- Words Ray Sang
Shakka sheds light on the development of the UK music scene, life since going independent, and his debut album, 'Road Trip To Venus'.
First coming to the fore with the release of “The Shakka Crown Affair”, the now Grammy award-winning songwriter initially sparked curiosity with the distinctiveness of his British accent during an era where many of his contempories opted for a more American-influenced sound.
Continuing to push boundaries in the decade that followed Shakka’s illustrious career encompasses a multitudinous array of remarkable moments including touring globally with Basement Jaxx as their guest vocalist and composing the music for Michaela Coel’s BAFTA Award-winning TV series Chewing Gum.
The latest addition to his ever-growing list of accomplishments is the unveiling of his debut album, ‘Road Trip To Venus’.
Believing vulnerability to be the master key to human connection, the most recent offering by British R&B singer Shakka lays his lessons in love and life bare for fans to see; clothed by beautifully articulated moments of introspection. For Shakka, opening up about your vulnerabilities, fears, and pains is integral to growth. Without it, we each run the risk of lying to those around us and more importantly to ourselves about the way we truly feel.
As its title would suggest, “Road Trip To Venus” follows the singer on a journey of self-discovery incorporating musical inspirations from Black British culture as well as the singer’s Caribbean heritage.
Very much considering himself to be a rebel both Shakka’s soundscapes and lyrics are reflective of an artist who remains unafraid to shake the table – something he was sure to emphasise during the course of our discussion.
The album is out now, and obviously, that’s something we’re going to jump into. But before we even get to that, I recently came across something very interesting you said around team building where you mentioned that “it was important for your team to understand what you’re trying to do” –
-at least 50%
Yeah, which of course sounds pretty sensible but what does that actually look like in practice?
There are many reasons why we like who we like, and it isn’t just their voice. It’s a lot of things. It’s the styling, it’s the way that light looks when Sisqó is going…” I don’t think you heard me” at nighttime on the beach when you see that shot in the “Thong Song” video. You didn’t think, oh, the lighting is sick, you just think that video looks sick. But in order to get to that spot where everything looks that sick, you need a lighting director who knows colours, you need a good stylist, you need a good creative director. You don’t need them. But it’s important to have people who understand how important those aspects are, you know, and that varies with different people. And so like, when I said that I think it’s important to have people who understand at least 50% of what you’re trying to do, and 50% of what you’re trying to say…I essentially mean that they need to be able to see you and be like, okay, I know what he or she is channelling. it’s very important to have someone who understands what your sonic genetic makeup is because then they can find the lineage of where that DNA comes from. If they don’t understand then they’re going to put you in the same magazines that they think people will look like you should be in, or they’re going to give you the same producers who they think people who sound like you should have. As opposed to really trying to understand your potential.
Okay, so with that being said, what would you say actually goes into building a solid team?
The fearlessness to say when something isn’t quite right. And that’s hard to do. I feel like a lot of it comes from honesty. About yourself and about also not settling for less to ensure that you hit the bar that you’re aiming for. This isn’t to say that, you know, you can’t experiment and try new sh*t and then see what happens because there’s a lot of things that just happen by serendipity. But aside from that, like finding a good team and putting a good team together comes from the continual repetitive times where you’ve worked with a team and worked with another team and worked with another team and tried it out and then said, you know what, this doesn’t work but this will work. And then I also feel like, the thing that goes into a good team is making sure that the rapport amongst the whole team is sky-high. It can’t be a thing where you’re just criticising everything that everybody else does. I think encouragement goes a long way. But I also think honestly, about when you’re not hitting the mark, goes even further.
The conversation of R&B is often centred around women. So as a male artist within the space, where do you feel like you sit within that narrative?
