Andrew Kay speaks with west London rapper and producer Apex Zero about his new album, Reality Provoking Liberation and gets an insight into the man behind the music.
Tell us a bit about where you're from and when you started performing.
''Hounslow, but I grew up all over West London - Brentford, Acton, Shepherd’s Bush, Southall. I had friends all over so we’d always be doing stuff in different places. I started writing bars when I was about 12 or 13, trying to get on what my brother and his people were doing - he was a Garage DJ. When I was about 15 we did a few little dead shows, but when I started taking music seriously I was making Hip Hop at about 16.''
''My first proper performances were with my brother OMeza Omniscient (from my team First and Last) and a live Jazz/Funk/World-music band with some members of the legendary Osibisa. We’d been put in touch with them through a brother at a community organisation we worked with and they invited us to come and perform on some of their sets. After that, we hit the London Hip Hop open-mic scene hard - spots like Deal Real and Speakers Corner - and got a lot of love.''
Do you feel that initially, performing live more so than recording, helped you develop as an artist so you were more prepared to enter the studio?
''I don’t think I can say I really started performing live first. It started off when we met a young producer called The Hoax (of Craze and Hoax) who’d set up a little studio at his yard. We’d be there recording into SM58’s, spitting into pop shields made of tights and hangers on mic-stands made outta brooms! It was kind of a cycle, we’d record, perform, record, perform and with each experience learn more each time.''
''Performing live definitely helped things like my projection on tracks and developing flows - clocking what kinda flows got the best reaction from crowds or other emcees in cyphers. But at the same time, hearing how I sounded on tracks made me realise I wanted, and needed to sound more energetic and really push my bars out hard. So it was definitely the influence of both.''
Reality provoking liberation is your debut solo album. You released a solo mixtape last year, so what differences do you feel you get from recording as a solo artist compared to being in the group set up with First and Last?
''My brother OMeza from First and Last has helped a lot in terms of providing beats and lyrics to my tracks. He's also involved with mixing, mastering and even cover design. My brother, The Aurahkel also recorded both my solo projects and a lot of the older First and Last stuff. So it’s been a lot of the same people involved, the main difference is that I’ve spent a lot more time working on my own in terms of getting the orders right. I made more beats on these projects, mixing and organising other stuff like promotion and having more of an individual decision over the direction of everything. But it’s still been a communal effort, in a way it’s them man’s project too.''
What themes and concepts are you exploring on your debut album?
''Nearly all the tracks follow some common threads - highlighting the experiences of struggling and oppressed people in the UK and worldwide, the need for us to become the driving force behind tackling that oppression and the reason for that suffering. I feel we can go about doing that through unity, organisation and eventually an assault on the cause, the common enemy. Reality Provoking Liberation is a philosophy inspired by the teachings of Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X and The Black Panther Party.''
''The struggles that we go through (our Reality) trains us and gives us the tools to inspire each other (to Provoke) the fight for our freedom (our Liberation). Through this album I’m trying to inspire people to become unified, to get organised and start planning to make real change happen by tackling the root of our problems, not the branches. I also want to encourage those of us already fighting towards this to keep going, to let them know that they are making a difference and that there are people out there that feel and think along similar lines.''
How much input do you have in the production side of your album?
''A lot! Of the 15 on the final retail version I produced 11, with my brother OMeziah making 3 and DJ Fortune providing the other 1. I was involved in all the mixing - I did a lot of it myself and the rest with OMeziah and my brother The Instrument of Allah. I even had some input with the mastering. It’s the first time I’ve had that much input and it’s really let me create the sound I wanted.''
Which kinds of writers influence your thinking?
''My biggest influences are Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and Huey P. Newton. They’ve really helped to shape my worldview since I was put onto them through Hip Hop groups like dead prez, Wu-Tang and Immortal Technique. I’ve also read a lot of Chinese Philosophy - Confucius, Mencius, Hsun Tzu and Mo-Tzu as well as a lot of Taoist theory.''
''In terms of analysing the society we live in today, Michel Foucault is on point and in terms of African History Molefi Kete Asante has taught me a lot. The Japanese Manga artist, Kentaro Miura, influenced me through his masterpiece ‘Berserk’. He’s been writing it for over 20 years and it’s incredible.''
Growing up, who were your biggest musical influences? Who do you rate nowadays?
''My biggest influences in Hip Hop have been dead prez, Wu-Tang, Immortal Technique, Big Pun, The Roots and from the UK Klashnekoff and Skinnyman. Them man showed me the level that UK heads were on when I was younger and showed me I had to step my own game up.''
''But I listen to a wide range of music and artists - Coltrane, Miles Davis, Gill-Scott Heron, The Wailers, Dennis Brown, Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Massive Attack, Bjork, Portishead, Otis Reading, Isaac Hayes, Rage Against The Machine, Slayer, Metallica, Chopin, Albinoni, Beethoven - this could go on for a LONG time!''
''UK Hip Hop is coming hard at the moment - heads like Caxton Press and Triple Darkness are killing it and have been for a while.''
How would you describe the state of UK hip-hop and the wider art form of rap? And which UK rapper or rap group (think of a time before mobile phones) do you consider UK rap's greatest legacy?
''Hip Hop in general is going through a lot of change. For a long time there’s been a clear divide between what's labelled ‘Hip Hop’ or ‘Urban’ and ‘Underground’ or ‘Independent’. The sounds, feel, depth and range are different. But I think in the last few years, where the ‘mainstream’ appears to have merged into a bland, boring, generic pop sound.The underground is creating some really good stuff, previously considered as cutting edge at the forefront for media coverage.''
