Interview: J-mal reflects on Far East tour that inspired his new EP

The grime MC went to a Next Level for the close of 2017...

Joe Walker

8 months ago

By Joe Walker

In late 2017, London artist J-mal embarked on the trip of a lifetime to the Far East, visiting and performing alongside grime MCs and DJs from South Korea and Japan. The likes of Elijah & Skilliam and Boiler Room have previously shone a light on the Japanese grime scene in particular with sets and documentaries, but having connected organically with MCs online J-mal wanted to see for himself just how far the sound he loves has travelled.

J-mal’s adventures have also inspired his brand new EP, Ultra Instinct, with multiple music videos for the project filmed while on the other side of the world (see ‘Pallet Town’, above). We’ve got words from J-mal himself about his experience on the other side of the world – first told to this writer live on Reprezent Radio – as well as a stream of Ultra Instinct for you to enjoy…


J-mal, in his own words…
I’m a very technical MC. I pride myself on my flow – I touch certain pockets and try to put clever lyricism in there, it’s not just about wheel-up bars. The most important for me is, can you hear me? Outside freestyling in the park, you can hear me clearly. On a Reprezent set, you can hear me clearly. If I’m on one of those awful mics, you can’t quite hear me clearly and it’s more about my energy, which is important but my thing is being heard, so when I’m in the studio I know you can. Me & Dusty are mix-down freaks, so I can give you my art exactly as I want it to be.

We’ve been MCing for tiiiiime, and active in our own right, but in terms of trying to make this a career, it’s been a year or so. I think we had a good 2017, it wasn’t mad but we progressed steadily and comfortably, and everything was as we expected it to go. Everything was executed properly with the resources that we had. 2018 we’ve got new resources, new plans and new connections, so this year hopefully we can do even more.

On the Far East trip coming to fruition…
We have to go back to maybe December 2016. [J-mal’s friend and frequent collaborator] Dusty released a tune on SBTV, and there was an artist in Japan I was following called Catarrh Nisin – he’s got a Risky Roadz you might have seen – and he shared Dusty’s video. The tweet was in Japanese so I pressed the translate button and it was like ‘this is an artist I’ve been watching for a while‘. Rah, a man on the other side of the world preeing the mandem like that! I followed him and was like ‘yo bro, it’s crazy that you’re taking in my people like that. I’m interested about the Japanese grime scene, teach me’ so he sent me bare links and people. He opened my eyes to it, so as early as January-February of last year I was thinking I wanna work with these guys, cos them man are serious about grime!

I’m quite well travelled, like I’ve been to Africa, America, the Middle East…and those places there was always something familiar, but the Far East is completely different. It was surreal to me that I’m over there in a completely different culture but doing something that’s so specifically British. It’s crazy to me, really.

The difference between performing grime in South Korea and performing it in Tokyo…
One difference I noticed at a few of the places I performed, they prefer performing songs to doing a set. There was one DJ at Cakeshop in Seoul called Kim Kate who was mixing in my tunes, and then after my tune finished he did a little beat mix. I started spitting over the beats because, you know, that’s what we do…and I don’t wanna say he felt a way, but I kinda felt like I shouldn’t have done that maybe. That’s not how they do it there! When I went to Tokyo, I went out for dinner with Pakin and a DJ called Sakana – he’s like their Wiley, he’s involved with everyone. We went to this place after and I saw this guy Onjuicy, Double Clapperz were mixing who are doing a lot right now. I started spitting, I got a wheel-up and I felt like ‘this is grime’. I feel like they got it more than in Korea, but to be fair in Korea there’s just Damndef. He’s the only grime MC so there’s not a scene like that.

When I performed in Seoul it wasn’t a strictly grime night, they played hip-hop too but it was UK based so there was more garage, bassline and a mix of things. When the grime tunes came on, you could tell there was a certain group of people you could tell were always there. Cakeshop is a legendary hip-hop venue so there’s a normal people that’s just come out and they were open minded. In Japan it was smaller but you could tell they messed with grime. They were going mad, and they understood the wheel ups. They were different.

J-mal’s favourite people from his time in the Far East…
Overall my favourite is Damndef, because our visions are very similar. He values a good mixdown, he values sick beat selection, he values a nice video. I’d seen other guys in Tokyo doing the grime ting, but I hadn’t seen it presented to me in such an accessible way so he’s someone I’ve always respected. His lyricism is good, he writes good hooks – I’m more of a studio artist than a set artist so I appreciate hooks.

On the ‘Next Level’ Remix? I can’t say my favourite! I can say my top three: Damndef, Duff and probably Catarrh Nisin, because I just love Catarrh’s skip. He was the first one that I was like ‘this guy’s crazy’. Even if you don’t understand the language he was very technical, you couldn’t ignore that. If it wasn’t for him, I would have never got involved with the scene. He’s the one that first grabbed my attention. In terms of performance, Onjuicy. He’s the one with the dreads. I performed with him twice, and I was on radio with him. He’s actually quite big on Tokyo, over here we know Pakin but Onjuicy is the guy in Tokyo. Every week he performs, and he works at Block FM so you can’t not see him.

Also, there’s two DJs called Part2Style, shout them out. They DJ’d for Skepta when he did the Konnichiwa Boiler Room. They’re kind of behind Onjuicy, pushing him to making this a career, and Onjuicy has hooked up with Double Clapperz too, so they’re the ones that I think are going to take it to a profitable level.

Whereas an MC like Pakin, he just loves grime. Grime for him was at his peak in 2004, he’s a real hardcore grime head so their visions are different, which surprised me. What Pakin said to me that was really interesting was that when Skepta and Stormzy came, it changed everything because the younger grime MCs were like ‘wait, can we make money off this?’ so they went in a different direction.

Making an impression back home…
The way I’ve showcased it on social media, I’ve had contact with people that I didn’t expect to pay attention. The Heavytrackerz followed me after that and – this is actually crazy – Logan Sama heard me on radio in Japan. One of the DJs posted me on their Instagram, Logan said ‘this guy is hard’, so I DM’d him and he was like ‘bro it’s mad because I’m not familiar with your work but you’re sounding sick, so you have to go all the way over to Japan, for me to hear you!’ It’s crazy the way the universe works.

Lessons learned…
Anything’s possible. I booked the tickets to Japan in February last year. I didn’t know anyone, I’d spoken to Catarrh Nisin once, and I’d just started talking with Damndef – we had the ‘Do It’ remix – but one way or another, I was going to make this happen. I bought the ticket – £250 return, big up Aeroflot cos you man buss me! – and just did it, so once it was there I had to go and make it happen. I think anyone really could have done it, but nobody thought to, because it’s crazy.

I went to Japan. I had a tour. It was successful. I flipped a profit. It was a good time, I met some good people, made some good music and I would do it again in a heartbeat.