South London-raised producer-on-the-mic Jack Diggs has spent the best part of the last decade building a solid reputation for himself as a consistently talented individual, dropping solo efforts such as 2013’s brilliant “Dirty Finger Nails” album, alongside collaborative releases as part of both TPS Fam and Gatecrasherz.
Diggs’ brand of honest, down-to-earth lyricism coupled with his meticulously-crafted, sample-heavy beats have led to the UK representative gaining himself something of a cult following.
Recently, he teamed-up with Harlem, NY’s Revenge Of The Truence duo MuGGz and Tay Dayne to release the “Midnight Run” project. An impressive long-player which finds the two Rotten Apple rhymers sounding right at home over Diggs’ impeccable production.
In this interview, Jack discusses how he came to work with R.O.T, his thoughts on the UK Hip-Hop scene and the pros-and-cons of diggin’ online.
How are you finding lockdown so far?
“I drive a lorry for a living and today is actually my first day in lockdown (note: this interview was carried out on March 31st). I volunteered to give up work yesterday. So lockdown is sweet so far (laughs). I broke my leg at the end of last year and was off work for four months. I was at home then and I didn’t get bored once. That was actually when I made the R.O.T album during the time that I was off. I had a new-born baby, but when she’d go for a nap, bam, I was on the MPC (laughs).”
So with the talk of lockdown being until May / June, you’ll probably be able to knock out a few albums in that time?
“Yeah (laughs). I reckon so as well.”
The only problem is that you’re not going to be able to go out to any record shops so you’ll have to get involved in some online diggin’ – if that doesn’t go against the code?
“Nah, there’s not really any code (laughs). If you have to do it you have to do it. But to be honest, I’ve got a load of old records sat here that I’ve been going through. I just moved house, so I’ve been looking through a lot of my records and finding stuff like, ‘What’s that?!’ I always go back through stuff because your mood changes and you can hear different things. I might’ve listened to a particular record a million times, but maybe I didn’t hear something on it straight away, or I might have been feeling lazy when I first played it and didn’t want to go to the trouble of chopping something up (laughs). You always hear different things when you go back and listen to stuff again. When I was working, driving around the city I would always pick stuff up. If I drove past a record shop, I’d run in there and might gets something. But then that record might just sit in my crates for three months because life gets in the way sometimes and I just haven’t had an opportunity to do anything with it. Or I’ll buy something online and it’ll turn up but I just won’t do anything with it straight away. So I do buy stuff online, and, to be honest, there’s no real difference between doing that and actually going diggin’ I suppose.
I can obviously understand why producers still do want to go out and physically dig because it’s all part of the experience of making music, but as a fan I’m going to judge you based on the quality of the finished product regardless of where I’m told the samples came from…
“I used to be ‘No, you have to dig in the crates!’ But I’m moving away from that a lot now, as you get busier in life. I mean, I don’t really care, man. If you find a wicked sample and flip it in a really good way, it doesn’t really matter where it came from. The only thing I really have an issue with about the whole digital diggin’ is that there are lazy people out there. Lazy producers who will go online and they’ll search for something to use, and the first thing that comes up they’ll look to do something with it even though it’s already been flipped six million times! I hate that. It just gives life to the lazy digger and waters down the music. But as far as people diggin’ online, I really couldn’t care less, just as long as they’re not flippin’ the same old tired samples. The main thing for me is that you still have to look for stuff that hasn’t been used and be creative with it.”
So how did you connect with NYC’s Revenge Of The Truence? I think they’ve been really consistent with the releases they’ve put out over recent years but they haven’t had much exposure.
“I started going on Instagram a bit and posting up beat videos. Me doing stuff on the MPC and replaying beats. They just hit me up and asked if I had any beats that I might want to send them and that was literally it. It was all online. I knew their name as I’d heard some of their music but I went back to listen to more of their stuff like “International Waters” which I thought was wicked. So I was really gassed, man. I hit them with a bunch of beats and it went from there. Like you said, they’re consistent and their work rate is mad. I’d send them a beat and I’d have something back within a couple of days that I’d then spend time touching up. The whole album was done in about three months. It was wicked and we built a real connection between ourselves actually. I mean, I’ve already given them some beats for our next project.”
