True Thoughts from Tru Thoughts' Latest Signee and Multimedia Mogul
Towards the end of our morning phone interview, after eloquently monologuing on the difference between big “P” politics and social politics, UK rapper Riz MC asked to be put out of his misery.
“I’m just running on caffeine,” he groaned, as he put in a jerk chicken order with a friend. He was sitting in the Manchester studio of Rich Reason, producer and promoter of Riz’ long-running party Hit’n’Run. Just the night before, they’d organized a show starring James Blake, with Riz as the opening act. In a few short weeks, Riz would be releasing his debut LP MICroscope on boutique label Tru Thoughts.
The June 18th CD release is a drop four years in the making. I’d first heard of Riz MC in 2008, when I picked up his promo CD at Mercury Lounge’s merch table after his show. Back then, I’d been struck by his witty snark, e.g. People like people to mix styles the same way/People like people to be mixed race (off “People Like People”) as well as his self-awareness as a UK male of South Asian descent living in a post 9/11 world. His rhymes on the cello-accompanied “Sour Times” remains as incisive an analysis I’ve heard anywhere, let alone in a pop song, about the larger structural forces behind Muslim fundamentalist terrorism: Don’t you think it’s kinda strange that all this terror outrage…/Just turned up in the last decade/When Islam has been the way for millions from back in the day?…/Well, interpretations always change/Today they’re read with rage…/The problem is modern and it’s all local factors:/Dictatorships and Injustices or Wars cause Fatwas.
During our thoughtful, if caffeine-fueled, conversation, Riz proved the years have only made him savvier. Now a full-fledged entertainer-rapper-actor, currently with a starring role opposite Freida Pinto in Michael Winterbottom’s latest film, Riz’ greater sophistication also extends to his musical arsenal. Highlights to the re-release include seven bold remixes from a roster of boundary-pushing producers. The True Tiger remix of “Get On It” adds pop gloss and gritty wobble to the original, while Bok Bok’s take on “Dark Hearts” launches the bass into an inky, dark dystopia.
A man who speaks in neat, if long-ish, paragraphs, Riz told me about the Blade Runner-style imaginary world his music inhabits — a story he’s spun into a multimedia blitz spanning video games to live shows. Then the Oxford-trained mind and I shared a lively exchange about self-critique, the trouble with bling, and how the Internet’s speediness might be saving us from ourselves.
What’s the journey been from making MICroscope to this re-release on Tru Thoughts?
The first time it was released, it was put out independently, just put out into the universe. This is a proper release on a proper label with a pedigree and heritage. It’s a label that puts out music for music lovers, which is a natural home for me. It’s a nice fit.
Also, the first incarnation was ten tracks, but now it’s also got these amazing musical interludes written by UK dance legend Zed Bias, and also remixes by cutting-edge producer Bok Bok, crossover dubstep from True Tiger, and even jit-step from Baobinga. And guest features with people like Plan B on it. It’s the album in its final complete form.
The interludes are important because there’s also a short film, video game, and interactive live show, and they all take place in the same kind of sci-fi story world. The interludes are a glimpse into that world.
You know what? It came out from the music. [Album producer] Lazersonic, he’s quite a sci-fi geek, not that you would know it. But he’s got a storm trooper mask in his studio. Because of his influences, there’s a futuristic, dystopian feel to his production. It’s a bass-shaped window into the future.
The [story] concept is that there’s a secret government department called the DOCC and they’re trying to control the population’s minds – by using soundwaves hidden in everyday sounds and in pop music. This isn’t directly related to reality, but intelligence services have always used writers and poets. The idea of social messaging, or psy ops, is well-established as a strategy for social control – winning hearts and minds. But a splinter group of the DOCC broke off saying, ‘This is not why we made this technology,’ and they started a sonic resistance – MICroscope is a sonic resistance. We’re fighting a sonic war against a secret government agency, fighting for the minds of the population.
“All of You,” off Riz MC’s MICroscope:
How does this play out in the live show?
People think they’re coming to a gig, but they’re coming to an initiation ceremony for the MICroscope sonic resistance. We have to work quickly – we have 45 minutes to an hour before the DOCC finds us. We use disused nightclubs, tents at festivals, and we initiate everyone into the resistance. To do that, we immunize them from the sonic viruses – by exposing them to our sonic vaccines. And the tracks on the album are our sonic vaccines.
At some of the shows, like at Glastonbury, when we did it people were just losing their minds for it. We really enjoy blurring the lines between performance and reality. It’s a rave meets interactive theater.
It sounds like a massive project. Who are the people who help you put all this together?
Metropolis Music Management are the main backers. In terms of doing the album, I did it independently with Lazersonic. DNR films, they made the videos for me. The video game was by Swarm Films out of Toronto, and they won an FWA (Favorite Website Award) for it.
What you have to know is these people all did this for nothing. I’m not signed to a major label. The idea behind this is to push things forward. That’s the sentiment behind my music and also trying to release MICroscope in this cross-platform way. I want to do something different. On a most basic level, that’s rap music where I rap about stuff that you don’t normally hear rappers talk about, over beats that you don’t usually hear rappers rapping over.
Where does this innovative quality come from?
