It has been ten years of solid experience cultivated by UK Rapper Essa (formerly known as Yungun), winning praise upon praise from the likes of NAS, Cody ChestnuT, and Mark Ronson to name a few. His first album released in 2004 through Janomi Records called ‘The Essence’ played a huge part in his expansion outside North London where he was born and raised. In 2006, Essa’s second album “Grown Man Business” – a collaborative joint with his long time DJ and friend, Mr Thing, catapulted his name across the seas upon the lips of major players in the industry.
Revered in the community the world over as one of Hip Hop’s intelligent rappers, Essa is now back with his third album entitled “The Misadventures of A Middle Man” released through First Word Records. The album dissects Essa’s own experience as a living breathing cultural dichotomy, raising questions on his own upbringing, asserting his truth as a half African/English man raised in a prestigious environment, juggling a career as a city lawyer, all the while still appreciating the struggles of love and life as a mixed race man.
Krystel Diola of Behind The Front caught up with the rapper to discuss his album and the importance of his own truths in an industry where mixed race cultural fluidity is at the most part, overlooked, in favour of being one or the other.
Firstly, thank you for this interview! Your album has been on high rotation on my playlist to the point where you are on repeat for a couple of hours! Thank God you’re not on tape I need to rewind! That would be disastrous!
Ha ha! Thanks, I’m glad you like it. I wanted to do something short and sweet to make you want to hit the “rewind” button, so hopefully it worked.
I want to discuss your new album strictly – “The Misadventures of a Middle Man”. It has been 8 years since your last album “Grown Man Business” released in 2006. Why did it take you 8 years in between albums?
Because as well as being a musician I’m also a full-time lawyer. When I did my first album “The Essance” I was a law student. When I did my second album “Grown Man Business” with Mr. Thing I was working full-time as a trainee in a city law firm. And for the past six or so years I’ve been a fully qualified solicitor, specialising in media and entertainment law. That kind of job goes way beyond 9-to-5, so it’s hard to fit everything in.
You’ve got a great team of producers behind your new album from Waajeed, Tall Black Guy, Eric Lau, Budgie and Flako, and our very own Ta-Ku. Can you tell us how this selection of esteemed producers transpired?
Many of the producers, like Budgie and Eric Lau, have been friends of mine for years through the music scene in London. I always wanted to work with them. I connected with Waajeed when he first started coming over to London many years ago. We’ve been cool ever since. Tall Black Guy and I are on the same label (First Word Records). We first met at Soundwave Croatia Festival. As for Ta-Ku, I heard his beats online and instantly went crazy for them. Grindin’ actually put me in touch with him – thanks for that guys!
Your album has a clean sound that differs from your past albums – a definitive evolution away from samples as found more on your previous albums. It’s like you matured into the realm of where you’re at in your musical journey – assertive and comfortable in your own musical skin. How much hands on input did you have when producing this album?
A lot – I co-produced the majority of the album. I had beats as the starting point and I wrote to those, but then I brought in some incredible musicians like Kaidi Tatham, Dave Okumu, Tom Skinner and Tom Herbert to add live instrumentation. I switched around the arrangements to work better with the lyrics and I orchestrated the bulk of it myself. It’s been a different process, much more sophisticated than before. Some of the tracks have been through several incarnations. It’s another part of the reason for the delay – I did nothing by halves!
Which of the tracks on this album are you most proud of and why?
Probably “The Middle Man”, which is in many ways the key track on the album. I wanted to speak on what it’s like to be mixed-race, which is a personal thing and not easy to sum up. People seem to relate to the honesty of it, regardless of their racial heritage. I’m also really proud of the track “Harder”. It’s not an instant one, it’s a grower, but it’s probably my personal favourite… or maybe “The World Belongs To You” … or … I’d better stop there!
How hard was it to cull your album to 12 songs when an 8 year absence meant also facing 8 years of new experiences and development you want to share with the world?
Very hard! But DJ Gilla from First Word Records helped me a lot. When we first started thinking about this project I had over thirty tunes in the works. He imposed a strict twelve track limit, which helped me to focus. Some really strong tracks were left off the album because we wanted to stick closely to the theme. But there will be several bonus tracks and b-sides in addition to the album, so there are still a few treats and surprises in store …
Let’s delve deep into your lyrical content. You cover a wide range of issues based on cultural identity, politics, faith, social issues and love. Your own background being of English/African descent enables you to pen down honest truths as heard in “Middle Man”. Explain what you mean when you rap about ‘identity crisis’.
We are all human beings but for some reason it’s instinctive to categorise each other and ourselves. Maybe we need to do that in order to understand the world. When you grow up looking somehow fundamentally different from both your parents, that affects how you view yourself. From a young age you start to think about what racial identity means (if indeed it means anything). If you move within many different social circles, you become increasingly aware of how others view you. To some you might be seen as “the black guy”, in others you’re the most “white” (if those terms even mean anything). You are able to stand within many different circles but you may never feel like you truly belong in any one of those circles. At times that’s frustrating and that’s what I mean by “identity crisis”. But as you mature, you realise it’s a huge opportunity and in many ways it’s a real advantage. I wanted to explore all of that on The Middle Man.
At what point did you realise the World truly belongs to Essa?
When I looked around and saw my family, my friends and my girl (“my sugar, my honey”)!
In your track “Man Enough”, you talk about fatherless sons. Is this speaking upon your own experience or a generic circumstance happening with single parent homes?
I’m not a fatherless son but I’ve seen how that can affect people. My father gave me an amazing start in life and I’ll always be grateful for that. As I’ve grown into a man, our relationship has become strained. I think that’s quite common – most men clash with their fathers at some point and it’s something that I wanted to write about. The song is taking on new significance for me as I’m going to be a father myself soon. Doc Brown is on “Man Enough” too. He does an incredibly poignant verse from the perspective of a father who is separating from the mother of his kids and leaving the family home. It literally brings grown men and women to tears.
Let’s stay on the idea of being man enough. What does it mean to be a man in today’s society in your eyes?
Manhood used to be about stoic, silent strength. Nowadays I think sensitivity also has a part to play. It’s not just about doing your own thing and bringing home the bacon. These days, if you don’t look after your friendships, relationships and family properly, I think you’re seen as less of man. In many ways it’s still a man’s world but, these days, being a man is a little less straightforward than it used to be.
You were educated at a prestigious boarding school and worked hard at achieving your entertainment law degree. How hard was it juggling this paradox of creativity and your law degree?
At times it’s been extremely difficult. There was no blueprint. I’m pretty sure I’m the first lawyer in my family and I’m definitely the first MC! I know hardly anyone who combines the two. I had to kind of make it up as I went along. The sheer desire to do both things is what’s driven me, really. But I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t affected my relationships, family and social life. I talk about this on the album, on a track called “Easy”.
“Invisible Man” is a track that many can relate to – man or woman. Growing up, did you consider yourself invisible in love?
My girl always laughs this off when I say it but I used to be quite shy! I definitely had a few crushes on girls before I really knew how to approach them. It’s something lots of people experience so I thought I’d write a song about it.
“Prayers of A Non Believer” is a stand out track! The hook, the production, and the lyrics. What do you believe in if we won’t see you in a church, synagogue, or mosque?
It’s hard to say this without sounding ridiculously cheesy, but the answer is love! Even though I’m not religious, I believe in the “love thy neighbour” principle, which is actually a key element of Christianity. I believe we’re born as naturally selfish creatures but that, as we grow up, because we have free will, we can strive to be more altruistic, to think of others too, not just ourselves. I’m not saying I do that all the time – I’m certainly no saint! But if there’s any point to our existence, I personally think it must be to try to leave the world a better place than it was when you arrived.
How did the hook come about in that song? It’s pretty catchy!
I wrote that hook and sang it on my own on the original version. But I’m not much of a singer so I got D.ablo in to cover up my shortcomings! He’s got a beautiful voice and I work with him a lot. He’s definitely fam.
Every musician has a collaboration wish list. Who do you want to collaborate with in future?
I managed to tick off a lot of the names in doing this album! But there are tons more. Omar, Fatima, Robin Hannibal, Mount Kimbie, Kwes, Kidkanevil, S-Type, Samiyam, Kaytranada … Not a lot of MCs though. When it comes to collaborations, I’m usually drawn towards people that do something different to me.
Let’s briefly touch upon the business side to the music industry. Many people in the industry consider record labels dying. It’s an ongoing discussion. What’s your stance on record labels verses independent labels?
Record labels certainly aren’t dead – some of them are still very much thriving. But the best ones are adapting from what the old model of a record label used to be. I’m happy to be on a fantastic label – DJ Gilla and the rest of the team at First Word Records have been patient, supportive and an absolute pleasure to work with on this project.
In scoping for emerging artists, many A&R’s have migrated online on different platforms such as Youtube and Facebook to scope artists out. It’s a numbers game. Some consider this a lack of nurturing artists. What’s your advice for emerging musicians in a tumultuous industry?
I know what you mean about it being a numbers game – people expect you to have come a long way by yourself first, before they’re interested in investing in you (that goes for fans and industry alike). I think the key thing is to know what it is you truly have to offer. You have to be brutally honest with yourself, because the audience is going to be the same way. If your music sounds the same as other people’s, then what’s the point in putting it out? Your music is art to you (or at least it certainly should be!) but it’s a product as far as the market’s concerned. The key thing is to have a clear sense of what your product is and what it adds to the market that isn’t already there. That’s hard to get right. I’d be the first to say that I’m still working on it myself.
What’s next for Essa? Tours? Perhaps an Australian tour?
Touring is definitely the plan. We’re looking to to take this album live across the UK and Europe. I love touring in Australia though! Some of the best gigs I’ve ever had were over there, so I’m very keen to come back. If anyone wants to book me for a gig, I’m down – I’ll do weddings, kids’ birthday parties, bar mitzvahs … whatever. Let’s go!
What’s your definition of Grindin’?
Nine to five grind, five to nine shine!
Interview by Krystel Diola