Certified: Flowdan Talks
Born in Forest Gate, raised in Bow, Marc Veira aka Flowdan is one of the finest MCs in the UK – a magnetic presence onstage and possessed of a deep, sonorous voice that acts like a piercing stare. His early days as a teenage drum n bass MC led to a key role in garage crew Pay As U Go, before he became a founding member of pioneering grime collective Roll Deep.
Whilst some of his contemporaries in that group have gone on to taste mainstream success, Flowdan has always remained true to his roots, refusing to be boxed in by narrow definitions. Most notably there's his work with The Bug, which has resulted in a raft of anthems such as 'Skeng', 'Jah War' and 'Dirty'. Then there's numerous other collaborations with top bass producers such as DVA, Swindle and Kahn.
And now, finally, his solo career proper: kickstarted with an EP on Hyperdub and continuing with Disaster Piece, his new – and to all intents and purposes, his first – album. Released earlier this year on Tru-Thoughts, it acts as Flowdan's definitive statement, a seriously impressive work from a man who's been in this game for time and has picked up a lot of knowledge on the journey.
While Flowdan's career has so often been defined by his collaborations, the guests here are limited to old Roll Deep dons Tinchy Stryder and Manga, as well as singer Animai. Disaster Piece feels very much like a fresh beginning, and an ominous suggestion that maybe Flowdan is only just approaching the peak of his powers.
With the new single 'Grime' out now, we met up a few weeks ago to chat storytelling, the importance of flexibility, and his new aim of getting a massive song amongst the people.
So, I guess a good point to start is with the new album – how far back do any of the tracks date, or were they all written with the album in mind?
To be honest, I don’t think any of the tracks are written with the album in mind. Music making is a continuous process. I’m always searching for a sick beat, and if I’ve got the beat then I’m definitely trying to spend time in the studio with it, get to know it like a new girlfriend, then when I’ve had fun I move on. [laughs] I just got to a point where I had lots of good music and thought, ‘Yeah let’s put a project together’, as opposed to holding back the hot tracks for singles. Some of the tracks never made my Serious Business EP on Hyperdub, so those ones date back to the start of 2013.
Was it important to you to get a range of different producers?
Nah, it was just important that I liked each beat, and could do something that complements it. Whoever made it – that’s irrelevant to me. Some writers have said that the album is missing big producers. To me that means you’re listening with your eyes!
When you hear a beat for the first time do you know instantly whether you like it or not, or does it take a while to sink in?
It’s always different to be honest. I make sure to give it a proper listen on a good soundsystem or headphones – let justice be done! Then the ideas start coming to me instantly – if they don’t, I’m like, this can’t be my beat then. Even if the ideas aren’t that good yet, so long as I’m having them then I know it just needs time. So yeah, usually the beats talk to me.
Tru-Thoughts is an interesting label for you, they’ve got a very varied roster.
Yeah I know Zed Bias is over there, and Rodney P… I don’t know anyone who does exactly what I do, so I think I’m probably the first of a type on the label. The owner there asked what I was up to, so I sent some music across, about 16 songs, and he was like, “Yeah, this is sick, sounds like you’ve got an album here.” It seems like there’s no particular order to what style of music they put out, it’s random and eclectic.
From other interviews I’ve read, it seems to me that you don’t have a lot of preconceptions about where your music fits, what kind of universe it can live in.
That can be what holds you back. For instance, I helped build Roll Deep, and then in 2010 we had some pop success – two #1s back to back with ‘Good Times’ and ‘Green Light’. So then the mindset becomes, ‘Right, now we make music for the radio’, because we’ve got a record deal and the label’s asking for more hits. So you go to studio with that mindset and turn it into a science. Then you go to radio and it’s like “Guess what, we’re doing indie bands now.” Oh, shit. Back to the drawing board with what you’re good at, why you’re here in the first place. It’s a waste of time trying to make product for a particular place, because music is always evolving and people are always changing – both your audience and the business side. I’ve learnt that if you make too many plans, well, it doesn’t always go like that…
Like how grime is the hot thing now, but it was house the year before that, and then before that dubstep…
Exactly. If a producer asks me, “Oh, what style do you want?”, that producer’s definitely not for me. Because they’re that person that listens and then does, and I’m looking for the person that just does.
When you hit up say, Coki, you want a Coki beat.
Yeah, not just “What’s the latest vibe now?” ‘Skeng’ – I didn’t know where that was going to go. That’s my biggest song to date. I’m from the grime scene, but Kevin [The Bug] is not from the grime scene. The dubstep scene took ‘Skeng’, but Kevin is not from the dubstep scene either, he’s from reggae, he’s from everything else. When you start boxing yourself off, you’re doing yourself a mischief because there could be opportunities you’re not allowing yourself to be open to.
Have you ever had offers to do pop stuff that just didn’t feel right?
Nah, never. The most pop I’ve ever been offered to do was all in-house Roll Deep stuff, because that’s what the collective thinking was. But we were still trying to be ourselves, to do pop as cool as we could.
