Exclusives Interviews 18 March 2021
Author: Tice Cin

GRM Exclusive: Mikey J discusses working on Top Boy, what it’s like producing for film & TV & More

18 March 2021

Mikey J. He’s composed with Brian Eno for Top Boy, is co-artistic director at Boy Blue Ent with Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy, and is a regular producer for Kano. His studio is tucked away next to one of the OG Turkish clothes wholesalers, and before we get into the interview we talk about how the area is changing. Costas are popping up everywhere and studios are starting to get too expensive to keep, even in Haringey. There’s a sense of impermanence in the music scene in London at the moment, a rift between the lived realities of the musicians we relate to and the capitalist squeeze happening through the inner-city and beyond. 

This is an important milestone in his career, Mikey J has been in the business for twenty years. He’s been dropping music mysteriously recently, a mixture of new music and selections from his backlog of songs hibernating in old computers (he tells me some of these he forgets even making because of the sheer number of tunes). 

Mikey’s musical range over the years is quietly calculated, underpinned by techniques he’s invented that keep his sound recognisable. This range is regularly demonstrated, he was chosen to put together a tribute to British music for the London Olympics and is the composer behind many of London’s latest and most interesting plays like Poet In Da Corner. His collabs and production on some of Kano’s most iconic tracks like “Mic Check 1-2” are part of the pantheon of grime beats; and he knows how to garner emotions from his time-delay chords in “Endz”, to the Charizard muscularity of group cut “E.T.” His output is vast, it hasn’t been slowed down by the plaques he’s gathered, he keeps on: ‘Being a creative don’t end man, so I like washing dishes because dishes they end, I put it down and it’s finished.’

Your history with radio over the years and DJing at raves with places like Deja Vu FM is immense. Could you tell me more about the relationship between DJing and producing for you?

“I’ve not found a gap between the two, but I’ve also not taken playing other people’s records too seriously because I make records of my own too. At one point we needed each other to survive. We needed good records and exclusives. Whether you wanna be in a rave situation or a radio situation you’ve got to get the first interview, artist booking…whatever it was, you’d see that interplay between the two. People consume music differently now. Before DJs used to be the only way you’d hear new music or get access to different types of records but the Internet has changed that.”  

You’ve been in this business for twenty years, how has your craft been changed by digital shifts?

“I think in a major way, that the label’s position in the ecosystem of creating and delivering music to the world has changed. It doesn’t singularly live in that area, so over the next few months you’re just going to start seeing my music arrive on Spotify and other digital platforms. No fanfare, just a digital imprint of myself on the planet. Which I see as linked to the digital archiving that I’ve been doing with The Vaults.”

You make these really emotional statements through the almost gospel harmonic arrangements of your songs. I’m thinking about the music that you set to dance in particular, like with the Boy Blue show Black Whyte Gray. What types of harmonies do you like to use? Do you have quite a technical knowledge of harmony or is it more instinctual?

“It’s definitely instinctual. My origins are in singing from nine years old and before that it was acting. I just wanted be an actor and do stuff, did Bugsy Malone and they asked me to be Fizzy – the only black role in Bugsy Malone. One of my earliest experiences with harmony was going from school choir to county choir, my dad sent me to this place – Fullwell Cross – I was in year three with all the good singing kids from all the different years up to year six. It was the first time I’d ever heard ten-part harmony, I was sitting there as a kid thinking wow, this stuff is dope! There’s one other moment, I worked with this artist Kevin Mark Trail: during university we had one session where he sat down with me on piano and he taught me harmonic arrangements. I would sing a harmony or hear it as a vocal line and then write that in.” 

So you have an analogue way of going into a track…do you start on piano and then use score writing software, or do you stay locked into Ableton?

“I hear it. A good example is in my people for Black Whyte Gray, there’s this big string swell and that makes it into my head first. I sing each line and its all imprinted down like that. 

“Essentially what Ableton does really well is it creates lots of chains so you can chain a whole load of different effects together/ plug-ins together and discover a unique sound you wouldn’t think of making. When I worked with Brian Eno on Top Boy he showed me ways that he would create sound. So now I would say that my process (especially in Ableton), involves even more tricks and techniques. I create a lot of techniques and make flowcharts so that I can map my thinking or the problems I was trying to solve. It becomes quite investigative as opposed to instantly knowing what I want to play and put down. 

“My early-career music was a build up of things in my head, spilling out. I remember them all implicitly, and every melody made sense and had an innate plan. The track would say something to me as I was making it. Now I don’t know what I’m going to make anymore and I’m more interested in finding my way towards it. 

“I think that the industry should always leave ideas to progress the art form forward, and I have reservations towards tracks that rely on the same things all the time. Flip it up a bit. Try to bend it. Listen to other inspirations from Jazz to West African music, something that can add and embellish your sound. Creatives have to go outside of themselves: go library, listen to other cultures…it’ll have an osmosis affect on you.” 

Algorithms respond infuriatingly well to repetition.

“I always tell people that when you play a particular record, be mindful that we are using a vote when we play that record. When we say ‘this is good’, it’s going to spit out more of the same. Promoters see that algorithm and think that they’d better start booking certain things cause they tend to sell. People need to be conscious that their decisions are part of a capitalist algorithm.” 

You seem to have really protected yourself from those cracks of light coming in and polluting your sound.

“I’ve seen it happen to so many different artists where they’re offered a carbon copy of a proven success or gone to every hot producer and written hundreds of records but now they don’t know what to do or where to go because they’ve lost their identity. I’d rather people came to me saying, ‘I want that thing that Mikey makes’. I feel fortunate to sit in a space where I have that luxury now after twenty years. 

