After having Bespoke on repeat for a while, and impressed with his performance in support of George The Poet, we had to sit down and meet this London local. When we first approached Barney at Barbican Station, he was helping a lost out-of-towner find her way to St. Paul’s, a few minutes later he was helping a mother down the tube steps with a pram. It was almost as if things were being set up to make him seem like the nicest, most approachable, London rapper on the scene. As conversation immediately flowed we realised that there was no set up, he may genuinely be just that. But how did he end up supporting George? And what made him combine the sounds of grime and jazz? Find out as we sit down for a chat.
How would you describe your music?
Jazz influenced, London based hip hop. One of the producers who works on a lot of my stuff is a guy named Alfa; I’ve known him since I was 5 and we grew up together, he started playing jazz piano at the age of 18 and I started rapping around the same time. He was making jazz sounding beats and so I fell into that. Other producers that I work with have jazz influences as well but layered with other sounds so jazz and grime or jazz and hip hop.
You recently supported George the Poet during some UK shows, tell us a little bit about that? How did you get involved. What did you learn from the experience?
I’ve known George for a while, he’s a good friend of mine and he asked me to support him on the tour. I didn’t want my set to be a typical rap set, walking up and down, with a DJ behind me dropping bombs, I wanted to show a different side to rap, which George also does very well. I wanted it to be more of an auditory experience so I got together with my producer Alfa, Rick who sings a lot of my songs and Kyle who plays bass, and we just worked on creating a great vibe for the set.
The tour had a really positive effect; I picked up a lot of new fans, a lot of traction and a real buzz around my music, at the same time I got to say and do something that I felt was unique, a little different but still genuine.
I think the best reception was in Birmingham, it was the first show and I was so nervous, I didn’t expect much response from the audience. However I stepped out, performed Beep Beep and everyone was immediately engaged. After the gig I hung around for a long time with people who wanted to talk.
Despite the connection you have across the UK, do you feel that your music is quite London-centric?
I think first of all I really value honesty and I think honesty translates to all audiences, no matter the location. I do have a bit of a London vibe around my music but I don’t want to be an artist who ignores the value of what’s coming out of the rest of the UK, there are scenes all over. Audiences in some parts of the UK were quite surprised by my sound, they said they hadn’t heard anything quite like it before, which is strange to me because despite my sound being unique it’s not something that a London audience would consider completely new.
Your audience may be used to quite high energy and hyped performances and your music has quite a chilled vibe. Does this ever make it difficult to keep people engaged when performing live? How do you overcome this?
It can be very difficult, sometimes I wish I just had some ignorant rap music to perform, maybe just one track. But I engage the crowd differently, I have upbeat songs and I utilise the honesty within my music so that hopefully I can make you go away and think about my subject matter. Conversation with the crowd is also important, not too much but between some songs I’ll try to get a little laugh or say something really serious, if I can keep it mixed up then people won’t get bored. You don’t want to do an overly long set, it has to flow, make sense in terms of song selection and get from point A to point B smoothly.
First of all, thank you for asking me that question, you’re the first person to ask me that. The Bespoke EP was a homage to grime, so throughout the EP there’s different references. At the end of Beep Beep there’s a sample of the Dizzee Rascal v Crazy Titch clash; there’s a song called Ilvu which is also a Dizzee Rascal song title [I Love You]; and at the end of Wandering I used the Skepta sample.
I was raised by my mother, a single black woman, and I had white middle class God-parents, so I grew up seeing two sides of society and I try to discuss both in my music. I never really felt I fit in with the group of guys who wanted to be seen as “bad” but I didn’t necessarily fit into the opposite either. Skepta talks about how teachers will immediately label you as one or the other, I sometimes felt immediately labelled, and will talk to certain people in a way that makes them feel minute. This can start a process of misbehaviour, some people don’t want to be seen as weak or geeky. Next thing you know you’re 17, you have no qualifications and you feel stuck.
For me Underdog Psychosis was really interesting to listen to because I’m from quite a poor area in East London and I’ve grown up around a lot of people who’ve faced various challenges and hardships. It’s difficult for people where I’m from to articulate how they feel and during Underdog Psychosis Skepta attempts to put those feelings into words. I think it’s important to discuss how we feel and try to work out why we feel that way. When you don’t verbally communicate something it can come out in a different way, which for some people ends up being aggressive. We need to have conversations and communicate more effectively.