On your own terms?
Well, it wasn’t, but we thought it was. We’d go to studio with no plans and no direction because we didn’t know shit. We were still raw, but we’d just had a hit. So it’s like, ‘Let’s make that song over and over again.’ Having been around for ages now, I just do a sick beat because I like it. People will say what they want but I don’t care. I like it, so that’s why I’ve recorded it.
Do you feel like any of the new MCs coming through have learnt that lesson?
No. They might not have had the opportunity to really go through it in that way.
I guess you had to go through it yourself.
Yeah, and get pissed off with yourself and the decisions that you’ve made, that’s a really personal trip. I learnt that lesson back when social media wasn’t as important – radio still had real leverage, like, if you don’t get Radio 1 play you’re not having a hit.
Could you tell me how you started out?
When I was about 12, we got given an assignment to write a poem in English class. For some reason I was the only one who performed mine – even the good girls didn’t do it! – and I remember all the teachers spoke about it, like, “Mark Viera done his one, you didn’t bet on that!” I don’t remember the words, but I remember it had an intro, a narrative, a climax and an ending. That basis of storytelling has to be there or else you ain’t writing properly! [laughs] So now I look back and think, shit, I might’ve been an MC from then. So from 13 onwards I fancied myself as a decent drum n bass MC. In my small community of friends we used to do bedroom sets, make tapes, go record shops, buy the best records and then get them back to the decks. That was all part of the development of what I do now. Then I found my own style around 2001, I reckon. When Wiley created this new sound of music.
Was that the switch, when you realised this was something you wanted to do?
Nah, because I didn’t wanna commit! I didn’t trust it, didn’t have the vision. I’ll hold my hands up and say I didn’t believe that 15 years later I’d be doing shows and living off it. Wiley just thought rah, music, make it, sell it. The basics. He’s always been resourceful, would always find a way to get the product made when we didn’t have money. Anyway, our first song done well, so I thought ‘Let’s do more’. One turns into ten, ten turns into a career. But the incentive in those early days was just trying to keep up with Wiley. He was always writing more lyrics.
What was it like shifting from DnB MCing to writing lyrics?
Well nah, we was writing then as well. We was like hybrid MCs. Some people think of DnB MCing as mumbo jumbo, not much content, but the guys we were into had content. Stevie Hyper D, Skibadee, Shabba, MC Det – their lyrics was about things. They was all about raving and having a good time and drugs, but they were still about things! So that’s what drew me to them anyway. But then we also had reggae from our parents, hip-hop from TV, and just general pop exposure. We liked hard nut hip-hop. 2Pac, Dogg Pound, all of that stuff.
Was hip-hop an important influence then? Grime MCs often seem keen to push that aside, as if it takes away from the UK culture.
Absolutely. It’s weird because, to me, grime is our hip-hop, because it’s our culture. It's the music that's got the attitude and the style of England. Think about it in reverse. If the most horrible gang from Brooklyn came over here and saw some of our gangs they’d think, ‘Oh yeah, same thing!’ We just do it differently, and say different things.
That’s the crucial bit, that equivalence. I think a lot of people are too ready to describe it as an offshoot – like, grime came from hip-hop rather than, grime is hip-hop.
I looked at 2Pac, Biggie Smalls, Dr. Dre… they was in gangs, and they was in groups making music, and it looked cool, simple as that. [laughs] The music was cool but I didn’t emulate it. Neither did a lot of my peers 'cos we was busy trying to emulate Stevie Hyper D or Skibadee. That was who we wanted to be – but you can’t avoid flashy things, rings, girls with big breasts and stuff like that on your TV, you can’t say you’re not into that! [laughs] And then you can’t escape the reggae in your skin, because that was going into you before you were even conscious. So that’s who we are, it’s our culture. Another gang from wherever would look at us and go, ‘Ah yeah you man are gang as well! You hurt each other, drive about in whatever car you think’s cool, you do crime, it’s the same!’ But the language is different. That’s the only thing.
How have the live shows been going since the album came out?
Good question. A live show takes me out of my comfort zone a little bit. I can perform, cool, but I’ve been a live MC – my career’s been fuelled by the impact I have on a performance as opposed to tracks that I do. When you put me in front of an audience, half of them know who I am and half of them don’t, but I’m gonna get them all to enjoy themselves. That’s what an artist goes onstage for, to get the love, not the chinstroke. [laughs] But you have to play new songs as well as the ones they know already because how are they going to learn the fucking songs otherwise?
I was thinking, for people who are just discovering grime now, the way a lot of them will get into it is through a live show. Which is strange for a genre founded on raves and radio sets. I saw BBK headline Wireless this summer, and that’s a big look for grime. The whole set was great, but there was a moment towards the end where they just brought everyone on stage and freestyled over ‘Rhythm n Gash’ for ten minutes. That might not seem like a big deal, but to young kids in the crowd who’ve got into grime through Konnichiwa, MCs trading 8-bars is something new to them and it’s exciting.
