We Need To Talk About Strategy

Over 15 years neck deep in the dance as an MC, Manchester’s Strategy flips the coin this week with his debut producer EP on Exit: Lanterns.

Five tracks of heavy halftime hurt, without so much as a sniff of his distinctive forked-tongue bars, Lanterns isn’t so much of a step up but rather a whole new playing field. Stepping away from the mic mastery he’s been respected and loved for – be it his barbed social truths alongside DRS and Konny Kon as Broke N English or his devilish double time and wry camaraderie alongside Dub Phizix – this is Strategy articulating an entirely different side to his musical psyche.

Sonically it puts him in the same field as fellow Exit artists and friends such as Skeptical and the bossman dBridge, but also technically and ethically the release reveals sides to Strategy few of us knew existed. Sides he didn’t know existed until a few years ago. Everything from the Lanterns video, which he edited and produced himself, to the fact it’s taken him years of deep studio science to arrive at this point is a whole new side to Strategy… A side we’re about to enjoy a hell of a lot more in the future.

Before we find out where he’s going, we need to know how and why he got here. 15 years neck deep in the dance, there’s a lot to catch up on…

I hate the term ‘fans’. You ain’t got fans mate, you’ve got people who appreciate your music and you’re fucking lucky for that!

Lanterns is a pivotal release for you isn’t it?

Yeah I’ve been making beats for years but sonically this has been a big step up. I’ve put work into that side of things and had to push myself to try to get that right but it’s not been easy. I haven’t got the attention span to be honest! I’ve always listened to a wide range of music. My heritage is Irish-Jamaican so I’ve been brought up on all sorts of sounds and if I don’t feel I’m reaching a certain level I’m not happy. I try not to beat myself up over it but it is torture when you don’t reach what you have in your head.

It doesn’t help when you’re mates with frequency wizards like dBridge and Dub Phizix!

Exactly. Dub Phizix is a flipping scientist in the best sense of the word cos he’s got the soul, too. He knows frequencies. He doesn’t produce, he moves air. I’ve learnt a lot through him, hes a wizard with any sort of technology. I look at what he does as well as Skeptical, Chimpo and all them as something to aspire to.

These must be the people you send your stuff to first?

Not always. I became a dad few years ago and wanted to step up creatively and push myself a lot more because i was pretty stagnant at the time. The first guy I shouted was dBridge who helped me get some equipment. I knew if I was going to get music out I wanted it to be on Exit. So Darren was the only person I sent stuff to for almost three years. Lanterns was the first tune he said was ‘alright’. So I formed an EP around that.

Darren is a big appreciator of Japanese culture. Was that the inspiration for the Japanese theme with the video and artwork?

No not really. I’ve just been to some incredible places all over the world on tour but I’ve never really used the opportunity to do anything creative in all the countries we travel to. When Darren picked Lanterns and we talked about the EP I thought I’d push it further and make a video and send it to him off my own back. I didn’t even mention it to him. I linked up with a camera guy – Cota Ono – who was a legend and took us to so many sick places and gave us a lot of amazing footage. I could have made four videos out of what we came back with.

You’ve been on a trip with videos. I know Dub Phizix has, too. Since Buffalo, right?

Since Marka mate! Not a lot of people know we made that video. We filmed it at my mum’s house and set a bin on fire outside her front door. My sister did the make-up. It was funny; I had all the make-up on and my dad, who’s a proper Salford guy, popped his head out and saw me and just said ‘you knobhead’ and then disappeared again.

I remember thinking ‘fuck sake!’ But it came out alright. And yeah with Buffalo we had the tune, we knew we needed some buffalos to film so we found a guy who had a buffalo farm in north Wales. We went there, filmed them, I edited the footage and George learnt how to make them talk. Pretty proud of them both. Presentation is important for me; whether it’s a party, a song or a release, content is important but its all in the presentation really to get people onto it in the first place.

Even more important now because of the sheer oceans of music that flow at us…

I think so. I’ve  been doing a lot of DJ sets lately so I spend time online trying to find new music. On Soundcloud you can get lost in these wormholes where you find people who you’ve never heard of who never play out or travel who are getting hundreds of thousands of plays. It’s mad. I feel like having a video, for me, is a way to present my music to people and get it out there for those that can’t be arsed scrolling through tunes for hours. Ultimately, I want my music to be listened to and not get missed through the cracks.

So this has been bubbling for years. You did the Broke N English beats, right? Which ones did you do?

It’s been so long since we did that. I’d say the album Subject To Status was a lot of mine as well as parts of the Terms and Conditions mixtapes. Chimpo and DRS did some beats and a lot of that album was recorded in my front room. Looking back I don’t think I EQ’d anything and it was all samples. It was rough as fuck mate and how well we did was mad. We played Glastonbury and toured the world from it. But I think a lot of people warmed to that roughness. Hip-hop was different then. I just saw a conversation online today where people were asking what’s more important – beats or lyrics. People were saying the beats were more important because you can sing or rap anything now over good beats and it will sell. I dunno if that was the case before.

