As he releases his long-awaited debut album, Ben Tibbits meets the world-renowned drummer and composer on the cusp of legacy.

Photography by Danika Magdelena

Photography by Danika Magdelena

“I live just down the road,” Yussef Dayes tells me, pointing backwards in the direction of his native Lewisham as we sit in a Peckham coffee shop’s garden one sunny late afternoon. “My house was like an open house. My parents gave a lot to the community, and my brothers would bring other musicians around. That was kind of how I got in the mix.” The youngest of four boys, Dayes took early inspirations from his direct surroundings. “There’s a photo in the album cover with my brothers, one on cello, one on trumpet and one on trombone,” he remembers.” I’m in the back, I must be about three, tapping away at the wall.”

Dayes is undoubtedly one of most impressive drummers of the modern era, and (although I don’t tell him this out of cowering embarrassment) one of my personal favorite musicians. From his early days with the avant-garde Afro-jazz-fusion band United Vibrations, to his engrossing collaborative projects with Yussef Kamaal on ’16’s Black Focus and Tom Misch on ’20’s What Kinda Music, the South-Londoner has shown himself to be the créme de la créme of contemporary musicianship, regarded worldwide in the utmost esteem.

Our acquaintance takes place a few weeks before the release of his highly anticipated debut album, Black Classical Music. “I wanted to do it, it’s just been about building up to it, not rushing it,” he says when I query if this is something he’s been thinking about doing for a long time, considering his near 15 year career. “I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong way, but I was more drawn to Nipsey Hussle and them, building up their career and fan base, so you can actually [enunciates] drop your debut album. It’s not necessarily about compromising the status quo; it’s a marathon. I’ve enjoyed doing my collaborations and now I want to present to you my first complete and unapologetic offering as Yussef Dayes.”

Since his emergence in the South London scene, UK jazz has seen its stock rise ten-fold, with Dayes being a focal point in its renaissance. He celebrates this success, yet refuses to be fully drawn into as menial conversations as genres. “My version of jazz is not really what traditional version is, and it’s got me to this point where I’m even now questioning what that word even means,” he ponders. “Jazz, blues, funk, soul, all these things, they’re so much bigger than a term, and they’re all interrelated.”

I agree with the sentiment, but challenge the idea that generic definition isn’t essential to the inner workings of the industry, especially when sitting on my side of the bench. “I know they’ve got Wikipedia where they can say that,” he jokes. “I’ve been blessed that it’s not really stopped me. I can get in a room with who I want to get in a room with, so there has been freedom in doing what I’m doing. I do feel like it shouldn’t just be pigeonholed into one thing.”

Whilst much of his early collaborative work fits into the loose pocket of modern jazz, Black Classical Music is far from a jazz record. From the poignant reggae swing of the Chronixx featuring “Pon di Plaza”, to the rousing chants of “Chasing The Drums” and the drum-less string-driven “Magnolia Symphony”, it’s an album heavily inspired by classical and world sounds, a testament to Dayes’ eclectic musical education and inherent drive to think beyond Western construct.

Photography by Danika Magdelena

The drumwork across the LP is – to no one’s surprise – mesmeric, flawless and, at times, little short of jaw dropping. But if you look beyond Dayes’ sheer technical ability, Black Classical Music is layered with emotional potency and visceral characterisation. He uses the connections that he’s made throughout his tenure, borrowing the supreme skill of instrumentalists and frequent collaborators such as Rocco Palladino, Venna and Tom Misch, as well as the vocal and songwriting nuance of the likes of Masego, Jamilah Barry and the aforementioned Chronixx.

Without whiff of banality, there isn’t a moment across the 74 minute run time when each sonic intricacy isn’t meticulously polished and thematically ironed out; an assortment of memories, odes and explorations that amalgamate into one of the most cohesive, absorbing and thrilling listening experiences of the year.

“It’s paying homage to a lineage, breaking free from the boxes that we are given in music,” he offers when discussing the LP’s intent. “I’ve grown up on beautiful Black music. I feel like that led me to the name of the album. It’s also about my mum, my dad, my brothers, my daughter. My career is owed to my family.”

Dayes’ mother sadly passed away in 2015, an event that has influenced the direction and tone of Black Classical Music directly. For him, the album is illustrating an ability to put even the most tenebrous of sorrow within the light of serenity. “It’s showing that maybe even grief can be channeled into something beautiful,” he emits. “This is healing…. My mum told me that she wants us to live the rest of our lives inspired and she was very open in her passing. She lives on and I managed to put her on a record. I’ve got a recording of her teaching a yoga class and that finishes the album. I play that to my daughter now, like, ‘that’s your grandma.’”

In a modern industry where so much of what is consumed plays it safe and fails to challenge and innovate, it’s refreshing, although not very surprising, to hear that Dayes has more unique ambitions with the release of Black Classical Music. “I’m not making my art to be safe or to be in the middle,” he states. “If I think it sounds good, I’m running with that, I ain’t trying to wait for Barry or Pete to tell me it’s good enough. I’ve got this far following my gut instinct, so I just run with that.”

Through his attitude towards art, Dayes has become a vessel of nonconformity, hoping the forward-thinking ethos of his discipline can provide assured inspiration to those who follow in his footsteps. “At the end of the day, even if you’re the first person to break a door down, once you’ve done that, you open it up for other people.” This vision transcends Dayes beyond many of his contemporaries, and leaves him as a champion of the scene, as well as an artist with endless room to flourish: “I want this to be one of many Yussef Dayes albums. I’m leaving myself space to grow into other records.”

As our conversation draws to a close, I’m left with a air of defiance. Yussef Dayes swims against the hard currents of orthodoxy, profoundly dedicated to what he feels is quintessential – his family, his art and his authenticity. Everything else… well, he tries not to overthink that too much. “Sometimes you put these things on a pedestal when actually the whole point is just to keep climbing. It’s a journey, man. I try not to get too fixated, you know?”

Listen to Black Classical Music…

Ben Tibbits