Joshua Idehen is anything but a standard emcee, in fact, it probably not fair to call him an emcee at all. Poet, vocalist, orator or possibly even narrator; any of these terms would better describe the unique and cinematic vocal style of a man who can legitimately claim that his father owned the first ever video rental store in Nigeria.
From the ‘38’ Ep; his first release with LV on Martin Clark’s Keysound Recordings to written pieces published alongside the like of Linton Kwesi Johnson, releasing music with his band Benin City and festival appearances as diverse as Outlook and Latitude’s spoken word stage it’s unlikely you’ll find Mr Idehen dropping rote freestyles on GRMDaily anytime soon. Where you currently can find him however is once again on Keysound Recordings with the follow up to 2011’s Routes, the critically acclaimed collaborative album with LV.
I caught up with a particularly energetic Idehen to discuss the forthcoming record, the creative approach taken by himself and LV during the album’s creation and drawing inspiration from the sequel to Blue Lagoon.
Right let’s start with the album’s title track. It was instantly the one that hooked me and is still the track I keep going back to.
Oh okay okay. That all kind of started… I wanted to make a kind of dark narrative, something really heavy. In my head I kept coming back to the second Blue Lagoon film, the sequel to Blue Lagoon. (Return To Blue Lagoon. Ed) In the first one they died at the end, I think they ate those poisonous berries or whatever. It was also well incestuous too…
Wait I’ve never seen the sequel to Blue Lagoon! I’ve seen the first one: they die at the end. How did they do a sequel to Blue Lagoon? Was it like a Weekend At Bernie’s vibe or something?
Hahahaha! No no, it was a completely different couple, it was kind of like… uh Flashdance or whatever?
Oh like Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights where they just franchise out the name and basic plot?
Yeah that’s exactly it, franchised it out and found a new couple! It was quite nice; new couple… obviously Caucasian, good looking people, they stop on this island and the couple start exploring their bodies but then these rich English aristocrats, who of course sound American, turn up on a ship and the captain wants to steal this jewel from the girl and his daughter wants to steal the boyfriend and obviously the couple stay together and it’s all a much happier ending because it’s a franchise and they probably wanted another sequel. So I remembered that; I kept coming back to that initial story of “here’s a couple stuck on an island together” and I took it down a darker route, but it just didn’t work as a short story. I tried and tried, I worked-shopped it with some friends, but it kept coming out too nice, so I decided to try and take it the meanest way I possibly could whilst remaining true to the story. Whilst I was reading it to myself I just started singing the first few lines, then I realised it worked better as a song. I’d written bits, then I finished it, called up Will (one half of LV.) and said let’s turn it into song, let’s do something and they said “great” so they sent me… The same beats they sent for Routes haha! So that was actually how I wrote New Pen as well because it was like déjà vu, I was doing it all over again.
It’s interesting you say it was like déjà vu because for me, on this record, you seem to be coming at it from a different angle. You’re lyrics are much more the focus on a lot of the tracks in comparison to Routes, which seemed to fragment your voice a lot more, was that something you intended or just how it turned out?
I think really it was a mixture of both. Approaching this new project I said to the guys if you want to cut up my stuff I don’t mind, because I really enjoyed that on the last album. Them taking my finely crafted words and feelings and just butchering them haha! Stripping it of its soul and just turning it in to some sort of blunt voice instrument. I didn’t mind that at all, I really enjoyed it, but this time around I said if you are going to do it I need to be involved in that process as well. Once it had been cut up I asked they send it back to me and if I didn’t like it I would rerecord it in a way that made it work better within a song as well.
So you reinterpreted the vocals to fit the manner in which LV cut them?
