There's something immediately surreal about pressing the buzzer of a tower block and saying, "Hey, is this M9?" But life is surreal and certainly Melanin 9 felt it more keenly than me. He invited me in and offered me a drink while I took the opportunity to have a nose through his DVD collection. We briefly lamented those times you lend a movie to a friend and it seems to disappear into DVD purgatory. But soon enough we dropped the small talk and got down to discussing Hip Hop and his debut album, Magna Carta.
"I guess we should start at the beginning," I said. "I mean, you weren't always Melanin 9, so how did that come about, when did you figure out this is what you were going to do?"
"It was quite mad how it happened. I started rapping when I was 14, I'm 28 now. I was rapping in school doing little songs here and there but every time I'd rap a verse, people would go crazy. I'd be like, 'I can't even see what you're seeing, I'm just rapping.' And that's what kept me going. That made me believe that you know, I can actually do this. I started rapping with guys in my area, they'd go mad over my verses, people would come up to me on the street like 'I heard your stuff, people are talking about you.' I'd be like 'Rawr, this is mad!'
"[In 2006] I linked up with a guy called Skriblah Dan Gogh from Terra Firma – Klashnekoff's crew – and I already had material… I was already looking up to Klashnekoff but I didn't know that Skriblah was a member of Terra Firma for a good six months. Then I saw him on TV once, on Channel U or something. I was like 'That's my neighbour, what the fuck!'" and he shook his head and grinned at the memory. "Then I clocked. He never said nothing to me, he didn't tell me he was part of anything, he was a humble guy. After that we started building, I started rapping, we started sharing music, he'd always come to me to hear stuff, he loved my shit. I'd mentor him, he'd mentor me. One time he just said, 'Look I wanna do a song with you.' We chose the beat… then we went to the studio and did Cold and that was the first song I ever did professionally."
"That must have been pretty intimidating."
"Yeah. It was, it was. I mean, I'll never forget that day. I didn't know what I was walking into, I didn't know anything about anything, all I knew was I had verses and I'm gonna spit. He was like, don't worry about laying out anything, just spit your shit. It was just a magical time, a deep time, and that was the first time I ever said, 'You know what, I think I'm gonna do a mixtape for myself.' Songs just kept coming to me, song after song after song. It's so crazy when I look back at how I just did that. I started to develop myself more, I started to learn new things, learn concepts, learn the art of rhyming, listening to different emcees and just grew…
"When I first did it, I wasn't expecting any of this shit, I was getting people coming to my house, interviewing me," and some things don't change. "It was so surreal. Now I'm kind of used to it, I kind of know what to expect. But back then, that was one of the best times in my life."
"So, Magna Carta. Where does the name come from?" I asked.
"The Magna Carta is an English charter written by barons [so the common man can have] some sovereignty and to stop certain people abusing power, certain kings… So I took that concept and I tried to say, 'OK, that's the sovereignty of the people. Well, that's how I'm trying to write.' I'm trying to write for the liberation of people, who are… mentally, socially, politically in a bubble. You know I'm trying to free them, make them see a bigger picture. That's why I came up with that concept."
"Do you think there should be a greater emphasis on music that says something about the world we live in?"
Melanin 9 isn't one to rush into a question though, and he thought for a moment and clarified the question before he responded, "My problem with music in the Hip Hop genre is balance. I'm not trying to slate anyone who does what they do. The pop stuff, the whole thing that's going on now, I ain't got a problem with that, it's always been in hip hop; money, the whole concept of gluttony, lust and greed and sex always existed in hip hop… But there's too much of that. You need a dark and a light but it seems like there' s just one colour in this whole genre that's making all the money, getting all the shows, all the publicity, all the coverage in media, and people like Immortal Technique don't get played. People like Aesop Rock and stuff… They should be on the same level, they're just as good if not better."
M9 says nearly every track ("except, maybe, Landslide where I'm more just being lyrical.") in one way or another is about society, history or philosophy in some sense. "Why?" I asked, "Have you experienced and witnessed these injustices yourself?
"The police kept my Grandfather in a cell," he replied. "He died in a police cell. He was senile, he didn't know what he was doing. He wasn't violent, he was a frail old man… Instead of calling whoever was responsible for him and saying, 'Come and get him', they arrested him, put him in the cell for a night – unwillingly – for nothing. He went on a walk, lost his way and this is what happened. That was unjust. That was really wrong and you know, that kind of triggered something inside me about the police force. And I see it all the time, I see so many of my people arrested and detained under no probable cause. I've seen the injustices a lot."
"There's a lot of young emcees" I said, "Who'll write a bit then look back over it later and feel like it's rubbish. Have you ever had that?"
"Yeah. Loads of times I've written a rhyme and been like, 'This is rubbish.' Or I've actually laid it on the track and I just bin the track. Then one of my members or friends will be like, 'Yo, that is sick, what are you doing?' And sometimes it turns out that it's actually the sickest track out of all of them. And it's weird like that, sometimes the ones you don't feel are the ones people feel the most. But yeah, that happens to me, I've had so many rhymes that I've thrown away."
"What is your writing process like?"
"I find a beat that I really like; I have to really like it. Then I'll find a concept for it… Sometimes it's the other way 'round, there's something I want to put on a track or talk about, for example, Organised Democracy. I wanted to talk about law, I wanted to talk about the police system I wanted to talk about how they treat us."
