KwolleM speaks to us about the significance of the London train stops he chose to portray in his newest album, c2c – the name of a train service in London – and the process behind choosing and editing samples, as well as his goal in pairing the gritty realism of grime with the softer idealism of mellow tunes. This record builds off his first EP, Mellow, even further, exploring the genre of mellow grime, which he had a hand in creating, with more of a personal focus on a more original sound, delving into the backgrounds and childhoods of both KwolleM and Joe James, the main contributor and producer of the album.
Could you tell us a little about yourself and your background before we get started?
Newham raised & currently living in Essex – I’m a producer on my off time and day to day I work in fashion.
You said you first became interested in producing when you were at university. How did that come about?
When I got into university, my parents purchased a laptop for my studies. Being a Limewire/ Bearshare (torrenting software) baby, my natural inclination was to stock up my laptop full with any and every software I could get my hands on. So, naturally, Fruit Loops Studio was one of the first applications I downloaded and I literally just played around with it. At the time, I had a couple of friends who produced deep house music, so I started with that sound.
When and why did you choose the name KwolleM?
The name comes from my Tumblr. I needed an unused username and was inspired by the Japanese producer, Nujabes, who created the hip-hop influenced soundtrack to an anime called Samurai Champloo I was watching at the time. His real name is Jun Seba and he flipped it to make Nujabes. So I went with Mellow K & flipped it to KwolleM.
Your new project, c2c, is partially based on the coast-to-coast train service travelling between East London and South Essex. Could you outline the concept of the project even further? Could you guide us through the steps you chose to highlight along with your EP?
The idea came organically going back and forth with major contributor Joe James – initially, the plan was to release West Ham as a single. But, I felt as it would be my first release on Spotify, Apple Music and other digital streaming platforms in a while, I should make it a two-track single. The beauty of Joe and I’s relationship is he’s Essex born, but grew up in London. Whilst I’ve been in-between both most of my life.
So, the moment I told him we needed to make a track called Basildon, he understood what that meant. SSS, (Shoeburyness/Southend-on-Sea) came at the same time as Basildon – I sent him two instrumental options and Joe’s workmate meant two tracks in one. Understanding we essentially had three stops on the c2c now, the concept loosely had already presented itself. So ultimately, we just needed to work on more stops, I had to figure who else to feature on the project and how their inclusions made sense for the journey.
Going song by song, SSS embodies the seaside trips in the morning/afternoon contrasted by seeing the Southend FC fans at the end of the night. Basildon reflects puppy love, basically an Essex teen love story. Barking/Dagenham is more country to concrete – growing up, drifting further away from Essex to London to make money and date London girls.
West Ham, one of two Newham stops on the project, I wanted to sound as cinematic as being in Newham at night actually feels. But it needed the contrast caused by the distraction of a pretty girl on the train ride.
Stratford Interlude with The Rayf feature was another proponent of the mellow grime sound with the sentence “Got one life and living it ain’t easy”, yet things only seem to get harder the further down the line you get. Woolwich Arsenal is a necessary literal diversion on the project, the train metaphor wouldn’t have been complete without one.
Fenchurch St. is the last stop on the C2C line and the outro on the project. The song is literally the whole project condensed into one. Meeting a girl on the train in Essex & trying to move to her the whole journey.
c2c is a further exploration of mellow grime. How is this second EP evolved from your first one, Mellow?
This project focuses more on original music – as a producer, Joe James is essentially my vocal presence allowing me to communicate how I feel, especially as we think alike and we have had very similar experiences.
You mentioned that this new EP is dedicated to Essex, and that Joe James, your main collaborator on the project, is from there. As well as this, you mentioned that the project revisits pivotal moments that represent the relationship between you and Joe. Why did you choose to work together on c2c? What is your collaborative and personal relationship like?
Joe’s been a friend of mine for the past five or six year – we were in Ayia Napa in Turkey together with our partners and friends a month ago. Joe and I literally became friends at a time where we both separately started making music. We listen to the same music and we’re from similar areas, I could send him an instrumental, talk about a stop for five minutes and we’d have a song. So, working with Joe was a no brainer, I wouldn’t have been able to make this project with anyone else.
You cite The Alchemist as one of your main contemporary musical influences. How does he impact your musical choices and musical production? Are there any other artists that have been instrumental in your musical development?
I started off making deep house music abd it was Alchemist’s productions that even made me move from sampling neo soul hits or R&B vocals for house or hip-hop tracks. It’s less obvious now as I focus on British music, but I was making mellow Alchemist type of tracks with hip-hop acapellas. In regards to other artists, I would say Knxwledge and Cookin Soul.
Samples and sampling are very often the foundation of your tracks. How do you decide what to sample and how to sample it? What is your arranging/editing process like?
Literally cyber crate digging – I just spend my time listening to music until I find something that moves me and then go from there. It’s whatever works, to be honest. I might slow the sample down, increase the speed, reverse it, chop it up, loop a specific bit. I have a mantra that I follow and it’s simply whatever’s clever, essentially meaning do whatever works.
A lot of the tracks on your EP feel very steady like you’re sinking into the music, but still intense and thoughtful. How did you strike the balance between your mellow, instrumental samples with the rapid breakbeat rhythm of typical grime music?
It’s a formula I’m very comfortable with now – I don’t think there’s a balance to be honest, I think people love the juxtaposition in whatever degree provided. That’s what I’ve learnt after five years of this and how people took to c2c.
One of the standout tracks in the EP is the second one, Basildon. The samples are so smooth they almost sound like elevator music, while the lyrics are really strong and at times jarring. Is this what you’re trying to achieve through the development of mellow grime? A sort of musical misdirection, easing people into the comfort of the music and bringing them out intensely when they realize the impact of the lyrics?
There’s multiple angles to look at it from. I know that grime purists hale Dizzee Rascals' Boy In Da Corner as the best grime project ever, but I lean towards Kano's Home Sweet Home. My preference is based on the fact that Kano didn’t box himself into the pure grime sound, which makes it considerably more palatable. Of course, my intention was never to make grime easier to listen to, but the fact that’s the case can’t possibly be a bad thing. I just like the idea that you can sneak realism in easier when the instrumental is softer.
Another standout track for its use of sampling is West Ham, juxtaposing train announcements with grimier beats, as well as instrumental parts that almost sound like they’re part of a soundtrack. Could you guide us through the creative process of arranging this track?
This was the first track made for the project – the mindset attacking this song was I wanted to make the darkest grime track I could, but I had broken it down into moments of happiness to mellowness and to love. That goes as quickly as it comes – as you snap back into the reality of being in West Ham. Realistically, all this was required for me not to make a mellow grime track and instead have grime with grime and have the mellow with the mellow.
You feature a lot of iconic grime artists in many of the tracks in c2c, such as Crazy Titch, Roachee and Devlin, to name only a few. Why did you decide to collaborate with them and highlight them throughout the EP?
Crazy Titch is a grime icon hailing from Newham. Devlin is the most famous Essex rapper/MC and Roachee is a Roll Deep original who hails from the East End. I wanted every feature to relate to the stop their particular stop, for example, Crazy Titch’s relation to SSS would be the singalong reference in conjunction with the football chant.
Do you have any specific plans for promoting c2c during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Working on making a little film with a of couple tracks on the project.
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