Despite sharp, cliff face feature’s and a piercing stare, Edward Scissortongue gives off an easygoing energy as he leans back, dwarfing his chair in the fifth floor bar of East London’s achingly trendy Shoreditch House, evening sun low in the large windows behind us. The thick beard and 6foot2 silhouette that have become synonymous with his apocalyptic, brooding brand of Hip Hop over recent years are seemingly at ease, occasionally pausing mid sentence to throw back a stray ping pong ball from one of the tables surrounding us or excusing himself to replenish the pile of sweets in front of him from a nearby spread.
Soon waxing lyrical about Coldplay’s recently released 6th studio album and the likes of La Roux and First Aid Kit, who he himself has recently been reviewing, he seems detached from the grey macabre of his poignant lyrics. However, it’s only as we go deeper into the ins and outs of both his career and creative processes that he takes on the contemplative, at times pensive tone so familiar from his 2012 debut solo album Better Luck Next Life and the more recent Theremin EP.
“I can’t block it out. It might seem I’m blocking it out but every minute it’s ticking over somewhere in the recesses, if not right at the forefront of my mind. I take it as a good sign that I’m working on something that’s worth thinking about. I take it with me everywhere, I don’t give a fuck about anything else really. I’m always just thinking about the music, always.
I’m in a position now where I can dedicate a set number of hours a week to writing songs but spend every waking minute thinking about it. I used to force writing songs, but that approach just doesn’t work for me. The words come out when they should, when they’ve been processing in my brain for long enough.
A long time ago I decided that I was gonna run with what my brain told me was good. I think that’s important, there’s not enough time to think about the ifs and the buts. Take in every nuance of your day that means a little something. Take all those visuals in, take in what that person said and remember it, because they’re the juicy bits. If you’re not thinking about it then you’re off duty. You only live once, life’s too short to be part timing anything.”
He definitely hasn’t been part timing since he first came onto the scene as part of Cambridge crew Contact Play, and neither has anyone around him. Now on the roster of a label that’s undoubtedly had a massive part in reigniting the Hip Hop scene on this island, head honcho Fliptrix and the rest of the High Focus affiliates have taken not just the UK by storm of late but also packed venues worldwide in a way that few others before them ever have. Scissortongues’ Contact Play compadres, or gang as he’d probably prefer, have played a central role in that; Dirty Dike’s Pork Pie recently amassing over a million views, Jam Baxter’s 2012 album Gruesome Features packing itself with a whole host of the UK’s greatest and Scissortongue’s own Spastic Max catching the attention of much more than just the Hip Hop scene. Contact Play were an integral part in Scissortongue’s Hip Hop upbringing, and still are to this day, but you get the sense that his true creativity and vision only flourished later, after moving down to Falmouth with his then girlfriend.
“They’re my bredrin and always will be, but I was away from that record. They were doing it in Brighton and Cambridge and I was in Falmouth, doing fuck all. They put a brilliant album together and I was just affiliated, involved in one track, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re my gang, it just so happened I was away. I’m massively happy to have been involved in that but my creativity was stifled by going and getting fucked in Brighton for a week at that time of my life, I was on a different vibe. I led a far more domesticated, in many ways boring, life but that allowed me to just get my next thing out, which was my solo stuff.
I was studying an art course in Falmouth which was good, but when I finished that I wasn’t studying full time and it becomes a small place; everyone else is busy. That chapter of my life was a massive catalyst to that album, I was head down, internalising. It wasn’t about chilling with the gang, I thought “you’re on your own here, creatively, so figure it out”. That’s when I started writing BLNL.
It’s been a process of adapting that party lifestyle but continuing to focus on the things that work for me, the things that I work most efficiently at. They weren’t all good times though. Writing a rap song is rarely fun as fuck the whole time, you’re pulling your hair out a lot.”