But M9 is a slow writer as well, with a streak of perfectionism, "I always take my time with things. I always go over things. I go over rhymes over and over again before I even put it out. I just have to make sure it's right before I put it out."
"Does popular Hip Hop reflect how people feel?" I asked.
"Yeah, of course. That music definitely represents where we are in life today. The mentality people are in. We live in a materialistic world where money means more than anything to a person and people will do the most heinous things for money. But at the same time people are more broke than ever, there's no jobs, the economy's going crazy. So in a way, life is more real than ever but we look at all these material things and we want it. But we don't live that life 'cause we don't have the money. We may act that life, like we got the cars, but we're all renting. So it reflects the mentality but it doesn't reflect the reality of people's lives 'cause people are broke."
Themes of police brutality carry throughout the album, but as M9 said, Hip Hop reflects realities and mentalities and there's been no shortage of police brutality in the past ten years, as Smiley Culture and Jean Charles De Menezes can attest. "Do people get angry about your music?" I ask, "I mean, you're challenging some big institutions; the police force, the state."
"Definitely," and his emphasis hung in the air a moment before he continued, "[People are threatened by] anything that doesn't fall in line with what they've been taught to know all their life because they've been conditioned to think that way. Anything that's out of the ordinary that's said to them… they just switch off," he clicked his fingers. "They become ignorant and they don't even want to research it. It's not like 'OK, well, he's saying this let me see what this is really about so I can make an opinion, at least I've seen what's going on and I've researched it myself.' Before they even get to that they're just like 'No. You're ignorant, you're little kids, you don't know nothing, stop rapping, stop making music.' And this is the way we're seen."
Melanin 9's music certainly reflects the reality over the mentality. It's set in those alleys and estates which most other music tries to avoid. "Does that make your music hard for people to listen to sometimes?"
"Who wants to face the things we face everyday? But the difference with me is, I have to say it… I have to talk about what I see. I can't do it any other way. I can't talk about the things I don't do. I don't shoot people every day, you know what I mean, I don't do all that shit, so I can't talk about that. I have to talk about what's in my environment… If it's depressing then my life is depressing, if it's harsh then that means that my life is harsh. And people don't wanna hear that. Another thing is the way I put it isn't easy to understand… It's not an ABC thing and that puts people off as well."
I mention that Aesop Rock probably has this same issue and for a minute we moved away from the interview. Whenever we digressed about songs, artists or freestyles M9 smiled wide and gesticulated more and it became obvious his enthusiasm for rap is deep rooted and more genuine than many. "Do you listen to Cannibal Ox?" he asked.
"Fucking, them guys are…" and his voice raised a little, "sick. I love their lyrics… Vast Air."
"Dead Prez?" I said.
"Aaah, come on, man," it goes without saying. "They're one of the best of all time."
"What about influences?"
He mentions Nas and Illmatic amongst a plethora of classic Hip Hop artists. "A lot of people will see it as going back to the nineties, or going back to the era of Hip Hop when it was that kind of boom bap style."
Then I asked about books, what's he reading?
"In terms of writers… I been reading a few books on philosophy, certain poets. Robert Green, Ralf Ellison, John Perkins, who wrote a really good book… It's called Confessions of an Economic Hitman."
"So, is reading important?"
"First of all, I'd like to say, when it comes to me and reading, I have been slacking a lot lately… and I think it's because of the way we live today. Everything is on the net, everything is entertainment. I sometimes spend my life watching youtube; video after video, link after link, watching people's interviews. So I hardly get into the whole reading process as much, 'specially now I'm doing this campaign with the album. But I will say, the reading side I'm trying to get back into now. It's a process. You start to condition yourself, like 'Yeah, I'm gonna read this today.' But yeah reading is definitely important, 100% in terms of your music. But the deep thing about it, in this age we're in, it's kind of cool to not know things. To be kind of dumb in a way."
"I noticed that there was a David Icke sample on a track from High Fidelity."
He laughed, "Yeah. A lot of my old stuff was from books, science, politics. When I wrote High Fidelity David Icke was a strong influence on me, he opened my mind to another world… He was the first guy to initiate me to the underworld, to the world that really exists, from politics to religion… It's sad because I feel I have to water it down a bit more now, be more accessible, not say as many things anymore. People are like to me, 'Don't do that, be yourself.' But you always want to appeal to more people, I want to grow, I want poor people to understand but how am I gonna do that if they're always telling me it's too complex. So I'm in a kind of rut right now where I don't even know how to take the next project if I do it. You know everyone's on this drugs and women tip… That's cool, that's part of life, but it's not the only thing to do with life, you know what I mean?"
With four mixtapes, a fire in the booth, an album and a few music videos under his belt it's definitely been a productive six years, "Looking back over what you've done, how do you feel?" I asked.
"I never thought I'd do what I've done in music. I look back at how far I've come and I can't believe I did it, I'm so grateful I was able to do that. Someone gave me that gift, I don't know who, the divine or whoever, but I'm just grateful. I'll definitely look back at this and say I was proud of what I did, I didn't compromise, I was being me. That's why I'm thinking of stopping, because will I have to fit into someone else's category to carry on? I want to be myself. I always said if I do pack it in, I'm getting a plaque. I'm gonna get my albums on the plaque and put that on my wall for the rest of my life. That's me. I'm happy. That's my contribution to Hip Hop, now I'm bowing out. I don't know yet. I love music as well though so I don't know if it'll even let me, if my inner will let me…"
By: Andy Fletcher