In November last, the 22 year-old filmmaker and photographer Francisco Melim jumped on his first trip to the far Eastern lands of Asia. It was the fulfilment of a year long promise to cross Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand and capture their vibrant, simple, highly-scented urban and natural living.
A skateboarder from young age and a native-of-sorts of Portuguese fishing and surfing village of Ericeira, Melim’s body of work is informed by the Atlantic’s soothing visions and the intense and fast-paced life on the streets of Lisbon and its outskirts. Influences foreseeable in the gallery he shared here on his life changing journey.
“Always knew I’d be in this position where I’m killing it Yeah, I’m bragging and I tell ’em how the fuck I’m feeling Money, money, money, money, yeah, you get the gist You’re talking ’bout loyalty but you don’t know the meaning I dare these niggas here to try me, you think you’re the shit But I’ve been like this from early from when I was teething How I’m feeling, play my shit at parties, not museums You can keep your love, it’s just money that I’m reaching for.”
It’s four in the morning and I’m up to my elbows in chip fat. Sauce bottles and plastic food trays bob in the sink, whose surface shimmers with grease. I trawl the water in search of baskets from the fry station, which need to be rinsed and sanitised. Not for the first time tonight, I ask myself how I came to be working the graveyard shift at McDonald’s, in the middle of a bitter London winter and a thousand miles from home.
I left Portugal in 2012 on the advice of my prime minister, Pedro Passos Coelho. His message to recent graduates was stark: if you can’t find work, get out of the country and look abroad. As part of the most highly qualified and underemployed generation in Portuguese history, and with a shiny new degree from the Universidade Lusófona de Humanidades e Tecnologias in Lisbon, I set my sights on the UK. I cleared out my parents’ attic, sold their old possessions at a flea market and raised enough money for a flight to London.
Six months on, I’ve made a lot of milkshakes, served a lot of quarter-pounders and applied for hundreds of jobs but am yet to get asked in for a single interview. McDonald’s was the only one to return my call. I decided to work the night shift so that I’d have the day free for applications, but this stop-gap job is starting to look dangerously like a long-term option.
I am at least in good company. Economic collapse, civil war and – in the case of Greece – the rise of neo-Nazism have driven thousands of motivated, qualified young people to the UK’s capital, and many wind up flipping burgers in the middle of the night. This McDonald’s is a refugee camp at the heart of London, a place where everyone has a story to tell about how they found their way to shelter under the golden arches.
FLEEING THE DAWN
Serving food to customers at peak times is one of the most stressful experiences at McDonald’s. Queues spring up quickly and need to be dispatched as speedily as possible. That’s why I usually find manager Simos Karaoglou (photo above) running around like a madman, shouting at the kitchen staff to speed up their grilling.
Simos was born in Zambia to a Greek missionary father and a Zambian mother. By the time he turned 15, his father had died and his mother had left the family to move to California to work as a nurse. Simos was left alone with his two older brothers. After completing high school in Lusaka, he moved to Greece in 2009, arriving in the middle of the worst financial crash in living history. Despite the dire situation he loved the country from the first moment. “I always felt like it was my home, it made me happy,” he says with a grin.
Simos moved in with his cousin in New Philadelphia, on the outskirts of Athens. He had a year living a laidback, bohemian life, partying with friends and working as a DJ, before spending nine months completing his compulsory military service. When he left the army, he joined a marketing company with his best friend, selling health and beauty products. The crisis grew deeper, the business wasn’t going well and money was scarce. Friends were sacked from their jobs, others worked overly hard for a pittance. One even had a stress-related stroke aged just 23. “Things were getting worse. In Greece, the crisis slammed us very hard,” he says.
“I worried that if I walked into the centre of Athens, Golden Dawn supporters would put me in hospital”
No one saw a future in the country. Salaries were being slashed and it became harder to live with dignity. “Everything became limited, even down to what you could eat. I rented a studio flat with my girlfriend, but we ended up leaving it as we couldn’t pay the bills. But, still, the feeling was that we are in a crisis, let’s make the most out of it,” he says.
The nation’s fury bubbled over in demonstrations in front of the Greek parliament: Simos would gather his friends and join the thousands of people invading Syntagma Square, hoping to see some chance of a new start. “We’d go to demonstrations, but still nothing changed,” he says. “We had hoped to see people in the streets debating new ideas to solve the problems.” He took part in battles with the riot police (the MAT), which didn’t end well. “I threw stones, they threw tear gas,” he says.
