An ode to my debut mixtape - out now!
I have oficially released my debut mixtape. In an age where consumers and music fans are spoilt for choice, rather than just a flippant, "Go listen to my product" command, I wanted to tell you why this release is so important to me and why I honestly believe it is worth your time. In order to do so, strap yourself in (all the way in) cos I need to tell you a story. No, seriously, put the kettle on or save and read when you're sitting down...
*Cue Goodfellas opening theme* For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to create. From an early age I was drawn to storytelling, which led to discovering comics. In my adolescence I discovered hip-hop and I made up my mind: “When I grow up, I want to rap.” However, I was often told for a long time that I had no business in harbouring this ambition: by friends, family, bullies and teachers. Everybody had designs for what my future held in store for me. My friends had no idea about their future, so their disbelief in my aspirations was merely a reflex. It was the same with bullies, but more sinister, a reflex to drag down anybody, who dared to shine, into the darkness. My family’s naysaying came from a pure place, and a caring place, but a misguided one, it was built in fear that I needed to secure a future with a solid paying job and a secure career. Again, it was the same with teachers, who cultivated a pressure that my only future was a safe one. But nothing could silence the truth in my heart and the fire in my eyes.
So I rapped. But I also did what was expected of me. I went to uni. Got a career job. I juggled it all. And long story short, I failed. In 2013 I left my “career” job in a Jerry Maguire fashion. I just couldn’t take it anymore. Answering to a boss, cultivating somebody else’s dream. So I scored a menial job in hospitality to support an artist’s lifestyle. Many people already know this story so I’ll abridge it: Starry-eyed artist dedicated his waking moments to making an EP, shelling out all his earnings and energy into a music career that he was learning as he was doing. Said starry-eyed artist, riddled with self-doubt, got a phone call the day before his EP was finished, that all his music had been stolen and it was sink or swim time; pack it in or do it all over again. So starry-eyed artist makes the EP all over again, releases it independently, launches it to a crowd of 150+ and secures his favourite DJ/Producer Statik fucking Selektah to play at his launch, all while fighting a chest infection; drinking Dimetapp and popping cold and flu tablets like Skittles.
During this period, working whatever menial job I could while pursuing my dreams, insecurity and melancholy were part of my everyday existence. I’d be washing dishes, preparing food in the kitchen for 100+ customers every 15 minutes, slaving away in night-shifts, and I’d be staring down as I worked, despondent and ashamed of myself; convinced I had taken a wrong turn in my path and I was not serving my grand purpose. When I worked in the kitchen I was famous for my high-energy: blasting tunes, freestyling and improvising choruses, cracking jokes and talking sports, movies, comics and music with my co-workers and customers. So when I was depressed,people noticed. I radiated emptiness. There was a constant hole I couldn’t fill. And the only way I brought myself to fill it was with momentary pleasure of the senses. Drinking and eating. It was equal parts dulling my body with a fleeting moment of joy but it was also a path of self-destruction. And I didn’t want to speak about it. I was ashamed to say it out loud to anybody at the time, but walking home late at night I’d often fantasise about being hit by a truck on the side of the highway, put out of my misery as a definite answer to the question, “Will I ever make it?” I was dwelling in my depression. There was a sick pleasure in feeling low and hopeless. My only solace, when I wasn’t at rock bottom, was the occasional waning foray into art and culture where I’d forget myself. This is when a book saved my life.
It was “Factotum” by Charles Bukowski: a writer whose life I knew had been intimate with alcoholism and depression. The story was simple, Bukowski’s alter-ego Henry Chinaski was a struggling artist, when he wasn’t buried in booze he was working a string of whatever job would flow him the money so he could buy his next bottle. Hence the title “Factotum”. I recognised the darkest parts of myself in Henry Chinaski. And nothing was more recognisable than this passage:
It looked like a deserted store. There was a sign in the window: Help Wanted. I went in. A man with a thin mustache smiled at me.
"Sit down." He gave me a pen and a form. I filled out the form. "Ah? College?"
"We're in advertising."
"Well, you see, I've been painting. A painter, you know? I've run out of money. Can't sell the stuff."
"We get lots of those."
"I don't like them either."
