RECORDS
Jehst: “Life’s What Happens When You’re Making Other Plans”
Posted by Oli Marlow on June 13, 2011

Certain artists have gravitas, that kind of impact that never really leaves you. Whether it’s through the warmth of their music or the memorable couplets of their lyrical content, some tracks/songs/albums/people just stick with you. And in turn, when you see their influence in another person it’s something you can bond over, that common ground to enthuse about in the wee hours or a Saturday morning or on a minibus back from Wollacombe beach after an overcast afternoon in June, whether you know that person or not.

Jehst’s trademark socially aware lyrics and heritage production work often provide that link. As a bastion of credible UK accented rap back in 2003, when the Low Life label was the king of the crop, William Shield’s debut album proper, Falling Down, built perfectly on the formula and early groundwork of his debut EP, The High Plains Drifter. Brash with his tongue he continued to rap colloquially, name checking the same kind of products, evolutions and frustrations that everyone, even a white middle class teenager from rural Nottinghamshire, could relate to. It’s that skill and that easily applicable tone, coupled with his sample heavy production techniques and the fact that his street inflected delivery was astounding, always loaded with the kind of level headed intelligence and sense of humour that made him such a relevant emcee back then. Thankfully in 2011 he’s still as biting, just as hopelessly romantic and probably even more pissed off with promoters who continue to spell his name incorrectly.

Sitting in a secluded park in Farringdon to discuss his latest album, The Dragon Of An Ordinary Family, and the five year gap between that and his last solo work, Nuke Proof Suit, Shield’s is incredibly forthcoming; sipping at a coffee that undoubtedly went cold during the first 20 minutes of small talk and catching up…

Sonic Router: So… your new album. It’s been a very long time. What was it 2005?

Jehst: Yeah, Nuke Proof Suit was 2005. And then the [Mengi Bus] mixtape in like ’06 or ’07. Obviously I planned for the album to be very quick off the back of the mixtape and really, at that time I was still working with the manager that me and Klashnekoff had been working with since 2003, since the whole Falling Down tour when Sagas of Klashnekoff and all that came out so we’d been building up towards the album and just like a long term arrangement that would see us all through y’know? And as per usual life’s what happens when you’re making other plans so… after the mixtape came out, that was a point that none of the distribution set up, or the label set up… I just wasn’t happy with it. It was all going through my manager at the time, cause he’d go on from managing us to running the subsidiary label that distributed my mixtape, the Klashnekoff Focus Mode mixtape and all of that. It just totally changed the dynamic of our working relationships and the company he was working for really just didn’t deliver what they said they were gonna deliver… but after that it was just re addressing the whole label side of things, I was stuck on the idea that I had to do this album myself and put it out independently. I probably could have saved myself a lot of time and heartache if I’d actually gone knocking on doors but I thought if I don’t do this now, I never will. So maybe the next one, I’ll go knocking on doors but I just wanted to do that and get all the back catalogue back from Low Life as well so now, with the new album coming out, I’ve reissued all my previous albums digitally, through YNR…

Yeah I heard that you haven’t been paid for a lot of that…

Yeah, there’s been a lot of unpaid royalties over the years yeah… so it’s taken a while because of pretty much everything other than the music but then musically there’s been changes in terms of studio set up and who’s on board in terms of production and engineering, you know we moved studios like three times or something so, it just sets you back every time. And obviously I’ve had other commitments to other artists so it’s just the timing that’s been out. Every time there’s the window of opportunity to knuckle down and get the album released there’s been another artist or another project that’s sitting there waiting, it’s an ongoing saga man. Some people have said to me it’s probably worked out for the best, its built anticipation and also the smokes cleared, a lot of the over saturation of UK rap has changed a lot now, you’ve got your pop stars, you’ve got your cult heroes and pretty much all the noise of a million people trying to put a record out through Boombox or replicate Low Life’s success or whatever, they’ve al gone back to their day jobs so it makes it easier…

To step back into the arena?

Yeah man; without fighting against the noise if you like. Not shouting over the room…

So in terms of production, I mean Nuke Proof Suit was all you, are there other producers?

