Brixton, a residential district in South London undergoing creeping gentrification has been tainted by an old reputation for being one of London’s crime capitals. A 2014 study conducted by Britain Thinks, even deemed it to be the ‘most dangerous place in London’ and the ‘location where people would least like to live’. But amidst all the misleading headlines and unsavoury news stories, there lays a vast pool of musical talent.
From UK drill, rap and grime to pop and rock, artists from Brixton have made a sizeable impression on every level of the UK’s rich music culture. But too often, we admire the successes of these artists without giving the producers their proper dues. The deftly skilled technicians with the power to build worlds around song lyrics, transforming them from words into holistic sonic experiences.
Brixton just so happens to be home to one of UK raps most prolific beat makers – Carns Hill. Backed up by more than 10 years of experience, and a star-studded list of collaborators, Carns Hill is without a doubt one of UK rap’s heavyweight producers. Having produced classics for the likes of Blade Brown, Youngs Teflon and 67, Carns Hill has sewn himself into the fabric of UK rap. Kept driven by a personal philosophy of constant evolution, Carns has committed himself to pushing the boundaries and refuses to be pushed around by trends. Last week, GRM Daily caught up with him for an in-depth conversation about his childhood, early music career and more.
Let’s start right at the beginning, growing up, who were the artists or what were the songs that ignited your passion for music?
“Growing up, the first kinda rap joint that I really got into was like “YO! MTV Raps” type of stuff init. When I was young, I think the first artists I proper liked was Coolio or The Fugees, obviously Tupac & Biggie too. That was what I was into when I was a kid.”
Who or what prompted you to start producing music?
“Do you know what it is, at my secondary school they had music equipment and stuff, that’s where I got into it. I didn’t know you could produce yourself. I was always into music, I played an instrument, but actually making a whole production was kind of crazy to me. That’s when I started hitting up other producers and stuff. At the time when I started producing, Timbaland was my favourite producer – he was shelling these times, and Dr.Dre, too.
We’re you ever tempted to get behind the mic yourself?
“Yeah, I tried once or twice, but it wasn’t really for me. I Wasn’t the best lyricist, but I definitely tried though!”
At a time when UK road rap was arguably at its finest point, what inspired your drill pivot?
“See what it was yeah, it wasn’t even about what inspired me, I was catering more to 67. At the time, I saw what they were doing, they had a few songs out and I just really liked their sound. I liked the way they were spitting, their lingo, all of that. From then, I was like you know what, I need to give you lot your own sound. They needed their own sound to match their style, instead of just hopping on American beats. I told them I wasn’t gonna make anything that I’d made before. It’s not going to sound trappy, it’s gonna be different, just gonna be a vibe. If you go back and listen to all the stuff we made from back then, all of its 67 bpm – that’s how dedicated I was to their sound.”
Although you’re most well known for your trap/rap/UK drill sounds, you’ve proven you that more you’re than capable of conquering other sounds too. What inspired that and how much do your creative processes differ?
“You know what it is, I just like making new music and new sounds. Sounds from outside of the box. When something gets typical I don’t like staying on that vibe. I’m the kind of person where if everybody’s going right, I want to go left, you get me? I like going against the grain. If everybody’s making drill, I want to make r’n’b, I want to make pop, or whatever.”
But by constantly distancing yourself from what’s popular, don’t you ever feel like you’re missing out sometimes?
“Nah man. Do you know why? It’s because of stuff like this. I see everyone do the whole bandwagon thing, and jump onto someone because they’re popping. Bruv, there’s too many artists that I’ve worked with that weren’t popping before and are popping now. That’s how I prefer to work. When I made “Redrum Reverse” with R6 who was up and coming, and then bang 10 million views/10 million streams. Even before that, me and Tef worked together, as underdogs and we just came up. It wasn’t a thing where any of those guys were big already, it was just hard graft init.
