The UK’s own Ultra_eko is an underground hip hop artist with a brilliantly unique vocal tone and style – the likes of which are helping kick off 2020 with intention and artistry alike.
Following the release of a plethora of new singles, not least of all the superb Wild One, we were blessed with an in-depth interview – to find out more about the music, his journey so far, and his hopes for the future. Here’s the conversation in full.
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Hi Ultra – thanks for the chat! For those who don’t know, how would you describe your approach to making music?
My approach is driven by the writing. I would not classify myself as a musician, and in many ways I see a hip hop artist as equally close to literary circles, depending on how seriously he works at the craft of composing lyrics. Certainly I see myself closer to being a writer than a musician.
I am often reminded of the beat writers of the early fifties, Kerouac, Ginsberg etc, and the live poetry readings they would give as live jazz was played, the two forms complimenting each other; perhaps this could be seen as an early precursor to the hip hop genre.
For me the writing is everything; the lyrical content takes precedence above everything. I love hip hop and I love writing and rapping and constructing lyrics around a beat, a sound, a melody; it is something so beautiful to me; it inspires me, energises me. Writing lyrics to an instrumental sometimes takes me into that flow state where time becomes meaningless and hours can pass without notice. So my approach to music is one driven by the idea, the emotion, the story I want to express through my writing, and the music and rapping are mediums through which I express these ideas.
What inspired the single Wild One?
Wild One was inspired by an Ojibwa proverb, ‘Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, when all the time I am carried by a great wind’; this was most famously quoted in a final season Sopranos episode, probably my favourite all time TV show; some absolute masterpieces amongst the seasons in my opinion. The quote expresses the idea that we often go about feeling down on our luck, or else feeling good about our fortune; we feel that we are the agents of whatever fate destiny has cast; that we have somehow been very in control and entirely responsible for the outcomes of our life. But the reality is that most of what happens to us is determined by forces very much outside ourselves; by random chance and luck; or else spiritual forces beyond our understanding, depending on your perspective. Read ‘Black Swan’ And ‘Fooled by Randomness’ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb for a full account of how little of your life has actually been determined by you; rather you have always been carried by these great winds, determining outcomes very much outside of your control.
Even those decisions you do feel that you have made; they have most often been pondered and choices made by the workings of the unconscious mind long before they reach conscious awareness. Your only role as this conscious perceiver is to dress up those decisions, to add a narrative to them and fit them into whatever story you are telling yourself and the world about your life at this particular moment, to make them seem choices that were wholly considered by you.
Do you think these reflections in the song are something a lot of young people feel – this concept of expectation, big dreams and achieving qualifications, the pressure vs the reality…? Are there other artists who speak to your true feelings on these topics?
When I myself was much younger I felt a great pressure to achieve and succeed in getting published as a writer; it never happened. At the time it seemed to be the ‘be all and end all’. What would have helped would have been if I was more aware of how small the likelihood of becoming a successful writer was; that drive to succeed, to always be working towards a goal, or ended up stifling creativity; I wish I had enjoyed the process more. And yet I felt I was destined to follow that path; maybe that feeling is still there, and is why I have returned to writing again!
Those were pressures I placed on myself; my parents and family never thought much of further education. But I see that competition amongst parents now I am one myself; the expectation and the jumping through hoops. We live in a society that equates financial wealth with happiness, despite all the research that suggests otherwise. I wouldn’t disagree that money helps, and a lack of money has certainly been the cause of a lot of stress and unhappiness for me in recent times; but once you reach a certain threshold more money no longer equals a corresponding increase in happiness. You need to look elsewhere for those sources of satisfaction.
I wish that children were able to be more curious; to let their curiosity lead their education; to learn more through play. But it seems we are in an arms race where children are being tested at younger ages and it kills a bit of the magic of childhood. My own parents did not pressure me in the least, in fact they seemed to pay no attention to my education whatsoever. I do believe that some parental expectation helps; I might have achieved more if I felt that my parents were more concerned about how well I was doing.
Certainly I would not wish my life on my own children, and so I will push them, only gently, towards achieving some degree of comfort; of finding a profession which they love and in which they can exercise their key skills. I want to see them become rounded individuals; which I would say I am anything but.
