Writer and rapper Mikill Pane makes the ordinary extraordinary in new album, Blame Miss Barclay.
Getting fired from his job in a bike shop might have been the best thing that ever happened to Mikill (‘cos he’s ill on the mic) Pane (‘cos he wears specs, duh).
Since 2011, the Hackney-based rapper has released three hyped EPs, the most popular of which, You Guest It in 2012, featured the likes of BFF Ed Sheeran plus a whole host of London homies including Example and Paloma Faith, and was one of the most downloaded mixtapes ever on urban music website SB.TV.
Through sophisticated wordplay he makes the ordinary extraordinary and although his stories are almost always fictional, his subject matter – from bikes, weed, sneakers and hookups to prostitutes, drug dealers and gun crime – is always rooted in London’s soap-opera streets.
We caught up with Mikill (real name: Justin Smith Uzomba) at the Rapha Cycle Club in Soho one sunny afternoon to chat about his new single ‘Good Feeling’, which is out March 18 on Mercury Records, and his new album Blame Miss Barclay, which is out later this year.
Who inspired you growing up?
When it came to writing it was my English teacher Miss Barclay who I’ve actually named my album after. I always looked to my sister too. No one really inspired me musically. I love various artists, I have a pretty eclectic taste, but I never wanted to be like anyone. I always wanted to tell my own stories, not necessarily my own story, but tales and stories from my perspective or another person’s perspective. Just being really imaginative with it. Perhaps subconsciously more novel writers like George Orwell [inspired me] but no one consciously.
Do you think that allowed you to sound quite different?
I think it has. I’ve never sort of scanned the scene and looked at what everyone’s doing and tried to go the other way. I always just ignored everything or enjoyed stuff but still did my own thing. [...] I think lyricism has come back the forefront of music right now. You’ve got emcees being revered such as Kendrick Lamar now. Even A$AP Rocky who’s super avant-garde and high-fashion, with very sort of hood elements, he’s very lyrical. I think A$AP Rocky is a great lyricist. Of course, Kanye West and Jay-Z. There was a time when things went down to just being really brash. There was no wordplay or double entendres. But now I think lyricism is back. So it’s good to come out now. I think this is the era of the lyricist again. Not just me. And not even in rap. I’m a big fan of the Arctic Monkeys and I think Alex Turner is one of the greatest writers of our generation because his double entendres are amazing. If you saw some of his writing on paper, you’d think it was rap lyrics. He’s just the coolest.
Do you read a lot?
I think my mind manages to store a lot. It’s a bit of a mental reservoir. I can remember things from pop culture or just general knowledge, that other people might have forgotten and use it as simile or a metaphor and people are like, ‘Oh yeah I remember that!’ So I think I just have a good memory. I don’t get to read as much as I used to. But I do stay abreast of current affairs and stuff like that. I think that’s very important as a writer – especially if you’re not only writing autobiographical raps. You need to have a basic sort of timeline of when things have happened so if you do mention an event you’re not going to throw things way out of context.
Does that affect the way you see the world?
Mentally, yeah. One of my favourite pastimes, as sad as it sounds, is taking photos and captioning them. And I’ve always loved that. I remember being at my mate’s house and we were taking all these photos and I literally went through every single photo, must have been about 150, and captioned the backs of them. They were quite basic things but it was fun. That’s when I realised I had a passion for putting words to images. And it goes the same way when it comes to writing raps. I want to know that people can actually see something when I write. People always say to me, ‘The thing about Little Lady is it’s so graphic.’ People actually see what I’m saying. So I always try and use that as a sort of benchmark for subsequent songs and stuff.
So your new album is a concept album?
