Go Behind the Scenes with Jamaican Hip Hop Pioneer Five Steez
Five Steez, Internationally Renowned Rapper: An Interview with AWKWORD
Five Steez is a Jamaican artist and organizer who I met on Twitter in seeking out international artists for a global collaboration I am producing with artists from across the world. A Founder of Pay Attention, Jamaica's premiere Hip Hop-themed party and showcase, Five Steez is a veteran of the scene who's showing no signs of slowing down. In September, as part of The Council, he released the "Council Arts" single off the group's currently untitled project slated for 2016; he is also planning to release Momentum: Volume Three with New York City's DJ Ready Cee before the end of 2015.
1. Birth Name: Peter Wright
2. Birth Date: November 11, 1986
3. Birth Place: Kingston, Jamaica
4. Languages Spoken: English, Jamaican Patois
5. Favorite Color: Blue
6. Favorite Food: Fish and bammy
7. Favorite Movie: Malcolm X
8. Favorite Song: ("too hard" to answer)
9. First Single: "Yard Nigga Rap," 2011
10. Official Website: FiveSteez.com
1. Why Hip Hop?
Hip Hop spoke to me in a way that no other genre did. Among other things, I was drawn to it by the diversity I heard in the content and, of course, the lyricism. I had older brothers who were into the genre, so while growing up, I heard a lot of it through them. By 11, it had become my favorite genre, and I had begun to delve into the music myself. A few years later, my love for it had grown and I was writing and recording rhymes.
2. Is that common in Jamaica? How big (or not) are Hip Hop culture and rap music? Were you influenced locally or by US artists?
Hip Hop music is very popular. You will hear it on radio and all over. Whatever is popular in the US is usually popular here, and that has been the case for decades. Even Reggae, for which Jamaica is known, was something we stumbled upon after our Rocksteady era, in which we were following and singing over American R&B. Reggae was once the most popular genre here, but now it is Dancehall music. And while you can hear and see the influence of Hip hop in the music and on the people, local Hip Hop music is not readily supported by the industry. Generally, there is a lack of knowledge about the culture and a view among some that Jamaicans should only do Dancehall or Reggae.
I have been influenced by local and US acts. I love Reggae and Dancehall, and they definitely influence my worldview and taste in music. In regard to my craft, I've mostly been influenced by my favorite emcees in the US, but also some of my fellow Jamaican rappers who have been making music for a longer time than I have.
3. And how have you influenced others? I understand that you've been very active in not only getting your music out nationally and internationally, but also in promoting Hip Hop in Jamaica. Please explain.
I think other rappers have been motivated to continue on their path and approach the craft more seriously. I've received a fair amount of media exposure, which has raised awareness not only about me but about the movement here. And I have been involved in staging events since 2010. I began working with the youth arts organization Manifesto Jamaica, and we staged numerous events until late 2011. These events fused different genres of music and varying art forms. I performed at some of those events and, being one of the few rappers in the organization, I also reached out to other rappers to include them on some of the bills.
In 2012, I helped found Pay Attention, a Hip hop party and showcase that has become the hub for the community in Kingston. Since its inception in April 2012, and up until March 2015, we've been staging it frequently, receiving unprecedented media attention for uniting a community that was once divided. It is the only event of its kind out here, as there are no other events completely dedicated to Hip Hop.
We have now taken a break from the events to focus more on our music, as all of us are artists first, but I have seen other events being organized by our peers and patrons. I'm not sure how much of an influence Pay Attention or I has had on them, but they are events that definitely cater to and provide an avenue for the Hip Hop community, as opposed to the typical Dancehall or Reggae event.
Lastly, the studio space in which I operate with my peers has been around for a decade, and developed a reputation for being the 'Mecca' of Hip Hop in Kingston. There is no other space where you will find as many Hip Hop heads, artists and producers on, pretty much, a daily basis.
4. So what is it about Hip Hop? What is unique to this music or culture that makes it so appealing to the youth? And how does Hip Hop lay into Jamaicans' everyday lives?
Hip Hop is said to be the global youth culture. It's music for young people and those young at heart. The stories, messages, realities and aspirations in the music are aspects Jamaicans can relate to, like people from any other nation.
Hip Hop has become more pop than ever and the average Jamaican is familiar with Drake, Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, etc. Most young Jamaicans, even if they're not into Hip Hop, but being a part of mainstream culture, followed the recent Drake/Meek Mill drama. Certain Hip Hop slangs, those popularized in the genre, such as "beef," "ratchet," and "shade," have found their way into everyday speech for some. People wear fitted caps and Nike Air Force Ones, for example. These things are not indigenous to us, but we're a country with a diaspora as large as our actual population, if not bigger. Most of us travel or have family who travel, and people from all over the world come here. Plus, we've had American cable stations since the '90s. Hip Hop has influenced Jamaica's popular culture in many ways, even if people at large aren't living the Hip Hop culture as you and I may know it.
5. Global, for sure. As you may know, I put out an album in 2014, World View, which features 16 countries and six continents. Had I known you then, it would have been 17. But we're working on that new global collaboration track, and your verse on that record is crazy. You talk about your life and life in Jamaica. Are those common themes in your music? What do you use your voice to say, and why?
Yes, I think it was some time in early 2014 that your music came to my attention.