In what ways has growing up in South London impacted your personality and your style as an artist?
It has had a huge impact; my family on either parents side both had and have a long history within the city. My mother came from a very poor working class family in Mitcham; probably about as poor as you can get in this country; and as equally uneducated; the images described in my latest release Wormwood Scrubs of a boy in a flat surrounded by men and women smoking, drinking, gossiping and gambling is very much based on my own experiences. There was not much in the way of child-centric experiences.
My own kids are the centre of attention, the little people around whom the days activities are designed. We were supposed to make our own fun; that feeling of utter boredom; of emptiness; the thick smoke that hung in the air of a dingy flat; I can still picture it vividly right now and it’s a wholly depressing scene. Those were the kind of afternoons that would scoop out your brain and leave it utterly empty inside.
My father’s side of the family, whilst still being working class and living in a council house, were a little father up the ladder of respectability. They all lived in Wandsworth, which is why their is a long history of Chelsea supporters in the family, and I still hold a season ticket, although my boy goes to most of the games now with other family members. That side of the family were a little more child friendly, and I have memories of days out to London etc.
Where I grew up in West Croydon and Thornton Heath, it was a real multicultural childhood, and certainly that imprinted on me. Maybe that is one of the reasons I was exposed to and fell in love with hip hop from such a young age; I’ve never thought of that before. It was a real melting pot and it’s great because you learn about different cultures, languages, beliefs, and this type of mixing teaches people tolerance and respect for one another; people learn to accept differences and to value similarities; there are a lot of great benefits to this type of multiculturalism. At the same time you have those negative influences of crime drugs, addictions, poverty, violence, and I would say that those forces have played a big role in my life and have had a detrimental effect. These negative forces have often pulled me away from following paths that would have been more beneficial to me; and I will certainly seek to shield my own children from being exposed to such destructive lifestyles.
What’s the hip hop scene like in London at present, and what are your hopes for the genre going forwards?
I don’t follow the live scene so I really couldn’t tell you. I am trying to get more plugged into it now I am reaching out to blogs etc. I have some UK favourites, such as Dave, who is from just around the corner in Streatham. I really rate him as an artist; he is a writer, performer, musician, producer, even actor; he really is a talented individual. And you can listen to his music and sense the attention to detail that has gone into his tracks and his work; you can sense that every word has been carefully chosen and lyrics carefully crafted; I really respect that artistry and I was pleased to see him win the ‘Mercury’. At the moment I am listening to the new Ocean Wisdom; his rapping skills really are just astounding.
As for hip hop itself, it seems in the mainstream to be just as preoccupied with the same material pursuits as ever; womanizing, chasing money, drugs and violence; this seems to be what sells; and it really saddens me that this is what the majority of people want; or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s just what they think they want, want has always been pushed onto them. Hip hop can be as versatile and expansive as the imagination allows; there is no end to where it might be taken. I myself have ideas of creating huge stories, cinematic tales which use sound as well as visual art to tell stories; there really is no limit to where hip hop can go, and I know of course many hip hop artists are doing these things and being creative and original, it’s just that these works don’t reach the mainstream, and I really wish they would; that someone will break through with a vision and a storytelling so powerful that the masses just have to stop and listen; if only I could do that!!!!
How important is live performance to you as a rapper and songwriter?
I would really love to perform live; I’ve only been doing this music thing for 8/9 months so it’s just begun really; but I do hope I get the chance to perform live; someone said today on Soundcloud that they would love to hear Wormwood at a concert which got me thinking about it; I think it would be absolutely amazing; ‘oh Wormwood, Wormwood, Wormwood Scrubs!’ – I can just hear the chorus to gong from the Glastonbury crowd as we speak.
How do you work out which stories to tell, and how do you know when something is complete and ready to be shared?
I had a book once called ‘The seven basic plots’ or something along those lines; which reduced every story to a set of components which would fit into one of 7 narratives. A few weeks ago I read that every rapper only has three stories to tell!
I do believe there is some truth to these ideas; we each have a limited repertoire of basic stories, themes and ideas which we closely identify with, which we feel identify us, and which we spend our lives working through. And so I think a lot of writing is about finding different ways to express a familiar story or idea; I personally need to be excited and inspired in order to find the motivation to write and create. I need to feel that I am doing something new and original and in a way I have not done before, and so I suppose much of writing is about finding new ways to tell old stories.
