I remember being among a small crowd of people gathered in the FAG Studios in Kings Square, Bristol, one Sunday night in 2012 as Young Echo hosted one of their early radio shows.
Even back then some of the collective had already displayed their prodigious musical instinct on record, but the attendant vibe on the night was more like a lackadaisical laugh between close friends. Kahn was as likely to jump on the mic for a one-liner jibe as much as Bogues was freestyling and testing out bars. I didn’t know the looming figure with a nest of dreads and a laconic drawl dropping lines about his weed habit, but he left an impression.
Fast-forward to 2018, and Young Echo were toasting the release of their second collective album with a showcase night at The Trinity Centre, the expanded gathering taking the form of an aurally deviant sermon in front of towering stained glass windows. In six years the shambling slalom between individual member’s sounds had been replaced by designated sets for distinct projects – a snapshot of the many criss-crossing configurations within the constellation. The be-dreaded MC had pride of place on the night, foretelling the imminent promise of his own debut album, and now I heard his name – Manonmars.
Heard casually through the cloud of omnipresent Bristolian ganja fug, Jack Richardson sounds like the natural rap product for Young Echo – weird and weighted with swagger in equal measure, but his own touchstones on the path to the mic aren’t the obvious likes of Tricky or the other trip hoppers. His formative years were first North London, and then North Somerset (where he met Young Echo’s Amos Childs). Manonmars is its own thing, even within the Young Echo universe where Childs and Sam Barrett (in their O$VMV$M garb) provide the beats-not-beats.
Two years after his self-titled debut, Richardson has returned with a new album, In Colour. It would be a stretch to say this follow-up marks a dramatic departure from the murky depths of the first round, but rather a little more space has opened up, a few more friends invited into the fold. In the wake of the album dropping midst-pandemic, I finally got to speak to the man with a lyrical lean so tilted the words slide right off it.
It’s a murky afternoon at the onset of Autumn when the video call connects, and Richardson cuts a silhouette against the backlight of his window, with just enough profile to show his dreads have come off and he now sports a decent afro. In his own words, “Cutting my hair made sense at the time just ‘cos it was summer, but I like the idea of moving on from who I was when I made In Colour to make room for whatever comes next.”
Hey Jack. What's going on, what are you up to?
“Right now I'm just the crib in Peckham. I was in Hackney last night doing a little bit of recording with my friends for this new project Bogues has got coming out with Scutal called Revenge Fantasies. I think it's coming out on Cold Light Music at some point in the near future. And yeah, here we are.”
When it comes to recording, you do you have any means of doing that at home?
“I've got a mic and shit at home but there's something about collaborating with people. That's how I started recording in the first place, before I had any knowledge of anything musical. I just was writing raps and then I met Amos back in the day, when we lived in the village. I've got the means to do it, but there's just a vibe I get when there's other people in the room that I can't recreate on my jays.”
How does it feel putting In Colour out now? Was it finished pre-lockdown?
“A lot of the music on it was stuff we were performing at our live shows, along with what was available back then from the self-titled album. It was a strange feeling because I was expecting it to be out much earlier, but we had to push it all back because of everywhere shutting down. At the start I was kind of worried, but I came around to realizing that it's a time capsule in a way… No one can go back to that time now. It's a mixture of feelings. I never would have thought that the world would be the way it is around the time [I wrote it].”
Are you quite precious about how you release your music when you let it out into the world, or do you not stress on it too much?
“My thoughts can bounce back and forth between those two extremes. There are times where all I can think about is recording more music, and if I don't have shit to record then I'm pressuring myself to write and I'm hitting people up to see if there's any beats I can work with. But then there are also times when the beats might be there, for instance, but I feel like I just have to continue living life. I can't just stay in a room and write about what is imaginary. That's a part of the process, by all means, but I feel like people get bored fast with lyricists who just make nonsensical shit. It has to be a little bit of just kicking back, and not giving a fuck about stuff and seeing what comes out. But a little bit of fine-tuning as well.”
“Answering your question, that kind of translates over to the release of the thing, too. Both of the photos, for instance, from the first album and from In Colour, weren't from photoshoots. They weren't taken to be cover art. I had both of those photos for a number of years before we used them. The way I work is not so formulaic. It depends on the spontaneity of shit that just happens.”
O$VMV$M’s beats are such a big part of what's going on in your music. What does their style inspire in you?
“It's hard to explain. I like the way they can just put a few things together – it doesn't have to be a very complex composition. And I think the way I rap kind of meshes with that, because it gives me the room to say what I want, how I want to say it. I think a lot of rap beats now conform to a current trend, and that current trend is always changing. It's not to say I don’t like mainstream rap, but I don't think me, Amos or Neek [Sam] are trying to compete with the standard of what you might expect from rap music. Drill is the thing people listen to now, or trap, and that shit's still cool, but we're not going to stop doing the shit the way we do it to try and get a piece of that.”
