The Interview: Isaac Danquah
This article originally appeared on Hunger TV.
When Hunger arrives to meet Isaac Danquah, it’s in familiar surroundings. Dalston, East London; the inner city boundaries where he spent his childhood –first in Shoreditch and now in Hackney, where still lives with his parents and siblings.
The son of Ghanaian immigrants, music was an early fixture in Isaac’s upbringing, where everything from British New Wave acts like Spandau Ballet or taped performances of the late Michael Jackson would drift throughout the Danquah domicile. On weekends his house would often play host to vibrant parties thrown by his parents where he would soak up the melodies of West African highlife, typified by jazzy horns and restful vocals.
When left to his own devices Danquah, like many he grew up with, dabbled in Grime – which throughout his early teens was one of the few scenes that remained regional in an era where the internet had begun to swallow up cultural boundaries. It is amongst this array of influences that Isaac has found his sound, a unique brand of introspective rap that leans faintly into the minimalist sector of the spectrum and is illustrated in The Boy Meets Man Experiment, his six track sophomore EP released late last year. Hunger caught up with him to discuss sacrifice, empowerment and the internet generation.
The project felt like a lengthy vent, has it always been like that for you when making music?
Definitely. The whole process of my musical growth it kind of ties in with the title. I remember recording my first two songs at a mates crib down in Shoreditch and from then on I feel like every point in my life has had a soundtrack but, I just couldn’t quite figure out where it would lead to.
With that in mind, who did you make the EP for per se? Was it for yourself?
I would say it was for myself. The whole ‘Boy Meets Man’ thing represents growth, growth in the music first and then everything that ties into that, including my personal growth as a human being.
But at the same time you sample Martin Luther King’s ‘Mountain Top’ speech which serves as the introduction to the EP on Ying & Yang and definitely has a universal message.
Growing up I’m facing things as a young black man that I never experienced as a kid. I’m in a space of enlightenment, he changed the world for the better and made our time easier for us.
I hate the title ‘culture’ but if it’s not going to move the culture or make that confused kid out there feel like he not alone in this, then what? For the most part music is about yourself but at the same time you’re an entertainer, you have to make things in a way that relates to yourself but also touches somebody else; consciously or subconsciously.
Music is an influential thing, it definitely influences the masses. It could be someone making a dance about the latest shoes or talking about current affair.
With those dedicating themselves like that to a craft or to a cause there is always a level of sacrifice. Have you experienced that so far?
It’s been one of those things that has been a real situation for me. I know I’ve been walking with no money in my pocket to go to a studio session or I know that I’ve been helping out at home when that money could have been going towards a music video. It’s sacrifice because ultimately you’re cutting out a certain part of your life in order to dedicate to yourself to something you truly believe in and love.
In that same track Ying & Yang, you describe yourself as an ‘envelope pusher.’ What are the boundaries that you’re looking to challenge?
I got to a position where I want to push myself to be the greatest I can be and do what I can to deliver my music on a universal plateau. To really be at the echelon of the art form, but at the same time being able to give back to the people who supported me from the onset.
I’ve dabbled in a bit of modelling and for me that was one of those examples because where I’m from there’s a lot of the hyper masculinity and I’ve experienced a level of that. Inner city experiences, you can never escape that and I still have people who are caught up in that type of thing. The way the worlds going, technology is growing and developing but on a human level we’re still not there. There are things still occurring that bothers me and I’m trying to set a path to the young guys coming up. I’m the oldest of my siblings so I’m trying to show them a different facet.
You talk about the hyper masculinity surrounding you when you were growing up. How did you step out of that pattern?
It was a weird one. The hyper masculine thing is something a lot of young guys don’t know how to face. I was wearing skinny jeans and brothers didn’t understand that and I was very much pressured by friends who were like ‘get money.’ There were certain things that I was doing that I had to explain to them, things like the modelling are to show that I’m from this place but you can open your mind to do different things.
One of the things I had to vent was listening to music. The Nas’s, the Pete Rock’s, the Tupac’s. Even though I’m not from the projects in Queens I understood certain things that Nas was talking about. I very much took heed to that and thought let me try something different and vent in a different way.
So you found music?
That’s the best ways to describe it. You always find a diamond in the roughest places, when I look back at my life, I did play football but never really had a connection with something where I felt like ‘this is for me,’ regardless of what A. B and C are saying.
