- Text by Niall Flynn
Jeshi is standing in the middle of a field, surrounded by sheep. “Don’t worry, I have the earpods in, I can hear you crystal clear,” he says over the phone, birdsong audible in the background. “It’s all very HD, man. Very HD.”
This isn’t his regular habitat. The London rapper (real name Jesse Greenway) is Walthamstow born and bred, only moving out of the neighbourhood last year, aged 24, to relocate south of the river. Right now, though, he’s out of the city entirely, self-isolating with his girlfriend’s family in rural Berkshire.
At the time of talking, he’s only a few hours away from the release of his new EP, BAD TASTE. The follow-up to 2017’s The Worlds Spinning Too Fast, it’s a woozy seven-track confessional that only reinforces Jeshi’s status as one of UK rap’s most distinctive new voices. While he acknowledges it’s a strange time to be releasing music, he’s looking forward to finally having it out there. “It feels good. But I’m more excited about the stuff that’s gonna come after this. I’m happy this chapter is coming to a close and that people get to hear it. But I’m focusing on what comes after this.”
It’s this kind of forward-thinking that best defines Jeshi. When he was 14 years old, he made a £50 bet with a girl he liked that he’d be a millionaire rapper by the time he was 16. While he was, of course, eventually humbled (“Worst day of my life”), it displayed the “blind, brazen ambition” that has taken him to where he’s at today. It’s that self-belief, combined with a proud DIY ethos and willingness to experiment, that helps make him such an intriguing proposition.
“Anything that I’m physically able to be doing, I will be doing,” he says. “Because… why not?”
As a young person, how did you source music?
I’d say the biggest driving force was music television. From a really young age, I used to love watching MTV. But it was a combination of stealing my mum’s CDs – I have quite a young mum, her collection of CDs wasn’t that far removed from what I listen to now – and music television. That was my gateway into enjoying music in the way I do.
Music television was massive – way, way bigger than it is now. It was before YouTube was such a big thing, so TV was really where you were seeing music videos and things like that. I remember, my thumb used to hurt flicking between all of the channels – MTV, Kiss, whatever – trying to find videos that I liked. If something came up that I didn’t like, then I’d switch, all while constantly trying to dodge all the adverts. I miss those times. Recently, I tried to watch music television again, but it was terrible.
How did you start making music for yourself?
I know the exact moment. It was maybe like the first year of year 7, when I was at school, and I got off the bus with this kid I’d become good friends with. I found out him and some other people from the area had been making music: not great music, but for me at the time, it was mind-blowing that they were doing it.
One of their older brothers had a studio in his house, so they’d just find beats or whatever online and go there and spit. To have it as a tangible thing – I could bluetooth it to my Sony Ericsson Walkman phone – was a big thing for me. Instantly I knew that was something I wanted to do.
The early days were characterised by a DIY attitude – being able to do and build things for yourself.
Yeah, 100 per cent. My friend’s older brother gave me a little crash course on how to record myself, gave me a copy of Cubase that I could use. I had this Nintendo Wii USB microphone that I would plug into my laptop. It was great to learn with. Not only that, I could make music without money. You know, 20 years ago, you needed to go to a studio to record – which isn’t something you’re able to do if you don’t have a record deal. You’re not able to make those mistakes and figure things out in public.
So it’s still something you carry with you now?
Yeah. For example, I don’t really like the big shiny recording studios. I still like recording at home, friends’ houses, shit like that. I never want it to feel like I’m at work, or like it’s this clinical thing, in a room that feels like a spaceship with loads of buttons that no one ever presses. I just still want that excitement of just being on a whim and something accidentally amazing happening.
Sometimes, you get in these studios that look like you’re in Star Trek, and it can kind of suck the fun out of things. I just want to have a fucking Stella, have some friends there, and for it to feel enjoyable. The minute things aren’t feeling fun and exciting, then something is wrong. Because I never want to lose that feeling I had when I was younger and making music: when I didn’t know what was going to happen, but it didn’t really matter.
