Constant Evolution: An Interview w/ Grime Pioneer Flowdan at Native Sessions: Bars
Like the harshly angular yet brutally beautiful architecture of the Barbican itself, there is an element of compelling juxtaposition about chatting with Flowdan, one of grime’s fiercest MCs and true veteran of hard-hitting UK music, in the arts centre’s eerily tropical conservatory. But here we are, tucked in a corner beside the kitchen, away from the bustle of Native Instruments’ latest Native Session: ‘Bars’, beset by illuminated greenery and concrete, talking about the next step in Flowdan’s career.
On record, Flowdan is instantly recognisable: a towering presence on whatever piece of wax he is lacing, whether that be with Pay As U Go Cartel (‘Dem Not Ready’) back when grime was just emerging from UK Garage, on dead-eyed grime classics with Roll Deep (‘When I’m Ere’), with The Bug for earth-shattering dubstep beasts that still inspire frenzy today (‘Skeng’), or on any of his long list of solo hits (‘Horror Show Style’).
In person, the effect is similar. He is tall and though there is mischief in his grin, his one gold tooth sparkling when he flashes his teeth, he is generous and thoughtful. His words carry the weight of a man who has dedicated his life to a craft and is duly respected for it, and it is this respect that has allowed him to take his most recent steps in the scene with the launch of Spentshell: a label and brand for Flowdan to release tracks of his own and of any young artists that pique his interest. Plus, crucially given the nature of the event at which we meet, it is a platform for his own production – something to which he is relatively new.
The catalyst for this, besides his affection for Native Instruments’ Maschine unit (something he talks excitedly about to us and later at the workshop he features in), is his insatiable work ethic. “I got fed up of being that annoying MC that’s always on the phone to producers. I have no shame in doing that – I love the music and I love the chase” he says, with another glint of that golden canine. “But at the same time I spend so much time in the studio that I know I can put my ideas to use, so I was excited to start the production journey.”
Of course, starting your production journey doesn’t usually involve almost two decades of studio experience with some of the most celebrated producers in the world. With Flowdan though the list could provide a stellar line-up for a mid-sized festival, including the likes of Wiley, Swifta, Khan & Neek and course The Bug – something that isn’t lost on him. “Yeah that is the highest percentage of what I know about music. Anyone whose work I’ve appreciated, especially if I’ve had the opportunity watch them work, I will take from. I’m never shy to learn and apply.”
This sentiment, as well as the knowledge accrued, is something he feels he can pass on to a new generation, which brings us on to the other purpose of Spentshell: as a place for younger artists to flourish. He describes it as “about creating an umbrella for [creativity] to happen in a comfortable environment.” Noting that “a lot of people are experimental with their output but don’t always have the confidence or support, be it financial or just verbal.”
A community then?
“A community would be a bit wide” he reckons. “Because I definitely choose wisely. I’ve got to have something to offer. It’s all about talent. Young, new and fresh.”
This speaks to a mindset forged in the competitive arena of MCing. He is not out to do anyone any favours and to be included on Spentshell, everything has to be given the Flowdan seal of approval. It is a tough benchmark, and he is a harsh self-critic too. We hear some of his productions after our interview and they are fully-formed and monstrous, but for Flowdan there is still a way to go. “If someone said to me: ‘I wouldn’t think you were making beats for a year and a half by the sounds of your music, I will take that. But at the same time, I don’t think I’m there yet…”
Still, having a veteran MC of his standing making beats for you as a young artist must be exciting. His own experience would surely allow him to hear the voices of his young artists – Ghostly, YGG, Ruby Black – in the beats he creates.
“Nah nah I wanna hear my voice” he laughs. “I’m an expert on what I do myself. If you can’t please yourself then you have to stop. Because there’s no other guarantees. If I’m pleased in some way I get the guts to say ‘oi guys, what do you think?'”
In his MCing career though, there must be producers who work with his voice in mind. “That’s what they say to me. But I think to myself ‘can you?'” He says. “Because I always try to keep evolving. So when you can hear me on it, you could hear the old me or maybe something I don’t want to do anymore. There’s sometimes a conflict like that but it’s just me trying to find the balance. Trying to stay me and interesting to me.”
He does admit that there is a thread that runs through his style. He may not always spit with the exaggerated patois heard on ‘Skeng’ but the echoes of Jamaican music are never far. “I learned a lot of lessons from dancehall, reggae, bashment or whatever” he reveals. “As the voice, it’s used as an instrument as opposed to just storytelling. So for instance, you might be into a song and because they use patois you don’t know what they are saying. Maybe once you break past the language barrier you hear something you don’t agree with, [but] you’ve liked it already. That type of gel, them reggae people back then aced it and they still ace it today. So when you’re doing a grime song, if that bass and that drum pattern ain’t fitting with your voice, there’s gonna be a problem, doesn’t matter what you’re saying. Grime is close to dancehall in that the content sometimes gets overlooked because it sounds so fun.”
Funnily enough, it is fun that Flowdan stresses the most during our conversation. On his longevity: it comes down to fun. On production too and his constant evolution in styles “It’s just fun.” But when we ask him what advice he may have for budding young artists, he points to the opposite.
“The advice I wish I’d been given is to be open to opinions you don’t like. That can be a big deterrent. You can either take that information and do better for yourself or just give up – be open and just get on with it.”
And with that, we are done. Flowdan wanders away among the ferns to get on with his Maschine workshop – another new experience for an artist whose appetite for progress and new experiences seems further from wavering than ever.
Flowdan’s latest release ‘Bodybag’ ft. Irah is out now on Tru Thoughts, and will be followed by a four-track EP featuring Meridian Dan and D Double E on Spentshell. Look out for the debut on the label from singer Ruby Black too, slated for a summer release.
This feature is courtesy of Point Blank Music School. If, like Flowdan, you love Native Instruments’ Maschine and would like to get the most out of it, they offer specialist courses taught by some of the most knowledgeable instructors around in London and LA. Or if you’re really serious about production and want to learn everything you possibly can, check out their BA (Hons) in Music Production and Sound Engineering, which includes an NI Maschine module, or any of the other degree programmes. If you have any questions, you can contact them on +44 20 7729 4884 or 323 282 7660 in the USA.