On my way out of the house, as I pull the door, I’m cradling my phone between shoulder and cheek, Ray Fiasco is on the phone “… listen yeah, the mount Rushmore of rappers, yeah? And obviously there’s more than five faces – Issa mad ting!” – he’s in full flow on his favourite topic, rap music. “… I mean how can you not relate to that? Man said: Pussy. Money. Weed. It’s maud!”. As my spirit guide when it comes to American culture, I tell Ray I’ve never played a Lil Wayne album, and he’s at a loss as to how I’ve managed to survive this long. “…if it wasn’t for the shit he was doing back in the day, we’d never have got Drake fam…” he says patiently schooling me.
Bringing it back to the UK, Twitter conversations about homegrown talent on our own shores are in the limelight. “R’n’B is thriving” but “too many artists are slept on,” “Grime is Dead” or “we only support US acts” or “R’n’B is thriving but Ella Mai got love from the US before her home country” and on and on the story goes. Picking my way across South London, I’m on a different wavelength. I’m heading to Deptford for an interview with Manchester’s hip-hop/soul duo, Children of Zeus.
As a duo, Children of Zeus have come to recreate hip-hop/soul in their own image and I’ve been curious about their story for a while. ‘Travel Light’, the title of their debut LP and ‘Daddy’s Car’, buried as track number 12, tells the story of a childhood soul education. In the chokehold that is summer ’18 in London, it’s the kind of soundtrack that hits you from the left as you chase memories of the music you grew up on during those endless six week holidays a kid.
“Fuck the hand I was dealt, you fuckers didn’t see the hand I just played”
– The Story So Far
Tyler, the vocalist, entered the scene as a songwriter and producer, originally under the moniker Hoodman, whilst Konny began MCing, DJing and beat-making for hip hop crews, The Microdisiacs and Broke’n’£nglish. I get to the pub where we’re due to meet and say later to Ranen. The lasting musical impact of T-Pain and Lil’ Wayne fresh in my mind, I manage to get a beer two minutes before Konny arrives alone. We do handshakes and intros: “I dunno what it is about London,” Konny starts off in an accent that is pure Lancashire, “I’m alright with the sun beating but in London is just ‘umid.” I tell him it’s the pollution and he looks unimpressed. Tyler is on the way he says, “but he ‘ates all this stuff anyway so…”
At the time, no one didn’t wanna hear an English accent making soul or hip-hop. Let alone a Mancunian making it, d’y’know what I mean?
I start off asking Konny about the modern Manchester scene. London is it’s own absorbing bubble at the best of times, but there’s so much more besides and, Manchester’s contribution to UK music heritage can’t be underestimated. From northern soul to Oasis and rave, it’s a city that has always pushed the conversation and today it’s no different. “Musically, there’s a legacy of Manchester music that came before me and Tyler obviously, that didn’t or did, get credit where credit is due. And, y’know I’m a bit of a nerd with music so I try and work out everything that came before me, so the guys that came before me don’t really get spoken about, d’y’know what I mean? The likes of 52nd Street who made one of the best soul tunes ever came from Manchester. Crispy 3, came from just outside Manchester, who inspired me personally, Rap Assassins, hip-hop group from Manchester who did pretty well – no one’s gonna talk about them now. But, I think the time we’re at now, it’s just a lot more accepted to make American music in the UK. Obviously, we make soul and hip-hop – it’s American music. At the time, no one didn’t wanna hear an English accent making soul or hip-hop. Let alone a Mancunian making it, d’y’know what I mean? I suppose it’s a lot more acceptable.”