The best way I feel like I can answer that question is by describing where my headspace was at when writing “Road Trip to Venus”. The title implies, men are from Mars and women are from Venus. It implies or tries to imply that Venus is the home of women, and the journey has been done to find my answers to my questions in love. And in my mind, I’m implying that, that can only be found on Venus, where I speak to members of the opposite sex and have a conversation, or even just have a journey. Whether or not I’ve got to Venus is another question in and of itself. But the idea is, I guess putting an emphasis upon my belief that women aren’t listened to enough and my belief that conversation is so much more important. I feel like we’ve gone through many different eras in hip hop, in rap, and in Black music in general, where men are just expected to be very blasé about who they see and who they date. And it’s cool because obviously, it’s attractive and alluring to be the guy who seems to have his pick of whichever girl that he wants to have. But then the years go passed and first and foremost being a fuckboy is dead because you’ll be alone for the rest of your life. But then secondly, there’s importance in communication and dialogue within the sexes period. It’s so important and integral to expand on the many facets of love which I think “Road Trip to Venus” is touching upon. So, being whipped or being scuba deep in love, or being in love with someone else despite being in a relationship with one person or even self-love, when I’m questioning whether or not I’m fulfilling the full potential of myself as a person or as the artist. So yeah, I guess in answer to your question, I’m trying to be as vulnerable and as honest about my insecurities and my lack of understanding of love with women in my album. And I feel that hopefully, that segment that doesn’t get discussed as much, can at least spark some more conversations about how we can interact as men and as women.
Something else I’ve noticed specifically in regards to the UK R&B scene in recent years is the almost erasure of guys. How do you feel about that?
[Laughs] I mean, fam, the world goes in waves. I remember when people would say things like, if there’s one spot for a female rapper, that means no other female rappers can see that spot. If there’s one slot on the radio space for the male rapper that means that’s the grime slot. And it’s taken by artists like Tinie Tempah or Dizzee Rascal or whoever was popping at the time. It’s such crap and nonsense because as fans, we don’t have one slot for that one person in our mind, we just like sh*t. So, when it comes to there being a scene where there’s a predominance, in the female acts, first off, no I don’t feel bad. I actually feel great, because I’ve missed it for a very long time. And I remember there was a time period where that didn’t really exist around 2010 or 2015. NAO is bussing it up, Mahalia is bussing it up, Simz is bussing it up and they are all authentically Black and British. Like I have nothing to complain about. Plus, we get a new perspective on subject matters and topics. Little Simz’s ‘Sometimes I may be introvert’ is mental! And there are a lot of things that she’s talking about, that aren’t really articulated as well by other people. She’s a natural poet, so naturally, there’s going to be like, a great way of expressing her point, you know, so yeah, I feel like, it’s not really an issue for me, if anything is a benefit, and it helps the scene grow.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about yourself since being independent?
it’s hard to gauge which is the most important because there are many [things] that I think have hit me with different levels of gravity throughout the journey. The beauty of being unsigned is the fact that you can push the green button whenever you want. The challenge of being unsigned is knowing that you have the ability to push the green button whenever you want. Because essentially, you have to be sure, especially when you’re putting your own money up for it. The re-up might take a little longer than another artist. So you might be like out of the season based on the fact that you’re preparing for the next project. And that’s okay! BUT the rest of the world doesn’t know that, and the rest of the world doesn’t care. All they want to do is hear the latest music from this person, they don’t care what you’re going through your life, they don’t care whatever challenges you have. So I think one of the things I’ve learned is just finding ways to ensure that the next batch of songs that you have can connect as much as possible. Then I think secondly, I’ve got this crazy sense of faith in my own sh*t. When I say I’m a badman, I need to keep a level of outrageous confidence just to combat the outrageous levels of instant comparison with other successes, or lack of self-belief in the bars that I write, or the songs that I write. You really have to bet it all on yourself. I think being independent has forced me to be so gassed that I can tap into the potential that I have. My self-belief allows me to go to those places of inspiration so that I can make the songs or the videos that were in my dreams.
Do you think the tracks that people consider to be your most successful songs are the truest reflection of you as an artist?
