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Less Is More: Ed Scissor and Lamplighter Reunite For 'Tell Them It's Winter'

Thursday, 23 June 2016 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

As much as it’s inspiring to see London's grime stars selling out venues and being endorsed by American celebrities, you do wonder whether the UK hip hop scene might feel a collective tinge of jealousy.

In the wake of grime’s mainstream renaissance there’s been a subtle rewriting of the country’s recent hip hop history, as evidenced by the number of American artists embracing what they believe to be “British rap”. In reality, Britain’s grime and hip hop cultures stem from separate lineages, even if the two scenes often overlap.

That, you might think, would be a source of immense frustration. But, the green-eyed monster is yet to rear its ugly head and UK hip hop has continued to do what it’s always done: plug away regardless of what’s going on around it.

Ed Scissor is part of one of England’s most celebrated hip hop cliques in High Focus Records. The label has remained stringently rap-oriented over the years, releasing classics by Jam Baxter, the Four Owls and, most recently, Ocean Wisdom.

Though their albums rarely bother the charts in the way a Skepta or Kano release might, their videos can still notch up millions of views thanks to their passionate followers. This makes sense. High Focus artists have inherited the support that UK hip hop enjoyed during its short-lived ‘golden age’ in the early 2000s.

Back then, acts like Skinnyman, Klashnekoff and Jehst shifted units and inspired a revival in sounds not seen heard the days of Massive Attack and Portishead. When Scissor released his debut record, ‘Better.Luck.Next.Life’, under the name Edward Scissortongue, in 2012 he clearly ticked the right boxes for fans of that era. He cites Jehst’s ‘Return of the Drifter’, in particular, as “a defining record for [this] generation of artists and listeners.”

His writing was dense, his flows and multisyllabic rhyme patterns were technically advanced and, with the help of Glaswegian producer Lamplighter, he painted a post-apocalyptic landscape that was as engrossing as it was foreboding. It was another superb UK hip hop record destined to be heard only by underground ears.

Unsurprisingly, his new abridged name isn’t just for marketing reasons. It’s a statement of intent. Speaking to Scissor (whose real name is Thomas Hawkins), it’s plain that his new album with Lamplighter, ‘Tell Them It’s Winter’, is a much sharper beast than its predecessor.

“A lot has changed,” he says. “We’ve changed massively as people and as artists in the past four years. This new album is clearer, more concise, more effective, less abstract, less confusing, less diluted and more potent. It’s easily the best project I’ve done.

“Whereas the first album was quite impressionistic in terms of writing, this one is entirely about girls, love, lust, hate and relationships. It’s about that primal chase that everyone has with love and that side of life – it drives everything.

“That doesn’t mean I’ve just made a boring album about my love life. It’s more universal and what I see and feel my peers going through. I didn’t approach the album intending it to happen – it just did.”

Impressionistic is a good way to describe Scissor’s writing on previous efforts. Even on more hook-heavy tracks like Please Say Something or Rosegarden he tended to present vivid images before abandoning them for something seemingly unrelated.  

His poetic, almost spoken word, style might have seemed irksome to first time listeners if the other elements weren’t so attention grabbing. He is a craftsman, constantly switching up flows and finding new phrases and rhymes to play with, all the while maintaining his commanding vocal delivery.

“Establishing myself in the hip hop community at first was important,” he says. “It’s fun flipping and kicking and ripping, but now I’m more interested in actually saying things.

“I’ve learned that less is more. Unless you’re as abnormally gifted as a lyricist as Carlos Santana is at guitar, for example, you’ll accomplish more by using your own resources. I mean, a band like the XX do with simple notes what Santana do by slaying, except with a hundredth less technical effort.”

There’s a lot to be said for making better use of your resources in Scissor’s eyes. Like his first album, ‘Tell Them It’s Winter’ was produced entirely by Lamplighter, whom he describes as a “master of emotion”. Assembling random beats is of little interest to Scissor, who has worked with virtually nobody else in his career.

“It’s very much one way traffic in that Lamplighter always sends music first and I follow from there,” he says. “Sometimes it takes months. He’ll never send something unless it doesn’t feel emotionally powerful in his innards. He doesn’t make beats, he makes songs.

“He’s brilliant at sampling classical music, sequencing incredible drums, playing synths. They’re beautiful scores that I can work from. I think that’s important. There are too many beats and too many emcees out there producing inane bullshit.

“Artists need to sit down and listen to their heart and soul. What do they want to communicate? I’m happy to be pigeonholed as a hip hop artist, if anything, but what I really give a fuck about is being a songwriter.”

Scissor’s emphasis on songcraft is admittedly something that’s been missing from the UK’s hip hop scene for many years now. Other than Plan B and a handful of others, it has struggled to grapple with the pressures of making music that transcends its audience without sacrificing what makes it distinct.

Scissor, like the High Focus stable as a whole, refuses to get bogged down in pleasing either purists or the mainstream, though. There’s no sour grapes on his part, precisely because he cares little about being misrepresented. If anything, Scissor seems to find the revival of grime, for example, inspirational.

“I like the grime scene – it’s full of attitude,” he says. “When I was a whippersnapper it was probably the biggest scene in London I was aware of. It died a death because the terrible urban pop stuff nullified it but it came through again.

“They don’t give a fuck and that’s what’s important. It’s completely different to what we do and we need to be OK with that. We have dudes on High Focus like Ocean Wisdom who are lucid and make impressive stuff that can appeal to both hip hop and grime kids.”

And what about Scissor? “I’m happy making lo-fi, half-speed albums about love, especially as Lamplighter and I went to hell and back making it.”

'Tell Them It's Winter' is out on July 15 through High Focus.

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