Children of Zeus, along with Layfullstop, KSR, the Mouse Outfit, Black Josh, Dane & IAMDDB represent a clutch of the new school and seasoned musicians all at once. “Basically there’s a real difference that’s only happened in the last few years, compared to when me and Tyler were kind of coming up. So, when me and Tyler were making our way up in the world of Manchester hip-hop, not many people were doing it. And the ones that were, were all really competitive and we didn’t really work well with each other, support each other. Y’know there was a couple that did, but on the whole it was really competitive. Whereas now, within the last three years all these kids have popped up who – their inspirations and points of reference for the music they’re inspired by is pretty different to us, obviously. They’re a lot younger than us, grew up in the same place as us, it’s all really soulful – it’s hip-hop, soul, jazz. But what’s different about these younger guys is that they all work together, all support each other, all in various groups together. And it kind of inspired all us older lot to kind of get it together. And now, the whole – like, 95% of the city is, kind of, very very loving and kind of, supportive of each other and everyone wants to work with each other. As soon as someone puts a release out, you might get a text with like, 50 people in the group message: ‘look my video’s out tomorrow, can you all push it?’ and everyone goes online and they push it. And it’s just a much nicer vibe, so…”
Last year, I was put on to the music of Children of Zeus by a recommendation from rapper and producer Verb T, and in the months since, I’ve watched the excitement build from fans online awaiting the arrival of their debut ‘Travel Light’ LP. We talk about the processes that went into making their debut that’s more than a simple lofi hip-hop take with commercially appealing soul vocals dotted about. Both Konny and Tyler have managed to tap into the feelings of an era gone by without treading old ground, and ‘Slingshot Riddim’ featuring Terri Walker is just one example. Opening with sleek keys intro before Walker comes in to surf the melody, there’s an elegance to the pacing that makes you want to go out and spend money. “Sometimes one of us will make a beat and bring it to the studio and we’ll both work on it, or like, Tyler doesn’t like singing in front of people either. When we’re in the studio he’ll do that on his own time, so if we make a beat, he’ll write and go like, ‘look I’m not going to do this while you’re here, I’ll wait until you’re gone’ or he’ll come up with melodies and work out the lyrics later. There’s no real formula to it to be fair, it’s all a bit kind of – usually, it just involves lots of weed and then puttin’ the music on really loud and go from there. I like being in the studio with Tyler, I think he prefers being on his own because – I think he likes being on his own just generally, d’y’know what I mean?” Konny asks laughing.
‘Don’t be fool, grab your tool and make your move, leave your mark and you’re a star, no one but you knows who you are’
– It’s All On You
Time is a recurring theme throughout our conversation, from the leaders of the old school, who never benefited from technology to the 20 year graft it has taken for Konny and Tyler to realise their dream, time is everything. “We put out an EP called ‘The Story So Far’ – our last project – now, that was made over – the majority was made over three or four years, some songs were like, nine years old. It was made over a long time. The new one is obviously a lot more focused. Now, if you listen to that last EP, it was all quite positive and uplifting, weird thing about it is me and Tyler were going through really crappy times in our lives. Both at like, the lowest points of our lives. And I don’t know why we ended up writing such happy and positive songs ‘cause we really weren’t in that space, so – back to the original question there’s no ‘we need to write about this’ I think that it’s just whatever.”
I’m curious about how Konny feels they’ve changed in the time spent chasing their dreams. Music is an industry that can mute even the most strident personalities and the continued grind of trying to realise ones ambition can break the toughest spirits. “It’s hard to separate myself and listen to it as someone else, so I can’t really gauge how people listen to it. There’s certain songs that get to me and I wrote them d’y’know what I mean? The very first song on the album, you might listen to it as just a song but to me, that song – genuinely, tears come out my eyes when I wrote it. It was partly the music, it was partly – it’s the first song on the album but it’s also the last song we wrote. So, if you listen to the lyrics of the song… I mean, there’s so much more to the song that I could have fitted in but it’s basically saying where we’re up to now and how we struggled for a while to kind of find our place and people left us, people didn’t care.”
It’s a few days before I see Konny again.
It’s a Monday afternoon and I’m making my way out of Caledonian Road tube and down North road. Saturday night was the official launch of the ‘Travel Light’ album, the stage was set at London’s Jazz Cafè for a show they’re not likely to forget for a while. A celebration of timeless talent and rising stars, Children of Zeus played to a packed house with featured artists Terri Walker, KSR and Layfullstop taking turns to amp the crowd before the boys came out to do a headline set that skated the musical spectrum, from soul, and hip-hop to lover’s rock and dub reggae.
I never really sat back and thought that over all these years, like what do I really want?
“Jazz Cafè was amazing man,” Tyler says through a smile, shades in place. Konny has run to the shop, and before Alexandra gets started shooting their pictures, I corner Tyler for his reaction to the show. “Just to finally get the album done, even though it only took us a few months to make, it’s 20 plus years in the making. To get to that point, and then to get to a launch, and then sell out Jazz Cafè and have everyone coming, singing the words, I really couldn’t put it into words how much that meant man. You know what’s crazy? Because – I can only speak for myself – but, as a kid I wanted – I’ve always loved music in general, I just wanted to be making music for people. But, I had different kind of dreams when I was younger of what it was to be an artist so to speak, d’y’know what I mean? Like, the mansions and all this kinda mad stuff. And I never really changed the plan along the way, I was just grinding on and enjoying what I was doing. Until I got to a point, – more with the Children of Zeus stuff – when we sat down it’s like what do we actually want from this? And it’s like wow, I never really sat back and thought that over all these years, like what do I really want? And alls I want is to just be able to travel the world, pay me bills and look after me children, and make music for people.”