"Cheer up. Maybe you'll be famous after you're dead."
Why did this speak to me? Put simply, it embodied both the hope and hopelessness I still experience every day as an artist. Why is creating so closely tied to fame and notoriety? Well, my theory is that to create is Godlike. Creators make something out of literally nothing. A painter creates beauty from a blank canvass. A musician makes an inanimate object sing. A writer fabricates truths from nothing but the words in their mind. So creators are these supernatural creatures who society laud and celebrate. Why? Put simply, because creations entertain. That’s it. For a song, movie, story or whatever at a time, they allow us to escape. We forget ourselves and the constructs and constraints of our reality. They are saviours. They trickle the extraordinary into our ordinary existence. So these Godlike creators are then adored and live an other worldly life in complete juxtaposition to the safe and normal existence our teachers and concerned parents bank on. But what we forget, and what I have slowly learned, is that to create is a vocation. The same as being a plumber, janitor, garbage-man, doctor, lawyer, or CEO is a vocation. And not everyone is famous for their vocation. That lack of fame doesn’t define your vocation. But for artists, a lack of validation or recognition or admiration feels like failure. Because what is a painting without a pair of eyes to witness? A song without a pair of ears to listen? A heart crying out for connection without another heart answering the call? And when we pour our heart and souls into our work but only a handful of people pay attention we feel invisible. And in this day and age when you’re surrounded by creators, you feel envious of others’ work and ashamed of your own: at least I did. And it looks like you’ll always remain invisible. Fame and recognition will not be achieved in your lifetime. Therein lies the poetry of that line in ‘Factotum’. Creating is Godlike because a creator’s creation is immortal. Art never dies. It transcends the grave. And that is where the suffering artist can find hope. When I’m dying, as I approach the grave, I can live in this Schrodinger’s fantasy where, for all I know, after death I could achieve the fame of a Vincent Van Gogh, an Emily Dickinson, a Franz Kafka, a Vivian Maier or a William Shakespeare. In a way, I’ll eventually get my wish. So I can wipe my hands of it, right?
At the place where I worked, I met this shy and unassuming guy. He never said much, but goddamn did he have a work ethic; an artist behind the bar - a genius when constructing a cocktail and a coffee. So as a creator, I immediately respected his craft. One day I hung up a poster in the breakroom inviting my coworkers to a gig of mine. People were always surprised to discover I rapped, and this guy was the same. But his surprise wasn’t a judgemental or laughable one. It was a curious and respectful one.
“Yeah, for a bit now.”
“Where can I check out your stuff?” I shared my Soundcloud with him and a few shifts later. “I listened to your stuff man. You’re really good!”
“You know, I make beats.”
And that’s when I first met my friend Calvin. I was in the middle of making my EP and of course one day mid-shift the idea popped up.
“We should work together bro.”
“Yeah we should!”
We kept talking about it, and Cal would send me the odd beat here and there.
Then on the night of my EP launch Cal says to me, “Dude, I’m so keen to work on a project with you.”
“Well, I have this idea for a mixtape. I have a title and everything ‘Maybe You’ll Be Famous When You’re Dead’. It’s about being an artist tackling depression.”
This was in 2015. Over the next 18 months Cal would send me beats. And I’d always say we were working on the tape. But I was lying if I ever said I conquered my depression. I was in a living hell. I wanted to create but creating reminded me how creating was the source of my depression. And I just didn’t deal with it.
Then last year, my childhood dog died, the symbol of my young ambitions and goals. It was a changing of the guard and an end of an era. I was hopeless. I lost faith in my dreams and in life. I was desperate. In steps the love of my life.
“You HAVE to do something. I can’t standby and watch you do nothing as you slowly destroy yourself.”
Miraculously, I listened. That’s the beauty of love. I could handle me being hard on myself but I couldn’t handle not being the man my partner saw when she looked at me. So I sat down. I wrote down everything that made me unhappy. And I wrote down everything I could do about it. I stopped drinking. I stopped eating junk. I stopped talking about creating and I created. I ate healthily. I exercised regularly. I wrote frequently. And I reminded myself what I want to do with my life: I want to rap. I want to write. And I want to write comics. I wanted to support myself with these pursuits, enough to live comfortably and enough to support me writing and making music for the rest of my days. Fame and fortune had nothing to do with it. I changed. Physically and mentally. I felt like a new person. I was confident. Misery and insecurity were a distant memory. I also started officially writing my debut graphic novel. Then just as I was about to finish the script I said to myself, “Before you officially begin a new project, you have to finish the last one. You have to finish this mixtape with Calvin.”
