I don’t listen to a lot of podcasts. I’m actually one of the few people who’s recorded more podcasts than he’s listened to. But during lockdown I gravitated back to them to some degree, mainly just to catch up on a longtime favourite Hip Hop Saved My Life from Romesh Ranganathan. I’ve always loved his show because it’s essentially just what I love doing myself; completely nerding out over a long discussion about hip hop. The show is guided by simple questions about what the music means to the guest that week; sparking deeper conversation along the way. Since he started nearly 5 years ago, he’s had some amazing guests on, from fellow comedians like Katherine Ryan, Frankie Boyle and James Acaster, to rap legends like Murs, DJ Premier and Kano. Some of the guests are proper hip hop heads, who spend a full hour in animated chat with the host about their love for the genre, while others (usually artists) delve more into their personal experiences and anecdotes in the business. Whoever you get, it’s always a great listen. So anyway, after I was all caught up on the even better season 2 (Louis Theroux is on it!) I was so hungry for more that something compelled me to take the music geekiness to a whole other level and write up my own, imagined episode of the show where I answer the questions Romesh normally asks. I know, I know…this is the sort of thing kids do in their bedrooms. But after the year we’ve had, can you blame me? Let’s get into it.
“How did you get into Hip Hop?”
This is a difficult one for me because it’s really 2 questions: when did I first become aware of liking hip hop, and then when did I really became a fan, and there’s nearly 10 years difference between the 2 answers. My first memories of loving rap music were around the turn of the millennium when OutKast released ‘Ms. Jackson.’ I remember seeing the music video with the house with all the leaks during the rainstorm and it just being this completely new thing for me. At the time I think I was listening to Nu Metal and pop music so this was a really eye-opener for me as a kid. The next rap single I remember being really interested in was probably Gorillaz debut single ‘Clint Eastwood’ which featured that amazing verse from Del The Funky Homosapien. I remember trying to write out his whole part just from ear when I was about 9 years old and it was probably all completely wrong but I was just obsessed with the sound of him stringing line after line together like that.
I also remember getting into some great hip hop playing the old Tony Hawk Pro Skater games, in particular the song I still go back to now is ‘Imaginary Places’ by Busdriver. I was quite into classical music as a kid (very cool) and hearing this dude rap in like, quadruple-time over a Bach overture just absolutely blew my mind. Years and years later I got into artists like Open Mike Eagle and Milo who eventually led me right back to Busdriver and this incredible song. I feel like Busta Rhymes gets so much credit for his fast ‘Look At Me Now’ flow but I’m pretty sure this is faster, and it’s way better.
But I don’t think I ever really attributed those songs to ‘hip hop’ as a genre, and it wasn’t until 2008/2009 that I really became a fan. I attribute this completely to my little brother bringing home Kanye’s ‘808s & Heartbreak’ and playing it to death on the little CD stereo in his room. At the time I was riding out the end of the Noughties indie-rock boom and to me Kanye West was just the guy behind ‘Stronger’ and ‘Gold Digger’ I’d hated the ‘Bling Era’ rap of 50 Cent, Ja Rule etc and I’d stupidly thought he was part of that. When I heard the weird, sad auto-tune singing of 808s coming through the wall I had to know what it was. I absolutely devoured that album and have been a die-hard Yeezy fan — and by extension a hip hop fan — ever since.
This in turn opened me up to the likes of Lil Wayne, Kid Cudi and in time Drake, and I never looked back.
“What was the first Hip Hop album you ever bought?”
This is a tricky one because by the time I got into hip hop properly I had no money to buy music. But when I was a kid I used to buy CD singles and I specifically remember two really early on being ‘Stan’ by Eminem and ‘Gravel Pit’ by Wu Tang Clan. There must have been others but these 2 really stick out in my memory because when my parents found that I’d bought them they took them away and hid them really high up on a shelf I couldn’t get to (I was a tiny kid) We were raised in church so looking back I can totally see how the lyrical content for them was pretty problematic especially considering I was barely 10 years old at the time. In my defence I think I just really liked the hooks on both of them; the Dido part in ‘Stan’ and the “Check out my gravel pit” from the Wu Tang song. It was definitely the melodies that sucked me in initially; I don’t remember knowing what any of the rest of the songs were about.
Weirdly I was one of the few kids at school who actively disliked Eminem other than that one song, and that kind of stayed with me into adulthood. I know he’s a rap legend and all that but I’ve just never liked the sound of his flow, and he reminds me of too many edgy, angry white kids growing up. This was also my only brush with the Wu Tang until about a decade later when I went back to check out 36 Chambers as a sort of rap homework in an attempt to digest the classics I missed before my time.
I think in terms of albums, the first rap album I remember listening to all the way through was Jay-Z & Linkin Park’s team up Collision Course which is not a very cool entry point. I also don’t think I bought it; more likely someone at school would have burned me a copy. It was probably because of this that I didn’t given Hov a proper listen for many years later because I always associated him with “Now what the hell are you waiting fooooor?” rather than the man behind some of hip hop’s classic albums. I still don’t love him nearly as much as the next hip hop head but I thought 4:44 was absolutely astounding.
By the time I’d properly become a rap music fan in the late Noughties everyone had pretty much stopped buying music altogether — but the first few albums I remember coming out and me really treasuring right away were Drake’s Take Care, Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d city and ASAP Rocky’s Live.Love.ASAP mixtape. I think the turn of the decade shift in production style is a large part of what caught my ear then. I’ve always been massively into electronic music, and at that time I was all about the stuff people were calling ‘Post-dubstep’ So I remember Childish Gambino spitting over that Jamie xx remix of Adele’s ‘Rolling In The Deep’ being a big deal. It’s so cartoonish listening back now, considering the heights he’s reached since!
