Global Week: I Visited London And Discovered The Secret To UK Soul
Anglophile (n.) – a person who admires England, its people, and its culture. I remember this one repeated scene in National Lampoon’s European Vacation, where Clark W. Griswold (played by Chevy Chase) is traveling through London and keeps accidentally beating up the same man. On bicycle, on foot, you name it, but the gentleman remains cordial and warm. It’s obviously “taking the piss out” of the Brits (as the Brits would say), suggesting their need for etiquette outweighs their need for a valid emotional response. I just remember watching that as a kid and thinking, “British people are so much nicer than Americans.” *** The year was 2006. I had actively been writing about hip-hop for close to five years—professionally (as in making money) for half of that time. I was already annoyed. Think of the timeline that year: Jay Z’s Kingdom Come (which elicited yawns from everyone but me because “Beach Chair” remains my pensive jam), The Roots’ Game Theory, Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor, Game’s Doctor’s Advocate, Ghostface’s Fishscale. None brought rap to its knees like Nas’ incendiary Hip-Hop Is Dead though. The sentiment echoed throughout the culture. Sure, some of the aforementioned releases were either cohesively amazing or had some standout singles worth something, but that declaration by one of Rap’s neo-architects was bone chilling for a hip-hop-loving writer like myself. Hip-hop was dead. And my career was just born. I felt like William Miller in Almost Famous being coaxed by Lester Bangs to go to law school (the same institution I coincidentally ducked three years prior) instead of being a writer because they were approaching the “death rattle” of rock. Nas told me hip-hop was dead, so I immediately became uninspired. I had plenty to write about, but the outlook felt so bleak. I was excited to be a working writer, but wasn’t excited about the fodder. I needed more. So much more, that I continued working at record labels, management companies and radio stations while writing in pursuit of inspiration. Then a wave of new female artists from the UK arrived. Two important ones in fact: Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen. They felt like the ‘Pac and Biggie of white girls. Nas and Jay Z. Both had big mouths—one was darker and more depressed than the other—both waving middle fingers. Once Amy and Lily entered my frame of reference, it was game over. I found something new to write about that intrigued me. Being the Alternatives Editor of AllHipHop.com at the time, it was easy to fit them into the evolving non-rap sub-category on the site. The section was previously reserved for strictly R&B, but I opted to cast the widest net possible, considering R&B in 2006 was being described as Justin Timberlake and Gnarls Barkley. Times were changing. The girls from the UK were ground shakers. I interviewed Joss Stone, and she talked shit about Dallas Austin (he would later release a response video titled “Fuckin’ For Tracks”), I attended Amy Winehouse’s first New York City concert, sitting adjacent to Blake Fielder-Civil who gyrated with a half-lit cigarette dangling from his mouth every time Amy glanced at him from the stage. I spoke with Lily Allen, who had a show on March 9 at the time and dimmed the lights and played Biggie for like ten minutes straight, a nod to the anniversary of his death. These girls were the direct descendants of hip-hop’s influence. These girls oozed “I Don’t Give A Fuckness.” These girls were me. I’d spend the next several years of my career documenting this influx of talent in all of its forms. Duffy, Pixie Lott, Girls Aloud, Kate Nash, Mark Ronson, Florence & The Machine, Adele, La Roux, Ellie Goulding, Jessie J, Alex Clare, Katy B, Emile Sande, Rita Ora, Eliza Doolittle, Marina & The Diamonds, Natalia Kills, Jessie Ware, FKA twigs, Sam Smith. The list goes on and on. If I wasn’t speaking directly to the artists (most of the time I was), I was writing about them. I was distinguishing their regions of the UK by their accents, hearing their stories about London’s BRIT School (comparable to NYC’s LaGuardia High), hanging up the phone or walking out of the interviews thinking, “Damn, they have their shit together.” And the music? Well, they had the blood of John Lennon, Dusty Springfield, Kate Bush, Tricky, Imogen Heap, Portishead, and even the Spice Girls running through their veins, so they were as good as gold in my book. Some more talented than others, yes, but all possessed a level of honesty that was severely lacking in the American pop music landscape. Perhaps that’s why when they hit here it caused such a mass hysteria. We all knew about the first British Invasion starring the Beatles, but this was perhaps a more spread-out second wave. There were subtle differences, too, that made all the difference in an interview. I would ask the assembly line of pop artists from the U.S. a question like “How is your day?” and the go-to response still is “Pretty good, yours?” You ask a girl like Jessie Ware and her response is “Fucking starving. I’m also feeling a bit shit because I feel like I haven’t slept in a month.” Honesty. Everywhere. From radio to rhetoric. As my career progressed, I became the unofficial interviewer for anyone coming from the UK for a multitude of publications. I’ve interviewed Ellie Goulding something like 12 times (look it up), with this one being the most recent. I learned the slang, I learned the regions. However, I never visited the UK. Talk about a low-key phony. Here I was for close to a decade, waxing philosophical on a place I never even visited. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to visit London; I was always just too busy writing about it. So three weeks ago, I took my first trip to London—partially to visit friends and actually see London, but also to understand why I felt so connected musically to a place I never experienced.
