As Brixton-native Gaika drops his new mixtape “Security” today, we look back to January’s Rollcoaster shoot and our off-kilter interview with the cross-genre hero.
For a guy who conceals himself behind a mask made of repurposed Nike trainers in his videos (bringing new meaning to the term ‘Sneakerhead’), genre-crossing artist Gaika is surprisingly candid in person. One of those rare, genuinely captivating people, he monologued to me for a good hour about everything from the capitalization of music to the gentrification of Brixton, his hometown. And you know what? It didn’t get boring.
His music is just as interesting. Songs like “NKIQA” and “HECO” are part savage Bristol Trip-Hop, part Roots Manuva inflected soundscapes, and part distorted Dancehall vocals. His key influences? Bizarrely, that would be the cannon of pop’s Purple One. “Prince. Who’s better than Prince? Not me,” he barks. “The music I make is different from everyone else’s but it works because I judge it on my own taste level,” he explains. “I’ve proved this to myself because a lot of the things I’ve said are gonna blow up have done, and I’ve been around them.”
When Gaika talks about being around different scenes, different artists, it could seem like name-dropping in the hands of a less honest guy. “I had no money, so we used to run all kinds of scams,” he says of his youth. “It became apparent that the fastest way to make money was to put on raves. So we were putting on raves when we were 15. I was able to just book all the people from my home environment, my local area, which went on to include some of the big stars in proto-Grime.”
His relationship with Grime (which holds little influence over his own work apart from, perhaps, a streak of urban sensibility in his lyrics and perspective) is a complex one. He tells us, “I never felt the need to be part of it [musically] because I was already part of it as a booker, as a promoter, as a person that did fucking videos and all that stuff,” he explains. “As an artist I feel no pressure to conform to that because no one can tell me anything. Wiley isn’t a guy who’s gonna say to me, ‘You should do this’, because back in the day I was booking mans to come to Manchester when no one gave a fuck.”
There’s no ill feeling towards Grime’s godfather here (“the only person who can make a Grime record as far as I’m concerned is Wiley”), but he does harbour a spiky disdain for genre labelling. “I don’t think about any of these conventions…they’re just boundaries. If you deliberately set out to break boundaries then you can make more for yourself because you’re ‘pushing the envelope’ or can’t do something if it sounds too bate. I don’t look at it like that. I see every piece of art as an amalgamation of information.” With a technical background, he’s fond of speaking metaphorically about music as akin to code, explaining, “the computer doesn’t see any difference between the colour red and the sound of knocking on wood other than a different sequence of numbers…I started thinking about art like that. Not taking away the emotion, because that’s the magic part, it’s more like, these constructs of style and genre, they’re just like the pre-sets in logic or a template in Photoshop. If you have talent you don’t use those, you break it down to the raw thing.”
“BLASPHEMER” and “HECO” – tracks from Gaika’s debut EP, “Monster” – drip with a futuristic trap-y gothicism. The video for “HECO” mashes CCTV clips of police brutality with flashes of Gaika dancing in a blackened dunegeon. Dystopia – visions of a dark, lawless, uncivilised future – plague the musicians mind, it seems. “It’s a Roadman 3000, Mad Max type thing,” he admits. “Because that’s where I think we’re going. There’s been some dark shit and some quite wild things that’ve happened in my day, but it seems normal for me.” To Gaika, Instagram – and, overarchingly, the false, filtered world of social media – is a culture of lies and insecurity. “What’s worse is this false sense of happiness. People walking around pretending they’re okay, when they’re not okay. What you so afraid of, bruv? What are people so afraid of saying? That they got hurt, or have done bad things, or that there are bad things in the world? We’re just gonna sit around and talk about how much money we got, how bad your girl is? There’s something more to say in this world.” Whatever it is that Gaika’s set to say, something tells me people are going to listen.