Obaro Ejimiwe is Ghostpoet, UK rap’s freshest and finest voice in 2011. The man’s debut album, Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam, was released in February via Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label, and immediately set about attracting plaudits from left, right and centre. And rightly so, too – a striking collection, comparisons with Roots Manuva’s breakthrough with his Brand New Second Hand LP of 1999 are well deserved, this newcomer’s potential positively tangible.
But arguably Obaro imbibes his arrangements with more soul than many a peer; these are heartfelt anthems for heavy eyelids, ghostly echoes around a room you’ve known all your life but the furniture’s been rearranged. These are stories that needed telling, that need hearing. And now they are being heard – a Mercury Prize nomination has seen Ghostpoet’s music propelled to daytime playlists. Me, I’m keeping them crossed that he goes the whole way, takes the £20k and turns it into a career that counts.
We meet – in person for the first time, after exchanging several emails and Tweets since the album’s release (he’s introduced me to a handful of great new acts) – at the end of another busy press day for Obaro. But he’s happy to talk and at no little length, amiable from the off and never without a laugh bubbling beneath the surface of an answer. I record nearly an hour of material – and then we continue talking for almost another hour. We’re both late home to our wives as a result. Some interviews, some meetings, are worth missing dinner for.
So, what a difference a list makes…
(Laughs) Very true. I’d kind of got used to the idea of it – but what with the closeness of it, and all the press I’ve been doing because of it, it’s come back to the forefront of my mind. It is a big deal, but I’ve got on with it the best I can – doing the music, doing gigs. And now it’s nearly here… Wow, the Mercury.
It’s certainly going to all come home on the night, when you have to perform there alongside all of the other nominated artists.
I think I’m just going to try to treat it like any other gig.
You’ll try… And then you’ll see all the chandeliers, and the people supping on expensive wine… And the back of peoples’ heads.
(Laughs) That’s very true. You can’t fault them. It’s going to be good fun. It’s not ever going to happen again, so…
You say that, but there are plenty of artists now who’ve been nominated twice or more.
Well, okay, I guess it can happen again.
Don’t cross it off your list of achievements, if you don’t win. And even if you do, nobody’s won it twice yet.
That’s right, nobody has.
You can set the precedent. Assuming you win it once, obviously.
This is it… I need to win this time, to have that chance.
Do you follow odds at all? You’re looking pretty good in that world. Probably worth a small punt.
I don’t. Well, I say I don’t – people have told me. I think I’m 10/1. But no, don’t put a fiver down, you’ll only lose it. I’ve told my friends not to, to save their money. But I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of them have put some money down. Honestly, though, being part of this is amazing – it is the pinnacle of my career, so far. And I’ve just got to keep going from here. For an artist like me, at the start of my career, this is great. People that had never heard of me before are now hearing my music because of this list, so while it might be criticised by some people, that to me is amazing. Things were happening for me, there was a buzz – but this has really sped things up.
There was definitely a feeling amongst some of us critic types that you’d be in with a decent shout this year. And if not yours, maybe Dels’ record. Though I’ll admit I didn’t totally see Tinie Tempah being there – not at first, anyway. But what with his US success…
I honestly thought that if I made it there, that’d be it for rap records – I didn’t think I’d see Tinie Tempah in there too. And when I saw he was down, I didn’t think I’d have a chance. But then I was… That’s mad. I’m so happy to be in there, and I hope things can improve more.
Well, let’s say you win it. The prize money is going to be a huge deal for an artist of your level.
Oh, yeah, a huge deal. It would really change my life. I’d hope – if I won – I’d be able to put it to good use to set myself up for years to come. That’s an aspect of it that I don’t think a lot of people think about, that for artists like myself – and a few others on this year’s list – £20,000 is nothing to sniff at.
It’s a deposit on a lovely house…
Could be, could be. Or just a room in Kennington.
Aim further south, it gets cheaper. You’re talking there about the money, and this opportunity to gain a wider audience – about the next stage. But how long was this stage, from starting this record to releasing it and everything that’s happened since?
I was writing for a while – but this album is a mixture of old material and new stuff. I was writing demos, to put towards an album – if that ever happened – and once I got involved with Brownswood that opportunity, to make an album, presented itself. But then I was like: What do I do? I took a few of those old demos and developed them; but I made a lot of new tunes, to create this world, this world of me.
So any older tracks were revised to fit the tone of the album?
Yeah, there was nothing that was finished prior to the album process and then included. Most of it was purely new stuff. But it was a case of trying to make something that I would want to listen to, regardless of whether or not it even got out. As a listener, this is what I would want to hear; I wasn’t even thinking about it being an album, format wise. I just kept developing each track until it felt right, rather than counting the number I had, until I had enough for an album.
And do you hope that people do respect Peanut Butter Blues… as an album, that they don’t just download the tracks they’ve heard on 6 Music, or via YouTube? After all, the Mercury recognises and rewards albums, not tracks.
