We wanted to speak to Swami Baracus. He agreed. Not much of an intro, but at least the interview is interesting.
1) You’re a self-proclaimed “old school cat” and it shows. Many readers won’t know what that actually means. Can you explain it to them, and also describe how you first got into hip hop? What drew you in?
SB: Well, describing myself as an ‘old school cat’ basically means that I’ve been raised on the 1990’s school of Hip-Hop, where real lyricism was the key to success, acclaim and respect. Back then, you had to show supreme ability through flow, punchlines, wit and delivery to even get a second glance. I’m not saying that’s lost now, because there are so many great lyricists out there, but the essence of hip-hop in general has been watered down slightly, hopefully that’s just a momentary lapse.
2) Who would you credit as the one person that physically introduced/influenced you to just being a music fan in the first place? (i.e. friend/relative etc). And what kinds of genres (as a child) were you exposed to?
SB: Initially I’d say my parents (equally) were my introduction to music. Back then, Michael Jackson brought upon my first love of music, I was a huge fan in the 1980’s and have been ever since. But our house was predominately filled with sounds of 1980’s Bollywood, Hindustani Classical and my dad’s disco/funk collection!! There are some serious gems in there…
3) Many of the younger hip hop fans may not appreciate the link between the disco/funk era and hip hop. Do you think that it’s almost happening all over again, with hip hop and house music forging such tight links recently?
SB: Everything in music comes round in circles, and rap music is no different. You’ve seen in the last few years, 80’s-style electro tracks becoming a staple in the pop charts. Hip-Hop was born from chopping the breaks in dance music, so it’s only natural for that phase to be revisited. However it’s interesting: I went to see Snoop Dogg in concert recently, and his house tracks didn’t get an immensely enthusiastic reaction from the crowd. I think when you try integrate other elements of pop music into Hip-Hop, you’re always going to incur the wrath of the ‘realist’ hip-hop crowd. Whether it was Hammer in early 90’s, Diddy in the late 90’s, and all the artists bringing House music now, that will never change. I’m not a massive fan but I’ve definitely embraced it, you need that diversity in the music, otherwise the genre will always remain stagnant and saturated.
4) You mentioned growing up surrounded by many different forms of Asian music. Coupled with your multi-lingual talents, can you see yourself branching out even further than the Hindi “Break This Game” remix?
SB: (Laughs) Who knows! I’m a real Hip-Hop head at heart, and my roots will always stay linked to rap music. However, I’ve always tried to keep myself diverse musically, so I’m never pigeon-holed, as long as I stay true to my ethics. In the last few years, I’ve featured on Punjabi-based grime, Tamil R&B and of course Hindi Rap/Rock tunes, so anything’s possible. However, I doubt you’ll see me on a Bollywood soundtrack, not sure the Indian crowd will understand my accent alone!
5) That’s a shame. You could have brought a real Bollyhood flex to the game… Anyway, you’ve mentioned your diverse taste – that leads nicely onto the Caravan Crookz side to you. You may have seen in our reviews that we were somewhat struggling to understand it all – maybe you can explain your thinking to us in more depth?
SB: Caravan Crookz…? Never heard of them! Haha no it can definitely be said I’m affiliated with them… musically! The Crookz project is a way of stepping completely outside the boundaries of the musical norm. As artists, we are and should be, serious about all the music we make whether for personal reasons or otherwise. However, sometimes you just want to have fun with it, without having to be constrained by all the practicalities and limitations of being judged for doing something different. “Scooter Singh” was actually made as a personal ode to a REAL person from Southall of the same name, but the song’s popularity spanned globally. Even the video with the pop-up book was something no Asian artist had tried before. Of course, a lot of people won’t understand either the humour or the purpose of the project. However, the Crookz themselves are a rebel against the system of how music is perceived, structured or created, especially in an industry which can be sometimes afraid of stepping outside the box. They could have a track with a Scandinavian yodeling over a didgeridoo… Why? Because in the world of music, anything should be possible. It may sound terrible(!), but you should never feel restricted from doing so. There’s a space in music for everything weird and wonderful… and arguably, the Crookz are both!
6) That’s a particularly illuminating and honest reply. You come across as incredibly knowledgable – a real hip hop “head” as they say. Do you think it’s an advantage, and perhaps explains why you’re one of a handful of Asian rappers who understands the basic “rules” of the genre? Or should we just blame everything on grime(?)
