With poetry primed for the dancefloor, James Massiah wants to remind us of the highs and lows of love in hedonistic spaces. Here, he talks his new EP, True Romance and how he wishes to connect people to a deeper sense of being.

“I was getting into Hinduism at the time, and I saw this version of a love story which accepts people for who they are,” says poet-cum-artist James Massiah, swivelling around in a grooming chair before his Notion shoot. “You have the destroyer and the creator; they both exist in people. It’s about factoring them into your life.” He’s explaining the influences behind ‘Soon Touch’, the lead single off his new EP, True Romance. A debaucherous ode to London’s nightlife, the song’s sliding bassline and twinkling synth sequences sound like the moment of narcotic-fuelled optimism a crowd feels as it exits the club, scrunching baggies into pockets, before bundling into an Uber in search of the next after hours fix.  


On True Romance, James assigns himself to both sides of the coin, expressing his ability to both create and destroy, navigating through each state to remind us how they work in unison. At times, he seems lost, pushing back heartbreak from an unknown lover with promiscuous vices that desensitise from the emotional turmoil. “But I realise that the pain’s not easing  / Quick champagne little mash little Reisling  / I’m only yours for the evening” (Hot Forever).  


There are moments when he overcomes the agony, bidding to rebuild the bonds that were broken: “I’m back in love / With life itself / Looking after my own health / I’m building back my wealth and making / Bigger change and lots of changes” (Wagwan). The six tracks document the highs and lows of this liminal space between relationships, drawing for chopped and screwed dancehall that spins on an axis between dystopian rhythms, retro-futurist acid house and his soul-searching wordplay. 

First and foremost, James is a poet. For over a decade, the writer’s chronicled his experiences of growing up in the ‘gentrified slum’ that is London, developing a framework for amoral egoism that inspires listeners to live their lives as they wish. It’s a simple message, but an important one in a time where our every move is scrutinised under the guise of societal expectation. Experimenting with this free-flowing philosophy, his poetry night, Adult Entertainment, invites wordsmiths like John Glacier, Theodor Black and Gaika down to perform their work to a keen audience of listeners. “Everyone comes from different parts of my life,” he says before entering one of his meditative pauses. “I trust them to know the space. I want to connect with the moment I met that person for the first time and recreate it.” 


A natural polymath, James is synonymous with London’s creative underworld thanks to a revered NTS residency, features as DJ Escrow on Dean Blunt’s Babyfather mixtapes and his own dub techno and grime explorations at various club nights. Collaborating with everyone from Massive Attack to Joy Orbison while performing readings in the Houses of Parliament are just a few other accolades holding him in high esteem not only in underground circles, but by the mainstream too.  


Energising new frontiers of his poetic charm, James Massiah sits down to speak late night love tales, idolising Ninjaman and getting better at being himself.  

‘True Romance’ is a six track London nightlife odyssey that chronicles the highs and lows of love. How does this story of romance differ to your previous project, Natural Born Killers, which is inspired by the love story in Quentin Tarantino’s film of the same name?  

I guess the last one was more optimistic and this one’s more pessimistic. It was made post-pandemic and a lot has happened since then. True Romance details all the ins and outs of that five-year period. There’s a track called ‘Wagwan’ and that’s the crux of the EP. I’m a poet, but the music offers another pair of teeth. It acts as a taster to that poem. It’s about heartbreak, despair, romance and truth. 

‘Soon Touch’ is my new afterhours soundtrack, I love the story and the production’s trippy rhythms / undulating basslines. Can you tell me a bit about how that one came about?  

That tune was originally called ‘A Better Way To Live’. It’s all about the impact of someone’s arrival on you. It’s a late-night song, but it’s also an early-morning or an afternoon song. You hear it and think, ‘Soon touch, what’s arriving soon? Are you excited or anxious for it? And I think that’s in the pads of the song, the string section – there’s a bridge in there: “When the ting too rough / You gotta pestle and mortar it up / Breaking it down so it’s all in a dust / Wait, now we’re alone just usIt’s that moment between being with somebody else and being alone. The gap between the here and the next, the Y and the X. And then when someone else comes along, you think, ‘Should I be rushing to you, or should I be going at my own pace?’ 

Words are always going to be a big part of the art that you make but the visuals for your music have been lauded too. ‘Charlie’ is your latest music video, how are the visuals reflective of the song’s lyrics?  

Luckily, we’ve had great directors who’ve been able to interpret the song’s message and its feeling. Ethan and Tom, who directed ‘Charlie’, really connected with me on set. People have said of ‘Charlie’ that there’s no sense of peace. It’s constant. It’s like Requiem for a Dream or Trainspotting, they’re intense watches, favourites of mine as well, but intense. It’s just like them. 


