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Interview: Protoje at Overjam 2018

Interview: Protoje at Overjam 2018

Interview: Protoje at Overjam 2018

By on - Photos by Chance Nkosi Gomez - Comment

"When I read more I  write more"


Time has been a theme in the titles of all four Protoje albums. Each one has indicated a shift in Protoje’s musical relationship with time.

For his debut, The 7 Year Itch, produced by his cousin Don Corleon (then ruling “one-drop” reggae with his R&B-Pop kissed rhythms) the young Protoje wanted to be ‘of his time’. By follow up The 8 Year Affair, helmed by Don but with Protoje in thrall to the music of Sly and Robbie, he preferred going back in time.

As its name suggests, third album Ancient Future, supervised by Winta James, offered the best of both worlds: vintage samples convening with modern rap-reggae fusion. For his and Winta’s latest project, A Matter of Time, Protoje clearly wanted to be ahead of his time: building on Ancient Future to cement a reggae sound all of his own.

Angus Taylor met Protoje at Overjam festival in Slovenia just 2 weeks after A Matter Of Time was released. They spoke minutes before Protoje was about to go on stage and road test the new material for only its second appearance in Europe…

Protoje by Chance Nkosi Gomez

This is the second show of your European tour and the third of your world tour. How’s it coming together with the new songs?

It’s good. Last night was an hour set. This is our first 1 hour 15. So we’re going to try some new stuff tonight that I haven’t played yet. I’m looking forward to getting into that rhythm.

Before the release of A Matter Of Time you seemed quite conscious of how it would be received by purists. You mentioned a conversation you had with Rodigan about the single Bout Noon. So now the album is out and you’ve been getting critical and public reaction, how do you feel?

Awesome. It’s gratifying. People are loving it. People are feeling it. It’s been so positive that I haven’t really heard or had time to focus on any negative vibes. It’s been just overwhelmingly positive. I read some reviews. I miss you doing reviews because I can really trust your reviews but it’s been really positive man. People are just feeling the new sounds and are surprised about how some things sound. The youth are loving it which is the main thing. As time goes along I’ll get to run through Europe with it for a couple of months. So the true test of it will be December to see how it goes.

The youth are loving my album which is the main thing

You also talked before about Chronixx being brave in departing from traditional reggae rhythms with his Chronology album. Do you think he took the brunt of the flack so that you and Kabaka could come through with your records and the ride would be easier?

You know what? I think we both shared it. I think Ancient Future at the same time was a bit of the same. I think he took it further experimentally with his record than with mine. I think it’s a new age bro. It’s a new time. It’s 2018, it’s not 2008, and I think people are moving with the times. I think the whole world, even the reggae audience that here tonight, they’re on their internet hearing all types of music. I don’t think it’s as rigid as it used to be.

How important was making sure the album was unified? It really sounds like every track is meant to flow into, compliment or answer the other.

That’s Winta. It’s just “How important is Winta to be able to put them together?” I came up with the track listing. I think I had Like This at track three and he was like “You know maybe we could…” But in terms of the production he has an overall vision. While the songs are happening he’s saying “Alright this is how they’re tying together.” I think it makes for a really smooth listen. The smoothest listen I have had. It may be the length too but I think it’s so smooth that it just goes through and then it’s done.

Yeah, it’s a short album. That’s the one thing that’s old school about it - LP length. No skits.

45 minutes! So we don’t have to make two separate vinyls like for Ancient Future! Much cheaper too.

Your earliest work with Winta involved remaking old rhythms but on A Matter Of Time he’s used parts of old 60s tunes like Ernest Ranglin and Jackie Mittoo Jericho Skank and Skatalites Alipang but he’s building new rhythms around old ones.

Yeah, there are only two samples I think on the whole album. Which one is Jericho Skank?

Protoje by Chance Nkosi GomezThe title track. I didn’t even notice it when I listened at first.

(Sings melody) Oh yeah. The way he flipped that wasn’t that crazy? It was King Jammys that gave us the file. That’s why I said it was produced by King Jammys as well as Winta. But we wanted to move forward. Winta heard some criticism about him just knocking over rhythms and he was like “Alright, I’m going to show these people what I can do”. And he just went off.

The Alipang one wasn’t supposed to happen because he did a cut of that for [Alipanga by] Dre Island and Kiko Bun. I was pissed off at him when that song came out. I was like “How could you not give me that riddim?” He was like “Yo it’s gone, it’s done”. But I never gave up. It was two years of me hoping to get that beat. The guitar in that song - the label Warner took it out of Kiko’s version. Winta was pissed about it because he thought that the guitar was a key part. So when we did it over he was like “Yo I’m getting to play my guitar on it“. He just wanted to show how his depth as a producer and believe me he is going to continue to show his versatility.

I follow you on Spotify and I often see what you’re listening to. A lot of people who listen to hip-hop have a cut-off point “This is the good period – after that it’s bad” or they only listen to new stuff. You seem to listen to all hip-hop eras from start to finish?

