After releasing one of the most brilliantly diverse rap mixtapes of the year, Matt Tarr caught up with Yungen to speak about his favourite track from that mixtape Project Black & Red, how he got Wretch 32 and G Frsh on board and why he loved performing in Dubai, whilst Yungen also shares his thoughts on the use of the ‘N’ word within rap music…
MT: How did you get involved with music?
Yungen: I’ve got three older sisters that I used to live with and growing up they used to just play non stop music 24/7 and they used to get cussed by my parents all the time, but yeah they used to play a lot of R&B and stuff, so growing up I was into a lot of R&B. I wasn’t really into rap weirdly but I kinda got into it when 50 Cent and that started coming out, then I started wanting to be like 50 Cent like every other kid and then I started actually writing music. One of my older cousins used to MC and he didn’t really take it seriously but back then I didn’t know that so I just wanted to be like him, so I started rapping but I was obviously rubbish so that’s how I really got into it.
MT: For people who haven’t had the pleasure of listening to your music previously, how would you describes yourself as an artist?
Yungen: I’m very lyrical and I try to have a lot of meaning in my music. Obviously there are times when you have to make clubby music but I still try and make that meaningful. Like when I make a clubby tune I still try to make it something that we can relate to, that when we go to a club it’s actually something that happens or something that’s happened, so I just try and be really meaningful and really creative.
MT: Would you describe yourself as an MC or a rapper?
Yungen: I’d say rapper. I think there is a difference but obviously I rap. I’ve always rapped and I’ve never really done grime. I’m from South London so where I grew up no one really used to do grime. Everyone was a rapper, with people like Giggs and stuff and he don’t really do grime. He used to rap really slow and it was weird when on TV all day is like Crazy Titch, Dizzee Rascal, Ghetto and then when we used to listen to music in the ends it was Giggs and stuff like that and was a different type of music. So yeah I rap.
MT: Being a South Londoner, how do you feel your music represents the area where you live?
Yungen: I try to rep it because it means a lot to me actually. Sometimes I just explain where I’m from in tunes but, like I say, because I do rap I think that kind of shows that I’m from South London. Not that only South London people rap, but they would say grime’s an East London thing so South kind of got the rap thing, so I think I just try to embrace that.
MT: In terms of your latest release, Project Black & Red, the sound of it as an overall piece is very varied with the more chilled tracks with vocal collaborations mixed with the more grittier, purely rap tracks. Were you looking to make the release as varied as it ended up being?
Yungen: What I tried to do was to separate because obviously I’ve got two sides, Black is one project and Red is another project and I wanted to have more gritty, dark tracks on the Black side and even when I did have singers on it I wanted it to be a kind of dark, deep vibe. With Project Red I wanted it to be more happy and lovey and even if I have got a deep track on there I wanted to have a lot of passion in it, so that’s how I tried to vary it.
MT: If you had to pick one track from either project that you feel is your favourite or standout track, which would you choose?
Yungen: To be honest, at different times I love different tracks. When I’m in different moods I’ll think “this is the best track on the thing” and then at a different time I’ll think that about another track. But right now, ‘Too Real’ is my favourite track because it obviously has a lot of meaning to me and I just put out the video for it. When I listen to it and watch the video it’s new again for me so ‘Too Real’ is my favourite track right now.
MT: How did the whole concept for the ‘Too Real’ video come about because it’s quite a dramatic video and is really creative. Did you have a hand in the visuals?
Yungen: Yeah everything was my idea. I really wanted to relive the scenarios cos I feel like sometimes in lyrics people miss the actual meaning and feeling, so there’s a part where I’m in all black and I’m basically watching what’s going on and this scenario has just happened, but the part where I’m in all white, I’m performing but you’re seeing my feelings through the performance yet then when I’m in all black your actually watching the scenario, so I kinda wanted to do it like that. I linked up with the director and he just brought it to life.
MT: So far we’ve seen you release three videos from Project Black & Red, but are there any more to come?
Yungen: When the project came out, people were loving different songs and I wanted to see what people were actually feeling off it. Obviously before I put the project out I shot videos that I wanted to shoot, so now I wanted the people to have their choice. I even asked people on Twitter.
MT: For me, ‘Lights Down’ should be a dead cert to get a video.
Yungen: You know what that’s really weird because you’re probably one of the first guys that’s saying “go for that one”. I actually had that track for a long time before I actually vocalled it and I just used to listen to the beat and then I got Jada on it and she did the hook and I just used to vibe to her without even me being on it. I used to just drive and vibe to it and then it actually took me a while to write to it because I’d been listening to it for so long without me on it, now it sounds weird. But I’m really glad that you actually like that track to be honest cos usually girls are like “yeah Lights Down” so when a guy says ‘Lights Down’ I think, “yeah you know where I was coming from”.
MT: With regards to the features on Project Black & Red which include people like Wretch 32 and G Frsh, how did you get people on board?
Yungen: Every track I got a feature on was just a track that I actually felt they should have been on. Like when I did the Wretch track I had the hook and I was like “I can hear Wretch on this” but, not that I was scared, but I didn’t know what Wretch was gonna say or if he was gonna be on it or not but I just hit him up and sent him the track and he though it was sick! I didn’t wanna just say “I’m friends with him so let me get him on this track”, everyone just fitted the tracks. When I got the beat for the track I did with Sneakbo, I felt like that was a Sneakbo song and that I didn’t even have to be on it, so I wanted to make it like Sneakbo featuring Yungen!
