Consensus doesn’t equal truth, but if critics’ unanimous proclamations are to be believed, Cooly G’s debut longplayer Playin’ Me (Hyperdub) is the soulful light at the end of dubstep’s long, dark tunnel. And it happens to be true: Brixton-born singer/producer Merissa Campbell has made one of the best albums of 2012. Peppered with “aha” moments of neo-soulstep and drum ‘n’ basics reprocessing à la Timeless-era Goldie, Playin’ Me goes beyond Campbell’s previous 12-inches to take its place as the proud equal of any and all Hyperdub releases, past or present. No small feat, especially considering her other full time job: being a single mom to her two young kids. As she explains, success hasn’t come despite motherhood, but rather because of it—even if the pain of a love lost is the emotional glue that holds this album together.
Merissa, you grew up in Brixton which is known as an important place for black British culture and protest, as well as for British reggae, hip-hop and grime. How did your neighborhood influence you musically?
I see Brixton more as a place that’s historical specifically for reggae and soul. When you go into the markets you can hear the stuff blasted in each stall. Of course, Brixton is also where Blacker Dread is located, which is probably the most important record store in the area, and one of the most important in London. I think it’s been around for, like, 20 years and the owner is the one who gets all of the new reggae and dub stuff first. That was an influence on me, innit. And just walking through my neighborhood on the way to the market to get plantains or whatever, there was always something playing. And always bass. Brixton’s a good vibe. No, it was a good vibe, but things have changed. I ain’t been there for ages as I moved out the area.
Do your parents still live there?
No, nowhere near there. You see, back in the day, Brixton used to be all about Jamaican beef patties and flags everywhere and super bright colors. Now it’s become a strange combination of more posh and gentrified on the one hand and more dangerous on the other, with pickpockets and all that. It never used to be like that. I just moved house two weeks ago and generally speaking, my whole life has been in hyper-mode for the past year. My nan died last week and my album just came out, which I learned on Twitter. I didn’t have the date in my head! And I haven’t been able to take it in properly, cause I’m busy being a mom. But I’m not complaining.
Were you close to your grandmother?
Yeah, she was a brilliant superwoman. She had way more kids than me and was a single parent as well, from Jamaica. She looked after them proper, and all us lot, the grandkids during six weeks school vacation. She was funny and she was just… powerful. And as a general matter, people in them ages are much more knowledgeable than people now.
Your dad’s Jamaican and your mom’s Guyanese. What music was playing in your house growing up?
Well, my mom was into acid house and going to raves—the ones where they never had a flyer and you had to meet up with people on the motorway who would bring you there. She collected tons of records—Gang Starr, Ruby Turner, Sade… Everything that was out there, really. And this was a time when most people’s listening habits weren’t so diverse. Back then people didn’t get it, but she was just well into her sound. My dad was much more into reggae and dub and rare groove, which I also loved. There was overlap, but my mom had another…. edge. She’s funkier, more dramatic with the acid and all that. My dad had a little studio in the house and my mom would sing. They would make little tracks, which were pretty sick. I remember as soon as I could walk and talk, I was pressing buttons and turning knobs on my dad’s analog mixer. I always had beats and basslines in my head. Always.
On Playin’ Me you mostly resist the cathartic release of heavy drums and dancefloor bangers, opting instead for tension. Patience and timing seem to be the “Cooly G” filter that all your detectable influences go through—unpredictable ins and outs of synths and dub sparseness, sultry R&B vocals that sound like a more experimental Sade, futuristic snare and hi-hat syncopations. Does holding back come natural to you, musically?
The patient side of my music comes from being a mom. I am a mom. I don’t want my kids to feel any of the vibes I’m going through when I’m struggling emotionally. If I ever flipped and switched, then my kids would turn out weird. And that informs everything I do, even when after I put the kids to sleep and creep into my little studio and start making tunes. Of course, I do let out the emotion, but meditatively. Like the second track, “What This World Needs Now” drops heavy, but perhaps it’s because of what it’s about, which is the earthquake in Haiti. That really, really upset me, even with the good news of them actually finding babies alive after weeks and weeks. I was in shock watching the telly. My mate came around at the time and we were singing and jamming and he was just caught on this one lyric, “What the world needs now is love,” while I ended up screaming and crying “Is this all there is?” There just wasn’t enough help in Haiti and the thought that something could be done but there wasn’t the manpower made me incredibly sad.
