I remember first hearing Verb T rap when his track Showbitchness was included on a Low Life Records compilation, back in 2003. Since then he has been a constant in my relationship with UK hip hop, thanks to his association with High Focus, most notably as part of The Four Owls, as well as a string of projects with the likes of Pitch 92 and Illinformed. I spoke with him recently about a number of things including maintaining his longevity, setting up his own label and his ongoing struggles with Crohn’s Disease.
You’ve been involved with hip hop for a long time now. What do you think is most important for artists to maintain their longevity?
I think all you can do is make sure the changes in your life are reflected in your music. I don’t mean as in literal day-to-day stuff, but I think as an older artist your experience and the knowledge you’ve picked up are your best assets. I also think you have to take time to listen to new producers and emcees coming up to see where the music is going in the future; trying to jump on whatever the current wave is might not be the best idea, but keeping your ears open can help influence you to evolve your own sound and inspire you to want to get creative in your own way.
You were one of the Low Life family back in its heyday and I know a few artists on the roster were pretty disillusioned after things ended up as they did. Did it have much of an effect on your view of the game? Were you able to take anything positive away from it?
I choose to focus on the positives, I don’t always stay positive about it but I try. I learnt so many things from being part of that label in terms or making and marketing music, and also it put me on the map as an artist. I will say though I think other artists had more to be upset about than me, in terms of feeling more betrayed and maybe being owed more money than me. It’s a shame there has been such a dark cloud cast over what were some good memories. The whole issue of people being owed money and the Low Life catalogue being sold without the artists’ knowledge has come up again recently too; while it remains an unresolved issue that will keep happening I’m sure.
I know you suffer from Crohn’s Disease, which must have an impact on you in terms of gigging and touring especially. Have you found it particularly hard to balance your condition with your career?
I’m always in two minds how much to talk about it. On one hand I really don’t want to be going for the sympathy vote. At the same time I don’t want to seem ashamed or like I’m hiding it. When I found out Dynamo had Crohns I read his book and it was great for me to read about this guy who has the disease more severely than me, traveling the world becoming a major star, being ill and having to do huge auditions and shows etc. It was a source of inspiration when I was ill and had shows, studio or videos to do. I’ve been in some truly awful situations touring whilst sick. One of the more light-hearted – but still shit – situations I remember, was playing a gig with the Four Owls and I was in so much pain and discomfort, I felt like I was about to shit myself right there on stage. I had to make my way off stage in my owl mask, push though a crowd of about 1000 people – there was no backstage area – to the toilets. Everyone in there was looking at me while I’m waiting for a stall to be free, twisted up in pain. I got in there in time, but as I was leaving a guy walked into the stall to do coke – he was being far from subtle about it. He walks in as I’m walking out, turns to me and says “argh mate, have you just done a shit in there?”, I turned around and said “it’s a fucking toilet what do you expect”, as if I should feel ashamed for using the toilet because this dick head wants to sniff beak in there. Some people. Then I walked back through the crowd thinking it’s a damn good job this wasn’t a solo show; the guys obviously held it down without me for a couple of songs.
It’s tough though because with any autoimmune disease your body is put in a constant fight or flight mode, so in a sense that has worked for me because I’ve been forced to face fear and push through, but at the same time I have days where my anxiety levels go through the roof and I just revert to the old most reclusive antisocial version of myself that exists. There are a lot of people that think Crohn’s and colitis are just like having IBS or something, but there’s so much more to it than that. It affects you in so many different ways and can get very severe. I was recently hospitalised for eight days and it all happened pretty fast. I’m doing better now, but then there’s the issue of having to be on some pretty heavy medication and feeling the physical and mental effects of that.
How come you decided to start your own label? Was it something you’d wanted to do for a long time?
I just wanted to produce for artists and help people put projects together. I felt like I could really use my experience to good effect. I underestimated the time and dedication needed so it hasn’t been easy, but the artists I have on the label have been an absolute pleasure to work with and I’m proud of what we’ve put together so far. The next album coming out on ITB will be the label compilation featuring all of us.
What was your initial vision for ITB and do you think you’ve achieved it, or are on your way to achieving it?
I wanted to put out music I thought was good, that’s all really. I did try and find people I felt were distinctive, or had something about them that was really their own, whether it was the voice or the flow or style of rapping. I think slowly we are forging our own identity as a label, but I think it will take a bit longer before we’re at the point I want to be, in terms of listenership. I think we’ve made a good start though.
You’ve got some European acts on the roster, as well as UK artists. How do you go about selecting who to sign?
