“Real hip hop has never reached the light of day here,” UK rapper Funky DL

In 1997, at 19-years old, British rapper Funky DL scored five album deals without any management. This jazzified stroke hip hop rapper from London has released several albums over the years, and is now set to release a strictly raw hip hop album dubbed ‘NANE.’ He’s been often compared to the legendary group A Tribe Called Quest, but what differentiates him from Tribe is that he infuses deep jazz beats from the early 50’s to 60’s era. We speak to Funky DL and get a sneak peak on who is featured on his album ‘NANE,’ why he thinks the UK music scene has never been friendly to hip hop ,and how he let a heckler jump on stage and steal his microphone in a show in Sydney. Margaret Tra writes.

What can we expect from your new album NANE?

My new album is hip hop; it’s more of what the idea of what hip hop should be. It is not a jazzy album at all. There is only one joint that is, so with this album I have deliberately tried to stay away from the jazz. Not because I don’t like it, but because I’ve done it. I have stuff in this album that is a bit rawer, but still very musical in a sense. If I could explain it, it would be hip hop in a ‘rawer’ essence. It’s a shorter album with only 10 songs. Therefore it’s very to the point. It’s very personal; I talk about things I’ve never talked about in other albums. I have a song called ‘Land of the Kings’, it's about secondary school, my experiences there. The school I went to was in Hackney, in Dalston, London. It was a mixed school.

Does the album feature any collaborations?

Actually there are, but that was by accident. The intial plan was to not have any collaborations. Just pure me, and I don’t think I have ever done that before. That was my intention anyway, but it didn’t work out that way. There is a track called ‘I stole your life’, and that song didn’t have a hook. But I originally wrote a song over that beat called ‘Brothers.’ So an artist by the name of Dyanna Fearon did the hook, and the hook that she’d done, I felt it brought out what I was trying to bring across. Another track is called "Walk of a Champion," I got my older brother (Gods Son) to come in and redo a hook. He’s featured on my albums before, so he came in for the second time. Last time he featured on one of my tracks called ‘Fresh.’ And the last track is called "Def Lyricist" and that features DJ 279, it will be the first track to be released, expected to be released by the end of September.

Do you do everything yourself?

I have a few people that help me out. But more or less, it’s mostly me and it’s because I have an idea of what I want. So I initiate everything. I am going through a distribution label in Japan. Normally distributors don’t get on board, they promise action but not much happens. So I am always pushing my own music, a lot of hours and a lot of hard work. I am always going to do the best with what I have. You can’t just wait for the perfect moment.

What was it like back in the day?

Back in the day you had to rely on many factors, when I came out the DJs’ had to have your back. Someone else had to give you the heads up, and that is what it was like. When you’re going to a show, there wasn’t really anything you can do to drive your music directly. Now days you can cut out press & radio, cause we have stuff like YouTube and Band Camp. The biggest difference is that there is much more of a direct way to hit someone, instead of going through different mediums.

How would you rate hip hop in UK now?

To me I feel like it isn’t what it used to be, it’s getting more difficult to see hip hop. The Chipmunks, Tinchy Striders', Dizzie Rascals' of the world I don’t look at them as hip hop. I have had this debate before; they say this is the new hip hop. And I know it’s not always going to be Sugar Hill Gang. To me, there is no authenticity in their music, and the artist that I mention they don’t have this authenticity. And that’s why I don’t call it hip hop. In terms of new cats coming out, it’s not as prominent, as the top guys. Back in the day, there was more of a movement, everybody was trying to achieve. Everyone was moving together, forward. But I felt like you could see where everyone would go. Maybe it’s because of my age, but it felt more’ fresher’ and exciting. I am deflated, and I’ve always felt like UK hip hop hasn’t ever been the kindest to me.

Would you call Plan B hip hop?

Plan B is different kind of genre; I’d call it indie stroke hip hop, it’s a combination. He did start off as hip hop, but all of sudden they (artists’) get to a certain point, and they release music and it only reflects the roots. Is it because someone is rapping that it becomes hip hop? For me, I say no. I would buy it, but I don’t think its hip hop. I am not saying his music is not good. I think when I say hip hop I try and think of how it was back in the day. Tribe Called Quest was on Top of the Pops. I remember seeing De La Soul there too. And when I look over here and the comparison, when artists are charting over here, it wasn’t as raw it was back then, it’s more mainstream. Real hip hop has never reached the light of day here. It’s been tailor-made hip hop. It’s always been a hybrid.

I don’t really make a cross over records. I never think I am going to make a commercial record. That’s probably why my music is never going to be a hit. It used to be something I was worried about in the early days, but now I don’t care. It’s all about quality hip hop. I am very happy for a lot of the guys that are breaking through, I am happy on a human level. Even though I am not a fan of Tinchy Strider and Tinie Tempah, I can commend them on what they have achieved.

How did you establish your own style?

I grew up to De La Soul, Tribe, The Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, The Beatnuts and all of those guys. It was De La, Pete Rock and Tribe that mostly influenced me. I always keep that kind of sound, that musical sound. I was also listening to KRS1, Biz Markie, and NWA; but it wasn’t until I heard De La Soul and Tribe that’s the sound I wanted. What differentiates me, especially with the likes of Tribe is that I do jazz. What people don’t realise is Tribe hasn’t done much jazzy hip hop. They were sampling funk and soul records. That wasn’t the stuff I went for when I made music, I went deep into jazz. Bill Evans, all of these 50’s strong 60’s. Tribe was doing 70’s/80’s. I knew I wanted to be musical; I wanted to go deeper into the jazz influence. Not a lot of people make that distinction. They just listen to it and think it sounds like Tribe.

You’ve played in Australia, what was that like?

I went to Australia and did a show there. I was out there for two weeks. I was performing at one show DJing, which is one of the only DJ shows I’ve ever done, I never usually do it. The show wasn’t the coolest because I had a heckler. I had a guy who was drunk, and he jumped up on the stage and grabbed the microphone off me. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but the audience was pretty cool. It wasn’t one of my best shows. The DJ show was better. It was the beginning of my career, if I remember right I let him take the microphone and he was rapping. But now if someone did it, I would never let them take the microphone. I loved it in Australia, I went in May 1997, it was fascinating, it was the first time I ever travelled without my parents. It came out through a competition, and that was a really good experience. I always wanted to go back. I met a girl over there on the very last day, she was really nice. Can you imagine I was there for two weeks, and we’ve keep in contact over all these years... We’ve known each other face to face for a few minutes and now 16 years later we are still friends. 

Do you have any tips for upcoming artists?

It’s a different age now. The best advice I can give is to have that self-belief like no-one’s business. And that kind of belief, it’s the kind that you can’t just sit around for a moment. That’s the best advice I can give, is don’t sit down and strategically think how you’re going to make it. It’s the ‘doer’ that succeeds. Be active. I may come across as a negative person but I am always doing something positive.

What stimulates your soul?

Understanding, I have a real urge to understand everything. I am intrigued with how the world works, what contributes to people’s behaviour. That’s what stimulates my soul. I want to know, I always want to know. The yearning to know and understand things is what stimulates my soul.

Bandcamp: http://funkydl.bandcamp.com/