Racism and xenophobia grew in the capital particularly after the ultranationalist party Chrysi Avgi – Golden Dawn – secured 18 seats in the parliament in the June 2012 elections. Right-wing sentiment spread through the streets and state services including the MAT, and despite his Greek nationality, Simos felt vulnerable because of his black skin. “They closed down my freedom,” he says. “I worried that if I walked into the centre of Athens, Golden Dawn supporters would put me in the hospital.”
One day Simos’s cousin was on a train with his two children when a group of Golden Dawn supporters got on board. “They screamed out ‘White people on the left and the rest on the right.’ The people moved because they were scared. But an Egyptian-Greek guy pulled out his ID and showed it to them. He said ‘Look, I’m Greek!’ They replied: ‘We don’t care.’ And they beat the shit out of him.”
It’s hard to imagine, but Simos supported Chrysi Avgi at the start. “Everybody thought they were good: they were doing good things, like giving food to people and sometimes replacing the police. But once they joined the parliament, they just lost it, they became straight-out Nazis,” he says. Worried about his security and with no prospect of a job, Simos finally decided to move to London to pursue his dream of becoming an aeronautical engineer and a commercial pilot. Such dreams have no place in Greece, where banks aren’t granting student loans any more.
Simos moved to London in September 2012, and regretted it almost immediately. “One week is the maximum amount of time someone should be in this city,” he says. “When we visit on holiday, we go to the parks and Big Ben and think that it’s London, but it’s not. McDonald’s is London: basically we live to work. I don’t want that, I want to have a goal and do more than just sleep and work.” Simos lives in a flat in East Ham with his girlfriend, who works at a Greek restaurant, and eight other people. “As soon as I saw London, I just thought: I’m going to be stuck here forever. I want to go back,” he says. “I think of leaving every single day, every moment.”
THE SILENT ENGINEER
Paula Maria Fernandez, 24, can spend a whole night working at McDonald’s without speaking to a single soul. You’ll find her Ajaxing toilets and sweeping the entrance area with no time to stop and chat with customers or colleagues. Born and raised in Canena in southern Spain, she traded her hometown for London in October 2012 to escape the financial crisis that has left 55 percent of 16-to-24 year olds unemployed. She graduated in civil engineering from the University of Granada, but it was impossible to find any work in her field.
Paula arrived in London with her boyfriend, a 25-year-old graphic designer, with hopes of finding jobs and a better future. Like many other Spanish graduates, she saw no opportunities in her own country. “I felt scared by the situations I saw Spanish families living through,” she says. “Unemployment was going through the roof and shops were closing all the time.” She chose London as her new home in the hope of learning English: at the moment she barely speaks a word.
“None of my friends are working, except for seasonal work helping with the olive harvest. The pessimism just becomes infectious”
The second of three daughters, Paula is the only one in her family who has fled the country. Her parents have a small business that has been suffering in the recession and her 28-year-old sister is struggling to get a break in child education. Spain is almost as bad at teaching foreign languages as the UK, which explains in part why most of Paula’s friends chose to stay in the country. “People are getting more and more depressed because they can’t pay their bills and support their families,” she says. “None of my friends are working, except for seasonal work helping with the olive harvest. The pessimism just becomes infectious.”
The first month in London was the hardest. Needing to make rent, Paula found a job as a part-time cleaning lady three weeks after arriving. “The Spanish people that I live with are all in the same situation,” she says. “We came to London to escape the crisis and learn English and we all got jobs as hostesses or cleaners on the minimum wage. We took low-paid jobs because we don’t speak English.” With uncertain hours of work, Paula couldn’t manage her debts and her boyfriend’s freelance work wasn’t enough to make ends meet. She was lucky enough to get a phone call from McDonald’s and signed a contract with the company, starting in December 2012. Paula finally found the stability she longed for, cleaning toilets in the night.