Yeah. I love it and there is no finish. I just like to listen to everything so I get inspiration from lots of people - even just to hear what’s going on, what new sounds are coming out. And then obviously a lot of the time I like to go back to that era of 90s - 2000s which I really love. Everything that comes out I try to listen. So I listened to the Pusha T, it’s my favourite album this summer. I listened to the Cudi/Kanye and the Drake. I even tried to listen to some of the Lil Lil guys but it’s like “Hmmm it’s not for me”. But I’ll still hear it and I’ll be like “No that’s not for me”. I still try.

Winta wanted to show how his depth as a producer

In the lyrics to Flames featuring Chronixx you talk about Kartel and Alkaline getting the blame for societal problems. Have you been following the controversy about UK Drill in London where the police are taking down their videos from YouTube?

I am not too familiar with UK Drill as yet. But I saw the headlines. I hear that they’re posting their videos on Pornhub! I think it’s similar to some extent. I think that music has this huge influence over people. And I think we rely too much on direction from musicians whether it’s good or bad.

The point of what I was saying is “What about the teaching that we’re giving to our youth?” I have a child now and she’s going to face a lot of influences in many different ways from music, people at school, movies, politicians, whatever. I have to arm her and get her ready to face the world. I can’t say “Ban that music”. It will never be banning of anything. People always hear stuff. If you take it off radio they’re going to find themselves in the dancehall. So it’s going to multiply in the dancehall and go back on radio stronger. Like what happened to our music. They wouldn’t play it on the radio so the dancehall became the dancehall. Then it went international and found its way back onto all kinds of media. So my thing is to arm the youth with proper tools to be able to listen and decide what is right for them.

In Mind of a King you talk about your mother Lorna Bennett getting ripped off in the 70s during her music career. The band Now Generation who played on her hit Breakfast In Bed were seen as a very progressive reggae band at the time. Do you see yourself as part of that same tradition of pushing reggae music forward?

Definitely. I’d love to think so. I wish Geoffrey Chung was alive when I was coming into music. My mum always said that’s one wish she had for me - to meet him. She always thought that it would be such an influence on my career. So I hope that when people look back on what we were doing they can say “Wow these guys really moved the music forward”. It would be a very big honour for me to have that on my résumé.

No Guarantee also featuring Chronixx is about self-reliance. The Rasta messages in this album are not overt but they are there.

100%. I just think that’s where my mind is right now with my messaging. It’s just there without being preachy. Without being “Hey this is how you should live your life. This is who you need to praise and this is what you need to do”. It’s just in there spreading all around so if people listen they can hear the message and think, then it seeps into their minds without being too preachy.

Music has this huge influence over people

You released a remix of Sara Lugo’s Familiar Stranger featuring your old school friend Evaflow. In previous interviews you’ve said how much you wanted him to get his music out there more. How do you feel now this is happening?

He’s just a great human. He’s just a great guy. He is awesome. His humility is just so there. I’m really glad that this song is doing well for him. It’s getting some airplay. He got featured on Beats 1 by Ebro and I was so happy. He works so hard and he doesn’t rely on people being like “Oh Protoje is my friend - let me just do that“. He’s out there doing all the live shows and doing the most he can do. Sara Lugo - that’s one of the first songs I ever heard by her and I loved it. And I made that beat for myself and he wanted it so I gave it to him. I think it’s doing well and his rhyming is so awesome. To me he is one of the best lyricists in music. I can’t wait to see what he comes with next.

Tell me how he gave you the name Protoje.

We were talking and I told him I wanted a name to incorporate me. I wanted a name to incorporate my real name Oje. He thought about it for a couple of minutes and he said “Yo what about Protégé?” but he changed the spelling and I was like “Yo I love it “because I consider myself such a student as well. It was just a perfect name and he came up with it. He is brilliant with words like that.

I wish Geoffrey Chung was alive when I was coming into music

When we last spoke you were just about to go book shopping in Atlanta. Which books did you get and what have you been reading?

I got I Am Not Your Negro by James Baldwin. I’m still reading Sufferings Of Young Werther by Goethe, one of my favourite books. I have it with me. I’m reading a children’s book from my prep school as well called Young Warriors. I just remember loving it in school so I wanted to read it over. It’s about Maroons in Jamaica. I just got a Paulo Coelho box set. I can’t remember which one I’m going to read first because I haven’t started to read it yet but it’s in my bag.

Were you a big reader at school?

Early I was. And then I just got burnt out with it. But very early I was reading a lot. I think it’s so important. I think every time I read less I write less. Every time I read more I start to write more. So now that my album is done it’s all about intake. I’m reading a lot and just trying to get ideas.

Evaflow is one of the best lyricists in music

Thanks for doing this interview before your show. Many artists wouldn’t want me to come into their space before they perform. Are you someone that needs to meditate before a show or are you quite happy talking to people?

I’m on! Like I’m
ON before the show. When I used to be like “I have to be in my space and get my mind ready” I’d start to overthink. Then I’d get worked up about the show. But now I don’t overthink at all. I’m just here, I’m ready and prepared. I’m good to go and once my band goes on stage that’s when the ritual starts for me. When I hear them start I go to a different place. So I don’t necessarily need all this build up time to get ready. I’m ready. I’m ready to go right now.

Tags: Protoje

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