Yeah, basically there are six or seven characters and everyone’s kind of linked. They sort of pass by each other and I see it all. There’s a character called Lucky who’s a drug dealer, a gangster, what we call a roadman, but at the same time he’s quite intelligent in that he can see the effects of gentrification in the area he grew up in. And he knows that it used to be really rough and it was just his sort of habitat and then all the middle-class uni kids came in and everyone trying to get onto the property ladder and he could see how on one side of the coin they’re calling on him for drugs and on the other side of the coin, they’re complaining about gun crime. Well you can’t have one without the other! They say every great fortune was built on an even greater crime. And even the establishment of certain countries was built on nothing but brutality and fucking people over. So I don’t think the drug trade is any different from that. [...] I write stuff and I don’t take a stance myself, I just lay a story out and let people make up their own minds. Some people may listen to it and feel like Lucky’s wrong, ‘People should be able to live wherever they like.’ But at the same time people might go, ‘Well actually that’s enlightening because I’ve always wanted gun crime to stop but I’ve never realised that every single time I call up a drug dealer I’m actually making him more successful and I’m making him more hated by his rivals.’ Do you know what I mean? Competition has to be eliminated.
Are they characters from your life?
No, totally imagined. I don’t want to give away the plot here, but there’s an old couple in one of the stories and their journey to another country is told by me. But I’ve never known anyone who’s been through what they’ve been through. Funnily enough, I was telling this to a publisher who used to work for Sony ATV just down the road, and she had a friend whose parents had been through the exact same thing. So people can relate to it.
A storyteller’s job is to be able to inhabit all different roles I guess…
Absolutely. If every song was just about the fact that I like cycling and smoking weed and girls and shit, it would just get a bit boring, for me especially. It’s all about exercising your mind. With my Instagram and Twitter, it’s just exercise. Purely verbal exercises, just to keep me on top of my game. As a personal thing. I don’t care if people say, ‘Oh that’s a dad joke,’ or something. It’s just me saying, ‘Oh this works as a double entendre, I’ll just write it.’ It’s stream of consciousness. It’s not necessarily stuff I’ll put in a song but hopefully it lets people know that this is what I do and it’s exactly how I live. I think my music’s just an extension of that. I was writing prose and poetry from a young age. So that is exactly who I am. I care about writing, and the fact that music serves as a nice base, which makes it accessible, is cool, but if I didn’t make music, I’d still write.
You’re into bikes. How often do you ride these days?
There was a point when I stopped because I was touring so much. Now I’m running and I’ve gone back to cycling a lot. I’d say three or four times a week.
Why does riding fixed get so much shit?
Well it’s like skating innit? There is that scene.
People who ride fixies get way more shit than skaters…
Only because it’s kind of worn off skating. Fixies are newer, even though it dates back to WWI I think. I think WWI soliders were playing fixie polo! When skateboarding and BMXing embraced fixies as a cool thing it got put on a pedestal and it became a problem, with people looking down on certain bikes and stuff like that. If you wanna buy a little single-speed Create bike to cycle to work or something people would be like, ‘Oh look at his frame, look at his components, that’s such a shit bike.’ And you go on the forums and they’re all just talking smack. It’s the worst thing. And it’s just pathetic! You’re a grown man and you’re bitching about someone else’s bike. It’s not affecting you! Why are you wasting time on a forum? Go and feed your fucking kids or something. It’s so weird. Any scene has its snobs. You go on sneaker forums it’s the same…
You love sneakers…
Oh yeah, massively. I have about 670. I keep them in three different houses actually.
I just got the Huarache in the OG colourway, which is really nice, ‘cos it was quite a limited run. I’m massively into Air Jordans as well. But I do love my Janoski’s to cycle in and Vans too. So quite a range of different ones. My favourite shoe is probably the Air Max 90 in the OG colourway.
Tell us about the new single.
Good Feeling was the last song I wrote for the album and I didn’t think it would even be a single to be honest. Smashing Bricks [on the Dirty Rider ep] is about how this kid Adrian meets Pam McCarthy, and I’d written about Adrian when he’s younger getting bullied and stuff, but I needed a song to link the two. Every story needs a beginning, middle and end. This transition from a young kid getting bullied at twelve to being a student. It came out quite catchy. I think it’s very important when you’re making a song to make it a song. There’s gotta be bits that people can remember from it. Hooky hooks are important.
Storylines that intersect and characters that reappear are cool.
It’s the best feeling! In films too, y’know? And people are already tweeting me like, ‘I love the way it’s beginning to come together now. I’ve got a better understanding of who Pam McCarthy is now.’ It’s amazing. It’s really cool.