8 Mile has a lot to answer for when it comes to freestyling and MC battles. But while there may be an army of Eminem wannabees out there, there are still MCs coming out of battles and cyphers everywhere in this country who are proving their worth both on stage and in the studio. Meet Sonnyjim, from Birmingham, who’s been making a reputation for himself over the last few years as one of this country’s finest freestyle and battle MCs– however ripping mics in half and freestyling off the dome aren’t the only things that Sonnyjim can do, as is demonstrated in his first release, the ‘Soul Trader’ EP.
With the help of local producers, DJs and MCs as well as Lotek (who acted as sound engineer on the EP) ‘Soul Trader’ shows that Sonnyjim can write dope rhymes and deliver them in the studio as effortlessly as he can on stage. After hearing him for the first time on last year’s ‘Mixtape Blessings’ and getting a promo CD off him at Hip Hop Kemp, there was no better time for K-Per to catch up with the man by email to find out a bit more about his origins, what makes him tick, rhyming and more.
“…I need to be out there as much as I can so if there are any serious promoters reading this then please get in touch, put me on your bill…”
Who is Sonnyjim? Where is he from and when was the first time he thought of picking up a mic and why?
SJ: Yeah its ya boy Sonnyjim aka the Soul Trader, reppin Birmingham City…the first time I thought of picking up a mic? Well I been writing rhymes since I was a yoot at school but I never really took it serious until I grew up, I realized I could do what other emcees were doing, I just used to listen close to rhyme schemes and cadence etc… And so instead of spitting my favourite rappers’ lyrics I just started to spit my own…I basically realized that it wasn’t very hard to rap. And from there I just slowly started working at the craft – writing bars, hitting up open mics, battles, radio, whatever. Back then I would travel wherever as long as I could spit some bars…I just decided that if I was gonna do this I wanted to do it proper, not no half hearted effort so I just got on it.
Following from this, when and where was the first time you actually got on stage (or in front of a pair of decks) live to spit some rhymes? How was it?
SJ: The first time I got on stage was probably 6-7 yrs ago, it was at an open mic spot in Birmingham, I spat a little written it went down alright got a few props. Looking back now shit was probably wack but I jus remember I was buzzin that heads were feeling it and so I got that ego boost and decided I wanted to start entering battles and just get mad competitive with it.
What’s your best memory from an open mic?
SJ: I’ve had many random incidents at open mics man! Back in the day when I was mad hungry just to spit some offensive shit, I went to some party in the park type shit that had an open mic, BBC were filming it with loads of cameras all over the place. I just got up and dissed the headline act who was a well known popstar, I spat a few bars and the camera crew just started turning their shit off, little kids with their parents was booing me and shit, still some people were cracking up, but no one turned my mic off I just kept murkin this guy for like five minutes straight. But since learning more about the industry I don’t really do that shit no more…because I want people to buy my music.
You’ve got a new EP about to drop, so can you give us the skinny on it? Who’s involved production wise, the story behind it and what can people expect?
SJ: Soul Trader EP – it’s an 8 track EP out on CD and vinyl around mid march 06…yeah it’s my debut, its an introduction into what I’m bringing to the table. It’s taken over a year to make and over the course of that time it’s taken certain twists and turns to become the shape it is now. It should have been out sooner but just because of time constraints and people longing me up with beats and shit I’ve had to wait till now. I actually got the test press at the end of last year but as the money for the pressing was coming out of my pocket I didn’t have sufficient funds to tell the pressing plant to go ahead with the order till January, so yeah it’s been long, but it’s all part of the learning process. The real work starts now, just gotta push my product as hard as I can.
“…I just decided that if I was gonna do this I wanted to do it proper, not no half hearted effort so I just got on it…”
As for guest MCs I got Kosyne and English. these are the guys I been sparrin with and they both got sick bars so it only seemed right to get them on there. Beats wise I got a bunch of cats that most of you probably ain’t heard of yet but they all came through and did their thing. And it was recorded and mixed down by Lotek, which put me at ease because he is a studio nut and he knows how I work. For me I feel the engineer has a very important role in the recording process and we definitely worked closely together to get shit sounding right.
