Photo: Jake Kiten Sampson-Field
Since his debut onto the UK Hip-Hop scene in the early-2000s as a young, new voice with his own unique perspective on life, London-raised Verb T has quietly, yet confidently, built himself an impressive body of work, including album releases with homegrown producers such as Harry Love and The Last Skeptik as well as sharing microphone duties with talented lyricists like Jehst, Kashmere and Yungun.
Proving that it’s not always about who shouts the loudest, Verbs has successfully carved out his own creative niche in a rap game that’s largely dominated by ego, with his understated demeanour, sharp wordplay and willingness to allow a glimpse into his own personal world endearing him to fans looking for some depth and honesty in their beats and rhymes.
Officially joining forces with UK-based imprint High Focus in 2011 as part of The Four Owls (alongside Fliptrix, Leaf Dog and BVA MC), Verb T enjoyed further success with the label following the release last year of his brilliant solo album “Morning Process”.
With his eighth project, the self-produced “I Remain”, now available to the masses, the low-key emcee took some time out to discuss childhood Hip-Hop memories, introducing his music to a new audience and finding himself now regularly wearing an owl mask onstage.
What are you earliest recollections of being introduced to Hip-Hop?
“I always have to let people know that Slick Rick was the main reason I became interested in Hip-Hop. It was when I first heard “La-Di-Da-Di”. I’d probably already heard rapping before on other stuff if I really think hard about it, but this was around the late-80s and I was a kid at that point around seven or eight- years-old. But when I first heard Slick Rick on “La-Di-Da-Di” I knew I wanted to rap. I remember being in the playground at school with my friends, trying to do little dance moves and stuff (laughs). Any glimpse of Hip-Hop that I saw on the TV, I was just drawn to it. I mean, I wasn’t trying to dress like any of the rappers I saw with the kangols and the trainers or anything, I just loved the music. It was quite random how I even heard “La-Di-Da-Di” for the first time to be honest. My dad had a really large vinyl collection and he had a bit of everything in there really. He wasn’t strictly a Hip-Hop head or anything like that, but anything that was out that was interesting or different musically, he would have it. So he had stuff like Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show” and he also had albums like De La Soul’s “3 Feet High And Rising”. After Slick Rick, De La Soul’s album was probably the next thing I really listened to and I remember he also had the first Jungle Brothers album “Straight Out The Jungle”. I mean, at the same time that I was hearing those records, I was still listening to things like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, MC Hammer, Michael Jackson and other stuff that kids were listening to (laughs). But Hip-Hop just stood above everything else to me. So then I started actively searching for it and I came across Max & Dave’s radio show on London’s Kiss FM. I always remember it used to be on during the week at the same time as “Eastenders” in the early-90s (laughs). So whilst my family would be watching the TV, I’d be sat there with a cassette in the deck recording Max & Dave (laughs). I just thought it was amazing that I could put a blank cassette in and record ninety minutes of free, amazing Hip-Hop which I could walk around with on my Walkman for the next week (laughs). I mean, this was back in the time when people were getting super advance promos that you’d hear being played on the radio months before an album would actually come out, at least over here in the UK anyway.”
So did you start experimenting with rhyming as soon as you first heard Hip-Hop or did that happen later?
“Almost as soon as I heard Hip-Hop, I started writing a couple of rhymes down. But initially, it was mainly just free-styling. Although, I guess because I was so young, I was really just mimicking what I was hearing the rappers I was listening to doing. But as much as I was mimicking them in terms of the styles I was using, as far as the content was concerned, I would be free-styling with my friends about school, my teacher, football, wrestling, stuff like that (laughs). But at that point, I didn’t really have anyone around me who was into Hip-Hop as much as I was. There were people at my school at the time who listened to Hip-Hop, but I was immediately obsessive about it. For example, I remember once I’d rented a video from the local shop and there was a trailer on it for Run-DMC’s “Tougher Than Leather” film and I just watched it over and over again. But after seeing that I just couldn’t find the video anywhere and I was so distraught (laughs). I was in my local shop like, ‘Why haven’t you got this video?’ So I was really having to try and find everything out for myself initially. But then when I got into my teens, that’s when I started meeting more people who were really into Hip-Hop which is also when I seriously thought about actually making music. It was also around that time that I first started going to London’s West End and going to record shops like the original Deal Real and you’d have people behind the counter in there like Pete Real, Shortee Blitz, Tony Vegas. I remember that was just a mad experience going to that shop for the first time. I’d already met Harry Love by this time and we’d go there together and just hangout in the shop. There were times when we even slept in Deal Real (laughs).”