So I set to work. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Calvin sent me beats, upon beats, upon beats. 30 every month. I wrote the lyrics. I turned on a beat and freestyled with a pen in my hand. And the content reflected the mindstate I had known for so long, but it was like I was acting as narrator. I was Kieron documenting the pursuits and adventures of Defron and Donald Duckets. I recorded demos with my best friend Alex. I’d go to his apartment and we’d hang and make music. He’d come to mine and we’d watch the NBA Draft, the Die Hard trilogy and make music. Until the demos were done. Then I sent the demos to Calvin. I had a vision of how I wanted the release to sound and needed the right engineer, somebody who understood the modern sounds of hip-hop but knew that I was a word-heavy lyricist at heart. I contacted my dude Kwasi and sent him the demos. He vibed with him, we had a pre-production meeting and got the ball rolling. Meanwhile Calvin finished the beats while I designed a release strategy and applied for grant funding to float the recording and engineering. Designing the grant application was stressful and I overwhelmed myself with how ambitious my plans were. To the point where I didn’t want to be successful with my application. I got my wish and moved ahead with funding the project myself.
This was and always has been a trigger for my depression and anxiety to resurface. I won’t tell you the money I’ve pumped into this project. But it’s A LOT. I mean, A FUCKING LOT. So I was always unsure of myself. “Should I be smarter with my money? Shouldn’t this go into a house deposit or an investment? Or at least an overseas holiday? When was the last time you had a vacation? Three-four years ago?” But on that little piece of paper nowhere did I write those things as my goal. I want to make music. I want to make releases with vision and creativity. The same releases Skyzoo, Curren$y, Lupe Fiasco, Notorious B.I.G, Jay-Z and The Roots created that inspire and influence me. So, despite feeling 49% unconfident, that 51% mixture of blind faith and plain old stubbornness pushed me along. But this entire time I was eating well and exercising and still, in my gut, I was happy.
Then the week of recording, I woke up and I felt really weird. I was low on energy. Walking drained me. Talking out loud was physically impossible. I couldn’t project, a few words left me short of breath and my voice’s tone and volume was different. I had to postpone the first recording session, and the next, and the next. I went to the free clinic - I was mindful of spending due to what I was saving for the project. The free clinic ran blood tests. I returned. My bloods were inconclusive. “It’s probably something viral,” said the wide-eyed doctor. “Just rest. That’s all you can do.” So I did. And I postponed the recording more. But I didn’t get better. So I went to my regular doctor. And immediately felt that I should have done that instantly. Always, always spend money on your health, our system in Australia is pretty damn good after all and it’s not a waste of money. The Doc was surprised by my symptoms but he had a hunch. He looked it up and confirmed it. “It’s called Bornholm disease. It’s common in children and epileptics, so I’m surprised you’ve come down with it. Unfortunately the only way to treat it is rest.” So I rested more. Postponed more. And the entire time I noticed that without being able to channel my negative energy into exercise, that negative energy just pent up and whittled away at my brain until my anxiety and depression came flooding back. I’d postponed all I could so I just made the recording happen. But the entire time we did so, I was racked with insecurity and doubt about all my creative decisions, as well as being physically drained.