If anyone can say that about their music it’s probably Scissortongue. Although initially wrapped up in the hedonistic, boozey anthems of Contact play, the darker side that was always present in his and Jam Baxter’s visceral, tripping wordplay has grown exponentially ever since, his apocalyptic visions and futurist cynicism now integral to his sound.
“It’s tricky to put a finger on why I’m drawn to that darker side of things really. I’ll come up with something that really resonates as a good starting point and then that associates with something else and the pictures just start flowing. I love how that becomes this but then if you change or switch around just a couple of words it becomes something completely different.
I just find this process most fruitful when it’s dark rather than light. That’s the grounds in which I operate best. It doesn’t mean I’m an angry, moody gothic dude but who’s to say what anyone’s thinking when their mouth’s shut? Just sat there. It’s really beautiful.”
Combined with the depth, density and poetic nature of his wordplay, these dark visions come together like cryptic puzzle pieces among incredibly complex rhyme patterns and flows, a style that makes his dedication to words and stories instantly apparent.
“I don’t intentionally make anything cryptic though, it’s just this visual thing. I know of artists that will write something great and then go back and chip into it to make it more dense, and I’ve done that. But where I am currently is that if something just breezes over then it works for me. It’s easier to write complicated than it is to write simple, fact, and sometimes that makes you feel as if you’re just repeating yourself. Whereas writing something simple, like you hear in folk songs for example, is considerately harder. It’s saying less but at the same time saying more, that’s the ultimate goal.
Artists like Rag N Bone man do that well. And Beck Hansen, I take more inspiration from him than anyone. If you can paint a picture with five words rather than seventy five words then that’s the way to do it.
To be honest though my music’s a product of everything I’ve ever taken inspiration from within the darker realms of music and art. It’s a beautiful space to operate in; that doom riddled, fearful escape of fucked up paranoia. All dystopian gruesomeness sparks my fuses. David Lynch. Darren Aronofski. Stephen King. Wes Craven. Phillip K Dick. Cormac McCarthy. Mogwai. Explosions In The Sky. Godspeed You Black Emporer. Slayer… They’ll get you from A to B on a bike quicker than anything man. They get me going which says something I think. I dunno what it says but it’s definitely something, that’s as good as music gets.”
When this darkness and penchant for storytelling manifested itself over the tense, brooding instrumentals of Lamplighter (left), the sole beat-maker behind Better Luck Next Life, the atmosphere of both lyricist and producer seemed to be completely one, so much so that the sheer quality and originality of their combined sound came as somewhat of a shock to sleepy Hip Hop heads. Instantly animated as I mention his main collaborators name, he’s quick to praise the Glaswegian producer for his role but reveals that behind closed doors their combined creative process wasn’t always so fruitful.
“I met him on Myspace way back in the day and he was in this weird crew called Dioptre with another producer called Sci Fi Stu, they were making this crazy fucked up music which I liked. We did a few songs way back then that have never seen the light of day and remained vaguely in touch just on an internet thing. So when I decided I was gonna write a solo record I wanted to find someone to put what I had in my head to music. I haven’t got the time to make music because I’m too busy thinking about word patterns, so who out there who I’ve been in contact with over the years can articulate what I’m thinking, musically?
I hollered at him in 2009 or so asking if he wanted to be involved and he was into it but he was shit at the start. He’d send me fuck all beats and I thought he wasn’t on it so I sent him an email asking what was going on. He apologised, saying he’d been long, and started going in, sending me the beats that would end up being Please Say Something, Spastic Max, Rosegarden, Wastewater etc. I thought, “fuck, the prophecy’s come true, he is that guy I’m looking for”. We went through so much putting that album together though man. Dealing with someone via the internet is tricky so we ended up visiting each other a couple of times.”
Having also had a part in the recently released Theremin EP, and once again taking the sole production credits on another forthcoming solo album, it seems the tight nature of their collaborative process is something set to continue. So it’s just as well that Scissortongue thinks of them as somewhat kindred spirits, stating his influence not only on his outlook on life but also his lyricism and subject matter directly.
“All of Lamplighter’s music making is driven by emotion. He’ll say, “this articulates the emotion I was going for when I was in the process of writing a song”, and it always does. He sends me instrumentals and they’re often mind blowingly brilliant, but he’s not the kind of guy to send me a big batch of beats, I’ll be lucky if I get two. He puts so much into each thing, it’s the best way to do it. Put your heart into one. If I don’t like it then someone else will.
There have been examples in the past where he’s sent me a beat with a name, like Rosegarden, and it’s helped form the track. I would never have affiliated a Rosegarden with that song but I liked it so that defined the hook, it made the song what it is. All of his song titles are amazing. He’s that kind of guy, a very acute, impressive dude, so he has that effect on my output. It’s more than just the music he makes but him as a person, his outlook on life. He’s well worth paying attention too and deserves way more love than he gets.
But after he’s sent me a beat, it’s just on me. He’ll call me up occasionally and say “stop being so happy about it” or say what he thinks of the sound, but in general it just works because he loves the same shit that I do, the cynicism and the things that make life shit.
When I work with Lamplighter it’s more of a direct collaboration than with anyone else. It’s nice to share that creative process with someone 50/50. Monetarily 50/50 as well, you’re brothers in arms. So I talk to him all the time, we’re busy on this next record.
I love seeing him getting excited about it, it’s so important for me to work with people that I have that connection with. It’s not writing rap songs, this is everything I have creatively; I’m like a corpse human being without it. I put my heart and soul into it and if I’m going to share that with someone then that’s as important as putting something out. Cos if you make something it’s that making of it that’s really real. You spend two years on something and put it out, the build up to it is hype, then once it’s out it’s just over, it’s done, what next?”
What came next, as it happens, was the April 2014 release of the seven track Theremin EP, a thoughtful epic where lengthy cinematic instrumental sections highlight the sombre nature and bittersweet beauty of his tales, focusing even more sharply on the future apocalypse as he cuts a lone figure into gloomy skies. Although seemingly kindred in sound to Better Luck Next Life, the presence of six separate producers highlights the difference in his approach.
“Having lots of different producers on a release effects your dialogue – or rather lack of it – with the guy who makes the music. I’m not gonna be constantly pinging emails to five different guys so once you have the beat you do what you want with it. That’s not to say I can’t do whatever I want on a Lamplighter beat but there’s more conversation whereas with a project like this it’s much more just me. There are pros and cons to that, it affords you freedom.
It sounds and feels like a continuation of BLNL but I think it touches on the storytelling nature of it more than anything else. Every single song, whether it’s implicit or more loose, is a tale of something. I’ve always wanted to write a jackanory esque set of tales and that’s essentially what that EP is, I’m trying to paint despairing pictures and I find real freedom in that. So if I refer it back to a track from BLNL then it would be Spastic Max, but rather than a story about a guy it’s a story about a gaggle of androids.
What I think is beautiful about it more than anything is that it’s a bunch of stories but they can be taken from different perspectives. The narrator can shift from me, or any person, to mankind as a whole or a village or a family. There’s so many different demographics that you could liken it to.”
Taking it’s name from the early electronic instrument invented by Léon Theremin which has a history of lending it’s eerie sound to more pessimistic and futuristic artistic endeavours, defining the soundtrack for Bernard Herrmann’s The Day the Earth Stood Still for example, he cites the lead track as the catalyst for the whole release. All squelching snares, cinematic vocal samples and thoughtful melodies, Theremin sits in the middle of the EP, a position true to it’s integral role.
“Fuck knows where the name came from, the working title of that tune was something stupid like “Android fuck party”. The original plan was to have these androids come down to earth and start killing mankind, with the result of them all ending up on some hill having a weird robot/mankind orgy. But it never got to that point, it was too much information, so in the end they come down and start killing everyone, there’s only so much you can say in five minutes.
