Veteran UK deejay 279 takes it back to the feel good flavour of late-80s / early-90s New Jack Swing with his latest mix featuring New Edition, Today, Groove B. Chill and more.
Veteran UK deejay 279 takes it back to the feel good flavour of late-80s / early-90s New Jack Swing with his latest mix featuring New Edition, Today, Groove B. Chill and more.
Union Blak ft. DJ 279 – “Glory Days” (Effiscienz.BandCamp.Com / 2014)
Melodic boom-bap from the UK / US duo’s recent album “Union Blak Friday”.
If you’re a fan of quality UK Hip-Hop, then you’ll probably already be familiar with the name Efeks thanks to his work alongside production partner Steady Rock as the duo known as Prose.
Combining Steady’s true-school beats with Efeks’ punchy rhymes, the pair’s debut album “Force Of Habit” was released in 2010 on their own Boom Bap Professionals imprint, immediately gaining Prose a solid base of support which the twosome quickly built on with the 2011 full-length follow-up “The Dark Side Of The Boom”.
Now stepping out on his own, the South London lyricist recently completed his first solo album “Contemporary Classic”. Dropping on the Revorg Records label, the impressive project features production from the likes of Jack Diggs, Keith Lawrence and Prose’s own Steady Rock, with Efeks taking the opportunity to allow listeners a deeper look into his world, penning personal rhymes covering everything from fatherhood (“You Know That”) and relationship issues (“Can’t You See?”) to the struggles of being an underground artist (“Make It Real”).
Here, Efeks discusses his journey as an emcee, lyrical influences and the elements required for a classic album.
Over the last few years you’ve released a handful of albums and EPs alongside Steady Rock as Prose. Taking it back for a moment, when and how did you and Steady first get together and start making music?
“It was roughly towards the end of 2003, early 2004. We met through a mutual friend of ours, DJ Philly. I was doing a music course at a local community centre and Philly was there doing another course and we got talking and he found out that I was trying to make music. I was writing rhymes but I didn’t really have any producers to work with. Philly told me that his flatmate, Steady, made beats and that he thought we should meet up. It turned out that we lived really close to each other, so we met up and Steady gave me tons of beats to listen to. So, I started getting to work with those instrumentals and a friendship and partnership formed from that really. Everything with Prose really happened quite quickly, as a few years before that I’d been working with various other people but it never really materialised into anything. I’d become a little bit disenchanted with it all to be honest as a lot of the people I was working with didn’t really follow through with what they said they were going to do. So I had the intention of doing my own thing and had just brought an MPC as well to try and start making my own beats. So Steady came in at the right time and I never touched the MPC (laughs). I mean, when me and Steady first got together he gave me about four beat CDs and he really gave me a new lease of life at the time to be honest with you. We didn’t immediately call ourselves Prose or anything like that, we were just working on music, but it all came together quite naturally over the course of that first year and then we put out our “Wasted Talent” EP which was the first thing that we did.”
I remember seeing Prose performing at London’s Jazz Cafe in 2010 supporting Jedi Mind Tricks and it really struck me at the time what a great chemistry you and Steady seemed to have onstage…
“We had a good chemistry from the beginning. Most of our early tracks were the result of what were almost like jam sessions, really. We’d get together, have a few beers and then start recording late at night after we’d spent hours talking about Hip-Hop (laughs). It was fun really and we were both kinda finding our feet with regards to actually making music and learning as we were going along.”
Taking it even further back, when did you first start rhyming?
“It was when I was in high-school. I was actually rummaging through some of my old stuff recently after moving house and came across an old school exercise book and it had a rhyme written in the back of it (laughs). So that was about 1993 or 1994. I was about fifteen-years-old when I actually first started writing rhymes and I’m coming-up thirty-five now so it’s been awhile (laughs). But I probably didn’t really start taking my writing seriously until I’d left school when I was about eighteen-years-old. Before then I didn’t really have my own identity as an emcee and was just drawing off the inspiration from the rappers I was listening to and looking up to at the time. I was studying them and really just taking bits and pieces from everyone. It took awhile before I was really comfortable in my own skin as an emcee.”
Would you say that you feeling more confident as an emcee coincided with you starting to work with Steady Rock as Prose?
“Yeah, probably. It didn’t necessarily happen right at the beginning of me and Steady getting together, but I definitely grew into myself as an artist and a better emcee along the way.”
Who were some of your biggest influences when you did first start putting pen to paper?
