Interview: Riz MC

Lisa Jenkins chats to Riz MC

Posted on Mar 1st, 2012 in Features and Interviews, Riz MC, Tru Thoughts / By Lisa Jenkins
Riz MC “Sonically innovative and lyrically sharp music” is how his label Tru Thoughts describes him. In fact, Riz MC has been around in the music scene much longer than people realize. He started the Hit and Run club night in Oxford in 2001, but it wasn’t until 2006 when his debut single ‘The Post 9/11 Blues’, was released, and then subsequently banned, that people started to take notice, and won him a loyal online following. A couple of singles followed in 2009, and then Riz MC’s debut album MICroscope, was released digitally in 2011 to a huge amount of press coverage. The album is coupled with a groundbreaking live show and online experience, the website has to be seen to be believed. Now, Tru Thoughts are re releasing the album on CD version with added remixes and interludes in May of this year. With a new single ‘All of You’ being released on the 12th March, 2012 is set to make Riz’s star shine even brighter.

Bearded: A lot of people associate you with acting, but you’ve been doing music longer than that. When did music first become important to you?

Riz MC: Well, in terms of when it’s been important to me, it always has been. From my early teens, under my brother’s influence, I got into a lot of into hip hop in the early and mid-’90s. I know a lot of people look back it as the Golden Era of lyricism. If I think back then, a lot of the music that was riding high on the charts sonically sounded so left-field and what people today would class as being a bit too ‘underground’. If you look back at that time, that was what was blowing up in the mainstream in America. But anyway, yea it was important to me from my early teens. I was always a hyperactive kid and it was just the energy and the athleticism of it, you know. Just spraying those words out at that pace, even before I could pick up what people were saying.

But when it was something I started doing seriously, I was 16/17/18 - getting into the period when I was about to go into university. Actually, when I went to university, to begin with, I felt a bit like I wasn’t sure if it was the right move. I wanted to stay in London. It was about 2001 - the whole Garage thing was going into the Grime scene and people were finally open to British accents rapping. When I was 15/16 or so, making music in the bedroom with my friends, something that was important to me was making UK Rap that felt really British – not just vocally but that took in the influence UK Dance music heritage. So I was really excited by everything happening at that time and felt torn about going away from London. But it was when I was at university when I thought: ‘Maybe I can have my cake and eat it?’. Maybe I can go to university but still keep the music going.

B: That moves onto my second question - I was watching you at Glastonbury in 2007 on the BBC Introducing Stage and you have that hip hop influence, but did your influence come from anywhere else growing up?

Riz: Yeah, as I said, my brother’s influence would be early Nas, Redman, Hieroglyphics, Gravediggaz, Wu-Tang and all of that was important to me. But growing up, my dad was a massive Bob Marley fan, so Bob Marley used to be on the TV. You know those VHS videos of people’s music videos back-to-back? It was a lot of Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, and a lot of Qawwali music. Qawaali music is kind of Pakistani gospel-jazz, is how I’d describe it. It’s not about people singing with beautiful voices, it’s a bit rough and a lot of its improvised, so there was a lot of that around. So those were influences.

B: So - going back to your Uni days - at Oxford, when you started up your Hit and Run night, why did you start that up? Was there nothing in Oxford representing that type of music?

Riz: Yeah, there was, the Source nights were big drum & bass nights, but what I was aware of was a gap in the scene for new talent. There was need for a night that was a platform for local DJs and MCs, that made some space for student-based talent, where people from all over the country come into the city. I knew there was a gap there and if I wanted to go to every week - that I could get on the mic at - I knew that other people would probably feel the same way. So it was very much the idea of putting on new talent, including myself. It allowed me to get up there as a host and learn my skills.

B: Was it difficult starting it up, or did you find it quite easy because of your love and passion?

Riz: I felt I needed to do it to keep myself sane. I felt like it was bridging a gap, not only in the music scene there, but in myself. I felt like going to Oxford, studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics was one side of me, but there was another side of me that I’d left in London - doing little slots on pirate radio stations and getting more serious about making tunes. It wasn’t just about plugging holes in the scene, it was also a side of myself that I needed to cater for. I knew if I was hungry for that, I thought other people would be. So that was kind of the logic.

B: Moving onto the MICroscope album, which came a bit later on, I noticed you released it digitally in 2011 and it’s going to be re-released in CD form in May through Tru Thoughts. Do you think releasing it this way will change the audience or vibe of the album, or is it just about having it in a different format?