A naturally relaxed, happy character, Paula struggled with her first British winter. “I think this is a very stressful city,” she says. “It’s always dark, cold and sad.” One day I found her next by the outdoor bin, heaving in plastic bags filled with food debris. I asked whether she feels lonely while working. “I feel bored, but it gives me time to think about life,” she said. “I’m thinking of moving back to Spain in October. I have been back once already and I could see that the situation was worse, but I really miss my family and I don’t feel I’m learning any English at all. I need to go to an academy, but I can’t afford it because rent and transport are so expensive. If I’m going to be stuck at McDonald’s collecting the basic wage and not saving any money, I’d rather be back at home.”
THE STRANDED SYRIAN
Haidra Al-Hassan, 23, left Damascus after the assassination of his old schoolfriend Amir Hassan. Back in September 2011, Amir had headed out on a holiday trip to Tartus, on the Mediterranean coast. Shortly after he left the capital, a yellow taxi started trailing the car he was travelling in, and its mask-clad occupants leaned out of the windows yelling: “Pull over, pull over!” When Amir’s driver refused, one of the pursuers pulled out a machine gun and sprayed the car with bullets. Amir was shot dead. Afterwards, it emerged that the only reason for his killing was that he was travelling in a car with Damascus license plates. “Damascus is the land of regime supporters, Homs is the land of rebels,” says Haidra. “The FSA (Free Syrian Army) killed the guy just because of the word ‘Damascus’.”
“The Syrian people, two years ago, were loving each other. Syria was the country of all religions, all people. But now every Syrian has to show who and what he supports”
All Haidra wants is to fight for his country. Instead, he’s at the counter, serving McNuggets to drunks at 2am. He’s a strong supporter of the Syrian president, and refers to himself as “Ibn al-Assad” – “the son of Assad”. Haidra is an unusual mix: his mother is Alawite, the Shi’a religious faction which supports the president, and his father is Sunni, the religious majority which is fighting the regime. “I’m the union of both people, there’s no one like me in Syria,” he tells me proudly. “The Syrian people, two years ago, were loving each other. Syria was the country of all religions, all people. But now every Syrian has to show who and what he supports. I’m against that – I’m a Muslim, it doesn’t matter if I’m Alawite or Sunni. Each side must understand the other. People are shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ and then dropping bombs. That’s not Islam, it gives it a bad image.”
While living in the Abu Rummaneh district of Damascus, Haidra enjoyed the life of a liberal Syrian. He studied business administration at the International University of Science and Technologies, went to raves with friends and smoked weed. When the Arab Spring began, he rooted for change in Syria. “At the beginning of the revolution, there were millions, like me, who wanted freedom of speech and different opposition groups within the government.” But as the first reports on violent crackdowns surfaced in March 2011, people started to want something more: the head of Bashar al-Assad.
Over the 18 months of civil war that followed, Haidra switched his support to the president. “I started believing the regime after I saw people getting killed because they were Alawites or in the military, getting kidnapped and raped by the FSA,” he says. Haidra acknowledges the atrocities of al-Assad’s regime, but still praises him. “He’s a human being, he has feelings. He’s a good man, but there is a war, people being killed on both sides. Butwallah al-azim, I swear to God, he’s ready to die for Syria.”
Haidra’s life in Damascus changed out of all recognition with the start of civil war. His parents forced him to be home by 9pm each night, and the city descended into a deep and unnatural silence. “Damascus was like another country. The streets were empty, no one was out any more.” Haidra’s mother, a housewife, grew up in the same street as Bashar al-Assad. In January 2012, two of her cousins, aged 24 and 26, were assassinated in the coastal city of Latakia, beheaded by the rebels. Their remains have still not been recovered.
When Haidra arrived in London it was as a student, with a monthly allowance from his father. The money stopped arriving after the FSA seized his father’s clothing factory on the outskirts of Damascus. “They stole everything from the factory. My parents lost their savings and are now in a tough situation,” he says. In the last few months of 2012, Haidra spent time waiting tables at a restaurant in Watford, before joining McDonald’s.
Though he hates London’s weather and high cost of living (“when I came here, £1 was 80 Syrian pounds; now it is 150 Syrian pounds, enough for lunch for a whole family in Syria”), Haidra has a soft spot for the city. But he hates sensing his family’s danger and not being near them. “I was studying one night and my mother called me on Skype. She said: ‘Don’t be scared! There was a huge explosion in our street. So many people died, the house shook all over.’” There had been an assassination attempt against the prime minister, Wael al-Halqi. “Two more minutes of conversation and I would have started crying,” says Haidra. “If my family dies, I want to be there. I don’t want to live without them.”