That must make you sad as a writer who appreciates good bars?

Coming from a hip-hop background? Yes. When you’re going to a concert, you’re going to a show and it’s everything. That was what I noticed when I first went to raves, the style of MC was more of a energy thing. In a lot of cases lyrics aren’t the focus, people are off their faces and that wasn’t important to them. They were more focussed on hype-ness or even how fast someone could spit even if they weren’t saying anything. Let’s be honest there’s been a lot of shit MCs in the rave world who are secondary to the music. They can get by over a set. But then get them to spit a 16 outside afterwards and it’s a bit mad. I think there’s a new generation that can do both though definitely. Everyone can exist though. I’m not trying to be a hater. It’s not good for my wellbeing or health. It’s toxic to get stuck on that loop and I’ve consciously tried to move away from comparing what I do to everyone else.

Comparing is one of humankind’s worst traits

It’s mad innit! But then in production you have to do it. When you’re learning to EQ and produce you always reference and A&B. But comparing yourself in terms of how you’re perceived is only ever going to send you mental.

And then there’s also ambition and inspiration too. Seeing peers do something and aspiring to be there too…

It’s a fine line. That’s the torture. If I’m being honest it is that constant worry of how I’m being perceived and what people will think of what you’ve put your heart in to. It is fundamental human shit and it kills me man. I’ve had loads of music I could have put out but I’ve held back because I alone feel it’s not good enough. DRS once told me ‘even at your worst your never going to be shit, there’ll always be someone out there who likes it and gets it’ I remember him saying it to George too. It’s about the journey. But even now with the Lanterns EP, I know that the next stuff smashes that to bits so Lanterns is old to me now but I need that to progress and force myself to finish tunes. That’s why there’s no vocals on this EP, because I wanted to judged off the production alone. The next EP will be a different case but that’s a whole other set of challenges.

But if anyone can make beats for you, it’s you, right? You know yourself best as an MC. Or are you too close to the subject matter?

Too close. But that’s the thing; doing anything creative you need to be able to zoom into something in microscopic detail but then also have the ability to step back and look at something like you’ve never seen it before. It’s mental. To have that ability to listen to yourself subjectively is impossible. I find it hard to take that step back and enjoy the moment for what it is.

I know I keep coming back to Marka but that was a massive turning point to me. It was something I’d never done before, I was branching out and it had such an impact. It took me out of that cloud of ‘this is it’ Why had I narrowed myself down into such a tight musical corner?

Maybe you do in your DJ sets when you see reactions to your tunes?

That’s beginning to happen a little. Seeing dBridge drop Lanterns a couple years ago was a big thing for me. It was at Le Bikini, Toulouse and the last tune of his set. No one knew it was my tune. It was just there to be enjoyed and people reacted well to it. That was definitely a moment to step back and enjoy. I got to see my music going down almost from the eye of a punter.

Big up dBridge! He knew what he was doing there.

Definitely. He did it with Marka, too. He played it on this stream and no one knew who it was or what it was and people went mad for it. That’s the truest form of hype. In perspective it’s hard to see why it’s so important when you’ve got kids and there’s wars going on around the world. But that moment was a huge moment in my life that stuck with me.

Give me more of those moments…

The first time I got on stage and rapped was mad. There was night at Sankeys Soaps in Manchester with an open mic section at the end. Not even my mates knew I’d been trying to rap or anything and I just jumped on at the end. My mates were looking at me like ‘what are you doing?’ I can’t remember what I rapped, I didn’t even look at the crowd but when I gave the mic back I heard this noise and I’ll never forget it. The crowd make a certain sound when things go off. It’s a sound, it’s an energy, it’s mad. I’ve heard it all across the world.

Is it universal or does it sound different around the world?

There’s definitely differences but the energy is universal. It’s hype mate. Another mad memory was supporting acts like Mobb Deep and Wu Tang. We went through the phase of supporting a lot of US hip-hop acts. The Mobb Deep one was the maddest night. Everyone was out. It was chaos. Some support slots you feel like people are waiting for you to finish but that one we felt like we were part of the show and connected with the crowd.

One of my favourite ways you connect with the crowd is when you get everyone to turn and hug the person next to them. I’ve made some proper mates from that. People I wouldn’t have met otherwise!

That’s sick mate. I love hearing shit like that. Thing is, before all this we were proper moody guys. If it wasn’t hip-hop, it was shit. I’d turn up to places and be scowling. I’d come, do my shit, fuck off. But you get older, you see things and you realise that ain’t the way. I know I keep coming back to Marka but that was a massive turning point to me. It was something I’d never done before, I was branching out and it had such an impact. It took me out of that cloud of ‘this is it’ Why had I narrowed myself down into such a tight musical corner?

