Leytonstone’s very own Hip Hop artist, Lemzi, sits down with Mark Wincott at the Horizon cafe in Leytonstone to talk music and growing up in East London over a cup of peppermint tea and a bowl of lentil soup.

What you up to musically?
Coincidentally, it’s a funny time to catch me, I’m about to take a little break. The last couple of weeks I’ve started a little hiatus and will do throughout April to re-analyse and recoup. I released my album, “Leki” in [7th] December but since October at least, it’s been a huge build-up and promotion for the album, single B.O.T.S and more. Free promoting of gigs like Rich Mix, I was Madison Square Garden London’s artist of the month in January. I appeared on Sky news and London Live. December and January a lot of fresh things were happening, it was intense and overwhelming, and I haven’t really stopped to feel the benefit of it all and that’s why April is going to be my time away. I’ve been looking into Brexit too much as well haha. The more I watch videos the more I get despondent and I shouldn’t, it’s impossible to focus on it right now and I don’t want to have to think about it, so when I go away it’s just to unplug from it all.

I’ll be back in May with a bunch of things happening. February, I started the Coffee Music Project competition and I’m in the final on Wednesday 1st. I applied last year and didn’t get through. I tried again this year, as more has happened for me musically, such as Sofar Sounds and Pizza Express live, and organisations like Coffee Music Project love live instrumentalization. I got into the preliminary round [in February] and then the semi-final in March, now I’m in the final eight on the 1st of May [in 229 Club, Great Portland Street]. The coffee festival was on last weekend at Brick Lane and I played with IK, my guitarist. To be honest, I never knew there’s a coffee community about, it shocked me how many people were there, it’s heaven for coffee drinkers like my Dad, but we chilled with a cider! As for the Coffee project final, the winner gets the chance to go to New York, so I’d love to win.

Lemzi at Camden Assembly

So, when you get back from holiday/Hiatus what gigs you got lined up?
The Coffee Music Project in May, on the 4th I headline Boondocks (Harlem Soul) on City Road. Wednesday the 8th to the Sunday 12th we go on a UK tour, hitting up Coventry, Leicester, Manchester a show in London and finally Birmingham with my team Exclusive Collective and Tray Avlon who’s from Barking and Dagenham, who’s so talented.

Tell us more about Exclusive Collective.
My cousin, FERNS and I created Exclusive and it’s developed over the last three years, morphing into what it is today. Initially, we had six or seven members and out of those original 6 or 7, he and I are the last remaining. Everyone else has been picked up along the way because of how well they fit into what we are trying to do. Currently, there’s Ghetto Hippie, a poet he does marketing and social media too, Timmy B, Wyllis & Jerome Leetz, all primarily rappers but with loads more to offer. Guys from East London who are just looking to express themselves. We’re individual artists who are friends in an association. We don’t necessarily move around as a group, for instance, if I have a show or Wyllis has a show it doesn’t always mean Exclusive have a show, what we do is connect and help each other make strong networks which will help all of us.

Image credit: Aaron Williams-Smith

Tell us what you were doing before you got into music and how you got into it
When I was 8 or 9, I heard Eminem, he got me invested in an individual artist with his Lose Yourself video and song. I didn’t know there was a film at the time, but he got me interested as to how someone can talk like he can, use beats as he can and a video like that and a film…I was in awe of what he was doing, it was mind-boggling. This was early 2000 late 90s, he was always on TV with music videos, he made me think, this is cool, and it linked me to others like Dr Dre, 50 Cent, Jah Rule, Ashanti, Jay Z and Nas. Being a 10, 11-year-old they opened this new world, called America, specifically the Hood side.

What about UK artists?
So Solid Crew’s 21 seconds was my first UK tune I liked. I also remember my Cousins were at my house, they put on Pow! and I thought it was so bad when I first heard it, I really didn’t like it. I was used to people with a lot of lyrics and a certain style with a way of getting their point out. Hearing Pow! repeated in an East London accent just didn’t add up then. Despite that, I don’t remember what happened to me or the main thing that stood out, but a year later my iPod was just grime and UK garage, off I went on a new journey of development and insight into everything happening around here. Even though I’m from Leytonstone I went to private school, so I was around a lot of people who didn’t really like grime, only me and a small circle of friends, it’s a reflection of what we were into. The genre wasn’t heavily professed in my school, but with the internet, It helped me go on my individual journey with sites like MSN & Limewire. This music helped shaped me on how to appreciate and write music. The hip-hop I listened to was content driven and full of concepts, the more I got into grime, it was all about energy with delivery and work on different flows. The amalgamation came as I got older, meaning I can do conceptual while doing it in different styles, where I am now. I still rap on a drill beat, I like the sounds I have a technical ability to rap on it without it sounding like I’m necessarily a drill artist. My musical journey’s been one for decades…..well nah not decades I’m not that old…but it’s been one for over a decade, let’s say that.

