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Beatnik goes one-on-one with upcoming rapper Enlish. The result is not what you’d expect.
words Rob Boffard / images Romain KodochimEnlish: Head In The Clouds
We’ll admit it. Enlish has surprised us. In every way possible. When you’re mostly known in the live music scene for battling and occasionally helping out Stig Of The Dump onstage, it can be difficult to make a real name for yourself.
Enlish – known more commonly as Big Dave – has built a career off guest spots, hypeman slots and generally being a sidekick for his more charismatic peers in the UK hip-hop scene. He could so easily have disappeared into the abyss of names that only hardcore rap geeks would remember.
Enlish, however, has bucked the trend, and surprised the hell out of us in the process. First, the man born Dave Perrera in Cornwall released a complex and difficult hip-hop album, backed up by a huge back catalogue of self-released projects. Then, his interview with us really strayed off the beaten path.
And to cap things off, the man can shoot a basketball like nobody’s business
But more on that last point later. For now, let’s head to the more prosaic surroundings of a Brixton pub on a muggy June afternoon, with thunderclouds gathering overhead and car horns echoing off the main road. For now, the conversation is on some pretty standard territory: his new album, Cold Lazarus.
It’s a really good record. Part of this is down to Enlish himself, who raps with a pinpoint flow and a nice turn of phrase. He’s not the best rapper out of the F.U Music camp (which includes Stig and Dr Syntax) but he’s nice with his. The album manages to mix his personal struggles with some general mic-wrecking. In one of the standout moments, Enlish teams up with Stig and American MC Sean Price for the wonderfully-titled Arrogance Is Bliss, and three go to work on the track with all the subtlety and nuance of a Howitzer barrage. Sean isn’t very technically minded, apparently, although Enlish says the Duck Down Records soldier is a “sound geezer”
“That was done from a purely selfish point of view,” he says of the track. “Sean P is one of my favourite rappers, ever since Nocturnal in ’95. At the time I’d come into a bit of money, and it was long enough ago that it was all done by Myspace. I knew he was doing guest verses, emailed him, asked for a price, which was cheap at the time. It was more to be able to sit back and in twenty years time – whatever happens with hip-hop as a career – say, I’ve done a track with one of my favourite rappers. I sent it to him, and he liked it. If he hated it, I wouldn’t have been so proud of it, I suppose!”
Another plus? The production process of Cold Lazarus was helped along because there’s only one producer, slash mixer, slash arranger, on the whole project. Ido – who’s beats will be familiar to anybody who’s heard Stig and Syntax in the past few years – made this his pet project, and it gives the album a cohesiveness that others lack. “It is an advantage [to have one producer],” says Enlish. “It was very much a collaborative effort…we sat down and spent a lot of time listening to how the album flowed, and cut about seven tracks in the end. Everything apart from Sean Price – which wasn’t organic, because he emailed his verses over – was recorded on the same mic in the same studio. Ido’s an incredible sound engineer, works very quickly.”
But as we mentioned, there’s more than meets the ear to Cold Lazarus, and this is where Enlish takes our expectations and junks them. One innocent question about influences, and suddenly we’re talking about the existential playwright Dennis Potter, with a side order of Ernest Becker and a sprinkling of alcoholism, reality TV and the meaning of mortality. Cold Lazarus – which as we’ve said, is a big, multilayered album – was apparently inspired by the last two plays Potter wrote while dying of cancer.
Enlish is in full flow: “A lot of the stuff he did was very subversive and very ahead of his time. [The play] Karaoke was about an alcoholic author dying of cancer who was obsessed with cryogenics. Due to his alcoholism and cancer, he starts hallucinating and seeing things that he’s written happening in front of him. [Second play] Cold Lazarus is set 500 years in the future, and it’s his head frozen in a box at the this big conglomerate who try to tap into his brain and extract his thoughts for use as a reality TV program.” See what we mean? Frankly, it works a lot better when you’re listening to it than when it’s written down.
Enlish isn’t just drawing from external influences either. His album is drawn in parts from a very dark place and some pretty traumatic experiences. He’s battled depression for years, and his mother died of cancer when he was 19. “It’s not a secret…my mum was ill for three years. Her death came as a massive kick in the nuts. I failed my A levels – I’d had three As predicted, already been accepted into a bunch of universities. That kick-started a cycle of depression.”
It’s getting this side of his on-record personality across that Enlish has struggled with. When you’re a battle veteran, a fixture at every live hip-hop show and an inveterate party animal, getting people to pay attention to other parts of your personality can be tough. “It’s very difficult to be honest,” he says. “I’m Big Dave, not to be fucked with on the mic, etcetera. But I wanted to make something that could speak to other people in similar positions…There are no secrets on [Cold Lazarus]. Most of the music I’ve done to this point has been your basic comedy slash battle rap with funny punchlines, bragging, I fucked your mum, I’ll beat you up, I’m a better rapper than you, I smoke weed, blah, blah blah. That’s what I’m known for. But I wanted to make something with far more substance to it. Something that might be viewed as more worthwhile and relevant.”
So yes, Dave’s dark side is surprising the hell out of us – and seems even more ominous when the clouds begin to swell with rain overhead, the first drops pattering into his pint. But it would be wrong to paint Enlish as a moody, terminally depressed artiste. He’s quick to laugh, often hugely funny and doesn’t take himself too seriously. Hard to figure out, in other words. He’s done a surprisingly good job of stepping out of the shadow of his partner Stig Of The Dump – no mean feat, given the size of the shadow that the enormous Stig casts, both literally and metaphorically – and the future is looking a little bit brighter for him.
There’s one further surprise in store. For the photoshoot for this story, photographer Romain Kedochim set Enlish up on the Clapham Common basketball courts, on a similarly thundery afternoon. Enlish is a former county basketball player, and although he can’t play one-on-one (busted knee, he claims) he’s still good for a game of Horse.
And boy, can he shoot. His inside game might not be up to much, but he’s knocking down threes from all over the floor, one after the other. “Best sound in the world,” he exclaims as he hits nothing but net.
A final parting shot: “At the end of the day, regardless of how depressed I am, I know my quality of life is excellent. I’ve got a roof over my head, friends and family around me, and those are the most important things. I’m thankful for things I do have.”
You can fine more information and music from Enlish on Bandcamp