East London-raised lyricist Phoenix Da Icefire is living proof that it often is quality over quantity that really matters. Whilst many of today’s artists insist on releasing a constant stream of mediocre online freestyles and throwaway mixtapes in a bid to keep their name in the forefront of people’s minds, 25-year-old Phoenix’s recently unleashed debut album “The Quantum Leap” has been half-a-decade in the making, with his well-received 2009 mixtape “Baptism Under Fire” one of only a handful of releases under the UK emcee’s belt.
Originally introduced to the microphone as a young teenager involved in the garage music scene of the early-2000s, Phoenix quickly made the transition towards expressing his verbal talents through Hip-Hop thanks to the influence of artists such as Nas, Wu-Tang and Talib Kweli. Joining forces with friend Dwain Thompson to form Higher Heights Records in 2008, the pair released the debut album “Anathema” from group Triple Darkness to an enthusiastic response from the homegrown Hip-Hop world.
Like affiliated wordsmiths Cyrus Malachi and M9, Phoenix pens potent, gripping verses that mix gritty insights into modern-day inner-city living with historical references, spiritual awareness and a desire to inspire listeners through his music.
Featuring appearances from the likes of Kyza, Klashnekoff and Skriblah, “The Quantum Leap” is a superbly crafted collection of quality hardcore Hip-Hop that balances intelligent, thought-provoking lyricism with rugged, boom-bap sensibilities.
Here, Phoenix discusses the importance of not rushing creativity, the research that goes into his rhymes and his views on the subject of artistic responsibility.
You’ve mentioned publicly that “The Quantum Leap” took five years to complete which is a relatively long period of time in Hip-Hop terms – was that a conscious decision or was it due to circumstance?
“Originally I called the album “Right Timing” and that was with the deep overstanding that the album would drop when it was supposed to drop and be received by the people. At the time I was recording people weren’t really listening to artists who had something conscious to say, so I felt that the album would come out when people were ready to hear some of the things I was talking about. But this whole album has been like a journey of my life. It’s like a journal or a diary. Most of the tracks you hear on the album are the only ones that were finished. I don’t have loads of tracks left-over that I recorded but didn’t use. When I heard certain tracks or got given certain beats and knew that was the one, I only used those tracks that gave me that feeling. I wanted each track on the album to be able to stand on its own but also for all of them to come together to form a full project.”
So you didn’t feel any pressure throughout the process to get the album finished and released considering the amount of time that was passing?
“I was having a conversation with a friend recently about how we’ve strayed so far from nature and that has a lot to do with why so many people today are unhappy. People have no patience anymore and don’t want to let things grow organically. Everyone just wants everything now, especially when it comes to music. People need to remember that things take time to grow and that there’s a whole process involved. Before a tree can bear fruit you need to have the sun, the rain, the seasons, everything that plays a part in helping that tree to grow. You have to wait for all the elements of that organic process to happen before you can enjoy the fruit. But people don’t want to wait for anything anymore and that’s why there’s so much stress and disappointment in the world. But when you’re in line with nature everything is just bless because everything moves at the right time and that’s really how I approach making my music.”
What prompted you to change the album title from “Right Timing” to “The Quantum Leap”?
“It got to the point throughout the journey of making the album where, to me, each track felt like a world of its own existing in the same universe. It felt like the distance between them was so far in terms of the different subjects I was touching on, but they all seemed to fit together. So I decided to call the album “The Quantum Leap” because as a listener you’re taking a journey with me from track to track. Also, it played on the whole oxymoron thing, because the title of the album and the cover art don’t necessarily correspond because although musically I feel like I’m making a transition between tracks, I still feel chained in some ways as if there’s something holding me back.”
You make references throughout the album to a variety of topics such as world politics, Egyptology, conspiracy theories – how much research actually goes into your lyrics when you’re writing a track?
