Tony Cummings spoke to the London-based emcee and social activist JAHAZIEL
The one fact that everybody repeats about London-based rapper Jahaziel is that he won a prestigious MOBO Award. But the album which won him that accolade, 'Ready To Live', was released in 2007 and since then there have been precious few sightings - a short TV film Rapping With God in 2008; a single "Coming For Me" with Jahaziel joining forces with Guvna Be, New Direction Crew, E-Tizz and others in 2010; and a 'Still Livin'' mixtape in 2011. So the news that one of Britain's most gifted rappers had signed to an American record label was greeted with expectation by the whole gospel hip-hop underground and now the glowing reviews are coming in thick and fast with the release of the truly exceptional 'Heads Up' album. I caught up with Jahaziel Elliot, who is today the overseer of the Eden Tollington team, the North London church initiative which runs night pastors, youth clubs, work with refugee communities, drop-ins for mums and toddlers and much more to hear about his dual ministry as celebrated rapper and friend of the disadvantaged.
Tony: This is your first proper album for years. Why the delay?
Jahaziel: For the last few years, music hasn't really been my main priority. I've been working full-time for a charity - and family - so music hasn't been my number one priority, but it's been in the background, keeping busy, as far as featuring in other people's projects. I've got a new situation with a label now - Xist Music, based in Atlanta - and that's helped a lot as far as organizationally, financially. But hopefully it won't be as long a wait till the next one.
Tony: You were a guy living sacrificially on a troubled housing estate and you got signed to an American record label!
Jahaziel: It came at a time that I was least expecting it. There was a time when I was more given to being in a studio putting out music, and it came at quite a quiet time. It was through relationships, my manager. I've always had a following of some sort in the States; I've been over there many times, building a fanbase, so it seems natural. I was really happy to get on a label with some of my favourite artists - T.R.U.T.H and Ambassador. Between that and living on the estate, it's like that's my world - put the music out there on a world basis and try to make an effect locally.
Tony: Do you know Sean Simmonds quite well now?
Jahaziel: Yeah, Sean's really good. I've known Sean for a bit from a distance, but since signing with the label we talk often. He's been instrumental in getting the album put together.
Tony: You don't have to meet the guests on your album these days.
Jahaziel: Most of the artists on my album are all artists I have good relationships with. There are a couple that it made more sense to send their stuff over. I did some of the recording in Atlanta. I've had the chance to record with some people, but on this project there was a lot of file-sharing.
Tony: Do producers finish a backing track and present it to you, or do you write raps before there's a track?
Jahaziel: Different people work differently. I do both: there are songs where I might just have an idea of a song, written in my head; there are times when someone sends me music and it inspires me to write a particular way; there are times when I get in a studio with a producer and we're working together, sharing ideas as we go. It can work a lot of different ways. Most of the stuff on this album was a case of producer sending me beats, and me feeling inspired to write according to where I think the music was going.
Tony: Is "beat" the entire track?
Jahaziel: Probably 80 per cent. Once I've done some vocals on it, they might embellish it a bit more. Or I might give them some guidance: 'Can you put this on it?' 'Put that on it.' I write most of the hooks. On a few tracks you see on the credits I had some input. It depends on what type of vibe I'm going for on a track: I know my strong points, and I know other people's strong points. I ask the appropriate person.
Tony: Tell me about some of the themes on this album.
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