What do you think of that side of the UK music scene right now? Do you feel that grime is making a resurgence or did it never really disappear?
I’m going to sound like a bit of a hipster but I said to a friend a couple of years ago that grime is going to come back. I think it definitely went away, it died from when those at the forefront of the genre stopped making the genre. I always say Wiley created grime, killed grime and then came back to grime. So many people in the scene got signed to a label and started making pop music and eventually the audience for that just lost interest, at which point everyone got dropped. So now you’ve got guys coming back to grime with a new type of energy and the buzz is exciting.
Who are you listening to at the moment?
I listen to a lot of my friends music; Tom Misch, Jodran Rakei, Alfa Mist. I’m listening to Mick Jenkins, a rapper from Chicago, a guy called Tunji Ige from Philadelphia, Jay Prince. I aways finding new stuff on Soundcloud or from referrals.
How do you feel the young creative scene has changed recently? Are you involved in any other creative endeavours?
I’ve started a podcast [Are We Live], which is fun. It’s another fun way of discussing things and it’s got a nice amount of people listening. I listen to a lot of podcasts, I’m a podcasts guy. I listen to a lot of hip hop podcasts; Juan Epstein, Cipher Sounds, The Brilliant Idiots, Andrew Shulz, The Combat Jack Show. I love interviews and documentaries, I’m a big Louis Theroux fan. I love conversation.
Soundcloud and blogs have really helped people listen to my music but I also feel that word of mouth has been important. There are positives and negatives to things like Soundcloud, it’s great that I can reach an audience on the other side of the world but we’re also living in a culture where people are addicted to likes and reposts. If there was no way of monitoring your plays and views, would you still be here doing this? If you’re just making something to be seen, to be a “celebrity,” there’s a problem there. Put out the best quality product you can and realise that social media isn’t the be all and end all when it comes to reaching an audience. There are so many other ways to connect.
Does it annoy you at gigs when people are recording you rather than listening to and enjoying your music?
That’s difficult, because on the one hand it’s annoying, I want to see your faces and engage with you but at the same time I’ve videoed performances and watched them back myself to relive the moment and be inspired.
Do you feel you write music for yourself or for your audience?
A lot of what I’m writing about is from personal experiences or my friends experiences but that will hopefully spark thoughts and ideas in other people that can lead to conversation. Again, talking is very important.
Where did you passion for music and lyricism come from?
I was late in finding an interest in rap, I didn’t start writing until I was 18/19. I wasn’t the guy spitting bars in the playground and when I started I was really bad, I just knew I wanted to get better and that I had something to say.
I was very insecure around the age of 15, I was getting involved with the wrong people and I was very confused. As I grew up, I grew out of that and began to realise you can like things like grime and not be the most “ghetto” person around, it’s ok to be a “nerd” and you should just embrace who you are. I try to portray the idea of just being yourself, honesty is important. That’s why my name is important, people often ask if my name is really Barney. I wouldn’t choose that name… If I was gonna choose a rap name I wouldn’t choose Barney, it doesn’t really sound like a cool name, it is my name. The idea is that if I’m at work, I’m with my family or I’m at a gig, I’m Barney to everyone, hopefully it makes me approachable and represents the level of honesty I want to surround myself with.
How does the song writing process work for you? Where do you start?
It’s different every time. I like to start with a beat. I have a bad habit, most of the time I never finish a verse, I always write 14 bars instead of 16 and I just freestyle the last 2.
What are you working on right now and what have you got planned for the future?
I’ve been in the studio, I’m writing but I had a bit of writers block around tour time, I’m breaking free from that now. I’ve been working with someone called Dave McClean from a group called Django Django, we’re working on a project. I want to just build things slowly, I don’t think I’m going to suddenly blow up, it’s going to be a gradual progression and I’m embracing that. The good thing about that is that the followers I do have are dedicated and loving fans, my message resonates with them and I know they understand what I’m doing.
We parted ways with Barney after this quick chat over a coffee and were left wanting more. Barney is the kind of guy you could talk to for hours. He’s real, honest, and friendly. And this shines through in his work. Keep an eye out for Barney… Don’t say we didn’t warn you.