James Massiah is the poet and producer finding hope in dark times
We premiere the striking music video for James Massiah’s new single Natural Born Killers.
Poet, DJ, producer; there’s no one descriptor to sum up what James Massiah does. Having worked with The xx, Massive Attack and countless others and performed work at Tate Modern, ICA and even in Parliament, Massiah is a definitive polymath. Born in Mitcham, his work has covered everything from mental health to fashion, all tied together by his personal philosophy of amoral egoism.
Today he announces his first solo EP Natural Born Killers. A story of love in the face of insurmountable odds, it fuses Massiah’s typically philosophical musings and poetic lyricism with his love of dance music, with a little help from the likes of Joy Orbison.
This morning we’re very excited to premiere the Ian Pons Jewell-directed video for the EP’s titular track Natural Born Killers (Ride For Me). Echoing the themes of the EP, the video follows groups of lovers in a moment of seeming apocalypse. We also caught up with Massiah ahead of the EP’s release, read our interview with him and watch the video for Natural Born Killers below.
There’s a clear climate change influence on the video for ‘Natural Born Killers’ – what prompted you to include that messaging alongside the song?
The video came to be following a few meetings and hangouts with the label and director Ian Pons Jewell. I explained that it was really about the idea of a love song, or love in the face of insurmountable odds. The lyrics often draw on religious themes, and I guess it’s the idea of an armageddon, a rapture, fire and brimstone, the apocalypse and the ‘last days’ that explain the movements and behaviours of the characters in the video; the heat and the ominous sense of impending doom. All the while, the lovers are in touch and ready to face the end of the world together.
The beauty with this video is there is enough within it to allow a viewer to watch it over and over and see different things in it and get different things from it. There was never any conversation about any specific real-world parallel or message; it was all just about the music. How it made Ian feel and what I felt when I was making it. What the sounds and lyrics mean to me and what he saw in his mind when he heard it.
How did the track itself come about?
I’d been listening to a lot of Mr Fingers, Trax Records, William S, Omar S, Frankie Knuckles, acid house and other music like that. I sort of followed this thread through in my head and revisited a lot of the early Eski, Roll Deep and DJ Gumbo production, pitching it down on YouTube and noticing the similarities it had at this speed with dancehall and some of the slower acid house tracks I’d heard. I wanted to replicate this sound and feeling and this mood. I knew it had to feel uplifting, but I also wanted to tell the story of a heartbreak and have some sort of pathos built into the tune.
There’s probably 50 different versions of it in my iTunes; the NBK v5 Carlotta Dub (w/bass) was when it really started to come together. Then Jon Rust heard it and put Joy Orbison’s ears on it. They played around with it and got some decent versions, perhaps my favourite from those sessions is the Kingdom Hall Dub. I’m just glad we finally landed on a version that felt right for the feelings I was trying to portray.
You work across a lot of different disciplines and fields of creativity, is there an approach that you think unites your work?
Less than an approach I’d say it was a philosophy. Amoral egoism is very central to all the work I do and less than being a prescription for how to create a work; it allows room for guilt-free creativity. Within that is determinism, the idea that everything is the way that it ought to be, as well as egoism, which is the idea that everything we choose to do we choose for our own pleasure. Then there’s Nihilism, more specifically moral nihilism, which is that nothing is wrong or right in and of itself, outside of a given context.
This attitude is present in funk, in grime, in bashment, in house, in hip-hop, especially in terms of the tilt the lyrics have toward self-determination, doing your own thing, sexuality, hedonism and the like. Having these principles in my mind at the point at which I sit at my laptop to make a beat or with my phone in hand about to write into my Google docs allows for a great deal of artistic freedom.
Is there a specific way you approach music that’s distinct from your poetry or other work?
I suppose I have the beat first, with the music. I started producing to have a space where I could create that was free from expectation, people sort of expected “good” poetry from me but they didn’t expect any music from me, let alone “good” music, so I felt free. At some point along the journey, the discovery of amoral egoism happened, and then nothing mattered, and there was no pressure at all!
You’re a prolific collaborator as well, working with everyone from Massive Attack to The xx, how do you decide who to work with and how does that process compare to your solo work?
A lot of collaborations are about a moment in time. Being in a particular place or with a particular person in a moment of heightened emotion of awareness and wanting to document that. When The xx were doing there run of shows in Brixton I’d bumped into someone, and they said, “Hey, wanna come here? Follow me I’ll sort out passes”. Then we’re all just hanging out in the back chatting, and someone says, ” Hey, could you read a poem for the final film, just to summarise this moment and this season of events”.
So many things have come about like that, and there’s not one thing I’ve done with anyone that I could say I didn’t want to do or that I’m not proud of for one reason or another. So much of art and music for me is about ideas and connections and conversations and meeting people and seeing what they think. That’s a big part of what I get out of collaborating. The stories that Cameron [McVey, Massive Attack producer] had to tell, the little tricks and production tips Joy O had when going over this track, all so priceless and separate from whether or not there is something concrete to show at the end of it, the time and moments and intelligence shared are infinitely special.
Your upcoming release will be your first solo EP – what do you hope people take away from it?
The love story in Natural Born Killers is very important to me; I think in my discovery of some of these “darker” philosophical ideas I lost sight of how important and special people and relationships and communities can be. The track Last Dance on the EP is about lost love, and how sad that can be.
At times when I couldn’t see a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, it was music and poetry and the people who came to me through those mediums who offered me an alternative to the previously unthinkable. The track 144,000, another Biblical reference is about the last people on earth, this last tribe of people who overcame the bullshit and the fuckry together because they had a common interest and the wherewithal, the passion, the belief and the discipline to see it through.
Natural Born Killers is out 18 September via Levels.