Hitting the UK Music scene hard, Context is the first ever unsigned act to make it on the MTV Brand New List for 2012. Being from Norwich, studying towards a PHD and fusing hip-hop with emotional dubstep, he is not your average rapper. Arriving promptly and extremely courteous, we settle down for an interview. We speak about his musical influences, his view of the UK Rap Scene and the making of his fantastic under water video for his latest single ‘Drowning’.
How did it feel to be on MTV Brand New for 2012’s unsigned list and how did it come about?
It’s crazy. I don’t even know how this happened. I knew about the list as they had people like Tinie Tempa and Lady Gaga on it in previous years. For 2012, they said it would be 10 acts but 9 of them would be on major labels with one slot dedicated to an unsigned act. You basically throw your name in a hat and you had to get votes to build you up including YouTube views and your ‘buzz factor’. On the day of the deadline, I was finally convinced to enter. I dint want to at first because I didn’t want to get in everyone’s face and nag people to vote for me. It was nuts. I had hundreds and hundreds of people supporting. So my manager eventually called me up and said I had won the whole competition. He said: ‘So its you, Lana Del Ray, Angel and all these people that I see on telly and me! I didn’t see it coming at all.
Did this motivate you to do better with your music career?
Well being in the MTV’s Brand New list definitely put pressure on me. When it came to doing the video for drowning I was like: ‘This better be good now!’ I thought if the signed artists have a real big budget video and I go back to MTV with some crap video, they would be like why should we even keep you on this list? So I had to go back with something really good and was glad there was so many people that liked the idea and so were willing to be involved in the project
The video for Drowning which is available on iTunes is great! What was it like filming such a cool video?
It was absolutely crazy. I went to them with this idea of doing an underwater video and I thought its not going to be hard. All I have to do is swim underwater, hold the camera down and its done. So they got this director from EMI who has worked with Emeli Sande who is under the same management. So he was really excited about it and had this idea of going through this puddle. So my management rang me a few days later saying they had found this huge tank where bourne Identity was filmed, we got the actress, make up artists everything. The whole experience was quite terrifying. You can’t really see from the video, but it was shot about 25m under water! So I arrived and I had two scuba divers with me and I’ve never dived before. I had to practice breathing for about five or ten minutes and we were ready to go. So I climbed down this ladder right the way down to the bottom and for me id like to know that if I want, I can just swim up but obviously this was 25m deep. So they were like don’t panic, serious do not panic. The worst thing you can do is panic. So obviously I got down there and panicked! I eventually got out and was like ‘I’m not doing it’. The whole crew was ready and waiting and had spent thousands of pounds to hire this tank.
They then decided to shoot the model’s scene under water and she just came in and said ‘yeah kool no problem’ and dived straight in! She was under water for like two hours. After seeing how good it looked, I had to brace myself and knew I had to give it a go. I took a deep breath and they pressed play on the music, which you can hear through the massive speakers put in the tank. So the music is playing which is playing at twice the speed because the video is in slow motion. So I’m there trying to rap and sing at twice the speed, following the lights to find the camera whilst running out of breath and trying to not panic. There were times when the divers had to hold my legs to hold me still but after the first hour, I started getting used to it.
How did you come up with the name Context?
None of my friends liked rap music and so they would ask about who rappers are and what they do. They would need someone like me to put it all into context for it to make sense for them. I thought that could be a cool name if I began rapping.
Where did you grow up and what artist did you grow up listening to?
Well I moved house every three years until about the age of 14. I was actually born in Lincoln, lived in London, than Nottingham, back to Lincoln than yeah moved to Norwich. I now live in London. From the age of 12, it was just rap music. I had the Wu Tang Forever album. I then would steal off my older cousins who lived up in Manchester who had music like 2pac’s Thug Life album on tape. Before that I was into rock music so like Nirvana, Ragence Machine. I spent the ages between 12 and 20 just listening to rap music and nothing else. Whilst working a 9-5 in a call centre, I would have my headphone on one ear and the headset to make the calls in the other. So that was literally 8 hours straight listening to rap music. I had Ghostface Killah’s album-‘Supreme Clientele’, Cuban Linx album and Nas’ albums.
How were you able to get noticed as an up and coming artist?
I’ve always thought there’s two ways you can go about constructing a good enough buzz around you that would lead to wherever you want it to. You could either build up a fan base which people in the industry couldn’t ignore like what K-Koke did or Giggs. But you can’t really do that in Norwich because there are not many people there. Your route to getting people to hear about you is through intermediaries. That’s why for me, radio was so important or why MTV was so important and the mainstream press. It’s the only way I could realistically get people to listen to what I had to say. Every one has a video on YouTube. You need something that says your different enough to make people want to press play. I guess if you live in London and can reach out to a potential fan base then maybe the first route is for you but that route wasn’t really open to me.
‘I always give everything a good go. It’s almost more important than winning. Because at least if you give it a good go, you can at least say you tried.’