“I’d have to say LL Cool J. “Mama Said Knock You Out” was probably the first album that I really studied. I played that album endlessly. I’d also have to say CL Smooth, Treach from Naughty By Nature, Nas, there’s just so many (laughs). But I’d definitely say Nas and CL Smooth were two of my favourites from the early-90s. I mean, “Illmatic” is my favourite album of all-time and “Mecca And The Soul Brother” had a massive impact on me when I first heard it. I loved CL’s style with him being introspective but being so fresh with it as well. Guru was another big influence on me as well and Gang Starr in general. When I first started writing I would always envision how my music would actually sound when I did get the opportunity and I never used to write choruses as I always used to think that there would be cuts on the hook like a Gang Starr track (laughs). I always hoped that one day I’d meet someone like DJ Premier who would be able to do all the scratched choruses. I look back at my old rhymes books and they’re just full of verses with gaps where the chorus should be waiting to be filled with scratches (laughs).”
Were you doing any open-mic events at the time and trying to get yourself out there into the scene?
“I did eventually. I mean, I never really grew-up around other emcees. I had friends who were into Hip-Hop, but they weren’t into Hip-Hop like I was. They were listening to all types of music and I was really like that typical bedroom emcee who was just writing rhymes at home. There was nobody that I could cipher with or feed off of who was also doing it at the time same time because none of my friends were rapping. It wasn’t until I was in my early-twenties really that I built up the confidence to go out there and be in that sort of circle. Before that I kept it at home and didn’t really tell anyone that I was rapping or writing lyrics. I just really kept it to myself. Then, like I said, around my early-twenties I started entering some talent competitions and then the thing that really kicked it all off for me was when I won a competition on DJ 279’s radio show on Choice FM around 2000. He used to do this thing called “60 Seconds Of Fame” and you’d basically ring up and spit over the phone for a minute. You’d go up against someone else and the listeners would call up to say who they thought was the best. Then, if you won four weeks in a row, you got to go up on the show, do something live in the studio and have a little interview. Winning that was probably the catalyst for me to really start taking things seriously as I got some good feedback and a few producers hit me up after the show and I made a few demos that started circulating. 279 actually played a few of the tracks, but then after those demos I had nothing else to follow them up with. That was around the time I mentioned earlier where certain things that people were saying were going to happen weren’t happening and shortly after that is when I met Steady. So when we started as Prose it was almost like I was starting again. It was a brand new chapter for me, really.”
So bringing it up-to-date, given the following that Prose have built in recent years, why decide to step away from the group to do a solo album at this particular point?
“To be honest, I’ve always wanted to do a solo album. It’s always been one of my lifetime goals to put out my own album, something that was completely from me from the start to the finish. If anything, it was like a challenge for me to step out of my comfort zone, step away from what I’ve been doing for the past eight years or so with Steady and do something different. Obviously it’s not completely different and I’ve still kept the same musical ethic that I’ve always had, but it has given me the opportunity to branch out and try some different things. I don’t make music to make a living, so it’s got to be enjoyable for me to do it. So if it gets to a point where I’m not enjoying it as much, then there’s really no point in me doing it. Music isn’t putting food on the table for me, it’s something I do purely for my own satisfaction. But as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to have my own solo album just to give me that sense of achievement and to test myself to see if I was capable of doing it. I really just wanted to prove a point to myself that I could step out of my comfort zone and put something together myself that I could be proud of. Hopefully I’ve achieved that, although that’s down to other people’s opinions really. But as a body of work, I’m definitely happy with “Contemporary Classic”.
How much of a different experience was it for you putting together “Contemporary Classic” as a solo artist compared to putting together the previous Prose projects as part of a duo?
“I mean, some of it was definitely unchartered waters for me. Like, when I’m doing stuff with Prose, Steady will take care of the music. So from the get go, the responsibility was on me with “Contemporary Classic” to take care of everything in terms of reaching out to producers, getting the artists together to collaborate on the album, everything really was more or less organised by me. But as far as the beats, I really just kinda kept it to people that I already knew. The album was very personal to me, so I just wanted to really work within a small circle of people, people that I knew or that I’d worked with before. I really just took a family approach to the album. I mean, Steady has some production on there as well. But as far as the lyrics, I’d already been writing some of the tracks before I even got any of the music in. I just decided to put them to the side and thought that when I got the album together that those rhymes would be going on the project, it was just a case of finding the right music to go with them. It was actually Jack Diggs who gave me the first beats for the album. I’ve known the TPS Fam guys for a long time and we used to bump heads at a lot of events in the scene, particularly the nights that happened around Croydon. I had a conversation with Jack and I told him that I was looking to put an album together and he sent me about five beats straight away. That was really when the fire was sparked for me and every single one of those beats Jack sent me made it to the album. The music he sent me just hit me straight away. Jack’s production is soulful, but it’s still boom-bap, and it just really inspired me to be able to speak on different topics which is what I was looking to do with this solo album. I mean, if I was going to do everything exactly the same way as I’d done before, then I’d just really be putting out a new Prose record and there’d be no point in me branching out to do a solo album. The whole reason behind me doing a solo album was to be able to do something different and show people another side of me as an artist.”
