Photos by Michelle Mentu
On a sunny Saturday afternoon down at the beach at Brighton’s Great Escape festival, we headed backstage to sit down with East London’s rising star rapper, Jeshi, to discuss his upcoming debut album, Universal Credit.
Thanks for taking the time mate. How have you been, are you enjoying the festival?
Yeah, it’s sick man, just been getting pretty f*cked up. Pretty late one last night seeing Yung Singh do a set, then had a nice swim in the sea today.
Yeah yeah, it’s the most refreshing thing ever man, could cure a hangover instantly. When in Rome, right?
So, you have Universal Credit coming out soon?
I got my actual universal credit coming and Universal Credit the album, I got both!
You’ve been dropping projects since around 2016 though, what made you feel like it was finally time to craft an album?
For me, doing this album was like a big ‘f*ck you’ to everyone cause, nowadays ‘album’ is like a dirty word. People are scared to do an album, man, cause the whole concept of ‘the album’ has changed. Before, when I was younger, the first thing I ever heard from people was their album. Now, people think you shouldn’t do an album ‘till you have X amount of monthly listeners or win the BBC Sound or something. When you’re like poppin’ poppin’. But at the end of the day it’s like, I love albums, and what I care about is making great albums and I will not be dictated as to when I can make one by numbers. I have something to say, to try and compress that into something more easily digestible just doesn’t make sense to me. I think the audience is smart and people actually do appreciate great albums with an actual concept, when you can feel an artist really cares about what they’re doing. Which I think in anything less than an album is hard to get across.
I agree, I feel like nowadays a lot of artists just blowing up will only drop an EP, just to be safe.
Well, the thing is they have these people doing like 1500 singles, 27 EPs, and they just run around in that loop forever. I love EPs and there’s a lot of EPs I enjoy, but it’d be really hard to tell you any EPs that really impacted, like really made a difference to, well, anything, really. Like when people talk about classic albums and sh*t, no one talks about classic EPs, it’s not a thing. For me, I’ve done EPs, this album feels like the next level, what I should be doing.
Photo by Francis Plummer
I wanted to talk about the album art for Universal Credit as well. Everything about it, from the composition to your facial expression, works so well. Who’s behind that?
Yeah I love that photo. That was Francis, who I’ve worked on with most of the creative direction for this album. He’s a really good friend of mine so it’s been good working together, just really natural. We had the name for the album, and for me it was very important to get the tone across in the right way, because ‘Universal Credit’ is such a loaded term. I didn’t want it to come across as some sort of political, ‘my f*cking answer to the world’s problems’ kind of album, because it’s not. It’s very self-reflective both on my situation and what I see around me, but it’s not like I have the solutions to these problems. If I did then maybe I shouldn’t be doing music and I should be off trying to change the world or something. With the cover, it was about trying to capture something that means a lot, coming from a very true place, but encasing it in a bit of humour. The whole idea of putting £324.84 on a massive check, for me was a metaphor for how society perceives people on benefits. People act like those on benefits have won the lottery or something. In reality, the amount they give you can’t do sh*t with it! No one is living some glamourous, luxury lifestyle off that amount of money, it doesn’t go very far in this day and age. It was just a little prod at that, but at the same time it’s important to let audiences take it and interpret it, you don’t need to spoon-feed things to people. People are a lot more switched-on than others like to think they are.
I see that idea coming through a lot in your lyrics. When I heard the album title, I thought it fit well with the theme of the singles. I feel like a lot of the time, especially in underground rap, there’s a lot of focus on the destination, how you’re going to get out. Whereas with you, especially in tracks like ‘Sick’ and ‘Hit by a Train’, it’s very much grounded in reality, describing your present. Would you agree with that?
For a long time, exactly what you’re talking about was my focus. That’s the thing with rap in general. Rap has always been this big thing of aspiration, where we wanna get to, how much money we wanna have, what car we wanna drive, and I haven’t done that for quite a while. I think it’s a subconscious thing you just slip into because it’s just what people do. But then I had to take a step back and think about it, and at the end of the day, everyone wants the same sh*t in life. That story—everyone wants money, they wanna to be able to look after their family—it’s not a very unique story, because everyone has those same things in their head. What’s unique is what you’re actually going through on a day-to-day basis, right here right now, because while there’s some overlap and similarities, everyone’s situation is completely unique to them. And the best way to truly connect with people is by being 100% honest about what that situation is: the good, the bad, the ugly, everything, and getting that across to people. So yeah, I’d agree.
Jeshi at The Great Escape Festival, photo by Michelle Mentu
How did you end up collaborating with Obongjayar on your recent single, ‘Protein’?
I don’t even know, when you’re in London doing creative sh*t you just end up around these people man. Before I ever met him I loved his song ‘Never Change’, that’s like one of the best songs ever. He ended up at my house one time and we just got along really well. We’re like kindred spirits, I think we see the world in quite similar ways, so we were like ‘f*ck it’, we might as well go to the studio and see if this relationship translates into a good musical relationship. And it did, which I’m hype on.
The only two features on the album are him and Fredwave, right?
Yeah, they’re both on a song each and then there’s a track with us three together, so it’s quite an insular thing. I don’t know, I only really work with people who are friends because for me it’s like, I do this as my job, but beyond anything I do it cause I love it, and it’s fun. There’s no time you feel better than when you’re in the studio making something, you’re with your boys that you’re super tight with and you’re all like ‘this is sick’. It’s like ecstasy, the best feeling ever. So it just makes sense to do it with people I love and that inspire me.
So even though you like to keep the family close, if you could collaborate with any artist, who would interest you?
At the moment I’m really into this guy Blackhaine. He’s sick, I met him in Paris randomly then checked out his shit. He was here playing on Thursday actually, I missed his set but he’s amazing, he’s someone who I’d work with. I saw CASisDEAD yesterday as well, I think working with him would be sick. There’s loads of people actually. I’d love to do something with Sampha, but we’ll see.
You have a couple tracks with frequent Frank Ocean producer Vegyn. After you played ‘I See You Sometimes’ at your Corsica Studios headliner back in January, you mentioned how you were reluctant to put it on the setlist because you didn’t know if people would feel it. Are you hoping to do more sonically experimental stuff like that in the future?
Essentially, after this album, it’s gonna take a left turn for me. After I’ve done something I don’t wanna just do it all over again. Universal Credit is sick, but I’m not trying to make Universal Credit 2. I wanna go do something that sounds nothing like that. The stuff I’m working on now is definitely more experimental in terms of production. I’m excited to talk about this album but I’m just as excited about what comes after it. Because for me I never wanna be put in a box, I don’t want people to think they’ve got me figured out or know what my sound is. The sound will always change. I just wanna keep pushing myself and doing sick sh*t.
Photo by Michelle Mentu
And the album drops on 27th May, right?
Yeah, ideally I wanted to put it out on the first of a month, when people actually get universal credit, but it just didn’t line up like that. The serendipity would’ve been beautiful, but… it is what it is. I was gonna say ‘we move’ then, but I hate that phrase.
Pre-save Universal Credit here to be among the first to listen when it drops this Friday, 27th May.
Jeshi will also be performing the album during his headline show at Oslo Hackney, you can buy tickets for here.
Edited by Josh Aberman, Music Editor