The first thing Ess_West said to me as I sat down to chat to him is “I like to write music every day or feelings will eat me up.” Emotion clearly sits at the forefront of the Brixton MC’s mind. With the music video for his latest single “You” out now, we had a wide-ranging conversation touching on his London influences, the artists that sculpted him and those he sculpts, how he engages with his deeper feelings, and feeling a responsibility to do so.
London’s got such a vibrant music scene, how has that rubbed off on you and moulded your music?
All my influences come from the community I grew up in south London. Most of the people I consider family are 2nd or 3rd generation migrants, be it from Jamaica or West Africa, so a lot of the sounds, feelings and vibes in my music come from the sounds they saturated me in. For me, the things that make me feel good and the music that makes me feel at home and safe is a lot of black music. Sunday mornings in my house always had a lot of old soul music and old reggae or some two-step. The more that I make music and the more that I create, the more that I find myself referencing not just rap and grime but the things that make me feel something on a bigger level like this stuff. However, for a lot of the good and bad moments in my formative years, I was very heavily into rap and grime so when I reference moments from my teenage that’s the soundtrack.
I’m lucky that a lot of the artists I produce for and have worked with at the early stages of my career 3/4 years ago are pioneers of UK rap. If you ask Giggs, Wretch  and all the other UK artists who they feel are the best in the UK, the ones who have contributed most to the changing sounds, I’ve been around are those people.
I came into creating music late, having always been heavily surrounded by it, and I feel like it’s such a therapeutic thing. Like a human, when you put it in a harsh environment, you can see the mass of it is ugly and scary but there’s a lot of beauty in it as well. It’s the same as genres like grime and drill and rap where on the outside you can say “oh this is rough, and children shouldn’t have access to this.” Yet when you look at it closely, the community and what it does for the lives of individuals, it’s a very beautiful thing and a key part of modern expression. It helps people with a lot of pain who historically haven’t had access to therapy or positive solutions. In the same way when people look at my area Brixton and be like “oh that’s a rough area”, but once you’re in it it’s warm and not scary.
You mentioned just there that you were a late start into music. How did the Ess_West musical project come about initially?
Els, who I run the studio with, had been producing for a long time and we met through some street shit. I didn’t know he had heard me rap before because when I used to rap it was on the block or at a party cos that’s what we’d do. He’d had an eye on working with me but at the time I couldn’t have been further from thinking about music, I was caught up in some bullshit and going through some traumatic nonsense. Els just got me in the studio and nurtured me musically.
Something bad happened and the studio we had got shut down. I hadn’t realised how much music was helping me in life. When the studio shut I was left with this big space [in me]. It was only stopping music that made me realise I’d become dependent on it. I wasn’t necessarily taking it that seriously, I was still just pulling up and rapping and talking about violence and pain and drug abuse in a very straightforward way, not much nuance. When we lost the studio I didn’t really see Els for a while cos we didn’t know each other outside of these interactions and he just called me up one day and said “I feel like shit without making music” and I agreed so we got a studio.
Within about five months of getting a studio, Youngs Teflon (one of the founding fathers of UK gangsta rap) had just gotten out of jail and needed somewhere to record. I already kinda knew him from the area, him, Blade Brown, and their producer Carns Hill. Their music was so integral to my youth while I was running around doing dumb shit. I was starting to learn how to produce and Tef ended up coming to the studio every day for about two years. We worked on a lot of his projects and I produced one of his biggest tracks called “Hustlers Don’t Die 5” which’s got like 8 million Spotify streams.
Basically, I was learning how to produce and express myself through music, working with people who I grew up listening to. Having people around me that I really looked up to musically and being able to produce for them, they kinda were able to steer how I learned production. Y’know when you’re making hip-hop beats and someone says “I wanna rap on drill” then you learn how to make drill beats cos that’s how you create new opportunities. It was very easy to listen to artists who already had such a big impact on me. It’s not like you’re sitting there with your peers you’re sitting there with people you’d give your right arm to make music with.
From that, I met a lot of industry people, a lot of musicians I wouldn’t have had access to before, and my trajectory just went up and up. We got to the point where me and Els realised we had something that was so clearly inspired by the UK rap scene and rap in general, but it was a bit to the left of that. It was very emotive and very vulnerable but not lacking the strong elements of rap music. In America you’ve got your Kid Cudi’s and your Childish Gambino‘s, there’s such a broad range of emotion in music but that’s not an idea you see so much in the UK.