It seems to relate back to the friends who told you to focus on making money. That kind of message must make it difficult to find where your genuine passion lies.
You don’t get a chance to see what kind of thing you want to dedicate your life too. I’ve seen a lot of people hit a particular age and think ‘What the fuck have I been doing my whole life?’ ‘I’ve committed myself to something that I’ve not been passionate about.’
I definitely feel like life is a beautiful thing and you’re meant to experience it and kind of go out and not be one dimensional, so you paint your own picture.
You’ve talked about the fashion and modelling. There seems to be this mergence with the Hip Hop and Fashion worlds at the moment. What do you think about that?
For the most part I feel like it’s a positive thing, I feel like all of these worlds are one thing. It’s the same thing, it’s all expression. This interview in itself is an art form, to be able to have a conversation with someone, you’re asking the questions and I have to think about it and process it properly.
So it’s all positive and I’m definitely happy for all the worlds because at one point it was not that. But now you see Nasir Mazhar using Grime music at his LC:M showcases, when at one point Grime was very cut away from the mainstream to a certain extent. But it was just inner city music, it was just a form of expression, it was the baggage that came with it made it a difficult thing to manage. When you see people like Skepta doing their thing it makes the one’s coming up like myself feel like we have a lot to give in our time.
People are even starting to dress like Skepta now.
It’s influencing. It’ kind of like what I was saying before, you make things that are for yourself but sometimes it goes beyond you. It’s a crazy thing.
Going back to the EP, on ‘Introspective’ you describe yourself as reclusive. In today’s age as your popularity increases people are going to want to know more and more about you. Do you think about having to balance that expectation in the future?
There’s a level of mystique that I want as an artist, especially as I feel this information age can be a lot sometimes, even down to things like Instagram. If somebody wants you they can basically get you. It sounds stupid because I’m making music but there are so few limits anymore so I definitely believe in a level of mystique. To a certain extent anyway, the EP is to give a bit of myself out there.
“Introspective”, I feel like it’s one of the honest songs. There’s been a lot going on and we want to question more: ‘Why is this law in place? ‘Why is the world like this?’ I had a lot to say in the three verses, talking about a whole generation, encapsulating the times that we’re in: “Standing out is the new fitting in, lost in translation the generation tired of waiting.”
The line about the “generation tired of waiting,” struck a chord. We’re in an age now where many of the conventional ways of doing things are now outdated of waiting.
It’s definitely the time period we’re in, it’s the information age. You can get everything so fast, if you want to know something it’s there.
Things like the Internet are such levellers. How do you feel then about this new generation, I don’t even know how to describe it. It seems like people just call it ‘the culture’ now because it has no title.
Outside of myself I’m definitely happy. Just because I feel like for the most part as a fan of the UK, we’ve always had this thing where we write our own music, we do our own thing, we have our own sound. But before we had to sacrifice that in order for us to achieve and get to the next level. But in terms of the UK right now, I feel like we’re in our golden era.
When you’re looking at the history of America, rap in America is like religion. They’ve had forty years with it, from Afrika Baambata to Soul Sonic Force to the Run DMC’s and what happened over there is happening over here. It started off as a voice from the people; but there had to be a level of sacrifice for the mainstream to understand. You had to have the LL Cool J’s ‘I Need Love’ for you have to the 50 Cent ‘In The Club’ or ‘Outta Control.’
The guys who had the power, the Tinchy’s, the Wiley’s, they are all definitely innovators with music and they made it easier for us coming up now. There’s also a level of ownership right now, a level of understanding your worth. I don’t believe in working with people who don’t believe in my sound.
You spoke about empowering and ownership. Do you mean platforms like Soundcloud and Bandcamp?
Yes, but when I say ownership I mean a thing where there was a point in time I know that it was many artists aim to get signed. We have the power now. There has been so many times where your favourite artist was compromised because of label situations, where as right now you can literally look to what you find, whatever your taste is.
Before you would have to wait for The Lick and Trevor Nelson to hear the latest song or listen to Radio 1. I remember when Lupe Fiasco’s ‘Superstar’ came out I always used to listen to the Kiss Chart Show or go to the Internet Café just to hear that song one more time. But now it’s kind of crazy, the information age has allowed us to have things right in front of us.