Denzel Himself Found Purpose in Rap that Feeds on Other Genres
Scuzzy punk, electronic music – the UK rapper fiercely amalgamates sound. We're premiering his incredible "Be There" visuals now.
Photo by Beni Masiala
Denzel Himself has had several near-death experiences. Some were violent situations the young British rapper found himself in, which could have escalated. One was self-inflicted: he was riding down a very steep hill on a mountain bike with no brakes, speeding almost directly into traffic before he swerved, luckily, into a lampost. “I feel like God has kept me,” he says. “I genuinely feel as though my existence is to present my work and my mind.”
We’re chatting about his life and his mind and his fierce sense of purpose and death, over super-healthy juices in a busy east London restaurant. I’ve got a juice with spinach; Denzel has gone for orange, because the first and last time he had a green juice it didn’t go well: “I thought it would taste like Apple Tango or something,” he laughs, but it ended up being bitter – the result of liquidised vegetables rather than sugary E-numbers.
Denzel has built up a strong body of work in the last few years – the kind you might expect from an artist several stages into their career rather than at the beginning. He’s self-directed seven music videos in the past year and produced all the music too, which skews between gritty thrasher punk, disturbing electronica and the left-leaning inclinations of new-gen rap. He’s a star in the making, basically – a one man, 23-year-old creative powerhouse who works with an artistic mind.
A good place to start might be his recent COLORS session, where he performs the track “Melty,” taken from his EP Baphomet James, released this year. Baphomet was a clear step-up for Denzel, and so his live rendition of "Melty" also feels particularly arresting – it oozes vivid colours as much as it does feeling, with each syllable packing a punch. Denzel performs alongside KEYAH/BLU, another star in the making (with only a few tunes out there). The whole piece is just different. There are hints of Dilla in the production, the jerky weirdness of a Missy Elliot or an ODB in the flow; and yet it somehow sounds like none of these acts.
Now signed to LuckyMe – the experimental Scottish label associated with Hudson Mohawke that’s previously released the likes of Suicideyear, Cashmere Cat and DJ Paypal – Denzel is stepping up once again. Earlier this month he released “HIGHER”, where he raps like a computer chipboard might if it became sentient. Which is to say its garbled, electronic, glitchy. Or maybe that’s the beat, since the two combine and inform one another. Sharing as much in common with Flying Lotus as it does Del the Funky Homosapien, it’s a loud, brash listen with barely any space for breathing room. But this is a good thing: Denzel’s voice floods the delightfully crowded track, guiding it, as though running the listener through a maze.
Like all his previous releases, “HIGHER” came with a video too (watch above). Denzel studied film at college, the same year he learned to produce, started to rap and discovered hardcore – which have all coalesced into his distinct sound and aesthetic. “I remember learning about worm’s-eye view shots and angle theories maybe around the time I was learning about a chorus. It was all from one canon,” he says. He took the course because it was functional. “ I knew I wanted to be the sole creator of my visual identity. I only took film because I knew I wanted to be a musician and I knew I wanted to direct all my videos, all my artwork, all my set-design – everything.”
But that was almost eight years or so ago, and things have only just started to pop. Didn’t he think about pressing pause? “For me I knew I was never going to stop. I was never ever ever going to give up.” But how do you sustain that kind of drive, that kind of energy? “It’s just passion. There’s a difference between inspiration and motivation. Motivation is temporary. Anyone can be motivated to do anything but it doesn’t necessarily last long. This music shit, this art shit, it’s the most important thing to me, above anything. Anything.” And he says all this in a way that you can’t disagree: you can just sit there and nod your head and be quietly taken aback and inspired at such strong self-belief.
Today Denzel is releasing “Be There” – the other side to “Higher”, with both tracks forming a double single. For those who have yet to see Denzel live, the visual gives insight into his chaotic live show, bringing in footage of his performance at London’s infamous 100 Club (that place where the Sex Pistols and all the old punk heads cut their teeth). As the counterpart to “Higher”, it’s also a lively and dynamic tune – the two tracks were created, he says, to bring even more adrenaline and immediacy to his live set.
When it comes to Denzel’s next steps, you get the sense he’s exactly where he should be. That he’s growing and has even more layers to shed, or colours to evoke, as he emerges from his cocoon. It’s a work in progress, still, but one he enjoys. “I remember I would say to myself, to my close friends as well, what can you do right now to bring you closer to what you want. I feel I’ve lived everyday like that. Not one day has passed where I haven’t done something that has been beneficiary to the relationship between me and my world.” Did you ever feel like you were missing out in other areas of life, focusing so much? “No, I literally feel like I was born to do what I’m doing now.”
You can find Ryan on Twitter.