Aside from the quality music that was sold there, Deal Real was such a great shop to spend time in because you never quite knew who you might see or what might happen…
“Exactly. There were always artists passing through. I remember kicking myself as I wasn’t there the day Big L and O.C. were in the shop when they were over in the UK. That shop was amazing, man. I just used to enjoy going there to hangout. I had so many good times in Deal Real. I mean, I love how the internet and social networking is really bringing Hip-Hop communities together, but it’s just not the same as being able to go to a place like Deal Real, bump tunes really loud, meet people and just share experiences. I mean, going to Deal Real regularly was how I pretty much met everyone I knew in the UK scene at that time. I just wish there was somewhere like that again. It always makes me smile thinking back to those times, man.”
You dropped your debut Harry Love-produced single “Showbitchness” in 2002 on Low Life Records and it immediately made an impact. Considering you were a new artist, were you surprised by how quickly that single was embraced by UK Hip-Hop heads?
“Everything that Harry Love was producing at that time was just gold. A lot of people really haven’t heard the extent of the music he had back then. I mean, people are familiar with Klashnekoff’s “Murda”, “Showbitchness” and some other stuff, but there was so much unreleased stuff as well that Harry was doing that was just amazing. But when we actually recorded “Showbitchness”, I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I just knew that we’d created what I believed was a classic tune. To be honest, the way we made that tune kind of took us both by surprise. When Harry first played me that beat, it was originally just a drum loop with a bassline underneath it. But I just loved those drums and the bassline was so thick, so I thought, ‘Yeah, let’s just keep it like that and I’ll write one long verse to it.’ I was thinking of doing something like a thirty-two bar verse and then sending it out to radio. So I went to Harry’s, showed him the verse that I’d written and he was saying that I should do a second verse and that we should work on doing more with the track. So as I was writing that second verse and the chorus, Harry was trying a few things out with different samples and then all of a sudden he was just like, ‘This is sounding sick!’ He played the track to me with the new samples over it and I almost lost it right there (laughs). I went straight into the booth after hearing it and we recorded everything I had (laughs). I think I might even have recorded the track all in one take. But after I’d done my vocals, Harry fixed up the beat a little bit and then he played it and we were both like, ‘Oh my god!’ We must have listened back to that track so many times that day (laughs). I mean, we weren’t listening to our own stuff in an arrogant way, we just couldn’t quite believe what we’d just made. It took us both by surprise.”
You just knew that track was something special…
“Yeah. But that was back when it could take quite a long time for stuff to come out after you’d recorded it. So we actually had that track done for a couple of years before it did finally come out on Low Life. I remember at the time actually reading a bit of bad press for it when the single came out. It got an awful review in Hip-Hop Connection. But then when I started playing it out and talking to people, I started to see how it was being received. I mean, in my head, it was always a classic. But at the time it didn’t seem to me like it had really hit in the way I wanted it to. I wasn’t doing as many shows back then and this was before social media, but then the more I started to get around I realised that tune was actually pretty popular.”
So here we are over ten years later and you’ve just dropped your eighth album, “I Remain”. How would you say your approach to making music has changed over the last decade, if at all?
“I think it’s still pretty much the same. I mean, even when I was doing my first project with Harry Love and Braintax, I was still approaching the music I was making in the same way I do now. I always wanted each song I made to be saying something, even if it was a track where I was just spitting and dropping punchlines, I still wanted to try and keep to a loose theme. I never made tunes just to make tunes. I would always think about where any song I made was going to fit on whatever album project I was working towards at the time. I’ve always looked at albums like they’re films and each song is like a scene within a film. You can always have your favourite scenes within a particular film, but they all have to work together as a whole. So I always looked at projects as being full albums with a particular feel or theme to them. I never made songs purely to try and cover bases on an album, just so I could say that I had my club banger, my radio record, and this and that. For me, it was always about, how are these tracks going to work together? How can I put this together in a way that will make people want to sit down for an hour and listen to the whole project rather than just picking tracks to listen to? That was how I first approached my music and it’s an approach that I’ve always kept. I’d say that maybe the only difference there is now in how I approach my music is that I don’t write lyrics as sporadically as I used to. When I was younger, I might have just thrown on a beat and started writing lyrics. Or I might have brought something like a new Mobb Deep album, and there might be a track on there that I really liked, so I’d just have that on repeat while I was writing my own lyrics. But now, I pretty much only write my rhymes to the beats that I’m planning to use them for. I guess I just have less time now to sit and write randomly, so when I do write there’s more purpose and focus in what I’m doing.”