The soul element of the duo, Tyler, as Konny told me a few days earlier, prefers recording on his own. If you play ‘Slow Down’ on your own you can almost see it. I ask about his process and the reason he records in solitude, “I just enjoy kind of being able to come out of meself, not feel any embarrassment or just – y’know, all me inhibitions can just run free when I’m on me own in the studio. Have me headphones in, try whatever. If it doesn’t work, no one else gets to hear it, just me. [It’s] kind of where I get to let loose, and obviously it’s like fine tuning everything. And by the time the songs are done I’ve already got it running through me head. So when it comes to the live show, it’s all mapped out by then. But the actual creation process? It’s about letting it flow freely, rather than kind of sticking to a little routine – I’ll try things out all the time.” ‘Travel Light’ as a debut is a success because of its balance, hip-hop/soul coming together like tessellating shapes rather than competing, “the whole Children of Zeus thing is about how we connect together. As far as taste wise we’ve basically almost got identical taste in music so once we both get a piece of music where we’re both like this is some, d’y’know what I mean? Next level shit – once we both look over and go, ‘this is the one’, that’s where the vibe begins.”
Konny comes to stand by Tyler’s side as Alexandra takes the helm on this 28° day in London. Alexandra Waespi spent two years on tour with Adele as her tour photographer documenting it all – archive stills, intimate portraits, tour life reportage – and today she brought the range. Armed with a Fuji xt2, Contax g2 and a Konica instant press she sets Konny and Tyler up in a way she likes, getting them to relax.
“I don’t – what you menna do with your ‘ands?” Konny says as he backs up against the wall. “We’re not used to this shit, we’re just two awkward guys.” Tyler adds as he takes his sunglasses off, revealing the kind of freckles that are every ‘edgy’ fashion photographer’s wet dream. “We’re just two awkward guys,” he says shifting from foot to foot. The novelty of the moment isn’t lost on me, only a handful of times since I’ve been writing about music have I had this kind of role reversal, with two women behind the lens.
Alex asks the pair how they met and Konny tells the story of a creepy mansion in Paris 15 years ago, the kind that could have easily been in the film The Shining, “… there’s one African guy stood at the end playing guitar on his own, staring, looking at us like, what the fuck is this creepy guy doing at the end of the thing man,” Konny laughs. “Every now and again you just see him appear just like, with a smile on his face… Times have changed now we get bread and butter,”
“We got stage towels the other day!” Tyler perks up with each swap of the camera.
“Yeah, towels on the rider -” Konny says fixing his necklace.
“When you get black stage towels, they don’t respect you. If you get black ones? No respect there whatsoever!” Tyler says as they laugh with each other. I ask them what they feel is more valuable: being a known celebrity? Or being recognised for their achievements?
“Neither!” Konny’s response is fast as ever.
“Nah,” Tyler says, weighing up the question before he answers, “recognition from peers is always, I think for any artist – just from other artists, kind of getting that recognition from them especially the people we looked up to and respected and that’s coming in. Some of the people that are legends to us have already tilted the hat towards us,” I tell him I saw Goldie in the crowd at the Jazz cafè “and there’s so many, even ike Karen Wheeler… the list goes on man. Even to just have Terri Walker on the album, that’s a dream come true for us so…”
My dream is just to make music people are gonna listen to. I had a dream, I’m finally in that dream. I cried, I cried in the studio.
I ask Konny and Tyler what’s next? “two more albums!” Konny says. However long that might take ‘Travel Light’ is a debut that you can wear in, ‘Hard Work’ is the kind of song you fling on at a BBQ with your family, getting drunk and rowdy. ‘Vibrations’, the spiritual relief after a day in the sun. Whatever happens next, theirs is a reminder that success has no deadline, but more than that success is defined by the individual. I’m reminded of something Konny said before, “My dream is just to make music people are gonna listen to. I had a dream, I’m finally in that dream. I cried, I cried in the studio. I sat there and cried, I couldn’t look at Tyler and it’s weird ‘cause y’know I’ve wanted to make music like this since I was in Primary school.”
Tyler brings me back to the present; “Like if everything could just stay as it is right now like, in my life, I’d be more than happy man. I feel like the younger generation have inspired me even more to just make music that I wanna make, and hit the people direct, then they can tell you if they like it or not.” I ask him finally about the philosophy behind the music, the hip-hop/soul hybrid that’s come to form the Children of Zeus identity, “if you’re travelling in general, and you got 50 bags in your ‘ands you won’t be able to get very far, so if you can’t travel with physical luggage, what makes you think you can travel with spiritual luggage? And, there’s a hell of a lot of people carrying a lot of spiritual luggage about and wondering why they’re not getting very far. For us, it’s about getting rid of all that and just, travel light.”
No matter what comes next for Children of Zeus, nothing would have ever happened had they given up on their alliance. Trends will always ebb and flow, but Konny and Tyler make music you live with in an era where everything is disposable.