Yeah this album’s got different producers. LG’s got beats on there, Beat Butcha’s got a beat on there, Chemo’s got a couple of beats, Jazz T Zygote, Mr Thing, Jon Phonics… have I left anyone out? Nah I think that’s everyone. So yeah, there’s different producers. I tried to engineer it so I’d just be able to concentrate on writing and recording and just being the vocalist and I don’t regret that but I think that on the next project I’m either going to do something with one producer or I’m just gonna do something with my own production.

For me, Nuke Proof Suit was definitely a different style of production from what came before it and I really liked that direction. And obviously it’s been a long time since you’ve done anything so directionally with this album… did you have any themes that you were trying to get across?

In some respects it was just really to deliver something for the existing fan base. I’m always very much like ‘don’t compromise’ and ‘don’t cater’ for the industry, but actually if there are people that are supporting you, coming out to your shows and buying your records cater to them – without compromising what you do. To kind of take on board what the fans want to hear, and that was again part of the reason why I thought even though I’m loving producing and getting stuck into the beats, people wanna hear another Falling Down, or something along those lines so maybe it’s better to take a backseat from the production and focus on the writing and the recording and the vocals and fill that gap. Also there’s no other artist doing it, when I was doing Nuke Proof Suit it was like, what I’d already done on falling down created some kind of a blueprint and other people were making things in a similar vein, not to say that people were biting but in terms of delivering lyric heavy records like Sagas of Klashnekoff, like Kyza The Experience, like any of the Verb T projects or someone like Manage with his album – there was all kinds of people just focused on the lyrics and so at that time I was like I wanna focus on the overall sound and the production and make it about hip hop rather than just about rap and put myself in that position of like a Lewis Parker, or a Dilla or El-P. Just people who deliver a sound. But for this album I just felt to give the people, the fans, the people who come out to the shows, what they want and just knuckle down with the writing.

I think that shows on the new stuff, a song like Posion is more of a ‘song,’ obviously it’s got the chorus and you leading up into it but its more lyrically… I mean, you still do the battle rap side of it but there are themes like on a track like England or other tracks like Sounds Like Money that hit on your situation as an artist struggling to pay bills. Obviously you’re only going to draw on everyday experience but what made you want to put that on the record?

I think like you say, just drawing on everyday experience, writing from it and getting that frustration out; remembering to use music as catharsis. I think you start doing that, just making music in your bedroom for your mates or whatever, you’re doing it to get it out of your system. And then you start making stuff to deadlines and commercial concerns start to creep in and that overshadows the therapeutic nature of making music and I think that’s something that I’ve tried to keep myself in check regarding, to remind myself why I was doing this in the first place, I’m not doing this to sell x amount of records or do x amount of gigs or make x amount of money. I mean all of that’s nice, the more gigs, the more record sales, the more money the better obviously, but it’s just to bring it back to the essence of self expression. It sounds really arty farty but that’s what it is, without that you’re just making vacuous…

Filler.

Yeah, and you might as well just go the whole hog and make straight up pop music with a boy band or a girl band, like manufactured artist shit. And I think that’s one thing that’s probably gonna benefit the record being released now, in the context of urban music scene that has so firmly established itself in the mainstream of the UK which just wasn’t here… even 5 years ago. It wasn’t as embedded in pop music culture as it is today. It’s kind of gone from one extreme to the other, like when UK rap was just a bunch of backpack wearing people in the street rapping to each other, sharing demos or pressing up 12”s, like real underground, grimy, ‘that’ll never sell to the masses’ to the ‘oh we do wanna sell to the masses, what should we do? Oh, let’s make a rap record.’

You look at the charts now and it’s dominated by UK rap so I’ve kind of put myself at the opposite end of the spectrum and said to myself, well actually, don’t forget that it’s not just about club records or radio records. At one point people said ‘those guys can’t make club records or pop records’ but now it is the norm. 9 out of 10 club tunes with a vocal on in the ‘urban’ kind of bracket, its rap innit really…?

So… do you think people are ready for a new Jehst album?

Well some people are ready cause they’ve been waiting and then other people, hopefully it’ll just smack them in the face cause they’re not ready and they’ll be like, ‘oh shit, I’ve gotta step my bars up.’ I mean, it feels like the quality control has dropped.

