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Interview: Context

It seems everything’s taking off in the world of displaced, formerly Norwich-based MC, Context. Now living in London, the last few months have seen him drop what may be his strongest track to date in the form of the acerbic ‘Small Town Lad Sentiments‘: a biting tune that’s led to him being hailed as ‘Middle England’s poet laureate’ and brought about a Mike Skinner remix that’s quite an honour for the 26-year-old rapper. He sat down with Alex Cull outside a West London pub for a chat about the stigma of that laureate title, his highest-ranked MCs of all-time, and the exciting plans waiting just around the corner.

PlanetNotion: Listening to ‘Small Town Lad Sentiments’ and ‘1.4 at 12’, they feel a lot fiercer when compared to the tracks you were dropping in 2010 or 11. Was there anything in particular driving you towards that?
Context: I don’t think so, maybe it was just working with different producers; perhaps they were just giving me different sounding beats. ‘Drowning’ and ‘Listening to Burial’ were marked by the beats I was getting at the time: they’re really mellow and ambient. My pace of life was probably mellower then as well, living in Norwich. Now, things are a bit more manic. It’s more the beats that drive it, though, and make it feel more exciting. The themes and topics are still similar, but just delivered in a different way.

PN: It comes across that you’re more driven about it. MistaJam has been pretty big on you recently, going so far as to describe you as ‘Middle England’s poet laureate’. Have you found that since hearing that you feel any more pressure?
C: No, I was just glad of it. Years ago, I was rapping more in a grime style – just at 140bpm and quite fast – but then I slowed it down. It is supposed to be quite poetic and descriptive; I wanted people to take notice of the words a bit more – that’s why it was a bit slower. I don’t feel pressured; I think it’s great.

PN: On that note, whom would you rank most highly as an MC?
C: Well, I like different people for different reasons. In terms of their skill at writing bars, I really like Big L and Nas.

Then there’s a whole other group of people who – even though they’re not the most gifted at description – I like because they’re honest and talk about what they know: people like Mobb Deep and Dizzee Rascal for example. Even Giggs: people may not think he’s amazing, but I like that he’s exactly who he is and isn’t ashamed to be himself.

I guess as an overall top MC, Nas is pretty topnotch. The choice of words that he has and the way he strings couplets together. Old Wu-Tang albums with Raekwon and Ghostface’s Supreme Clientele as well are full of amazing rapping.

PN: So, Mike Skinner’s remix of ‘Small Town Lad Sentiment’ is doing really well and getting a lot of support. It must be an honour having someone like him want to get involved.
C: It’s mental, absolutely mental. He followed me about 18 months ago on Twitter and began messaging me, saying things like “I’ve just been checking out your ‘Listening to Burial’ track, I really like it”. So, I was buzzing, obviously. I left it for a bit but then he got in touch with me two hours after it [‘Small Town Lad Sentiment’] got played on MistaJam, just saying, “I want to remix this. Is that cool?” Obviously, I said yes.

It’s also good because people make comparisons between myself and Mike Skinner quite a lot, and he could take it in one of two ways: he could take it as, “who’s this shit-muncher doing exactly what I am”, or he could be like, “this is sick, I’ve done mine and now here’s this new guy”. I didn’t really think about it until the other day when someone said to me, “no one’s done this in like 13 years or so”. So, I suppose in a way, Mike doing this is like a nod saying, “you’re alright”. As much as I like the remix musically, I liked it even more conceptually because it’s this nod of the head.

PN: If you had to pick one moment in your life up until now that’s most shaped you as a musician, what would it be?
C: There are probably two. One would be moving to London because it puts how you live, or how you lived, in a more focused perspective. It’s easier to analyse what it’s like to live in a small town or somewhere parochial when you don’t live there anymore. All my mates still live there so I can still look back on it and see what’s going on, but I’m still in this London bubble. I can see how to make that engaging to people here; musically, I think it’s quite important to have done that.

The other one would be getting thrown out of home, as I didn’t really make music until then. My mum said that I couldn’t live there anymore and that I had to leave. So, I went to stay with my mate and we all worked in a call centre for Norwich Union for a year, and had to live in this really crappy house with no plaster on the walls, no carpet and some old TV in the corner. It was a reality check, I suppose. Before that, I just lived at home and it was a fairly normal upbringing; nothing that I thought was particularly exciting, just skateboarding and smoking weed. When I moved out it was like actual, real life, I was paying bills and stuff like that. Had I just gone straight to uni after finishing school, I might not have had that experience.

PN: Over the summer, you’ve got some pretty big festivals coming up including Wireless, Reading and Leeds. Out of the people you’re playing with, who are you most looking forward to seeing?
C: Eminem’s on at Reading and that should be sick. Anyone who’s in their early-to-mid-twenties and raps will have listened to Eminem when they were 14 and his first album was coming out. So, they’d be pretty gassed about seeing him.