“Concentrate your efforts into facilitating what feels right for you because it pays off. I’ll give you an example, I made Outliers in 2018, which became a poster for me and I didn’t even realise because who was in the audience…Kwame Kwei-Armah, and a company called Leland music. Kwame ended up hitting me up to score his show with Idris Elba called Tree, and Leland Music felt I was the right person to pair up with Brian to work on Top Boy. I had no idea that was going to happen, all that led me there was thinking ‘this is what I want to do’ and I don’t think people working with me in the past (old labels and the like) would have expected me to have that on me. Even people asking ‘what are you doing with the dance company, it makes no sense Mikey?’ That’s always been at my base. There’ll always be something unprecedented to do, which can give you longevity.”

From your work with Nike to Boy Blue, What do you feel about the difference between your work: the way you set music to dance, or something produced for film, to a track you produce for an artist.

“Doing stuff for film and TV you often have to change the structure of your piece of music – it won’t be eight or four bars, you might have to do two bars which feels right for the picture. The process stays the same. I always tell people that my application is hip-hop. It’s not who I am per se, but it’s how I’ve been able to become the composer people know, or the sound designer, or the producer, or beat maker. It’s just the application to get that out. 

Black Whyte Gray was built on everything going on – Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, Tamir Rice – constantly reverberating in my head, and then this show manifested. I transmuted it through music and outlaid the idea to Ken – he said it was like walking into an exhibition to create dance from. It was a mood board of colours, thoughts, and poems. I structured each of the sections (Black, Whyte, Gray) and what they would look like, with corresponding music. An African sound tying it all together.” 

African music is often presented as a monolith in the industry, by branding people who’ve probably never been to a hall party. How do you take ownership of your influences and avoid being put in a box?

“I think my attitude is a hip-hop mindset, hip-hop has always been about chopping it up and flipping a sample to become something else, repurposing it. Essentially I don’t look at the world as needing to be limited to one influence. I love the UK scene right now, what I see now is ownership. Young people creating a major sound where we’re finally hearing almost a re-imagining of hiplife and influences like Reggie Rockstone. I always wanted that feeling in my music. All my West Indian friends – their music (the Vybz, the Beenie Mans) was at the forefront when I was growing up and it would dominate the rave. So it feels nice that afrobeat and afroswing is being heard in another way. For us, our Ghanaian identity always felt very strong. Whether it’s what we heard from our parents or what we ate – it all forms you. I’m developing a new style at the moment, which feels very true to that.” 

How do you see collaborative work? What are the logistics for you?

“Collaboration I prefer. Tree is a good example of how collaboration was powerful for me because we became a proper team and a family, testament to Kwame and how he made the sessions, with everyone connecting and checking in with each other. Collaborative elements like that build you because they allow you to see someone else’s skillset and yours magnify. A skilled designer might make your music sound grander because of what it’s put against.”

“I think critical conversations are important to develop something from a space you never once considered. With Ken and me, I like to make a record that will challenge him physically, so it could be something with a beat pattern or swing or a groove that will make him dance differently. He might challenge me by saying ‘oh could you extend it, I want it to feel this type of way…’

“During Top Boy we had music supervisors, and we also had spotting sessions where we’d watch the show and see moments where music should be added. Brian’s process and mine was making material, placing it based on what we were seeing as opposed to writing to picture.”

What’s been your relationship with mentorship over your career?

“Nobody in my family has ever done anything like this before. I’m the firstborn, and the first to go to university. Being firstborn in an African setting, I had to be the example for everybody else, always walking blindly navigating my dramas and issues before everybody else. But the Internet allowed me to find so many resources and tutorials to study online. I’ve walked into so many other creative spaces (like with Brian and Kwame) where they’re not scared to share what they do and so I got an opportunity to learn on the job. Even the young people we work with at Boy Blue, seeing how they’re creating and vibing inspires me. More than anything else I’m always trying to find these moments of connection, and staying curious.” 

Recently I’d spoken with some friends of mine who are emerging producers. One of them brought up something really interesting for me to ask you: ‘What are your goals as a producer? Are they more qualitative/ quantitative?’ 

“If you ask my parents they’ll say from early that Michael was doing music, music, music. At fourteen, I was in a studio with my cousins who were singers – I looked at them and thought, I’m going to be a music producer. Once, during a Boy Blue away day I felt emotional and said to everyone, ‘I don’t know any other way to be’. 

“I’ve never given myself a number of tracks to release except for this year where my aim is to release at least 3 tracks a month. That’s where business and practice meet. My first idea of success was simply to become a producer. After that it was to make Boy Blue strong. Now it’s more about what can my platform do? 

“I think of service as a producer. That Nina Simone thing of ‘an artist has to talk about the times’, if you’re not talking about the times then you’re not doing a good job. Just as the process has become more investigative, so too has the outcomes, how can I turn what I’m doing into an actionable item?

“When you’re a creative it’s never done. People use things to quieten the noise… I’m starting to lose the things that quieten the noise because I’m getting so much more involved in other areas (film/TV etc). But I can’t tell you what the end goal is. I’ve got the plaques; it’s not about that. You can’t let this thing define you! You are your family, your friends, your interests… 

“When the lights go out you need more than accolades to show for things. 

“Music, funnily enough, has never been something that defines me – it just makes me happy. A book called The Dip taught me that you need to do something where you can go through a dip and still ride it. If you can’t then quit it because it’s not for you. 

“When I quit all my jobs at twenty, it was five years before I saw real stuff… I was getting used (some people even getting whole deals based off my music). All these things happened but that silent voice was always there, it’s ordained. Know what you’re good at. I’m good at making music.” 

Mikey says at the moment, he’s working on scoring the new Top Boy, as well as a National Geographic documentary which is due out in the not too distant future. If you missed last month’s instalment of The Architects be sure to check out our in depth chat with Boi1Da right here