''People are pushing boundaries. There’s a lot of music out there that wouldn’t necessarily be considered Hip Hop but is clearly standing on Hip Hop’s shoulders. There’s still ill classic-style Hip Hop coming out all over the world - heads like Joey Bada$$ and Poetic Death in the US, like Caxton Press and Triple Darkness over here, and a crew 1995 from France who are sick. Heads like this don’t need massive media coverage, they just need good social network skills. So its getting out there, just not on TV or in major magazines, but it's online, you’ve just gotta look for it even if you wade through some weak stuff to find it.''
''In terms of legacy, Skinny and K-lash took it to another level for me with their first albums. Both had a big influence over a lot of my generation of UK emcees. I think Phi-Life Cypher are beginning to get seen as prophets of UK Hip Hop - they were talking about stuff that people are still just discovering today. Blak Twang, in his name and style as much as his music, has a big legacy because since then I think everyone’s been spitting in UK Black Twang - no more fake US accents.''
As Brits, we're often criticised for being obsessed with either council estates or stately homes and our so-called empire. How much is your outlook based on being English? How do you avoid the stereotypes and clichés in the narratives you want to talk about?
''It's complicated. I refer to myself as African. This is the place my ancestors were stolen from and no amount of distance or torture along the way changes their, or my origin. But my mother is from the white English working class - and I love my family on that side. My grandparents struggled their whole lives to provide for their family in the Thatcher and Pre-Thatcher eras. So I’d never deny my heritage. I’m also English, but I’ll never call myself British. That suggests an empire which killed, raped and pillaged indigenous populations everywhere outside of Europe, creating the problems that most of those people still face today, still maintained by western nations.''
''Why would I want to label myself after something so malevolent? And right there I’ve spoken about the things you’ve asked about - class division, race and empire. I guess my position may differ from a lot of people in the UK, maybe that’s what gives me a different outlook and narrative. But as I’ve grown up here, England and particularly London has shaped my life and experiences. When I first started making music we really felt it was important to represent where we grew up, to put across a hard London/UK perspective. We only used UK voice samples for example, to differentiate between us and the US.''
''But recently I’ve realised that the people I represent are everywhere. I fight for, and aim to inspire, everyone suffering worldwide through my music. I think this global outlook might be why I don’t deal in clichés and stereotypes.''
Is it important to be well-informed with what's going on locally and globally as an artist?
''It is to me, but I think it depends on the individual. I know some great artists and musicians who gain their inspiration by withdrawing from the world as much as possible. They avoid "The News" and engaging with what they see as filtered lies and agendas. They also try to get away from the traps of their local society, difficult when you have to work or hustle to get by. For me, I made a decision a long time ago to try and be aware of the global situation and the things going on around me. If you’re aiming to change the global and local situation you can't look at it from far away, you have to be involved.''
What's your take on downloading, both legal and pirated?
''They’re both the inevitable reality of our times. I can see why people wouldn’t see the need to buy CDs, especially younger heads who might have never seen a CD, never mind a record or tape! But my experience of music has been based on having a physical product to engage with and explore. CD booklets and Vinyl sleeves made you feel closer to it and the music existed within the disc. But I suppose that’s the role that social media, blogs and websites play today.''
''Piracy has always been around and always will be. I used to tape the radio, then copy CDs and take them back because I was young and broke. People who can’t afford to buy all the music they want will find a way to get it. Music should be free anyway - everything should be. If it was free, we’d see which ‘artists’ were actually still on it if there was no money in it.''
What do you hope people who buy your album take from it?
''I hope they take the message of it - the world is mashed, there’s a clear reason why and it’s global. We need to stop killing each other and blaming each other for our problems. Unify against the common enemy. We need to organize ourselves to change and uproot the problem, not hack at the branches. We need to take real action, in our communities, in the physical, not just through music, or art or writing books or blogs.''
Do you have live dates set up to help promote the album and what's your plans for 2014?
''We’ve got a launch night setup at Vibe Bar in Brick Lane on December 7th. Caxton Press and Iron Braydz are gonna be performing too. It’s gonna be a big night. I’ll be performing with a band for the first time since the early days so I’m proper looking forward to it. There’ll definitely be more dates around the UK. I’m in the middle of setting up some shows abroad for next year, around Europe and hopefully out in Venezuela. Plus my brother OMeza is working on some projects that I’m involved in with lyrics and beats, so that’ll be coming too.''
Where can people find out more about you?
''The best place is www.firstandlastpride.co.uk. All the info on the release is there, plus links to our videos, our blog that has all the dates of shows, events and news, and all the social networking sites - including our Bandcamp site where you’ll be able to buy Reality Provoking Liberation for download and on CD, and download all our older music.''
''Thanks and respect!''
Album Reality Provoking Liberation comes out on 28th October on Design Chaos
Album Launch Party Saturday 7th December, 8pm - 1am. Upstairs at The Vibe Bar, 91 Brick Lane, London E1 6QL. Also performing Caxton Press, Iron Braydz, DJ A.Gee (Itch FM) host Peaches. £5 on door.
Apex Zero ‘A Meeting of the Continents’ ft. Hasan Salaam & Iron Braydz (prod by DJ Fortune):
Credit: Andrew Kay