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hip hop pioneer Jehst takes part in a very special photo shoot and talks openly about his lengthy career so far.
words Ali Raymond / images Simon Crane
UK hip hop use to be a guilty pleasure. Something you wore with humble pride, warmly knowing it was niche genre worshipped by others in a select community. Influenced by the cultures’ early inception in New York’s golden mecca, hip hop infiltrated our shores and through pioneering homegrown artists and releases like Street Sounds UK Electro, in 1984 we finally made it ‘our own.’Jehst: High Plains Anthem
Now of course it dominates the charts in one form or another. The white British rapper is no longer an oddity, even if the sound and meaning of the culture might in many respects died a slow commercial death. But such was its sparse mainstream success in the early days, or as little as 5 years ago, your introduction of UK hip hop was mainly something you were recommended to. Passed on from friend to friend and willing stranger.
However, those difficult early days of battling-acceptance were innovative for hip hop in this country. Conscious of its stigma as America’s weaker, or foreign, cousin, the genre was forced to step up. Building stronger engaging content with detailed and abstract lyrics and infectious production, while reflecting an honest and emotional aspect of life this side of the pond.
Becoming one of most intelligent and misunderstood genres around, each of the last three decades have seen British pioneers adopt a responsibility for the art-form. One such pioneer is the man standing in front of me– William Shields, or to many, Jehst.
When he dropped his groundbreaking vinyl debut Premonitions EP twelve years ago and then his Return Of The Drifter three years later, he wouldn’t have been aware of the destiny that awaited him. Covered in dusty boombap production and featuring piecing lyricism and graphic storytelling of social and political instability, both releases and the darker follow up, Falling Down proclaimed him as one of the leading poets of our generation.
Now a UK hero, his worldwide following stretches from Austraila to Japan, Germany to America, and seeing his name on a flyer is guaranteed a sell out. In between the countless shows, production duties and working on new music, like his highly anticipated new album—The Dragon From An Ordinary Family and of course running his own label YNR, Jehst’s time is precious.
But the day after our exclusive photo shoot and adventures in Ashdown forest — the concept based on an eccentric Jester choosing to live a lonely existence hidden from the mainstream media—he finds the time to welcome me to his London home to discuss a illustrious career so far.Jehst: Adventures in New Bohemia
“Its an interesting time really for hip hop. I don’t want to say its better than its ever been, but its as good as its ever been”.
Jehst affirms, sticking the kettle on and opening our conversation with thoughts of hip hop’s future.
“As the music industry changes and technology changes the next generation of people will come to prominence through different means.”
“Remember a lot of people don’t just listen to one genre of music and especially with today’s generation. So I think right now its kind of easy for people to say ‘ah its not a good time’, Nas came out with Hip Hop Is Dead. But whatever! There is so much going on right now and there is an international network which never existed before.”
Kent born, Huddlesfield lived and now London native, Jehst’s musical discography includes a string of mixtapes, compilation projects like Underworld Epics, along with works with leading producers like Ghost, Harry Love and Lewis Parker —check the cult It’s All Happening Now, and joints with fellow rappers Asaviour, Verb T and Braintax to name a all but a few. This huge list of achievements has meant he has stayed consistent and prominent in making some of the most exciting hip hop to date.
But over the years he has battled with many aspect of the culture, as he continues to explain.
“I do struggle with it, and there are times when I think it is too far gone to be of any substance for people or for it to give people any clear direction.
“There is no counter cultural voice in modern day pop music. In rap especially, people are so into repeating clichés and there is so much that still hasn’t been addressed or said. The other day I was listening to De La Soul and like I was saying with Melly Mel, the breadth of content in song writing has been alien to rap for so many years now. We really lost the momentum from that point when people were making next level art pieces.”
Jehst’s music has always been socially aware, made of honest experiences and opinionated observations. Through his career early fans have joined his adventures from university digs to unemployment, to touring and discovering new homes, to getting drunk and falling in love —all through an abstract viewing perspective.Jehst: Starting Over
His current work, The Dragon From An Ordinary Family, is no different. Nettled within the head knodders and stories of love, further stories of today’s everyday difficulties hint at that continual struggle of a liberal, independent story teller.
One of those difficulties has often been financial. Such is the plight of many independent artists, but having rejected several offers from major labels at the height of his career, his integrity, he felt, was never for sale. It is a principle, he feels is missing from many artists who have since walked in his shadow.
“I do wonder where the artistic integrity has gone. Artists being comfortable with being themselves and aspiring to be different in style to what the next man is doing. There is a lot more of an agenda of fitting in. The idea that fitting in is what is going to make you successful.”
And a lack of responsibility perhaps?
“I do feel responsible too. That’s important to me.”
“If you’re in a position of being an inspirational figure what are you really about? I think people have no sense of responsibility within hip hop anymore too.”
“Its important to remember that hip hop did have an impact on social mobility —an opportunity for people to express themselves and make something out of nothing. At a certain point it turned into business and now its big business. You have to feed back into the essence of what it was, because of the impact it had and still has on a huge demographic of people. You have that responsibility.”
“In reality people have completely forgotten about that.”Jehst: Last lines of Defence
“Its about that collective mentality and sense of responsibility and realising that ‘wow I’m actually contributing to this’. If it just becomes about the individual then its not hip hop. Hip hop is community based, and once it loses that its vacuous””
Our conversation delves deeper into current politics like the recent London riots, and of course the struggles with his former label, the cult Low Life Records.
During the start of the new millennium, Low Life Records represented the pulsating heart of the scene. That relationship with label owner Braintax was a dark period for both Jehst and UK hip hop, as Braintx having signed many of the leading rappers decided without warning to close up shop and escape to Australia. Leaving many owed money and picking up from broken contracts and promises.
You can listen back to what Jehst has to say about that period in my extended interview coming soon on Beatnik.
But in the meantime as my tea turns cold and our conversation draws to a close I finish with some final thoughts. At 32 and as he looks to his next birthday does Jehst still see himself revlevent, and subsequently want to be relevant in hip hop today?
“Yes and yes.” He says in a reassuring tone.
“Is Russell Simons still relevant in hip hop? Is Jay Z? Is Westword? The music isn’t getting any younger and neither is the generation that grew up with it.”
“For a long long time I’ve seen it like rock and roll. I think that is what hip hop is now, entrenched in pop culture.”
“If I stop loving it I shouldn’t be making it. And if that happens I’ll have to deal with it. But I’ve always seen it as a culture rather than a genre of music so there is so much more to explore. I don’t feel confined by the genre at all – especially as it’s being more and more one dimensional.
“Remember we make hip hop, it doesn’t make me.”Jehst: Holy Water
YNR Productions website