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Moving, Mutating, Surviving: Jehst Talks 'Billy Green is Dead'

Thursday, 29 June 2017 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

Urban music and culture in the UK - whether that’s hip-hop, grime or any other format - has always by its very nature represented working class interests and struggle. It’s not surprising to see artists like Akala, Stormzy, Lowkey and Loyle Carner speaking out on incidents like the fire at Grenfell Tower or supporting anti-establishment figures like Jeremy Corbyn.  Nevertheless, this movement’s increased visibility on public forums has inevitably sparked wider interest: who are these soapbox or ‘political’ rappers?

For London’s Jehst, though, the tag has been part of his career for nearly 20 years and is inextricably linked to his work. “Writing on social and political issues is natural and it’s just a perspective I’m always going to write from,” he says. “It’s fundamental to my understanding of hip-hop culture. I don’t ever think ‘I’m going to write a political record’ today – to be honest, this shit writes itself.

“I tend to have these conversations with people on a day-to-day basis so it’s an inevitable that it finds its way in. But even though I’m passionate I never try to approach a message in a direct way. If you present people with a message like that, they tend to have already formed an opinion and won’t listen.”

Jehst’s approach has always been dense and poetic. A revered figure in the underground, comedian Romesh Ranganathan recently anointed him “hip-hop royalty” on his ‘Hip-Hop is Dead’ podcast. It isn’t hard to see why: he’s had a finger on the pulse with his social commentary since day dot.

On his 2002 debut record ‘The Return of the Drifter’, he painted hip-hop culture as a “gemstone in a cesspit”; a resilient light in UK cities’ post-industrial darkness. His 2011 track England, meanwhile, effectively predicted the riots and subsequent political turmoil. Now, six years since his last album, he’s back with ‘Billy Green is Dead’.

“Billy Green was initially a character from the imagination of Gil-Scott Heron,” he says. “What the album looks at is people not looking out for each other and not necessarily being concerned with the right set of values. Billy Green is anybody: you, me, or the man or woman next door. He’s an everyman. 

“We’re all distracted. What’s the latest gossip? What’s in the news? What’s happening on the socials? The bombardment is constant. Billboards. Advertising. Things move so fast and we’re not paying attention. The title track itself only reveals that the character Billy Green is dead as it progresses.”

In a way, ‘Billy Green is Dead’ feels like the culmination of four albums packed with very specific personal frustrations at modern life. Jehst has never been an artist to drop an LP for the sake of it, as the long gaps between entries in his discography demonstrate.

“I think there’s a misconception that all artists work in a linear and organised way where they record tracks and albums and then another,” he says. “It might provide structure for some people, but for me a record needs to mean something and feel like a whole body of work. 

“I’m constantly making music and sketching stuff. Every now and then I’m ready to take it onto a larger canvas. From a business perspective, I feel like albums have become less important over the last few years and it’s about maintaining a presence. I’m conscious of that, which is why I still drop the odd single or collab. There was Dusk, the spoken word joint I did with Blossom a few years ago.”

What really sets Jehst’s albums apart in terms of personality is the style of production. Whereas ‘The Return of the Drifter’ was nostalgic in tone, with piano loops and strings samples, its follow up, ‘Falling Down’, was primal and aggressive. ‘The Dragon of an Ordinary Family’ was subtle and psychedelic, but his new record is leftfield and unpredictable.

“It’s all about growing and moving and mutating and doing what it takes to survive,” Jehst says. “There wasn’t really a particular approach when I was making a lot of the songs, but there was when it came to selecting and creating a final body of work. The major difference was drafting in Beat Butcha to co-produce. In hip-hop when people ask who produced a track, they’re really asking who did the beat. Butcha only made one beat but he was heavily involved in the final stages. We actually worked through the best part of 100 songs to pick 13.”

Further evidence of Jehst’s meticulous approach to songwriting can be found in his rapping style. He has frequently managed to balance catchy wordplay with intricate multisyllabics, so much so that the signature ‘Jehst flow’ has become as dependably consistent as the man himself.

But that too has evolved on this record. There are glimpses of his more combative side, which was previously best exhibited on his SBTV session, while tracks like City Streets are intimate and feel like a stream of consciousness. That came naturally.

“It’s always got to come from some sort of gut instinct,” Jehst says. “All art is referential in some way, whether that’s other artists or yourself. You can see it in the work of Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Edvard Munch, you could go on.

"Why is my writing so descriptive? I guess you kind of hope that such techniques become second nature because you’ve filed away all these references over time and automatically make these associations. There’s a fine between being able to do it off the cuff and the tragedy of falling the fuck off because you’ve become lazy and generic with your writing. It’s easy to become a cliché of yourself.”

Unlike so many others, Jehst has avoided becoming a cliché of himself. That’s partly due to his selective approach to releasing records – he’s been far more industrious as a producer and engineer, working with everyone from Triple Darkness to Foreign Beggars to Stig of the Dump.

But it’s also down to the fact he’s retained an intellectual poise and kept his feet on the ground. Time will tell whether the his latest effort carries the same long-term reputation that his earlier work does. For now, one thing’s for sure: Billy Green might be all of us, but Jehst remains a cut above.

‘Billy Green is Dead’ is out now on YNR Productions.

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