Purveyor of: Lyrically focused, socially charged hip-hop founded on uncompromising beats that sound like they’ve been echoing through an abandoned factory for 1,000 years.
File next to: Nas, Above Top Secret, Brendan Philip
Playing: WL17 Night 3, Sunday, Feb. 19 @ The Garrison.
Emay is a Hamilton-based hip-hop artist, who has garnered lots of buzz for his recently released music video, “Bakkah: The History of Humankind.” Wavelength’s Emily Scherzinger talked to him about his latest work, the influence of Hamilton on his art, and the growth of his music.
You just released your latest music video, “Bakkah: The History of Humankind,” which you described to The Fader as “a battle displaying [your] ideological development and the conflict of ideas taking over and building off of one another.” How does the Bizzy Bone sample at the beginning relate to this? And, for that matter, how about that sample of Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat”?
The Bizzy Bone sample actually comes from an audio interview he did wherein he sounded pretty high or drunk and when I had first heard it I just thought it was hilarious as me and my friend from high school used to make fun of it some years back. The concept of belief in anything is crucial to the album and also that track, so I simply wanted to display a kind of fanaticism that we as people might have in a certain belief since he’s yelling “praise God, praise God” in a pretty erratic way. It was simply a way to poke fun at how wild we might seem when we’re enthralled by a particular belief; whether it be a religious belief or not.
My reason for sampling “Famous Blue Raincoat” was because there were particular lines in the song that had perfectly fit my thought process at the time when I was working on the album. Particularly the line, “I hear that you’re building your little house, deep in the desert… You’re living for nothing now.” It just made me think of the Kaaba, which is a very important site in traditional Islam. At the time, my interpretation of Islam was drifting from the orthodoxy, so that line in the song plus the fact that the song itself is just beautiful just compelled me to play around with it in my own way. My interpretation of the Kaaba (which is also called the house or “bayt” in Arabic) isn’t that it’s a physical place where rituals are performed, but more so a metaphorical or ideological house that’s used to protect people from lies and lead them towards knowledge and growth for social betterment. That line basically inspired me to write the whole song which sees human history as our attempt to build a “house” that is very faulty and has a long way to go.
In this video, the symbol of the dancer in riot gear seems multilayered — his movements are clearly restricted by his armour, which I can see as representative of ideological development, but riot-clad cops have also come to signify oppression, fear, and, potentially, death for people of colour. Can you comment on this symbolism in relation to your own political and social consciousness? How is this reflected in your work?
Yeah, in a sense the riot gear version of me represents the ideas that hold us back. All of the oppression, racism, sexism and capitalism that I was forced to digest as the only way while growing up. It’s an extremely rigid and restricted way of thinking and living in my opinion, but it took me a long time to even have a grasp on that and I’m still learning and developing. It took a lot of reading, pain, and stress to be forced to think outside of the boxes that we’re all born into. It isn’t fully obvious in the video, but towards the end there’s a bit of blood on my eye while I’m rapping as myself without the riot gear and that’s to represent the struggle of the ideological war that has gone on inside for a long time and is still ongoing.
A lot of the sounds behind your words are disjointed and gritty, with heavy drum tracks and ambient, deep noise. As the main producer of your work, do you see the background tracks as co-extensive with your lyrics? How do your lyrics and background tracks interact?
For “Bakkah” in particular, I deliberately made the beat sound extremely off-kilter in order to emphasize how skewed our reality as humans can be at times. I really wanted it to sound like something that’s disorganized but at the same time somewhat consistent yet barely holding itself together. I feel like human history gives me that exact same feel, so I just ran with it and it happened quite naturally. Lyrically speaking, I always allow the beat to guide my format first and foremost, but then once I’ve recorded my vocals I begin to edit the instrumental and adjust it to better fit the vocals and then it’s kind of a never-ending process from there. I never want the beat to dominate the vocals or vice versa, so I’m always trying to find that perfect balance where a person doesn’t just hear vocals over a beat but instead they hear unity between the two as one sound.
You’re based in Hamilton — does your setting influence your music in any way?
Hamilton being a working-class city has influenced my music more than any other city I’ve lived in. There’s a certain grittiness and realness to it that’s so intense that it leads to a sort of absurdity and surrealism as a result. Sonically, I’ve always tried to fuse atmosphere and abstraction with a very hard hitting hip-hop sound and I think that living in Hamilton has definitely had a major impact on that.
How would you say your music has grown and changed since your EP, Sinner, Song-Writer?
I feel like I’ve become a much better writer because of Sinner, Song-Writer and have been building on that ever since. I still feel like I have a long way to go and that’s why I enjoy making music so much. I just feel like the development and growth never ends, whether from a production standpoint or otherwise. I think that I’m becoming a little bit more conventional in some ways as I’ve been veering away from sampling lately and my compositions have always been slightly more poppy and somewhat cinematic, so I’m just building on that as it seems to be where I’m naturally headed. As long as I’m in control of my sound I’ll always love creating whatever.
I’ve looked online everywhere, and haven’t been able to find a release date for Ilah. When should we expect it, or is it going to be a surprise release?
I actually just announced this last week and it will be out on February 24th through Star Slinger’s label Jet Jam!
What can Wavelength audiences expect out of your performance?
I just like to get in my zone and allow people to enter my world in a sense. When it comes to things like this I usually don’t know how to answer so I guess when I perform they should expect that I’m honest with myself.
Don’t miss Emay when he plays the final night of Wavelength Music Festival 17, tomorrow night (Sunday Feb. 19) at the Garrison!
– interview by Emily Scherzinger