How would you define your music?
It’s hard to define. I guess if you had to put it into a category, you would have to call it UK Hip Hop because its rap in a UK accent. I don’t like to be affiliated with UK Hip hop necessarily. I just don’t like to put myself into a box. If I wanted to do a deep house tune tomorrow, I would do it and would expect people to just be like ok fair enough. I actually am not interested in certain conventions of what a genre are. I cant pretend to be anything other than who I am. I’m just a guy from Norwich. Norwich isn’t ‘gully’. I’ve never cared upsetting a UK Hip Hop audience or a drum and bass or dub step audience. It doesn’t really matter to me. If you don’t like it, just don’t listen to it. It doesn’t really bother me.
When did you realise you could sing and MC?
Well I never used to sing but on my last two singles ‘Drowning’ and ‘Listening to Burial’, I sing the choruses and some of the singles coming out will have only singing on it and no rapping. So I’m definitely singing more. I’m trying to find the right balance between the two because I’m not Pavarotti or anything but I can hold a decent note! I did a track last year with Marvel. I had a hook idea which I had for a girl to sing but after trying it out in the studio, he was like ‘Why don’t you sing it?’ so I thought if someone else thinks I can do it maybe I can. So I played a few more tracks and realised I could. It’s what I focus on now and can’t imagine not singing. I used to just have bars and then find a beat to put them on but now I get a beat and sing a chorus on it and work outwards. The melody is more important to me now. I’m trying to be more of a songwriter than a rapper
You have received great comments from the media. SBTV say you are ‘destined for big things’. MOBO Awards have said ‘this is your year’ and The Independent believe you are ‘set to make your mark.’ How does this make you feel when you hear comments like this?
When the media were saying the positive things they were saying, it was awesome. They have been amazing. When people talk about how cut-throat the industry is and how horrible they are, it’s just so not true. People in the industry have gone so out of their way to help me when it’s not even in their interest to do so. I think its because there’s not really anybody doing the kind of thing I’m doing. So that already catches people attention. But also just being able to speak to people and being polite through emails and stuff. If your polite to people, they are polite back.
Your bars are heart felt and you speak about what’s going on in society. Is this important for rappers to do?
Depending on how you do it yeah. I don’t really like preachy rap. I know some people really like that sort of like what LowKey is doing but I wouldn’t listen to that in my spare time. I wouldn’t want to do all that social and political stuff. I just try make my bars relevant to everyday life partly because I think it’s important to do but also because that’s pretty much all I can write about. I could just make stuff up but that’s not what I’m about. I just can’t imagine writing about something you didn’t have a personal experience of knowing about. That’s why I try making it more relatable for people. I’m not a ‘road bloke’, so its more about me.
Are you hoping to get signed? Or are you happy to continue on the independent route?
I do want to get signed. Being independent as an artist does give you that freedom to do what you want but the fact is who is paying for my petrol to get here today? At the end of the day music is not paying my rent. Maybe doing some shows would help but I’d rather have the security of knowing I’ve got a cheque coming in. at the minute it feels like I’m doing an apprenticeship really because even though it’s a full time thing, this aint really my job. So getting a deal with a major label will be like finally getting the job.’I’ve always had this mentality of giving everything a good go. It’s almost more important than winning. Because at least if you give it a good go, at least you can say you tried.’
What do you do apart from music?
I’m at Uni at the moment doing a PHD in music industry economics so ties in well with my music. I did three years as an undergrad, then my masters and doing three years now. It would be a problem if I was to get signed tomorrow but it depends how much time needs to be allocated to each one. I’d work it out as I go along. My Uni understand things are going well for me in music.
What is the biggest challenge you have had to face in your music career so far and how did you overcome it?
Probably doing that Drowning video! I’d say that was the most physically challenging. Moving to London was more of an emotional challenge but I’ve always had this mentality of I have to just give everything a good go. It’s almost more important than winning. Because at least if you give it a good go, you can say you at least tried.
Finally, is there anything else you would like to add?
If you haven’t heard me before, just check me out. Lots of people I know like rap music but a lot of rap music doesn’t actually speak to them or is about them, which makes it hard to relate to. Like I said I like listening to Mobb Deep, Giggs or grime music but actually that music doesn’t have any relevance to my life. I want my music to speak to people in a way that other music probably isn’t so it’s staying true to people who love rap music but also bringing a new audience to it. If you want to hear something different, just have a look.
On The Spot
Who is the best person you’ve ever seen perform live?
Do you put your boxers or your socks on first?
Who sent the last text message you received and what did it say?
It literally just says ‘Big’ from my management. They’re talking about a studio session I’m going to this evening.
What was the last song you downloaded?
2 Chains ft Drake – No Lie.
Do you scrunch or fold your toilet paper?
Who’s bed did you sleep in last night?
My own. I don’t think I’ve ever slept in anyone else’s bed!