It seems like the whole scene has dropped…

Yeah it has man, definitely. I think partly because everybody started chasing money, after Dizzee Rascal starting having consecutive number ones everybody, whether they were coming from the hip hop side of things or the grime side of things, the majority of people starting trying to make shit for the charts, shit for A&Rs basically and it totally changed the whole direction of the movement because it stopped being about people coming out to a club night where there’s a sense of community and networking, building on an ethos of a sound and even a psychology behind what the music represents in terms of whether you wanna talk about social issues, or protest music or whatever. I’m not saying that all rap should be that but the very nature of hip hop has a very social, political kind of relevance because it came from people trying to make music from nothing, or whatever they had to hand. Whether that’s a spray can, whether that’s a turntable or whether that’s a bit of lino to break on, to dance on, that essence has been totally lost now. Rap in general has been totally commodified; it’s become a vehicle for consumerist ideals.

Yeah – even the Beardyman ‘In The Kitchen’ video has been cribbed.

Oh shit yeah, by McVities or something? It’s crazy. It’s just been drained of having any kind of edge. What’s happened over here is that it’s become like America, but in a much shorter space of time, in terms of almost like policing rap music, so like what actually makes it to the mainstream has been homogenised and drained of any threatening content, and if there is it’s just racially stereotyped kind of bullshit; threats of violence, misogynistic or just sexist content that reflects the prejudices of mainstream society rather than inverting them which is really what it should be doing. Whether you’re going back to Grandmaster Flash ‘The Message’ or whether you’re bringing it up to… to mention Klashnekoff again – Klashnekoff was like the poster boy for the scene and for rap in the UK for a while because he embodied a lot of that social tension and issues that were happening on the streets and in ghetto environments and a certain amount of the content was revolutionary content. And that’s why he was up on the pedestal that he was on, he wouldn’t have been there if he was just making la-de-da love tunes for the radio.

All of the platforms, I mean the urban stations, if you look at what they’re playing, I mean I turned on 1xtra the other day and they were playing Bruno Mars and I just really struggled to understand how that fits in to the context of why that station was set up in the first place. It wasn’t set up to play that. We’ve got a situation now where people are worried about keeping their jobs so you get people just towing the line. DJs are scared to break records or push records so they just stick to the playlists and that means that everything stagnates. But I think kids will always see through this shit so I think that at the point of what me and you as the hip hop ‘scene’ started to sink, as the physical forums, the clubs and the pirate radio started to die off that’s when the commercial shit started to thrive. They go hand in hand because as something goes commercial and people start to chase that, the people that are actually doing it on a street level, in the clubs, on the pirate stations start to chase that commercial model so the real shit starts to fall off and the fans kind of stop relating to it, you know? ‘Why am I coming out to a club to hear people carbon copying what I’m already hearing on daytime radio 1?’ So its stops resonating with people.

The same thing just happened with dubstep…

Yeah but even quicker, I mean that’s happened within a couple of years.

So what’s it like doing an album now, compared to when you did Falling Down? I mean you obviously had the hype from the EPs back then but do you feel like artistically, you’re in a different situation now?

Yeah, it’s a completely different landscape. The musical landscape and the media landscape if you like is completely different. The context is completely different because at that time, to be selling 20 odd thousand records it was almost out of the blue, I mean obviously I paid a lot of dues sleeping on couches to do shows and investing my own money to put out wax and all of that; and paying my dues by working with other artists who were a lot more established. Industry wise it kind of took people by surprise, like I say people were still entertaining the ideal that if you were gonna have commercial success as a rapper from the UK that you’d have to rap in an American accent and people were still saying that shit even after Dizzee blew up! I mean come on, you’ve got this guy at number one, most people can barely understand a word he’s saying anyway and people are still saying that you’ve gotta rap with a bit of an American accent if you’re going to cross over. Why? It’s nonsense. I mean now you’ve got Tinie Tempah on Letterman and like him or not, he certainly doesn’t rap in a fake Yankee accent.

