- Words Isabelle Cassidy
One half of hip-hop duo blackwave. tell us about the musical firsts, from the first album they ever bought to overcoming initial career obstacles.
Hip-hop duo blackwave have recently released their sophomore album, ‘no sleep in LA’, inspired by a game-changing trip to Los Angeles which gave them the creative inspiration to create new music. Hailing from Belgium, rapper Jean-Valéry Atohoun and singer-producer Willem Ardui have been blending soul and hip-hop since their 2019 breakthrough album.
‘no sleep in LA’ features the likes of guests Lute, Abhi The Nomad and Caleborate. Since it’s recent release, the 11-track body of work has gone to number 1 in the Belgian album charts – the first independent number 1 album in the country this year – and one of the tracks has even hit the new FIFA 23 soundtrack.
One half of blackwave., Willem, catches us up on his musical firsts, from his first violin at five to being starstruck by the Gorillaz. Dive in!
First song you ever made?
I must have been about 12 years old. I had been playing violin for 7 years then, and wanted to pick up guitar. I just learned two chords from my dad, went to the attic so nobody would hear me, and wrote my first song there. I think it was called ‘Daydream’. A folky, melancholic, little pop song.
First song you released officially?
Depends on what you define as ‘officially’. My first experience with releasing music was through Facebook, sharing it with my friends. It was a great proving ground. I even made videos for some of them with my older brother, or by myself with my webcam. The first track I released on streaming services was one that caught our now manager Bert’s attention on Facebook, a year or so before I met Jean and we founded blackwave.. He contacted me and said that he wanted to try and pitch it to the radio, as well as release it across different platforms. Radio 1 picked it up, and we’ve been working closely together ever since.
First CD or record you owned?
The first record I owned was Disraeli Gears by Cream. I picked it out in a record store on vacation in London, and my dad bought it for me. I didn’t know the music but was enchanted by the artwork. The first one I bought with my own money was Modern Vampires of the City by Vampire Weekend. Similarly I didn’t know the music before I bought it, but came to love the music a lot. I guess my record buying process hasn’t changed a lot since then. I love picking records I don’t know for the cover and discovering what it sounds like afterwards.
First time you realized you wanted to be an artist?
I distinctly remember going to a festival for the first time. I guess I always knew I wanted to do something with music, but that experience suddenly made me feel like this was going to be my purpose, goal, passion in life; making songs and performing them live on a stage.
First gig and first festival you went to?
The first festival I went to was Rock Werchter in 2012, when I was 14 years old. I saw concerts by The XX, Alabama Shakes, Mumford & Sons, Michael Kiwanuka… I was truly overwhelmed by the energy of the musicians and the crowd, and was captivated by the performances. I was interested in how the songs were different live versus on record, how the bands built their sets to get the crowd going, what they were wearing, what they said on stage in between songs… I came back home inspired in every way.
First time you faced an obstacle in your career?
I feel like with every step forward, we’ve had to overcome a few obstacles, creatively, professionally but also personally. Being a duo sometimes makes it harder, having to decide everything together and having to agree on everything. But it also makes it easier in some ways. We can always talk about what’s bothering us, and always have someone to bounce ideas off of. The first major obstacle I can personally remember was learning to write lyrics and properly pronounce them when I just started making songs. With English not being my first language, but all my musical heroes singing in English, I really had to push myself to get good at it.
First instrument you owned?
When you start out playing violin at 5 years of age, you don’t get to play a real violin right away. What we used was the box of a videocassette as the body (I apparently insisted it had to be a Winnie The Pooh box), with a little wooden plank taped to it as the neck. I first had to learn all the proper positions before getting my first (tiny) violin.
First time you felt like giving up?
Right after the release of our first album I started doubting myself a lot. I felt like I hadn’t delivered something I was proud of and started getting more and more insecure. I went through a pretty dark few months, not really going outside at all. We had planned to take those months off after the release, to relax and decompress, but I think I just had too much time to overthink everything. That was a period in my life where I didn’t really see the purpose of continuing to make music anymore. I just didn’t have the energy for it.
First time you felt starstruck?
I don’t really remember the first time, but this year I had a pretty big starstruck moment. Right before we had to start soundchecking for our concert at Werchter Boutique, Gorillaz were warming up soundchecking some songs. Damon Albarn has had a huge musical impact on me when I was younger, and standing on the same stage, seeing him soundcheck just a few meters away felt pretty surreal.
First time you ticked off a bucket list goal?
That’s a hard one, because a lot of the time during our first come up I felt like we hadn’t ‘made it’ yet, so I didn’t really let myself enjoy the things that we were achieving. I think the first bucket list goal we had was to play a major festival in Belgium, and when we did that only a few months after releasing our first single, I don’t think I really appreciated what had just happened, because I was already thinking about the next steps.