That tune went on a Wordplay mix CD that my DJ Sammy B Side did and he asked what I was gonna call it. The sound of the Theremin just instantly makes me think of classic sci fi movies where flying saucers come whizzing down. It’s eerie.
So that song became Theremin. I was going to do an album but then I started casting out tracks that didn’t really fit into the apocalyptic vibe of Theremin, put it together and thought there was a strong narrative to it. But then I chipped a couple more out and just ended with Theremin again, it took me all that writing to realise that I should just try and put something together that centered on that song, so I did. Credit to Dike for making that beat because this release wouldn’t exist otherwise. There’s plenty of great songs that haven’t been used but the more I listened to it the more I thought that this selection just works so lovely together, there’s no need to add more.”
Preceded by a series of three short visual trailers that only contained cinematic instrumentals by way of music, the build up to the EPs release was a far cry from your average schedule of singles/videos/freestyles. After he lights up into a lengthy discussion about Wu Tang’s recent Once Upon a Time in Shaolin single copy album concept and references Beyonce’s recently released album, which dropped with almost no preamble, I ask him what the promo visuals meant to him…
“There’s a visual side to my writing. Like in Fluids, the bar “Look into my eyes you’ll see Godzilla on a mountain side;” I’ll always see the same vintage image of Godzilla on that same hillside eying up his next opponent, it won’t change. It was an attempt to show people that but also just to do something different, do something interesting. It worked in the sense that people were losing their minds at the end of it just wanting some music.
The funny thing about them is that trailer one and two were directed by the same guy (long time collaborator Johannes Schaff) and we wanted to build upon that character of the German guy doing the transmission, who’s actually the director of them as well. I wrote all these little poetic cut outs and he was going to record them in German and put them over the top but that never came to be because he cut the first trailer and I just thought it was sonically really beautiful. Lamplighter had done that weird soundscape over the top and it didn’t feel like we needed more.
But in between dropping 2 and 3 all of his equipment got stolen from our studio in Hackney, everything. On the day we were supposed to sit down and edit the third trailer the only thing we had left was the footage I’d shot in California so I edited it together. It worked out though; you have to work with what you’ve got sometimes.”
“The Theremin EP was part of my reality at that time but I never really listen to my old music, it’s gone” he states, showing me the instrumentals for his next solo release sitting alone on his Iphone as proof of how wrapped up he is in it, a love album going by the working title of TTIW. “It’s weird to call it that” he laughs as I point out that those were his words rather than mine.
“When you coin it a love album that instantly makes people think of 80s power ballads, but there’s an endless wishing well of things you can talk about musically. Cos that shit defines everything that anyone does really, of any substance. So that’s the dream, to write an album that successfully talks about love. It means a lot more and is a lot deeper than just “I love you”.
It’s so incredibly complicated. It’s like the reason we’re here. If a band writes an album which hits that nail on the head, which they rarely do, then that’s the ultimate shit. D’Angelo…..”
He tails off, struggling to add to a list barely started, so I wonder if he feels happy with his attempt to conquer that unreachable summit.
“I’ve got a lot of belief in it. I’m a massive fan of dedicating an entire record to one thing. I mean, I like albums that go places but I love albums that just fully focus on something. It’s entirely produced by Lamplighter and you know what he sounds like sonically so it relates to my previous releases, but I’m pouring it out. Lamplighter hates the fact that I’m calling it a love album, he thinks it’s a pain album, but I just love the connotations of that term, it harks back to my childhood listening to Belinda Carlyl records with my mum or whatever.
I’m putting shit on the line with that record, both in terms of fans not liking it or important people in my life having their opinions on it. It’s the first time ever for me that the handbrake is fully off. No holding back, no fear, no restrictions. No ‘Should I…?’, just do it, because why wouldn’t we? Just snap the handbrake off and throw it in a lake, why have it on, ever?”