It feels like O$VM$VM’s music sets up a very specific mood around your particular style, and so the things you talk about come across in quite a downcast way. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?
“I try and take liberties with the limitations of the music. To me, the fact the words are rhyming means they're a form of language in itself that only exists through the way they fit together. That means I can't ever believe in everything I say on a song 100% when I'm not just talking over the beat. I'm not just giving you the raw thoughts... The process of musicalisation sacrifices the true authenticity of what is real to me in what I'm saying [versus] what is just something that rhymes and sounds cool. I don't try to say anything too misleading. Saying dark shit is cool because people who are trying to make a radio hit or something will be too scared to do that. So that gives me a lot of thing s to play with when it comes to the writing.”
Do you feel like Manonmars is a persona you adopt?
“It's like the diary of a character. There's a lot of things I haven't expressed through my music, simply because I haven't found a way to, so far. It's not all about trying to cram in information about me. Sometimes I like to take the listener on a trip – I want to do a movie within a song, a visceral experience. That's the type of rap shit I grew up listening to, that made me aware rap isn't just about bragging and competing to make the illest shit. It can be a reflection of yourself, and nothing else, but I feel like that's a little bit egotistical, in my opinion. I don't even approach making music like I'm trying to make the best shit I've ever made. I'm just trying to fall back into the momentum that’s carried me this far.”
It feels like you're also playing with some of the tropes inherent to rap music. I'm interested in your take on consumerism, because you seem to weave in critical references to it here and there, rather than coming from the more popular aspirational angle.
“I feel like the rap industry endorses a lot of things because those things put money back into it. If you look at all the people in the charts, they’ll be wearing the poppin’ brands and all that – that’s a part of rap. I just think it's unrealistic to most of us. That's not really a reflection of anything other than wealth. So, why let that be the measure of your success?”
You’ve got quite a few people guesting on In Colour. Did you want to have more of a collective presence around your music this time?
“That was an early choice I made. The whole first project was only my voice, so this time I just wanted to use the people around Young Echo I was spending my time with when I was going back to Bristol. They weren't even recording sessions for my album, it was more just being around my friends and recording. That's the beauty of it to me. Everyone on the album is someone I know. There's no sending emails to collaborate. We're just around each other enough to get the music down.”
It’s hard to talk about your career to date without referencing it with Young Echo. The first time I came across you would have been one of the early radio shows they did.
“Back then we would just jump on beats and shit. If you come to a Young Echo show now, you probably won't see that as much. It was cool doing that, though. That was definitely a big part for me of just learning how to perform. There's probably an album’s worth of material that is never going to be released, that was performed in those studios and at The Exchange.”
If I compare that early days style to a couple of years ago when the second Young Echo album launched at Trinity, that was when word first got out that you had an album coming. You seemed to have a cohesive thing ready that you were actually performing.
“Yeah, that's spot on. I think Amos and Neek said it first. They were just like, ‘We're happy with it.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, really?’ I was down to keep recording and do more, but then when they sent me their track list of it, I listened to it once and I was like, ‘Shit, yeah.’”
To bring it round to more recent times, there has of course been a surge in discussion of racial inequality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. You’ve not tended to tackle your own mixed-race heritage head-on in your own music, but more reference it in passing. Do you feel differently about that now?
“It's good to see people standing up for what they believe in, especially when the beliefs are as important as they are in that particular case, but it was strange to me. It's a double-edged sword. I was talking about this with Birthmark not so long ago. He's mixed race too, and I was saying to him how I don't want to take the bait of just talking about what people are talking about when it comes to writing lyrics.”
“I feel like minimalism is an approach that works for me when it comes to talking about things that matter. I don't want to talk about a thing that I care about for so long that everybody else stops caring. Music can be quite effective in that sense, if you can figure out the way to do it, where you can plant a seed that will lead someone to think about or research this thing.”
It's interesting what you say about not wanting to respond to the big headline of the time. We live in a time where a lot of people respond quickly and furiously to issues only to move on from them again soon after without achieving anything meaningful. Do you think it's healthier to step away from that a bit?
“Yeah [laughs]. I was just on Twitter, and to me it's just like a war zone. What's obvious to me is that, thankfully, it's not like that when you walk outside. If what I saw in the street reflected what was happening on Twitter, I feel like we'd all need to be armed and shit.”
“I can see how easy it is too, because I might have opened it up just to message someone, but I'll see something in that interim time that makes my brain say, ‘That's fucking wrong. There's no question about it, this guy needs to be put in his place,’ or something. When I was younger I would leave YouTube comments and shit, but I've given that up quite a long time ago, and I feel better for it. You might even be trying to fight some sort of good fight, but then information might come out a matter of years later that exposes how you and however many other people are actually supporting some shit you never would have agreed to support. That's the issue. I don't want to have to just plead ignorance. I'd rather be one step ahead.”
Photo: Paulina Korobkiewicz