Jogai Bhatt talks to Abdul Kay, a young Auckland rapper who rose quickly from obscurity only to go silent, about his comback single ‘September Freestyle’.
By this time last year, Abdul Kay had already caught the attention of the local hip-hop scene. With a co-sign from industry heavyweight David Dallas, the newcomer was able to deliver a standout 64 Bars, drop his debut single ‘Right Now’ to wide acclaim, and perform at one of the country’s biggest New Years Eve festivals without missing so much as a beat. Then, he stopped releasing music altogether.
After a year, Abdul Kay is finally back with his first release of 2018 – and according to him, ‘September Freestyle’ is just the calm before the storm. I sat down with him to talk about new music, Drake, his mum, and the curse of excessive introspection.
The Spinoff: It’s been a solid year since we heard from you last. Why the long wait?
I don’t know. It doesn’t feel long when you’re the one who’s holding up, but then you look up and it’s like, shit. The stuff that I did have, I sat with it for too long. I used to take forever to write shit. When you have like three weeks to look at the same verse, you hate it eventually. Or it just doesn’t feel special anymore.
Cause you just have too much time to overthink it?
Exactly. So when I sat down to do the shit that I put up last week, I was like, I’m gonna finish this tonight.
I remember you were talking about working on an EP last year.
Yeah, it’s finished.
Are you dropping that later this week then?
Later this week? Crazy.
Well wasn’t it meant to come out last year?
It was meant to come out in 2016. I think that’s when we finished it. But it’s like, those were the first songs I ever wrote. And every time I went to sit down and do something else, I got better. And it just felt like I’d be moving backwards if I went back and put out the shit from the EP. But there are still songs on there that I love and I think they’ll find their way out eventually.
Do you feel like they’re still relevant?
Oh, yeah. Come on. I’m a great writer.
You said it took you months to write ‘Right Now’ and all the stuff from your EP, but with ‘September Freestyle’ it was like two hours. What does that come down to?
Well, I kind of know how to write a verse now. Before I just winged it. I didn’t really know what was going on. I didn’t really understand the math behind music. Which sounds crazy, but once you figure it out it’s like the simplest thing ever. David Dallas – after I did my 64, and I didn’t come in with enough bars, and I didn’t count them properly, I didn’t put anything in the right place – he was like, listen, write your shit in groups of four. And I was like, okay. I said okay but I had no idea what the fuck he was talking about. But after he said that I went back and I started listening to music and counting the bars. I was counting how all the rhyme schemes that they had came in groups of four. And I was like, ohhh, this is what the fuck he was talking about. I got it, but I didn’t get it. I only recently got it, maybe in July. And as soon as I figured that out, I wrote like ten songs within two months.
There’s a bit in ‘September Freestyle’ where you go, “Almost thought I lost my hunger, but I’m starvin’ again / Almost thought I lost my thunder, but it’s stormin’ again.” Losing motivation, or feeling like you’re kind of losing your touch is a scary thing, especially when you’re young. What brought you back?
You know how I said I went back and I re-learnt how to write a verse cause I didn’t really know what I was doing? I was just throwing rhymes at a piece of paper and hoping for the best. It was like, this thing that I supposedly love, I don’t know how to do properly. I’m pretty much just guessing. I’m winging it. I’m fluking it. 64 Bars was a fluke, I don’t know how I finished that. That was the first time I think I finished anything that long. ‘Right Now’ was a fluke. I don’t even know how I got to the end of one verse. It was like, I gotta figure out how to actually fucking write. And once I got into the habit of knowing how to write a verse properly, I was like, okay. It’s very simple. It shouldn’t be that hard. Just do it.
But what was the catalyst for actually getting up and doing it?
I notice I work best under pressure and I guess I let myself get hyper-sensitive to some bullshit someone said about me and just used it as an excuse to snap. Like I said on ‘September’, “The same liars are still aiming but ain’t killing.” I hear things about myself all the time, empty threats here and there and it’s like yeah, I could continue to ignore it or take that initial feeling of being so appalled and turn it into something fire.
Do you think it’s easier for you to address whatever kind of personal issues you might be having through rap than out of it?
