Hello Rawz, and welcome to St John’s! To start off, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
I’ve lived in Oxford since I was about 3 years old – I moved to Greater Leys on the south side of the city when I was about 11. I didn’t have the easiest time growing up, and I found that writing lyrics was a way to get through it. My mum loved music, and my stepdad drove tour buses for bands like Bon Jovi and Metallica, so music was always a real part of my life growing up. As I got into my early teens I thought I wanted to make music, and not having any instruments in the house, the thing I gravitated towards was writing lyrics. It became a kind of self-guided, self-taught therapy for me, something I did for myself to get through it.
At some point I went to a local poetry course at Fusion Arts Centre on Cowley Road. I really enjoyed it and the guy who was running it asked me if I wanted to work with the project, which I did for the next year or so, which was a great experience. At the same time, I was contacted by a local charity who were running an anti-knife crime campaign and they asked me and some friends to come in and write some music with the kids. It was really fun, we made a track with the kids, and ended up running an anti-knife crime conference at the Kassam Stadium which was attended by the chief of Thames Valley Police. It was a real buzz doing that conference, it was really well attended.
The day after the conference, the youth project leader came to me and said ‘I’m really sorry, the funding’s run out, there’s no more work for you’. Me and my friends were really gutted, and we decided to start our own thing, we called it the Urban Music Foundation. This was in around 2009 and I still run it now although the other guys have now moved on to other things.
During this time I was always writing, recording and performing my own music. Through the hip hop scene in Oxford I joined up with some like-minded people who had just started a collective; Inner Peace Records. We’re basically a group of mates who all like the same style of hip hop and we came together around that. It turned out that a lot of us do community work, so a lot of the youth and community stuff I do now is with members of Inner Peace Records too.
Could you tell us a bit more about the Digging Crates project?
I came up with the idea just over a year ago. I had a meeting with someone from the GLAM team to talk about a new ‘Community Connectors’ project they were developing and right at the end of the meeting she said; ‘We’ve got loads of instruments at the Pitt [Rivers Museum] and we’re trying to think of ways we can bring a bit of life to the collections; they’ve been silent for so long’, straight away I thought ‘We could sample them and write hip hop with them’. I went away and wrote a proposal and a few months later I was developing the idea into a project with a member of the public engagement team.
We decided to focus on the angle of decolonisation and particularly on the African instrument collection, which works really nicely because hip hop is a genre that started in communities in America where many people are descendants of Africans kidnapped and forced into slavery. Hip hop has travelled all over the world now and has started its own sub-genres, and those sub-genres have come back and re-influenced American culture. In a similar way, British culture was taken out to the world through the Empire, and now those cultures that were once part of the empire are coming back and influencing British culture, I think that’s an interesting way to think about it.
“ Hip hop has travelled all over the world now and has started its own sub-genres, and those sub-genres have come back and re-influenced American culture. In a similar way, British culture was taken out to the world through the Empire, and now those cultures that were once part of the empire are coming back and influencing British culture, I think that’s an interesting way to think about it. ”
What does the name of the project signify?
The name ‘Digging Crates’ comes from a phrase in hip hop culture that refers to producers searching in record shops; they want to try and find the rarest records and obscure things to sample so they can ‘flip it’ in creative ways – speed it up, slow it down, change the pitch or reverse it, anything to give it a unique sound that no one has done before – so producers will go ‘crate digging’, which basically refers to going into a record shop and just searching through the crates of vinyl looking for that rare gem no one else has found. I mentioned that to Beth from the Pitt Rivers who I worked with closely when developing the project and she said, ‘Oh that’s really funny because we have ‘digging crates’ that are used for archaeological digs and to store museum objects’, so it’s a phrase that’s used in hip hop culture and in museum culture, the perfect name for the project.
One of the things you say in the trailer is that you want people to challenge the preconceptions they have about hip hop and museums. Can you talk a bit more about that?
Hip hop as a genre has a lot of negative connotations. I think people often think about violence and materialism, male chauvinism, all of that. That’s never been what Inner Peace Records is about, and I think often when people encounter us they’re really shocked about how positive our music is – I think of it as quite soulful music. There has always been this strand to hip hop that’s been about that soulfulness and sharing of knowledge, so that’s what I wanted to show from the hip hop side.
“ I think often when people encounter us they’re really shocked about how positive our music is – I think of it as quite soulful music. ”
A perception I had of museums until we did Digging Crates was that it’s somewhere quite stuffy that only begrudgingly shares its collections with the public because it has to. Actually, from the beginning Pitt Rivers was really open about talking about the past, how the objects were gathered, and some of the problematic things around that; Like the question of, if a musical instrument hasn’t been played in decades, or even centuries, is it still a musical instrument or is it now just an ornament? Pitt Rivers was really upfront with that from the outset and saying they find it really troubling, that these instruments were made by hand, by people with knowledge, and were made with a purpose, to make noise and celebrate something or mourn something pleasantly, and they were just taken and put in a case for people to look at, and that is problematic. I was surprised by how ready the museum was to discuss that.
You’ve been speaking a lot about community outreach and the relationship between town and gown. What’s been your experience growing up as a local and now working with the University?
It’s difficult to put into words really. It’s quite bizarre! Living in the city for a long time, I just got used to walking past all of these walls and closed doors and not even thinking about what was on the other side. This last year and a half, through Digging Crates, the Community Connectors programme, and now through my residency here, I’ve found myself walking through so many of these doors. To feel that I’m now walking through these doors, not sneaking in, I’m actually invited and my opinions are valued on the other side of these doors, has been a really amazing journey over the last year or so.
“ To feel that I’m now walking through these doors, not sneaking in, I’m actually invited and my opinions are valued on the other side of these doors, has been a really amazing journey over the last year or so. ”
Maybe I’m making assumptions, but I get the impression that when students come to study at a place like to St John’s, most of what they see of Oxford is the city centre and they don’t venture too far out, I’m really glad to be able to let people know that there’s more to Oxford than that and show them a bit of that side of Oxford culture that they might miss out on if I wasn’t here.
As part of your residency you’re going to be running a series of workshops. What would you say to people who haven’t been involved in hip hop before and who might be nervous to come along?
First of all, don’t be scared! I work with a lot of beginners, I work with 10-, 11-year olds and younger who have never done it before, so that’s nothing to worry about, I’ve even done sessions in old people’s homes!I’d also say that hip hop isn’t just a genre of music. It’s a culture. There are five pillars of hip hop: MCing; the lyrics and poetry, DJing and Producing; making and playing the beats, Graffiti; which is the visual art side of it, Breaking; which is dancing and physical movement, and then the foundation of it all, which is sharing of knowledge and community. I’m not only going to be touching on music on my workshops, although I will be bringing in some of my colleagues from Inner Peace Records to do a beat-making workshop a bit later on, really I want to introduce people to hip hop as a culture and look at it that way. The workshops are about exploring the ideas and principles of hip hop as a culture the focus won’t be particularly on making music during the sessions although I do invite people to go away and give it a go if they want to! I’m here to help with that too!