I had the impression the entire LP was focused on disillusion in love and memories of a relationship that once had a bright future and then went very, very wrong.
Well, indirectly, “What This World Needs Now” is about that, because when things in my life were seriously messed up relationship-wise, I was generally more emotional. And even watching the news became incredibly emotional. I think if I hadn’t been so emotional about someone, I wouldn’t have made the song. I probably wouldn’t even have watched the news. I’d have probably been at football training or something. But instead I spent my time being extremely sad.
Paradoxically, it’s also the sadness that drives so much of what you’ve done creatively, which is perhaps difficult to resolve, in a way. It may sound strange to hear, but you can almost thank the asshole that left you high and dry.
[laughing] It’s weird, isn’t it? When I read reviews it was incredible to see what kind of deep insights other people have into my thoughts and my feelings. People write and say things and, well, it’s extremely emotional for me. I didn’t have time to even listen to the album until it was laid out in order, because I was running around, playing shows, taking care of Nas [her six-year old son]… And of course I was pregnant when I was making the album. I had so much stuff to take care of, I didn’t have any distance from it. But also, I’m deep, deep into motherhood. And I was deep into the pregnancy. Oh my days, I loved it. When I was finishing the album it was all about thinking of this human being developing inside me—now she’s got toenails, now she’s got eyebrows, next week she’s as big as a melon… People ask me how I do it with two kids alone—that’s because their kids are just screaming, screaming, screaming, even though they have help from the actual father. Mine are pretty relaxed, because I’m relaxed. I knew that if I was stressed out during pregnancy, that’s how my birth is going to be, that’s how my baby would turn out. Obviously I was very happy.
So the patience of the production and songwriting goes hand in hand with the patience of thinking about a human being developing inside you. But at the same time there’s so much sadness and anger on Playin’ Me directed at an absent father. How do you resolve these two conflicting trajectories?
I just kept it all balanced, even after everything went pear-shaped. I asked myself whether I was going to be the girl who was upset and crying all the time because I was on my own. And I just said no. I was prepared for being on my own. I’m not upset about it—I’m well happy, actually. I just think the kids need their dad around somehow.
I know you used to play semi-professional football. Do you at all see similarities in thinking about the rhythm and harmony of the game and making music, or are these two totally unrelated kinds of rhythm?
Well, I was a striker and the feeling I would get when I’d score in a match is definitely comparable to the feeling I get when I’ve made a sick beat. Because when I get the ball, it’s on. But there’s also a rhythm to dribbling, of course. It’s about measuring steps and speed and driving towards the goal. And that’s kind of like the progress of making a real banger, musically. The progress is strategic, but it’s also intuitive. And with both goals and sick tracks, it’s something I usually end up talking about all night. It’s a similar buzz. I also did kung fu and martial arts since I was seven—basically since I’d been playing football. That was proper heavy too. Kung fu made me disciplined and aware of my surroundings and how to handle myself. It made me walk up straight. My dad’s actually the one who got me into it because he’d been doing kung fu for years. He’s heavy—a proper man he is.
One of the most interesting things about your label, Hyperdub, is how disparate the artists are. Do you feel like Hyperdub has influenced you as an artist?
I wouldn’t say influenced, but I really enjoy playing with the other acts and doing shows with such contrasting artists. Everyone is so different, so it caters to really different kinds of people. We’re all homies, as if we’d known each other for ages—and it’s been that way since the very beginning. Hyperdub is my second family. But in the beginning, I didn’t have a clue. When I got the email from them asking if I wanted to put my tunes out, I was like sure, why not? I didn’t know who the hell they were! They were strangers to me before, innit. I usually find it hard to trust people I don’t know, but with them it’s been a piece of cake. And I remember the first time Steve [Goodman, aka Kode9, Hyperdub label founder] came to see me. We just jammed and had fun.