I’ve just always been someone who’s been interested in – and there’s no way of saying this without sounding idiotic – but interested in the world around me. I find it uninteresting when people talk about how great they are. Like Lauryn Hill said, ‘It’s not about what I have and what you don’t, it’s about what we all share.’
I’m interested in spotting the different social trends – sometimes unpacking them, sometimes ridiculing them, just placing them under the microscope, [for instance] the absurdities of gentrification – vegan cafes next to crack houses. “Bubble Wrapped” is about how we’re living our lives more online. That’s where everything really counts, where you’re the best version of yourself – the online profile. It’s become a replacement for living in the here and now – we’re building our tombs while we’re still living. “Radar” is about social stereotypes, how we all pigeonhole each other. And we have to – because it’s the only way to deal with a chaotic reality. We do it ourselves, we buy into that game of social signalling.
How do you think you play the game of social signalling?
I’m doing it right now – the way I’m talking to you and I’m wishing how I’ll be perceived. This is the most explicit version of doing that.
“All In the Ghetto,” off MICroscope:
“Sour Times” has a sincerity that’s different from the tone of your most recent work. Have you moved away from that?
“Sour Times” is perhaps unique on the MICroscope album in that it’s a very direct and personal, political song. The style that I’m more drawn to is one that’s less polemical and more observational. Maybe with age you become less and less attached to certainty. Directly polemical music is not something I’m a massive fan of. It has an arrogant, messianic message. If you do that, you better make sure your shit doesn’t stink. Rather than finger-pointing and blaming, I always implicate myself. I do it from the perspective of me – I’m the dickhead. Like in “We’re All In the Ghetto,” rather than saying ‘Oh, we’re saying [people are bad for gentrifying],’ it’s more like ‘We’re all part of this, this big mess.’ Everyone’s shit stinks. We’re all complicit. I’m more drawn to the contradictions I’m implicated in.
The irony of your rhyme in “All in the Ghetto” (Authentic with rent I can afford/Because we’ve got cool jobs that will keep us poor) is that acting and making music are two of the top coolest jobs that make no money.
Well, if I wasn’t able to make money from acting, I wouldn’t be doing it. I don’t have a wealthy family that can support me. I was thinking more about fashion magazines – like you’re expected to intern there for like a year. That’s just bullshit, obviously. That means only people of a certain background or class can break into cool jobs. It’s about living in bohemian poverty.
Then again, music is one field where people from underprivileged backgrounds have been able to excel. Or do you think that’s not true?
I don’t know if music presents a way up for kids from underprivileged backgrounds. It’s been a massively visible means for social mobility for some people in rap music. But it’s not like poor kids around the world are becoming rappers and getting heard. That buys into the fiction of the American Dream, and the lie that we live in an upwardly mobile society, whereas you’re almost certain to die in the same social class that you were born into.
Do you think that you’re going to die in the same social class you were born into?
It doesn’t mean that everyone will die in the same class. I just mean overall, as a society. I think bling bling rap is so toxic. People talk about political rap and non-political rap, but everything is political. Everything endorses a way of looking at the world. 50 Cent may as well be in the Republican Party. But my music is about social politics, not about big “P” politics. Sorry. I haven’t been sleeping much.
In “Radar,” a song about pigeonholing, you mention a Muslim skateboarding Marxist. Were you referring to yourself?
That’s Lupe Fiasco.
I didn’t know that he was a Muslim, nor that he’s a Marxist.
I knew all of these things before I even heard his music. The headline to the article about him was ‘Muslim Skateboarding Marxist Rapper Releases Album.’
We can’t really experience life anymore in its raw form. It’s ‘blurbalism,’ as I call it. That leads to pigeonholing everything.
What do you suggest we do to try and avoid this?
It’s impossible to opt out of social signalling. But then something weird happens. There’s so much stuff going on, so many musical lifestyles, so many permutations — it’s kind of a piecemeal individualism. We’re making new categories and new stereotypes, but it’s happening at such a fast rate that the pigeonholing can’t keep up. We might actually get past it. For instance, UK dance music – dance music heritage – is one of the things I’m proudest of in the UK. There’s rave, old school house…then garage, dubstep, purple sound, to what now? Techno dubstep? Stadium step? Now it’s just called ‘bass music.’ Now the pigeonholing is defeated because we’re making things at such a fast rate – because of technology, because of how easily we distribute. The pigeonholers are putting up a white flag and saying, ‘We give up.’ The solution is to speed up, so things get messy. I’m just on too much caffeine. Please put me out of my misery.
No, not at all! Any plans to come to New York?
Hopefully. I’m doing more shows in India at the moment. There’s a whole new scene that’s opening up that’s kind of alternative – alternative to Bollywood, which has dominated for so long. I’m doing the festival circuit and the musical circuit. I went three or four times last year. I did a couple of NH7 festival weekends – that’s like the Indian Coachella. I think it’s really interesting because more and more people are being exposed to underground dance music, or club music, or bass music – there we go, I can’t put my finger on it – good. It’s educating myself about what’s going on. It’s also about exposing people to your culture and your heritage: ‘I’m gonna play you my five fave drum and bass songs and I’m gonna rap over them. A third of you seem to know what that is – good. And now we’re going to do a little history of dubstep.’