Riz: To be honest, the idea with MICroscope was to have something that could live in all kinds of forms. So from an album you can get digitally, to being a video game you can play online, to being a short film you can watch, to a live show that was almost like a theatre experience. So the idea was to create an animal that can live in all types of habitats. I think having it on CD is just an extension of that. I think CD distribution, as opposed to digital... personally, I’m someone who does buy CDs from time to time. I tend to buy music digitally, to be honest, but certain albums that I absolutely love, I have them digitally. But I still walk into a shop and I’ll buy them on CD. I know that’s a little bit weird, but it’s about having something in your hand - something tangible. I think Tru Thoughts - which have an audience of music lovers, people who appreciate the value of the artists on that roster - they’re a CD-buying audience. If the CD does open up MICroscope to another audience, that’s great.

B: What else can we expect from the re-release?

Riz: There’s two main new elements to the CD. I feel like what I released last year was the prototype and this is the final version - doing it full justice. For me, the MICroscope album is something that takes lots of influence from UK dance music, but extrapolates it to the future into some mad sci-fi sound. It’s its own sound, but something that is not a clubby sound. But on this CD version, you’ve got that clubby sound as well in five new remixes. I kinda feel like that completes the album and where it’s coming from. So there’s these new remixes that I think are quite exciting - from people like Bok Bok, Plan B, Zed Bias, dBridge, True Tiger, Baobinga.
But the other main element that’s new is the interludes on the album. They’re not just filler, they’re really intense, mind-blowing bits of music that are cooked-up by Zed Bias and by Rich Reason – who runs Hit and Run up in Manchester and is a well-loved figure on the Manchester scene, he’s a gateway to a lot of people’s talents. For me, these interludes it really helps tell the story of the album.

MICroscope is this album you can listen to, but there’s also this kind of sci-fi story world behind it, if you wanna delve deeper, all about sonic warfare. You can experience it, either through the video game or the short film or the live show. And the interludes on the album are also linked into that world. The theme on those interludes is to do with the MICroscope concept of sonic warfare. So the first interlude is called “Sonic Warfare” and on there, you’ve kind of got an amazing mash of different sounds and the kind of sonic wasteland that’s out there.

B: We touched on this earlier, but do you think digital distribution is the future? Do you think CDs will become part of the past, like vinyl did? How do you think its changed people’s music experience?

Riz: I think the main way it’s changed is that the turnover of content is so fast now. So the gap between dubstep and post-dubstep might have been like two years - the peak of one genre before then splicing with another - or six months or a year, depending on how you’re judging it, as opposed to the past when the dominance of one sound shifting to another used to take a lot longer. I think the turnover of those sounds is getting a bit faster and faster, until labelling them gets a bit meaningless. And I’m quite happy about that, to be honest. I’m quite happy that we’re unable to keep up with the rate of innovation and the rate at which people are able to get to the music, so we use the term ‘bass music’, which is a surrender - putting our hands up saying ‘It’s coming too fast’ to label things anymore. That’s good because the rate of innovation is so fast that the genre-names can’t keep up.

So that’s really exciting about the digitalisation of music, but on the other side, not to sound like I’m complaining, the value of the music has nose-dived in terms of how disposable it is. I think that’s why it’s important to give people a whole experience with your album. Anyone can knock out tunes and put them online. For me, what excites me is when people put together a whole vision with their music - whether it’s Plan B with a storyline running through his album or M.I.A. and her whole visual aesthetic. With MICroscope, beyond the music, it’s got the futuristic sci-fi aesthetic to it, in its film and gaming element. So I kinda feel like it’s put the onus on musicians to give more than just their music and to paint a vision.

B: Do you think that detracts from the music itself?

Riz: I think sometimes it does and that’s a really good point. The spine of it all has to be the music. Throwing neon paint on the wall to cover up its cracks is one thing, but if the foundations of that wall are solid and then you embellish on top of that - I think that’s just as enjoyable for people. It’s not about covering up cracks with distractions.

B: Talk about the website - it took me ages to unlock all the songs!

Riz: We didn’t really want it to be too straight-forward, but if you don’t over-think it, it can be quite instinctive.

B: What inspired you to do this whole experience, because I’ve never seen anything like it? Why that particular concept?

Riz: It got led by the aesthetics and the sounds of the album itself. It’s heavily influenced by Lazersonic, really. Its sound is sort of this futuristic dystopian sci-fi world - a world that’s stripped-back, in a way. Something we wanted to avoid [was] hook-y loops. Often a lot of the music on the album is about taking samples of sounds, gnarling them up, ripping them open, stripping them back, putting them through plug-ins, seeing what happens and that’s the tune - with no kind of gimmicky melodies to make it more palatable.