It’s only been like four or five months since we started pushing music out properly and doing PR and marketing and all the things you have to do to bolster the numbers of people who are aware of you. We’ve realised how to apply the stuff we learned from working with bigger artists and how to use the appeal that I have. Now we’re putting music out it’s very interesting to me, because I wasn’t sure that people would understand it in the way I meant it, but the feedback has been so emotive.
It’s to the point where I almost feel a sense of responsibility, there are a lot of people that are reaching out, for me it’s overwhelming. It might not be for a bigger artist, but for me 10-15 people a day DMing me saying “I’m having a hard time and this is helping” or like my music’s brightened their day to some extent is massive.
I feel like when you make vulnerable music people feel comfortable expressing their own vulnerability with you. It almost feels like an important part of their process. I think that’s maybe what I was working towards without ever specifically realising that I was trying to like touch people, help people. I think it’s weird for people to see a man from where I’m from with my background expressing themselves in a vulnerable way.
The lyrical and sonic aspects of your music both give the impression of you being not just the kind of person in touch with their emotions, but one who is willing to share how they feel. As you said you weren’t originally intending to be that kind of person, but now you are more in touch with yourself. Is this now a more concerted effort from you to be someone who can show their own emotions?
I think it’s only as you work through situations you realise what it is that feels good and what doesn’t. A lot of the young guys around me are still in a place where their reactive measures are the type of things that can ruin someone’s life, either their own or someone else’s. It wasn’t that long ago that those splits in the path were in front of me. I’m very lucky and very privileged because I have people in my life who don’t just tell me better they show me better. I have women in my life who genuinely want me to be okay and survive and can impart some wisdom that’s not related to ego.
Learning those things about my life and how to vocalise them are the things that have pushed me towards feeling a responsibility to be emotive. I think so many young men find it hard to even address their emotions let alone talk about them, let alone act on them in a way that is constructive and I’ve been so blessed to be wedged in between two quite conflicting worlds where the pain is rife but I have the privilege of feeling love and people that are kind and accepting.
I just always felt like I’m making a genre of music that is predominantly shaped by Black musicians. I feel like a lot of white rappers, especially in the UK, take all the bits that everyone likes from Black artists and are marketed to the masses in a way where maybe you can’t market yourself if you’re independent. They take the violent element and apply it to the white lad culture. I feel like rather than do that, as a person whos aware enough of my privilege to not believe it’s not a factor, let me talk about how I feel about these kinda things. I got bad anxiety for somebody that’s been in these situations and I feel like talking openly about these things, I don’t think I realised it at the time but it can be just as beneficial for other people as it is for myself.
It’s only in the last couple of months that I’ve been learning that talking about some shit that I don’t always necessarily feel comfortable talking about in a way that is like not glamorising it is the other side of a coin and I feel like in the UK there are not very many self-aware white artists that do this. I don’t necessarily think of those people as my peers even but when you’re putting yourself out there to be perceived you should understand the responsibilities of who you are and how you will be perceived. Now don’t get me wrong I’m talking my shit innit, it’s not like I’m out here talking about good credit. I just want to be responsible.
New single “You” is out now obviously, you touched a bit on it before but how has the reception been like?
I think the music we’ve been releasing recently is a reflection of us tryna let people know it’s okay to be hurt, it doesn’t make you weak. Whether it’s heartbreak or some street shit, the ability to be hurt doesn’t make you any less gangster. The response from “You” has been people understanding that way more than I thought they would. I haven’t done any interviews I haven’t spoken on it.
It’s mad to see it because we’ve worked with big artists before, I’m aware of what the relationship can be between artists and fans especially when your music helps people but I’ve never really seen myself as someone who ends up getting messages from people. I got a message yesterday from a guy talking about his girl leaving him. This is like the first girl he ever got. He was saying to me [“You” is] making him feel less embarrassed and more optimistic. He said he wanted to thank me and that cos I’m not like blown up yet his message wouldn’t get lost in my inbox. That might seem light or whatever but I know myself as someone who used to struggle to do things to make myself feel better when I felt bad let alone seek any type of therapy or conversation about anything I just reached back out to man and chatted for like half an hour.
I guess this is the back end of making music that makes me feel better. Like, the downpayment on me making music is that I get to feel better but the return on it is that it’s gonna make someone else feel better.