As far as what you can expect to hear on there. I got all sorts of vibes, it’s not just on that battle shit that most heads know me for. Rhyme wise it ranges from dealing with industry politics to the disease to tearing a rapper’s face off with a hammer type shit. Lyrically there’s stuff for the punch line enthusiasts and for those that really like to break down the bars. But there’s also some more serious moments on there, as well just showing me in a different light to what some people may expect. Sonically the beats range from straight up in ya face boom bap to more relaxed headnodders.
You’re quite well known in the UK for your freestyling capabilities – so in your opinion what makes a good freestyle MC?
SJ: Observation skills, confidence, a decent vocab. But what really makes a freestyler is when you can just tap into the zone and black out, just staying a few bars ahead. It’s all about that vibe man, not many people can smack it like that ALL the time, so what separates a top notch freestyler from an ok one is that he has the ability to get in the zone at the drop of a hat.
How do you approach writing rhymes – where do you find inspiration, etc… And do you think that it’s essential for an MC to be able to do both written rhymes and freestyles, or do you feel that it can depend on the individual?
SJ: It just depends on who I’m working with. I almost always write the bars to the beat it’s intended for. Sometimes people just send me a loop and I’ll write to that and sometimes I’ll go into the studio and write while the beat is being made. Just depends on the situation really, if I’m honest I prefer to get a finished beat with dropouts cuts etc. and write around it in my own time, I just work better on my own rather than a studio full of drink and distractions where the phones are going off every 10 seconds. But saying all that there has been times when I’m in the studio and I’ll just catch a vibe, write a verse on the spot go in the booth spit it in one take and the spontaneity of the recording brings it to life. Really it all boils down to what the producer is saying, some will just send me the beat and let me get on with it, with pretty much full creative control. Others want to accompany me through the whole process, like they worried I’ll take the song in a different direction so they want to be in the studio with me to oversee shit. But I’m strict with the quality control when it comes to my own projects, if I ain’t happy with it, it doesn’t leave the studio.
As for inspiration… I just get inspired by hearing an MC just straight tear shit up. Or sometimes an ill instrumental can get my brain cells jogging. I only get inspired by emcees who I think are momentarily beyond my reach, those that can do what I can’t do. I don’t get inspired by rhymers that are on my level or below.
“…I just got up and dissed the headline act who was a well known popstar, I spat a few bars and the camera crew just started turning their shit off…”
Yeah I think its essential for an MC to be able to freestyle because if you can’t then your just a rapper, and anyone can rap. An MC has to be able to freestyle just like they got to be able to battle if they’re tested. It’s not like you should feel obliged to do it but there are certain weapons that any MC worth his salt must possess in his arsenal. Plus in the cipher what you gonna do when you run out of writtens? It’s a shame really because you got established acts that these kids look up to who wont buss a freestyle at their shows because they’re too prang of fuckin up and spoiling their little rep.
For you, who’s impressed you the most mic wise in the last few years, both in the UK and abroad?
SJ: In the UK I seen bare talent emerging recently, its just that most of them for whatever reason ain’t putting out material regularly, off the top of my head the MCs that have impressed me in the last few years would be Kosyne, Ramson Badbones, Anti Heroes, Grimlok, Strategy, Soweto Kinch, Wordsmith, Logan, Shameless, the list could go on. There’s just nuff sick MCs doing their thing right now.
As far as emcees from across the pond, I ain’t really kept up with what’s going on over there as much, I’m still bumping The Black Album though. I think Jigga’s one of the illest, I been checking for a guy called Supastition for a while now, I like Devin the Dude, Elzhi, Ludacris… I been checking for Iron Soloman and Thesaures, I listen to all sorts of rappers though, I don’t give fuck about commercial or underground if they’re spitting tight bars I’m all ears.
You were down at HHK last year – what did you think of it (atmosphere, shows etc…)? And what did you think of the open mics they had?
SJ: It was a heavy festival, made some good links out there too…but I ain’t sleeping in no fucking tent next time! Can’t be dealing with that shit again. Rap wise we hit up nuff open mics and ciphers, some were ill some were a bit swag because I couldn’t understand a word mans were saying. The shows were sick too, Skinny did his thing reppin UK overseas, Foreign Beggars smashed it up – they got one of the heaviest live sets I’ve seen full stop. Yeah I think I’m gonna try and reach again this year. And for those who ain’t been I would definitely recommend it.