No, I think they’re a facet. First and foremost, music is subjective, to begin with. And so what someone considers your best song may not be what you consider your best song or may not be what someone else does. It varies depending on where you go. I’ll do a show in Lithuania and tears will come down the faces of supporters because they wanted to see me perform “When will I see you again”. Whereas if I go to London, all they want to hear is “Rollin” and see Frisco jump on stage and say, “Man ah get wrapped like a lamb roti”. The cultural differences create a new perspective on what my best song is, or the best facet of my musicianship is. And I guess I try not to get hung up on that.
Staying in this sort of reflective zone, what advice you would give to the version of yourself that released ‘The Crown Affair’ knowing that what you know now?
Hmmmm…what advice would I give to Shakka Crown? You don’t have to be so loud all the time. I think that’s the first thing I’d say to Shakka Crown because I didn’t really know anything about composure then. I just thought that if I performed with all of my energy that I was giving the best performance in the world. And I felt like with time I got to see other people perform on stage and I would see the composure that the other singers from the Basement Jaxx would have, or I would see the way in which Wretch performs, and the crowd would be entertained nonetheless. So I think volume is one thing. I think write with everybody would be my other thing. Like jump into studio with everybody for about a year and then at Christmas time take stock of all the cheat codes that you stole from the writers and producers that you wrote with during that year and reimplement that into your next release. Rick Rubin said it best himself. Why wouldn’t you study the top five albums in the world? All they’re going to do is give you the things that humans really, really, really connect with. It’s not like you’re lying to yourself by learning from other people. So that’s what I’d tell my younger self. I tell my younger self to write with everybody, to use volume to your advantage, and that money is on the way.
Something else that you were quite vocal about very, very early on early on in your career is not censoring yourself. How have you been intentional about maintaining that from then, until now.
That’s a great question. It was hard to write a song that I have on my album called “When You Grow Up.” And it was hard, because it’s not easy to be honest about the fact that you’re unsure as to whether or not you’ve fulfilled the full potential of the dreams that you had when you were five. And as guys were meant to just say, of course, we have. Even as humans, when someone asks you how you are, you just say yeah, man, everything’s cool, man. Things are good. And sometimes you’re questioning whether or not things are actually good. The studio that I went to in LA with Sandy Chilla to write that song felt like a spa. The layout, the walls, and the aesthetics and all of that kind of stuff. So I actually felt for the first time that I could just be honest about how I felt, and really ask myself the questions that were difficult to ask before. To be honest, I think there are lots of things that I haven’t shared. And I think there are lots of things that I want to keep to the chest as Shakka Philip versus Shakka with two Ks. Finding the distinguishing point between the two personalities, as it were, has also been an art in itself. Here’s the other thing, though, I feel like if we’re not vulnerable, then we’re doing a disservice to humankind. At some point, we’re made to feel like, we shouldn’t be feeling things. In places where people want you to open up about something, there’s always some kind of hesitancy to do it, because everybody expects you to live your best life. And so with that, I feel like it’s important to create pieces of art that allow people to find themselves or to see themselves, in their most flawed human form, you know? Otherwise, it’s just alienation and we’re not connected. And then if we’re not connected, what are we doing?
As we’re already talking about the album, what has it been like seeing the response to something that has been such a long time in the making?
I’ve been living with this project for six years now, Ray. I think the most recent song that I have, is “Solo” and it’s just as important as “Hunting” a song I’ve had for six years. But when people call me and they cry, or when people send me like voicemails, and they haven’t spoken to me in like, a year. In my mind, I’m like, okay, I might have something. Who knows, it might have ripple effects. Like, it varies all the time. I’m used to hearing this sh*t. Like, I’m used to all of these demos, I’m used to all of these songs. I’ve listened to the songs on this album so many times. I was in the mixing process; I was in the mastering process. I don’t get to listen to the songs for the first time like you guys do. So, it’s very difficult to know, the full effect of the project until someone cries. Until someone cries their eyes out, I don’t know whether I’m yielding the response that I’d like to yield.
