- 13 Nov 23
As he releases his second full-length LP, Phantom Of The Afters, Kojaque talks with Will Russell about the record’s creation, collaborating with Biig Piig, sampling Sammy Copley and being Irish in London.
Five years since Kojaque came tearing out of the blocks on ‘White Noise’, the opening track from his concept tape Deli Daydreams – castigating draconian drug laws, the Eighth Amendment and the eternal housing crisis – he’s not taken his foot off the accelerator. The fact that Deli Daydreams was a mixtape did not preclude it from being nominated for the Choice Music Prize.
His debut album Town’s Dead was also Choice nominated, and for my money, Phantom of The Afters is a sure thing to achieve the triple and perhaps go one better. It’s an epic record, impeccably produced, loosely conceptual, detailing Kojaque’s move to London and deals with mammoth issues - childhood trauma, depression, grief, love, immigrant identity, acceptance of self and shedding of previous skins.
I suggest to Kojaque that Phantom of The Afters is redolent of The Streets’ Original Pirate Material, in what it may do for the articulation of national identity in hip-hop. He takes a beat.
“Jesus man, that’s high praise, fuck’s sake” he responds. “Original Pirate Material is one of the best albums ever made, that and A Grand Don’t Come for Free, although I think I prefer Original Pirate Material. A few of the songs from A Grand don’t serve as standalone songs. But then again, it was made in a time that if you wanted to hear the album, you had to buy it. So they weren’t made with the intention of being listened to out of context.”
Spend time with Kojaque and you’ll get educated. The dude knows music and loves to talk about it in a manner that is illuminating and infectious. He races through the vinyl that’s spinning on his turntable: El Michels Affair & Black Thought, Vince Staples, Baby Keem and Kendrick Lamar. He fanboys the featured artists on his own record, marvelling at the method of Wiki delivering his rap on ‘Johnny Mcenroe’. He also waxes lyrical about Biig Piig bossing it on ‘Woof’, and obsesses over Charlotte dos Santos nailing it on ‘What If?’. And the man can pick a good sample.
“The sample on ‘Rainy Days’ is ‘(Nina) Have You Seen My Baby’ by Marvin. L Sims,” he enthuses. “An incredible song. The sample on ‘Yoko Oh No!’ is Jeff Simmons from Naked Angels, a ’60s biker film that he did the soundtrack for. It was a sample I found, really adored and for which I made a beat. I had been listening to a lot of Navy Blue, Mike, The Alchemist, Action Bronson – their samples are so rich and recorded so well.
“There is just soul to them, you really don’t have to do much with them. I think that is the confidence I have gained over the last while – just being confident enough to know that I am a competent producer. I don’t need to throw the kitchen sink at the production. So with ‘Yoko Oh No’, I put in a kick, snare and 808, and then the rest was just the way I chopped the sample. Similarly, with ‘Rainy Days’, that sample is just so good.”
If only it were that easy, but Kojaque is humble. Indeed, he cedes the final minute of the record to the hugely talented Sammy Copley.
“About a year-and-a-half ago, a friend of mine sent me a piece that Sammy wrote,” Kojaque explains. “It sounds ancient, like an old song from the 1920s. It just captured so much of the feeling I was trying to put across on the record, but in a more simplistic way. I sampled it, reversed the piano and picked out the parts to make my own chords. I wrote the song and recorded it, and didn’t think about it until we’re getting the songs together for the album. When I showed it to Karma Kid, he fortunately convinced me to put it on the record.”
The sleeve of Phantom Of The Afters subverts the bigoted Irish caricatures in 19th and 20th century Punch magazine cartoons.
“The intention was to play off that big Irish head stereotype, that kind of big potato head,” he chuckles. “Oftentimes, that’s how I feel I am perceived here. In shops or just talking to English people, they’ll do some plastic paddy or culchie accent back to you. And I’m just like, that doesn’t sound anything like me. It’s this weird caricature that you’re being perceived as, so I wanted to kind of play off that.
“Let’s be clear, all things being considered, I have a very easy time in London. I’m a fucking white guy walking around, it’s grand, my life is fine. It’s just the odd interaction you get with people, it’s just ignorance. They think it’s just a joke, it’s funny, yada yada. It just doesn’t feel like that from our perspective, our history is British colonialism, so to hear British people doing that Paddy accent back at you, it just boils your blood obviously. It’ll never not feel snide to hear a British person do an Irish impression, especially if it’s bad.
