South London Soul: Paul White Talks
Last year Paul White dropped Shaker Notes, his debut album for R&S, and a firm Ransom Note office favourite. The album was something of a departure for White, who'd made his name over the previous decade by sculpting wonky, psychedelic hip hop mutations, working with everyone from UK favourite Jehst to wild Detroit based Anglophile rapper Danny Brown. On Shaker Notes, White bought his own vocals to the fore, concentrated on live instrumentation, and created something that was as much an abstract jazz meditation as any sort of hip hop beat tape, with songs such as the slinking Honey Cats coming on like a South London rendition of the Twin Peaks incidental music.
A week ago he resurfaced with a new free EP, reworking tracks from Shaker Notes live, drawing out their psychedelic DNA, pushing his sound further and further out into the cosmos. When we heard he also had a year packed with further projects, from more work with Danny Brown to taking on his own live shows we knew it was time to catch him for a chat –
So I was watching your recent video, and it was shot in a back garden in Lewisham – what’s the deal, are you from the area?
I grew up in South London, and there’s a lot of gritty Lewisham in my sound – I wasn’t on an estate, but I lived right next to an estate in Deptford and all my mates lived on estates, so I was very used to the raw, rugged 24 hour style, it never being quiet. Lewisham now has got the biggest police station in Europe, they’ve got underground prisons, they’ve got heli-pads the lot, so it’s so noisy with sirens. And that constant non-stop South London energy has been a massive influence on me. I’ve kept my sound a bit like that, which is maybe, partly why collaborations with Danny Brown have worked so well -we clicked. I mean I’m sure Detroit is rawer, but there are similar experiences; breaking into abandoned warehouses to build skate parks, drugs everywhere, all my mates selling drugs, y’know.
It’s been weird seeing places like Deptford and Peckham – that are still pretty grimey – be earmarked by developers-
Lewisham’s so different now – it feels like the Docklands, all hotels and big sky rises, it’s got no soul, they’ve taken the soul away – it’s such a multi-culturual place and there’s been so much art come from the area – I only found out recently that Kate Bush lived in Greenwich… It’s making me feel old, I’m that old man that goes past a building and is like, “where’s the skyline gone!” I’m a hippy in that sense, y’know our ties to nature are getting more and more cut off, and it’s important to see some sky! Now they’re killing the skyline in London – definitely in Lewisham, you have to look right up to see the sky, and all those little things make a big difference to the way you feel and the way you can live.”
Have you worked with any MCs from the area?
I haven’t worked with anyone from the area, but my manager just told me about a grime MC from Lewisham – Novelist – so maybe we’ll do something together. It might be quite raw though, most of my experiences there have been…!
Shaker Notes is musically quite far from your previous albums – was that a conscious decision?
I guess the new album felt like a natural progression. I’ve always listened to so many things at once. I’ve never been just a hip hop head, or a just rock head, I always liked all of it all at once, even from when I was a kid. My mum and dad had pretty varied taste, so for me, music has always just been music, without really any genres. When I was first producing beats they fell into the hip hop category, but hip hop fundamentally is about so many different types of music. I like the freedom and the chaos of not knowing what I’m going to make. I’ve been reading books talking about identity, suggesting that we only identify ourselves by what we’re not, by saying, 'I’m a purist, I'm into this, and I’m only this type of person'. And I kinda like the thought of questioning that- music links us all together and I like the idea of touching as many people as possible with different types of music.
I’d been writing hip hop for years, but everything I listened to was jazz, and like, psychedelic things, and that’s what I sampled from, so I started pushing out in that direction. I like to challange myself, I get bored quite quickly, and I see music as a big language – I never want to close off any corridors. I write beat CDs every month, and over a two year period I realised that half of the CDs were this really experimental live stuff, and after a while I realised, actually there’s about half an hour of good music here, and I thought, maybe I should start playing live more, and composing.
Now you’ve completed that project are you moving on again?
I feel like I’ve just opened up more doors to try. I’m still doing loads of beats – I’ve just finished a collaborative album with a Florida based singer and rapper called Eric Biddenes – we're called Golden Rules – it started out as a straight hip hop album, then he started to sing, and I was like, ahh man this has got to be on there, it’s more soul/ RnB hip hop rather than just rapping. We’ve done it all online, sending stuff back and forward.
How does the process work with writing stuff with an artist in another country?
I’ve tried to think of a certain artist and write for them, but it never works. I just write random beats, just get up and have some fun, then I’ll think, OK this CD is going to this person, let’s try and do some stuff that he likes, and it never works – you’ll send it over and they’ll never say anything about the ones that you made for them – Danny’s a great example – the first of my stuff he liked I didn’t write for him at all, and when we started working together I was like, OK I’ll write a beat for him, and he didn’t notice it at all, he just picked another beat. We first hooked up just after he’d done the Hybrid album, and I was working on my Rapping With album, working with as many MCs I liked as possible, and when Danny Brown popped up I was like 'wow, who’s this guy' – it felt like one of those really natural relationships, he did the track really quickly and we struck a relationship up. We just hit it off. He’s a great dude, really passionate, he does it from the heart.
As Danny Brown edges into the hip hop A List, have you found yourself in more demand from any of the bigger American names?
I guess doing stuff with Danny has opened a few doors – I can approach people now. I mean, I don’t like what everyone’s doing – there’s only a few people that I really, really admire what they’re doing who are in that A List.
So what about Kanye? He’s well known for keeping an eye on the UK scene-
Well, he’s asked. He’s got in contact a couple of times now. I dunno how someone like that manages their time – but I’m potentially gonna work with an artitst, or a couple of artists that he’s signed. I’ll never change what I do though – the ultimate goal is to get your stuff out to as many people without changing your sound – I mean if I could do something that still sounded like me and it got given to Kylie, I’d be pleased! I’d think it was a success – if I totally changed everything I did then it would be selling out, but sticking to your sound is a great achievement, not many people get to do that, and it’s what I want to try and do. I’m interested in working with anyone who’s passionate.
How easy it is for you to make a living out of all of this – becuase people think of big name hip hop acts and start thinking about all the money involved, but it's rarely like that –
It's hard as hell! Last year was the first year I actually started to earn a bit of dough. It's taken a long, long time. I just knew I needed to spend as many hours as I could on my craft – I'm a real workaholic, and I always want to get better, I always want to do new things – hence the Shaker Notes album I guess – and I want to do more, and learn more! Half the battle is finding the time, cos you've got to earn a living, you've got to eat and pay rent, all of that. So after all those years of not having any money, living at home for years, all of that, it's been more gratifying getting to a place where I'm getting to do what I want to do. Most of my friends I grew up with are in proper jobs now, with really good salaries, but, without wanting to sound like a prick, I always felt like I was almost happier than them – I speak to them and they're just stressed! Like they've got money, and they go on holidays, and get wasted on weekends, but I feel really lucky, even when I was broke, that at least I get to do what I want to do, and I don't dread the mornings..!