One of the most enduringly influential figures in all of British hip-hop
It’s rare to find an artist within a particular scene or genre as well respected as Jehst is within UK hip-hop. Born William G. Shields in Kent, the 32 year-old also known as The High Plains Drifter, Billy Brimstone and Jay Star has, over a 14 year career thus far, enlightened fans and inspired fellow musicians.
With razor-sharp delivery, poignant content and wordplay that is mindmeltingly scientific, Jehst blew up on the UK scene from the word go, his skill in music production completing a devastating combination of talents. His debut Premonitions EP in 1999 was released on his own YNR Productions, which he co-founded with Leeds hip-hop artist Tommy Evans. With no topic too hot to touch for the young MC and a knack for visualising concepts in the mind of the listener, Jehst’s popularity and attention gripping draw appealed to the old guard and newcomers to the scene.
An almost instant hot commodity, it wasn’t long until acts such as Task Force, and producers such as Evil Ed and Harry Love came a-knocking. His career reflects a considered and well-timed approach, rather than a flooding of the market, with a number of years between each solo album release. With his own label, he has not only enabled a means of control for his personal creativity, but also created a platform responsible for perpetuating the careers of many up and coming or established artists..
We met Jehst at Unit 15; an intriguing venue nestled away in an industrial estate in Bristol’s Old Market. It was the perfect setting for one of his first gigs featuring a full live band. This band consists of members who are respected musical forces in their own right, with Micall Parknsun on vocals and MPC, Jazz T on turntables, Louis Slipperz on bass, Fae Simon also on vocals, and Kwake on drums. Crack sat down with him to discuss old and new relationships, Robocop, Mozart, and of course the megaconstruct that is music, with all its existential trimmings.
You’ve been a prominent name on the UK hip-hop scene for a long time now, working with Tommy Evans, Klashnekoff, Lewis Parker and other big hitters. 13 years or so on, are those bonds still strong?
It’s a big question. You know, some of the bonds over the years – like my man Harry Love – we ain’t done no work musically for years, that’s my boy so it doesn’t matter whether we are doing music or not. But you know, life just changes people’s agendas and directions, so it’s hard for everyone to stay tight the way the fans like to think. Sadly it ain’t like that.
Is embarking on this new live set-up with a full band an attempt to discover a new dimension in your personal style, or an effort to maintain a classic hip-hop sound?
I think the band has both elements to it. It allows me to expand and do something different as people have only really seen me with a traditional hip-hop set-up, just DJ, two turntables and a mic, bang! But then at the same time, the way we’ve approached the band is very stripped down. It’s all about the drummer, and the drummer still controls he loops and sample-based stuff. He’s got the Roland pads, so it’s like drums, bass, DJ, we got the MPC as well. It’s still very stripped down and hip-hop. We haven’t tried to recreate every element. I suppose actually it is a traditional hip-hop sound, even though a lot of people would say traditional hip-hop is just straight up programmed MPC, SP 12 and whatever drum machine shit. But even a record like Rapper’s Delight and Chic - Good Times; they replayed, they didn’t sample it because they didn’t have the technology to do it then. I put it off for a long time because I didn’t want to take on the responsibility of so many people to organise, but you know, it’s something we will hopefully keep running with. I’m really enjoying it, it’s refreshing bruv, and a new lease of life for the material as well.
Have you been seduced by telectronic bleeps and glitches on latest album The Dragon of an Ordinary Family?
I have to really give credit to LG for the sound of The Dragon … and a lot of the production on there. I think some people probably think it was a conscious effort to kind of push for a more electronic or glitchy sound. But in truth, the album was so long in the making and constantly getting put on the back burner. There are tracks on there that span, like, a five to six year period. When LG was dropping those beats on me, I’d never even heard the kind of sound that has become current in hip-hop and we kind of associate with Brainfeeder. I wasn’t hearing nothing like that. The same way those guys have developed that sound by just building on their hip-hop influences, and obviously a heavy Dilla influence, I guess we just naturally took a similar path. So stuff like the intro track, he must have dropped that beat on me in 2007, but it works with the band, and obviously the newer tracks are easier to adapt because I’ve still got all the files. If we were gonna do the old shit, I’d be like ‘we’re gonna have to get an Atari ST and dust it down!’ It’s just what we do, know what I mean? We just try and stick with what we’re feeling.
There’s a lot of serious and gritty content in your lyrics, but you still manage to keep a sense of fun, especially in your videos. Is that a hard balance to maintain?
