In Conversation With Visionobi

On a personal level- this interview is very special to me. Visionobi has been a close friend of mine since we shared the same university town of Southampton. Part of a local collective of drum and bass creatives which included GEST, Raygun and Lilac, we climbed through the ranks of our d&b careers together and I have seen first hand the relentless work and unwavering dedication Visionobi has put into his career as an MC. Being able to interview him about the release of his debut album is something that fills me with pride. 

It’s been a month since Visionobi’s debut album ‘Weather The Storm’ came out, but for him the journey to this release has been 25 years long. After falling for garage and d&b Visionobi first picked up his pen at the tender age of 13.  Years of spitting his signature conscious bars on the local circuit gained Visionobi favour with drum and bass’s elite until he became Wilkinson’s tour MC which helped to push his name worldwide. These days you’ll see his name on the deepest and darkest of  line-ups. 

In the days where you can blow up in the bass music industry overnight through social media, or sculpt an artist persona through heavily edited interviews and pre-approved promotions, Visionobi’s honesty and authenticity, are a refreshing reminder of the scene’s foundations. We have a frank chat about how he staked up his album tracks, the perception of MCs and of course his recent album on Soulvent Records- Weather The Storm. 

Congratulations on your first album coming out. How’s it going?

I’ve got a few things in store, it’s easier now it’s out there as a whole package. The album is designed as a listening piece and I’m really hoping people listen to the whole thing in the order that  it’s been imagined, people will understand it more like that rather than through the singles campaign. 

It’s quite hard to get people to consume an album as a whole nowadays with the single downloads and streaming. How are you planning to get people to listen to the piece as a whole? 

It’s enormously hard, but I’m gonna post about the way that I think it should be heard. I’m a bit old school and I like listening to the album format. That’s the reason that I wanted to create an album and make it a listening piece. We really thought about the order of the tracks to take people on a journey and incorporate many different styles of drum and bass into it. I’m definitely gonna be flying the album flag and hoping that some people listen to it front to back and then let me know if I achieved the journey piece that I was hoping to create.

Sounds great, we’re going to talk about the album more later, but first I want to take you back to the very beginning and find out how you got into drum and bass. Where did you hear it first? 

I don’t really remember specific tunes, but what I do remember is the tape pack era and that for me, was something magical. I remember hearing drum and bass on one of the first days at secondary school and it was like ‘what is that?’.  I had a Walkman, so I borrowed a tape and was like, ‘this music sounds sick’. I was so invested because I’d never heard anything so different before. I was in that teenage rebellious stage, where you want something with some edge to it, something that has soul, something to really connect with. And It was fast, my mind works quite fast, so there was that connection there, I feel like that’s quite symbiotic in a way.

I remember listening to tape packs and collecting tape packs. At the time It was all about who had the best Randall tape. I’d sit there with my mates on the bus to and from school with a new Randall tape and that was that was it. It’s mad to think that I’ve hosted him numerous times. I still pinch myself about it. 

It was definitely tape packs that sparked the fire,  I can’t remember a specific tape. I  can remember a specific CD, which was Roni Size & Reprazent ‘New Forms.’ It was the first CD I ever bought. That was a massive influence on me as well.

And how did you get into MCing?

When I was thirteen messing around with decks, I would go to my mates, we’d have a mix, we formed this little crew. I was about 13 years old and my mate was a better DJ than me. I always loved rap and garage, I was super into Heartless Crew and I’d obviously listened to a few of the MC’s in drum and bass as well. I thought “I’m gonna give this a go”  and I just started to scribe. I was scribing other people’s lyrics but in order to understand what they were saying and rehearsing their bars. I was about 13 when I started writing my own bars, they were obviously awful. 

Did you start writing garage bars?

I was writing both, we used to play garage and d&b. I was experimenting with flows and words,  the wordplay was probably better than the actual content but I was learning about rhythm in the early days, practising in order to try and get better. Then I was introduced to Skiba, Shabba, Hyper D and that was it, I knew this was the way I was going, it’s what I wanted to do.

I’m glad you mentioned lyrical content, you’re known for writing conscious lyrics, and you put a lot of thought into what you want listeners to take away from your bars. How important is that to you as an MC,  do you ever write something that’s really catchy but the lyrics are just a load of rhyming rubbish? 

I’m my own worst enemy at times, actually I really struggle with this. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. Sometimes you’ll see someone come in with a catchy hook and the tune just blows up, but I struggle to write that way. So it can be quite disheartening when I spend hours on four lines trying to make it as complex as possible and trying to be really clever with it. 

My style is similar to a hip-hop style of writing and in drum and bass I feel like it gets lost, especially the dance. That’s why Hospitality at Printworks was so good because I could hear myself perfectly and the crowd could hear the lyrics too. I could see them, engaging with what I was saying. So often that is lost in a rave. It makes me question if I need to write more catchy ‘weather the storm’ type hooks, in order to be heard in a rave.  It’s a real conflict because I don’t want to do that, I want to hammer my message home and be accepted and respected for what I do. I’m gradually building on my foundation. Sometimes my message manages to get through to certain people who find it really relatable, they’ll talk to me about the deepness, the hidden meanings and the complexity of my bars, which is really f***ing cool. There’s also a bunch of people who probably think “this guy is chatting a load of nonsense, I just want to hear some fun s***.” It’s trying to balance that I suppose.

I don’t think I’ve got the balance quite right yet,  maybe the album is a way of me being able to tell my story in the way that I wanted to tell it, with a few catchy hooks here and there. Hopefully I’ve managed to convey the message that I wanted whilst staying true to myself and maintaining my integrity. For me that’s what it means to be an MC or rapper.

It’s quite interesting. You’ve used less hooks on the album, as it’s a vessel to get your message out undisturbed by the dance, people can stream it, really hear it and absorb it as opposed to in the rave when you’ve got to react to the live crowd and give them the energy…

Exactly that, It’s been an outlet for me to be able to put my story out there, put my words and message down and then leave it in the ether. Some of the live PAs have been interesting because I can see some people pick up on the content,  but at the same time I am very aware that some people need the catchy bars.

I don’t really care about making catchy music. I didn’t come here to make money. I didn’t come here to get views. I want to express my deepest darkest feelings and reach out to people who are struggling and who can relate to what I’m talking about. I’d rather have one person who’s messaging me say “that tune helped me through a really hard hard time” rather than have a million Spotify streams of a tune that’s super catchy and fun but that’s not saying anything. Those messages mean so much to me.

There’s a need for catchy music because obviously people need to be able to release and have fun, and that music allows them to do that. So I suppose I tried to create a  mix of both for this album. There’s little bits of catchiness, but  for the majority of it I just wanted to leng bars. I’ll leng bars till the day I retire, it’s just what I came to do.

The album’s been on the cards for a long time. How did this actually come into light? How did you hook up with Soulvent?

I’ve got this hashtag that I’ve been using, ‘25 years in the making’ because it’s exactly 25 years since I  first picked up a pen. I think it is quite fitting it shows how long I’ve been working, how much I care about it, and how much work and effort I’ve put into it. This is really the culmination of my entire journey through music in an album. There’s a tune on there that’s eight years old. 

When I first started this journey I didn’t have anyone backing me. So I was reaching out to producers and  I  told them I was doing an album. I was I’m doing an album but I wasn’t doing an album immediately. I was getting an album folder together and because I’ve been around in the industry for a fair amount of time there were enough people that respected me to make me a tune so I’d get a tune and I’d archive it for later. So I was building a stack of tunes of my own accord because I knew it was something that I needed to do in my musical journey. It wasn’t a question of if, it was a question of when.

I just had to make it happen, so I carried on building these tunes and when I had about eight tracks I started to send them to a couple of different labels. First I sent it to labels that I was affiliated with more at the time, maybe it didn’t fit because I’m not here making new school jungle music, or the deeper stuff, the album’s too much of a mix on it to be pigeon-holed into a certain style. They could have been too busy or maybe they just didn’t want to back it in all honesty.  There were three label’s I sent it to in the next round and Soulvent was one of them. Joe, Jack and Liam’s reaction was what sold it to me and I instantly stopped sending it to anyone else.

Joe in particular has worked his ass off through this whole process. They’ve backed me from day dot. They believed in what I was doing which, when you’re getting knocked backs from people you’re more affiliated with, is affirming. I’ve never been able to express to them how much that meant to me at that time. I was having a real panic, thinking, “What I’m gonna do about all this music. I’m telling people I’m doing an album and now I don’t have a home for the album.”  And then these guys backed me and believed in it. The passion I saw from them made releasing with them an easy decision. It worked out really well because I wanted someone who would to put the time in and who believed in what I was doing. 

You mentioned the journey of the album, talk to us about that…

The different vibes of the tracks are all pretty much based around my own struggles through life with mental health. I would say the majority of the album is about that and then there are a couple of fun ones in there “I’m a better MC than you” vibes. ‘The Truth’ is me having fun and I think it’s gonna be the one that will do best in the long run, because it’s just raw and has way more fun rap-battle, gunman bars. Basically me claiming to be the best MC, just like every MC does. 

The rest of it, I’d say, is a journey of emotions, talking about how there’s more to life than what we deal with. I’m exploring existence, there’s some astrology and philosophy mixed in there, all the usual stuff in an ordered journey through emotions. 

So you’re not a producer, can you tell us about how some of the album collaborations came about?

There’s one particularly interesting story, the track that I mentioned was eight years old. The track includes a bar you would have heard numerous times in raves. I’ve been using it a fair amount on liquid tracks since the Southampton days, honestly the lyrics are that old, but it’s very, very special to me. I held it for years because I needed to find the perfect track for it. I ended up on a gig with Etherwood in Sheffield, and we went back to the hotel room after for a little drink, we were catching jokes, and I told him “I’ve got this really special bar of mine, this lyric that means a lot to me and I think it’d be perfect for your production. I’d love for you to hear it and do something with it.” He was quite touched with the fact that I wanted to give it to him and our friendship spawned from that moment. He came back with a first draft and that’s where it sat there for ages. I can’t remember exactly when the first version was, but we were looking back at emails which were dated 2015. Obviously we’ve evolved it since then but that was the first track I made that I thought “this needs this to be on my album” and I parked it in my album folder.  

That’s a good example of a different way of doing things, but more often  than not, I’d hit up a producer and ask them to send me a tune. I quite like to write in my own space, I have worked in studios with producers before but I’m not particularly quick, I’m not claiming to be the most naturally talented rapper. I need to get to my own little weird headspace and write deep, intricate weird s*** and then evolve it and edit it, a lot. Maybe that’s overthinking it a little bit too much, but that’s how I work my style before eventually recording at my home studio, or the Hospital studio. Because Soulvent is now part of Hospital Records, access to their awesome studio was an absolute asset towards the end of the project.

As you said, Soulvent and part of Hospital Records, who are obviously huge, how does it feel to be affiliated with such a big brand? 

I respect the brand and I do feel very privileged to be part of the family and very lucky. I’ve always felt lucky along this journey. To be involved in this music and to be able to get to do what I want to do, playing different countries and getting paid to do something I love is a privilege. I will never ever take that for granted and Hospital are now facilitating that. Making that dream more possible for me than ever before. Soulvent’s focus is to elevate me as an artist in my own right, which is something that I’ve haven’t really had before. 

I’m doing these DJ/Mc album showcase sets now and I feel like this journey wouldn’t have happened without those building blocks in place. At a lot of other labels as an MC, you’re just an MC, maybe it’s just this point in time where MCs are seen more as recording artists. 

It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, I feel very lucky that I’m getting to do it and that they do allow me enough freedom. And that they really push me as an artist in my own right which is invaluable in this game. MC’s are a very under appreciated entity in D&B- that’s not just  me saying that, there’s a lot of MC’s that will say the same thing. So being pushed as a vocalist as well as an MC is  a massive plus. 

That leads me actually very nicely into one of my final questions. I want to talk to you about MC-led releases and the evolution of the perception of MC. Outside of the jungle and jump up, MC’s haven’t always been seen in the best light, however if you head into a rave with no MC, it’s dead. However we’re seeing a shift with MCs being placed higher on line-ups and more vocalists releasing albums…

This conversation is obviously very close to my heart and I find it super interesting because I grew up wanting to go to raves because I wanted to hear the MC,  my main focus was to hear the MC or like Brockie and Det and the collaboration between them. Back then MC culture was something that was held in such high regard, and it still is on the  jump up side of the industry, I think a lot of MCs over in the deeper space, will tell you they’re very envious of what the jump up MCs  have because there’s people that are there to listen to them and, they really care about the MC and have helped grow and nurture that culture. 

MCing is  a focal point of one half of our industry so it becomes very confusing as an MC, who then led himself  down a different path. I got into different styles of drum and bass, I wanted to be more conscious and I wanted to do more half-time rap and mix it up with bits of double time here. Then all of a sudden on the music that I like, I’m now an unappreciated entity, it was really hard to compute why it’s such a hated part of our scene. There’s obviously MC fans out there for sure but it’s just two completely different cultures. Within the jump up the MCs are part of the set, we’re seen as hosts. 

I hate the term host.  I didn’t come here to host a rave, I came here to leng bars. But you get coined a host and it’s like you’re just there for the DJ. That narrative is slowly fading away, with more recording artists coming in, but I still think in the more liquid side of the industry it’s still less acceptable for me to turn up and do what I want to do on a set, then it would be for me to reel myself in and say less and just let the DJ take take centre stage. I find it hard to understand why, because I’m such an MC fan, I want to hear Sense and Codebreaker leng a dance. I want to hear SP. I want to hear DRS. I want to hear Fokus.

When we talk about the evolution of the vocalist-led tracks, we know people want to sing along, they want catchy tracks. But are they actually listening to me laying a 64 bar verse? Probably not, maybe it has changed a bit, people have got  back to me to say that they’ve listened to the album. But in a live environment it’s difficult because you fade away if that sound isn’t perfect, or by the time you get to bar 48, your voice is trailing off because your breathing is not quite as good. In the dance most people are spitting 32s max. 

It’d be interesting to see where we are in five or ten years time because we’re going through a phase of being more accepting of MCs, but mostly from a position of a vocalist. Not so much as it was back in the day or in  jump up where people recognise bars because they’ve heard it in a rave rather than on a tune. I know there are people that do know some of my bars, but the quantity of people that are paying attention to the lyrical content in the deeper realms of drum and bass is smaller. From a selfish perspective and from an MC fan perspective it makes me sad. 

Do you think it’s to do with the fact that in jump up bars are slightly more simplistic, not necessarily in wordplay, but just catchier and easier to remember so they’re easier to hear? If you’re at a rave and you’re half cut, and then someone spits 64 bars, it’s hard to concentrate and pick up what they’re saying. Longer, more conscious bars are easier to digest while listening to an album… 

That’s a really, really good point. It is so true. Attention span is such a tough thing at the moment in general with social media stuff. I also think there is less space in the deeper drum and bass music than there is jump up. So you can have Harry Shotta putting in more words than anyone, going double time harder than anyone with some real complex sick shit. And he can be heard because there’s more space in that jump up tune. It’s an adaptation of just getting better as an MC to know “I’m not gonna cut through that tune”, and then the next track will come on and it’s a roller and all of a sudden you’ve got space and that 64 sounds crisp.

The medium of a studio mix is where I’m at my best and where I think people appreciate me most because they’re listening at home, not wasted. And it’s more of a journey for a mix of them. The feedback we’ve had off the two mixes I’ve done with GLXY has been incredible. I always get people hitting me up about mixes online because they can hear what I’m saying. 

Talk to us about your album launch party, you haven’t had it yet?

Yes, so the launch party is at Colour Factory in Hackney Wick. We’re doing it in the outdoor space as a day party, it’s running from two until nine pm on June 3. We have a bunch of special guests, it’s an album showcase featuring some of the vocalists from the album. I’ve got Etherwood coming to play this intimate show because he’s just a lovely human being and then we’ve got Lally and Siege coming down as well. It’s a Soulvent party but they’re hosting my album launch too. 

I wanted people to have had time to connect with the album to absorb it before the party. It’s gonna be the first time that I’m doing my album showcase which is me DJing and MCing at the same time. I’ve been practising down at Pirate and around people’s houses. 

I wanted to do something different and I looked at what Degs was doing and I really liked it. And in all honesty part of it is I  want to make some real money. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I can’t do it full time. Like it’s mad that you put your heart and soul into something and it’s not possible to make a full time wage out of it. I’m getting better fees than I’ve ever got, I’m not gonna pretend it’s easy. It’s pretty intense trying to keep on top of mixing across three decks jumping in and out of live pa’s and then, laying in a bar and then pressing play halfway through a bar, putting the mic back on a stand, taking the mic off. It’s gonna be a bit mad, and it might be a bit hectic, but I’m hoping people will say  f****** hell, how is he even able to do that? 

Follow Visionobi: Spotify/Soundcloud/Instagram