Do you know, it’s really cool that you say that, ‘cos… that don’t sell.
You can’t package that.
Our first Roll Deep album, In at the Deep End, had two commercial radio songs – ‘Shake a Leg’ and ‘Avenue’. All the rest was grime. The radio loved the radio records, the underground loved the two underground records we put out. So when it comes to a show, which music do we do?
You can do both, can’t you?
That’s what you think! But they’re not into both. So you’ve got the familiar point of the show where it’s going well, then the cold part of the show where we’re just doing it for us. They’ll be like ‘Oh, the stuff after the songs we knew, that was good too!’ Well, OK, you can tune in anytime of the week to get that. We put out a song called ‘When I’m ‘Ere’ and you didn’t buy that, you bought the album ‘cos of radio play. And now 15 years later you’re telling me [BBK] were murking ‘Rhythm n Gash’, that’s just how it goes – they feed off your excitement, your energy, but they can’t tell you what the tune’s called or which MC they like, other than the bait ones like Skepta. Know what that means? It means they didn’t understand it, and it’s gonna take more than one performance once a year before they do. Grime is hard to package, it’s gotta be simplified.
I guess to an extent every genre has got elements that you can package to a pop audience, it’s just a matter of whether you’re gonna lose what you consider to be the essential elements in the process. Anyway, I wanted to ask about the artwork. Where is that estate?
E14, Balfron Tower. I already had the title Disaster Piece, so I wanted artwork that showed me involved in some type of disaster. Post-apocalyptic, and me so tall I’m trampling buildings. It didn’t quite come out like that. They were like, “Yeah yeah, we’ll get all those effects done in post-production.” The first draft looked like my seven year old daughter had done it. So we found some guy that works in TV and I said, “I want the grey-black sky from The Matrix and I want the building to look like it’s fucked, unlivable in”, and he done a good job. It looks like I’m staring at what’s coming up next.
How about the title, where did that come from?
Wordplay is my job. I’d say that in a lyric, definitely. And disaster is always needed for fresh beginnings. You need to end stuff to get new life out of a situation. And I think I’ve been through a lot of endings. [laughs] Don’t wanna get too deep, but yeah, there’s times when I might not even have been alive still. Black or white, when you’re from this type of council estate community, you understand what I mean by pain. Like, ‘Ah shit, the electric’s run out. That’s a disaster for tonight.’ Doesn’t always mean someone died every night, but there’s always things that can mess up your day and affect the development of a young person in them scenarios. That’s why I wanted the title Disaster Piece for my first album, as a lot of the stuff I’m talking about relates to the younger me. My next album’s gonna be more about what I do now.
Do you think of it as your first album?
Yeah. Original Dan  was just like, “You need to put something out ‘cos everyone else has!” That was Wiley again. [laughs] “You need to put a CD together, I’ve done like seven, where’s yours?” So it wasn’t my idea. Just me spitting because I can. I don’t know one song that still gets played or had an impact.
‘Run’ still gets played out.
I seen someone write about the album and they said that one’s just a rip off of a classic Bug and Flowdan track. To me, ‘Run’ was different! But I could hear what they meant by the ‘formula’ – drawn out, one word here, gaps in between and stuff like that. We thought we was expanding on ‘Skeng’, but obviously we wasn’t [laughs].
Do you feel wary about using that flow because it’s the one associated with your biggest tune?
Yeah, the ‘Fat Mac 90’, it’s got its own name! Skepta named the flow. I’ve used it on other tracks, but I don’t wanna rely on it. Can I do as good as that without using the same ingredients? That’s the challenge of a sick artist.
What are you working on at the moment?
I want to do more live shows. So this next year has to be about getting a massive song amongst the people. There’s loads of ways I can go about that, but I might just need to do it like I know how as opposed to trying to be unexpected… Logan [Sama] says, sometimes you just need to toe punt it from in front of the goal, yeah? [laughs] Stop trying to finesse it from outside the box, because it’s a goal either way.
Do you have that song ready?
Yeah, I do. It’s got a producer with status, and that always helps for the idiots who are like, ‘Who’s the producer?’ I’m at a place in my career where I’m not new anymore, I’m established, so to come with that now will give me some longevity, prove that I’ve got impact. With a new artist – as soon as that big tune wears off, everyone’s gonna ask where the next one is. I haven’t gotta do that. I just gave you one, and guess what? – I’m certified. When I’m ready I’ll do more.
Grime is out now on Tru-Thoughts, buy here.
15th Oct Mantra Festival @ Manchester Academy
29th Oct Day of the Dead Carnival @ Hope Works, Sheffield w/ Novelist, The Bug & more
18th Nov Unplugged @ Camden People’s Theatre, London
9th Dec Freerange @ Sankeys, Manchester w/ Spooky & Killa P, Deadbeat, Killjoy & more