What do you do in grime in 2017? Do you recycle the sound of a decade ago, spit agg over eski clicks, beef fellow travellers and hope to blow off a GRM Daily upload? Do you wait for Drake to copy your flow? Do you drop bars on '90s Usher b-sides that have been chopped and stuttered and sped up to 140 bpm? Do you trawl through YouTube for shitty quality Ruff Sqwad sets and religiously copy the content, the style and the aesthetic of those golden years tracks? Or do you copy the energy that made those years so golden?
There are a few artists out there who get it, who see that grime was a state of mind before it was a tempo and a snare. Futurism, experimentation and free expression separated it from the more commercial intentions of UKG – and all three of those things are in short supply amongst the hordes of MCs who have trained their eyes on stacking Stormzy cash. Not that there’s anything wrong with artists drawing on a raw sound from the past to deliver hits in a familiar style – but at some point you smooth it and smooth it for radio play and before you know it you’ve started out with dreams of being Little Richard and ended up being Shakin’ Stevens.
Mez is one of the new wave of MCs who gets it, who is trying to animate his career with the energy of grime’s early years, rather than merely aping the content. Of course there’s no doubting his influences; the debt to D Double E is plain to see, even if it is D Double’s nasal, machine gun flow delivered in a Nottingham accent. His come up has also been fairly traditional; he start spitting in 2013 aged 15, and has spent the last couple of years moving between London and Notts, building a name with sets on NTS, Radar and Rinse, and releasing a debut EP produced by grime evergreen Davinche. Recent single 'Magnum' has also paid homage to the past – the beat, produced by Diamondz from D Double’s Bluku stable, mixes up the serrated bass of dubstep with crashing jungle amens, and the playful video is given the solid gold grime seal of approval; a typically quality, utterly wonky video from Tim & Barry.
But around the time of 'Magnum', which bangs with the best of them, Mez was putting something else together to push his sound out in a whole new direction – and here’s where things get a little bit different.
“I heard a song from Yussef Kamaal", he remembers over the phone, “There was a tune called 'Remembrance', I liked it, and I’d sit down and write bars to it.”
Yussef Kamaal were the now disbanded project of Kamaal Williams (aka Henry Wu) and Yussef Dayes, their sole Brownswood released album becoming a touchstone for the new jazz scene at the open of 2016. Whilst it may have been popular with the beats fans tuning into Boiler Room it was hardly the first port of call for an upcoming grime MC – but Mez was inspired.
“After I heard 'Remembrance'”, continues Mez, “I heard 'Strings of Light' and I knew I had to put bars on there. There were certain sounds I liked. I felt uplifted; it was a spiritual vibe. I recorded some vocals and put it out - Tim & Barry had heard it, and when I went to do the 'Magnum' video they were like, oh we love this, let’s make something happen.”
The ‘something’ turned out to be an 11 minute live video shot alongside Kamaal Williams and a full band. In one long take, Mez spits non-stop stream of consciousness bars riding over and above and an improvised, wriggling jazz freakout. It’s a feat of endurance as much as anything else, Mez barely pausing for a moments breath - “I just treated it like a set”, he explains. It’s quite easily one of the most interesting things the grime scene has produced this year (let’s face it, the competition is Roadman Shaq). You can almost hear Mez shrugging his shoulders as he talks about jumping on a riddim that would baffle most MCs.
“I feel like a lot of artists are taking the easy option 'cos it’s not cool not to. People trying to copy old Wiley records, it’s not real. They should go in there and do their thing, not just copy what’s gone before. We can’t always do things the same, we can’t do things the same as Tempa T was doing ten years ago. I’m just doing anything that I would listen to at home – I wouldn’t not listen to that jazz beat at home, and all the grime tunes I’m doing are grime tunes I’d play at home, it’s not something that’s random, it’s everyday life.”
And now the door has opened, he’s looking to do more with this new direction -
“I’ve been writing to a new one from Tenderlonious, a tune called 'Be Ur Friend' that’s on a similar vibe. I don’t know if the beats are called jazz, whatever these man call the sound, I like it. After that session (with Kamaal Williams) I did another session with him. There’s a new version of Strings of Light. I’d also like to do something with them that was slightly more structured – the beats we’ve done things on are so wild I can’t even put hooks on them, they’re great to wile out on, but I’d like to do a session where I can put more hooks on, more structure…”
Whilst the thought of Mez jumping on the skittery afro of Tenderlonious sounds like it could make for some incredible listening – and fans of his jazz/grime work can catch him live with Kamaal Williams at next year’s Just Jam – he’s not about to leave more conservative fans of grime behind just yet. He talks about having a new 12” coming out with Grandmixxer on the DJ/producer's new South London Space Agency label (which we guess will see Mez spitting on this riddim), and mentions working with Swindle whose stuff is jazzy “but just a bit more grime.” Ultimately he’s a young MC who wants what most new artists want; to be defined by what he does rather than the scene he loves.
“I’d want to be seen as an artist, seen for what I stand for…“
So what is it? We want to know – what does Mez stand for? Without a moments pause -
“I stand for self-confidence, I stand for representing yourself as an individual, I represent for the ravers, I represent for the black and strong and I represent for everybody who loves themselves. I want to be bigger than just a grime MC. MC is a kinda boring title to be honest. I don’t know what I’d call what do. Maybe Young Boss…”
And with the way he’s developing, who are we to argue?
Follow Mez on Twitter here
Image credit: David Emery