Given the personal nature of “Contemporary Classic”, did you feel that you couldn’t express some of your more introspective thoughts through the music you were making as Prose?
“I think it was a combination of different things, really. Being sent certain beats for “Contemporary Classic” led me to explore some different subject matter and get a little more personal. I mean, I do have some introspective stuff on the Prose albums, but we’re more about just straight-up Hip-Hop, really. It was never the case that I thought I couldn’t write more personal stuff for Prose, it just never really came to me at that time. With this album, everything just seemed to coincide in terms of certain things that I’ve been going through in life. Also, with this solo album, obviously I’m just purely speaking for myself on there, so I did feel that I had a little more licence to just do what I wanted to do. There was no compromise with “Contemporary Classic” and I just followed my heart on there.”
Listening to tracks like “Identity Crisis” and “You Know That” it’s clear that you’re very comfortable writing rhymes that really dig deep into your experiences and emotions. Considering the way you first started writing rhymes, very privately and not necessarily to share with people, do you think that has influenced your ability to write those more personal rhymes today?
“To be honest, I’ve never actually thought of it that way. But now that you’ve said it, that probably has had an influence on how I go about my writing and how I’m able to convey some of that more personal subject matter. In the beginning, writing was a very personal thing for me and I was writing for myself. To be honest, I’ve always been quite apprehensive about putting out more personal material because you’re giving away a part of yourself when you share music like that. There were times when I was working on “Contemporary Classic” when I did wonder whether I should put certain stuff out there or just keep it to myself, but I do feel comfortable writing those sort of rhymes. But that said, it is difficult for me to listen to certain tracks around other people. I’d rather I wasn’t there when other people are there listening to some of the stuff I did share on the album. The personal material is very therapeutic to write, but I do still feel a little uncomfortable being around people while they’re listening to it. It’s like having someone open up your diary and reading it in front of you (laughs). I mean, I love the bragging rhymes and the battle stuff because that’s an integral part of Hip-Hop, but I wanted this album to show that I was also able to do other things as well.”
So given the title of the album, what do you look for in the music of other artists that would lead you to describe it as being ‘classic’?
“To me, it’s about something that’s gonna stand the test of time. That’s all I’ve always tried to do with my own music. But a classic album to me is something you can still listen to it in ten, twenty years time, and it still sounds as good as when you first heard it or perhaps even better. A classic album has to stand for something and really be able to make its mark. With “Contemporary Classic” I wasn’t trying to be conceited with it and say that everyone should think the album is a classic, it’s more about me paying homage to what’s come before me, blending the old with the new, saluting the past and creating an album in the present that mixes the contemporary with the classic in terms of how it sounds and feels. I know the title might get misinterpreted and people might think that I’m trying to say the album is an instant classic, but it was more about celebrating the past and doing something in the present that can hopefully stand the test of time like the music from the people that influenced me.”
Why do you think it is today that a lot of artists out there really don’t seem to be making music with that same stand-the-test-of-time approach?
“I think a lot of people making music today aren’t really bothered whether the music they make is still going to be listened to in years to come. Everyone just seems to be obsessed with what’s happening now. Today, there seems to be this instant gratification culture that everyone’s caught up in. I mean, it’s just my opinion, but I think a lot of people today are just making music for the moment. It seems like a lot of people today aren’t even that worried about their music being considered as disposable. There’s just no real substance behind what a lot of artists are doing and I don’t mean that in terms of their music not containing political messages or anything like that, I just mean that even the artists themselves don’t seem to have any genuine belief in what they’re doing and you just can’t feel any passion in it. With certain artists, I think they’re under the impression that there’s some sort of formula and as long as they follow that formula then they’ll get the kind of success that they’re looking for. I mean, if you’re willing to compromise everything about yourself to get that, then good luck to you, but I’d much rather maintain my integrity and put out music that I’m proud of and genuinely happy with.”
One of the tracks that really stood-out for me on the album was “Technophobe”. Is that an accurate description of your views on technology and, if so, how do you balance that with using the tools at your disposable to promote your music like Facebook, Twitter etc?