So that’s changed…

The fact that British rap is dominating the charts has changed, the fact that the whole underground scene has dissipated and obviously now you’ve got a whole different take on urban music nowadays. It’s a totally different scenario. In theory it should be easier. I’ve laid that foundation, I’ve done that groundwork got that fan base, been as far afield as Australia to promote what we do but record sales in general for the entire music industry have fallen off since 2003 – when Falling Down came out. But the flipside of that is that you have to do a lot less units to be relevant. I think that nowadays you’ve got two extremes in the music industry – and I think most people would agree with this – nowadays that whole middle ground of artists who aren’t underground or niche or cult or manufactured pop/top 10 but they sell a respectable amount of albums and they do a respectable amount of shows a year and have a career; those artists have been the main casualties because right now people only seem to be interested in the ultra visible, mass marketed icons and figureheads of an aspirational lifestyle or people are just interested in ‘this guy’s an underground legend.’ I mean I’m trying to think of examples but… someone like DOOM in terms of rap and within that beat driven kind of electronic music you’ve got the cult heroes like the Brainfeeder lot and Skream being a superstar now. If you’re somewhere in between its really difficult cause like, what are you?

Yeah I mean the way I see it a lot of the time is that people are always just pushing as far as they can to up their profile on the internet…

That’s the big thing isn’t it? How often do YouTube hits translate to sales? It can do, that can be the case but there’s a lot of people who have a mad amount of hits but aren’t selling any records, or even releasing any CDs or records in the first place. The channels are completely different. The early dubstep movement was probably, I mean I hope I’m wrong when I say this, but it feels like it could easily be the last time we have a vinyl driven movement establish itself through those record shop channels. Through pressing up white labels and pressing up dubs and I’d like to think that’ll carry on but I don’t know whether than can happen again. In some respects vinyl’s become important again because music’s become so disposable that those of us who are passionate about it and want to differentiate between your next door neighbour putting a demo up on myspace and an artist who you really respect making a work of art, you actually want to go and buy it on vinyl.

And now that’s got to go further now… with the design and the actual end physical product. Creating something that someone wants to own and have it their collection or frame and put on their wall.

And so again, it’s back to that from one extreme to the other view of the industry where it’s like you’re either doing 500 colour vinyls and selling them on the day of release or you’re albums selling your CD in Tesco to the Mums and Dads whilst the kids are downloading it on iTunes. That’s the two extreme models. That middle ground of people that sell however many thousand CDs and tour the 02 academy size of venues has really just shrunk dramatically. That kind of made up for the majority of the music industry of the past; that niche shit would make up one percent at one end of the spectrum and then the superstars would be that one percent at the other and the middle ground would be the majority. It’s a weird time…

So going back in time then, what made you want to start rapping and producing in the first place?

I guess I just started doing it as self expression and to pass the time. I was just a big fan. I’d always messed around with rhymes and beats a little bit since I was really young, but my main thing from when I was a kid was drawing. I was actually studying illustration when I put my first record out and I really was not gaining anything from the course I was on and at the same time ‘Premonitions’ was critically acclaimed the minute that I put it out and I was like ‘what? Ok…’ At the time I was studying art thinking this is something I could do as a day job, I mean I was told from a little kid that I had a talent for drawing so it was engrained in me that that’s what I was gonna do, that was gonna be my living and at that time the idea of UK rap was seen as something that was never gonna make any money, like ‘What you talking about, British people rapping? Are you mad!?’

Even though I was into stuff young enough, like the late 80s period where you did actually have UK rap coming out, and even some of it on major labels but most people had forgotten all about that so it just wasn’t seen as an option. So like I say, I put the record out thinking, ‘yeah, whatever; that’s just for me. If I can sell 300 vinyl then… cool.’ It was just for me and the people that were on it, like my mates who were on the record; I just thought people deserve to hear this and if this encourages any of those guys to carry on with their music then that’s a positive thing. I never saw it as a career path but it naturally became that. I found myself earning money from record sales and gigs at the same time as going into uni being like why am I here; so at that point music just took over.

