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Staying High and Staying Focused: Fliptrix Talks 'Inexhale'

Tuesday, 21 August 2018 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

When we last spoke to Fliptrix nearly two years ago, he described the UK hip hop scene as being “in the best place it's ever been”. It was obvious why he was in a buoyant mood: in the space of 12 months, he'd worked with legendary producer DJ Premier on a track for his Four Owls project and signed chart-busting up-and-comer Ocean Wisdom to High Focus, the underground label he runs from London. But having released six stellar LPs over 10 years, the one thing he deserved more recognition for was his own music.

The High Focus CEO has often felt like the kingmaker behind the scenes, playing a supporting role to talented proteges with a more marketable style. Formerly affiliated artists like Rag'n'Bone Man have even gone on to dramatic international success, for example. But Fliptrix has long embraced this anonymity to some extent, hiding his face under an extravagant bird mask whenever performing with the Four Owls. Fast forward to the imminent release of his seventh album 'Inexhale', though, there are signs that's beginning to change.

A surge in mainstream radio play has helped as Radio 1's MistaJam, Charlie Sloth and DJ Target have all spun his latest singles. The cosigns have also increased in profile: comedian Romesh Ranganathan introduced him as a “general legend” on a podcast interview and asked Fliptrix and his High Focus crew to provide the entire soundtrack for his show Just Another Immigrant on American cable television. Always modest, Fliptrix refuses to exclusively attribute the increase in exposure to his personal profile.

“There's a few different elements,” he says. “A lot of people in the UK are feeling rap music a lot more generally. There's more of it on the radio – not just the immediate UK hip hop scene you'd class High Focus in but the wider road rap and commercial scene. Secondly, we're really dedicated to putting out music and dropping new videos pretty much every month.

“It's about always building on what you've done before. There's definitely been an upswing at shows and looking at my Spotify streams and things, listeners have been increasing in number. With me, it's down to how I've strategised it. I drop a single, push that to radio and I've been getting support.”

Fliptrix's approach might seem scientific and business-like – after all, he spends nine-to-five days working on the label and pushing out a seemingly endless supply of tunes – but he somehow has the creative juices to match his work ethic. Virtually every one of his releases has dealt with the same raft of themes: self-exploration, meditation and defining your own reality. From a purist's perspective, these are themes that fulfil hip hop's long-standing 'fifth element' of knowledge. Fliptrix also regards them as a practical necessity as opposed to any kind of hyper capitalistic ethos.

“What we're doing with High Focus is important – that's my driving force,” he says. “I started what I was doing out of pure love for hip hop. I only have time to fit in my writing late at night after a full day's work, but I'm a bit of a night owl. Everything goes in waves: if I'm getting into projects I'll write a few a week, then it might be a few weeks where not much happens.

“It's a therapeutic process and it's partly why the album's title has a strong reference to breathing – you're getting stuff off your chest. In writing music you discover yourself and work out certain thought processes. Breathing is in itself a cycle and it being the seventh album felt important to me. There are seven chakras and so on. This just feels like a pivotal point.”

For all Fliptrix is methodical, having released an album precisely two years apart for the past 10, there are indicators he's more willing to dramatically advance his sound on 'Inexhale'. Whereas previous effort 'Patterns of Escapism' was an unashamed throwback to the golden era boom bap sound he first fell in love with, his latest singles (It's Like That, Bagging Up Music, New Breath and Catch Banter) variously incorporate lo-fi, trap and abstract production. Fliptrix's trademark double time and complex patterns are still present, but he's not been shy in learning from the talented new artists brought onto the label.

“I still love the very old school vibes and Four Owls is very much on that classic sound, but I listen to a lot of different styles of music,” he says. “That means a lot of grime music and double time and flows but also Bonobo and instrumental type stuff too. When I make an album I'm always thinking how it's going to translate live. I don't want to be a one-dimensional artist even in terms of my shows.

“I like to be an emcee, not just a rapper. An emcee can host a party – there are different vibes. So the album's got those deep, thoughtful, conscious mind-travelling type vibes that people know me for, but also some hype bangers to bring raw energy. Something for everyone, you know? There's classic boom bap vibes on there as well and also some experimental vibes. In terms of producers, the likes of Chemo on there – his beats are hip hop but also have that extra musical layer to them. It's all slightly more diverse.”

It's a reflection of the credibility High Focus now have in UK hip hop that artists can now attract everyone from Dizzee Rascal to Method Man to guest on records. Ten years ago, the collapse of Low Life Records inspired Fliptrix to go DIY and start High Focus in the first place; now, he's able to recruit the likes of Skinnyman, one of that former label's leading artists, to drop a guest verse at the drop of a hat. It only reinforces Fliptrix's message that hip hop, like everything else, really is a cyclical process.

“I first heard Skinnyman when I was 16,” he says. “He was a really big inspiration. We first met him at shows, exchanged numbers and kept in touch over the years. For the track he's on [Thriller], I originally put together a second verse and decided to take it off and get Skinnyman on it because I knew he would kill it. I sent him the track, he loved the tune and we met up and history was made. You know, I've been in this game a long time, but it's nice to still be breaking down doors. It's like we always say: it's about staying high and staying focused.”

‘Inexhale’ is out on August 24 through High Focus.


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