For Lord Apex, the sky’s the limit
This article is taken from Issue 130. Get your copy now via the online store.
Is Lord Apex currently UK hip-hop’s greatest vibesman?
Our Zoom call quickly turns into a clinic in self-aggrandising, which is fine when you’ve got more confidence than a gang of alley cats. “I’m going to need six Grammys, for real. That’s how I feel,” he tells me with his entire chest. “I started rapping at 16. I came into this and just wanted to be the best. When it comes to this pen, you’re going to have to mention me in the top five. By the time I’m done, you’re going to have to put my name next to Jay-Z and all of that.”
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You take these assertions as seriously as you want to take them. What is undeniable is that Apex has a lot to boast about right now. His new album, Off the Strength, is entirely produced by Cookin’ Soul (previously a group, but now the nom de plume of the solo Spanish beatmaker sometimes known as Big Size) and one of the Londoner’s strongest projects to date. The initial idea was for them to do an EP together, but their chemistry demanded a longer form. Apex and Cookin’ Soul connected over classic cartoons and “random funny stuff”; at their first meeting in real life, the producer even introduced Apex to slapstick British comedy, The Benny Hill Show. “Cookin’ Soul is a funny-ass dude,” says Apex. “I’m very comedy-influenced in everything I do. It was nice to meet a producer who’s on that same page.”
Off the Strength blends boom-bap beats with his slick flow, and draws influence from Saturday morning cartoons, retro-futuristic sci-fi movies, and psychotomimetic fantasies. Apex’s writing is dense as he kicks loquacious rhymes in frequently complex patterns that bare his west London accent. When you first hear his voice on Wagwan Dog, it is to make the suitably fantastical declaration: “I’m like the Loch Ness/ A myth, never got this.” Things get more immoderate from there. One of the album’s highlights, Like You, features a cool jazz sample that makes way for dramatic strings as Apex parrots the reactions of people who first meet him: “I’ve never met a guy like you.” Explaining the song to me, he says: “I’m just a smooth dude, ya feel me? I feel like there’s no one like me.”
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Though animation has inspired Lord Apex in the past – fittingly, he has a song called Rick & Morty – it was Cookin’ Soul who took the lead on infusing the album with snippets of old cartoons. Some rappers will eternally be associated with this methodology. There’s Ghostface Killah (when I mention his name, Apex holds up a vinyl copy of The Pretty Toney Album that he happened to have at hand), and, of course, MF DOOM. Cookin’ Soul is unashamed in his appreciation – he even released a tape last year called DOOM Tribute Beats. But Apex too considers himself in DOOM’s lineage. He describes Madvillainy, the late super villain’s collaboration album with Madlib, as one of his blueprints. “While he was alive, I was paying homage. I did my tribute track to him way before he passed. I’ve always been a man to give my flowers, but now that he has passed, it feels more like an obligation to keep that going,” he explains. “It’s natural for me to make that music. It’s not like I wake up and, ‘Oh, let’s make some things that sound like DOOM.’ I used to listen to him growing up, got into music, and I would just get those comparisons. Every five years, I try to make another version of Madvilliany. It has yet to be topped.”
“I’m just a smooth dude, ya feel me? I feel like there’s no one like me”
Go right back to the start and you’ll find that he’s always been driven by the timeless fundamentals of rap music: prominent samples, a focus on lyricism, discussing one’s own dopeness. On early career release, C.R.A.T.E Diggin’ EP, a teenage Apex – then named Tino Apex – repurposed beats from the likes of DJ Premier, J Dilla, Madlib and DOOM. It was reminiscent of Joey Bada$$’s own ode to golden age East Coast hip-hop, 1999, which dropped the previous year (Apex actually namedrops the New Yorker on For All My Hustlers, from Off the Strength). “I gotta give a lot of props to Joey Bada$$,” beams Apex. “1999 was definitely another blueprint.”
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Cut to today and his collaborations include NYC luminaries such as Smoke DZA, Wiki and Westside Gunn. Apex feels an affinity for Gunn and the rest of Griselda Gang for coming out of Buffalo and earning the respect of New York City, seeing it as a parallel for his pursuits as a London rapper. “Anytime I get an opportunity to rap with these guys, I’m doing it for the whole of the city,” he says. Apex’s dream producer list includes DJ Premier, Knxwledge, Mndsgn, The Alchemist, Just Blaze, Mike Dean and Rick Rubin, who he wants to executive produce an album that sounds like classic Beastie Boys. You can’t knock that sense of ambition.
Already lined up are three unreleased songs recorded with French electronic musician Brodinski, who Apex says has helped craft more trap-influenced music than we’re used to hearing from him. Though his sound most frequently veers towards hip-hop classicism, Apex claims to listen to trap more than any other style. He even named his cat Nudy – who, during our call, wanders in and out of view – after East Atlanta trap star Young Nudy. Funnily enough, the first song he ever heard from the rapper was called Don’t Trust Y’all, produced by none other than Brodinski. “To this day, one of the hardest beats I ever heard,” says Apex. “And I came across another [Young Nudy] song he produced called Gas. It was like, ‘Yo, I would love to work with this dude.’”
“By the time I’m done, you’re going to have to put my name next to Jay-Z and all of that”
Working with Brodinski has unlocked a new side of Apex’s writing. The way he puts it, “each frequency holds a different tone of emotion”, and this particular tone has allowed him to unleash the bravado that comes so naturally to him. Brodinski is noted for being tapped by Kanye West to work on two cuts on Yeezus: Black Skinhead and Send it Up. According to Apex, their own collabs put him in “Baby Yeezus mode”. He describes one song confusingly, but tantalisingly, as sounding “like a Navy SEAL, like a midnight operation. Oh my days… It’s sick, it’s super sick.”
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Apex continues: “In terms of that trap sound, he was just coming across differently. I could feel his electronic influences bleeding through in his earlier music. So, as soon as that opportunity came through, I was like, ‘I’m going to do what I would do if I got some Brodinski beats, and not what everyone expects me to do.’ This sounds like nothing I’ve put out before.”
As we speak, Apex is preparing to hit the road as an opening act for Freddie Gibbs. He sees it as another opportunity to prove his worth, and his intention for every set is predictably heady. “Every time I’m on stage, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to destroy that stage. And I’m opening. I’m going to make it hard for [Gibbs] to come out. That’s the mission and that’s what we gotta achieve.”
Off the Strength is out now via Cookin’ Soul Records