Yep that’s right. On this one they approached it more from the angle of doing very little cutting but just picking out little pieces and fitting them in here and there. This one I did so much writing for, I think I wrote for every single beat they sent me. I was more concerned with keeping everything within the same ballpark, the same framework and atmosphere. I was reading a lot of Aesop’s Fables at the time which really helped me with tracks like Imminent, That Old Darkness and Run Down; those moralistic tales of things turning the other way. That really helped me keep my mind-set when I was writing those full pieces to send to LV. With a lot of Routes when I sent them over writing a lot of it was fragmented, it would be a case of “here’s the first part I’ll write the second part later.” I think that led to some of the fragmented style on the first record whereas on this one with a lot of the stuff I sent came as a finished piece. See on the last one what they did was they gave me the beats, forty beats, I wrote to all the beats and they then took out the beats and built the music next to my words, with this one they thought they’d build it up to the whole piece and see how that worked; obviously they did a fantastic job. It’s funny with Islands I think there were only three tracks that we rerecorded in the end: Imminent, Talk Trim and Make It Count. The first time I performed those tracks I was in a lot more of a storyteller mode, but once they’d sat my vocal next to these mad beats my vocals would sound a bit *delivers a verse of Imminent in clipped British accent* and I realised for these tracks my delivery needed to go as up-tempo as possible, so on those ones we put in a few more takes. With the title track Islands… Haha I hate the sound of my own voice; obviously in my head I sound like Brad Pitt drenched in honey, but on track I just sound like me, so I kept thinking I could do better. In the end I never did and they were just like “Josh we’re just going with this one, its good” So yeah with this record I do think we all decided separately to feature more of me as a whole, to give more of a coherent story. Not just the music but the lyrics as well.
That’s a great parallel for the album as a lot of it has themes of isolation and detachment, but it feels more coherent and whole than Routes so it’s sort of like the feeling of isolation has actually bonded it all even tighter than before.
Yeah it’s funny because what drew both of us… all of us together, it’s not both. There’s two of them and one of me so it’s all but I when say both I mean LV and me; the three of us. What drew the three of us together is that I think we all appreciated that we worked in the outsider areas of what are the “acceptable” norms of art. I’m a spoken word artist which is a section of writing and performance, but compared to say theatre or hip-hop or straight up film acting, or even standard written poetry it something that’s always sort of, um…
Yeah it’s kind of viewed as this fringe art.
Yes it’s completely fringe and the kind of spoken word art I do is even more fringe. It’s kind of the fringe of the fringe because I don’t rap, I don’t rhyme all the time, I don’t even flow to the beat and I chat about a lot of personal stuff, I don’t normally chat about social issues. I’m not the sort of person you can stick on The Guardian or the BBC after they’ve done some really serious talk on Afghanistan or black rights *adopts token news reader’s voice* “and now we’ve got Josh Idehen coming to explain everything!” That’s just not me, there’s nothing wrong with that stuff, that’s absolutely brilliant, it’s just not what interests me or what I push out. At the time I met LV I was kind of like a more extreme version of that, I’ve kind of mellowed out a bit now; I sometimes I do talk about black folk haha! But at the time I was really extreme, I just absolutely didn’t want to do anything about politics… But actually the first track we ever did was Early Mob ahhhhhh haha forget that comment then! But no, LV, they’ve never made that kind of very traditional bass or electro or dubstep so you know? We both come from those fringe edges which are difficult to pigeonhole.
Their sound is never really the same, even between projects. Like Sebenza: When that followed on from Routes it was completely different again. For the second time I’d just never heard anything like it.
Yeah Sebenza was different again… I wasn’t on that album but errrr it’s okay, it’s okay. Don’t… Don’t worry about me I’m okay. There’s nothing bitter. It’s all good… Now. All good now. I did try but it’s all good now. Hahah! But no, no, everything they’ve put out has always come from a place of originality. It’s always different from what anyone else has done; they are just naturally drawn to doing things their own way. They are naturally drawn to rhythms and concepts that are, in my mind, separate to what is considered mainstream or popular or even commercial and to our collective detriment it’s meant that people know who we are, people like what we do but at the same time we are sort of stood on the corner of the whole spectrum, the kaleidoscope of colours that is music and genres. It’s our little corner and I think they picked up on that sort of vibe from my own writing because a lot of it, particularly bits that didn’t get on the album, are about me just coming to terms with who I am and the life that I’ve sort of settled into as I’ve reached my thirties. That’s what happens; you sort of say “ah this is who I am then!” there’s no more “when I grow older…” it’s just the knowledge that this is the road you are going to take and you are either happy with that or you get into your first midlife crisis. I think I’m trying to be cool with it and those guys are too in their own way. Will is getting married and Si is… er Si haha and they are just revelling in that, just doing what they are doing and not looking at what everyone else is up to. They’ve got a second project as Swamillion which they are working on and it’s just vibes man, it’s just cool. We are just all happy to be doing our little thing.
To me that is the perfect way to operate, particularly with so many people currently rushing out recycled music just to secure bookings or keep the money flowing in.
Yeah it’s just so much better when it comes from an honest place.
How much input do Martin Clark have on your projects then? When the ‘38’ EP came out, even within Keysound’s diverse catalogue, it didn’t sit with a lot of the grime and dubstep inflected stuff they were pushing and although it didn’t sit with the other vocal led releases at the time which had people like Duurty Goodz or Killa P & Flowdan on them, it somehow still meshed into the overall Keysound aesthetic.
Hmm. Yeah. The story with Keysound… I mean we owe them a lot. I definitely owe Martin a lot. He was the one who took a chance on us back in 2007 / 2008 or something like that. I’d gone up to LV’s house, at the time they were working under a different name with a friend of mine who said he knew these guys who’d been producing for Yungun and I should come down and record some stuff at their place. They were making this mad crazy breakbeat/hip-hop stuff so we just recorded… none of that stuff will be released ever. EVER! But on that day, after we were finishing up, they were asking if we had any more stuff that needed recording and I had a poem I’d written called Early Mob, inspired partly by Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner because the first time I heard that I was just like “oh my god this is amazing!” and also once when I was walking past the Trocadero in Leicester Square, there was just this kid stood in front of the security guard with his hood up, you know the style, flexing, yelling “bruv I’ll shank you” so I just tried to get that energy. It was my big angry poem, I used to perform it with my hood up and everything was like “raaaaaaaarr!” and “oh no! Black people! Please calm down!” hahaha. So I recorded it with them and people really liked it, so LV were trying to shop it around, but no one was really buying it because at the time it was just all dubstep. Dubstep was the ting. And this didn’t have any of that standard sound. It was in that same realm but at the same time didn’t have that standard sound. When Martin heard it, he really liked it and wanted to release it so LV agreed but only if they were able to make it into an EP, so I get a call saying “we can release it, but we have to write some more” so there’s us for a whole weekend just churning out as much shit as we can and that ended up being the ‘38’ EP.
Then having released that Martin was like “you have to do an album now because I really like this and I think you need to do an album” so within the year we’d done Routes. With this release though, Islands, we sort of did it independently. I think it was only after we’d made they album that we approached Keysound and asked them if they wanted to release it and they were like “hell yeah.” So it’s been great, they’ve been really supportive, as much as you can be as an independent label and so far it’s all been good, we’re out and about doing shows and so on.
That’s right because you played the Keysound stage & Boat Party at Outlook Festival this year didn’t you? How do you work an LV & Joshua Idehen show in a festival context? The album works as a whole so do you play it like a live show, or do you take an emcee roll and go the more traditional DJ set route?
Well we tried that when we did the first album Routes, doing the whole thing, no cuts, bam. Now what we are doing is a bit of a mixture of both approaches. We’ve done two or three shows with this new set up and I just said to LV let’s not mess about, we’re not “artists”: give ‘em the hits, give ‘em the hits! It’s worked out really well so far, people seem to have really dug it. I take on the role of a sort of emcee/dancer/poet. We’ve practised for a full set as well and that’s a lot more… I wouldn’t say more artistic, it’s more closed. It’s got a lot more peaks and troughs, it’s designed more for people who have actually heard of us and want to come to see us play. Right now though we are just more concerned with having a good time. Having a really good time; we played a set in Marseilles recently, we got booked for this thing on a rooftop space and we were SHITTING ourselves; this space, like to book it, must have cost about two billions dollars haha! The view… it had a view for days, just days and days, so we were kind of excited, then we heard this space can hold about a thousand people aaaand we though “shit, it’s gonna be a ten man and his dog thing” I mean the first DJ up he was dropping some really nice tunes but it was kind of like a family vibe, just a real laid back, small family vibe and I was just looking at the whole thing thinking… Fuck.
Was it a ticketed event then or private thing?
No man worse: it was free. You know what it’s like when it’s free; usually means ain’t no one gonna turn up and if they get there and it’s dead no-one needs a reason to stay. But by the time we got on stage the whole place was rammed! Rammed… and that’s even worse because if it wasn’t rammed you can just tell yourself “aaah if there were people here they would have had fun, but there aren’t. They don’t know who we are because we’re not on MTV” but if it’s rammed and you go on stage and they don’t respond that means you’re just crap, but the place went off man! I don’t really emcee, I’m not an emcee, so I don’t really know anything about how to engage the crowd or any of that, it’s something I’ve never really done with a beat behind me and everything. So we have this song called Primary Colours, off Routes, as far as we’re concerned this song’s a banger but it the past when we’ve played it people have been dancing but just not reacting to it, so I decided “no” I was determined to make some people react to this song and it was surprising. It worked! When you set it up, before the bass drops, then the bass drops… and everyone goes mental like “oh. The bass has dropped… Exactly when you guys said it would” and the whole place just went mad. I just turned around to the guys like “IT WORKED!” I can die now.
Cross that off the bucket list.
Haha yes exactly. Activated a drop. Box ticked. After that it was just mental, we just spent the rest of the night partying, I must have given about seventy group hugs just saying “imagine when the album is released!” I think that’s one of the greatest things about being on Keysound as a label and just understanding where you are: you want to have fun; you want to appreciate what you’re doing and then just enjoy it while you are doing it. Me, I’m the performer: I love to make jokes and dance around and LV, they love to just play a set from start to end and see people dancing all the way through and we’re both at points in our career where we aren’t really afforded the chance to indulge ourselves. I mean we used to do Early Mob just because we didn’t have any more tracks and we had to fill a thirty five or forty five minute set and some people would like it but other people wouldn’t, but either way we had to just fill that set out whereas now we’ve got so many tracks like Imminent, Talk Trim… Tunes that just keep that atmosphere going you know? I think now we’re at that point where we’re just letting people know who we are; we can relax it a bit. People can come down and see the set or hear the single Imminent and people will be like “oh these guys are so great they’re so high tempo” but then when they buy the album they find actually, this is far darker than they thought and “shit! It’s much more than just a dance album, there’s so many more layers” and that’s great. We now decide what we play based on vibe instead of filling the timeslot haha.
It’s funny you said that about Imminent, because that’s been doing the rounds everywhere, even Radio1 picked it up. I remember when I heard it on there I thought how much it sounded like you, then it turns out it was and, as you said, the album covers so much more ground stylistically than just that one song. But the fact it made it to a Radio1 playlist was just bizarre.
It has been mad this whole Imminent thing, because we didn’t expect it at all. Maybe it’s because I do so many projects at once I’m not really focused on one or maybe it’s because I just really didn’t expect it, but… I know it’s not crazy like “here’s all the money in the world” but it’s been picked up by radio and fans and people have really taken it to heart which is cool. I mean, when we made the album we basically just decided to make the album and then Keysound loved it and we loved it and cool: release it. Can they give us any money upfront? No. It’s an independent label so that’s cool. At the time my favourite tune on the album was Make It Count. I don’t know why by I just loved it; I loved the beat and the way it was done, I loved the words, even if I do say so myself, and they dropped Imminent and it just blew up, everyone was just like “wow! Imminent is the best thing since sliced bread” and it was just a case of us running with it really.
It’s great too because in the time since the first LP the pendulum of the music world has swung much more in your favour. As you said earlier when Routes came out dance music was in the latent stages of its dubstep obsession and with that kind of burning out and house music becoming mainstream chart fodder it feels like there’s a little more space for those fringe electronic sounds to edge a bit nearer to centre.
Yeah yeah definitely. *Adopts B-Movie Horror Voice* “The centre becomes the fringe and the fringe becomes the centre!” haha. Yeah it’s really good that it’s been picked up on and, you know, it’s still just little old us doing our thing. I’m actually now gearing up for my career as a talking head in a documentary about the history of bass music. Someone much younger than yourself is going to come up to me in ten years’ time and say “we’re doing a documentary on the history of bass music and the dance / dubstep scene 2010 – 2020 what do you have to say?” and I’ll be there sat in the dingy back room of some sort of rave club giving it the “oh yes back in the day we made a few bangers” thing.