I think it was really after Return Of The Drifter came out which was like the first CD, at that time it was a big deal to make the jump from vinyl to CD, CD was only for HMV whereas we could press up vinyls and sell it just in Bongos and Deal Real and Select-A-Disc – I mean you could sell however many hundred vinyl just in the West End. So to do a CD was us competing with the mainstream and once that happened and we did a very healthy amount of units I was like ‘right, I gotta take this a bit more seriously.’ The problem from that point has just been to get people that are involved to take it as seriously as I do because even like with Low Life, it became a battle to get the label to facilitate making the next record. I was going into the office saying ‘look, we’ve sold this amount of records now, we deliver another one in the next 6 or 12 months and we can double these sales figures’ and we could have done that. If they’d had the vision for that it easily could have happened and people like Taskforce and Skinnyman and myself… I mean I’m saying that as if these people didn’t sell units, I mean Skinnyman sold a shit load of units on that Council Estate of Mind album, but it’s just like, once that was done, it should have been followed up. There were people in that position to facilitate that follow up, whether it be labels, managers, agents people didn’t really facilitate the artists and I think that’s a shame as it would’ve changed the course of how things have developed but I guess the most important thing is the influence those records had in order to create this current situation of UK rap being totally embraced by the mainstream.

You’d be foolish to think that Dappy from N Dubz wasn’t influenced by Skinnyman, Task Force, Kung Fu, Itch FM all the things that really revolved around the Camden area, I mean Camden really was the hub for all that activity at the time, how could that not be an influence on what he’s doing? People like Pro Green, Example, they actually acknowledge that they were influenced by artists from that time, I think its just a matter of time for the industry and the media to catching up to it and realising that there’s a lineage here…

It was interesting to realise how much of the audience of what we were doing between 2001 and 2004 kind of time started to gravitate towards the emerging dubstep scene because the nature of rap started to become generic. It went from having a group like Taskforce, where people acknowledged that it was street that it was ghetto but at the same time it was bohemian and imaginative and lyrical, and that was what drew people to it; because that’s how it was real. Then we started to enter a period of road rap where everyone had to rap about ‘I’m on road’ and ‘I’m shotting’ and that became very generic and started to alienate a lot of fans. And then the grime scene, a lot of the lyrics were just dominated with ‘I’ll shoot man,’ ‘I’ll shank man’ and people didn’t want to hear that, so they gravitated towards something that was distinctly British with similar influences in terms of the whole soundsystem influence and the reggae, the dub, the hip hop influence on the sound and the electronic production using drum machines, samplers and sequencers. People gravitate towards what they can relate to and that’s gonna happen right now. It’s what you were saying about dubstep becoming completely just drained of its identity and recycled into pop music; you’re gonna find that a lot of the kids that were going to DMZ and FWD>> are gonna start looking for something else…

Cause they’re not gonna buy the Britney single with the dubstep breakdown…

Nah. Hell no! And that’s why I’m really interested to see how things develop for certain figureheads of that movement because it’s real good to see Mala just stick to his guns. Y’know, he does what he does. You’re not gonna hear him doing some kind of top 10, throwaway pop bullshit. He’s gonna keep making that emotive, soul music. I rate what Loefah’s doing with Swamp 81 just because he’s distancing himself from the generic dubstep sound and identity, kind of saying ‘we established this and I refuse to have it sold back to me and become a caricature of what it once was; I’m gonna move forward and I’m just gonna do the shit that I like’ and just keep it genreless.

He’s creating his own category of just like… that Swamp 81 shit…

Exactly. And the more people we have like that over here the better.

Would you consider yourself to be one of those people?

I guess so yeah, in some respects…

I mean you’ve stuck to your guns really, putting out what you want to promote. And this album, I mean from knowing you, it seems to be really you…

