Post 29 July 2017

GRM Exclusive: Shola Ama, Donae’o & FTSE talk being legends & grime, funky & garage

29 July 2017

Roughly two decades ago, a great phenomenon named garage music emerged in the UK and its infectious energy inspired a number of talented individuals to make big, garage hits. Among these talented individuals who caught the garage bug were Birmingham-based DJ/producer FTSE, and the legends that are Donae’O and Shola Ama.

All three individuals had separate experiences with the garage scene in the late ninties and early noughties but now the trio have teamed up to create a new, garage-inspired summer anthem titled “Work U Out”. The single carries a nostalgic tone while simultaneously capturing aspects of more modern dance music. We recently caught up with Donae’O, Shola Ama and FTSE to talk about their new single, the current UK scene, new artists and much more. Check out their brand-new interview with GRM below.

FTSE, how were you influenced to a make garage record now?

FTSE: “I just literally made it, man. I wasn’t even thinking! It was just something that happened in like a morning.”

Donae’O and Shola, when you were first approached to feature on “Work U Out”, what was it about the track that made you wanna jump on it?

Shola: “For me, I heard it and it made perfect sense why they reached out to me to do it.”

Donae’O: “Same thing with me. I just loved the beat. For me, it was as simple as that to be honest. I heard the record and I thought as a new garage record, it’s the best one I’ve heard in a long time.”

You guys were deep in the garage scene when it first emerged and here we are in 2017 talking about your new garage hit. Why do you think the genre has managed to last the test of time?

D: “It’s good music! Quality music.”

S: “Good music! Yeah, and I think the nostalgia too. People have been raving to it forever and they still do.”

FTSE: “I think it’s also the fact that it’s the UK, that helps, man. It still feels like we own it. We’ve still got grime as well, obviously, and even [drum ‘n’ bass] but everyone kind of leaves two step alone. So I think it’s a bit of ownership.”

D: “Do you see yourself as a garage producer?”

FTSE: “I’ve always made garage. I was in punk bands when I was a teenager, so I used to play in a punk band, but then at the same time I would go out with my other group of mates and go DJ garage and drum ‘n’ bass at raves. So I did that all growing up and then I hadn’t made garage in time and I was just fucking around, man. Just trying to make something that you could dance to and I ended up just banging [“Work U Out”]. But this is like time ago, man. I made it like nearly two years ago probably. But there’s a bit of revival going on now as well. It seems to be popping up. It’s a good time I reckon.”

Shola, every now and then you take short breaks from music but what is it about music that keeps you coming back?

S: “I don’t know how to do anything else [laughs]. That’s a lie. I know how to do a bunch of things. That’s the one thing I’ve been doing for so long that I don’t even have to think about it. It’s just a part of me. I never take a break from the music, I’m always making music and I’m always performing. But the music industry, I like to take breaks from. It’s very necessary for my life and for my sanity to not be in the industry all the time. Very important for me personally.”

Lately you’ve made several appearances, like we saw you perform with Bugzy Malone in the 1xtra lounge recently. Are you gearing up for a new project by any chance?

S: “I am!”

Is there a release date?

S: “Well, the plan was to release in September because it’s twenty years since my first album on September 2nd. That was the plan, I don’t know if it’ll go to plan, but that’s the plan.”

Is it an album, mixtape, or EP?

S: “I don’t even know. I’m not even calling it anything. It’s gonna be some music! It’ll be a bunch of music.”

Donae’O, your new project Sixteen is out now. What did you want to show or do on this particular tape?

D: “Two things; I wanted to make music with my new friends, and then I wanted to put out a project that me and [Island Records] could work together on. I wanted to make something within the system, within how I’m feeling at the time.”

You mentioned Island Records there as well and you signed to them last year. What made you want to sign to a major label now?

D: “I’ve always been 50% business man, 50% musician and last year I decided to put more effort in to the making music side. It done really well for me and then I decided that if I’m gonna do really well, I need to put 100% in. The business I already created needed to be managed as well so that’s why I decided to build a team. I got a manager first then I got back with my old lawyer and then we got with the label that could support that side and I could just focus on doing stuff like collaborating, just creating, you know?

What was the toughest challenge about not having a major label before?

D: “Do you know what’s weird? When I was in it, I didn’t know what it’s like to have a major label. If you ask me that question in a couple years time, once I understand, then I’ll be able to compare and be like ‘Rah, I didn’t know that!’. It’s not that it’s a tough challenge but it’s something I’ve noticed: I didn’t realise how many resources are available to you once you sign ’cause everyone’s perception of you changes. Everyone’s willing to say “Hey, do you want this? Do you want that?” 

S: “It’s like having the blue tick on social media.”

D: “Yeah! But the blue tick actually does something! Whereas when you’re independent, you are the resource but I don’t know no better. I’m only learning that now, I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. “

So when you guys aren’t making summer anthems like “Work U Out”, what do you guys do during summer?

