By Lauren Bernard
Natty Speaks talks Will Smith, Boris Johnson and hip-hop
After an arduous day of hanging out with Will Smith and Boris Johnson, it had crossed my mind that travelling across London to speak with me might be considered somewhat of a drag in comparison.
But alas, Natty Speaks greets me with all his usual grace and humility. Smiling serenely, standing at a busy junction outside King’s Cross station - he represents a calm place against the backdrop of frantic commuters tripping over themselves to get somewhere.
Natty Speaks boasts 20 years in the music industry, at the age of 37 he has matured into an experienced champion of UK underground music, filling roles as recording artist, live performer, freestyler and MC.
It’s been seven years since the release of his debut studio album, About Time, in 2004 (re-released digitally in 2006) and this year will see the emergence of its successor.
He’s come straight from his celebrity studded soiree at City Hall to a glaringly less glamorous one with me.
We shuffle ourselves into Nando’s for a chat.
You could be forgiven for expecting him to be shod in a suit and patent leather shoes, the predictable choice for rubbing shoulders with the Mayor of London, however he sits comfortably in jeans, baggy jumper, trainers and a snapback.
I have a suspicion the kids would say he’s ‘keeping it real’.
After asking me how I am with an endearing sincerity in his eyes he pronounces that he’s ravenous and grabs a menu.
And whilst he decides what to eat I decide to do the decent thing and wait until after the interview before pestering him for a blow by blow account of everything that Will Smith said and did.
So what is Natty Speaks about? He gazes thoughtfully before replying: “I’m somebody who tries to think about what he says and tries to convey a message. My musical sound is an eclectic mix of hip hop and the future combined.”
That sound is the product of a lifelong love of music, he is inspired by strong characters that can convey a message, people like Gil Scott-Heron, Bob Marley, KRS1, Big Daddy Kane and Buena Vista Social Club.
But also, “just going to raves and free parties and festivals and thinking yeah I want to be a part of that”.
He clearly has a very strong sense of what the overriding message in his music is, barely taking a breath before answering. Expression.
“Just be you and express yourself. Take something on and redistribute it in your own vision. People are too focused on genres now. I grew up listening to music but now everything has to be in a genre.”
Despite this acknowledgement that genre can act as a shackle, stifling musical freedom, there’s no doubt that his affinities still lie with one genre more than any other.
“I think hip-hop is the most diverse, most beautiful, cultural sound, that brings people together. It doesn’t ask questions of religion. I can’t think of another style of music that brings people together in the way that hip-hop does...”
A thoughtful pause, then: “Maybe reggae perhaps...”
A necessary admission, which earns my respect for his honesty.
His music is based on a foundation of consciousness, which is unsurprising from such a conscientious, considerate and deep thinking man, traits that are easily detected whilst in his company.
But does conscious hip-hop have a place in the mainstream music industry? “It should do but it doesn’t right now. It should do now more than any other type of music. I can’t understand why it doesn’t.”
His food arrives mid-conversation after a lengthy wait, to be expected on a bustling Friday evening in Nando’s. He seems suitably delighted with his Portobello mushroom and grilled halloumi wrap. He’s vegetarian.
After he ushers for me to continue whilst he devours his meal, we come back to the topic of the music industry.
With animated conviction he states: “The industry is controlled by a higher force and they only want certain music to come out, it’s almost vetted if you like.
“The same shareholders that own shares of the biggest businesses in the world have shares in the music industry, they decide what’s coming through.
“Look at people like Rihanna and Beyoncé, they’re supposed to be role models to young people, especially girls, and they look like they walked out of some sort of, what’s the right terminology...
He glances around whilst mentally policing himself, then: “A strip club”.
When the question of his future arises he assures me that we can all be confidently expectant for his second studio album, due to be released later this year.
“People can expect to be questioned and relaxed, they can expect to let go of their emotions, it’s music parents can play for their kids, there are tracks even my nan can appreciate. It’s a soundtrack of life, it’s diverse.
“The production element is massively important, nowadays for me production is more than anything, everything has to flow, if it doesn’t feel right it doesn’t go out.”
As we prepare to leave he asserts: “Every community needs to build bridges and I feel that music can do that more so than politicians, more so than laws.”
He uses an anecdote from his City Hall adventures earlier in the day to illustrate this.
Upon arrival at the venue, where he and his team were due to deliver a creative workshop to young people, they were told that Boris Johnson had declared the performance of hip-hop as ‘not favoured’.
“But before we even had a chance to bring hip-hop up on stage Will and Jaden [Smith] jumped in and started talking about hip-hop and how much it influenced them.
He laughs: “I could see Boris sinking in his chair wanting nothing to do with it.”
Natty Speaks | @NattySpeaks | nattyspeaks.com