Who is the Charlie? Are they a real person? Obviously, there are references to narcotics but it’s more about seeking for connection and how substances can offer a link between someone you want to be with. There’s a book by Johann Hari called Chasing the Scream, and that’s the best manuscript for that tune. You’re looking for that shiny high and that complete sense of connection, a lover, a friend, a mentor. 

What’s one thing that you love about clubbing in London, and alternatively, what would you improve about the capital’s nightlife?  

I almost don’t feel qualified to answer that. I put it down to the guys at The Avalon, Ormside Projects and Venue MOT, they know what’s up. More than events, it’s about spaces. They know what’s needed on a material level. 

Many of your poems are primed for the dancefloor, and often the flow and repetitional aspects feel inspired by dancehall music. How has Caribbean culture impacted your poetry, the way that you write music and how you mix as a DJ?  

People might presume that I had dancehall in my life early on, but it wasn’t like that. I listened to people like Talking Heads and Neneh Cherry, hearing sounds in their music that was dub and dancehall-inspired, but I couldn’t place them. There’s rhythm and funk in gospel, garage and grime that are rooted in Jamaican dancehall and dub music. My idols change all the time. First it was Dizzee Rascal, then Mike Skinner but now it’s Ninjaman and Super Cat. 

You’ve been running the poetry night ‘Adult Entertainment’ for a while now, hosting artists like John Glacier, Theodor Black and Obongjayar. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learnt about the poetry scene while you’ve been involved? 

By divorcing myself from it, I actually felt a deeper connection. Rather than trying to make a poetry night, I wanted to find a way of making the poets feel. I’ve tried to play with the format. Some have read before but others for their first time. I want them to be intrigued or excited in a way that a kid might be. It’s very much about being playful. 

For someone that admittedly doesn’t know much about poetry, which poets inspire you?   

E.E. Cummings, Roger McGough, Benjamin Zephaniah, Robert Owen, Kae Tempest, Caleb Femi, Sean Mahoney, John Cooper Clarke, Aleister Crowley, Tommy Sissons, Isaiah Hull, The Narrator, Melody Chantler, Ela Moss, Manny Noire, Ku-Ro, Arnold Chukwu, Kate Crisp and Matthew Muli … there are so many amazing poets that I discover every day. 

As well as music, your poetry has featured seamlessly over various fashion campaigns, for CP Company and Barbour. Why do you think fashion has such an interest in poetry, and specifically the words of your own?   

I guess, if you’re a designer and you appreciate the poet’s work, how cool would it be for them to have the poet wearing their clothes while they read their poetry? As a poet, I’m thinking, ‘What do I feel comfortable in? What do I want to be perceived as?’ You have to have a designer who understands that. Simone Rocha is a favourite of mine currently. 

As DJ Escrow, you’ve narrated Dean Blunt’s Babyfather tapes in an eccentric ode to pirate radio and UK road rap mixtape culture. How does this alias help you to embody a different side to your artistry?  

I can speak to DJ Escrow, but I can’t comment for him. Escrow is a different persona, he’s a different person! 

A regular on the NTS network, you’ve been hosting radio shows for years. What’s the importance of radio to you as a format?  

It connects you with people that aren’t in your immediate circle. You might have similar tastes, but they aren’t your mates. It’s how you find the fans who believe in you as an artistIt’s about transmitting sound. I still listen to old pirate radio sets from back in the day. The spirit of radio is present in any moment when sound is transmitted from one medium to another. It’s about sharing.

You’ve worked with so many artists in your time, from Massive Attack to the XX and Joy Orbison to Daniel Avery. What are some words of wisdom one of these artists has given you that you still hold dearly today?  

Just do you. Sometimes I ask them, ‘How do you want me to sound on this tune?’ And they just say, ‘Do you’. That’s the common theme with these guys. They want to connect with me rather than a version of me. I’m getting better at being me. 

You’re playing at Houghton Festival this year. For someone who hasn’t seen you, what does a James Massiah live show look and feel like?  

I’m going to see what the vibe is like on the day. That will determine what I deliver, whether it’s a poetry, DJ, live or dub poetry set. We’ll figure it out. They understand my vibe. I’ll turn up, catch them on the day and see what happens.   

The world stops tomorrow, how would you like to be remembered?  

If the world stops, who’s there to remember me? The people that I love, I want them to know that’s the feeling, independent of anything else. 

Beyond festival season and this EP, what else would you like to plug for the rest of the year? Any other exciting projects you can let us in on? 

The plan is to just record and release. New poems, new music, new writing, new everything. 

Listen to True Romance now: