answer the doors that are knocking now, and those knocking are Mongrel and Long Live Palestine. I’d be foolish to go down those avenues when these other ones are wide open right now.
Now and ‘til May it’s just shows and promotion…I’m writing songs but I’m not sitting down in one place long enough to get studio time. I’m gonna try and record some stuff before I go Palestine and Venezuela cos I might die (laughs nervously)
A smile that has often been elusive over the years returns as the interview draws to a close and we wish him luck, but what about being contentment professionally?
I’m working harder with less return…it’s not good to feel broke but you know…I feel like I’ve got more on my plate, and that’s a good thing.
I think I’m more focused, slightly more driven and my mind is more broad then it was before. I think I’m closer to giving an entirely honest representation of myself and what’s in my head. Artistic fulfillment is a constant struggle and that is the life long battle of a musician but I’d say now I’m closer to that
Words By Ali Raymond