Coming from a freestyle/open mic background, how did you find it having to sit down and put together an EP to be released? Did you find it hard having to write down rhymes and fit them to beats etc…?
SJ: I was already making music when I was going to open mics and doing battles so it wasn’t so much of a transition. In terms of creating the ep it wasn’t that difficult but more so the time and effort put into the organization of it all. It’s a mission trying to balance it with a 9 to 5. It’s been an extremely long process but it’s a learning curve though. The hardest part was getting beats. I reached out to the producers that I rated at the time but nobody really knew me, cats thought I was just any guy y’know, so I got fucked around. I had too many people longing me up with beats, but right now I’m in a position to be working with some solid producers that I really rate, a few of which are within my immediate circle, so I don’t chase nobody for beat CDs anymore. I’m happy with the sound I got on the ep. I needed to find the right sound so that was why shit took so long, just to piece everything together, all the soundbites and interludes, that was what was creatively taxing, plus I was working on all the songs at the same time, juggling a lot of different ideas around at once, which looking back in hindsight was a bit ambitious.
“…The real work starts now, just gotta push my product as hard as I can…”
Other than that the hardest part was the actual preparation of the release, because I don’t really know what I’m doing man. I don’t really know how to market myself, I don’t know how to get in these magazines, all over the internet, on the radio, I ain’t got contacts like some of these people, and I won’t beg a hook up. But I know how to spit them bars and I know how to sell my CDs hand to hand which is all good but I’m trying to take it to the next level. I’m slowly learning about the politics of the industry but it’s like I got so much to learn and so little time. In an ideal world I’d get me a press plugger and a street team but until then its just me on my jack doing my thing, I’m just trying to be everywhere I can right now, just going all over the country trying to sell records.
If the EP proves successful where would you want to go next with things like releases etc…?
SJ: My foots in the fuckin door now, its on now, from this point on I’m just looking to keep on releasing material, I got a few more joints to drop this year. There’s some works that are ready to go but right now its all about the ‘Soul Trader’ EP. There are projects in the pipeline. I got a few 12s coming out, one on Areosolik with Percy Filth and another with Reggiemental, which is mixed down ready to go. And I been doing 16s for various randoms so you should see my name popping up a bit more this year. And you’ll definitely see a Sonnyjim and Kosyne project this year, we done a few tracks so far and I can tell it’ll be one of those releases that’ll make rhymers fix up their spitting game.
Would you say being in Birmingham has been beneficial for you to make yourself heard/known in hip hop circles? People always say that the UK scene can be very London centric but there’s always been dope stuff coming out all over the country.
SJ: For me Birmingham has only been beneficial because there’s less crabs in the barrel. But its musical environment hasn’t helped me improve. There are regular open mics but they’re just full of mostly swag emcees, it’s a bit shit when there ain’t a reason to step your game up, it’s almost as if it’s too easy. But in London it’s a different story, everyone’s hungry to impress…and I ain’t tryna let no MC outshine me, so therefore its like I gotta bring the A game, I gotta step it up a little and show cats how I do…when I’m in London there’s a little extra pressure to smash it because I’m from out of town but there ain’t no hostility, its a case of real recognize real, I get props from real heads down there but some people always be hating on me but that’s just bullshit because I know I got the tight bars, if you want to hate on me because I ain’t from London you can eat a dick and die.
Everything is very London centric if your interested in open mics, cyphers, live shows and just general opportunities to showcase your talent and spit bars but if you want to be in a studio 24/7 grinding out the tracks and sending them off to labels then it don’t really matter where you are cos the music speaks for itself…and the heads in London will tell you that there is good music coming from all over the country…anyone who disagrees with that is a fuckin idiot.
“…For me I feel the engineer has a very important role in the recording process and we definitely worked closely together to get shit sounding right…”
You mentioned that you been writing rhymes since being a youth, so who was the first rapper/group you heard who really made you think ‘I wanna do this shit’?
SJ: There was never one rapper that made me think that. Even up until now I’ll hear MCs smash it and that will remind me why I do this shit and it was the same back when I started, there were lots of rappers that I rated for different reasons and whenever I heard someone kill it back in the day I was always inspired. But looking back now I used to put some pretty swag rappers on a pedestal, it changes when you can do what they can do, you realize they weren’t really doing anything special.