I think in real life I have a hard time being serious. So whenever it comes to vulnerabilities, they always get overshadowed by my need to talk about how I think feet are underrated. Or some dumb shit like that. But when it’s just me and a beat and some paper, my brain is allowed to be quicker than my mouth. Cause everything I say in the verse, no one’s gonna hear until it’s recorded. No one’s gonna hear it until I’ve thought about it. So there’s more time to address things and make them more comprehensible.
Is it messed up that you can’t confide in your friends something that you can spit in a rap?
Yeah, kind of. I’ve always been the one that people would come to, to be the anchor at times. Knowing that I’m that guy for people, it feels weird for me to then flip the role, cause it’s like, I’m supposed to be that guy, you know? To answer your question, it is messed up. Of course, it’s messed up. But if I’m able to get it out in a song then I mean, it’s out.
When Drake stepped onto the scene he sort of broke down barriers by challenging the cultural stigma around male intimacy and emotional vulnerability, and you’re like the biggest Drake fan I know. Does he play a part in your sound?
Not really sonically at all, but yeah in the sense that he’s able to say what he needs to say without either running from it or hiding it behind super technical lyricism. I guess I appreciate him being able to be honest, and vulnerable. There’s a song on my EP where I’m singing like a sad little girl, and who knows if we would’ve gone through with that song had it not been for people like Drake and Kanye and whoever else was crying on records about whatever made them sad.
Who else informs your craft?
I’ve been big on Stormzy all year. From when I started just learning to put words together in a way that made them sound a little bit more intricate or interesting, it would’ve been Eminem and Earl Sweatshirt. Not necessarily content-wise, because we all know what Earl was rapping about when he first came out. And we all know what Eminem still can’t shut up about. But just the way he’s able to put words together as opposed to what he’s saying. Same thing with Earl. Being able to take the smallest words and turn them into the biggest rhyme schemes, it’s cool.
Last year the Herald published an article about how you still hadn’t come out to your mum about the whole rapping thing, then in Edgewalkers you kind of mentioned how they sort of know, but they still don’t really know…
It’s more just like, she knows, but obviously, it’s not the preferred route. And so it’s kind of a touchy subject in the sense of never really knowing how well these things work out if it at all.
Do you confide in her more now about everything that’s going on?
Oh, that’s my best friend. And has been forever. But I don’t really have those kinds of doubts about what it is I’m doing in my life to that point where I need to reach out to her and be like, shit, maybe you’re right. Clearly, I’m a little bit blind to the fact that it might not work out but, you know, ignorance is bliss and all. Shout out to blind optimism. And no security.
As an immigrant you kind of come to this place with hella opportunity and it’s like, look at these very guaranteed and very secure routes that you could be taking, or should be taking, and then you’re like, nah, I’m gonna gamble it. When you take a gamble with shit like this, knowing damn well your parents took a gamble with their lives to even make it here, to even still be breathing, it’s hard. And it’s less of them being like, do you not appreciate it? Cause obviously they know we’re very appreciative.
Do you tell them?
How do they know then?
No, but I mean, I don’t have to tell my mum every day I love her, and she doesn’t have to tell me every day that she loves me. We just know. Damn, you just fucked me up.
Obviously, the whole environment here teaches you to be humble and stay grounded, but Ethiopians are a proud people. Is it tricky balancing that whole dichotomy between humility and pride?
Nah. I think the tricky part is just finessing the humility at the right places to work a room, and just be aware of your environment. It’s not even tricky, it’s just fun. It’s a fun dynamic because it makes you feel human. You’re able to take control of how you’re perceived.
So you’re fake humble then?
Um, I never said that. It’s more… refined confidence. Man, that’s a great fucking label. It’s just knowing the room and knowing how you’re gonna work it best. I guess a lot of people can’t do that because they feel like they’ll lose sense of who they are, but I know who I am and I have known it for a very long time. It got drilled into me literally because of bullying. If you’re constantly pointing out my flaws to me, it’s just gonna make me understand them quicker. I know myself enough to just bring out certain parts of me at the right time.
What’s next for you?
Just finish off the new shit that I’ve been writing, find the right production, and try not to spend too long on any of it. I just want it to be fresh. Gotta figure out how to go about dropping it too. I wanna do it properly, not just tweet a link and then leave it. There are certain avenues that I think we could make the most of without shit getting too weird and processed.