I tried to go and see him years ago but it didn’t happen. So, that should be cool as people like him represent something more than just what they musically stand for; even if you don’t like his new music, which I don’t, he’s still an important person. He’s not playing the same day as me but I’m still going to go down to watch him.

PN: On the subject of festivals, if you were to put together your own dream festival and you could have anyone you want, who would your three headliners be?
C: Drake would be one of them, then I’d have people in time capsules: Mobb Deep from 1996 and Dizzee Rascal from 2001.

PN: Outside of festivals and ‘Small Town Lad Sentiments’, what have you got planned for the rest of the year?
C: I’m going to be the main support on Wretch 32’s UK tour, so that will be sick as it involves a lot of really good venues. UEA in Norwich is one of them, which is great. When things started kicking off, I’d thought of going up and doing a gig in Norwich as I used to do before, but I thought it would be better to hold out and do it somewhere good. There’s only really two decent venues in Norwich: UEA and The Waterfront.

PN: UEA. That’s the uni there, isn’t it?
C: Yeah, it is. I still go to that uni now! Alongside that, I just want to keep pushing the ‘Small Town’ single, basically. I’ve got an EP prepared but I’m not sure when that’s going to be coming out. Right now, I’m just looking forward to getting ‘Small Town’ heard more, really. It’s quite easy as an artist to whack a song up on Facebook and Twitter, and get a thousand people message you back, and you think “right, everyone’s heard it now,” but they obviously haven’t.

PN: Well, I imagine you’ll be playing to some pretty big crowds on the Wretch 32 tour.
C: Yeah, it’s your Shepherd’s Bush Empires and o2 Academies: actual, proper venues. It’s not little raves like I was used to.

PN: You mentioned a potential EP. How’s that going? How far along are you with it?
C: It’s finished. We’re just deciding when to release it. We were going to put it out before but then we had ‘Small Town’ ready, and thought we’d just go with that for the minute. Until you’re more known, it’s easier to just do singles and introduce people slowly to it. Again, you can get wrapped up in it and think, “this is pretty cool. Loads of people have heard it,” when obviously plenty won’t have. It’s better to introduce it slowly and give out little bits, and then put something concrete together.

Some of the tunes [on the EP] are a little more like my earlier stuff; it’s a bit of a mixture. They’re all done and ready though, so it’s just a matter of choosing the right time for it.

PN: I’d have thought it would be better to stagger them rather than release a bulk of material and then leave people waiting for ages.
C: I think it would be easier to just put out some 20-track mixtape full of random stuff like freestyles and skits, but I wouldn’t really see any artistic point in that. I’d rather just show one thing and say, “this is what I’m about. I’ll put more out when I’m ready.” That’s what I’ve always done: one track at a time. Even in the last four years, I’ve probably only put out about five songs but I think that’s the best way. I’d rather do that and spend time putting a proper video to each one and making sure people hear it. I don’t really make throwaway songs; these are my whole life. It would be doing them a disservice if I put 20 of them out as half-baked notions of what I thought an acceptable rap song was.

PN: And, you’re collaborating with Lyle & Scott too, are you not?
C: Yeah, I’m continuing working with the brands I’m involved with. So, Lyle & Scott and Puma, which is sick.

PN: How did you get involved with Lyle & Scott?
C: MistaJam again! He tweeted saying, “we’re going to play this Context tune, ‘Small Town Lad Sentiments’, next” and he @ed me in it, so when they replied to it, I was mentioned. They said, “oh, we really like the song”, which I thought was cool. It was weird because the weekend before I’d just signed my publishing deal and so I was in Norwich, and I don’t think I’ve bought an item of clothing for six years, and I figured I’d buy a Lyle & Scott shirt. So, I bought it and then the next day they tweeted me saying, “we really like this, you should come in and meet us”. And I’m thinking, ‘I’ve literally just bought this shirt!’

So, I went in and met them and they said they were up for supporting what I was doing, which was wicked because I’d wear their clothes anyway.

PN: Finally, what’s the strangest way your music’s ever been described to you?
C: The ‘Middle England’s poet laureate’ remark was great. I just heard it and thought, ‘that is spot on’. Or, the other day on the Radio 1 review show, Edith Bowman was talking about it [‘Small Town Lad Sentiments’] and they had a guest on from SME, and when someone messaged in saying they really didn’t like it, he just turned around and said, “to the guy who’s just messaged in saying this is really boring, you don’t know what you’re on about. This guy speaks for a nation.” That was absolutely wicked, such a nice thing to say. Whether it’s true or not, it’s just a nice way to put it.

There was a really sick quote from UKBassBlog too: “Gripping and ultra-relatable dystopian images of recession hit inner-city living.”

- Alex Cull

‘Small Town Lad Sentiments’ is available now. You can download it here.

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