At what point did music evolve from being purely for the fun of it, to something you could feasibly make a living from?
If I’m honest, it’s always been both. From the very first time, I always felt like it was something I could feasibly do. I always knew I was going to do it – it was never a hobby, although I always treated it like one, in the same way I treat it like one now. As soon as this fell out of the sky and onto my Sony Ericsson, I knew that this was it.
But there must have been points when it began to feel more tangible?
When I was really young it felt the most tangible it’s ever felt, even though it was the furthest away from being tangible. As you go along and you start getting hit with the realities of life – finance and all these things – you almost double-think yourself a little bit: things you believe, things you don’t believe, whatever. But it’s always felt super tangible.
Of course there are moments as you go along. Last year I toured with Slowthai and the venues were like 3000, 4000 people. But I try to remain unfazed by things that happen. I don’t know if that’s cynicism or whatever, but any good thing that happens to me, I don’t really internalise it much. It’s always: ‘Keep it moving. What’s next?’ I just brush it off. Any bad thing that happens, I do the exact same. I try not to wear anything on my skin so much.
You grew up in London, you’ve seen it change first-hand. How much trickier is it to exist as an artist here now?
I don’t actually think it is harder. Change, at the end of the day, brings bad and good. I try to see all of that for what it is. I know nothing will ever stay the same and I try not to get too caught up in how things were, versus how they are now. I just try to be moving like water through everything.
What are the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career so far?
The financial barriers. As an artist, it’s hard – you have all these ideas for things you want to do, but you don’t always have the money to be able to execute things in the way that you want to. But even with that, I always know that the time will come when that barrier doesn’t exist anymore. I feel like there’s a beauty in learning how to do a lot with very limited resources.
You can sit around and say, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t make that happen’ – because you don’t have a manager, or a massive label backing you, or whatever. But at the end of the day, you can find a way to make it work. It took me a while to come to grips with that. Like, even when you make music, you want the mixes to sound so beautiful, but mix engineers aren’t cheap, so you have to go and do it with your friend. It might not sound exactly how you wanted it to, but it’s the best you can get it at that moment. You just have to know that all the rest of the shit will come.
You shared a post on Instagram recently that referenced the ‘cracks in the road’ you’ve encountered in your career so far. Is that the kind of thing you were referring to?
Sometimes, the process between being in that room making something and actually getting it out in the world is a fucking long and windy road. Contracts, sample clearances, loads of really mundane boring shit that will make you hate everything that you’re doing. I was in a lot of that over the past two years. You literally sit there and think, ‘One: will this ever fucking happen? And two: by the time it can happen, am I even going to still be excited?’ If you let it get to you too much, it can suck a lot of love you have for it out of it. But it’s something I managed to wade through.
‘Same Songs’ is a huge track. But it’s one that you appear openly vulnerable on. Is that vulnerability something you’ve always felt comfortable being in public, or have you had to develop that over time?
It’s something I’ve developed over time. But it’s always the way I want to be in music. I don’t always want to be showing the good side of myself in the mirror. I want to be showing the accurate, true side. Sometimes we feel great, sometimes we don’t. We miss people, we hurt, we feel grief, we feel all these things. I just don’t want to give the photoshopped version of life, or myself. As an artist, it’s my responsibility to give the whole picture: being the full-circle human being that we all are is important to me.
When you listen back to the EP ten years from now, what do you think you might learn from it?
I’ll probably listen back to it and be like, ‘This is fucking shit!’ [laughs] But no, I think if I did listen back, I’d just see the progression in what I’ve always been trying to do. Because I see the leaps and bounds from 10 years ago and where I’m at now. So when I look back in 10 years, what I hope to see is a demo version of what I’m doing then at that stage. I want to look back on it and say, ‘Yes, you were onto something good there.’
BAD TASTE is out now on Because Music.
Niall is Huck’s Deputy Editor. Follow him on Twitter.