You’ve been dabbling in production for some time now, but “I Remain” is your first totally self-produced project. Was it a daunting prospect starting the new album knowing that you were responsible for everything this time around or did doing it all yourself actually allow you to go in new directions creatively?
“Firstly, it was really daunting (laughs). I doubted myself so many times making this album because, when you think about it, throughout my career, I’ve either worked with or been around some of the top producers to come out of the UK. So I’ve had access to see how they work and how talented they are. I’d listen to what someone like a Chemo or a Ghosttown are doing today, people that have these grand, amazing sounding beats, and then I’d listen to what I was doing, which was a lot more lo-fi and moody. I kept asking myself if the beats I was making stood-up to what else was going on production-wise today. But then I had some good chats with different people, Kashmere specifically, and he was saying that me producing my own album and bringing my own sound to it is what would give the project its own individuality. So those chats made me feel a bit better about it and I decided that I wasn’t going to try and force anything to try and make a certain style or sound. I just wanted everything to sound like it had happened naturally and hadn’t come from me trying to sound like anything else that’s going on out there. Because of that, I think the album does sound different to anything else that’s out there at the moment. Plus, making the album that way and producing everything myself also led to me writing what are personally some of my favourite lyrics that I’ve ever written. So lyrically, for me, “I Remain” is my best album. But production-wise, all I can say is that I managed to get the exact moods for each track that I was hoping to achieve. That was really the most rewarding part of producing the album myself because, like you said, I was able to unlock different creative doors and take things in different directions because I was producing the beats myself. I might have been sitting there all day making a beat, and then I’d get this bolt of inspiration about what I was going to write about on a particular track or how I was going to flow. I guess, because it was me making the beat and putting myself into each track musically, the feel of the music then unlocked my subconsciousness when it came to what I wanted to say in the rhymes. I would get a couple of words that would flash in my head that related to the mood or feel I associated with a particular beat and would take it from there. I mean, making this album was actually really weird because verses were literally just falling into my head out of nowhere. When people talk about channeling voices or energy from different places, I imagine that’s what it would feel like.”
As much as there might be a lot of pressure involved in handling both the production and the lyrics on a project, I would imagine it also gives you a real sense of freedom because your own creative vision isn’t being swayed by any outside influences…
“Exactly. That’s spot-on. That’s what I’ve been saying to people, that when I get beats from different producers I’m being inspired by the music, but at the same time I’m also being influenced in how I’m thinking because of a certain mood that producer might have been in when they made that track and the emotions that they brought to that beat. But when I’m making the beats and writing the rhymes, there are no outside influences involved in the creative process and it just becomes the perfect way for me to to be able to express myself.”
You’ve always painted yourself in your music as being quite an under-the-radar, almost reclusive character who’s very happy in his own space. How do you balance that side of your personality with the demands that are put on you as an artist in terms of performing, interacting with fans etc?
“It’s something I’ve got a lot better at over the years (laughs). I mean, it definitely has been a struggle for me to achieve that balance at times. In terms of performing, if people already know your music then you can sometimes just get onstage, perform your music and not really have to say much. But then there are times when you really have to talk to the crowd and you really have to engage with them. Years back, there were times when I was just too shy or nervous and didn’t really want to have to talk to anyone. I just wanted to spit my bars and leave (laughs). I could perform the songs brilliantly, but I couldn’t really give a great performance overall because I just wasn’t able to really talk to the crowd. It was always easier for me back then if I had other people onstage to bounce off of. So when me and Kashmere started doing shows together with Ghost, the whole process became a lot more fun for me. Over the years, I think I’ve really come out of my shell a lot more. When I used to be at jams back in the day, I’d say hello to the people that I knew and then sit in the corner backstage a lot of the time (laughs). But I think it’s really a blessing that people are still interested in my music today, so nine times out of ten, when someone approaches me I’m more than happy to talk to them now. But every now and then you get someone who’s a little weird in the way they approach you and I don’t think that’s something I’ll ever get used to (laughs).”