D: “Cinema. I love the cinema.”

S: “Same. I do stuff with my boy a lot. He likes skateboarding so I’m like the skater-mum. That’s his thing. I took him to LA last year and to New York street league skating and he’s into it, man! He’s very much a part of the culture of that so yeah, I guess I’m a skater-mum. I don’t mind watching it as well.”

FTSE: “I’m the same. Kids, man, kids. I’ve just got a new one. I’ve got a fucking four and a half month old so that’s what I’m doing this summer. I’ve got a 10-year-old so there’s a ten-year gap between them. Got a boy who’s ten and we’ve just had a girl. He’s looking after her, man. It’s cool, he’ll be able to babysit proper.”

Shola and Donae’O, both of you guys welcome and support up and coming talent from the UK so what sort of advice do you give to them when you meet them?

S: “I never really sit and give advice like that. I can only give you what I have, I can’t give you what I don’t have to give away so my experience is my advice. But my experience is mine so I just share with them the things that I’ve been through and if it helps them then great but I’m just open about my experiences. That’s all I can do.”

D: “I’m similar. I don’t really like giving advice. I’ll tailor-make it. If you ask me, I’ll try and answer it to the best of my ability but I don’t like forcing it on you. I might give you advice ’cause my ego says I need to give you my experience but that might not help you with what you’re going through now so I always kind of wait until the artist talks to me and then I work it out based on what suits you.

Have you guys learned or taken anything away from working with new artists?

D: “Yeah! I’ve learned how to be more of an artist. Before I was like a label, like I’d make the music, ’cause what labels do is promote and sell music. That’s what I used to be. I used to be the producer of music and then I used to sell the music which made me happy because I was in the background whereas [new artists] are doing concerts independently. We weren’t doing that on an independent level. We weren’t doing concerts because we had the clubs as our platform, so a PA is as far as you would go. For me, I feel like this younger generation has taken the artist thing further than we could.”

S: “When I was coming up, my first experience was being signed straight away. Major label – straight in – that support system was there. Now I see artists like Stefflon Don signing label deals and signing herself to a label and that’s inspiring to me.”

It’s like a ‘you need me’ kind of thing.

S: “Exactly! That’s what I admire about them taking control and saying ‘yeah I can go into a major situation but I’m gonna still be the head of it’. That I find really, really inspiring.”

Which new artists are you guys feeling these days?

D: “Kojo Funds. I’m listening to K-Trap now actually. He’s a new drill artist. He’s sick!”

S: “I like Kojo too. I love Steff, I like Raye, I like Ray BLK, I like Mabel. There’s loads of them! There’s so many! There’s so many new artists now, it’s nice! You can actually look and investigate and be like ‘Oh, I like this person’.” 

Shola, do you remember how it felt for you when you first started out? What were your goals?

S: “Do you know what, right [laughs]? When I first started out I just wanted to go like that [puts middle finger up] to everyone that told me I couldn’t do it. That was my biggest, biggest goal because all my teachers, a lot of my so-called friends were like ‘You’re never gonna make it’, like they told me, ‘You’re not gonna do it’. So my biggest thing was ‘watch’. So from the time I met Kwame when I was 15 and then two years later being signed, and then the year after that having a [Brit Award], I done it in three years. Everything I wanted to do, I done in the space of a four-year period. So my biggest thing was ‘I’m gonna show you all!’ That was the main thing and then after that it became about the music. But really it was the sheer determination to succeed and show everybody that I was capable of doing it when they said that I couldn’t. I love a bit of doubt.”

FTSE: “I got a guitar when I was 10 and I heard my mum saying to my nan ‘Oh, he’ll only play it for a couple of weeks’. Twenty years later and I’m still fucking banging away trying to make records! I totally believe that’s the truth, man. Like, wanting to vindicate yourself.”  

Donae’O, you said your goal was to make it to pirate radio when you first started in your NFTR interview last year.

D: “Nah, nah! I wanted everyone to understand the mentality that we had. So to a Stefflon Don and a Stormzy, the sky’s the limit. To us, the sky was pirate radio. My goal – I’ve always been obsessed with music – was to make music. That was my original goal, to just make music because I have to. Otherwise I’m gonna be miserable. Then when you become a teenager, you understand that making music and becoming popular gives you money and girls so then I wanted money and girls! But what I meant from that was not that my goal was pirate radio, what I meant from that was a mentality helps with your success. So if your mentality is only to be on pirate radio, that’s as far as you’re gonna go. But if you’re only environment shows you that the highest you can go is pirate radio and MCing at a rave with eight bars, that’s what you’re gonna aspire to whereas these kids, they’re aspirations are bigger than ours. It’s because of these kids that I have bigger aspirations. It’s because of a Stormzy that I think ‘Oh, what? I can do more? Oh, Okay! Cool!’ That’s what I meant by that comment.”