“Before I even wrote the majority of the tracks on the album I was picking up books and reading a lot. For example, a track like “One Step From Damnation” contains a lot of lyrics that were influenced by books I was reading about ancient Egypt and others like “The Isis Papers”. A book called “From Ni**as To Gods” helped me a lot with “Through The Eyes Of Gaia”. I was reading up a lot on current affairs with what has been happening in places like Iraq, I read up about the Bohemian Grove and the background behind that. I did a whole lot of reading while I was writing for this album. Even with a track like “Karma Sutra”, that was inspired by a historical book I was reading called “The Science And Art Of Sex As Taught By The Min Priesthood”. Whilst some people might think we were only talking about sex positions on that track, everything we mentioned also has a spiritual meaning. I mean, I’ve lived every one of those tracks on the album, whether it be through doing research for the lyrics, or the lyrics being inspired by personal experience, everything on “The Quantum Leap” has some real meaning behind it.”
What would your response be to someone who might want to put you in the same category as an artist who makes casual references to the Illuminati etc in their music simply because currently there seems to be a lot of intrigue around such topics?
“I’m really all about dealing with knowledge and wisdom and that’s why I’m always reading and researching. I look at it like this, knowledge to me is like food, and the wisdom you take from learning is like the vitamins and goodness your body takes from what you eat. That’s what myself and everyone in Triple Darkness deal with on a daily basis. We all do a lot of reading in that search for knowledge and wisdom and when we get together we watch a lot of documentaries, discuss the ideas behind what we’ve seen and read, and we’ve always done that, so that was really the foundation of our music from day one. I mean, respect to anyone out there who’re just rhyming because they enjoy doing it, but to me it’s about more than just putting words together, it’s about trying to leave people with something to think about after they’ve finished listening to your music. I do mentoring in the community and charity work, so I’m really trying to give something positive back to people and when I pick up the mic I approach my music in the same way. I really walk that talk.”
Recently their was a Google-sponsored debate in London discussing the negative impact of Hip-Hop on society in terms of the subject matter and language some artists use in their music. Taking your community work into consideration, do you think there’s a connection between the music and the mentality of the youth in the street today?
“People are looking at Hip-Hop as if its something that’s only having a negative impact on the children without looking at the system and companies behind the music that they’re saying should be gotten rid of. They’re also not looking at what Hip-Hop once stood for, how it was used to solve differences in the street in a creative context and that knowledge, wisdom and respect were once pillars of the culture. People are forgetting what the foundations of Hip-Hop were about. So when you look at the music that’s being held up as being so negative, that’s not Hip-Hop. What you’re hearing in that music is the voice of the corporate mainstream, and who controls those corporations that are producing and profiting from the music that is supposedly having such a negative impact on society? If you’re going to blame the artist then you also have to blame the corporate system that is promoting that artist. At the end of the day, you’re blaming the employee and asking them to be accountable but not then asking the people who own the company to answer the same questions of accountability. Whenever you see these debates happening, you very rarely see anyone from the companies themselves being put in the spotlight and asked to explain why they promote this music over something that might have a more positive message. Ultimately, I feel that the more people you have listening to you, the greater responsibility you have to say something worthwhile.”
You mentioned earlier that whilst you were recording “The Quantum Leap” you didn’t feel there was a particularly large audience out there who would be receptive to an artist who had something “conscious” to say. Based on the feedback you’ve had now the album has come out do you feel that audience has grown?
“Definitely. You have people out there like Triple Darkness, Big Cakes, Peoples Army, Caxton Press who’re just doing it raw the way it’s supposed to be done and saying something in their music. Personally, I’ve had people from Astonia, from Germany, from France, Brazil, Australia, America, all buying my album. I get hit up regularly on Twitter and Facebook from people telling me they appreciate what I’m doing, and that really keeps me going, knowing that there are listeners out there who want to hear some substance in their music. It’s easy to see what music is popular in the mainstream and feel like there’s not an audience for what you do if you’re doing something different to that, but now with technology, it’s possible to communicate with like-minded individuals directly and that’s really given a lot of power back to the independent artist. To be honest, I’m speaking about it now, but I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet just how far the album has reached in terms of the places across the world where my music has been heard.”
A lot of artists have openly rejected the “conscious rapper” label because they feel it restricts them in terms of the way they may be perceived by listeners – are you happy with the “conscious rapper” tag?