A big part of my doubt and insecurity is due to my age. I’m 29 now. And hip-hop, hell the music industry, feels like a young person’s game. I’m fortunate that through battle rap and freestyle rap I have built a name and a reputation, but by not focusing on music and song-writing from the jump, I feel over the hill. And when I look at other people’s fan-bases on social media, the numbers of likes and follows compared to mine, I feel like I’m playing catch-up and I’ll never get there. And when I first came up with the idea of this mixtape, I was listening to a lot of Future, Young Thug and Curren$y. And I wanted to make a product that didn’t sound like an old boom-bap hip-hop purist. I wanted it to sound fresh and modern, with sprinklings of trap and modern r’n’b. At the time, in 2015, I was like, “Nobody is making trap in Australia. For once I’ll be ahead of the curve.” Then as I wrestled with my demons and this project seemed to take me 300% longer than younger artists, the trap scene and sound of hip-hop within our borders rapidly evolved. I blinked and three years passed. So i was struck with this doubt that this tape will sound like an old crusty head trying to sound modern and fresh. But I didn’t want to just be another lyrical miracle rapper, spitting bravado over looped samples. One of the sessions in particular was really hard. I had written and pre-recorded these songs and knew them like the back of my hand but every take I doubted. I wasn’t satisfied with what came naturally. I wasn’t satisfied with experimentation. I wanted to switch it up. But I didn’t want the change to be a failure. The whole time every second I could hear coins clinking in the background. This was costing me time, energy and money. Get this done. But don’t rush it otherwise it’ll sound shit. It was a nightmare. In these moments, I must thank my g Kwasi, who coached me and guided me through the recording. “This is all part of the process, my dude, you’re doing it.” And despite being racked with voices haunting me about every decision, it managed to be my most experimental and courageous recording sessions to date. I switched things up on the fly. I wrote new sections to accompany new bridges and interludes Cal had worked into the beats. Kwasi worked his magic with effects and editing so that the release would have the layered, textured and modern sound in my original vision. I was making the album of my dreams.
Here’s where I’ll explain why this is a mixtape. Usually ‘mixtape’ suggests the artist is rapping over famous instrumentals, the likes of Kendrick, J Cole, Post Malone, Cardi B etc. But that’s not the case here. ‘Maybe You’ll Be Famous When You’re Dead’ is all original beats made by my guy Calvin.
So why call it a mixtape? Three reasons.
First, I’m not ready to make my debut album. I know, I know, I just made an album. But at least as an exercise in branding, I’m just not ready to release my first album. Why? Because I’m still building and discovering my audience and I don’t want to release an album until there’s a demand for one. Silly, pedantic and artistic reasoning but that’s honestly how I feel.
Second, the ‘mixtape’ has changed. The likes of Curren$y, Future, Chance the Rapper, Ty Dolla $ign, Young Thug, Freddie Gibbs and more have all released ‘mixtapes’ with all original beats and they sound like albums. Why aren’t they albums? Again it’s about branding and the intention of the release and related to my first point, it’s a mixtape because it’s underground, independent and it’s a flagship to drive my career forward and for people to discover me through. During this process, and another symptom of feeling old and over the hill, I woke up to discover we live in an age of singles. Whereas a lot of my decisions are made from the perspective of being a hip-hop head. But the music industry operates in its own unique way. It’s all about releasing one song and pushing it everywhere. And part of me shudders at what I may have achieved if I poured all of this money into one song with an unbelievable film-clip and publicity campaign behind it. But what I have had become secure about is I am who I am and I make what I make. I had the idea for this tape and goddamnit I needed to finish it and put it out there as I originally intended. It doesn’t matter how old or young I am. The music will speak for itself.
And thirdly, I didn't’ write this like an album. At least not how I imagined I would write an album. I didn’t sit down with a clear definiton of, “I’m going to write a song about X.” I just threw Cal’s beats on and did my thing. It was a reactive and responsive process. And there for a “mix” of things in spirit. Calvin’s canvases would be a template for me to throw colours at. Then afterwards I would stand back and say, “Ah, so I wrote a song about X.” And I didn’t always just write songs. Sometimes I just wrote raps. But where it’s different and unique to just a standard ‘mixtape’ is that I did have a concept and a theme tying it all together. Inspired strongly by Charles Bukowski aka Henry Chinaski and ‘Factotum’, all the lyrics and songs revolved around the themes of the book and the themes of my day to day as a struggling honest. This wasn’t bravado. It was therapy. I unloaded all my demons. Not always in a straightforward manner, but in my manner, and I have to live with that. Because I’ve always had reservations about how I write. My lyrical style is not a straightforward one. I don’t like being earnest. I don’t find it creative or poetic. I prefer to be cryptic and metaphorical, like my favourite lyricists Skyzoo and Aesop Rock. Now one reservation there is that if my audience doesn’t understand what I’m saying, am I not just alienating them? Am I just narcissitically writing in my own language and if you don’t get it then tough? On my antagonistic days that’s how I see it, but when I throw a beat on and I just let my pen free, without agenda, I have to understand that that’s who I am. You’re always gonna wanna sound like this or that, and there’s nothing wrong with trying to evolve, but you also need to recognise and embrace your voice and your style. And this tape allowed me to do that.If you’re still reading, I’m honestly surprised. I didn’t intend for this diatribe to be *checks word count* Yeeeeeeeesh, over 4,200 words long, but like the music I made this year, that’s who I am. And that’s what’s on my mind and in my heart.
