From performing alongside acts such as Wu-Tang Clan, Tyga, Dead Prez, Curtis Blow and Skinnyman, spitting fire for Charlie Sloth, and Mixtape releases through SBTV and Eat Good Records, Birmingham born rapper RTKAL is an established name on the UK scene. His long awaited solo project Skunk Rock, including the Complex previewed 'Money Shot', was released this year.
We sat down with RT and talked music in his reality: embracing cultural awkwardness, putting your mobile number on your mixtape and why we should all love ratchet hip hop.
What’s your take on the way releasing music has changed over the last few years - the rise in mixtape releases over albums, and artists putting out new music more frequently than ever?
I think it’s interesting. I’m a fan of the era where an artist would put out an album maybe every three years. It gave time for artists to develop between projects. Three to four years - I think you need that as a minimum to live a certain amount of life.
There are artists out there who took things into their own hands and built for themselves. You can hear the difference. Artists who took that living space out to create, to know what they’re talking about. Maybe they broke some hearts, had their own heart broken. They put their feelings back out and get judged by them. If you’re releasing projects every three months... maybe we see too much of you, in my personal opinion. What room has there been for you to grow?
But these days it feels very easy to become irrelevant. I think that’s the reason why artists do so many things away from the music. You have to generate interest, because its so easy to fall out of relevance with how quickly things move.
The mixtape I just put out serves a purpose for me as an antidote to that kind of thing. I didn't want to release it with loads of hype and PR. I didn’t wanna spend money on press. I wanted to give something to the people who want an update on what I’m doing, who want to hear the stuff I create in between times. It’s there for them to have, because otherwise the music wouldn’t come out.
How aware are you of the people who listen to your music?
I think I’ve got a direct relationship with most people who support my stuff. I didn’t see it like this maybe three years ago. But over that time I’ve been out there and connecting with people again and it’s almost like an exclusive club. People take it that way. I don’t want to be rushing things and putting things out and it take away from the quality and value of the project. For me it’s just music, I’ll just put out music, but for the people listening they put a real value on it. They follow your progression and development. People wanna see what you’re about and how you’ve grown.
I think the people who support my stuff are people who have taken the time out to look into that story and understand it. Because it isn't black and white. I don't go on my Twitter or my Instagram and say ‘oh I’m a this and this person’. I’m a person. I’m a friend. I’m a mentor. There's so many different roles I play that are as important as music to me, that add value to my life. I’m just happy where I’m at.
One of the great things about the internet and social media is how easy it is to connect with people. For you to get direct feedback from the people who listen to your music and follow you as an artist.
Exactly. People are gonna laugh at this, but I remember one of the sickest and most influential artists for me back in the day was this guy called Mike Jones, from a group called Swisher House. Like a Houston group down south. He was the first rapper I’d heard that put his phone number out, his actual number, on a track, and you could call him directly - Mike Jones. I’ve had the same number since it was BT One To One when I was 13. My original number. That Nokia era.
Who are you appreciating as a rapper and a writer in the game right now?
I think there’s really obvious answers to that question, especially in hip hop. It really stands out right now if you’re a craftsman of lyrics, and I think most people get the accolades they deserve. Personally, I’m fascinated by those people, by the real lyricists in the game. I’ve always aspired to be like that, tried to emulate the artists with that talent that are getting their music out.
But as I've got older I've just got fascinated by ‘ignorant music’. I think there’s something really powerful about melody, something really powerful about basic, stripped back... just expression. I enjoy watching the frustration of people that can’t let go and connect to this thing - when it’s really really basic but it’s also something a bit spiritual, a bit moving. So I listen to a lot of Southern, ratchet hip hop, and I study it and I think ‘what is it about this?’. A lot of the Hip Hop out there that is popular - people say they don't like it, that it's too ignorant or ratchet for them. The reason it's good is that it's a sign of our times. It's about the theme within the times. I think for me to make music that captures the time, I have to be in it and enjoy it and revel in what's going at the moment.
Music can connect to a deeper part of us, it’s about more than just the surface content - it’s about how it makes us feel. When an artist captures something current, even in the simplest way, it resonates with us.
Yes. We’re coming out of a repression, people want to enjoy themselves again. I think music works in cycles - as a whole we’re not really in that place of wanting to talk about deep and meaningful subject matter. People just wanna feel and express - there’s enough news going on about the dirt and the details and the nitty gritty of the world. I just wanna feel. Music for a lot of people is like drugs. You can sit down and break down the negative side of a drug, but it’s the feeling that taking it gives you - it doesn’t matter about all the rest. It’s that feeling that they’re looking for.
What are your thoughts on the progression of rap and hip hop to the current soundscape?
I’d say it’s not as new as we think - there’s trap style beats that came in the 1980s. We all get older as well. The purists of a generation get shocked when the youngers come up and they rap like the current mass artists. A lot of these kids grew up on Future, T.I. - this version of rap. That was their foundation. When I was growing up, and forming the base of my sound, I would have been listening to a Nas or a Jigga. That’s what it is for them. Everyone in my age bracket sounded like Jigga or Nas or one of those rappers at some point, and then some of them moved on to create new sounds of their own. And it’s the same thing happening. You have to just embrace it, keep the culture going. The kids need to know what I’m doing and I need to know what the kids are doing - we learn from each other.
A natural progression and change? It doesn’t lose what’s happened before, it just moves on.
Tell us about Skunk Rock.
Skunk Rock is a term coined for myself and a group of friends. For the sound, the attitude, the mindset. Grime is grime, hip hop is hip hop, dancehall is dancehall, reggae is reggae. A lot of people were saying ‘what music do you make?’. I take reference from all of those sounds, all quite fluidly, naturally. So Skunk Rock is something to describe what we do. It takes reference, obviously, from punk rock - it’s active, activist music. I wouldn't say anti-establishment, but people could take that from it if they wanted to. It’s about uniqueness, something that people can connect to. ‘That sounds Skunk Rock, that looks Skunk Rock feels Skunk Rock.’
A way to unify and understand.
Yeah. It’s a taste, it's a feeling.
I’m British, I’m massively British - I was born in Quinton Birmingham, it’s a very English, traditional Midlands area. But I’m still very Carribean - I’m a Jamaican, I’m a West African. It’s looking at that experience of being here, of being all of these things and being here in this. And being all of these things quite openly. There’s no awkwardness to it for me. We embrace that awkwardness from other people.
Bringing together the different aspects and cultures that are all a part of yourself. No either/or.
It’s colourless. I wanted to take the colour out of it. There is a culture that we all share coming from this country. Coming from all different walks of life. All different places. I wanted something that was colourless, like the time of the punk rock movement. It was the experience of reggae music reaching England and the whole punk scene collaborating with that. And that relationship between the working classes. The immigrant working class community and the British indigenous working class community, and how similar our plights and how parallel our stories are. Bringing people together on peace and waviness.