“What’s your favourite hip hop album?”
The ultimate hip-hop-head question! I’m just gonna rip the plaster off right away and say, for me it’s got to be Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. To some people this is a really safe choice, but on the other hand it only came out 10 years ago so the fans who idolise rap’s golden era would probably rip it out of me for not giving it to All Eyez on Me, Ready To Die or Illmatic. It may not be the best hip hop album of all time but it’s without doubt my favourite. That was Ye at the absolute peak of his powers. The high art concept of it all spoke directly to me cos I was studying literature, art histories and stuff at the time and I recognised right away that this guy cared about curation and aesthetics more than maybe anyone else before him.
I mean just watch the short film he did for ‘Runaway’, or the George Condo artwork for the album, or listen to the strings and the other instrumentation throughout — it really is a work of art than transcends genre or format. Where else can you hear samples from Aphex Twin, King Crimson, Smokey Robinson in the same place and it still make sense? I loved all the stories about his recording sessions in Hawaii; pushing every feature artist on it to go harder, be meaner and it really shows. It’s the best work of everyone on the record.
I’d say my Top 5 MCs currently working are Kanye, Kendrick, Drake, J Cole and maybe Pusha T and from that list, the only other album I feel has made as big a splash as Kanye is Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly which really needs no further plaudits; such an immersive, reconfiguring listen. Then maybe Drake’s Nothing Was The Same, Cole’s Forest Hills Drive 2014 and Push’s Daytona. Some of my other favourite hip hop albums are Freddie Gibbs’ Shadow Of A Doubt, Young Thug’s JEFFREY, Vince Staples’ Summertime 06, Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition, A$AP Rocky’s Live.Love.A$AP, Mick Jenkins’ The Water[s] How many is that? I should probably stop…
“Gripes — what don’t you like about Hip Hop?”
This is a tricky one for me to answer because paradoxically my least favourite thing about hip hop is when white people criticise it! I’m a fan, right — and that’s all I am. I listen, I try to understand and I admire. When people from outside the culture (like me) start picking holes in hip hop and its artists it absolutely makes my skin crawl. Remember when Miley Cyrus said she felt pushed out the scene by the graphic lyrical content, right after twerking her way through her last album cycle? That’s exactly what I’m talking about — hip hop isn’t a costume you can put on and take off. You get the same thing with Post Malone when he said if you’re looking to feel something don’t listen to hip-hop…I mean what can I say? If that’s really how you feel then stop the act — real ones know the guy is nothing more than a pop star so just drop the act!
One of the things I’ve always loved about hip hop are the characters. It’s feels like comic book stories to me a lot of the time — heroes and villains teaming up or clashing over who is the best. It gives you real people to look up to and marvel at their powers. So what I really hate is when someone comes along and cashes in on that like Tekashi69. This isn’t a rapper; this is a kid with a ‘disruptive’ PR agency behind him and a criminal record for using a child in a sex act. Seriously — anyone who gives this guy any airtime, streams, whatever; is an enabler and not a fan of the genre at all. I know I speak firmly on this but I just think his continued success is a great shame.
“Do you get to a lot of Hip Hop shows?”
Pre-lockdown I still wasn’t going to many gigs because my wife was pregnant and then we had our daughter just 6 months before CV19 hit. But I’ve seen some of my favourites live for sure. I saw The Weeknd supporting Drake at the O2 which was just one amazing singalong. I’ve also seen Kendrick who was absolutely every part the lifelong star I know he’ll be. Generally I used to go to festivals for hip hop names; on my stag do my brother surprised me with Primavera tickets where we saw A$AP Rocky, Vince Staples, Tyler The Creator and some others — that was absolutely amazing.
The year before I was at Glasto and Jeremy Corbyn introducing Run The Jewels was the most incredible moment. I really felt right then that everything in the UK was going to get better…ha! Skepta, Stormzy and Anderson Paak were all highlights there too. I also went to a Warehouse Project showonce in Manchester where Slowthai supported Pusha T…that was just something else.
The pandemic has really driven home how few gigs I’d been going to the year that led up to it — it used to be my favourite thing to do. When all this is over I’m going to definitely make it to more. I still need to see Kanye before I die…
“What Hip Hop are you listening to right now?”
Well, we actually started this interview about 3 months ago so the answer to this has changed quite a lot since then but that’s on me. Right now I just finished listening through to the new Roc Marciano record Mt. Marci. He’s an underground legend. Earlier this year he produced a whole album for this guy called Stove God Cooks who I got into from Griselda Records and it was just amazing. So bars and beats — he is the best at what he does.
Another kind of underground rap king Aesop Rock just put out a new one Spirit World Field Guide which is a concept album written as a walkthrough to some other dimension…it’s really trippy but he’s still absolutely at his best so if you like super wordy hip hop definitely don’t miss it.
I just discovered this kid called Che Ecru who kinda sounds like the early-Noughties R’n’B greats but over futuristic Pierre Bourne-type beats. The song SPRAY has just completely bedded itself in my brain, and it’s only about 90 seconds long so it’s safe to say I’ll have played this absolutely to death by lunchtime.
And finally, since we started this, you guys have launched Season 3 of the podcast with a bang — the first episode back starred Kojey Radical who I’ve been a casual fan of since I heard ‘If Only’ But listening to him speak I went back and checked out his 2019 album Cashmere Tears and it’s absolutely insane. I genuinely think he’s one of the country’s best talents and he really proves it here. He covers everything from Grime to Afrobeat to Gospel and every track hits. Definitely check him out if you don’t know.