Interview: Context

Up and coming UK rapper, Context, kindly spared me some time out of his busy schedule for a chat about his recent sold-out show, his plans for the future and how, ultimately, he'd like his music to pay the rent...

So, how are you feeling about Monday night [Context's debut headline show], still buzzing?

Context: Yeah really pleased with it, really buzzing! It was great!

I first met you back in 2010 - so much has happened since then! - the MTV Brand New For 2012 publicity and your signing to CODA - do you think having social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook have played a big part in getting your music out there, as well as online platforms like SB.TV and other blogs?

Context: Massively. If i didn't have that I don't know what I'd be doing really. I remember in 2009 when I was putting out my first single, I did a small UK tour (Cambridge, Portsmouth, London, Bristol..) which I'd organised solely though Facebook, just emailing event pages and asking them to give me slots and stuff like that. So yeah it's very important, especially in the beginning when you desperately want an audience...

..It's good, it's democratising. You know, whilst it gives everybody a chance to do it [get their music out there], at the same time you've got to find a way of using it cleverly. You don't want to bombard people with links to your music, so you've got to find a way of making your stuff filter through to people. If you get that right, it's incredible...

..When you think about it, when I first started messing around with music, before I went to uni, none of this stuff even existed. Although in a way I'm glad it didn't, cos if it had, all my early work would be all over the internet now! I guess that's the problem with the internet now..anyone can just get a shitty microphone and put their stuff online. There's no distinction to what's good and what's bad. Everyone's got an equal footing. but you know, every time i post something online, that's essentially 8,000 people reached - and that's priceless!

How did the signing with CODA come about? Did the MTV publicity open that door for you?

Context: Well basically, I got with my management [who also look after Emeli Sande] just after Christmas and they said I needed a booking agent, so they organised all that, and having quite a few connections to CODA, I eventually spoke to Nick from the company who was really laid back about it all and listened to what I wanted to do. I told him I didn't want to do a lot of gigs. What I want is a small number of controlled, high quality, good gigs. I don't want to be gigging every Saturday. Nick agreed with me on that - he said it was a good thing to do and build on until I get signed.

So why don't you want to do as many gigs as possible and get out there?

Context: Well, I want to keep it special. I don't want to do 'a Burial', where he doesn't EVER perform and there's that mystique, but at the same time - situations like the show on Monday with the live band set up is better for me. I'd rather have one of those every month than three or four where I'm just rapping over a CD - anyone can do that. I want to take time and that's one of the things I'm doing to stand out, I guess.

Well, the band were amazing!

Context: Yeah, I couldn't believe it. My management put it together, I'm not even sure how they knew them, but they're so young (guitarist was 19). They're session musicians -the day before they'd just played for Ghetts and Kano. They were amazing. I came into rehearsal and they already knew all the material! I'd say to them..'I'm thinking of doing this song like this…', and they'd just instantly be able to play it!

How did the arrangements of each track come about?

Context: We were all involved in that really, we did them together. During rehearsals, they'd take the morning to put stuff together and do their own interpretations of the tracks, and then I'd come in and add my suggestions in and work it out. But then with the Ambition track [for a Fire In The Booth SB.TV session] we wrote that together. I explained that I wanted it to be a kind of conversation arrangement, going back and forth between my vocals, and then a guitar solo or something. But then with Drowning, I mean I would never have envisaged how that would have sounded. It was just like Boom! It was absolutely nuts! But overall a collaborative effort.

Well, it definitely worked, I can tell you that!

Context: Yeah, but now if i don't have a live band, it's gonna seem like a bit of a flop! ha.

Haha, no It won't - you've gotta shake things up a bit sometimes!

So, you've already worked with so many people and you're not even signed yet..is there anyone you've got your eye on to work with for your next release? And you're playing the SB.TV stage at Camden Crawl this weekend with the likes of Mz Brat and Yasmin…Anyone in particular you'd like to work with?

Context: Yeah, I like yasmin a lot. I mean, there's a number of people I'd want to do something with but I think for the time being they'd probably be beyond the grasp of me being able to do something with - The xx, for example - that would be game over really! Or James Blake! I really like Delilah, she's got a great voice - she's got similar influences to me, like Portishead so that's good.

Cool, we'll just have to wait and see then…

Context: Yeah, not too many rappers I can think of really. I mean whilst I like listening to lots of rappers - I love loads that are performing on the SB.TV stage like Scrufizzer and people like that - but i'd rather it be musically right. I'd need it to slot together properly.

So what about your actual songwriting process, what happens there?