My first day in London, my friend and I were walking to Notting Hill from Shepherd’s Bush because we hadn’t quite understood the Tube yet (it’s one hell of a walk). As we approached Holland Park, a man yelled to my friend “Protect Ya Neck!” (she was wearing a Wu-Tang Clan hoodie). It was Stuart Zender, original bassist for Jamiroquai and Music Supervisor for Mark Ronson. Next to him, Preetesh Hirji, formerly of the duo Mattafix. The two were taking a beer break before heading back to the studio. Hirji built a secret studio with his own two hands in the basement of the Lansdowne House, formerly the location of the legendary Lansdowne Studios, home to some of the greatest recordings ever made. They asked us to join them in the studio, and not wanting to be a statistic or the plot line of a Lifetime Original Movie, we politely suggested we stay at the pub with them. After hours of chatting, we headed outside, having met their friend singer/songwriter Rosita Lynch, who was also heading to the studio (“Another girl means we’re safe,” we decided). While outside, Zender meets two other gentlemen (one carrying a bass) and invites them to the studio as well. By dusk we were seated in an impromptu jam session with a room full of new friends. “Does this happen all the time?” I asked Hirji. He smiled and replied, “Welcome to London!”
While no day on my trip was as musically poignant as that one, things started making sense throughout my time in London. Visiting Camden Town and seeing the statue erected of Amy Winehouse only 50 feet from a John Lennon mural, walking into The Hawley Arms and feeling Amy’s spirit through the pub walls. Watching a sublimely talented busker busking right in front of a “No Busking” sign. Listening as a platinum artist-turned-friend complained to me that the West London recording studio she was in didn’t have the equipment necessary to capture a specific sound. It just all made sense why the talent London cultivates comes here and automatically makes us feel something. There’s a level of honesty and reality that seems to be missing in the U.S. versus the UK. It’s not to say that America is lacking in talent. That’s far from true. But for decades and decades, American music has rested on an aesthetic. Women having to look a certain way regardless of the beautiful sounds coming out of their mouths, and not to mention historical wounds from Black music being whitewashed by artists like Pat Boone and Elvis Presley, and still feeling that tension today. Sure, the UK has its own history with its own set of baggage, but for the most part the music feels more like inspiration and not appropriation. There’s a level of respect—from Eric Clapton funding Muddy Waters’ tombstone to Joss Stone paying most of her advance to pull Lauryn Hill from hiding for a verse on her album. You ask Ellie Goulding about Destiny’s Child or Lauryn Hill in an interview, and she clutches her heart and starts singing Beyonce runs from “Emotion” like she’s at church. Jessie Ware needs a fainting couch whenever you mention Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston. There’s an unconditional love for the music and the pioneers of it. And while artists from the UK come to America in all colors, shapes, and sizes, they all bring their truth to the music. Whatever that may be. It’s no wonder why America’s most notorious truth tellers (hip-hop artists) gravitate towards collaborations with UK artists. So yes, for almost a decade I repeatedly wrote love letters to London with no envelopes or stamps. But after actually visiting, I should be sending a “Thank You” letter for giving a young writer something to say for this long—finding my own truth while writing about theirs. —Kathy Iandoli