Greg Blackman has been an established vocalist on the UK independent music scene for years and thanks to a number of solid releases and collaborations, he has quite rightly built up a very loyal fan base. He’s also a really nice guy, which isn’t as common as you think these days. I had a long chat with him about his art, his views on the music scenes he’s a part of and what it was like working with DJ Vadim. The result is eye-opening. Enjoy.
GS: Good to catch up with you, man. How’s everything going at the moment?
GB: I’m good, homes. Life is good, family is happy and well, cash is a bit less of a problem than it was this time last year. All in all I’d have to say I’m most blessed.
GS: For those folks out there who might not be that familiar with your work, can you give us a bit of background?
GB: Well according to this immaculately conceived press statement before me I’m a genre spanning UK Vocalist and Songwriter best known for my unique voice, memorable hooks and impassioned approach to my subject matter whether that be life, love, social upheaval or just having fun.
I’ve been drafted in by the likes of DJ Vadim, Daz I Kue, Ty, Genesis Elijah, Mooqee & Herbgrinder, Utah Saints, Featurecast, Renegades of Jazz, Hidden Jazz Quartet, Nightmares On Wax and many others to appear on releases from BBE, Agogo Records, Tokyo Dawn, Jalepeno Records, Bombstrikes and more.
My work is played on MTV, featured on the NME website, played by Craig Charles, Jamie Callum and many others on BBC Radio and has been favourably reviewed in Blues & Soul Magazine.
I also work as an illustrator specialising in comic books, sci fi, horror and pulp genre illustration.
GS: It’s quite obvious you have a few strings to your bow, including your skills on the mic and your artwork. Do you have a preferred medium of expression, or is it more a case of how you feel each message itself should be expressed?
GB: Honestly it’s a bit like having two angry kids fighting for the wheel of a single car. Only one of them can “drive” at any one time, but they’re both constantly sort of buzzing away: either I’m buzzing with the need to draw and not really feeling much musically – or vice versa. I’ve almost never found myself equally preoccupied with both.
I feel like both the Artist and the Singer need to have their time of being in control, and their time being dormant and recuperating. It’s a pretty dependable pendulum swing these days. I’m so used to it I can factor the swings into my work schedule.
In terms of expressing different messages I don’t think I’ve ever found an idea that could be adequately expressed by both a comic book AND a song. Singing is much more of a direct emotional expression but it takes time for the listener to absorb and reabsorb. Art on the other hand is a laborious process that takes ages, but the viewer gets everything they need out of it in the first half second. I tend to find stuff I’m angry about or political/social themes manifest in songs. Whereas my need for escapist fantasy juxtaposed sharply with a real life setting, finds its vent in comic books.
GS: The main collaborations you get involved with are largely from the hip hop realm. Was that a natural place you found was suited to your musical style, or did you actively make an effort to become a part of that scene?
GB: There are two reasons for that. One is a matter of my personal preference of friends and the other is to do with the soul music “Scene”.
I don’t actually listen to hip hop an awful lot. I have a few albums from my younger days I truly love and known like the back of my hand, like Low End Theory, The Sun Rises in the East and 36 Chambers. But in terms of attitude, manner and sense of humour a lot of the people I find myself drawn towards are Hip Hop heads. The hip hop scene has also been very welcoming to me. I’ve been invited to participate in things, invited to events and generally been asked to be involved in things in the hip hop community.
In the soul music scene, such as it is, the story is VERY different.
Because obviously nobody will ever tell you where they think you’re going wrong, I’ve sort of had to try and work it out for myself, but as near as I can guess the fact that I’m willing to speak my mind on political issues and am occasionally pretty pointed in my use of language, I’m viewed as a bit of a hot potato: everyone wants a bite, but nobody wants to handle me personally. To me the mainstream funky soul community is a place where everyone tells me I’m great and nobody wants to employ me. Only an idiot would keep hammering his skull away on that particular rock.
In my experience Hip Hop people are friendly, warm, appreciative and inviting. Whereas (again only in my personal experience) soul music acts are particularly cliquey, politically toothless, nepotistic and flaky. Some of the people involved in the running of the soul labels are wonderful folks, but the acts themselves just don’t know how to get their shit together and unite. Actually, no: they don’t WANT to.
Imagine for a moment trying to organise even ONE “posse cut” with a bunch of successful UK soul vocalists on it? They’d tell me to fuck off, if they bothered to read my emails at all, so lost in the ego whirlwind howling around their own minds are they all. Whereas with one Facebook message I can get four or five of the most talented UK MC’s onto a project and select from any one of 30 super talented producers and beat makers.
R&B and commercial soul music are in a fucking shameful state. We live in an age of unprecedented inequality and strife and all you want to sing about is how you can’t keep your dick in your pants? Fuck off, bruv. This genre used to be a powerful tool for protest. Now it’s an empty Armani suit trying to get into bed with another man’s wife, in a sad parody of manhood. If the only role for me in any kind of larger music industry is some kind of Robin Thicke, I’d rather labour in obscurity. I think I’ve been clear enough about that in the past that they just swerve me completely now.
In the immortal words of William Shakespeare: “Fuck ’em.”
GS: Who would you say are your biggest musical influences, past and present?
GB: Instead of the million and one producers, I’m gonna stick to vocalists or we’ll be here forever. Bobby Womack, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Mike Patton, Bill Withers, Chris Cornell, Paul Rogers, Bjork, Prince, Cameo and Doctor John.