What are your goals now?

D: “Just to be the best version of myself. My dream is, if Drake can come from Canada – like Americans hate Canadians – and now he’s the biggest rapper in the world. If he can do that, then I wanna be the biggest rapper in the world. Even just biggest music-maker in the world. So really, my goal now is to be the best person I can be. Like the best friend, the healthiest, the best producer that I can be. How do I inspire an artist to become the best version of themselves? I need to be the best version of myself to get that out of you. So that’s my goal now.”

In the same interview, you said that funky house is dead. Can you see funky house making a resurgence in the same way grime has?

D: “No. Grime had artists. That’s what I always say to everyone; when your scene has artists, your fans can identify with people whereas a DJ/producer-led scene, you can identify with the music but not identify with the person so that’s one issue with funky house. Two; in the space of two years, there were like three humongous things that happened in funky and no-one jumped on it. The first thing was Boiler Room. Boiler Room did a funky thing and it was massive resurgence. No-one jumped on it apart from me. Then the second thing was “One Dance”. Nobody done anything after that. The third thing was “My Circle” and still, no-one jumped on it! If anyone does [jump on it], it would be a new batch of people. The people that are holla’ing me to do funky are artists. The only person that is on it with me is Roska. Roska’s still doing his ting but in regards to funky coming back, no. If it does come back, it’ll be because of rap music and the artists within it that want to do that. But there were like three major things that you would have thought [would have brought a resurgence]. Come on, if Drake can’t inspire everyone – like Drake’s inspired everyone else – then sorry.

“I would love it to [come back] but sometimes, you know what it is? You see timing and opportunity? You don’t dictate that – it dictates you. When it comes, you’ve just gotta go for it! We’re all smart enough to identify a great thing but are you going to let that great thing help you out? If funky was to come back, it just has to embrace the artist side of things. It can’t be instrumentals.”

Grime and the UK scene as a whole has changed a lot over the years. What would you guys say is the best thing about the scene right now?

S: “I’d say the fact these acts are headlining festivals and stuff whereas back in the day they couldn’t even get a place to book them because the police would shut it down. Now they’re headlining all the biggest festivals in the country and out of the country.”

FTSE: “The fact it actually sounds like grime again, man. That’s gotta be a win. It’s gone full circle. Everyone went and tried to do the major thing the way the majors wanted it to work, literally killed everything dead on its arse and then look at it now. Like Dizzee’s new record’s gone back to actually making grime music. People are MCing again. It’s proper.”

D: “I like the fact that we’re more of a community now. When we were doing it, everyone was in the hood so you’re in a radio station but the other day your bredrin stabbed a next MC and then you have to go radio with them. So the tension there was real tension whereas now, everyone’s doing their thing but it’s like ‘this can actually change your life’.”  

S: “But I think because people have had success in their own lane is what has made everyone a bit more comfortable to just come together. Because before, everyone was trying to eat. I think success has helped bring everyone into a community.”

Shola, in what ways would you say your style/creative process has changed over the years?

S: “Back in the day it was much more structured when I was younger because the label would be like “Okay, you’re gonna work with Ali Shaheed Muhammad next week or Rodney Jerkins is flying in next Tuesday to write a song with you”. I had that big corporation behind me helping me develop my sound whereas now, I work with who I want, I write when I want and how I want. It’s a lot more driven by me as an artist as opposed to having that big corporate structure behind me.

“Now as a writer and an artist, it’s a lot more open and a lot free; I can pick who I wanna work with, when I wanna do it. I’m just a lot more relaxed and it’s always about the vibe. I say this all the time to people; I would rather be heard and not seen. I’m happy to not be a celebrity. I don’t care about celebrity that much. I done that already in the first two years of my career and it was annoying and I couldn’t do anything. Now, I like being able to get on to the train with my son and someone might go “Is that…?” and it doesn’t bother me. They’ll hear my song and they know it but they might not necessarily put the two together and I’m cool with that. I’m happy to just give you the art. If you’re interested in me as an artist, that’s a bonus but the art is the first thing I want you to have from me.”

We’re seeing more inter-continental collaborations these days. Which artists would you guys wanna collaborate with?

FTSE: “Mine would be Branco, and there’s a guy called Okmalumkoolkat from South Africa who is just the fucking most insane, hardest MC.”

D: “Future.”

S: “I like Future a lot. I wanna work with Young Thug though. And Metro Boomin’ ’cause I love him.”

What have you guys got planned for the remainder of 2017?

D: “Pushing my mixtape, working with other acts and maybe signing a few acts as well.”

S: “I’d like to branch out in to working with a lot more younger artists but for me I have a release coming up – hopefully in September because it’s twenty years since my first album – and then I’d like to do a tour, writing, more collaborations. Same kind of vibe.”