“Are you holding on to something? Well, you should,” poet/MC Josh Idehen cackles over this exclusive Dazed mix from production duo LV. When I sat down with the three of them a few weeks back in a bustling Clapham bar to talk about their second collaborative LP Islands, due out in September via Keysound, Idehen talked at length about how he’d been grappling with the question of whether he was a spoken word artist or a rapper when he performed, and whether there was even any need for a distinction between the two. On this grime-heavy mix, where Will Horrocks and Si Williams of LV leap enthusiastically from Trim to Mumdance to Sully, he seems to have found his grin-inducing flow happily somewhere in the middle of MC, poet, jokester and preacher.
Islands is the follow-up to Routes, the first album Idehen featured on with LV back in 2011. Where that was a meandering ode to London living peppered with Idehen’s chopped and screwed contributions, Islands reveals more of his storytelling prowess. They’re a stronger unit all round this time, with frozen synth lines, eerie pitch-shifted vocals and bold live percussion channelling grime and jungle influences underneath tales of teenagers falling foul to gang violence and women trapped in relationships with unfaithful men. Read our chat about finding a niche in the UK spoken word scene, the crime scene that inspired the hyperactive lead single “Imminent” and the big things you can expect from the group’s live tour below, and hit play on the mix to let Idehen take you to church.
What’s changed between Routes and Islands?
Josh Idehen: Well for one, there’s more of me in (Islands), which is cool. I think the writing process was very different - before it was very scattershot, they gave me a whole set of beats and they said “write”, and I hadn’t done an album before, so I wrote about everything. They listened to it and thought “okay, 90% of this we’re never going to use,” and they chopped it into little bits and pieces. Whereas with this one, I’d already done some other stuff and I was a bit more confident with my writing. And we definitely had a theme, I wanted to run with identity and my own place as a spoken word rapper person, and I had been exploring the concept of love as well.
Will Horrocks: The idea behind the process for us was fairly simple: we took what Josh had done and used that as a starting point for things. But on a technical level it was a bit different (to Routes) in that we limited ourselves to sounds that we could generate within the room that we were in. So every noise on the record is either from instruments or synthesizers or the drum kit.
Si Williams: It’s good to have limits to work within, so you’re not just going all over the shop. It helped with the consistency of the sound generally.
Josh Idehen: Would it be fair to say that this album was limited? (to the tune of “Imminent”) Limited, limited, limited, limited, limited?
Will Horrocks: There are more performances from (Josh) on this album as well. Before it was just cut-up stuff, whereas now it’s full songs.
Josh Idehen: The first one, there was a case for it being a sampling sort of relationship on my part. There was only one track where a large body of work that I recorded that was left on its own.
You said one of the themes you were writing on was identity, and your own place between poet and MC. What were you thinking about that?
Josh Idehen: I think UK hip hop and spoken word has always been an interesting place purely because it’s not directly tied to Capitalist or competitive urges – like say, for example, in America. I think we’re a lot more subjective, we tend to not ask so many questions about who’s a rapper, who’s a spoken word artist. You’re just allowed to be. Say people like Maxi Jazz, Ghostpoet and Mike Skinner. We’re a lot more accepting about that. In my case, I’m quite rhythmic in my work, but I’m not a rapper; I don’t err on the side of rhyme or rhythm. I generally work a lot on the narrative, and if the narrative doesn’t work I’ll abandon it.
So yeah, on this album I do some singing, they’ve allowed some of the tracks where I’m doing more pieces of spoken word. On this one, there’s just more of me. There’s more of a chance for me to establish myself, and what that is – which I don’t even know myself at the moment. I generally treat every text as a different entity which needs a different art form. Sometimes singing - like on “Islands”, singing was the way to go forward with that piece of text, because it wouldn’t have worked as a poem. And “Imminent” needed that grime rhythm, because there’s no way you can push forward that kind of angst or tragedy as a poem, it just becomes depressing.
Si Williams: And each track is kind of its own little world that needs to be treated in a certain way; the track leads you to the right place sonically. Luckily in our room we had quite a lot of variation in terms of sounds that we could use, so we managed to go all over the place. But having the sound sources not change ties it all together.
“When the album came back, originally I was kind of like 'woah, am I that dark?” – Josh Idehen
How did “Imminent” come about?
Josh Idehen: Well, I’d written “Imminent” a while back. It was based off an old poem I’d written. I used to live in Hackney, Mare Street, and came home one day and there were police lines everywhere. There had been this rude boy on the estate who had fallen into a honey trap, and he got shanked. I remember just walking up the stairs, after I had convinced the police officers I did live there, there were some girls looking over the balcony, and one of them said “he didn’t know his time was imminent.” So I went into my bedroom, and at the time I was listening to a lot of Dizzee Rascal so…
So did you write it with that rhythm?
Josh Idehen: I wrote it with that rhythm. The original thing was like 72 bars or something, and Will and Si obviously, when I left the room, said 'this will never do' and chopped it up.
Will Horrocks: That’s a bare-faced lie.
Josh Idehen: After going on tour we agreed that “Imminent” deserved its own track.
Will Horrocks: Yeah, it’s always a highlight when we do it live.
The album is a bit more downbeat and introspective than you might expect from hearing the lead single. Was there any common mindset or headspace you went into it with?
Josh Idehen: We were all depressed.
Will Horrocks: We were all really, really sad.
Josh Idehen: I was pleasantly surprised when the album was sent back and a lot of my pieces had made it into the album. A part of me was prepared that it was going to be the same kind of sampling situation as before - which I was totally happy with. But when it came back, originally I was kind of like 'woah, am I that dark? Okay.' It just so happened that this time, I was writing a lot of pieces that were considering things like identity and mortality.
Will Horrocks: I think it gets more extreme, there’s a wider emotional range on it than there was on the first album.
Josh Idehen: We’re just chasing that Morrissey dollar.
What can we expect from the live shows?
Josh Idehen: You know when Kanye West had all those ballet dancers? Imagine all the dancers were helicopters.
Will Horrocks: When you write that, put it as 'helicopters (TBC)'. Subject to change.
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