ULTRA_EKO: LONDON’S NEWEST HIP-HOP STAR SPEAKS!
By Mike O’Cull www.mikeocull.com
Ultra_eko is one of the newest artists on the UK hip-hop scene but he’s well on his way to being one of its major players. A gifted lyricist with a knack for spitting hard truths, he has already racked up over 100,000 streams on Spotify, alone, and has dropped 20 tracks on SoundCloud in the last year. His songs like “Broken Glass” and “Moolah” hit fans directly and quickly became popular. He’s an important talent doing crucial and original work that insiders feel will soon attract a much larger audience. We were fortunate enough to have him come and hang out at the Mike O’Cull Music studio complex for an evening and sort the crew and I out on what makes him tick and where his music comes from. Here’s what he had to say:
You have a lot of music coming out already this year. Tell me about the new releases.
Well, the first release of the year is “Wild One,” which came out on the 10th January. This is a mid-tempo piece which is narrated in the first person. It is something of a love letter, an apology to his partner for the life he has dragged her into. He suggests that she might have chosen a more stable partner, with whom she could have enjoyed an easy life, full of material pleasures. Instead, she has been swept up in his manic moments of inspiration and creative force, it has taken her ‘to hell and back’; the only consolation being that she has prized pieces of wisdom and knowledge through these experiences. He suggests that he has been unable to control or stop these choices he has made, rather that they are like a spirit that possesses him, and that to refuse them would be far worse than to let them take him where they willed.
He suggests that he has not thought, planned or ever been in control of these spirits, rather he has always been carried by a great, great wind’. This concept was inspired by the Ojibwe saying, ‘Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, when all the time I am carried by a great wind,’ which is famously used in a final season Sopranos episode. To me, it suggests that we are not really in control of our destiny, that the decisions we make are made a long time before they reach our conscious awareness, and that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves.
My next track, ‘Wormwood Scrubs’ will be out Jan 27th. This is a semi-autobiographical piece about origins and family. It opens up by looking at the area in which I grew up, Thornton Heath/West Croydon, and how much of a multicultural area this has become. It then goes back to my childhood, the boredom of being a child, forced to spend time around adults who enjoy drinking, smoking, and gossiping. The title refers to an uncle within the story who goes to Wormwood Scrubs prison and never returns.
After this I have a third track planned for mid-February alongside the release of a first album Outsider Artist. This first album will mark for me the end of what consider an introductory period, a preface, to the music I want to and plan to release. It will be more a collection of singles than an album with an overriding theme or narrative arc but it will mark an end to what I think of as this first period, and the beginning of a second period, in which, I believe, the music will be taken up a level.
I have a wealth of material that I am writing and have to record which I think marks a step up, lyrically and thematically, to what I have so far done. In the excitement of releasing music last year I often rushed material; it was such a buzz getting stuff out there and receiving such positive feedback that I was desperate to keep that momentum going. I am still going to be releasing a prolific amount of material, but it will be more considered and rehearsed.
I am also writing a collection of tracks for a second album that are linked together by an overriding story and narrative arc and are centred around a central narrative figure within the album. This will be accompanied by a change in my own image to reflect the theme and story of the album. I see it as akin to the conceptual characters which David Bowie created and channelled his music through. I want to delve deep into the character of this story, to embody and become him, so as to make this tale as real as possible.
The problem I find with much of hip hop is that rappers identify too much with this self-image, which is usually materialistic, and ego driven. The problem is that they limit themselves creatively, as you can only talk for so long about yourself and material wealth (although Jay-Z seems to have made a career out of it). I see hip hop more as a medium through which to tell a story. I see myself more as a storyteller who is using rap and rarely will I talk about myself as Ultra_eko. In fact, I do not think I have ever used that name in any of my music. If you see hip hop as a medium, much like poetry or prose or writing for the stage, then the possibilities are endless and you are only limited by your own imagination.
I would love to create and build a body of work much like a novelist has a collection of novels to their name, each telling a different story, each embodying a different persona. Of course there will be persistent themes that I see running throughout all of them, these being questions of identity, the social personas we create, who we are as a species and as individuals, dark imagery and horror motifs, ideas regarding spirituality, and following our own paths, not being fooled by illusions of materiality. I will always write about these ideas, but they will be told through different narratives and different characters. I love hip-hop, and I have done since I was a child. I love the sound, and I love writing within that structure; there is a great satisfaction when composing a piece and certain lines come together. I feel that it has a much greater potential than has so far explored; whether I am able to get close to the vision I have as to where I can take it remains to be seen.
Is it true that you’ve only been making music for a short time?