After hearing you personally experiment with the sound on “When You Pull Up” I’d love to hear your thoughts on the rise of R&Drill.
I think R&Drill has the potential to bring balance to an otherwise very hyper-masculine art form. This isn’t to say that drill is toxic. I think like every controversial form of art has its side where it could be quite detrimental to humankind. At the same time, however, drill also has the very rare ability to reflect specifically what life is like for a lot of guys in the UK. And if that didn’t exist, it would just be ignored. We would just treat it as crime as opposed to kids that need help. I feel like something like R&Drill has the gorgeous potential to bring romance into that space. You know, you can still bounce you can still have the same bossiness and the same attitude. There are people who can collaborate in that space from the drill world and the R&B world, to make some beautiful sh*t, you know. We saw it with Afroswing. Mid-tempo chirpsing girls and just dancing with each other. That didn’t exist before with grime. It didn’t really exist with Garage as much because the tempo is a bit too fast to encourage courtship and intimacy. Garage isn’t really the soundtrack to making love, but you could do that with Afroswing. And I feel like if you get it, right, you could do it with a song, like “When you pull up” too.
Lyrically, I have to say that there are times that you are quite cheeky. And I think that’s a boundary that you’ve continued to push as you’ve grown as an artist. Is any lyric on this album where you thought “Oh, that’s a bit spicy, or I may not go away with that one”?
“I’m beating up the ting, I’ll leave you walking strange”. That was a line in “When You Pull Up”. And I knew that when I said that, there was going to be a community of people that that didn’t connect with the essence of what that meant. It’s not it’s not just saying wild shit to make people feel like, Oh, that’s really cool. It’s like, this is shit that you say when you’re intimate with your partner. The primal elements of our personas, and our bodies in general, they exist. They’re not invisible. People want to have a space or an outlet for that. With that being said with great power comes great responsibility. You can’t just be out here, writing all kinds of things just because you think, oh, it matches the scene or it sounds cool. So I was skeptical when I wrote it. But then I thought…the fear that exists within me, means that I’m trying to channel something that I believe hasn’t been articulated in this way before. And then even besides that, like I feel like I can’t please everyone. And, also, the more important thing is, I trust my team, my manager in particular. I don’t know whether or not I knew this before, but I would always get not only an outside listener’s perspective, but I would always get a female perspective from my manager. And that’s something that I’ve always kind of cherished from her because then I’m kind of acutely aware of whether or not I’m subconsciously jumping on a bandwagon with a phrase that I know, I shouldn’t be saying. So it’s having a balance between being offensive, being suggestive and also being outrageous. What is art without outrage? It yields no emotion, you know? Yeah. It’s a tightrope. But I enjoy a tightrope.
Can you break down your album title because I know there is just so much to dissect there.
Oh, of course. I’m borrowing off the age-old tale that men are from Mars and Venus. So first and foremost having a road trip to a planet is wild in itself because a car going to outer space is pretty mad but secondly taking a road trip to the place where women live and exist implies that I’m trying to go to the source you understand them a lot better. it’s a journey and a road trip because of the fact that I guess I’m kind of going through the motions in my head of the experiences I’ve had with women before. It’s almost like I’m making this bullet point list of different topics that I want to bring up when I do see the Oracle in Venus. I don’t think women are listened to enough I really really don’t. If it’s not one story, it’s another story about how someone was taken advantage of or how there’s a disparity in pay despite the fact that they do exactly the same job and deliver the same task. Or even just like memories of family members and homegirls that I used to be friends with growing up in school and hearing many different stories or many different experiences that these women have had. In my mind, I was like, right this don’t make sense, because I learn so much from women in general. This disparity, this level of respect that we don’t seem to have for members of the opposite sex just doesn’t make sense. And I could be wrong. Who knows? It could be a lot more complex than that. But right now, that’s what my headspace is. And so, I felt like considering this album being a kaleidoscope of love it only made sense to find the title that describes the many different shades. The only time at which I feel like I experience a new world upon every song is when I’m on a road trip. I’m still borrowing off of the Extra-Terrestrial intergalactic energies that I had with the previous projects such as the “Lost Boys” and “The Island”. There’s very much this element of trying to be larger than life man. It’s not just about the block like it’s not just about the diaries that we have with previous relationships. We are so much more than that. Black British art… the heights that we can achieve are so far and wide. I kind of just want to try transmit that vibration and that perspective as much as possible. So yeah, I guess all of those elements go into the title of the album.