SB: I don’t think grime is to blame at all. If anything, it’s actually spawned a generation of talented artists who are now established in the charts for making urban music. It’s like this: UK Hip-Hop has always been an underground scene for so many years, primarily because the youth in the UK would rather listen to US artists anyway. However, grime gave the youth a musical genre which they could embrace as their own, relate to and represent as a fully UK sound… Something which is very important and influential in the UK. The ironic part is that you can see now the successful artists who started off making grime music are now in the mainstream charts making Hip-Hop music. For me, whether it was jungle, garage, grime [etc] that has gone through phases of popularity in the UK, Hip-Hop has always remained constant and has had a part in influencing all those genres. You have to remember, rap is the music, and Hip-Hop is the subculture, a way of life. In order to understand, you have to be a fan of the music, first and foremost, and an artist second. I’m always grateful to the pioneers who paved the way for someone like me to have a voice in music. Though, I’m sure if you mentioned the name Kool Herc to the average young rap fan in the UK, you may get a confused look!
7) Moving on to the artists that have most directly influenced or inspired you… Who really sparked off the hip hop side – as a fan – and who motivated you to start rapping?
SB: Well, as mentioned previously, Cypress Hill was my first initial brush with real Hip-Hop. Specifically, the “Black Sunday” album… and I’m not even a smoker! There was no direct single artist that motivated me enough to pick up a pen, it was the whole music as a general. As a true fan of the music, I’m not sure how people can listen to Hip-Hop without attempting to try it themselves! Though as far as influences, I’d say Big Pun was my biggest influence style-wise and Nas has been one of my favourite MC’s… his body of work speaks for itself.
8) Leading on from that, the cheesy question we simply have to ask: desert island discs… Your favourite three albums?
SB: (Laughs heartily) Hitting the cliche button on repeat! It’s all good, you’re not the first ones to ask and definitely not the last. Mine seem to change every time because there are so many great ones to choose from… But I’m gonna go for Big Pun’s “Capital Punishment,” Nas’ “Illmatic” and… umm… TLC “CrazySexyCool.” Might surprise people with that one, but if I’m stuck on an island, I’ll need SOMETHING to keep me calm!
9) Surely the most stressful things would be building shelter and locating a food source… Otherwise you could just lounge around. Or would you miss Twitter and Facebook too much? How important is the role of social media in helping you to spread your music?
SB: I think my first stress would be, where do I plug in this disc player?? Then think up how many different ways I can cook a coconut… Anyways, I think it’s fair to say social media’s arguably been the single biggest beneficial factor for unsigned artists. It’s helped spread the word out for talented artists that would never have had the platform before without means of heavy PR, marketing etc. Fanbases have been built from the click of a button and it’s allowed closer contact to media, artists, producers and press. Though it can be a double edged sword also.
10) Are you glad to be living in this DIY era, where artists can produce, record, release and market music themselves? Or is it just an impediment to true creativity? After all, most UK Asian artists either have 9-5 jobs, or are students, and have to juggle everything in conjunction with their music career…
SB: I guess that’s where the double edged sword comes in… It’s great as it has enabled people like myself to have the ability to release tracks. However, with the financial climate the way it is right now, having a full-time career in music is just not possible or viable for the majority of unsigned artists right now. Most work to finance the music, but how many can realistically say they make enough to generate the equivalent of a salary? At the end of the day, it comes down to how passionate you are about the music itself… It’s difficult but you make it happen, by all means necessary. Though finding the time to balance writing, creating, [recording] vocals, promotion, shooting videos, researching, designing, media/press work and working can be a mission!
11) You seem to release solo music relatively infrequently. But actually, when the Caravan Crookz project and your numerous guest features come into play, you’re here, there and everywhere. Are you happy being a free spirit, or can we expect more traditional releases from you – mixtapes, EP’s, albums – anytime soon?
SB: (Laughs) It’s true, I’ve slowly become the unofficial ‘King Of Features!’ My biggest problem is the idea of perfectionism, and [it used to be that] releasing a project had to be completely right before releasing it. However, since I’ve recorded so many tracks over the years, I’ve decided to release a free mixtape of old and new tracks called “The Recipe” towards the end of this summer (or maybe in the 4th Quarter of 2011). I’ll be releasing the title track soon as taste of what’s to come, but I can assure real Hip-Hop heads, they will be pleased.
12) It’s really only happened over the last year or so, but do you finally see a light at the end of the tunnel for Asian rappers? It might be relatively small, but there is definitely a “scene” emerging.