MT: We saw the video recently for the acoustic version of ‘The Moment’ that saw you perform the track with Melissa Steel. How did performing the track acoustically feel?
Yungen: It was good you know, obviously ‘The Moment’ is one of my favourite tracks as well and it means a lot to me and it’s got a hidden meaning to me. We knew that everyone who had bought Project Black & Red had heard the track, but I thought “how can we make it different?”. I wanted to play it and I wanted it to be live and so I thought, let’s get Melissa Steel on it so I hit her up and she was up for doing it. So she came down and delivered it and it just worked. I like that you can listen to ‘The Moment’ on the project and it’s the guy singing and then you can go and watch it with Melissa and it’s a different vibe.
MT: I really enjoyed hearing it with the live band as well and I thought that added so many new elements and layers to the track.
Yungen: D’ya know what, I went on tour with Naughty Boy and it was the first time I’d really been doing live stuff and I think live sounds so much better. The guys that were playing the track when we recorded it with Melissa were on tour with me so they’re the same guys. We built a friendship and we’re like family so I just asked them to come and record the track. Even with my upcoming show I’m looking to do certain tracks with a live band cos I need people to feel it. But I think there are certain gritty tracks on there, like the Sneakbo track or the G Frsh track, that I’m just not gonna do live cos they just need to be hard hitting.
MT: Are you going to be bringing anyone who featured on the album along with you to your live show?
Yungen: Hopefully, I haven’t actually asked anyone yet but hopefully everyone’s gonna come down. This is my first show so we wanted to make it really intimate and I even wanted the stage to be really close to the people so I could get that vibe and atmosphere. For my first show, which is obviously the Black & Red show off the back of the project, I feel like my fans actually get to be a part of it. I want my fans to go there and come away thinking “that was the best day of my life”. I want them to really feel a part of it.
MT: Having toured with Naughty Boy and played in numerous places around the world, have you got one show or venue that has been your most memorable?
Yungen: I’ve done so many! A lot of them were festivals. Dubai was definitely one of the best atmospheres because it was hot but it was night and there was just loads of cool buildings. This is why I love stuff like this because it makes me wanna make a hit so I can go and perform there again and have that atmosphere again. So Dubai is probably one of the best places I’ve performed. I performed at Electric in Brixton with Emeli Sande and Naughty Boy and that was very good cos that’s like my home town and I’ve never performed in my home town before, so to actually perform there was sick cos I’d never even been there growing up, I knew it was there but I’d never been inside, so to perform there was sick and I hope one day I can do a show there and sell that out!
MT: You released Project Black & Red independently which meant that you had full creative freedom over it. Do you feel it may have turned out differently were you signed to a major label?
Yungen: I’m not too sure. I feel like that’s why maybe I’m not in a label situation yet. The label has to be fully supportive of what I wanna do so I feel like when we get in the situation they’re gonna fully understand what I wanna do and kinda let me have my own creative control. I think it was very important that I did this without a label so they see that I can actually make music and I can sell. I think with a label it’s all timing. A lot of people get signed too quick and you’ve got that pressure of releasing music and it can go wrong, so I feel like you need that time. I would say I’m kinda glad to be an independent cos I get the chance to show everyone what I can do before I get the pressure on me.
MT: During Project Black & Red, there are numerous uses of the ‘N’ word and there is always a lot of debate as to whether rappers should use it in their lyrics due to the history behind the word and also possibly stopping some fans feeling as though they can sing along. How do you condone your use of the ‘N’ word and what do you say to people who feel that you shouldn’t use it?
Yungen: I think its become just a normal word, if I’m honest. I would call my white friends that and I don’t think it’s as serious as it maybe once was. The meaning has changed due to rap music. I don’t look too deep into it. I was watching a show before one of my show, cos I like to watch performances before I perform to get little ideas and stuff and Kanye went out and said “Today, you lot are allowed to say n*gga” and I just thought that that was sick. I like that because then people, like you said, will think “can we sing along?” and I thought I’m happy you did that because you broke through the barrier that was there, if there was one there. I understand why a lot of people are touchy about it but I think at times, a lot of people take it too seriously, like you know they don’t mean it like that so lets not act like they mean that.
MT: What is your aim for your career and when will you feel like you’ve reached the goal you set out to achieve?
Yungen: It’s weird cos I feel like your goals change when you hit a certain spot. I never thought I’d be here now, if I’m dead honest. When I first started rapping I just wanted to get YouTube views and then when I got the YouTube views I wanted to do shows and then when I did shows I wanted to do arenas and festivals. I think that when you reach every step you want to get to the next step. I just want people to be able to listen to my music and think “you know what, I’ve been through that” and relate to it, so that’s my main thing right now.
With a huge upcoming show at the O2 Academy in Islington on Thursday 6th November, Yungen is set to have an amazing end to a landmark year for him. We are predicting him to go on and do even greater things in 2015 but in the meantime make sure you grab your copy of Project Black & Red here and keep up to date with everything Yungen on Twitter and Facebook.