My music usually deals with my own life, and social commentary. I usually have something to say, and it's always of relevance to the people. Life in Jamaica naturally finds itself in the music, and on These Kingston Times that was the focus. There are things I advocate for in the music -- knowledge of self, for example -- and things I often protest, such as police brutality. I try not to box myself in, however, and I'm finding that my music, particularly an EP I'm working on for 2016, is becoming more personal. In a similar vein as songs like "Slaving on the Plantation" and "Wanna Be Free" off War for Peace and "Night Streets" off These Kingston Times, I represent the everyday person -- and I intend to articulate that because, one, I need to tell it, and two, I think people need to hear it.
6. Word up. Couldn't agree more. So is this what makes you stand out from other artists? If not, what does? And what do you think of popular rap music today?
I think it's my honesty and my commitment to certain standards, as well as my environment, since people aren't used to hearing about Kingston in Hip Hop.
I'm not fond of what's popular in Hip Hop today. I like what Kendrick (Lamar) and J. Cole are doing, though. I guess they both are mainstream enough to be considered 'popular.'
7. Is this new, or has the mainstream always been this way, in your mind? What kind of period are we in, in historical context?
Hip Hop in the mainstream used to be good! I loved the '90s, but by the early '00s, it was evident that a shift had fully occurred.
We're in a new era. The Internet changed things, and some indie acts get a level of mainstream exposure. I'm not sure where the mainstream is going. I think the labels, radio stations, etc., are trying hard to adapt, but they're doing too little, too late.
The essence of Hip Hop is more alive now than 10 years ago, I think. With the Net, now, it feels like there is more good music that is finding its way out there, even if it remains underground.
8. So who are we talking about here? Worse cases of mainstream 'f*ckery?' Best examples of indie greatness?
Worst cases? Bobby Shmurda, Migos, Future, Young Thug.
Indie acts making good music include Joey Bada$$, Roc Marciano and Curren$y. (I understand Curren$y is now with a major, but he's been releasing independent projects for years.)
9. In the case of a Bobby Shmurda or Slim Jesus, who's at fault? Who/What is ultimately responsible, and why? Is it the artist, the industry as a whole, or the label that signs him? Is is the radio station that plays his music? Or, is it our society? And what do you most respect about artists like Joey Bada$$ (minus the dollar signs in his name)?
Everyone is to blame. Some fans may not know better, and the labels and radio are just about the money.
I respect the independence of someone like Joey, and he's making quality music -- a type of music that you wouldn't expect from someone his age. Anyone making good music that represents the essence of the genre, I can listen to. That's what I want to hear in Hip Hop, and once someone is doing that, I can respect him/her as an artist.
Yes, he was. I think I may have first heard him on The Social Network. Or, maybe I found him online through a retweet. I'm not sure, exactly, but we used to converse via Twitter, as he was always sharing useful information for independent artists. I learned a whole lot from him, directly, as well as all the links he used to share. He was always open to discussion, and we came to respect each other as artists. We may have collaborated, eventually, if he did not pass. In fact, I did something for DJ Bobby Bob, with K. Sparks and Nomad Carlos, a while back, Bobby Bob had initially reached out to Praverb, but he opted not to jump on the track. I don't think he was writing as much at the time. When Praverb passed. I realized just how many he had impacted. I knew it was many, but I never realized it was so much. He was committed to helping people, and it's good to see his work and legacy continue.
11. Thank you, fam. I couldn't agree more, as you would probably guess. So, whats next for you? Aside from dropping the upcoming projects, how do you see your future in this business playing out?
I only see growth in the future. I intend to take it as far as it can go. And, no matter what, I'll always be making dope music. Because, in the end, that's all that matters.
12. Are you signed to a label? For the up-and-coming artists out there, how do you continue to be prolific, while also feeding yourself (and others)?
No, I'm not signed to anyone. I am the label, pretty much.
My art helps me bring balance to my life. So, it's natural for me to write rhymes, especially now. I strive to be disciplined, however, and try to organize my work as best as possible -- and I think that's what allows me to be constantly creating in spite of other commitments and challenges.
13. The simplicity is astounding, and yet I can relate -- I've done it myself my whole career, too. What advice do you have for others, in terms of making it work? What three things are most important for the indie artist's survival?
(1) A true love for the music; (2) dedication to the journey; and (3) a willingness to be your own team -- playing multiple roles -- until you have the suitable people in place.
14. And for the fans: Any intriguing stories from backstage or the studio?
I was backstage at Manifesto Festival main show in Toronto in 2011, and someone thought I was Q-Tip. I was just watching the show, and a guy in front of me to my left was glancing around... He saw me, and he looked, kind of, surprised, and then walked over, excited, saying "Yo, Q-Tip!?" I was like, "Naaahhh." We laughed it off, and he said I looked like Tip. That was the second time I heard that.
15. (Laughing) OK, last question: what's one thing nobody knows about you that would be especially telling for your fans?
(Thinking) It's not really something that nobody knows... But, it's not something everyone knows or something I advertise... I'm really concerned about the well-being of my people. On and off since I was a teenager, I've been active at the community level, working with the youth and helping to execute projects... Not as much now, outside of the music I'm creating. But in the future I will be making more contributions to my people, and to my nation, by doing more than just music.