We caught up with the wonderful Priti Menon for our InterView series. Check out the “Khabida” singers thoughts on music, her origins and inspirations, working with Arjun and much more. (InterViewed by Jesal)
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.
RKZ has a mixtape called “21” dropping today. On his birthday. When he turns 21. So we thought it only appropriate to ask him 21 questions. Clever.
1) At what age did you pen your first full rap song, and looking back, how would you honestly rate it out of 10 now?
RKZ: My first rap song would be the original version of “Renegades” for Digital Desi’s mixtape (also titled “Renegades”). I believe I was 16, and for a 16 year old I thought it was quite good! That was until I heard 15 year old rapper KK spit a couple months back. Still, it got radio play from Mentor on the BBC Asian Network so I was happy with it.
2) You have to choose between being a rapper and being a singer, or your entire family and the first team squad at Liverpool FC gets it. Which do you choose and why? (We should make clear he has to choose between rapping and singing – NOT between Liverpool or his family).
RKZ: I had to double-take with this question! Just for the record, family always comes first, haha. I’ve actually been a singer for a lot longer than I’ve been a rapper. The main reason I chose the rapping route is because I felt my singing vocals needed to be strong once I decided to go down that path; I could keep my artistic expression with rap in the meantime – so I’d probably choose singing.
3) Are you familiar with the “10,000 Hours of Practice” rule?
RKZ: Practising your specific art for 10,000 hours in order to master it. Well, art, or any craft for that matter, right?
4) Yes, precisely. Do you think it makes sense, and – in your particular case more than most – are you glad that you got started in a meaningful way at such a young age?
RKZ: I’m pretty sure it’s a relevant academic theory, so of course it is legitimate – and to an extent it does. The best way to elevate and succeed is by grafting, and working at it constantly: always improving. I think the younger you start, the better. However, when you’re young there are always a million different things that attract you, so quite a lot of people don’t get the chance to [focus]. I started properly when I was 16, which I feel still wasn’t young enough. The majority of musicians I know (actual instrumentalists, not rappers) started when they were between the ages of 4-10. It’s neither here or there: I’m glad I started at a young age, but I wish I could’ve started a lot earlier.
5) How far along that magic 10,000 hour mark do you consider yourself to be? In other words, just how hard have you worked up until now?
RKZ: You could look at ‘10,000’ in two ways: literally, and metaphorically. Literally, after the release of the “21” mixtape, I’d probably be around the 5,000 mark. Metaphorically, it’s a different picture entirely. If ‘10,000’ = perfection, I’d never be there. I don’t believe anything can be perfect because of the audiences differing views. There’s never a cap on learning, and it’s no different with being a musician. The only time I will stop learning and improving is when I’m no longer alive.
6) What do you believe to be the most important aspect of your own music, the one that gives the listener a shortcut to “who you are”?
RKZ: That’s hard to answer – a lot of people take different things from my music. My styles vary a lot so it’s not an easy one. The lyrics I have are generally commercial, yet the occasional spoken word-based works I do obviously hit home, lyrically. I think people are beginning to appreciate my versatility more than anything. It’s definitely shown a lot in “21” – I cover a lot of genres, in various styles. The most personal project to date has been the “Dark Night of the Soul” mixtape – lyrically conscious and awake, and very mellow.
7) Do you think the aspect you just mentioned is lacking from the Asian music landscape right now? Which Asian artists give you goosebumps, if any?
RKZ: I think it’s something that’s constantly developing within the industry itself, as opposed to individual artists. Many are rappers to the fullest extent (Swami Baracus, Raxstar, Lost Souljah); some are more commercial (Menis). Then you have singers (Jernade Miah, Jaya, Arjun, Vee) and so on. A couple of artists I love within the industry for their individuality have to be Loven, Kaly, DJs Inc (their new material is ridiculous!), Raxstar, and Kazz Kumar for being a great musical personality, and songwriter. I can see Jernade and KK reaching new heights, too.
8) Speaking of “21” (the new mixtape), your aforementioned versatility is definitely on show. We got the feeling from “How Are You” that you’re actually quite a free artist – one that doesn’t appear to restrict himself or worry too much what people think. Is this true or are you, in actual fact, a Woody Allen style nervous wreck?
RKZ: I am a free artist to the fullest extent. I have no restrictions in what I do – if it sounds good, and I can work with it, I’ll do it. If people like it, then great; if not, it’s water off a duck’s back – no Woody Allen.
9) Some artists believe that putting constraints on their work can crystalise their vision. Do you ever think you’ll “specialise” or do you enjoy the free roaming libero role too much?
RKZ: I’d love to be signed, creating music I love – that’s the reason I started making music. But to have a successful career, and to be able to support a family via music, sometimes there has to be some leeway, unfortunately. I love playing the free-bird, and hope any potential labels will see that and exploit it, as opposed to change me. If they do so, then they’re not getting what they were initially attracted to. So I aim to be exactly as I am now.
10) It’s interesting that you’re so upfront about getting signed by a label. Most of your peers seem intent on forming their own small labels or digital imprints. What attracts you to the more traditional record companies?