Okay, so stepping away from the album for a second, I wanted to touch on your interaction with your fans. So you call them The Tribe. First of all, where does the name come from, and what does it represent to you?
Firstly, it was the name of an EP that I wrote in 2013. And the reason why I called it ‘The Tribe’ was because I was constantly being told that the art form that I make doesn’t make any sense or doesn’t fit anywhere. And I was also constantly being told that the way I perform or the way I speak, or the way I sing, like there’s no playlist [for it], there’s no home, there’s no festival. In my mind, I’m just like, this is dumb because I’ve seen people who stream my stuff. And I’ve seen people who buy the songs, I’ve seen people who come to the concerts. And it turns out that they’re weirdos, just like me! They’re also very tired of the algorithm, at work, on TV, on music video channels, on YouTube, on Spotify. Even prior to that, it would just feel like people were churning out what they saw other people doing. I was happy with being regarded as weird for loving anime as well as loving Nirvana as well as Andre 3000 and knowing all of the bars to Dizzee Rascal’s “Boy In The Corner”. I was very happy with my genetic makeup, sonically and contextually. And I know that there I’m not the only one who wants the freedom of being able to like sh*t without being criticised about it. So the tribe for me was a shout-out to everybody who felt exactly the same way. Frustrated with people trying to force them into blueprints that existed before, just so that they could be understood. But we’re not out here trying to be understood. We’re just trying to exist and seek fulfillment in life. The short answer to that question is that the tribe is a name to describe the people that don’t fit and who are comfortable with the fact that they don’t fit.
What part of the creative process makes you feel the most uncomfortable?
Do you know what’s mad, I don’t think I have an uncomfortable moment. If that makes sense. I only say this because you know, when you’re just mumbling and talking about ideas, you don’t know whether or not they’re fully formed yet? Like, most people would like to do that in their own safe space. I’m kind of comfortable kind of just letting people know what the clay is before it forms the statue. The most uncomfortable I would feel is hitting bum notes. Hitting sh*tty notes when you know you know how to sing is the most uncomfortable thing in the world.
Who is the person you’ve most enjoyed collaborating with during your career?
Ah wow…. I enjoy collaborating with a lot of different people. I think it might have been Frisco with “Rollin” you know because he sang in the song. And I’m like, I ain’t ever seen him do anything like this in any of his records with him or his crew. It was it was very bespoke, and it took a while for me to get him to do that as well. But yeah, it worked out for the better.
Finally, what is the one thing you hope people take away from the album?
It’s okay to go against the algorithm. That’s the first thing. The algorithm dictates that this is how you should behave, and this is how you should interact. It’s okay to go against it. In fact, it’s integral to find independent thought because without it, you don’t have your own identity you’re lost, and the fulfillment will never come. So yeah, going against the algorithm is so important. And I feel that with this album, I don’t think it sounds like anything else. My aim was to try and channel my favourite aspects of my lineage as a black British musician. You know, Sade, Shola Ama, Craig, David, Soul II Soul, Skepta, Dizzee…We have too many greats to think of for us to stick to one genre, or to one sound or one flow, you know, so yeah, go against the algorithm. And then the other thing is, close your mouth and open your ears because it’s not all about you. The chances are when you do listen to her, and you hear what she has to say, it probably isn’t what you thought it was. And with that, again comes growth. And with that comes a new perspective. And with that comes a new way to ride with your teammate into the sunset. You can’t do that if you’re talking all the time. And you can’t do that if you think you know everything. So, close your mouth and open your ears.