I think sometimes people approach artists with a sense of over-familiarity because they might have got to know so much about that person through their music, but they forget that artist knows absolutely nothing about the people approaching them…
“Yeah, definitely. I get that a lot, especially after putting out “Morning Process” because it was quite an auto-biographical album and some people really relate to that s**t. On one hand, I love that people get something from that album that speaks to them personally. I’ve had some really interesting conversations with people who really got that album and understood exactly where I was coming from on there. I like that. But then sometimes, I’ll get someone just come up to me and be like, ‘So how are the kids?’ That can be a bit weird, man (laughs).”
Prior to your success last year with the “Morning Process” album on High Focus Records, you’d been involved with the label’s 2011 Four Owls project “Nature’s Greatest Mystery” which really seemed to take on a life of its own and gained something of a cult following. Is what you bring to Four Owls different to what you do in your own music and would you say your initial involvement in the group gave you a new lease of life as a solo artist?
“What I do as part of Four Owls isn’t a million miles away from my solo stuff but it is definitely different. To be honest, I think all four of us are a little different on the Owls music than when we’re doing our solo stuff. But the thing I like when we’re making tracks, is that we’re all there trying to add our own particular element to the mix but we’re trying to create something together. So when I write to an Owls track, I’m not just thinking about me as Verb T the solo artist, I approach it with the whole group in mind. I mean, Four Owls is definitely a proper group. It’s not just a situation where we all send our individual verses in and then they’re put together on a track. We had a very clear vision for each track on the album and everybody was totally on-board with the project and there were no issues. I guess that’s why it’s harder to do a second album, because after doing that first one so naturally, now people might have different ideas of the direction they think a second Owls album should go in, although we’re all definitely dedicated to making it happen. But going back to what you were saying before, being part of the Owls definitely did give me a new lease of life. I remember we did one of our first shows in Oxford before we even had the album out and we were all a bit nervous about wearing the Owl masks in-case we looked stupid (laughs). But we came onstage in the masks and people were just like ‘Yeeaaah!’ straight away. I guess it was a bit of spectacle (laughs). Then we did a show in Bristol after the album came out which had sold out and we had this idea to walk to the stage through the crowd in our Owl masks as the album intro was playing. So we were tapping people on the shoulder as we were making our way through the crowd and by the time we got onstage the whole audience had their hands in the air cheering and that was the moment when I was just like, ‘This is amazing!’ I’d had good times in music before that and done great shows before, but that was when the Four Owls started to feel like a phenomenon to me. It felt like we were the underground Hip-Hop version of the Beatles or something (laughs).”
So do you think it’s fair to say that your involvement with High Focus has introduced you to a new audience who perhaps weren’t already familiar with Verb T and your existing catalogue of work?
“Yeah, without a shadow of a doubt. I remember meeting Fliptrix all those years ago back in the MySpace days, hearing his music and just knowing that he was going to go on and do something big. We actually first met as we had a mutual friend who had a party in Clapham Junction that we both played at. As we touched on earlier, I don’t always chat to people I don’t know, but for some reason I went up to him afterwards and told him that I really enjoyed his set. We chatted on MySpace after that and he asked me if I wanted to be on his first album, which he brought out himself but it wasn’t actually on High Focus. It came out before he started the label. But I did a guest verse on that. Then, when Fliptrix was working on “Theory Of Rhyme”, which was the first High Focus release, I gave him some beats and did a couple of verses on there. From that album coming out, I just watched the High Focus thing explode, with that Fliptrix album and then the first albums from Jam Baxter, Dirty Dyke and Leaf Dog. After those albums came out, I started to notice when I did shows with Fliptrix that there was a whole new crowd coming out who knew all of those releases and artists. A lot of those same people didn’t know my music whatsoever (laughs). But this was a younger crowd who hadn’t really been around the scene that long and just hadn’t heard of me for whatever reason. So when the Four Owls album came out, that’s when the label really went to the next level because it created such a buzz and off the back of that I think a lot of those High Focus fans then went back to check my older releases. At that point I started to be viewed not just as an artist who’d worked with High Focus, but I was now part of this group that people were going crazy for. So people started to backtrack the same way that I did when I was first getting into Hip-Hop. I mean, the first Gang Starr album that I got my hands on and really loved was “Hard To Earn”, but then I went back and checked out “Step In The Arena” and their other work. But yeah, I think there is definitely a younger audience out there who might not necessarily be huge fans of UK Hip-Hop as a whole, but they’re fans of High Focus and that whole movement. So I think I’ve definitely been lucky to be able to be re-introduced to a new audience in that way.”
You mentioned Gang Starr a moment ago and your recent video for “Lost” was labelled on YouTube as being a Guru tribute. Was Guru a big influence on you?
“With Guru, I was just a fan straight-up. I always had a bit of an affinity to Guru because I had that same sort of monotone voice and I always approached rhyming the same way he did, in as much as that I didn’t want to have to shout or do crazy stuff with my voice for people to take notice. I mean, a lot of people did hate on my style back in the day and say that it sounded boring or whatever. That’s a criticism that I’ve received so many times over the years. But I would say that I definitely followed on from people like Guru in terms of someone having a really good, strong recognisable voice and keeping it calm on record for the most part. So with that track, I didn’t actually write the track about Guru, I just reworked a Guru lyric for the hook. I really just wanted to give credit to Guru and also Gang Starr as a group for the influence they had on me as a teenager coming up. I mean, even if I wasn’t a rapper, I’d still be a massive Gang Starr fan.”
Photo: Jake Kiten Sampson-Field
It’s almost ten years since you and Kashmere dropped your joint Low Life release “Backhand Slap Talk” / “Technical Illness”. What are the chances of you reuniting for another project?
“We’re still good friends and we talk quite a lot. We’ve been planning on doing a follow-up for years now. We actually started recording a follow-up about five or six years ago and had a few tracks in the bag, but then life got in the way and although we were still in touch we just kinda stopped working on the project. But recently we’ve started talking about doing more tracks together, particularly with it now being ten years since we did that first project. I’d love to be able to say we could have something finished for next year to release as an anniversary type of project, although I can’t promise that one-hundred percent as obviously it’s not done yet. But either way, we’re definitely going to be working on more tracks together.”
This might sound like a strange comparison but the two of you used to remind me of a UK Nice & Smooth, with Kashmere being really animated and out-there like a Greg Nice, and you being more low-key and grounded like a Smooth Bee…
“I think in the past we definitely did have that type of dynamic going on. I mean, I was even more laidback then than I am now and Kashmere was even hyper (laughs). The funny thing is that, over time, he’s taken that hypeness and toned it down a little, and although I’m still laidback in my delivery, I put more energy into it now (laughs). So I think together we’re now more like A Tribe Called Quest, where Phife was always a little hyper than Q-Tip, but both were just having fun as emcees (laughs). But if Kashmere and I did do another project together, that’s definitely what people can expect, just us really having fun with the music.”
Bringing everything full circle, when you first started making music back in the late-90s / early-2000s, did you ever envisage you’d still be here doing it today releasing music to an ever-growing audience?
“It’s a bit of both actually. I remember seeing footage of Tupac in a documentary and there was one part of it that really stood out to me, where Tupac is in the studio talking to the other rappers in there with him and he’s shouting at them saying that they’re wasting time and they just need to do their verses and move on to the next thing because it’s not guaranteed that you’re going to be here forever and he needed to say what he needed to say. Now, I was never the biggest Tupac fan and I didn’t agree that you should just bang out whatever you can just to get some music out. But I did agree that if you were an emcee and you considered that to be your job then you did need to have a strong work ethic and that was what I wanted to do; I wanted to be an emcee and I wanted that to be my job. So that scene with Tupac has always stuck in my head because I’ve always felt that I can’t just sit on material once it’s done. I have to stay productive and keep creating because I might not always have the opportunity for people to want to hear me. My life could take a particular turn and I might have to get a full-time job and quit music or, for whatever reason, I might decide that the music thing isn’t for me anymore. So back when I started, I never wanted to do anything else and some people might have said, ‘Well, that’s just a dream.’ But, I would always think, why can’t that be the reality? If I put my all into it and really work at it, then why can’t I make it happen? So I guess, out of sheer stubbornness, music is my career now and I still feel like I can take it up a couple of levels as well. But as an artist, I also think it’s important not to look too far into the future because you never know what’s going to happen. There’s no point thinking about what could happen, you have to think about what is happening now. Which is why, as an artist I’m always very much in the moment and am fully invested in whatever project I’m working on. Then once it’s out, although I might still love it, it’s then about moving on to the next project and always trying to stay as creative as possible.”
Follow Verb T on Twitter – @RealVerbT
Verb T – “Lost (Guru Tribute)” (High Focus Records / 2013)