IN the first of a new series of longform interviews, Quays Meets with Manchester rapper J Chambers to discuss the local music scene, his career so far and rapping alongside Kendrick Lamar.
J Chamber’s rise represents something special in the UK rap scene, let alone the smaller bubble of the North West. He is a uniquely talented, fiercely lyrical, thinking-man’s rapper – and he might be just what’s needed in the wake of the madness of 2016. Chambers has spit bars discussing poverty, racism and his upbringing in Blakely across his three projects so far – “The Come Up,” “Moment of Silence” and the Shakespeare-aping “Merchant of Manny.”
A few days after catching his stand out performance supporting hip-hop legend Talib Kweli at Band On The Wall, I met Chambers at a EY3 Media recording studio in the heart of Manchester. I was greeted at the door by a breathless and excitable J. He had taken four flights of stairs down to reach me, and despite his energetic live performances this still proved a hefty challenge; we made sure to take the lift back.
He comes across as genuine and generous – I’m presented with a choice of drinks upon entry and asked for opinions about his live show along with thoughts on a host of new music set for his new record “Moment of Silence 2: The Road to Perdition.”
When asked about this weighty title, J gives a swift grin and responds:
“When I wrote the majority of the songs I’d just put out Merchant of Manny and I was at a stage in my personal life where I felt like I’d done with music. I felt like having a break and just being a regular guy, ‘cause people forget when you’re an artist you’re juggling two lives. Sometimes you have to give up one person to be the other. Through creating the project, I realised that I am still very much in love with music.”
So, the album developed organically into something of a concept record with a definite arc; going from anger and rejection of being a conscious, overlooked rapper to ending on a message of hope. It’s easy for J to look back and grin that he never stopped.
“I started getting in the studio with Dyno (a Manchester grime MC/producer who developed most of the beats on Moment of Silence 2) and the music just started to come out. We were making really good music really easily.”
What’s most intriguing to see is the way J, Dyno and several others (Layfulstop, JSD, Berry Black) all weave in and out of each other’s projects. That’s a by-product of the shared creative space they inhabit thanks to EY3 Media. Chambers is a graduate of the EY3 artist development initiative and is still using their well-equipped studio two, three times a week.
“How we work in the studio is I come in, put my ideas down. I have drum ideas and I’m tapping them on the table,” J enthuses, tapping out beats as he speaks, “We’re all here, like a collective so we’re always in and out of each other’s sessions. It’s kinda awkward in interviews cause you’re asking who mastered this.. and it’s like, I can’t remember! Them guys are the ones who know how to use the software – my brains not wired like that.”
Whilst we speak, Dyno is in the room adjacent developing the beat that would eventually become album cut “For This.” J insists there’s no competition in the scene, only friendly rivalry.
“It’s all love,” he grins. “Everyone wants [everyone else] to win.”
When it comes to the new record, there’s eight songs in the can when we speak and he sounds excited to share them all, particuarly “Manifesto,” which he tells me “addresses [his]feelings of where [he’s] at in the scene and where [he]needs to be going… and the beat goes off!”
None of this is to downplay his own musicality; he plays drums, guitar and bass and often that instrumentation makes it to the records in some form or other. In addition to rapping, he’s dabbled with spoken word poetry.
“Poetry is kind of a new thing for me. I only started doing it last year and that’s cause Aaron, the guy who’s on the intro to “Merchant…”, who is a radio presenter, said to me I should think about doing poetry. It’s like – why not, I tried and I felt I was pretty good at it.” When it comes to lyrics, he’s always written to music, yet the line grows increasingly blurred.
“To me they’re raps, but to other people they come out as poems cause of my rhyme schemes.” In most of his sets he’ll set aside five minutes for an acapella spoken word piece, as well as trying his hand at some slam events.
Making the most of the studio time they get is important for J. Balancing a day job in a local college with performing, marketing and gigging is difficult.
“A lot of people forget that a lot of the artists that are popping in Manchester all work day jobs, he says.
There’s people that are bigger than me that I look up to. A good example of that is Konny Kon from Broke’N’£nglish. They’ve been doing mad stuff, doing supports up and down the country, getting co-signed by Chase and Status, all this interest. Then in his interview he’s going ‘I still have a day job’ and it’s like you have had the best year ever and you still have a day job! Like, rah!”
Chambers grew up in Blakely, North Manchester. At the time he grew up, he describes a mostly white, working class area where he’d become “the token black kid.” He’s quick to downplay the weight of this though; instead he’s keen to emphasise the normality of his childhood.
“I wouldn’t say my journey was different to anyone else’s really. Blakely is an average working class area, there’s quite a bit of poverty. I had an average childhood though, it wasn’t the worst, it wasn’t the best, you know?