“I am kind of a technophobe to be honest (laughs). I mean, I’m also poking fun at myself on that track as well, but joking aside, as an independent artist you really have no choice now when it comes to working with computers, being online and getting into the whole social media thing. You just have to get on with it and I’ve done that begrudgingly and taught myself how to do certain things. I’m not great with computers and I don’t really have that much time for them. But today, if you want to do anything with your music, you’ve got to be online and using social media etc. So I’ve sort of begrudgingly embraced it really.”
Is the social media scene something you’re not a fan of purely because of the technical aspect of it, or is there a more specific reason why you don’t necessarily enjoy it?
“It’s just an element of the process that I don’t relish and I don’t really look forward to. I’m quite a humble person and I don’t really like being out there telling people, ‘You’ve got to check this out. This album is the greatest thing on earth.’ I would much rather just let people discover the music organically and if they like it, then they like it, rather than having to force it into people’s faces. But in this current climate where everybody else is doing it, if you’re not doing it, then you don’t really stand a chance when it comes to people giving any sort of time to your music. You’ve got to be seen to be out there and active on social media, promoting your material, connecting with the so-called right people, raising your profile. There’s an element of pretense to it which I don’t really like and people get caught up in who’s considered to be the most popular, who’s got the most views, who has the most followers. It’s seems to me that people are interested in everything but the music (laughs). As far as all that is concerned, it reaches a point where the fire goes out of my belly very quickly for that side of things. I just want to get on and make some more new music (laughs).”
UK legend MC Mell’O’ is featured on “Contemporary Classic” – was there a particular reason why you wanted him on the album?
“MC Mell’O’ is actually a personal friend of mine. When we first met it was actually through us both going to the same gym and it had nothing to do with music whatsoever (laughs). It was one of those things where you see someone and their face looks familiar but you can’t quite work out why (laughs). That’s how it was with Mell’O’. The first time I saw him in the gym I was like, ‘I know that guy from somewhere.’ Then I was speaking to some of the other guys in there and they were saying that MC Mell’O’ went to that particular gym and I was like, ‘That’s who it is!’ So me and Mell’O’ just started talking, became friends and then eventually he found out that I did music and he said that at some point it would be great to jump on a track together. So when I finally started putting the solo album together, I had the idea for the “Open Mic” track and wanted to do a real old-school posse track and thought it would be perfect to get Mell’O’ on there. It was an honour for me to get him on the album and was a great experience to get him in the studio. That was one of the other things with the album, I didn’t want the guest artists just sending me their verses by email. I wanted to get everybody that I possibly could into the studio to record in person so that it really felt like a proper collaboration.”
Given how much the game has changed over the last decade or so, what do you think is the biggest struggle that UK Hip-Hop artists still face in 2013?
“Speaking from a personal perspective, I think it still comes down to the level of exposure that artists are given. People are making good music, there’s definitely a market out there for it, but there’s still not enough people out there who’re hearing about what we’re doing. It’s difficult, because I’ve never been at that sort of level where I’ve ever had anything to do with ‘the industry’, so I can’t really talk from that perspective. But I would just like it if there were more outlets that let more people hear the music that artists here in the UK are making. Even though we’ve got the internet, there still seems to be less avenues in a way for underground artists to be heard by people outside of that audience.”
So you don’t think there’s really many outlets available to underground UK artists today that gives their music a chance to be heard outside of their own circles?
“There’s no real representation for the underground now on commercial radio like there was before. Taking 279 as an example, his show on Choice FM in London was a great platform for underground UK artists to have their music spun on the radio and played alongside major artists as well. That was a great outlet. But now that 279’s off the radio, there’s nothing really. I mean, for someone like me, my music isn’t going to be played by someone like a Charlie Sloth on 1Xtra. To be honest, off the top of my head, I can’t even think of any other deejays on normal radio here in the UK who have specialist Hip-Hop shows, other than maybe DJ MK and Shortee Blitz on Kiss who play a mixture of stuff. So I would say the biggest struggle faced by a lot of UK artists is that it’s still very difficult to get your music heard by people outside of the audience of listeners who would be looking for it anyway.”
Now “Contemporary Classic” has been released, what’s next for you?
“I’m not a hundred percent sure what the next move is to be honest, but I have got a few projects in the pipeline. The next thing that I’ll more than likely be doing is an EP with Jack Diggs that will be out on Revorg Records. Then, after that, I’m not really sure (laughs). I just feel that, at the moment, I’m in a great place musically, I’m happy with the people that I’m working with and I’m really just taking it one step at a time”
Follow Efeks on Twitter – @SpecialEfeks
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