Haidra is happy enough in his job at McDonald’s. He likes wandering around alone, stocking up the Coke and ice cream machines while singing patriotic songs under his breath. He avoids confrontation with other Muslims at work, all of whom are Sunnis.
“If someone said something bad about me defending al-Assad, I know I wouldn’t be able to control myself; I would get into a fight.” He secretly wears a bracelet bearing the message “I [heart] Syria Al Assad”. He is convinced that with the help of Hezbollah, and provided the West does not intervene, the president will win the war within a couple of months. But if the rebels reach Damascus and al-Assad loses power, “people will be killing each other for hundreds of years.” And Haidra – like many of his co-workers on the night shift at McDonald’s – may very well never return home.
Eric Adiele is on a quest to never make a wack beat. Inking as Sporting Life, the 32 year-old Virginia born and Harlem based producer has spent the past couple of years following an ongoing process of self-discovering his style. Mastering software and gear whilst knitting bits and pieces of samples found in old tape records, his line of work is all about creating beats with their own organic nuances, so they can live past the vocals to tell their own inspirations and ultimately rest in people’s conscience. Sporting Life’s debut solo tape 55’5s makes up a case for Adiele’s evolving journey.
55’5s has an experimental character: a mind-twisting beat narrative, blending a unique hip-hopian aura with footwork’s sprawling BPMs. It’s a test-lab of unpredictable results built upon an inconspicuous range of inspiring elements – from around-the-globe artists then back to New York itself. As Adiele asserted in our transatlantic Skype chat – travelling and meeting new people whilst still playing next to Wiki and Hak as New York’s noise-rap trio Ratking also helped to broaden his spectrum of influences. The group’s most revered records, So It Goes and 700-Fill came in-between the process, laying 55’5s sensorial-inducing roots. Adiele’s creatively immersing outputs resounded on this side of the globe and Belgium R&S Records released his debut tape, which now rests next to genre-defining producers such as Aphex Twin and James Blake.
Winter is here. It’s been cited as the major influence in your art, especially on Ratking’s latest release, 700-Fill. In what way has New York’s season-shifting moods influenced your productions?
It definitely influenced a lot. Physically because you have to live in New York City and work and feed yourself, so that kind of gives you a sense of urgency about your art. But also because of the city’s history and the sounds you hear in the streets. It’s influenced in a lot of different ways, the city definitely is and continues to be a reference in the sounds I make.
New York City certainly also lives within your new beat tape, 55’5s. How did you come up with this project?
I had the idea that I just needed to make a lot of stuff, so I was just practicing different styles and making things and trying to get better and better at Ableton Live whilst also figuring out how to never make a wack beat, you know? The tracks on 55’5s came from that process during the past couple of years. It’s like pieces and notes from that process and from studying different styles and trying to find my own, even with the old stuff I made.
These are beats that you designed during Ratking’s soaring years. How did working with Wiki and Hak shaped your productions along the way?
It shaped them a lot. As a group we like to make things and play it live and then let that tell us how we should record it. That process has definitely given me a lot of time to grow and explore new styles because it wasn’t something necessarily fixed, it can always change. Travelling and playing as a band helps in meeting new people and those folks give you influences or just share with you an instrumental or a song you never heard before. During those times you keep consistently creating, so if you can take that and use your time wisely, there’s a lot of room to grow.
Did the mindset of 55’5s divert from the one with Ratking?
It’s just different processes until getting to finally hear [the final version]. When producing with Wiki and Hak it was more like seeing where the song is going and minding the song title. It can’t also be that dense because you’re still looking to have a pocket for somebody’s voice and ideas. It’s just a different path. It might be really similar to maybe producing tracks I make from start to finish without a thought. Sometimes it’s not necessarily a song, just sounds I’ve wrote or beats I made for practicing purposes…like going out skateboarding. It’s kind of different but for the most part, kind of the same.
When you pick bits and pieces for a beat do you follow a storyline?
I tried to title [the tracks] in a way of a story. I like arranging things and trying to build a narrative with the sound. I think in ending like it did was like a really good wrap up of the story. Some songs are more story-like than others; some songs are just hard beats; and some songs tell a story. Having a mixture of those kind of things is really good.