Context: Well it depends on the beats I get sent. I get them from a lot of different people and I can usually tell within ten minutes whether it's gonna work or not. I never spend a long time writing a song either - basically what I do is drop the beat into Garage Band, and the very first time I hear it, I press record and record the very first thing that comes out of my mouth so I get the most direct, natural flow. I always do the hook first and work out from the chorus. So with the Drowning chorus, I literally just made the sounds and rhythms over the beat, and then I slot in the words afterwards where the syllables were. But I used to just have a load of rap verses written down in my phone and just put one over a beat, but now I work beat & hook first and grow it outwards. Also, since I've found a sort of pseudo-singing ability, that has become the real soul of each track now - the chorus is the thing that pulls it all together after the build up of the verse. For me, if i can't write a good chorus to a beat, there's no point in it - i'll throw it away!

Well that's a really interesting process because, for me, when I listen to your music, it's the lyrics that really stand out. You have some kind of amazing grasp on the English Language that I've never really heard before, especially in rap music.

Context: Oh thank you. Yeah, with the verses I try to give them as much space as possible, which is why I talk so slowly in them, I like the room to be able to use the language how I want to. I mean - I don't think there's another rapper that would say "I'm coming down like an autumnal leaf" - I mean when you think about it, it sounds a bit flowery, but when you've got the space and it's slotted in in the right way, it works. Also, if I didn't slow lines like that down, no one would hear them.Also I like to write things that my mum and dad would like to listen to - both of them are English Teachers - haha.

Ah - that's where you get it from then! There's definitely a passion for language that comes through in your music! It's very refreshing!

So you've got your third EP coming out soon…

Context: Yeah…It's been 'coming out' for like two years now..I keep finishing it, and I actually had it mastered and ready to go about three or four times, but I'm still in that position where I think every new song I write is the best thing ever! And then I'll write something new which makes the old stuff seem rubbish..and I throw it all away! So i'm just amassing material to put together at the moment. It's always quality over quantity for me though. You know, that's why in 18 months I've probably put out three songs, but they've all been big releases that I've really pushed.

And what about plans for a full-length album in the future?

Context: Well, for me, an album is something that people who are signed do. It's something that a record label gets behind and it gets promoted properly. If I got signed and was releasing my first album, I'd want it to sum up everything I'm about, going deeper into what people had already heard of my music. If I put out an album while i'm unsigned, the danger being that it would probably fall under the radar. I'd rather have an 'Original Pirate Material' [The Streets] or a 'Boy In Da Corner' [Dizzee Rascal] - a seminal album. Because at the end of the day, my audience isn't massive. Yeah - I can sell out shows and have a decent amount of people following me etc, but I'm not in the charts or anything, and I'd like to be in that position before I spill it all out..I want it to be a heard properly.

So what do you think about getting signed? Have you been thinking about it or are you just enjoying what you're doing right now?

Context: Yeah, all of the majors have had me in for meetings - Warner, EMI, Universal, Polydor, Island, MOS, and i'm still continuing that, going back to see them and updating them. So there does seem to be a buzz and people seem interested in what's going on, which is really nice. Realistically, that's how i'm going to get paid isn't it?! I could go down the independent route, but If you look at it like a job analogy, music doesn't pay my rent, or my bills..it gives me a bit of PRS to buy some fags, you know? It's nothing. So in a way, being unsigned is like doing an extended internship…I feel like the last four years have been my music internship; working up the company, and now i'm like, come on, I want a proper job! But you know, I'm not gonna break my neck to get it, but if it's offered to me i'd be daft to turn it down!

And finally, apart from the Camden Crawl, have you got anything else planned for the summer - shows or festivals?

Context: No, I've been thinking about the festival situation…It's the same as before really…I could do it, but at the end of the day, it's whether I want to play a 2 in the afternoon slot on a Friday, or this time next year where i'll hopefully be in a stronger position, I'd be better off playing those festivals for the first time and saying, 'this is me!'. You know, Mike Skinner's first gig was main stage at Reading! I'm not suggesting I do that, but I agree with the sentiment; introduce what you have to say in a big way - hence this show in London! It seems daft that I've been putting music out for four years yet I've never done a show quite like that.

Yeah but that means you put on a bloody good show and people are there waiting and buzzing to see you!

Context: Yeah exactly, sell it out, get the band, it's nice! You know i've done the 'toilet gigs', driving ten hours to play for an hour and not get paid. I don't want to do that any more!

Well, you've definitely got your head screwed on - you know what you want to do and how you want to do it, and I think it's all going to work out for you! You'll go far! Thanks for speaking to me and good luck!