SB: Truthfully, I’ve never been a big fan of the ‘Asian Rappers’ tag, but yes there’s a definite movement progressing. You always hope that regardless of colour, true talent eventually gets recognised; however, it was always difficult to get yourselves heard in the early days. Now with the media/radio platforms and social networking, we’ve managed to get our music out to a wider audience. There’s definitely talent in the ‘scene’, but it’s still a long route before there’s enough strength in depth to attain main level status. Though with the way music is moving so aggressively now, nothing would surprise me!
13) Out of the “new talent” you reference, who do you think could potentially breakthrough into the mainstream?
SB: The mainstream is a much bigger machine, because talent is only a slight proportion of the overall package an artist needs to breakthrough. The brand almost becomes most important, so for that complete package, there’s still a long journey ahead for a lot of the talent in the scene. Jay Sean’s one of the few I’ve seen that had that, almost from the outset. Hopefully somebody proves me wrong. There are artists out there that aren’t at a mainstream level who are still big names in the UK Urban scene, still climbing that ladder. To achieve your dreams, you have to aim for the sky, but expect turbulence on the flight along the way…
14) Do you think there will ever come a time for you to hang up the mic and pass the baton on to the generation you’ve helped to influence? Or do you enjoy creating/performing too much? We’ve seen you on stage before and you’re quite the showman…
SB: They always say once an artist loses the love for their craft, it’s time to lock the mic away. I just wouldn’t be able to envisage that ever happening with me! I remember seeing De La Soul a month ago, and they tore the place down, despite being in their 40’s! I definitely don’t think I’d be going THAT long, but that’s not to say I wouldn’t want to be involved in music in some capacity. Like I said, I’m still waiting for that mass dearth of talent to come through before the scene’s healthy enough to administer itself. However, until then, as long as the hunger’s there, why not keep feeding?
15) Ok let’s get a bit technical now. How do you construct your lyrics? (e.g. pen/pad, computer, mumble like Jay-Z, BlackBerry?) And do you like to write to famous beats, or just for specific instrumentals you know are getting released?
SB: It depends on the means of availability! Though truthfully, I’ve kinda evolved from the pen/pad since a long time ago, to the laptop, and now using the BlackBerry more and more. It definitely saves on hoards of paper lying about with random lines on them! The next logical step would obviously be the Jay-Z/Biggie method of constructing lyrics mentally, though knowing my forgetfulness, it’s probably not advisable. With beats, my preference is always original material but like every hungry MC, if there’s a big sick beat out there to be eaten up, then let’s devour! Every rapper alive has started off from spitting to famous beats, so that ethic will always continue regardless…
16) And what aspect in the creation of your music do you most enjoy?
SB: Well, nothing beats that original feeling of hearing a sick beat, and you just get hype to it! But I guess the vibe in the studio, [recording] vocals and hearing how it sounds from your mind’s origin to the speakers is always a beautiful thing. Especially if it comes out better than you’d originally expected!
17) We know you’re a big Liverpool fan. A lot has changed from this time last year: where do you see your team in a year from now?
SB: It’s strange, the last 5-6 years have been the most unpredictable period in Liverpool’s recent history. We were a couple of home wins away from winning the title two years ago and within a season, languishing in mid-table mediocrity. I seriously would never have envisaged Kenny Dalglish back at the helm, but since he has returned we just look a rejuvenated team both on and off the pitch, especially with the change of owners. I’ve always been realistic about the team’s expectations, so I can see us challenging for the Top 4 next season, then it’s a step in the right direction. Get rid of all the deadwood in the squad, replace them with genuine quality, and we may even see a title run… Though I’ve learnt enough to expect the unexpected with us!
18) Finally, what was running through your mind when potential ASBO-recipient RKZ savagely slapped that food out of your hand? And you chasing him: what happened next?
SB: I was thinking, would a Hadouken work best in this scenario or a Yoga Flame? Either outcome was quickly discarded during our militant chase across the streets of London. What happened next… well… you’ll have to wait and see for a potential future continuation. All these videos will be intricately attached along the line… somehow!
Swami Baracus will be releasing a mixtape called “The Recipe” in the fourth quarter of 2011. He can be followed on Twitter, viewed on YouTube and has a Facebook Page. He will also be releasing a recipe book entitled “The Meal Slapped Out Of Your Hands” – with a free iPad app to accompany the hardback copy. Maybe.