Marka changed a lot of things didn’t it?

For me it changed everything. Especially my mindset. I’d go round with a black cloud over my head but it wasn’t healthy. I remember my friend Raya saying ‘I love the new Strats’ haha. Giving people encouragement, being positive and being nice goes a long way and so does the opposite. But yeah that thing I do on stage doesn’t always work, especially in other countries, but when it does work yeah… You can make new mates.

It’s mad, I’m from Salford, mate. The first places I went to go out were pubs full of fighting and screwing with each other and Manchester raves were some of the moodiest on earth. When I first started going out it was MAD. But nowadays it’s different; people are going out for the music. There may or may not be drugs involved but people know their stuff and aren’t just going to venues or nights for the sake of it. There’s a huge community, it’s international and most people are on a real level. I’d like to use that platform for something bigger and bring people together for something good.

Sounds like you’ve already got a plan, maybe?

Yeah I’ve got a lot of plans and ideas and energy for that and for everything else I want to do. I’m feeling like I’m more on the ball and focused than I have been for ages. Maybe ever. I’ve actually got another video I made for Put God First. I wanted to do this video that brushes across creation and destruction and had this idea about macro visuals to found these guys called Team Candiru in Bristol, they film all kinds of wildlife and have done stuff for the BBC. So we’ve done this video and it’s sick.

Put God First is pretty political… You’re a political man, aren’t you?

I am in terms of what I know is right and wrong. I know what’s inclusive and I know what expels people from situations. Most people do and you dont have to align yourself to any party or religion to have that. It does my head in when people say ‘you’re a musician don’t bring politics into this!’ But if music has been used to do anything, it’s bring change and develop ideas. I know a lot of musicians who’ve got views on all sorts of issues, but they won’t speak on it.

In case they lose fans

Yeah. And I have to say I hate the term ‘fans’. You ain’t got fans mate, you’ve got people who appreciate your music and you’re fucking lucky for that! But yeah, we’re all guilty of worrying we lose their attention if we say something political.

You worry about it personally?

Of course. But I also don’t think social media is always the place to make these statements. I could tweet ‘fuck the government! Get out of Syria!’ but what good is that going to do anyway? I want to provide some actions, not just hot air. Everyone is talking. No one is doing. So the idea I mentioned was about that. I want to bring people together. There’s some people out there who don’t want to see Syria being bombed. There are others who do. A majority of people feel absolutely powerless about having a say either way but one thing everyone can agree on is that there are a lot of displaced Syrians out there so can we not focus or try to do something, however little, about that instead of arguing online about who’s right or wrong. We all know that’s how the media and the governments win, by getting everyone arguing amongst themselves and taking their eyes off the real issues. I feel like our ‘bass music’ community is expansive enough to have a real impact on these sorts of issues and we aren’t doing enough to utilise that.

We can all agree on this whatever side of the argument you’re on

This is the thing. Everyone is arguing but these people are still not being helped. We’re all getting caught up in making sure we’re representing ourselves well online and not losing our ‘fans’. So before I say anything online I want to help these people in a way that doesn’t alienate anyone. Its hard. People are doing so much fucked up shit around the world and you’re not going to change that with a social media post. Especially because the minute you say one thing, no matter how good the message is, someone will try and break it down. People can’t wait to tell you you’re wrong or that your stuff is shit. They think they’re going to change the world with a YouTube comment.

That’s when you put the best ones on a blog

Haha! That’s one of the best things we’ve ever done. Reading comments about your work can drive you nuts but when you make a collection of the most negative ones its fucking hilarious. We made some stickers that said Dub Phizix & Strategy Are Cunts to promote the blog and it upset a lot of people. Probably the ones that had comments on there. People want to show they know more about the subject matter more than anyone else. Like when I put Lanterns up online, someone guy came up and said ‘you took your time putting this out’. So he clearly likes the tune and has waited it to come out for a bit. But instead of saying ‘wicked, I’ve been looking forward to this’ he’s turned it into some weird know-it-all hate. That represents what’s going on in our world online. People want you to know how much they know.

That’s the easy route to make a momentary ripple. You only make waves when you go and learn the graft, spend years of really defining your craft and sound. Just as you’ve done with the Lanterns EP. The real way.

It’s definitely easy to fall into the negative guy mindset. But the challenge is finding balance of aspiring to be better and wanting to improve yourself without killing yourself in the process. Be better, take it to new levels, push myself and hopefully it all goes back into what I do with Dub Phizix because if we are honest we haven’t done as much as we could have but we are both pushing each other to do more. That’s the plan anyway.

Photo courtesy of Rob Smith

Strategy – Lanterns EP is out April 27 on Exit Records

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