By Nat Illumine
Every now and then an artist hits your radar like pow! Last summer, whilst scouring online blogs for new talent, I came across this British-Nigerian vocalist known as Azekel, whose song New Romance was getting plugged across various blogs such as Pitchfork, The Tipping Point, The Line of Best Fit et al. One listen later and I’d found the perfect sound of summer to be blasted from cars across London’s boroughs – all glitchy beats and bass overlaid with Azekel’s wide-eyed youthful soul – his production the antithesis to his voice: yearning yet discerning, alluring yet dissonant, reminiscent yet so fresh.
Azekel’s appeal is in the contrast between his soft falsetto and punchy beats, creating the ideal tempo for this new-fangled RnB – call it future soul, alternative RnB, whatever you want, but it’s 21st century British soul married to grime and electronica in such a way as to create that next level beat. It could only come out of London, and be self-produced, self-executed and self-released. New Romance has had over 400,000 hits on Youtube, as well as plays on MTV and Radio One. Nat Illumine caught up with Azekel to get the lowdown on the environment that produced this rising star.
Azekel, which means ‘praising the Lord’ was born in Nigeria to Nigerian parents who relocated to London when Azekel was a mere infant. The eldest of four boys, Azekel has grown up entrenched in the Nigerian community of East London. “Nigeria is a huge part of my identity,” he tells me from a pub in Latymer road, where he works for a music production company. “My parents speak fluent Yoruba. I understand it but I can’t speak it. I definitely feel Nigerian and because there’s a huge Nigerian community in London, there’s such a strong Nigerian cultural sense, especially in East. I feel at home, when I’m in my mum’s crib people are speaking Yoruba and when I go out to Dalston people are speaking Yoruba so it’s like I never left the building.”
Azekel’s parents played plenty of Fela Kuti, Sunny Ade, Afrobeat and other Nigerian music during Azekel’s childhood, however his music doesn’t necessarily reflect this: “I’m a product of my environment. I grew up here for the majority of my life, and London’s a big melting pot. There’s electronic music, rock music, hip hop, bhangra. There’s so much cultural influence it affects the music I make. East London’s a big part of who I am, but I can’t forsake Nigeria ‘cos it’s who I am too.” African-American soul alongside iconic pop music has been a hugely influential on Azekel, from Motown to early funk to Prince. “My mum got me my first guitar and she said I could be like Jimi Hendrix, so that was great,” Azekel laughs. But growing up in London in the late ‘90s, early 2000s meant Azekel would soon be immersing himself in the sounds of the streets. “I started getting into my own swag and started listening to hip hop music in my teenage years. I’m from East London so decided to get involved with grime and electronic music and start producing, because before that I was just making songs on instruments like my keyboard or guitar.”
Soul is at the core of all Azekel’s tunes however. “I really study music. I’m a real lover of music, all kinds of music,” he explains, “anything that was good and had soul in it, because… soul!” Never classically trained, Azekel taught himself guitar, bass and piano, before ditching med school to study music production, much to his parents’ dismay. “I made the decision to be an artist and make music and my parents were like what?!” he laughs. Both university graduates, Azekel’s parents allowed him to make the transition as long he still went to school, so he studied creative music technology at the University of Kent. “It was a great place to go and make music, I didn’t have Internet or TV – I just had my laptop. It really helped me hone my craft,” he says of the experience.
That craft is behind the sick production that has been turning heads, particularly on New Romance. Dutty drums and murky beats merge with glitches, horn samples and a killer bassline to create that standout single. “A lot of the beats I have, I believe I’m given them, they just get dropped in me,” Azekel states of the production process. “I start working out the production, get the hook and it just marinates in my head for a while, I just brood on it. New Romance, for instance, was just in my mind for a while, just figuring out the production in terms of the structure. A week or two from the idea was conceived I started making it. It’s already kind of mapped out in my head before I start it, then the stuff that happens accidentally, that sounds great, I keep.”
Currently all of Azekel’s songs, which comprise early releases Atomic Bombs (2011), That Feeling b/w Song to an Unborn Child (2013), the 5-track Circa EP (2013), New Romance b/w Holy Matrimony (2014) and his most recent track Chronophobia (2015) have all been released entirely online, through his own label entitled Thunderlightning, run by him and a few mates. “I don’t really believe in the major label route.” He tells me, though after this interview was conducted he signed a publishing deal with BMG Chrysalis UK. “I just really want to do something different and special in the UK for a black artist. I don’t wanna follow the route that everyone else is doing. That’s why were doing the whole Thunderlightning thing and seeing how far it can take us really.” There are plans for an album, vinyl releases and a new EP, entitled Raw, is forthcoming, and we can expect more in the style of New Romance.
“I’m just really trying to be myself, just trying to create my own kind of sound,” he tells me. “I reckon in creativity there’s three ‘I’s. An old jazz cat told me this. Imitation, innovation, invention. I wanna get to the place of invention. I wouldn’t say create my own genre because nothing’s new under the sun, just something where when you hear it you know it’s Azekel.” The first track off the upcoming EP, Mad About the Boy, can be streamed here. Featuring additional vocals from Shanazz Dorsett, the track continues in the same vein that we’re growing accustomed to with this kid. “The project I’m working on now is supposed to sound like London. My equipment is really cheap so the body of work sounds really raw and gritty and glitchy and all kinds of weird because that’s the aesthetic I’m going for,” Azekel expounds, explaining how his equipment consists of a mashed up laptop with a broken screen, a cheap mic, and an audio interface on Logic.
His Circa EP has notable tracks on it, in particular the Sade-sampling No Ordinary Love , which got the seal of approval from the lady herself, an icon of Azekel’s. The nod to a love for soul is tangible in Circa’s cover art – a straight rip of Otis Redding’s 1965 release Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul. “I believe the music on Circa is really introspective and it makes you think. Sonically it’s a bit dark and moody and smooth so when I saw the album cover it just visually worked with how it sounds sonically.” Chronophobia however is more futuristic – an ode to the fear of time passing, a slow groove of those signature drum patters, horn samples and dulcet tones. “A lot of my peers and me, once we hit over 21 everyone starts thinking ‘My God, my life… what am I doing? Am I making enough money with my dreams and ambitions,’ and all of these external pressures whether it’s been pushed on you though like family, parents or just society – I have to write a song about this!” he explains of the inspiration behind the tune. “It always comes from an honest place. I was just thinking, yo time is running by so quick.”
Clearly the kid is going places and over here at Afropean we know gold when we hear it. I ask Azekel what he thinks of the term: “It’s a merge of someone like who I am who has an African heritage but is British by nationality. But it can also be a European who loves the culture in Africa. It doesn’t just make sense to someone like myself,” he muses. “Identity is whatever you give yourself.” For Azekel, his identity is swiftly becoming that of a young Londoner making big moves, and we’re looking forward to hearing much, much more.
Raw EP is out now