Is composing a process that goes hand in hand with thinking about sound design? Or do you first have a bare bones song structure that you tweak and embellish when you sit down in front of your synths and computer and start the actual programming?
It depends. It usually happens all at once when I’m actually with my gear in front of me, with a few exceptions. Most of the tracks on Playin’ Me are straight up freestyled products of my emotions that were put together at the moment I was feeling them. They came directly from the emotional source, time, and place. But they were almost entirely improvised. I would just sit down and BAM—sing, BAM—harmonies, BAM—plug-ins, all out at one time. Tune done. In under an hour. I’m quick. Occasionally I would have to go back and EQ my hi-hats a little bit, but that’s about all. Steve likes to remind me about that. Honestly, I could bust out a tune right now before you leave… and then go and wash the dishes and change some diapers.
It’s interesting to hear, because the long player is a tricky format for lots of electronic musicians who focus on creating stuff for the dancefloor. With Playin’ Me, it’s not just the emotion that makes it all so cohesive, but also the incredible sound. When did you become a geek for programming?
I left school when I was sixteen after going to college for, like, one day. I tried, but I was like, hell no, I’m not trying to do this school thing again. I wanted to do my music and that’s all. So I went to this place Weekends Art College, where my mom used to send us. It was sort of a performing arts training center, mostly drama and live music based. At the time I was taking a music class and I told one of my instructors that we should have access to a real recording studio, and he was down. So we went together to this place in Kings Cross, which blew me away with all the gear. Immediately I started bugging the owner to let me into the control room, which eventually he did. Out of nowhere I started patching together a bunch of the modules and he came running in and was like, “How’d you do that?”. I was like, “Well I need this to be in this channel and this to be . . .” And he was like, “No, how’d you know how to do that?” He was impressed because most people need training to figure out how to work this stuff and I just kind of did it intuitively, even though I had a bit of a background in production. Basically, he hooked me up with a job on the spot, and from then on I was teaching, like, forty-year-old men how to patch and work Logic and do engineering stuff. And of course, we were allowed afterwards to use the studio, so I just stayed and did my bare R&B and hip-hop tunes, because that’s what I was making. I’d make mixtapes and go sell them on the street. I hope that stuff never gets put on YouTube.
Can you give me a line or two?
Oh God, no. I’ll play something for you, but what you hear is off the record. I was such a tomboy. You know, I never wanted to do girly things. I was always just teaching myself how to do everything— fixing computers, building computers, cracking software. Not that I do that anymore—I get my shit for free now. But back in the day, I did everything with baked bean tins, pots and pans—just sampling my stuff and then using the technology to tweak, compress and fatten it all up. It was original sound design by necessity, even a couple years ago. I didn’t have any money; it all went to buying kid stuff, diapers and what not.
Speaking of kids, your son is named after Nas, the rapper. Do you have a favorite Nas album?
I actually don’t listen to too much Nas to be honest with you. I’ve been listening to a lot more Mobb Deep lately. Believe it or not, Havoc is actually following me on Twitter. How nice is that? I even asked him on chat, “Havoc!? Why are you following me?” We ended going back and forth about production stuff, innit.
Have you heard Prodigy’s new album, H.N.I.C. 3? To be honest, it was kind of a disappointment after hearing the brilliant H.N.I.C. 3 Mixtape—half of which Havoc produced. What about a Cooly-Havoc collab?
Well, he needs to read this interview, that little… guy. And when I go to America, I’ll just be like, “Hey, I’m here, innit. Let’s hook up, bruv.” I even recently found an old tune of mine where I was spitting rhymes over one of his old Mobb Deep beats. I should send it to him… after he agrees to throw new ones my way. ~
Photo: Ben Roberts
This text appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 31 (Fall 2012). Read the full issue on issuu.com: