Guy Heywood caught up with the the UK hip-hop pioneer to hear how a hippy from the country made it in the hip-hop scene, and how he’s getting on as a single father.
Hailing from the countryside of North Devon and then moving to London to pursue music must have been exciting. What was the impetus for taking that leap into the unknown?
I had fallen in love with hip-hop a few years before I left Devon and then moved to Brighton when I was 18. I was working in a record shop and DJing and had begun to make music, so the move to London was a natural progression. I needed to be close to the hub and link like-minded people on the UK rap scene. I needed to get amongst it and push myself as a DJ and producer.
Your first son was born when you were 24. That must have been a special moment and I’m sure it changed things for you. How was it adapting to being a dad?
I was too young and immature to be the best father, but the extra responsibility made me clean up my act a little. I started using my time a little more efficiently and getting stuff done. Being a Dad was the greatest feeling and changed my perspective about a lot of things. I became less selfish, a little more focused and channeled my energy better; it was so inspiring hanging out with my son Solomon, sharing moments and being stimulated creatively by fatherhood.
Being a Dad was the greatest feeling and changed my perspective about a lot of things.
Your debut album Countryman won hip hop album of the year at the 2001 Hip Hop Awards. Was the switch from being known only in the UK underground to then being more well known difficult to manage?
The UK hip hop scene seemed pretty small back then. Everyone knew everyone. We all shopped in the same record shops and linked at the same clubs. Most people I worked with I had hung out with or met through mutual friends so the vibes were like a big extended family. I wasn’t really launched into the spotlight but I did get pretty well known for putting out quality tunes with quality emcees. Really I just put out a producer’s album that shone the light on a lot of up-and-coming talented rappers and I made sure we didn’t cut corners on mixing and mastering. Maintaining the production calibre was essential and it was where I felt a lot of people were being lazy and shooting themselves in the foot. I was also super picky about the emcees I worked with and tried to just keep the bar high for all projects. I’m not sure if I was ever that well known out of the underground, the rap scene over here that I’ve been involved with has always stayed pretty subterranean.
Did you feel there was pressure to act a certain way within the hip-hop scene?
To a certain extent I did and I guess in certain situations I was maybe a little embarrassed about being a little hippy kid from Exmoor. But on the whole hip hop kids were pretty boring and I was living the rock’n’roll lifestyle. I didn’t really care too much about what other people thought. Looking back I probably made a fool of myself a few times but c’est la vie, we always had fun and were humble. I’ve always just been me and represented my love of hip hop personally on the journey it has taken me, embracing my roots and background, utilizing it.
I guess in certain situations I was maybe a little embarrassed about being a little hippy kid from Exmoor.
1Xtra was born and you were asked to present the flagship hip-hop show, Original Fever with Rodney P. What was the inspiration behind it?
The Original Fever name came from a reggae singer called Tenor Saw. We both shared a love of reggae and rap. Our ethos on the show was to highlight the quality and depth of UK Rap and play the homegrown stuff back to back alongside the American stuff to prove we could stand alongside them and push our UK scene worldwide. We both love reggae and bass music of all genres so it was a little different to your average rap show. We always stuck to our guns, didn’t follow the hype or bow to fashion which made the show strong but ultimately dug our grave at the same time because we weren’t necessarily catering to the masses.
The show played a diverse selection of British and American rap, whilst at 1Xtra you interviewed the biggest names from both sides of the Atlantic, including 50 Cent, Redman and Method Man, Ludacriss, The Roots, Pharrell and Clipse. How was that?
Well they say never meet your heroes and I did get let down a few times but on the whole it was real interesting. Some artists that I didn’t really feel too tough surprised me and others that I admired went down in my estimation. Overall it was a great time and we met a lot of good people, played alongside some major artists and had many adventures.
Were there any ‘off radio’ comments you could share?
Pharrell once locked the door to the interview room because he was enjoying our debate about the Iraq war too much. He talked a lot about the Middle East and the invasion of Iraq and although most of it didn’t get aired it was encouraging that within the mainly materialistic rap world there were artists that cared about the problems facing humanity and not just the size of their gold chain.
Later you went onto to support Jay Z, Kanye West, Ghostface Killah and The Roots on tour. How did you handle the touring lifestyle?
At points I felt on top of the world, other times I was lazy and rested on my laurels. I could have taken better advantage of the situation I was in and been more constructive, but at the time I was having too much fun. It took its toll physically and mentally and after losing the job at 1Xtra I definitely went through a dark few months and was pretty down. I moved out of London and that saved my relationship. Losing the BBC job and obviously the dwindling DJ bookings gave me the impetus I needed and I refocused, released another album and stepped back up to the plate.
My world collapsed. She was my soul mate and my best friend. Life will never be the same without her.
Unfortunately, you recently had to experience the pain of losing someone very close to you. Is there anything which has helped you get through that so far?
The last few months have been the most traumatic and difficult of my life. After getting through some hurdles with my girlfriend Tash, our relationship of 15 years was loving, strong and exciting. We were in the best place we had ever been and for the last 3 or 4 years had been on top of the world. We were on holiday in Turkey in May when she collapsed with a pontine haemmorrage and died a few days later. My world collapsed. She was my soul mate and my best friend. Life will never be the same without her. I was suddenly thrown into single Dad mode, my financial burden doubled on top of dealing with the enormity of my heartbreak and the void she has left, it’s something that I will probably never get over. Learning to deal with it seems impossible some days but occasionally I see chinks of light as I fight to motivate myself. Other days everything seems pointless and I struggle to focus. I am slowly getting my mojo back but I’m not there yet. Our 10 year old son Asher and my other son Solomon who’s 22 are my motivation and my anchorage. Without them I’d probably be walking in the wilderness somewhere or embracing my dark side. I’m living day to day as I try and reestablish my spark for life and my creative zest, putting one shelltoe in front of another, carrying on the adventures we always had and trying to inspire my boys.
The loveliest reaction is still a massive hug, because I need them. So if you see me you know what to do.
What has changed throughout this horrible time is that I’ve realised the importance of family and friends. My support network is strong and ultimately is going to be the driving force that helps me get through it. Some people don’t know what to say to me, some are embarrassed to broach the subject, others that I thought were quite close friends don’t call. It’s weird that your phone is quieter than usual. The loveliest reaction is still a massive hug, because I need them. So if you see me you know what to do.
Speaking to people who have been through similar experiences and are empathetic to my situation has helped. Reading also helps, and writing. They say that it’s ‘better that we never know what lies beyond the next hill’ and I now know this to be true. I can’t plan too far ahead and I will continue my adventures and strive to be happy, as my beautiful Tash would have wanted – spreading the message of love like the little hippy kid I’ve always been.
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