People predominantly link you to hip-hop beats but that seems narrowing considering the blend of sounds and styles in your productions. Still, do you feel you’re trying to break new ground for hip-hop with this tape? Where do you see this sound fitting?
I’m trying to be as adaptable as possible. If I’m in a particular place doing a DJ set I try to adapt and meet people halfway. Hopefully I’m able to adapt in real time. As far as where it fits…I don’t know. Hopefully besides dope musicians like Gorillaz or Jay-Z. I don’t know how different my sound is, but I like to think about other people that did something different. Maybe not many of them come from my background. Or maybe not a lot of people can play basketball and shit like that. It might be coming from a different perspective. It’s just trying to push creativity, learning about new gear and reading interviews. You can read an Aphex Twin interview and realize some people in your present day are in the future, so when you see somebody like that it inspires you. Whatever the sound is, hopefully it’s just the sound of a better knowledge of a particular gear you are using, not a particular sound you are trying to mimic. Even though you can pass through different influences – which is good – the sound will be of your gear working together. When you listen to Aphex you’re hearing his signal chain, how these things are communicating. That’s the math behind the music.
Does the science behind the music appeal to you? What would you say that gravitates you towards producing beats?
I’m moved by the idea of the sport of producing, making it force another purpose other than the beat. It’s like thinking that I’m doing this for the sport of styling on you with my ability of controlling this computer program. That inspired me, as did finding different producers around the world who also kind of feel the same. I don’t think anyone has ever put that [line of work] underneath a rap. Producers usually serve to help the MC, but this works for itself. If you take the whole lyrics out of a Ratking album and just listen to the instrumentals, you’ll find they have their own particular inspirations. So It Goes intro is like footwork, but new jungle-footwork, but the rapping on it is like Philadelphia Freeway or Bennie Sigel. That’s a new style that has been created and that’s what I’m aiming for all the time. And to least have something to go back to and look at and say, “Oh we made this particular style of song.” This means a fresh blueprint to make a new song, if anybody likes it.
“I’m moved by the idea of the sport of producing, making it force another purpose other than the beat.”
Speaking of blueprints, 55’5s was mixed in Daddy Kev’s studio, a place historically linked with the L.A. beat scene. As you’re also looking to create something unique, do you feel there’s a particular NY scene emerging around you?
Yes, there’s always something coming up in New York, even if you don’t know it. There’s so many producers and musicians out here just doing it. Some musicians play in punk bands and then make electronic music under aliases; there are just so many aliases that people don’t even know. I put out things under aliases and not a lot of people know that. A lot of my boys are making electronic music and we get together and do ill DJ sets and shit like that. So yes, beat-wise I’m definitely trying to push that forward and into people’s minds. We create beats while new MCs are coming up with influences from everything going on out here. I just feel really excited to be making music too.
So you’re looking to offset an alternative movement in New York, or at least a singular one just as in Los Angeles?
I just try to gain inspiration from people who aren’t stressed out. You can’t take it that seriously. It’s like Serious Play: if you can master it, you never get boxed in or stuck in a particular way of doing things. I think that’s really the sound of the movement, really taking it seriously on a level, but not taking it seriously on another level. Making it small, going to the next thing and not being too stuck on one particular thing or looking to label yourself.
55’5s is on Belgium label R&S Records. I think this cements the fact you’re looking to reach out to other audiences.
I think Europe has more of a platform for instrumental bass and electronic music – jamming a lot of styles that have been really developing and morphing over time, with people growing up with their ears tuned to like something that has nothing to do with the vocals. That culture is really strong in Europe and in certain parts of America too. I’m trying within my arms reach to make something that people can enjoy and have fun to.
R&S Records have released some widely known electronic artists – Aphex Twin, for instance. Did you change the course you set out for the tape based on the label?
I don’t know if it changed my path, but it let me know there are people other than myself who understand what I do and see things for what they are. They don’t necessarily have to follow what they heard in an interview or what they read about us in a hip hop section. Like the Beastie Boys talked about Ill Communication: the ideas being communicated through the sound to certain people, not necessarily to everybody, and then hopefully those can build ideas and get it to more people. That’s how ideas will grow in the public consciousness. R&S showing interest in what we we’re doing was certainly a dope thing but I can’t say it was necessarily surprising. That was the kind of stuff we were listening to already – like DJ Hell and Aphex Twin and James Blake; those were artists we were kind of inspired by. Then there’s New York City, so everything kind of mashes anyway and you pick and choose the artists you like out of a wide group of sounds, and people end up seeing the result of that.