I guess so, ultimately. I do want that. And that’s why I really wanted my album to come out on vinyl, so you have that experience of something playing all the way through.
Apart from that awkward halfway point, of course.
Oh yeah, why can’t someone create a flip record player, so I don’t have to get up?
Put your 20 grand towards it.
I could! Now I’ve said that on tape though, someone else will go and steal it. But seriously, I know that time I’m in, and I know that there are a lot of people who will just listen to one or two of my songs, rather than the album as a block of music. You may like track one, track ten… Put that on your shuffle, I’ll be happy. I do understand that way of listening. I’ll continue to make music the way I do, and present it the way I want to; but if people want to just take a few tracks, that’s cool. For me, as long as people are listening to something I’m making, I’m happy. I’m less impatient than I was ten years ago, but I know people don’t want to listen to a whole album, and some just don’t have the time.
And the whole album was self-produced, right? Which was something of a learning curve, to say the least. So what goes through your mind when you know that a producer you respect is hearing this track that you, essentially, made in your bedroom?
Well, there are always little things that you think you’d like to have changed in the beginning, aspects of the tracks. But now, I appreciate that these tracks mark moments in my life, so they represent where I was at the time. I feel that I have developed production wise and lyric wise – maybe not a lot, but I have! I think it’s a confidence thing to be honest – if I could go back, I wouldn’t change anything. I did used to think that maybe someone would hear, like, the drums on track five or something… that they’d find me out. Like, the vocals on ‘Cash and Carry Me Home’, I recorded at home on something like, like…
Like this Dictaphone?
Well, not that cheap.
I’ll have you know entire Radio 2 documentaries have been recorded on this little beauty. It’s not the size that counts…
(Laughs) I can imagine… I take your point. But little things like that. Perhaps once I worried about the quality of the production, or the equipment I had at my disposal, but you know, it doesn’t matter. It’s not about the technical side of it, making sure everything’s perfect in that respect; it’s about the feeling of it, the emotion.
And I think that really comes through. There’s something about the feel of the record that I can’t quite put into a single word… It’s sort of like the time of day when the sun’s gone down, but you’re not willing to turn on a light just yet. That makes no sense… You know, when you’re struggling to read the paper, but you squint your way through it rather than stand up and walk over to the light switch. Your album, it’s like that. It’s not a ‘bright’ record.
(Laughs) I think… I hope that it is bright, even though I connect brightness with pop. And I don’t have anything against pop, but it’s not something I want to do. I think, if I can get the right kind of brightness, like a fake brightness – like you’re setting fire to a sun in a room with no windows. I think that’s what I want to aim for. Maybe that will work for me. But I’m just making… and now, when I’m writing anything new, I’m trying to think back to what I was thinking when I wrote this album. Not to the same thoughts, but to how I was having them. I’m trying to just make music without thinking about how it’ll be received, how people are going to react to it.
But that must go through your mind when you’re working on new material now, what with the exposure the Mercury has given you? The first album was written in that comfort zone, where nobody knows you…
I agree. I mean, I’m going to be in Vanity Fair tomorrow…
No, no, I’m kidding. I think it’s a case of, when I started making tunes again, I did have that going through my mind. I’d have been playing a gig, to a number of people, and I’d come away from that thinking: How can I now write a song that will appeal to those people, like these current songs do? But that doesn’t make any sense, because the songs on the album, I write them with nobody in mind, with no audience to please. I mean, I was nothing… I still think I’m nothing, but nobody ten cared what I was doing. So I’m trying to get back to that mindset, and the way I’m doing that is by just flinging things into a tune without really having a clue about anything. I’m not thinking any further than that. I’ve not sent anything to anyone; I’m just sitting on new stuff until I’m happy with it.
Well, I don’t suppose this album’s ‘cycle’ is quite over yet, anyway. One more single, maybe?
Maybe. ‘Liiines’ could be the last single, but we’re pushing on with this album at least until the New Year. I’d like to put another album out towards the end of next year. I want enough time to develop what I’m doing now – if I put something out in February, it wouldn’t be real, for me. So that’s the plan. I’m looking forward to making something new. I don’t want to alienate anyone, but it’s important that my music evolves.
And from here we talk bling (and Obaro’s lack of it), we talk mortgages, we talk eastern European festivals and a whole lot more that’d push this article into a four-part feature. Which, frankly, would delay you checking out the man’s music. Which you should. Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam is probably my favourite domestic record of the year. If it wins at the Mercury, I shall hoot so loudly Jools will assume a barn owl with a penchant for rap has found its way inside the Grosvenor Hotel, stolen some booze and hidden itself inside Adele’s hair. Suppose you’d best watch the BBC coverage to find out whether it’s a bird, or just me, drunk, dangling off the balcony.
Ghostpoet online: www.ghostpoet.co.uk