I am in a really prolific writing period of my life and I feel I have a lot of stories to tell; my biggest ones I haven’t even attempted yet, so there is no shortage of material; it’s just whether I have the skill to write those stories as I want them to be told; translate those visions in my head onto paper in a way I am happy with. I have been making more effort to redraft my lyrics of late, to drill down into the detail and get the flow as good as I can; I hope this will be apparent in my upcoming material. I have always been an impatient character, and so my first releases were often recorded almost as soon as I had written them, and certainly they could have been improved upon.
Do you produce your own beats, or play any instruments?
I don’t I’m afraid, although it’s probably a good thing as the writing itself is so time consuming, not to mention all the promo side which is just as important as I’m trying to reach out to an audience. I really wish I had someone to take care of that side of things as it really does take a monumental effort, in terms of time and resources, just to make the tiniest imprint on the masses.
I did start producing beats early on but I soon saw that the speed at which I was writing would vastly outstrip how quickly I could produce a beat, and it would not be anywhere near the standard that I am able to get already made. I would love to work more closely with a producer though, to create music with much more variation and creativity than what I am currently confined to.
What are the main values you want to represent through your music?
I suppose it would be to be true to yourself, don’t follow the lead of others, try to connect with that inner voice and listen to what it has to say. Live life as deeply and mindfully as you can; try to be aware of this life you live; try to cherish these days and be grateful as hard as that sometimes is. I have terrible depressions and sometimes I feel as though I cannot go on; and those moments are where you have to seek out the beauty in this world; to find those incredible people or sights or ideas that excite you and make you want to carry on and keep exploring; keep on discovering!!!
What’s your greatest aspiration as a rapper in 2020?
It would simply be to try and build a real audience who really care about and want to listen to what I am creating; that would be such a humbling feeling and I am so grateful to anyone who finds the time to listen and engage with what I am producing. You can be sure that I have put everything into the material, and have done the best I could, so it really does touch me and mean everything to me to find people willing to listen and to actually hear what I am trying to say, the story that I am trying to tell or the message or ideas I am trying to express. To build an active engaged audience would be everything; what more could someone want than that?
What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given as an artist?
I suppose it would have to be ‘write about what you know’. I never really understood this fully when I was younger, thinking it only to mean what you know in your immediate physical world. But it can mean a feeling, an experience, a piece of hard earned wisdom. I take it to mean ‘write about what is true’ – what you yourself have experienced and know to be true.
People can tell when a writing is authentic, when they are writing from a place of truth, and this is what they will always connect with , so write about what you know and don’t try to be something you are not.
What’s been your biggest struggle on this journey?
Even at this early stage there have been many struggles. Financial struggles; sacrifices that have been made so as to focus on the music, in terms of work and time spent with loved ones. There has also been doubt and questioning, people unwilling to accept that I want to pursue a new creative path and who do not encourage it or express positivity towards what I am doing.
People will always want to see you fail, it makes them feel better about their own lack of trying. You must focus only on what you are doing and ignore those who try to sway you; those who follow the creative path will find themselves filled with a great spiritual power, which makes it easy to reflect away the judgments of those who do not choose the path of self discovery and who are happy to live a wholly unexamined life.
Do you have any regrets or are there any mistakes you’ve made along the way that you would advise others to avoid?
My regrets are for the times in my life where I have forgotten the creative path and sought material gain; where I have become lost to myself chasing money. The times where I have let others pressure me into choices I was not really happy or comfortable with. I feel that I am always trying to make up for those lost times. Be strong in following your creative path.
If you could sit down to lunch with anyone at all, past or present, who would you choose – and what would you ask them about?
I think right at this moment I would like to sit down with Elon Musk, to ask him about ‘Simulation hypothesis’, and what he is working on behind closed doors to try and break through reality and out of the matrix .
What’s next for you?
Lots more music over the course of the year; new releases every few weeks I hope!
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Find & follow Ultra_eko on Facebook, Twitter & Instagram or visit his Website.