In the two months since I last interviewed Riz Ahmed [AKA Riz MC] it seems there is nothing this man can’t do, or audiences he can’t charm. His album MICroscope is being rereleased through the Tru Thoughts label with some blinding remixes added in for your hearing pleasure. He was also one of the highlights of this years The Great Escape festival, playing an impromptu ‘block party’ style gig outside The Wagon & Horses pub. It attracted a 500 strong audience within 15 minutes. With his socially aware lyrics, and the ability to poke fun at human foibles [including those in himself] his performances are beguiling and intelligent.
I interviewed Riz the night before his single launch for ‘All In The Ghetto’ at Ballyhoo in London, where he was previewing some new tracks. The performance that night allowed him to step up one more level. It was small and intimate from opening performances from Aurba Red and DJ Nihal with Nerm on the decks for Riz The audience contained mostly Riz MC fans and perhaps one or two people who wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I have seen Riz twice before, but with a crowd that was exclusively his and new material to try out, this was a success of a headline show. His banter was as cheeky and astute as always, but it was his new songs that made us hungry for more. ‘Different’ was a dubstep infused song about his time at Oxford Uni when he asked a girl whether he could borrow her charger, her response…”Oh my god, you sound just like Ali G” Yes, someone really said that to him. The mind boggles. ‘Anger Management’ was about as hardcore as you could get, and to end a show on such a heightened note made you wonder how long it would take you to get to sleep that night. Apparently lines of Ovaltine were available on request. An unexpected treat was Aruba Red joining him on stage for ‘All of You’ a dark twisted tale of a past relationship gone sour. Aruba’s vocals lifting the melody up to a sense of expectation and wanting. What I was really waiting for was ‘Sour Times’ a prolific poem about the post 7/7 bomb blasts in London. Whenever Riz performs this, the audience seem to hold their breath for the entire 4 minutes. And at Ballyhoo you could have heard a pin drop. Riz is no ordinary rapper. His view of the world is too wide reaching and intelligent to put him in that box, and this is why with his multitude of talent, this year will see him spreading his wings far and wide.
“In these sour times
Please allow me to vouch for mine
Bitter taste in my mouth
Spit it out with a rhyme
I’m losing my religion to tomorrow’s headlines
Nah nothing – its fine”
On your new single, “All in the Ghetto”, to me your lyrics are quite self-explanatory, but what inspired you to write it?
A lot of my music is social commentary with a smirk – rather than being preachy or political or anything like that – it’s more satirical. So it still gives you the flows that you like listening to in Hip Hop, and the punch lines, but it’s not about how good my car is or how much money I’ve got. I like to look at things going on in the world and around me that make me sit up and go: ‘What’s going on here?’ and picking them apart. That’s really why my album’s called “MICroscope”, because I really like putting things under the lens and poking them and prodding at them to make sense of it. Or if not make sense of it, pull it apart a little bit.
I sent my 72-year-old father the “All in the Ghetto” video, because we were having a discussion about the gentrification of what’s considered poorer areas in London. And it just represented the topic so well. Is it something you’ve actively observed over time?
Yeah, it’s about the trends that are always happening somewhere or another. Like Notting Hill in the ‘70s was a really rough area; look at Notting Hill now. Harlem used to be what it was and look at Harlem now. There are a lot of really expensive houses in Harlem and it can be quite tricky to get on the property ladder there. Look at Brooklyn and the traditional Jewish neighbourhoods, now look at what Williamsburg is now. Similarly with Old Street, Shoreditch and Dalston in these traditionally Turkish areas which are now hipster meccas. It’s not judging this trend of gentrification or saying: ‘People from these areas shouldn’t live there,’ it’s just saying: ‘There it is. It’s happening. Isn’t absurd? Isn’t it amazing?’ Just throwing up these amazing absurdities and lots of creative contradictions, where you’ve got the crack dealer and the vegan café on the same street corner. So, yeah, if I had to give it a tagline: It’s about hipsters in the hood. I think it’s something a lot of people can relate to, that are from a city life.
I was listening to the album and there are some absolutely brilliant remixes there. How did you choose the people that are on the album to remix?
A lot of them are people that I’ve had a connection to for a while. For example, True Tiger – DJ Stanza used to be my tour DJ. Back when he was DJing on Freeze FM, he used to email me and say: ‘Send me tunes.’ So, you know, the True Tiger camp have been remixing my tunes for a bit now. They did my first remixes for “Radar”. So I felt quite natural to go to them. Similarly, Bok Bok is someone who I crossed paths with now and again in slightly different ways. I booked him for a party that I put on at the South Bank centre called United Underground. He came and played for me at Party for Pakistan. We’ve just got people in common. I’ve just been a big fan of his music. I just like that it’s based in UK underground heritage, but it’s also quite innovative. It’s taking on that heritage but then also projecting forwards and more futuristic. So that’s something I aspire to do in my own music. Zed Bias, aka Maddslinky, made the interludes on the album – the “MICroscope’s theme of sci-fi story world about sonic warfare. So he was already working on the album in that capacity and he said: ‘You know what? I wanna do a remix for “Hundreds & Thousands”,’ and for Zed Bias to do a remix for you, you just jump at it. So, yeah, I’ve just been quite lucky. It’s been people that it’s happened quite organically. It’s people that I’ve had links with and they’ve said they’d like to work on the project or we’ve crossed paths before. Plan B is someone I’ve worked with over the years and that kinda happened naturally as well.