It needs to be though doesn’t it? People see through it. If I start jumping on the bandwagon of whatever’s hot the established fan base will just go, ‘what the fuck is this?’ ‘This is Jehst? I’ma go back and listen to the old shit.’ And I’ve noticed that with certain rappers over here that have tried to cater a little bit and tried to come with the radio single or the club single. I’m such a geeky fan that I’ll give the any artist the time. Like if I’m a fan of an artist I’ll sit down and I’ll listen to their album from start to finish, no skipping, and absorb it and give it the benefit of time taken to absorb the music. But what I’ve noticed is that a lot of people will just dismiss an artist that they’ve previously loved because they’re so heartbroken to see a video or hear a track that just completely undermines what that artist stood for. I’ve had those conversations like ‘have you heard such and such’s album? There’s some really good lyrics on there. I mean the production might not be what you wanna hear but the guy’s still writing good stuff,’ and whoever I’m having the conversation with is just like ‘Nah, fuck that. That single…’ and such and such. So if I was to come out doing some like poppy, dubstep, rap amalgamation, even if the whole album is on some shit that the fans will love a lot of them will just not bother checking for it ,they’ll be like ‘you know what, I used to be into that guy.’ It’s an easy mistake for artists to make once they become isolated which is what inevitably happens if there isn’t a solid scene or movement cause there’s nothing to give you confidence that what you’re doing is still relevant, right?

Speaking of relevance, did you see that NME Cult Heroes piece they ran on you?

I did man, I was quite gobsmacked by that. Yeah, big up Theo from The Hurts! I was like ok, validation!

It’s weird, I mean there’s such a weird gulf between the two types of music you make.

That’s the funny thing, hip hop has just been stuck in this urban category and then the whole urban thing has just become watered down, generic and, let’s just be real, a lot of the time it’s just pop music with a black face and therefore its ‘urban,’ which is just fucking racist in itself and just complete bullshit, but that’s what it is. What I’m finding is that a lot of the support is coming from outside of those established urban circles. It’s so much painting by numbers for everyone, whether that’s the people making the music or the people playing the music or the people writing about the music. What I do doesn’t fit very comfortably into that stereotype so therefore it’s like ‘er…. what can we do with this?’ But then you get someone like a guy from The Hurts saying ‘Jehst… cult hero’ or Rusko saying ‘my favourite British artist is Jehst,’ but if one of these commercial rap guys who was in the top 10 or whatever, even if I am his favourite artist, he’d probably be scared to say it, or his PR people would’ve said don’t mention any of these guys cause you’re not to be associated with that side of it.

Do you think you’ll perpetually be an underground artist then?

I don’t even know if there is an underground anymore. I mean, is anything underground anymore? Odd Future were like ‘so underground’ and now? That couldn’t be further from the case. I guess it depends…

Well, I’d still consider what Tyler does to be alienating. It’s ridiculous, dramatic, over the top record that’s never gonna be a mainstream pop hit, but now it’s been presented to everybody because it’s the spectacle of a kid saying ‘cunt’ or saying he’s had a threesome cause he raped a woman that was pregnant…

I think he’s presenting his vision and doing what he wants to do musically, definitely. And the thing that I always say to people about what those guys are doing is: love it or hate it, it’s a positive thing because by having such a commercial push its forcing people to question this generic, cardboard cut out rap. I’m all for it. Whether it’s those guys or the next group to come along that’s doing something different that get that push, somebody will flip the whole shit on its head the same way Wu Tang did, or to some extent the way Eminem did – where you’ve got to completely break the mould of what is current to be the new shit and be the next big thing. So in a lot of respects big up to XL for taking him on and giving him that push, but obviously there is that downside element to it. It is an example of kids who’ve done their own shit, built their own following and fan base and then obviously it becomes very easy for someone to come along and see that these guys got x amount of hits, they’ve already put out these free downloads and all these mixtapes so it’s like ‘oh right, they’ve already done the artist development work. We don’t have to invest in them.’ The internet is allowing labels to be ultra lazy, if you’re an A&R you basically just sit there online looking through shit to try and find the person whose already done their own artist development for themselves and then you go and make them an offer they can’t refuse and try and cash in and see if it works. Whereas in the past you actually had to develop an artist; I don’t think there’s any artist development going on nowadays. Well, maybe within other genres but it seems like everyone’s left to their own devices until they’ve… like…

Made something for themselves?

Yeah like ‘we’ll have a piece of that.’ Everything at the moment is like, If anything goes big, carbon copy it immediately. Like with dubstep…

Yeah, like make it dirtier, make in nastier. Make it so shrill its unlistenable…

Make it too much.

::

Jehst’s Dragon Of An Ordinary Family album is out on the 27th June through YNR Productions. He launches it at fabric in Room One this Friday.

Words: Oli Marlow // Title Photo: Ashes57