So there was such a deliberate direction we took, when making the album, of this sonic confrontation, to go against a lot of what was out there at the time. So, from that, I came up with this idea of sonic warfare, of competing visions of sound. And from there it became about a secret government department that’s controlling the population’s minds, and a sonic resistance that’s battling against that. You’ve got this fight between sonic viruses and sonic vaccines going on, all of which we’re unaware of. I felt encouraged when I saw other people thinking the same way. Kode9 wrote the book ‘Sonic Warfare’ and that was basically the same thing.

B: Obviously, you’ve performed in America (at festivals like SXSW) in the past. As your music is politically aware and - I think - US audiences tend be more sensitive about it than UK audiences, do you find that US audiences respond to you differently?

Riz: I slightly disagree; I’d say my music is less politically driven than it is socially driven. It might be a subtle difference but, for example, artists like Lowkey [and] Immortal Technique are explicitly political in their music, but I differentiate myself from them. It’s more social commentary, for example, neighbourhoods going from really ghetto to really trendy and then satirising that. Or how, suddenly, it’s cool for everybody to where skinny jeans and satirising that. But [I’m also] implicating myself in all that as well - saying: ‘I’m one of these dickheads. We’re all part of the problem...’ It’s not so much conscious, in terms of the MCs being a messianic preacher - that doesn’t really do it for me - it’s closer to stand up comedy; social commentary through satire.

To be honest, the Americans love that. It works well there because it’s the heartland of consumerism. Consumerism is built upon reinforcing social types, so that certain jeans go with a certain kind of music, certain hairstyles go with a certain type of trainers. So social types are enforced in such a widespread way it’s almost like Americans are more willing to engage with that and that it’s more day-to-day life over there. Kind of playing into types - which a lot of my music’s based on - social trends and social stereotypes.

B: As you’ve been doing music for as long as you have - 6 years - how do you think the industry’s changed?

Riz: It’s weird because I’ve been doing this for six years, but on the other hand, I’ve not been doing this full-time for six years. I’ve kind of been divided so much with filming. I mean, this is my debut album. In so many ways, I feel like I’m new in this game - especially compared to my peers. So many of them have put out so much material, whereas I’ve really been selective about what I’ve put up and not churning material out, which is weird for me, because I make material really fast. In a week, I will make 10 tracks, but none of them will really see the light of day. It’s not really until I decide that ‘This is an album’ and even then, the album only had 10 tracks on it and since then, I’ve been making things and making things and discarding them. It’s not until the next time when I hit up on a sound and start creating an album, that the album will start taking shape. Fortunately, that’s happened this year and I’m about five tracks into the next one.

B: Tying into that, you starting your Hit and Run nights all that time ago, how have you seen the music industry change since then?

Riz: I think the barriers to entry have just plummeted. In terms of the music scene - underground and dance music culture is something that people can enter with very little, apart from their talent. They can distribute it by putting it up on their SoundCloud and the next thing you know, they’re getting bookings around the world. I think it’s really wide open and vibrant and a greater accessibility of tunes. That might mean the shelf life of a big tune is a lot shorter, but there’s a flipside - music, scenes and sounds are able to rejuvenate quicker and fresher and new talent is coming at a faster rate than ever before. But, on the other hand, the pressure is up to be more prolific. But I still think it’s something to be said for taking hold of your sound and vision, but yea I think it’s the biggest change - the pace.

B: Now your debut album’s out, who do you want to work with? You’ve played support slots at shows with the likes of Massive Attack, Dizzee Rascal and Mos Def.

Riz: There’s a really long list that I don’t wanna get into, in case somebody reads this and I’ve left them off!! But, do you know what? I like all the different fresh sounds coming out the UK right now and have been for a while. I feel like some of the sounds that have been in my head for years are finally out there and people are re-imagining them. I think I was really lucky to work with producers like Redinho and Lazersonic on the first one, so going forwards onto the next one, I’ve been working with some people I’m quite excited about, but I don’t wanna say anything until it gets out there.

B: Who’ve you been listening to lately?

Riz: I’ve been listening to the Hudson Mohawke and Rustie albums, Toddla T, Redinho’s EP, the Ghostpoet album, some Das Racist stuff – I’m really interested in different routes that people are taking, that bucks the orthodoxy of certain hip hop moulds - doing it in a fresh way. I’m always encouraged and excited by that. So that’s what I’ve been listening to recently, and podcasts.

B: What about live dates? Because I think people would like to hear the whole MICroscope experience.

Riz: Well in terms of the whole MICroscope experience, it’s something logistically intensive, but I think we’re in talks with some really prestigious London venues about doing some runs there in the autumn. Before that though, just doing a stripped-back show is just something I’ve enjoyed. So I’m excited to be getting back to that and I’m gonna have some live shows. I’ve got a date on 10th March at XOYO and I’m doing Leeds on 5th May booked in just today. Between and beyond that, we’re just confirming a whole load of dates.