“I know exactly what you’re talking about and I do always feel that I need to expand on it when people refer to me as a conscious artist because some people do then have preconceptions about you and your music before they’ve even heard it. I do consider myself to be a conscious artist because I make music that makes people think, but that doesn’t mean that it always has to be dark, or talking about the Illuminati and things like that. I make music according to the colour spectrum of my being and sometimes I’m happy, sometimes I’m sad, sometimes I’m with my girl, sometimes I want to be political. People really need to understand that a conscious artist can have many different sides to them, but ultimately I make music to make people think.”
Aside from Beat Butcha producing one track, the UK’s Chemo (Jehst / Cyrus Malachi / Kyza etc) was behind the boards for the remainder of “The Quantum Leap”. What is it about Chemo’s production that led you to want to work with him for the majority of the project?
“I really see Chemo and Beat Butcha as being the Ryu and Ken of beat-making (laughs). But working with Chemo, I think we’ve both learnt a lot during the recording of “The Quantum Leap” in terms of how we both work. I’m very structured in the studio and I always have a clear view of what I want to do. Chemo’s never produced an entire album for someone before, and I definitely think we’ve grown together during the making of the project. I have a saying that your hidden potential is waiting outside your comfort zone, and that’s something I always keep in mind when I make music and I think that approach intrigued Chemo because it meant we could flip it in so many ways whilst still maintaining a signature sound. But I mean, Chemo’s beats are incredible and what I loved about him is that he can bring so many differents moods to life through his music. Me and him were like body and shadow with this album. Chemo really knows me and I don’t have to explain to him over and over what I’m looking for, he just has a talent for really capturing the sound I want.”
Considering the amount of lyrical talent contained in and around the Triple Darkness crew, how much friendly competition is there between you all when it comes to recording solo work or appearing together on a track?
“Wooooooo (laughs). It’s funny because when people ask me who I listen to, first and foremost I listen to my team, which is something that can come across as sounding very arrogant. But really and truly, they are my competition. But at the same time, when they drop something, I just just feel so good because they’re doing something for the scene and helping to keep UK Hip-Hop alive. I mean, I always speak objectively, even if it’s my own music or material recorded by those around me, so if I’m not feeling something I will make my opinion heard. But when it comes to Triple Darkness and those in the crew, they’re all very talented and I’m thankful that they’re out there doing what they’re doing. We all look at this music as being about the art and we take that very, very seriously.”
How will the “Cinematic” EP you’ve recently completed with producer Strange Neighbour differ from what we’ve heard on “The Quantum Leap”?
“Strange Neighbour is a friend of another producer I worked with and that’s how we got in touch. He told me that he wanted to do a track with me so I told him to give me a call because I’m personable like that and I like to vibe with people before I work with them. So we recorded the track “Cinematic” which came out really well and we decided to do a whole EP around the concept of every track being like a mini-movie. In terms of how it compares to “The Quantum Leap”, I learnt a lot whilst recording that project and really grew as I was making it, so with this “Cinematic” EP I’m really trying to put everything I’ve learnt to good use and lyrically I’m just trying to be even more vivid and detailed with what I’m saying.”
So moving foward it’s all about pushing your creative boundaries…
“I tell people all the time, use your imagination, man. Just try to be as creative as possible and use your imagination to do things in a different way to how people might have done things before. If you’re an artist, don’t be scared of being yourself or using your imagination and you’ll be fine.”
“The Quantum Leap” took five years to complete – if we were to sit down in another five years time what would you like to have achieved and seen happen in the UK scene?
“I’d like to be established as an artist, I’d like to have a solid fanbase, and I’d like to see the platform for quality Hip-Hop artists to have grown. I would like to see the people who’ve been putting in real work getting the recognition they deserve and people outside of Hip-Hop really respecting the creativity and talent that goes into making good music.”
“The Quantum Leap” is out now via PhoenixDaIcefire.Com.
Phoenix Da Icefire ft. Generous – “Echoing Thoughts” (@PhoenixDaIcefire / 2012)