[Some would say] I was never meant to be a musician, I studied Law and Criminology at Manchester University. While at Uni I learnt that time is so valuable to use it in a beneficial way, giving me time to network, play sports and listen to many different albums as possible. Going back in time listening to music from the 80s, 90s and 2000s hip hop, like Big L. One of my friends gave me a bunch of music with Big L, Dr Octagon, all proper 90s New York sounding hip hop, but I was so into grime at the time and the culture of grime meant if it’s not grime, then it’s no good. I really had a myopic view and I rediscovered it on my computer [in uni], realising Big L lead me into the freestyle stuff with Jay Z, realising he isn’t just this crazy in love singer, but his concept with the way he knows how to talk about his environment got me, the same with Big Pun and others we don’t really talk about much anymore. I listened to KRS One and watched loads of documentary’s as well as discovering a bunch of contemporary artists like Kendrick & J. Cole which got me back into American hip hop.

The UK hip hop scene is great now, but between 2008 – 2011 everyone was trying really hard to be mainstream and they started losing people. It just didn’t have the same authenticity or value as the original stuff.
Did you pass Law and Criminology?

Yeah, I got 2 1. Someone introduced me as the guy who went Uni, but left for music, that didn’t happen, I qualified with my 2 1 and I tried to be part of conventional society.
Was it something you were interested in?

The culture of a private school generally determines you will get to university and in my family as well. I was destined to go to university, get an education, and hopefully secure a really good job. Theoretically, it makes sense, sounds perfect. But I graduated in the phase where tuition fees went up. The collaboration parliament of Cameron and Clegg started capitulating. A plethora of students got a first or 2 1 and then it’s, what do we do now? Even when you go through higher education there are few opportunities for someone to sit down with you and tell you what you really need to pay attention to.

I was talking to the kids at the school I was at today about assets and liabilities, what the two terms are. I thought if anyone ever told me what these two terms mean when I was 12 or 13…I wouldn’t haven’t listened haha. But the fact it is there it could mean ten years’ later I could’ve looked back and remembered hearing it. In school, Uni or sixth form, none of it was given much importance, it was always about the next stage, you go to school to get to Uni, once qualified you’ll get a job. That may have been my naivety. I could’ve done with some clear instruction, such as, if you don’t do X then Y will happen to you and so on.

I graduated in 2013, for a year I was looking for a graduate job, I broadened my horizons. I don’t think I’m really built for the office, I tried it, I worked in an accounting role, then at my dad’s Beauty Salon in the e-commerce side with another person who taught me a lot of good promotional tricks. I did a legal assistant role for about 11 months, 8 months in I was getting depressed, anxiety and never knew how to articulate it, feeling low and It stopped me from feeling I was achieving anything. I was still making music, and doing open mics around London engaging with other artists

Image credit: Jane Jimene

First, open mic?
I don’t remember my first one as I was doing it two-three times a week running around finding opportunities. It didn’t matter to me where or how to get there I just went. One of the open mics that’ll stay with me, I saw on Twitter, an event happening in Hoxton, Off I went on my own, down in an old church basement, I see a congregation of elderly people, I ask this girl about the open mic, she said yeah that’s these guys. She asked them if I could perform. I went in, and it was the 70th birthday, think his name’s Jack, he and his mates invited me to join in, I think it was a karaoke night for them…but one of Jack’s friends began singing Frank Sinatra and he asked me to rap on the Sinatra track., it went down well with the guys., this made me realise I can make an impact on this demographic then there’s something here.

How did you get on London Live?
I wanted to get in touch with a PR company and they liked my single B.O.T.S… They had a contact at Sky who asked if they wanted me to do an interview about knife crime. London Live came from that and so did Rich Mix who made me an ambassador recently. Seeing myself on those shows made me realise this can be much more assessable.

It was only a five-minute interview, asking me about knife crime as it’s the concept of B.O.T.S. Why is it happening and what needs to be done, the two main questions asked. I believe it’s never just someone’s parents, it’s never just music or even the government, there is some sort of intersectionality causing people to go out and act this way. They say no sane person would do this, but people are born in different circumstances across London, many different worlds live in this City, it’s hard for anyone who’s not from a certain world or understands a certain world can form any insight. If you do the inverse and ask deprived people what you think of parliament or the rich, they generally have their own perspective formed from propaganda or stigma developed rather than their own experience. With me, I’ve seen private schools have friends who are wealthy in nice areas, I have other friends and family who are from simpler or alternative situations.

Ok, Tonia Soulbird, tells us about her
I was just on the phone to her, she’s just an authentic singer, she’s not 100% focused on music like me. She just likes singing when it comes around, she’ll do it. We released Ton and Lemz last year, many liked it and we’re thinking of revisiting and revamping it, along with a possible headline show or tour. Who knows!

Who would you like to do music with in the future?
Oh… I did a song with a guy who’s at the Coffee Music Project, Joel Bailey, the moment I heard him I just knew I could rap on his tune. Joel is a soul singer and together what we made sounds so smooth already.
There are a few people I’ll work with on remixes from the album….I don’t think there is anyone else I want to work with….or is that a lie…It may be a lie.

What about Shola Ama?
Haha, we had a few conversations on social media, I don’t know how to do it properly online without any context. Face to face I’m good, I know how to talk that way, but I think I proper f**ked up. I asked if she wanted to check out some of my music and it went sort of dead. But hopefully, it’ll happen.

Favourite thing about East London
It’s home.

Twitter: @lemziartist
FB: @lemziartist/
Insta: @hiddengemslive
Web: lemzi.com