I feel like I’ve always been musical. I didn’t even realise but there’s pictures my mother has and even as a child I’ve had a guitar, played drums, I’ve been in bands since 16 – I was the drummer in a band called Under The Air of Chaos. I’ve always loved music and been around it; so many different people in my family make music. We’ve got reggae artists, rappers, singers…”
As far as influences go, he says “most UK urban music” inspires him, with particular nods to So Solid Crew, Akala, the Streets and more.
That’s a host of diverse sounds, but with a common thread of deep and intelligent lyricism. Yet the current trends in rap music worldwide – whether it be UK Grime or deep South trap – is towards hype beats and simple lyrics. Some “concious” rappers, like the divisive Hopsin, loathe this sort of music. J sees it differently:
“I think [Trap and grime] serves a purpose. It depends what you
want out of hip-hop. If you wanna go to a rave, man ain’t gonna try and play my type of music. But for those MCs that make that hype stuff, their punchlines are simple and that’s what gives you that hype in the rave. They’re both necessary. If the game was all conscious it’d be boring, but if the game was 100 per cent hype and misogyny there would be no progression.”
Progression is a word that describes the last year pretty well for Chambers. As well as releasing his best work yet, he’s played gigs with Akala, Dead Prez and even been part of a cypher with Kendrick Lamar.
“All praise needs to go to Brighter Sounds for that Kendrick event. They’re this really good co-operation that’s run out of the top of Band on the Wall; they do loads of projects in Manchester, working with youth – youth empowerment basically. The put on that event; shouted Reebok and hosted the event.
Without knowing exactly why he was going, J was persuaded to check the event out by Liam Sutcliffe, a former programming manager at Band on the Wall.
“I remember being at home and getting a text [from Sutcliffe]that said; ‘Yo, I want you to go to this event.’ I’m really anti-social, I spend most of my evenings doing stuff like this,” he says, nodding towards the recording booth behind us, “I don’t really go out to raves and stuff. So, at first I was like it’s not my cup of tea bro.”
Luckily, after some persuasion, he was convinced to head down. Lucky, as J now recalls it as one of the greatest experiences of his career.
“Not even just ‘cause Kendrick was there – obviously, it was a blessing to meet that guy – but I’ve never been in a room with such talent before. Every person that has come out this year  and done something sick within Manchester hip-hop was there; whether it be Layfulstop, Deedeebee, Woody, Jarelle, Lyrical Ligafree, Black Heist,” he reals off excitedly.
“And the OGs! – Phallacy, Visceral. It was just sick to be in a room with so much Manchester talent.”
So, with no prior knowledge of the gig, the Northern MCs swapped bars around a live band and bounced off each other’s talent. And then Kendrick Lamar walked in.
“Rather than performing he just got involved with the cypher! So, there’s footage on my Instagram of me in a cypher with Kendrick stood right there, I got passed the mic. Just seeing his reactions to my punchlines and stuff… When we finished rapping he just started talking about the talent in the room. He had to perform in Granada Studios so he couldn’t really hang around – he took some pictures. It was cool.”
Getting support slots with some of the best to do it requires keen management. Yet, meeting the man who would become his manager, Chris, was purely chance.
“Chris owned a boxing promotion company. He did this weird event one time where he did a boxing show but in between he had live music so he hit me up and said; “I’ve never heard anybody that does what you do, I wanna book you,” it went down well and he said he wanted to help me and it’s just gone from there.”
Is there an end goal in sight, perhaps following his idols like Akalainto the world of politics?
“Life to me is about the giving and taking of information. So, people listening to an artist can see – the highs, the lows, the successes, the losses and somehow learn from their experiences and get to a better stage in life through the message that music passes across.”
It’s evident that Chambers wants to inspire, even if he won’t put it into as many words.
“Our generation doesn’t particularly read. You can find out some interesting stuff – life lessons – from reading books that have stood the test of time.”
“Hip-hop is one of the outlets that put me onto reading and learning a bit more about myself and about the world. You’ve got rappers like Dead Press, Akala, Logic who quote specific authors, you can look it all up on RapGenius and find out the books they’re connected too, you go and read that and it opens up your own mind.”
About politics, J keeps an open mind:
“Never say never,” Jay says, “but I feel like getting involved in politics too much would take away from my music. I’d be open to it, but at the same time I wouldn’t be too involved. Fine line.”
When we finish talking, Dyno shows us the beat he’s created. The synth line that ends up on the album is beautifully dark and has a quite different vibe from previous Chambers projects. It seems like the pair of them can’t stop making music together. J would agree:
“When I’m in the mood and I know what I’m working on, I just create. It’s hard for me to draw a cutoff point. But at the end of December, I know it has to be done for distribution, that’s it! So you’re gonna learn a bit more about me on this project, you’ve heard my thoughts on my feelings on the world and politics, but you’re gonna hear the real side of me, about me and my background, my perspective.”
You can listen to the full interview with J Chambers in audio form below.
J Chambers plays his Moment of Silence 2 Release Show at Band on the Wall this Friday the 20th. Get tickets here!