I don’t know, I think that’s just natural man. It’s just a reflection of my personality and my attitude towards life. Anyone with a conscience can see there is a lot of fucked up shit going on, but then you can get so wrapped up in it that you become part of it. If you think there is more to life than that, you can’t give all of your energy to fighting it all the time. That might sound a little bit defeatist, but I really believe that. I see people just smoking, drinking, whatever, and they’re getting wrapped up in all these social issues in their head, and mixing it up with their personal issues. It’s just soul-destroying shit. I feel it’s important to stay conscious; to discuss shit and be aware, but at the same time don’t let that same shit drag you into the gutter. Life is here to be enjoyed. I think things like the Nuke Proof Suit (a video where Jehst parodies the way the war on terror has invaded everyday life) was an effort to counterbalance, even in terms of the content of the music. It was tongue in cheek shit, but actually a serious concept about post 9/11 fear and everybody being in that mentality, but at the same time the commercialisation of rap, and the message of hip-hop. The beats are quirky, and then even on the video, send it up like some Robocop type shit. You look at a movie like Robocop, it’s mad serious, but it’s pure stupid silliness at the same time. That’s what I wanted to do, because I think if you’re going to approach something really serious, you’re only gonna catch other people that are already thinking about that. You want to catch a wider audience and make them think. I think it’s a hard balance to maintain in terms of keeping an audience.
What are some of your most prominent musical influences?
It’s easy for me to go into a long list of hip-hop that’s influenced the sound specifically, and obviously the content as well. But then, you know, there’s a whole world of music that hip-hop has led me to. Your obvious names like your Bob Marley and your Jimi Hendrix, David Axelrod, Bob James, Roy Ayers, Scratch Perry …
You mean things that spawned hip hop?
Yeah, because through the whole culture of digging, and breaks, it’s led me back to so much music. Even things that people think are kind of cheesy, like Steve Miller or something, there’s a whole world of music out there. But really it’s your Cold Chillin-era hip-hop, Marley Marl production, Big Daddy Kane, Eric B and Rakim and Ultramagnetic MCs, Public Enemy is a huge influence, Run DMC, Beastie Boys and that whole kind of Def Jam thing. LL Cool J, Rick Rubin, DJ Premier, J Dilla. Dilla is a huge influence but I think there is a lot of bandwagon jumping though with the Dilla thing. Let’s not forget that Dilla himself was a student of Premier, Pete Rock, D.I.T.C, Marley Marl, and he would openly say that. It’s important to give credit and see the lineage of music. We were in the car the other day and Slipperz is listening to CDs and breaking down Mozart; literally breaking down sections of the music, talking about it, some deep shit. So y’know, the longer you do it, the more you notice things, and try to learn. I can’t read or write music, but that’s another thing; I’m like, ‘let me look at traditional modes of making music’. I’ve grown up in this hip-hop thing with like drum machines, turntables, and then everything’s become computer-based, or synth-based and electronic right now, and that seems to be where everyone is going. But hold up – you still need to know what an E sharp is.
How does it feel to be a pioneer of hip-hop, and a role model for a new generation of MCs?
I’ve seen these cats coming up man and I’ve got to big them up. Big up Buggsy, he be repping Bristol right now, big up High Focus, all the young cats coming through, Brotherman, Yager, Confucius, Reemus, Lunacy, Jack Flash. Yeah, there’s bare cats. I think it’s healthy right now and I’m really feeling what’s happening. I also I feel people are out of this tribal shit, in the sense of genres of music. Right now everybody’s crossing over based on your intention, like if you’re a rapper who is just rapping about pure negativity and dumb shit then whatever, but if you’re a rapper rapping about some conscious shit, and then you got a singer, or a producer, or DJ doing some total different shit on a positive vibe, then these people are coming together. It’s the content and the movement that’s more important than saying ‘you do 90 bpm music, and I do 140 bpm music’. Who gives a fuck! If we are on the same positive vibration, let’s bring that together. There’s too much negativity, especially in rap bruv. In rap all I hear is 90% negativity, and that’s sad to say. I love it, I’m a fan of it, I’m a product of it, I’m part of it, but gotta burn the negativity man, it’s just getting tiring.
How did you come to hear of Buggsy, are you often looking for new acts coming through? Is that a big part of what you do with Young ‘n’ Restless?
It’s part of it. My eyes and ears are open all the time, but it’s not like I’mactively out here scouting and whatever. I’m still doing my own thing but there’s still a roster of artists so we’re still bubbling. But Buggsy, I can’t even think how the link came about with Buggsy. I think the track ended up becoming a bit of an internet track. We didn’t actually get together in the studio and do it. I think I linked him at Outlook, that’s probably the first time I met him. The track turned out nice and I’m glad it didn’t go to waste; because when it was originally recorded it was just for the producer The Purist who did the beat. He was just trying to get people together on his track, so the fact it ended up as a Buggsy track was cool. He’s a good guy bruv, and he puts in the work, shooting the videos, all that. Buggsy, you just stole the show, you just stole the end of my interview! Shit, I’m gonna holla at him right now!
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The Dragon of an Ordinary Family is available now on YNR Productions
Thanks to Afterdark Bristol and Unit 15 for all their help
Words: Claude Barbé-Brown
Illustration: James Wilson