video premiere: joel baker ft. abra cadabra, story
“Look at these flats, Grenfell could have been any of these blocks…” Abra Cadabra talks to collaborator Joel Baker about the power of politics in music.
Beginning life as a speechwriter for Labour MP Sharon Hodgson, Joel Baker decided to quit the high life of politics a year ago in favour of the even headier climes of music. Now managed by Archie Lamb (the son of a Lib Dem MP Norman Lamb) it seems to be a decision that's paying off; the newcomer's debut mixtape features Kojo Funds, while Abra Cadabra features on Story, with a video directed by Vicky Grout, making her directorial debut. "As my first time directing, it was an amazing experience working with two incredible, very different artists," says Vicky. "The video depicts a "day in the life" of each of them, in their own, personal way. It was so sick to see both their personalities come out."
Baker and Abra first met at a studio in south London earlier this year, where Baker was working with the producer Courage (Ray BLK). "We had been working on a song and thought Abs would be perfect for it. Before any of the hype a few of my guys had told me to check Abs out. His flow and his tone were just so good," says Joel. "Abs came in and he heard what we've done and he was feeling it. After about 45 mins of Snapchatting unflattering videos of his friend's unconscious face, who had fallen asleep, he went into the booth and wrote the verse, bar to bar, there and then."
Premiering today on i-D, Story sees Abz take it easy over Courage's tranquil kicks and riffs, as the pair reflect on love, lust and life.
Below, Joel and Abra (along with additional input from Abra's pal Kush) took a break from shooting the video on Abz Broadwater estate in Tottenham to converse about creating Story, the ways in which life has changed for Abra and how artists like himself have "the voice, but we don't have the power."
Joel: Have you ever seen that Chicken Shop dates thing? I feel like the Amelia (laughs). When we did our tune together I was really surprised by your creative process, particularly how quick you write. And also you wrote it all in your head.
Abra: I actually don't know how I do it. There's methods I've got that I don't even know what type of methods they are.
Joel: Is that because you've written from a young age?
Abra: Nah not really from young. I only started when I was about 15. I was making music but just writing. It was only last year that I decided that I was actually gonna push this music thing properly.
Joel: So writing for you is just a magical thing that happens in your head?
Abra: A lot of it is due to the vibe of the beat, then it depends on what mood I'm in. I'll just think of something and it will just piece itself together. How do you write?
Joel: I think I start the same as you, feeling out the vibe of the music. That points me in a direction and I just run with it. I could never write in my head like you though. I can't even remember what I had for breakfast (laughs). So I usually take time at home to get the lyrics perfect. I like to write stuff down and see it on a page. I've always been like that. I've also got a big bank of lyric ideas and stuff on my laptop at home, which I come back to if I need help.
Abra: What influences your lyrics?
Joel: All sorts. Mostly conversations; most of my good ideas come from talking to people. I try to listen out for catch words and phrases that I like. I listen to lot of rap music and folk music, which are both quite wordy. I guess I try and combine the two somehow.
If you didn't do music, what would you do?
Abra: I'd probably go back to football. I used to love football back in the day. It was only until I got stabbed that I had to put that down. Punctured my lungs. They had to push some mad tube up my side to suck out all the internal bleeding. I had to walk around with it for a couple days.
Joel: Damn. How old were you?
Abra: 14 years old.
Joel: But that's all behind you now. I know your team is kept very close to home. Does it feel good that you can involve your people in this?
Abra: We're living different lives now but I don't even feel like I involve them enough. I ain't really done much for no-one. It's down to everyone's work rate, that's why we're doing well. That's my lot. They're been working hard. Slapping out bare music. Bringing Tottenham up.
Joel: Things have been mad for you the last 18 months… what has been the maddest moment so far?
Abra: The maddest thing that happened to me was winning Best Song at the MOBO's. I didn't think I was gonna win it still. I couldn't believe it.
Joel: Since then things have been building and building, what has been the toughest challenge that's come from it all?
Abra: The police. They still think we're with this gang stuff. Obviously we're just showing people how we used to live. Obviously man lives a different life now; we do music now. But the police don't understand that. At Wireless they had us looking like murderers. They had us looking like some terrorists. I lie, Kush?
Kush: Abs was getting escorted like he was President. Three riot vans around him, blocking off any traffic.
Abra: And an X5 behind us, and armed police moving mad behind us. It was just long. Obviously they were saying due to gang violence and that, but everyone's coming Wireless to have a good time, so I don't get it.
Joel: So the police are making your life even more difficult now?
Abra: Yeah, you know, where we're from, it's normal. But we wanna put an end to that. Everyone just wants to live better lives, get our Mum's out of here [gestures to the estate]. We're done with all the crime and that now. Obviously we make gang music, but it's not a bad thing; it's just music that people like and vibes. No one is gonna listen to this 'shoot you up' tune and actually go and do it. It's about making music that's cold.
Joel: You've spoken up about Grenfell, and held a minute's silence at Wireless, so I guess you're becoming "a voice". How comfortable are you being that "voice"?
Abra: I don't know man. I don't like pressure. It's a good thing though, being something good for the community. I don't know if I've got enough knowledge to do that -- I can only go by what I think. Other people can think differently, so I don't want to be disrespecting no-one or offending no-one with certain opinions.
Joel: I think you've got plenty of knowledge.
Abra: It's just whether I speak on it or not; they're gonna do the things they're gonna do anyway. They're so many special people out there that have been talking for time and nothing's changed.
Joel: But there's no escaping you're an influencer. There are few things more powerful than being able to influence young people. That must be weird for you because you're still a young person yourself.
Abra: Yeah I'm still getting used to it all. This is new to me. I've only been in the industry 12 months.
Joel: Don't you think you think things are a bit shit though. Especially at the moment…
Abra: If you look up at these flats, Grenfell could have been any of these blocks. What I'm mad at is that I feel like they choose what to highlight and what not to highlight. The guy who ran over the Muslims next to Finsbury Park, that was out of the news in a couple days, whereas the Parliament ting got attention for weeks. But I don't know, man. The world's the world.
Joel: Do you feel in a position to make a difference to the system?
Abra: Yeah and no. You can, but you can't. We have the voice, but we don't have the power. Whoever's got the power has the power. We've just got the voice.
Joel: So the people who make the decisions are just gonna do what they want, no matter what?
Abra: That's why I don't involve myself in political issues too much. Whether you say stuff or not, they're gonna do what they're gonna do. They've already picked what they wanna do before you've said anything.
Joel: And I feel a lot of it comes down to money. Grenfell would never have happened to a rich estate.
Abra: I still don't understand how a fridge burnt down a whole tower block. There's fires everyday in shitty blocks and they don't burn down. So I don't get it. I think there's more to it. What about you? How did it feel coming out of politics to go into music?
Joel: Well this has always been my passion so it's just so good to do something I proper love. It was hard quitting politics though cos I did love my job. I definitely want to go back into it -- mostly to try give younger people more influence. For now the music is keeping me busy! I am really optimistic about politics at the moment though, despite all the tragedy. I think the Corbyn movement has shown there is still hope for change. We just need to keep the momentum going.
Text Hattie Collins
Photography George Baxter