“I mean I couldn’t give a fuck if it’s good, I’m all for impressions, if you can do a great Irish accent, unreal, come sit down have a pint! But when you’re getting change from someone at a coffee shop, and they go, ‘There’s your 33 cents’, shut the fuck up!”
Kojaque’s records all possess narrative frameworks worthy of a film script. I wonder does he storyboard his albums?
“I just write songs,” he explains. “I don’t ever sit down and say I’m going to write an album, from track one to 15. I think when you approach art like that, you’re too focused on the end product. The way I approach it, is whatever I’m feeling in that moment, whatever I’m inspired by, because the songs need to support themselves, they need to be good.
“I had 20 or 30 songs and I did a hard cut, and basically got the bones of the album that way. You take your 30 songs and you reduce it down to what’s essential, like if it had to be five, what are the five that tell a cohesive story? Comparatively speaking, this album is probably my least conceptual, but there are songs that go over common themes, or songs that revisit themes.”
Where did you record it?
“Mainly, it was bedroom recordings, and then I finished a lot of it with Karma Kid at his studio in Brixton. But for the most part, I’ve got a little set-up in my bedroom. That’s where I like to work from, because I can work at any stage. The inspiration is there. I feel a lot less self-conscious and a lot less precious about what I record, and I think I record better things because of that.”
‘Fat Ronaldo/Convent Gardens’ serves as something of a fulcrum to Phantom Of The Afters, right?
“‘Fat Ronaldo’ is the turning point on the record,” Kojaque affirms. “I would say the A-side feels like arriving in fucking London, into this big anonymous city. I’m surrounded by other musicians, who are ten a penny here. You’ve got to be fucking ambitious. A lot of first half of the record is bravado and braggadocio – ‘Fuck yis I’m here’. Here to make a name. Here to make it big.
“A lot of that bravado is a mask that you wear, I think being yourself is a lot more important than being seen as cool. It’s more important than how other people perceive you. You can become really successful being a fake version of yourself, but that’s just not sustainable. It’s not sustainable for your own mental health. So, yes, that’s the turning point of the record, it becomes a lot more open after that.”
Side B comprises some beautiful and joyful soul music – it’s uplifting.
“I’ve always suffered with depression and anxiety,” says Kojaque. “My way of dealing with it has always been in a very stereotypical, manly way – ‘If this shit is going on, you’re not going to know about it, I’ll deal with it in my own time’. During the making of the record, I was really, really, badly depressed. It wasn’t like I wasn’t looking after myself, I’m a big advocate for counselling and psychotherapy, but with just the pressure of everything, it was a really mad tumultuous year.
“I got fuckin’ evicted from my gaff, I got dropped off a record label, tonnes of shit, being away from home, feeling like I was about to be homeless. And then on top of that, trying to finish off the album, being so stressed, I wasn’t looking after my basic needs. But it was one of the first times I actually told people about what was happening, so I think that might be why the shit sounds a bit more soulful, even though it’s dealing with darker subjects. Because the idea was trying to accept the feelings as opposed to pretending they’re not there, or pretending they’re not a part of me.”
Do you have good people around you in London?
“The majority of my mates have moved to London in the last year or two,” says Kojaque. “I nearly have to rack my brain to think of who I will actually have to visit when I go back to Dublin. It’s a fucking travesty man. It’s the same fucking government that it’s been for the last however many years. They don’t give a fuck about the people of Ireland.
“I think they’ve made that very, very clear, particularly when you look at the pandemic, when it was middle class people and upper-class people that were put onto the dole, the government all agreed. It obviously isn’t enough money to survive in Ireland. It’s typical neoliberal politics, it’s bollocks. I would love to live in Ireland. The main thing I miss is the people, but I don’t miss Ireland as it’s currently set up, if that makes sense.”
Phantom Of The Afters is released on October 27. Kojaque plays a full Irish tour in November, with dates including Cyprus Avenue, Cork (November 14), Vicar Street, Dublin (16) and Limelight, Belfast (18).