And you went for a tape format. What do you find interesting in it?
I guess my interaction with tapes has been interesting as tapes have always been coming and going out of my production life. It was suggested that I released this way and I thought about how tapes can age and how it all sounds different after a period of time, which was something interesting to see. And it’s a format I haven’t necessarily heard my music played on, maybe because I was a little scared of it. You never know what people like to listen to and putting on tape might not be the clearest quality people want, but sometimes you have to do things that are kind of new to see the outcome. I’ve put it on tape to see how the project will sound like in a few years. And the design and artwork of tapes is really cool, it’s the most fun part of making a tape.
Who created the 55’5s artwork set?
The design is by a friend named Camilla Venturini. We sat down and we found Ralph Lauren’s font and myself and Letter Racer’s creative director then flipped the Polo logo together. The photograph was taken by a lady who came to the Boiler Room session I played and I think it looks pretty classy. The artwork on the cover was drawn by Cairo Marcopoulos, who’s the son of a photographer that we used to work with a lot, Ari Marcopoulos.
Do you see yourself as a tape digger?
I’m always looking for tapes that aren’t too smashed or warped up. When there was James Brown, there was a Japanese James Brown and a Brazilian James Brown, but things that have just been jumped from the most part. People don’t care about tapes at all, that just shows a treasure trove, the infinite kind of sounds you can find [within old tapes]. With new programs like Ableton you can make those sound current or like anything, which gives you another goldmine of sounds to pull from, change and make into your own.
2016 is around the corner and it’s said that you’re working on a solo album. You have also been busy with Wiki’s record. What can you reveal about those projects, as well as Ratking’s future?
I’ve recently been working with some people like Patrick [Morales aka Wiki] and Novelist. I’ve helped in the mixing and producing of some tracks for Wiki’s project that will come out by the beginning of December [n.b. the first single is out now]. Then I also have an idea around a plan to make an album. It’s not necessarily cohesive right now and I don’t know when it will come out, but I’m trying to plan it well. As for Ratking, we’ll be putting an album out. We’re working on it, but we don’t know when it’s coming out. I’m trying to get the good timing. We will see.
Vince Staples’ story is one told many times in hip hop lore. Born and raised in North Long Beach, California, his background is rooted in the neighbourhood’s gangbanging culture. His father was embedded in the drug hustling scene and Staples eventually grew up to become a 2N Crips affiliate. As in many rapper’s stories, however, there’s a shift-changing moment along the way and for Staples it was the summer of 2006. He was then 13 years old.
“It was the beginning of the end of everything I thought I knew”, Staples wrote on Instagram. “Youth was stolen from my city that summer and I’m left alone to tell the story.” Friends got locked up. Others tumbled to bullets and drugs. Others sold their souls to snitchery. A couple of years later, Staples temporarily moved to Atlanta looking to make sense of streetlife’s merciless outcomes. At his return, a new chapter began, offsetting the journey to his rapping career.
Staples is now 22 years old and one thing he’d tell you about such a feat is that he outlived the red roses. Another thing he’d probably let you in to is that rap saved his life. Staples first draw attention after a series of collaborations with Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt in the latter’s Earl mixtape and debut album Doris, and then with Larry Fisherman (Mac Miller producer identity) on Stolen Youth. The Long Beach native’s major debut was at the end of 2014 with the release Hell Can Waiton Def Jam. The 6-track EP stood out as the prologue to one of this year’s most impressive hip hop records: Summertime ’06, the tale Staples was left to chronicle alone.
“Summertime ’06 was me telling the truth because I don’t see a lot of people doing that”, Staples tells me while sipping his white coffee. We’re chatting in a bright, swanky hotel in central London. It’s the eve of his debut performance in the city. “People spend their entire fortune running from themselves. They don’t want to deal with the truth of how we’re looked as individuals, as people and as a race.”
Staples’ hour-long masterpiece is a hauntingly cold and immersive storytelling set to cavernous, minimal beats mainly produced by Chicago’s No I.D. and L.A’s beat scene legend Clams Casino. His nostalgic yarns frame the challenges to overcome preconceptions and stereotypes thrown at him throughout the years. He assures me he never did drugs nor drank and that he’s an old man who doesn’t party, wrapping up his days at midnight.