RKZ: I consider myself a realist in that respect. I’ve already done the independent label thing (DAS Records) and now I’m a lot more critical with my moves. I want to be a musician, and make a living from it. Even though it’s a lot easier to be DIY now, the networking and PR doesn’t compare. And in terms of radio and TV play, it’s still mainly dependent on the Majors. I’ve always wanted to be signed – that way there’s better security and I can focus on doing what I love.
11) So seeing as you started five years ago, is that (being signed) where do you see yourself in five years time?
RKZ: Well, I’d actually want to be signed within the next three years (either as an artist or writer). If not, then I’ll continue making music for the fun of it, and we’ll see where that leads.
12) Random tangent, so be honest now. Was “Defeat Me”: a) About someone in particular; b) a general musing on defeat; c) About someone in particular…?
RKZ: “Defeat Me” wasn’t directed at anyone in particular; rather every person that had criticised/doubted me since I started. A musical middle-finger.
13) Aside from the music, we’re well aware of your acting chops – through your own videos – and some comedy vignettes on the ‘SSidWasHere’ YouTube channel. Is that a direction you could take (acting), or just another part of your free expression? S Sid seems quite a character.
RKZ: Acting is just another form of expression. I’d love to expand my work into drama, and who knows – it’s always open. Maybe I could put the 10,000 hours into practise? Yeah, Sid definitely is [a character]. You either “get him” or you don’t. I thought he was a little insane the first time I met him (and had good reason to think so, too), but artistically we’re pretty much on the same ball.
14) Cheesy question time: desert island discs. Choose 3 albums that you couldn’t live without. And don’t worry, we won’t judge you if you say “Greatest Hits: My Prerogative” by Britney Spears.
RKZ: You say that – but I actually am a fan of Britney: “Femme Fatale” is a beast of an album, haha! There are a lot, but off the top of my head: Outlandish’s “Bread & Barrels of Water”; Drake’s “So Far Gone”; and Diddy-Dirty Money’s “Last Train To Paris.”
15) We preferred Britney’s “Blackout” album, actually. Speaking of albums, what’s your plan after “21” drops?
RKZ: “Blackout” – also good! After “21” comes my collaborative Dubstep EP called “Power Trippin'” alongside producer ADP. It’s sounding amazing. The first single from the EP is called “Gonna Be That” – which’ll hopefully be releasing this month or next. The video is equally as quirky as “How Are You” – once more created by myself & S Sid (Double//Backslash).
16) How do you write songs? Both from a literal sense (pen/pad, laptop, mumble like Jay-Z) and also from a “where do you draw your inspiration” sense. You seem relatively prolific.
RKZ: I love working with production that’s already made: that way I can specifically cater to it, essentially. I used to write for fun, but a lot less now. Unless the project is set in stone, I won’t usually write to it – not enough hours in the day. Used to use a pen/pad, now on-the-go on my Blackberry. Inspiration? It comes from anything and everything around me. Also from things I learn, study, and so on.
17) Do you enjoy the technical aspect of creating music, or do you see it as a barrier to creativity? Or are you able to leave the techie stuff to the producers/studio engineers?
RKZ: I love the technical aspect of production, and hate that most of it goes over my head. I’m learning, though! On the vocal side, I’m quite competent when it comes to recording, mixing and engineering. I’d like to think so, anyway.
18) Robert Redford never watches his own films. How often do you listen to your own music once it is done and dusted?
RKZ: Never. However, I do still listen to the new EP – very excited about it!
19) When you’re on Twitter or Facebook, do you ever think “Ahh fuck it, allow being politically-correct, this is what I REALLY think of this bullshit!” and then type it all out… But then bottle it, and subsequently delete it?
RKZ: I’ve gotten into trouble for expressing myself a little too much in the past. I don’t bottle it up: if I can’t be honest on my personal profiles, what’s the point of having one? I have, however, stopped being as blunt as I’ve been in the past. Mainly because I try to promote positivity as much as possible.
20) On a scale of 1-10, how excited are you about the upcoming season for Liverpool FC and why? Also, who would win in a fight between Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez?
RKZ: I’d say 7! It would’ve been 10 but since Kenny officially signed [his three year contract] we’ve lost the remaining two games. A couple more signings and we should be up there again (we have to!). No competition [in the fight]: Andy has a foot on Luis, is from Newcastle, and has a pony tail.
21) Happy 21st Birthday… How will you celebrate? Do you have any physical injuries sustained through partying a bit too hard? (You really should by now, it’s a rite of passage).
RKZ: I actually haven’t! I literally landed back in London from New York a few days ago so haven’t seen enough people to get any. Get back to me at the end of the weekend! In terms of celebrating, I’m releasing the mixtape as soon as it strikes midnight – after that, who knows!
RKZ is releasing his mixtape (entitled “21”) today (05/06/2011), and it is available as a free download. He can be followed on Twitter, viewed on YouTube, and his mobile phone number is 07979212121. Maybe.