I was talking to another DJ friend of mine and was interested as to why people get people to do remixes of their songs. Is it so you can present the song in a different way or pull it apart and put it back together again?
I think it’s to allow the song to have a second life. I think its in-tune with the times that we’re living in now; it’s an open source living where people can take ownership of things and re imagine them. So I think remix cultural is synonymous with culture, more generally. I think it’s standard to allow people to take your music and re imagine it, to allow it to have different kind of lives. It can be played in a club or other people can come across the tune in different ways. For me, personally, I was excited to see what [other peoples’ takes] would be on this stuff. It’s just always a treat, as an artist. You open up the email, wonder what the tune’s gonna be like.
Moving on to the Great Escape, you played three gigs in three days and all of them were quite different. Different venues, different vibe, different crowd. Was that on purpose?
It just kinda happened. I’m pleased to say it happens quite a lot with me and my music, because it’s not your standard Grime or Hip Hop. It’s, in a way, niche, but in another way, more open with the musical influences and the style and what the songs are about. So it just happened quite randomly. The Coalition gig was the main one that the club gig. Then the next day, because I’d just signed to Tru Thoughts, they said: ‘We’ve taken over this pub. We want you to jump on stage,’ so we did that. Then the next one, the Festival Hub, that was just a last-minute one. They said: ‘We’d love you to come down and do it and open up the outdoor stage’ on the final day. So it just kinda happened. One was a block party and one was quite funny, because it was almost like a family picnic and I wasn’t allowed to swear, but it was wicked. It’s a nice buzz when you see different crowds all vibing to the music.
I was at the Coalition one and the Wagon & Horse one and both crowds were really different, but I was sitting at the Thursday night with my mate at 2 o’clock in the morning listening to hardcore Jungle going: ‘I can’t believe this is a Thursday night!’ [laughs]. It was a mad vibe. But at the Waggon and Horses gig, there was quite a stir, because there were 500+ watching you. Of the two I went to, that was more adlib and had such a good vibe about it, so I don’t want to ask which you preferred..but…
You know what? I loved that Wagon & Horses one, because I love creating a block party vibe. Sometime in a club, even though you’d got a contained [area] and peoples’ focused attention and the sound system and stuff, it can be more restrictive than just being outdoors in the open air. Sometimes you can have more of a genuine connection with people like that.
There was one phrase that you used in one of the songs: “Pashmina bogglers” which I absolutely loved. What are pashima bogglers”?
No, boglers. You know, old school Reggae bogling. So it’s about people who might be synonymous with black dance music but also wear pashminas. It’s about, similarly, those boxes that we put people in. “All in the Ghetto” is about making fun of that, but also celebrating it a bit.
As far as the summer goes, have you got any festivals planned?
It’s less festivals and more club shows. I’m supporting James Blake in Manchester on 6th June. Also we’re doing Hit’n’Run London on 6th July at Corsica Studios. Hit’n’Run is a club night I founded in 2001, when I was at university, which has since moved up to Manchester. Rich Reason, a producer that I’m working a lot with now is heading that up and is creating this monster, which has taken over Manchester and they’re playing at Fabric soon this coming Friday. They’ve got Roots Manuva. So that’s gonna be the first Hit’n’Run London. It’s kinda like my album launch party as well, 6th July. And there’s more dates that I can’t think of off the top of my head. I know there’s Gottwood Festival, which is in June.
So, your first headline show. Have you got any special plans for tomorrow night? What can we expect from the show?
I’m gonna be doing some new material, which I’m a bit nervous about but also excited about. Some really different stuff. There’s more layered and experimental and soulful. Some of its produced by Rich Reason. Rather than the more crisp minimal techy kinda a sound of “MICroscope”, so I’m looking forward to showing a bit of that. Also a tune that I debuted at the Great Escape, my new track with Zed Bias – “Anger Management”, which I’m gonna sit on for a while. I don’t think it’ll see the light of day until my “MICroscope” albums out, but it’s nice to showcase new bits of material.
And last time we spoke, you mentioned that you’ve got so much material sitting around that you might do a mix tape or b-sides. Can we still expect that?
Yeah, I’m sitting with quite a bit of music, but a lot of that music just gets discarded. Rather than being one of those people that just puts out lots of stuff, I like to be more selective. So I’ll see how I feel about the stuff by the end of the summer, but I’m going back in the studio intensively over July and August, so yeah – looking forward to it.