Because this has been a hell of a year. There have been setbacks, but there’s been victories too. When I was planning my TedX Talk, I was riddled with fear and insecurities. Then just when I thought all the bad news had descended upon me, I needed to have another operation, and I went through a myriad of emotions from August 10th to November 1st when I finally had the op. But now that I’m on the other side, writing this in my onesie with a head packed with medical dressing, the tape is here, and I can see it all with crystallizing clarity.
At the start of 2018, with the Passion Planner I was gifted for Christmas, I wrote down my game-changer for the year: The ‘Maybe You’ll Be Famous When You’re Dead’ mixtape. I was gonna get radio play. Blog features. Thousands of streams. Thousands of views, followers and likes. As we come towards the end of the year, I could look over my ‘game changer’ plan and poo poo that I failed, and yet? Did I make this tape? Yes. Did I get radio plays? Yes. Did I get blog features? Yes. It may not have been regular rotation and a front cover of Rolling Stone but it’s still steps forward in my plot. And more goals I can look forward to working towards. And this tape has still been a game changer. In one year I’ve released the biggest amount of music and video-clips of my career. I’ve discovered my artistic process. I’ve now set-up my home studio so I can be more self-sustained and independent moving forward, and I’ve already started on my follow up project. In fact at the start of the year before I even started recording MYBFWYD I wrote 6 songs in 6 days, so the next release is gonna be here within 12 months! Meanwhile, I spent the year facilitating, sharing my story with others and paying it forward to the artists of the next generation. And to fund the tape I MC’d, I taught, I marked, I worked tirelessly, sometimes weeks in a row without a day off (and I’m surprised I got seriously ill). Still, with all that and looking at this release in front of me, it’s not too bad for an anxiety and depression riddled, hearing impaired, cancer surviving, skinny, bald man-child.
So without further adieu. Go listen to ‘Maybe You’ll Be Famous When You’re Dead’. It’s a release packed with heart and easter eggs. I have songs where I reference my inspirations and influences. Songs written entirely from the perspective of movie characters. There’s recurring skits and references which tie it to the title and Charles Bukowski. There’s lines where I specifically reference lines and moments from the book. The artwork is a representation of my alter ego, inspired by Inside Llewyn Davis and Blade Runner. There’s raps. There’s songs. There’s beat-switches. There’s effects and edits you’d never expect to hear from me. And it’s all while being true to myself. I don’t care if I’m famous. I once did. Not anymore. All that I care about is life. I don’t wanna die. Nobody does. But that’s our fate. And whether or not I’m famous, I just wanna live. And live as me. It may have taken me almost 30 years to realise who I am, but now that I have, I feel all the more equipped to send those demons packing whenever they do knock on my door.
So before I end I just wanted to say thank you to the following people, without them this project wouldn’t have happened: Calvin Irons, Alex Gooding, Benjamin Kwasi Karikari-Yeboah, Patrick Duri, Anders Eyre, Zachary Raymond Harris, Katie Alexander-O'carroll, Raphael Recht, Brinagh Hassett, Niamh Hassett, Rubble Barny, Nicola Byatt, Aylce Edith Travels, Emma Prescott and to anyone I’ve missed.
I made this project for myself, but I also made it for you. For anybody who suffers from depression. For any artist who has doubts about their vocation.
What does it look like when life continually keeps knocking you on your ass but you get back every single time? It looks like this. And it sounds like ‘Maybe You’ll Be Famous When You’re Dead’ - out now!