Interview // UK hip hop pioneer Jehst on his new concept album Billy Green is Dead

Jehst is back with his first LP in six years

Chances are you’re probably no stranger to Jehst. The pioneering Huddersfield based MC and co-founder of YNR Productions record label has paved the way for UK hip hop since The Return of The Drifter back in 2002. With his thought-provoking content and ability to paint expressions clearly in your mind, this wordsmith continues to capture the attention of hip hop fans with the release of his long-awaited new album – his first in six years – Billy Green Is Dead.

To celebrate the release of the album, Jehst is set to perform at Bristol’s Marble Factory this Thursday as part of his Billy Green Is Dead tour. With new material under his hat and a selection of classics to follow, this is an unmissable show for the heads.

With new material under his hat and a selection of classics to follow, this is an unmissable show for the heads

Nitelife caught up with Jehst ahead of the show to learn more about his latest album Billy Green Is Dead and the art behind his distinguishing lyricism.

The thought process and depth behind all of Jehst’s albums are what makes his music so striking, with conviction and substance in every verse. Billy Green Is Dead stands out not only for his slick delivery style, mesmerising beats and intelligent lyrics, but also for the distinctive lyrical narrative – coming together to create his first concept album.

The concept behind Billy Green Is Dead is lifted straight from the late great Gil Scott-Heron

‘The concept behind Billy Green Is Dead is lifted straight from the late great Gil Scott-Heron. Initially, I didn’t really have any specific concept in mind and I started out by asking Beat Butcha to come to the studio and listen to a long playlist of random tracks, demos and ideas, and we shortlisted some as potential album tracks. The ones that I felt strongly about all had a certain kind of angle to the lyrics and the subject matter.

‘I was listening to Gil Scott-Heron one day and it struck me that the common thread throughout these songs was similar to his song Billy Green is Dead, where he’s basically saying that we’re not paying enough attention to some of the things going on right under our noses, in our communities and in our society. From there, I decided to expand on this ‘everyman’ Billy Green character to create a loose narrative arc around the songs and make the album a complete piece.’

I decided to expand on this ‘everyman’ Billy Green character to create a loose narrative arc around the songs and make the album a complete piece

Jehst has delivered some of the most respected hip hop albums to come out of the UK, including The Return of The Drifter (2002), Falling Down (2003), as well as later single releases like last year’s Reel It In with Lee Scott and Strange U. But with six years since his last solo album The Dragon of An Ordinary Family, fans have been waiting for his 2017 release with bated breath.

‘I would love to churn albums out more quickly than I do but ultimately, it’s about the industry machine and how much you’re willing to sacrifice. Plus, the demand for content in order to campaign and promote an album nowadays is crazy. To do all of that work as a fully independent artist, make sure it’s of a standard, and then roll it all out – it’s very time consuming. But I’m definitely thinking about ways around that predicament.’

To do all of that work as a fully independent artist, make sure it’s of a standard, and then roll it all out – it’s very time consuming

Looking through Jehst’s catalogue of albums and EPs, it’s hard to really pinpoint a similar sound in each release. With each project standing alone with a unique sound, Jehst talks us through how he’s continued to keep his sound fresh in every release.

I just try to stay a fan of the music so I can absorb new influences and evolve

‘I just try to stay a fan of the music so I can absorb new influences and evolve. Also, I’m lucky enough to have been able to collaborate with some amazing artists and producers. My friend Beat Butcha was a big part of defining the sound in Billy Green Is Dead. The very talented and prolific producer Paul White, whose beats are also on this album, definitely laid the foundation for the musical direction too, in terms of sonic textures and atmospherics. His tracks kind of formed the framework that we built around.’

Jehst is definitely considered one of the most respected MCs in UK hip hop and a key source of inspiration for others. And that respect is most certainly well-earned; true to his lyrics in his Nuke Proof Suit classic track, when it comes to writing new music, Jehst’s work ethic is definitely ‘blood, sweat, tears and years’.

It creates a pressure knowing your work can inspire others

‘It creates a pressure knowing your work can inspire others. But on the flip side, you’re not starting from zero when you drop a new project. You’ve already got an established audience and a track record that you can use to gauge what you’re doing. It’s easier to judge your level of investment and manage expectations.

It’s more artistically gratifying to be a ‘rapper’s rapper’ or an artist who impacts on other artists than it is to be commercially successful

‘As for being a benchmark, that’s definitely a big honour. I don’t think I ever anticipated myself being that, but it’s something that I always strived for in terms applying styles and techniques to my writing process. I was always working towards a certain level of excellence. It’s more artistically gratifying to be a ‘rapper’s rapper’ or an artist who impacts on other artists than it is to be commercially successful.’

In comparison to some MCs whose verses ooze with bravado, Jehst’s socio-political views have always shone through in a thought-provoking way.

If I can’t keep myself interested and engaged, then I’m fighting a losing battle trying to get someone else to take an interest in what I’m saying

‘I have a responsibility to use my platform and lead by example. Even just as a fan of the artform, I want to be challenged, you know? If I can’t keep myself interested and engaged, then I’m fighting a losing battle trying to get someone else to take an interest in what I’m saying.’

JEHST LIVE: 19 October – Marble Factory
Facebook event // tickets

Photo by Matt Johnson

Previous Weekly picks: 16 – 22 October // 15 shows to see this week, including Vagabon, Jehst, an Exit Records takeover & Simple Things Festival
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