“I don’t have to deal with a lot of things anymore”, he says hesitantly. “I just moved. My girlfriend is riding my car with no license going 80mph and I’m pulled over because of where I live. Do I have to deal with the cops? No. The PR deals with the cops? Yeah. So it’s not necessarily over, but I’m okay now.” As we chat, a dry pop-pop sound spills from the outside to the hotel welcoming bar room. It’s the week of Bonfire Night in England, but that sound evokes in the different memories from Staples’ upbringing.
Summertime ’06 is Staples reminiscing on his ghosts. It’s as well a broader picture of the rapper’s disfranchised surroundings. Far from glorying thecrippin’ lifestyle (you won’t find on him with any gang tattoos or hear him praising feats of street life), his music encloses the daily life of a community grounded on gangbanging, street law and judicial inequality. But the difference in Staple’s rap sheet lays out his intentions: his rap steps aside from the prevalent West Coast gangsta rap label to rather focus on hip hop culture’s role in addressing the reality of the situation in the streets of L.A.
“Real is saying the influence music’s having on drugs within kids in the community. A kid from back home just died off of a drug he knew nothing about a couple of years ago. And I know that because I’ve known him since I was a child. He did not know what Xanax was. So that, combined with some really shitty things he had to take to keep his sanity, killed him. And where did he learn that? From a rap song. That’s real.”
“Many rappers defend that’s just art”, I reply.
“And that’s fine. But lets weigh the art. It’s fine when it’s entertainment but not when it can shift and shape a culture and that’s the problem. Think about it: if we do percentages, not from all time but from a time I can probably remember, we have an entire culture where the majority of rappers were selling crack. I don’t roughly know a rapper – not a popular one – in the area I was growing up who didn’t sell fucking crack. Look at the trap movement… Now, I’m not saying that’s not true. What I’m saying is the fact that there is a majority that is selling crack in 2015. Selling cocaine in 2015.”
On a wider perspective, Staples often voices his views on the institutionalised racism that has been sweeping the US since, well, ever. A status quo deeply entrenched in a country that politically and culturally demonises minorities, condemning them to live inside invisible walls in segregated communities. Narrowing the current outlook to the past three years – matching the birth of the #BlackLivesMatter movement –, I ask him if he’s sensed any real changes around his area. “Oh you think it has changed since… Fuck no!”
Hip hop has long influenced global culture and rap music, in particular, has been a force of social transformation over the past 40 years. Arguably, it carried Obama to the White House and has been a major influence on the civil rights movement in recent decades. Picking up from Kendrick Lamar’s example, at a time when his soul-reviving ‘Alright’ single is chanted all over the country in black movements’ demonstrations, I ask Staples if he feels that rappers have a decisive stance in leading the change in America.
“People have an important role”, Staples points-out. “It doesn’t matter what you do. Martin Luther King wasn’t a rapper. People have an important role. There are more people than rappers. If you weigh the average you are going to have ten rappers saying something important and a hundred thousand people saying whatever the fuck is The Million Man March. It happened not too long ago and the media didn’t say anything about it. It’s their job to cover these events so why not cover one million black people walking down the street in the nation’s capitol?”
The day after we met, Vince Staples jumped onto one of Cargo London’s four stages. The place is packed, people are pumped as the North Long Beach rapper leads the crowd with the inciting “bounce, bounce” chant he drops at the very decisive moment of each track. Staples delivers an intense performance. He’s all-in, jumping and spitting bars to his lungs, especially on Summertime’s ‘Señorita’ and ‘Norf Norf’. Staples’ constantly engages with the audience. He’s an acidly ironic dude and pokes fun at the fans with blazing subjects. One that has gotten to the crowds revolved around a long-gone cycle in hip hop’s history: the Golden Era.
There’s a story behind this: prior to the concert, Staples had been involved in a blazing exchange of tweets with his followers (including historical rap figures) on the importance of ‘90s hip hop following an interview to Time Magazine. “The 90s get a lot of credit – I don’t really know why.” A quote put out of context (he was asked about ‘90s pop culture’, not ‘hip hop culture’) fuelling hatred among old school and new school hip hop fans and spilling to music website’s. In his defence, Staples pointed out the obvious: he was born in 1993. So did many of his generation’s rap cats, like Earl Sweatshirt or Tyler, The Creator.