I have only been making tracks since last May, and it came about wholly by accident, or at least it was conspired outside of my conscious awareness. I bought a mini-Korg synthesizer for my son to play around on and encourage him to be more creative. Sadly, however, he has shown no interest in it and I began messing around on it, myself. I made a song and rapped over it and sent it to close friends. I was surprised by the positive feedback I got and how surprised they were that I was able to rap like this. A few did not believe it to be me. So this encouraged me, and I started buying these construction kits and putting some stuff together.
The actual music production side seemed a very long process however, and it was the writing and rapping that was of great interest to me. When I discovered Beat Stars and the beats available there, that was when things really came together. I was also fortunate to discover a mix/master guy, Adam Lewis. He is a UK audio engineer who seems to intuitively know exactly what I am going for and he is fantastic. I usually work with the stems of the beat so he is able to change sounds, alter the volume of individual sounds within the track, and just mix everything together perfectly. I always say that he was the best thing to happen to me last year and I am grateful to the help he has given me in terms of creating these great-sounding productions.
Once I had started making music and getting this positive feedback, I have really thrown myself wholeheartedly into it. It has become an obsession of mine; that is the nature of my character. I have never been able to do things by half measures. Having this type of compulsive, driven personality is both a blessing and a curse; it is the cause of unhealthy addictions, as with my drinking etc., or of healthy creative pursuits. I tend to think of Oscar Wilde, who said “Nothing is worth doing unless it is done to excess.”
I think the most difficult transition into making music is not creating the tracks themselves but learning to identify myself as this Ultra_eko persona. We are, or we become, the people we are first by imagining ourselves to be them. I needed to reimagine myself as a hip-hop artist, a rapper. At first, I lacked confidence and belief; I released my material with an anonymous profile. Then, when I started to receive positive responses, I had a cartoon version of myself drawn up. Using the Ultra_eko name allowed me to distance myself from this hip-hop persona, to see him as a character I was playing, a role I was able to step into.
One of the interesting things I have observed about identity during this process, is that we are often the things people believe us to be. So, I started receiving positive feedback, people acted towards me as if I were this hip-hop artist Ultra_eko and so, in turn, I started to believe in it myself; I grew in confidence. After I was interviewed by the Repost Exchange as an artist, I really started to feel the part, and I used real photographs of myself on all my profiles.
I started last year not having any idea that by the end of it I would have released over 20 tracks on Soundcloud and that I would be back deep within the midst of one of the most creative periods of my life. That is not to say it has been without upheaval. My partner has found this change difficult at times, and I have had to drop certain business opportunities in favour of the music, so it has cost me financially. I have given it everything, and those around me have been swept along in the slipstream of this latest obsession; I did think, I did not plan, always carried by a great, great wind.
Your lyrics are deep, complex, intelligent, and personal. How did you develop so quickly as an artist?
That creative temperament and sensibility was already there. For a long time, I had wanted to become a writer, so that transition to being a hip-hop artist was not so difficult. I see myself more of a writer than a musician; the music is one part of the whole production, the song, that I am putting together. I create the idea, I write and perform the lyrics and help to put it together but I am not a musician. I merely choose the music to be used within the track. I really wanted to be a writer and to write novels, but ultimately it was not for me. I think I lacked the patience, and also I came from a very working-class background; I think I really lacked the education and the industry and craft needed to make it. It was always such a struggle to get anyone to actually sit and read a novel I had written; you could count the number of people on one hand and this was after months of painstaking work and thought had gone into it.
In the end I suppose I just grew disheartened by the lack of success. Also, writing prose is hugely time consuming and my first child was just about to be born. I felt as if it were time to let go of that dream, that I had given it a good shot but, ultimately, I had not succeeded. I comforted myself with the idea that I would come back to it at a later stage in life. This is perhaps what has happened with the hip hop, and sooner than I thought. I am able to channel all that creativity, all those ideas, the joy of writing, into producing these tracks and people want to listen, it is enjoyable for them to listen. I feel that this is something I can build and grow and distribute all on my own. I can really express myself as an artist.
The key is finding that audience; finding a group of people who are willing to give their time and support. If I am able to do that, even to a small degree, then that would be extremely humbling. I think in order to do that, I need to create works that resonate with people, that empathize with the pain and suffering they might be going through. I want to tell stories that reflect the journeys people are going through themselves so that they might listen and not feel so alone. It’s not about me talking myself up but trying to reach out and connect with people.
This is what I am aiming for in what I consider will be the second chapter of this musical journey. My next batch of songs will be deeper, more heartfelt, better written, better delivered, better composed and produced. I want to create tracks that really hit people, that move them on deep and emotional levels. I had always written my prose to music played on headphones. It was always the music that moved me emotionally and drove the story I was telling. Now, I have found a way to do that myself; story and sound, language and music, together to express something deep about this human experience.