But Scissortongue’s forthcoming release schedule doesn’t stop there. Continuing the ever so natural, psychedelic vocal pairing of himself and Baxter that started on Contact Play offerings and continued on the crunching boom bap beat and breakneck pace of Borrowed Time from Baxter’s Gruesome Features project, the pair more recently released Pipe Smoke over the relentlessly skittering digital synths of producer Ghosttown. With Jam Baxter, London Zoo’s Dabbla and Ghosttown’s recent Dead Players album bringing a completely new sound to UK Hip Hop, Scissortongue replaces Dabbla to switch up the trio’s sound for the forthcoming Laminated Cakes album and I’m keen to find out what we can expect.
“It came about similairly to Theremin in the sense that one track was the driving force behind it; we did that Pipe Smoke tune which has done really well and that was the precursor to it. It was born of the period after BLNL where I had a lot of time on my hands to write songs, Baxter was busy at the time with Gruesome Features so I got to work and set the ball rolling so hard with six songs or so and then he got involved. We’ve just got one feature tune, with Dike and Chester P, and that’s a dream come true for me. It’s nine songs in total now and almost finished.
The whole records experimentation. Ghosttown’s production is special and so different, he’s amazing. He does that kind of trap influenced thing but with so much more class than other producers. I got sent a track today and in it’s previous form, verse hook verse hook, it was a bit shit and the beat was a bit of a work in progress, but Ghosttown married both my verses together to make one, the same with Baxters, tightened up the beat and it’s come together. It’s Ghosttowns favourite song on the whole project now and may well be mine.
I’m excited. We weren’t really feeling the first version when we recorded it in a studio in Holloway but then we came back to it a while later, rejigged a load of it and re-recorded at Chemos studio; I think that persistence over around two years has shown it’s worth. Ghosttown’s one of those producers that doesn’t need someone to rap on his shit as well, he’s an amazing producer. He’s a hectic bredrin but its brilliant, no one makes music like that guy in my experience. It will be be out before the end of the year so you can judge for yourself then.”
With our glasses reaching their dregs, the sun hanging low over London’s rooftops behind us and the surrounding crowd shifting from daytime networkers and post work socialites to evening revellers, we tail off towards talk of the day to day. He wonders if he’ll manage to make the Arsenal cup final the following Saturday due to the mighty High Focus birthday at Brixton Electric the night before, a packed venue where he introduces me to his fiancée two days later after I drunkenly bump into him just outside the main mass of the dizzyingly hyper crowd.
Despite the pessimism of his lyrics, Edward Scissortongue comes across as a character who’s infectiously happy with his lot and perfectly content living In the moment. Yet despite his almost stubborn mantras of doing what he likes and following his heart, or more likely because of it, I feel that his impact on Hip Hop in our country will truly show it’s worth in years to come. A long awaited UK answer to the early millennium wave of US Indie Hip Hop pioneered by the likes of EL-P and Aesop Rock, his prowess in both structured storytelling and poetic one liners somewhat mimics their styles but is distinctly English in it’s black humour and bitter cynicism. He enters our ears as an antithesis to the cannabis riddled rhymes of the mundane that populate so much of our scenes music in the same way that they did in opposition to the gangster rap that had begun to dominate US radio, hints of Rhyme Asylum’s brutal horror core given a more sophisticated and thoughtful twang by his extensive vocabulary and inventive metaphor.
Looking out thoughtfully to the skyline of the city he now calls home he muses, “I challenge anyone who lives in London to not take massive inspiration from this fucking crazy place. It’s huge, unforgiving and mental.” We soon wonder what the at times brilliantly vibrant and at others depressingly grey streets of the capital would look like if his visions of the future were to ever come true, aptly ending the discussion with thoughts of fiery skies and panic riddled streets…
“What would I be doing if the apocalypse came? I’d be getting smashed watching the mushroom clouds. Watching it all flail and burn. But also calling my mum, and my dad, and my sister. Do the honourable shit. I wouldn’t run around with a machete or anything, or maybe I would. Let’s wait and see.”