Yeah with a bunch of old rave fliers from gigs you never went to up on the wall behind you.
Hahaha yeeea that’s the look: film a close up on my hand, a blurry shot of some other people who are more famous then cut back to me talking…
A few shots that defocus as you talk and cutaways to archive footage of you performing.
Hahaha yeah! Me there saying “oh I rubbed shoulders with that young TEED fellow once, he and I were best of friends, could have done an album with him too but er… Was busy” haha. But no in all honesty… Here’s the thing right: I don’t think anything I’ve ever made is supposed to be… Popular. I don’t actively go out of my way to make things that are going to alienate people, in any of my projects, but I see reviews and comments saying “oh it’s a bit left field but don’t let that put you off” and I don’t regard any of it as left field! It’s 4/4, there’s a beat, there’s a chorus, there’s a bridge.
Sometimes I get similar response with writing (albeit from my mates, not from journalists) like I’ve just sat there for two hours in the morning looking for the most offhand word I can find for the sake of it.
Yeah yeah exactly. “Have I used discombobulated yet?” “Shall I call the girl in the club voluptuous or embonpoint?”
Exactly haha! Or now, because we are in the age of computers: right click on your dull word, access Thesaurus feature, pick word from list to appear more obscure. NOW we’re in the left-field my friend.
Hahahaha yeah sorted, Tuesday is done. But no in all honesty I don’t think any of us in the group do that and I think that’s because essentially we realise that no matter how much you reach for acceptance or normalcy, eventually you yourself, when you subconsciously create art; that’s you. That’s your true self. Obviously you have to edit it, but when you create something, you might write it consciously, but a large part of it was probably created by you subconsciously; without you thinking “what will They think” or “how much money can I make from this” or worrying about whether you’ve used a clever enough line or not. I might listen to something where we’ve really briefly changed the time signature, just for a few seconds and think it’s great, that it’s a great pop song, then I’ll play it to someone else and they will think it’s completely bizarre and that it must be an experimental soundscape or something, because the time signature is off. Unless you a famous or wildly successful (or both) you’ll always be “weird.” As a creative other people always tend to regard you as “weird.” You can be mainstream and successful; there’s always a need for that. People have a need for that music; I go do my shopping and I have that playing in the background and that’s great but there needs to be people pushing boundaries or just pushing their own creative impulses and they tend to not be so successful, but sometimes they do. Some people chase careers, some people keep ploughing their own style and some people just hit their magic formula. Like we were saying before, sometimes things just come around to their angle or style.
Like it did with dubstep a few years ago and grime music more recently getting that resurgent interest.
Yes it’s just that sensation of having reached the other shore and people start to get what you’re doing, then people go back to your back catalogue and it all sounds amazing. I think most creatives, deep down; they want that time to come for them: that feeling of “this is going to be my time.” I think that’s part of the reason why I’m involved in so many different projects and the same with LV; because we don’t want that to be a factor. We don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket. I’m not about just waiting for a producer to send me that one beat, I’ve got musical ideas too which is why I do Benin City and my work with Tom Leper. Essentially the joy of creating is more important than where it might lead us… I know that sounds like a cliché and like “I don’t want to be rich”… Bruv. I wanna be rich. I want to make all the money, all of the time. If I woke up tomorrow with the dirtiest, poppest pop tune in my head I would write it down and sing it! If people said I sold out I’d just say I couldn’t hear them from over here on my yacht… My yacht that’s on the back of an airship. In the air. Like Captain America. But no; the point I’m getting to is even if I did all that, made all that money, I’d still just want to create music. My ideal space is to just wake up, sit down, write music, then go back to sleep.
Yep to be honest my time on the Dole, when I was just cranking out work every day and had nothing else, was some of the happiest time I’ve spent.
Yes definitely. It’s like when you slowly start worming your way out a writer’s block, it is really great when you sit down and create something. It’s great to think “I made something of worth” well at the moment, financially it’s of zero worth haha but yes, we live in a society that allows us the freedom to sit and create more than many and we really should cherish that.
Islands by LV & Joshua Idehen is available now on download, CD and double vinyl via Keysound Recordings.
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