Who or what inspires you?
I think inspiration comes from these deep, powerful emotions we all feel. More often than not, these feelings originate from painful experiences. We are more likely to remember painful experiences, since purely from an evolutionary point of view, it is more imperative to remember painful experiences so as to avoid them in future. I try and draw on anything deeply-felt and try to use it as fuel to translate into a song. Perhaps this is why I cover a lot of dark material.
Is your music political?
My music is not political in any sense, nor am I personally interested in the practicalities of politics at this time of my life. There is, however, a certain ideology that runs throughout my work. I would say there is a theme of anti-materialism, of looking inwards rather than outwards for gain and growth. These lives we live are spiritual journeys of deeper understanding. Each of us must find meaning in this life, in the absurdities with which we are assailed, the injustices, the mundanities, the painful process of simply existing. We are each on a spiritual search for meaning amongst all of this random chaos. My own personal meaning is derived through this creative process of being able to turn experience into art and trying to make sense by framing things into a narrative.
Writing for me is a therapeutic process; a means to process, understand and make sense of the world around me. I believe so many people seek meaning outside of themselves, try to fill this void with material wealth, and it will never be enough without turning inward and trying to understand this thing you call the “self.” If the life you live is not one in which you are aware, awake, mindful, conscious, then this life has not been lived at all, except for hedonistic bodily pleasures. This is all a dream, an illusion, and our individual selves will soon be gone and past but that deeper consciousness, the one that is connected and part of everyone and everything, is everlasting and so isn’t it better to try to better understand this, to use this brief moment of separation to try and understand the whole, the one? So, my ideology would be to encourage people to look inward, to better understand themselves, and to see that we are all together and must be there to help each other. I suppose this ideology could be used to drive a political ideology; maybe one day.
How do you see your role as an artist in society?
I haven’t been able to reach out to enough people yet to really consider this question but I suppose I would hope to entertain, first and foremost. But also, to offer something a little bit deeper, an insight into the human experience, perhaps a new way of looking at it that people had not considered before. Something that might encourage people to question themselves, to ask whether they are doing the right thing, treating people the right way, being true to themselves, and living a life that best reflects the truth of the person they are.
What’s the rest of 2020 look like for you? Any more new music?
There will be plenty of new music. I will keep releasing singles, perhaps 2 a month at least, and there is a second album almost written and ready to record. This is a more cohesive piece, with a story arc that runs throughout the album, and a central character whom I will embody, altering my image and appearance, so that the whole release has a sort of theatrical feel to it.
Last year was a sort of explosive, opening year to me, whereby I was releasing material as quickly as possible. I just want to be a bit more considered and make sure I have everything right with every release. Also, I’m having to learn a lot of the mechanics of promotion, which is just as time consuming, if not more. I feel I have done well to grow as I have done in a short amount of time but I need to focus on building an audience, an active audience who can help to support me.
I think that trying to make this next step up in my journey is going to be the most difficult, so I hope I am able to maintain momentum. I am really enjoying writing and producing this music and I don’t want it to end. It is pointless creating music if there is no one to listen to it. My aim is to try and build an online presence within this blogging community. Having third party validation means so much; the vast majority of people listen to what others tell them to. If they see a good review in a magazine, it primes their opinion of the artist so that they are ready to like anything.
At the same time I want to build a website and to extend the idea of Ultra_eko beyond just the music, so that it encompasses podcasts, prose, graphic novels to accompany the music. I want to build a whole community from this website so that other artists and writers can all join and contribute and to use it as a means to promote themselves as well, a type of online commune for artists of similar sensibilities. That is the vision. I’m giving this everything I have, so I really hope it works for me in one way or another.
What have you been listening to lately?
Radiohead, Elbow, Blur, Dave, Tupac, Arcade Fire, and Stormzy.
Where do you want to be a year from now?
A year from now, I really hope that I am still full of as much enthusiasm and drive as I am now. I hope that I am still writing and creating with the same passion and prolific output, that I am as excited by what lies ahead as I am now. The last year, whilst I faced many difficulties, especially financially, has been one of my best years for a long time because I have rekindled that creative spirit within myself. I have found my niche, what I believe I am supposed to be doing and I just want to keep pushing forward. I hope to build an audience, to achieve some recognition from the bloggers and trendsetters; it would be nice to have my writing recognized in a positive light, I think this has always been my aim, right from my days of writing prose.
I just want to find my place within the world, to feel comfortable as an artist; to be able to wake each day with the excitement that comes from being able to create, to imagine, to bring to life and produce from thin air. I am not expecting financial reward; just being able to cover costs would be a great achievement in itself. If I am still here a year from now and we are doing another interview and I am still filled with hope and that desire to create, then I will be happy.
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