Were R.O.T already familiar with your work before they started checking the videos?
“I think it was literally the Instagram stuff that introduced them to my music. I mean, I don’t think I ever thought to ask them ‘Do you know who I am?’ (laughs). They just heard my beats online and decided to hit me up. That was how it went. There wasn’t much more to it than that.”
How much creative input did you have into what MuGGz and Tay did with the beats after you’d sent them?
“You know what? I’ve worked with people in the past, I’ve sent them a beat and they’ll send you something back with very little input and no opportunity to restructure the beat around what they’ve done. It’s been mastered already but the chorus line is coming in on their last eight bars or something, which can be annoying. But R.O.T weren’t like that. They were really refreshing to work with. They’d record their rhymes over a beat, do a rough draft, send it over to me and then I could give them feedback and if there were any issues with anything we had a chance to talk about it. But to be honest, I pretty much liked everything they were sending me. But I said to them, before they mixed and mastered any of it, send me a rough of every track and then I could structure the beats around what they were doing lyrically. So that’s what they did. I had some ideas about adding music at the end of some of the tracks or using some dialogue and they just let me carry on. There was a lot of mutual respect involved throughout the whole process.”
You sometimes hear stories about producers sending beats to artists and not even knowing they’ve been used until the project comes out. But from what you’ve said, “Midnight Run” sounds like it was a genuine collaboration…
“Yeah man, it was. R.O.T actually came over to London after we’d finished the album. The “Shoot Out” video that just dropped was filmed whilst they were here. I took them around North London and we connected properly. They were actually over here to work with a guy in Birmingham but they went all around the UK to different places trying to get their name out there. It was wicked, man. We had a whole day together and shot three videos. It’s just a shame we didn’t have longer.”
How much awareness did R.O.T have of the UK Hip-Hop scene?
“They knew that there are people out here making music, but I’m not sure how much they knew in terms of the actual scene. They know that there are some bangin’ producers and rappers here in the UK, but in terms of the whole set-up of the so-called UK Hip-Hop scene I don’t think they were overly aware .”
What are your own thoughts on the present-day UK Hip-Hop scene? Do you feel it’s a cohesive, unified scene or do you think it’s too fractured nowadays?
“I love UK Hip-Hop and I’ve loved it for a long time but I don’t follow it that much now, I’m not gonna lie to you. It’s weird because when I came up making music, the UK scene was something that I could actually see. This was before the Internet. But you had your names there and standing outside of it looking in you knew what it was and you knew the make up of it and who was doing what. Now, I don’t really know. I mean, outside of say a label like High Focus I’m not really too aware of what the scene is. It’s just kinda like an infinite streaming platform of videos. It is quite oversaturated with certain people mimicking and duplicating certain sounds. There are definitely still some wicked artists in the UK, but I find myself listening to more on the grime side of things. A lot of UK Hip-Hop now is almost like a cliché of itself.”
With so much now happening online, do you feel the scene isn’t as tangible as it once was?
“When you had to go to the open mics and you had to go to the records shops, it filtered a lot of the s**t out. I mean, when we started going to events like Speakers Corner in Brixton, everyone was going there. That night was legendary to me. If you were jumping into a cipher there you had to be f**king good and if you weren’t good then you’d be told, ‘Nah, you’re s**t, you’ve got to get off the stage.’ It was militant.”
And if you were serious about what you were trying to do, you’d go away, practice, then return again the next week…
“That’s what we did as TPS Fam, me, Big Toast and Strange Neighbour. We used to go to Speakers Corner and loads of different jams all round London. We always had that hunger to just go and spit some bars. I mean, we were fans of the music, but our mentality was always to go to a jam, spit some bars and come harder than we did last time. That’s how we got to know certain people. But when we first started going to those jams we were just seen as those d**kheads who turned up and got pi**ed. But we ended up building relationships with some of those same artists we were trying to prove ourselves to.”