A lot of the music isn’t about heartbreak, it’s about the universal pain of struggle and not feeling like you’re enough and trying to better your situation. “You” is very much the sister of the previous song “Ouch”. “Ouch” is very much like hurt and nothing hurts like this whereas “You” is much calmer and less anxious. It probably comes from the more confident version of myself whereas “Ouch” is something that is concise and intelligent but it’s very in pain.
The vibe I got from you is that it felt very at peace and like it’s come to terms with it and isn’t writhing in the pain of the situation.
I don’t think it’s very responsible to sell pain without selling the reality of it. I would hate to be one of those people that makes bare emo music and talks like the darker side of those things and not be aware that I’m actually in an okay place when I talk about those things. I see so much music that seems almost flirting with suicide using drugs as a way to get rid of the pain, it always seems to end in tragedy and I’m not tryna die. I got bare people that I love and that I’m responsible for and I don’t want no one to listen to my music and think that life is some eternal circle of suffering. It’s the opposite. It’s like the existence of bad proves the existence of good. If you can be mad hurt at some point you felt absolutely great to understand what the hurt is.
Because we’re just starting to release it’s good to do it in a very black-and-white way where there’s a song with a lot of pain and there’s a song with a lot of relief. I feel like as the journey continues and we release more music and more people become aware of it and in touch with it, some of the newer music will be some shit you can have a lil dance to.
We’ve been acquainted with you, now let’s get into the fun stuff.
Yeah definitely. Something that you can put on in your car. I come from the world of rap music where when you make a project you have one song that’s for the girls, one that’s catchy and hopefully for the charts, a couple that’s ride-out music for the mandem and a couple of thoughtful contemplative ones. In that same vein of thought, we wanted to express who we are and what our sound is. We produced so many different types of music and I enjoy so many different types of sounds that the music as much as it always has our branding and our signature on it the music becomes more versatile. As we go on. Just because I became more aware of it because I always want this to be rap music but the more I develop as a producer the more I enjoy making it as broad as we can.
Some of the artists I’m working with at the moment are quite far from rap music. We’ve got an artist called Donna Lee, she makes dancehall-y two-step-like garage-y elements. Another artist called Yaz Leon, she makes indie music. I don’t know how to describe her other than a post-twitter Amy Winehouse. She’s got something about her that’s just different. Fee Gonzales, he’s a rapper from South [London]. He’s someone who I feel that in the next 2-3 years will be a household name. He’s always made music and he’s always been around. He’s elevating and he’s around the right people now, he’s with like Potter Payper and his manager.
Sorry, this might sound like random ramblings but these are all the people that I work with on a regular basis and there are elements of my sound that run through what they’re doing as well. Catching Cairo. She does like DnB vocals but she has an RnB project out that I’m a feature on. The production side of my career I feel can be just as much of a driving force as my individual music.
Sometimes I go into a session and I’m just songwriting and I’ve got one of the younger producers I’m working with and I’ll bring some sounds but they’re producing and I’m just tryna write. Whereas other times I’ll go into sessions and they don’t wanna hear me, they don’t wanna hear my voice, they just want man’s production and they know exactly what they want.
I feel like we’re in such an early stage of our careers where we’re trying to express who I am not just through the music but what it is that we do and where we see ourselves getting. I feel like it’s hard for people to always take that in before they get it. Interviews are interesting cos I might seem like I’m saying some wider shit than what the question is requiring but I’m trying to get it down and documented now so it makes more sense in the future.
Just to close us out—what does the future hold, if it’s not a secret?
It doesn’t have to be a secret at this point cos nobody is listening! I’m not worried about someone stealing it, I feel like what we have is not very imitable anyway.
I feel like the future of what I’m doing as an artist is a lot more music with feeling. A lot more music that transcends one age group or sex or genre. A lot more production for artists we believe in rather than artists that are hot or popping, and just tryna communicate some human experience in a world where we can be very willing to share but not willing to understand. I feel like the internet makes it such an easy place to constantly share and consume without ever getting to that second level of understanding. I feel like to understand or to want to understand your message has to be clear and concise and come with no Twitter messages that can ruin your reputation and no contradictory tales of where it is you come from or what you represent.
The next six months to a year of our music is gonna consist of a lot more feeling and a lot more thought and a lot more content. I’m looking forward to going on that journey with us cos I didn’t really realise just how much people can see themselves in it. I’m excited to reach out.