GS: One of your latest releases, Stony Ground, has a very morbid and melancholy vibe to it, which seems quite at odds with your general personality; what was the inspiration behind the song?
GB: I’m a lifelong sufferer of Bi Polar type 2, or what we used to call good old garden variety Manic Depression. As a consequence my internal landscape is a pretty harsh environment, there’s not a lot of room for sentiment, all of the ugly truths about who we are and what we are, laid bare. I don’t kid myself about many things and I’m realistic about my own importance (or total lack of it) in the broader scheme of things.
I’m not by nature the kind of guy who leaps out of bed going “Tra la laaa, another lovely day!”, I’m more the guy that goes “Oh NO the fucking sun’s up AGAIN!” and crawls about for the first two hours assembling the tattered remains of my brain from the night before.
But I’m also a guy who likes to be happy. I can’t always count on being in full control of how I feel, so every day that I do have control I use it to be as positive and active as I’m able. But life still is what it is and sometimes you have to write about Endings. That’s what Stony Ground is about: drawing a line in the sand between your old self and your new self and saying “No more. The past is best buried right here, right now, so that I can move on.” It’s about laying that old self down, holding a funeral for it and walking away, written from the point of view of that old, now redundant self.
GS: You’ve also recently released the full project from your time working with DJ Vadim, who I think its fair to say, is a well established producer. How was it working with someone of that calibre?
GB: People have been asking me this for the last few years and I’ve always been polite. What I’ve said publicly was that I had the utmost respect for Vadim and that we’d parted ways to do different projects. Even privately among friends I’ve been hesitant to discuss what it was really like for me out of a fear of being seen to be being unprofessional. But to be honest at 40 years old I’m past the point where I feel I have to apologise to anyone for how I feel or how I choose to express it.
So in a word I’d describe my collaborative professional experience with DJ Vadim as: Absolutely Fucking Awful.
If I could go back and avoid the whole experience I would. It was a profoundly disheartening example of just how badly a collaboration can go. Vad … hang on… why am I calling him that? Let’s call him who he is: Andre. Andre flits in a constant panic from one identity and genre to another, because in reality he is an empty set of clothes.
As for his “Calibre”? Andre was the kind of guy who needs to google a picture of a hand paying a chord and copy it in order to play a chord on a keyboard. And if he had to look away for a second, I’d have to put his hands back in the right place. I ended up replaying massive amounts of our collabs on the keyboards for no credit, because after all it was all “produced” by DJ Vadim… or because he didn’t want to pay royalties.
He remains, to me, THE perfect example of just how LITTLE actual musical knowledge, ability and competence a person needs to be a successful DJ and Producer.
Worse still: Andre was a ghastly human being to be around and try and deal with. I can show you one email from him where he extols the value of us being “Flexible and open to new ways of doing things” and another sent in the same month saying flatly “I’m not doing anything I’m not comfortable with.” You know what that means? That means I have to be flexible when it comes to doing what I’m told and Andre gets to remain exactly who he is and run things.
And unlike the majority of people Andre works with, I was too old and already too experienced to feel giddy with joy about having the piss taken out of me simply because it was him doing it. I don’t give a shit about a name or a reputation: you’d better come with some fucking talent if you want to put my voice on wax.
When someone is MORE talented than me or possesses MORE expertise than me in our chosen craft, I’ll tuck away my ego, listen and learn. But this was not the case here. It was like working with a child. I had already walked away from Andre and the project by the time it came out, allowing him to ruin the final mix and cut a load of my vocals out in nonsensical places.
My best friend Nathan who mixed the album ended up doing five mixes of some songs because Andre simply didn’t know what he was doing. And when it came to contract time with the label, Andre attempted to make sure Nathan didn’t get his cut of the profits promised. After the release I started finding songs I’d written on compilations I’d heard nothing about, songs with my vocals on them that only he was getting paid for.
In short: it was the single worst collaborative experience of my career thus far.
GS: Damn, that’s terrible behaviour. He always struck me as one of the most positive people alive, but I’m guessing that’s not an accurate assessment?
GB: What you see online is a mish-mash of ideas lifted from better men, quotes from books he’s reading, but will never understand, or live by and non sequiturs that sound good at the time, but mean fuck all when examined. In person, when you scratch the surface, I’m sorry to report that he is an amoral egotist, a nepotist, a liar, a hypocrite, a bufoon and a howling shit-warbling talent vacuum.
GS: We’ve been friends on social media for a few years now and so I know, like me, you’re fairly politicized. I was wondering if you think we still live in an era where music can be used as a tool for change?
GB: I think real change only ever happens in the heart of the individual. I believe that small, measurable, personal life choices create real change. As such, yes absolutely I believe music can still create change. Music can awaken the soul to what’s already there. It can connect us across boundaries of race, language and culture. I think that music is one of the only real forms of magic on earth: it can perform miracles. If you change the individual, you change the world.
GS: What’s next for you?
GB: I’m currently working on my next single “Cliques Must Burn” which is by far the most Hip Hop thing I’ve done so far. It’s produced by Karnate and will have a video shot by the mighty Genesis Elijah. It’s not an indication of any kind of change of direction into rapping, I just like to keep trying new things and facing new challenges. I’m also working on a new webcomic; a Wild West werewolf tale called “Silver Gulch” with the writer Leigh James.
GS: Any final words?
GB: Free Palestine. My bitch better have my money. Megatron must be stopped; no matter the cost. Well you can tell by the way I use my walk; I’m a woman’s man, no time to talk.
“Play from your fucking HEART!!!” – Bill Hicks.