I felt like a lot of the signings have originated from chance meetings. For example with Moreone he was someone who I was a fan of and thought had huge potential, but it wasn’t until I randomly met him on the way to a show that we got speaking and I thought about asking if he wanted to work together on music. When I first met Chillman, it was at an event in Bournemouth where he missed his set time because he got the time wrong and was resting on his car and nobody could find him. I spoke to him after, he was gutted but we stayed in contact and ended up making an album together. Chill is also the one who showed me G00SE. At the time I really didn’t want to take on any more artists but me and G00SE got on straight away and he had a project done (Living Poets Society) which was self-produced and heavy. I liked the idea of working with someone who could produce and spit. Rye Shabby I met though my old mate Booda French. Rye supported me at a gig in Ipswich and I just thought he was crazy talented. He ended up going missing that night before we got chance to speak, but he sent me links to his music and I knew he was someone that would be good for me to work with. Urban Click are such dope producers and I’ve known them a while. After I started ITB they approached me with a project and I agreed to put it out. I ended up going to their studio in Slovenia for a few days to record music and three videos; those were good times. In all honesty I’m really not the best businessman, but I believe in the artists I’m working with as musicians and people. The main thing I’ve learned from the music industry is don’t work with people who stress you out and complicate what you are trying to do; your time and enjoyment of the music making process are essential.
Your music seems to have got a lot more open and personal over the years. Is that something you’ve
set out to do or something that’s come with age?
I think it has come more with age. With Morning Process, which was my first high focus album, I felt the need to reintroduce myself so I made a lot of reflective songs and talked about my history in music and growing up. The year after that I made I Remain and it was the first music I had written since leaving London after having lived there my whole life, so that whole change in scenery was on my mind and I felt quite isolated, but at the same time I was excited and happy to be starting a new life so there was a mix of emotion on there. My most personal project I would say is Medicated Dreams. I was in such a dark place and very ill with Crohn’s disease and suffering side effects from medication when I wrote it, to the point I thought it was just too depressing to put out. But when I recently listened to it, it was weird because I could hear hope and strength in the music and I think that’s why I made it, because I needed to know that even though I felt totally fucked I could still create. It got to a point while I was making that project that I couldn’t eat or even drink water without feeling sick and I would lie in bed and an uncontrollable voice in my head was telling me I was going to die and as much as I told myself, no I will be ok the voice wouldn’t leave and I would lie awake for hours in pain. I speak about that on the single ‘Isn’t Clear’ After the project was released I got a lot of messages from people telling me they could really relate to that project, so although it’s not my most popular release, I’m very glad I made it because it helped me and it spoke to people that were going through a similar situation.
I’d say when I got to man with the Foggy Eyes I was in a more creative space where I didn’t just want to write from such a personal point of view, so I wrote that album as if I was writing a film and every song was a scene. Obviously I drew from my life experience and talked about things that were on my mind too, but I tried to speak through this character – The Man With the Foggy Eyes – and create an environment around him that maybe mirrored certain aspects of my world, but also allowed me to be creative in a more out there way.
Good Evening was another shift in how I thought about writing songs, I had been listening to a lot of different genres; I listened to a lot of Mac Demarco, The Internet, Radiohead and Smino, among many others, all of whom I found very inspiring because they are great writers so I just looked at song writing differently and I can’t really describe how, but I felt like I could really express myself more and have control over my craft. I just felt inspired and confident in that album more than I had before. With Foggy Eyes and Good Evening I also had two of the best producers to work with in Illinformed and Pitch 92, both of those guys really understood the vision I had in mind with the respective projects and gave me the perfect music.
Do you think there will be a point in the future where your production overtakes your rapping and
becomes your main focus?
I can see that but it’s not certain. Years back I thought I didn’t want to rap much after 30, but the years since 30 have been the best of my career. I like the idea of producing more, but I’m not that interested in learning more equipment so that kind of limits my output for now, but I do love the feeling when I get in the zone and make beats that I actually think are good and producing for other artists has been really enjoyable for me. There’s a different buzz to when you make a beat for an artist and they take it to that next level with what they add.
What can we expect to hear next from you? I know the new Four Owls album is looming.
The Owls has been worked on a lot the past few years, we’ve got some songs that I think are better than anything we’ve done up to this point and some legends on there with us. The album is so close to being done now, but as of yet we don’t have a date set. I’ve also finished another album with Pitch which will be out this year, I am really proud of it and can’t wait to drop it. I’ve also started writing the follow up to Foggy Eyes, which will probably drop next year. I’m excited about the ideas I have for it and I’m following the same process of writing it like a film.