“I don’t know if the nineties fit within the new generation”, he explains. “I don’t understand the nostalgia of an era. The interview was about pop culture in the ‘90s. If we’re speaking “pop culture-wise”, then pop culture’s biggest era to write music is Lil’ Wayne’s and Kanye’s and Eminem’s. If I walk down the street and ask a 13 year old kid who about some nineties rappers, he’ll know nothing about the majority because it didn’t penetrate pop culture. We can pretend it did, but it didn’t and that’s just the honest to god truth. Everybody knows who Eminem is, everybody knows who Snoop Dogg is for the most part and that’s not because of Doggystyle. Everyone that knows Jay-Z doesn’t know Reasonable Doubt, that’s the truth. There are people from every era that everyone knows, but if we’re talking about the best time for hip hop penetrating pop culture, it isn’t necessarily the nineties. People say, ‘I was born in 1993 and grew up on ‘90s hip hop, bla, bla’. Good for you! But I’m sure that was an awkward conversation to have at the lunch table when you were in your 4th grade talking about Cormega. That’s the problem with hip hop culture.”
I dig deeper. “What problem is that?”
“The problem with hip hop culture is that we care about all the wrong things. We deem respect for something that literally is disrespectful to women, modesty, homosexuals and our own kind. So what do you want to be respected? No one says anything about the perpetuating violence or perpetuating drug uses to kids, because that’s where they get most of the influence. The problem is you saying you’re not familiar with ‘90s hip hop and instead of the guns and the drugs? What kind of sense does that make?”
As with everything in today’s hyperconnected, slacktivist global culture, the debate sparked by Staples’ quotes soon vanished in the sea of information. Nonetheless, Staples is certainly looking to be part of a bigger change judging by Summertime ’06’s outcome. And besides his mindbending rhymes, if anything, the dispute about the Golden Era has put Staples on the music media’s radar. So by the moment his tweets are reportable, one would think he could keep an ongoing conversation about changing America. Only there’s a much bigger reality happening outside the virtual forums to be addressed.
“Life on Twitter isn’t real. It just isn’t. The other day, one of my friends got three life sentences and 75 years added on for his first offence, a non-violent crime. And how many retweets did that get? 15? 20? That’s scary to me. You don’t have to kill anybody or hurt anybody to never see the light again now.”
Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06 is out now on Def Jam.
Skepta is truthful to his art. He’s been in the grime game for more than a decade and if the Tottenham-born MC learned anything along the way that was to stick to his thing, to his creativity, no matter quids, trends or your likes. As he puts it right at the first few seconds of Noisey’s Top Boydocumentary, it’s “How you change the game” that’ll make you eternal.
Joseph Junior Adenuga, 33, is an ambassador of the genre born in the streets of London at the turn of the century. Many deem him a pioneer, although names like Dizzee Rascal will pose as breakthrough figures. Nonetheless, grime’s bass-loaded beats have never lived up to its full-blown energetic echo until a Skepta’s “That’s Not Me” (curiously featuring his brother JME) hit the streaming waves and its lo-budget, lo-def video swept a MOBO award last year. Boy Better Know‘s co-founder has certainly the onus of reviving the scene and to stretch its frontiers.
Drake, Kanye West, A$AP Rocky, Wiki, they are all Skepta’s accolades and his reach at the opposite end of the Atlantic translates into sold out shows. Everywhere. The proof is on Noisey’s documentary, which follows the MC on his North American tour last Summer – from New York to Toronto with stops in Washington and Boston. “If there’s anytime in my life that I wanted this opportunity, it would’ve been now.”
Skepta’s music is engaging. People relate to it because they find a bridge between the wisdom and the enjoyment. “I’m not a conscious, deep rapper, but I’m like those as a person. So as much as I like to have the hype I always liked to put some sort of teaching in it somewhere down the line. Because you have rappers that have that conscious side, but there’s no vibe on it, it’s giving you a depressing package. I give it to you like a package to say ‘yo this shit is fucked up, this whole shit is fucked up, but just enjoy yourself man’.”
Noisey’s cut offers both back and onstage perspectives of Skepta’s tour through a world he always perceived as a “promise land”. But just as Tottenham’s MC connects dots with his music, the producers behind the documentary also draw a bond between the artist and the person.