“Me personally, I prefer to make music with people that are on the come up, because I feel like I’m helping them. If you’re already established then you’re already established, a Carns Hill production isn’t gonna benefit you in the same way.”
You played a pretty big role in some of the UK drill and 67s most defining moments, do you ever find yourself fighting with the label of being a “drill producer”?
“Nah not really, you know. Really and truly, being a huge part of something that has become so big is a privilege. Plus, I can’t be bothered to fight the narrative. It’s true, I am more than a drill producer, go check my previous work from before that, the OT series, thats like ten years ago. People from different eras are gonna know me for different things. People that were listening to me 10 years ago would probably know me as a trap producer. Newer listeners will probably know me as a drill producer. Later on down the line, it might be something completely different they know me for; so trying to fight titles actually doesn’t make sense. Look at Ice Cube, he used to be N.W.A, now he does family movies. That’s how he’s kept relevant and stayed with the times.”
I remember back when I was in school and your producer tag had grown into our vernacular, what’s the story behind your tag?
“I don’t even want to tell that story still, it’s a secret.”
With your earlier work on the OT series, even up to now, you take up an unofficial A&R role. As they were actually your mixtapes, did you find that you were looking for artists to fit your soundscapes or building songs around them?
“When it comes to my own personal mixtapes I always have a direction, but at the same time, I’m always trying to do something that’s different to anything I’ve ever done before. I could have a song ready for an artist, but then we might go for something else, or just push it that little bit further. The last track me and Reeko Squeeze brought out, even he wasn’t too sure about it. The tempo was way faster than usual but I was like trust it. Like I said, when I work with people I try to step out of their natural comfort zones.”
Drill sometimes gets tainted by the police and the media for inciting violence. What are your thoughts on the controversy that people associate with drill?
“Yeah well that’s how it goes. If you actually study it, with any new genre that’s thrown into the mix, you’ll see every genre has had their baby stage of being rejected or shunned. Like punk, back in the day. That was a new thing for the young generation and that was shunned, banned from all the clubs, same thing with garage, same thing with grime. So it isn’t anything new but it depends on where it goes, whether it’ll last the test of time. Because you have to remember, we’ve been through the garage stage, we’ve been through the funky house stage, it just depends on what sticks and keeps on going. I think drill, just like grime, is gonna be one of those genres that’s here to stay.”
“When it comes to new music, I don’t even think it’s a colour thing. You have to remember, it’s not just black people that are listening to the music. Yeah its majority black people making it, but look at the listeners. You’ll be surprised, a lot of these guys have a massive white following. It’s more about censorship and freedom of speech. So I don’t think it’s race thing, but more of a human rights thing. It’s also about class too, like a lot of the money that these boys make off of one or two songs is pushing them into the middle-class sectors of society, that’s something they want to sanction and hold down. You got these young black boys making the same amount of money as a doctor or a teacher. It’s mad. They’re trying to control that.”
Who’s an artist, past or present, dead or alive, that you’d love to work with?
“Probably Kanye West. Definitely because of his taste in music. Whatever nonsense he’s doing, I don’t really care, I always listen to whatever he drops, his ability his crazy. He comes at things from different angles, he pushes his sound, he’s not afraid to explore.”
What is your favourite song that you’ve produced?
“I can’t say there is one you know. It’s just been so long, I listen to different songs and they all remind of different eras. Like I might listen to something off the OT tapes and it reminds me of 2009, or might listen to some 67 stuff and it reminds of 2014/15, or I might listen to “Temptation” and that’s more current. But I can’t pick one, there’s too many. I’d be doing myself a disservice. There’s so many songs that have done so many different things for my career. I have a song that opened my eyes to someone special or a song that’s completely changed my situation, blown me across the country or got me a bag of shows. Different songs do different things for you. Plus, I’ve made so many songs I can’t even remember all of them.”
What are you working on now? Can we expect another tape soon?
“I’m dropping a drill mixtape really soon. Gonna be something different.”