You mentioned that Lotek engineered the LP. How did you guys hook up together? Is there any particular why you believe the engineer can be such an important aspect of the record making process? This isn’t something you always hear, and it seems a lot of people overlook the importance or don’t emphasise it enough.
SJ: I met him at a Foreign Beggars show in Brum, he told me he ran a studio I told him I had an EP to record and the rest is history really. I went down to the studio a week later and it was the right type of environment where I wanted to record. I mean, it was vibes and that but it was a professional atmosphere as well, and it wasn’t just heads hanging around getting high and playing X Box, because when I was there to work I was there to work y’know, most of the time it was just me and the engineer, I feel like if you ain’t working on the song with me or you can’t sit silently then get the fuck out the studio… I wouldn’t come to your workplace and watch you work a fucking till ya gets me!
The engineer plays a vital role. I hear too much music where lazy engineers don’t know how to get the best out of an MC’s vocal take. Too many cats using punch ins, I mean I understand sometimes its got to be done but at least do it properly, this is especially the case in ‘UK Hip Hop’ where kids with bedroom studios think they’re sound engineers but can’t even do a proper mixdown. And these are the same kids putting out shitty records and getting raving reviews for them because they know this guy who works for that magazine.
Are you planning to try and bring the EP to live stages around Birmingham and the country, or is that something for the future?
SJ: It’s all about the live shows man. Fuck recording in the studio, it’s all about the live element. On stages and in ciphers is where I honed my skills, that’s what I’m about, but I prefer to rock a crowd full of heads rather than some drunk Ben Sherman Kevs, it’s like you get more props and that from the crowd of pissheads than you do from other MCs but I don’t really give a fuck about that because at the end of the day I write rhymes for other rappers to vibe off. Its like the live shows is where I can road test my bars, plus I’m nice with the freestyle thing so it’s a bit of a chance to show off.
“…I don’t give fuck about commercial or underground if [an MC is] spitting tight bars I’m all ears…”
Most of the live shows I got Kosyne and DJ Cro with me as standard and between the three of us we hold down a pretty tight set. We always try and have fun with it though, because I fucking hate it when you see cats cuffin the mic, rapping to the floor, its like they’re prang to be on a stage and it’s dire to watch that shit man. I think a lot UK Hip Hop acts have very shit live shows, it’s easy to spot flaws when making a transition from studio to live stage. I got the record to push now so I just been trying to reach out to promoters right now you know? I need to be out there as much as I can so if there are any serious promoters reading this then please get in touch, put me on your bill, I can guarantee that you can put us in any environment and we’ll smash it, because were not on no fuckabout shit man, its very important to us that we murk every show we do.
Right we’re nearly done, so have you got any last words for the readers?
SJ: Yeah go buy the Soul Trader EP from www.sonnyjim.co.uk or you can cop it from the usual outlets nationwide. Your support is appreciated.
Ok before we wrap this up, here’s a series of short questions and answers for you (some of them might not make a lot of sense!). Off the top of the dome please…
3 things about Birmingham that people wouldn’t know?
SJ: It’s got more canals than Venice and that’s it.
SJ: Hmm, I dunno, I like different types of films for different reasons, the last thing I watched was a film called ‘Everything is Illuminated’, good film, its got that lord of the rings kid in it, the one who done the football hooligan film.
Video games or board games?
SJ: Board… because I play chess…but I’m still rinsing them out on Streetfighter Alpha X though… other than that I ain’t fucked with games since the Master System blud!
Kebabs or sandwiches?
SJ: The killer kebab.
“…I’m slowly learning about the politics of the industry but it’s like I got so much to learn and so little time…”
Big Daddy Kane or Rakim?
Premier or Jay Dee?
SJ: Jigga, all day every day.
Goths or Heavy Metallers?
SJ: Neither, they’re both on some weirdo shit.
Bus or Train?
Weed or Beer?
You can cop the ‘Soul Trader’ EP from www.sonnyjim.co.uk and most decent shops, and catch him on the road in the coming months.
“…If you want to hate on me because I ain’t from London you can eat a dick and die…”