So it was important for you to be putting yourself out there as an artist in order to achieve that organic growth and progression?
“Before, you would get known locally and it would grow from there. Like, going back to Speakers Corner, if you got your name known at a jam like that then people would start listening to your music from that. That’s how quite a lot of people broke through at Speakers doing that. I remember Sonnyjim was a regular there. He’d come down from Birmingham and was in with a lot of the guys there. But now, you don’t really need to start by getting yourself known locally. With the Internet, you don’t really need to be anywhere, you just have to make sure you build an online following. So it almost feels like every artist is their own scene now”
Even though the Internet provides everyone with a platform , I think it still can be a huge struggle for talented UK artists to be heard by potential listeners because even if someone says they’re a UK Hip-Hop fan that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re open to listening to all forms of UK Hip-Hop….
“I fully agree. It’s kinda like on a smaller scale to how pop culture works. It’s almost like ‘Unless you’re being put on by someone I already love, then I don’t care about your music and I’m not interested.’ Some people are just so narrow-minded. If you’re waiting on someone to tell you what’s good and what’s bad, that’s just lame.”
Your 2013 debut album “Dirty Finger Nails” is a personal classic for me. I felt like that album was a genuine snapshot of your life at the time and I came away from the project feeling like I’d gotten to know you as a person…
“I appreciate that. Still to this day I am proud of that album. That’s the one that I probably won’t ever top (laughs).”
How do you feel you grew as an artist between “Dusty Finger Nails” and 2015’s “Blue Rain” album?
“When I listen back to “Blue Rain”, to me, it just sounds like such a frustrated album. I was going through some stuff on that album. With “Dirty Finger Nails” I was young. I had my views and opinions but really I was just going out and living life. With “Blue Rain”, that album was made at a time when I was really going through some s**t. So it’s hard for me to go back and listen to that album without thinking it just sounds like a lot of shouting and frustration (laughs). It just sounds like a real mix of confusion. I think there was just too much going on in my mind at that time.”
In terms of your beats, you definitely have a style but you avoid sounding formulaic. I’ve always thought of your production as being very cinematic and equally effective with or without vocals. There’s often a lot of movement within your tracks, particularly in the way you use string samples. What feeling are you trying to evoke when you’re putting your tracks together?
“I can’t make a beat quickly. Unless I know I’ve got a specific window of time or a number of hours, I’m not going to sit down and start making a beat. I know a lot of people with bash something out in thirty to forty minutes and that’s it done. But I just can’t do that. I mean, I don’t loop stuff, I chop shit. I’ll do like a hundred chops on one sample. So I have to have hours to do what I do. I get lost in it. I will literally sit there for three or four hours making a beat and then I instantly want to starting mixing it down and I’ll add more or I might take stuff out. I mean, a lot of people want beats that are just beats. But I like progression in music. I listen to a lot of jazz and soul, not because I’m looking for samples but because I just enjoy listening to the music. I want to feel something from it and that’s how I approach the music that I make. I get a bit bored with just loops. So when I sit down to make a track it’s about forgetting everything else and just getting lost in it. I don’t want anybody to talk to me. I don’t want anything else to be happening. I just want to sit there and make that beat and I want it to take you somewhere. A sample has to make me feel a certain way for me to be able to use it. Music to me is about connecting emotionally and mentally to something outside of ourselves.”
So do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
“I wrote and produced an eight-track EP a while ago but I didn’t really like it that much so I scrapped it and decided to just focus on the production. So that’s what I’m doing right now. I’m working with a few people at the moment, but I don’t want to give away too much as I don’t know if those artists are ready for people to find out about certain projects that we’re working on. But there’s plenty of music there and mainly it’s just production from me at the minute.”
So we could be sitting down to do another interview fairly soon then with all this new music you’re working on?
“You never know, you never know.”
The R.O.T & Jack Diggs album “Midnight Run” is available now at JackDiggs.BandCamp.Com.