Regardless of where exactly you'd rank Sway on a list of the UK's best rappers, it goes without saying that he'd feature somewhere in most people's top five. The MOBO award-winning, Mercury Prize-nominated, artist-slash-producer from Haringey is fast establishing himself as one of the country's most exciting musical talents, with business acumen that is surpassed only by his lyrical ability. As anticipation of his eagerly-awaited 'The Signature LP' continues to build, ATCN caught up with Mr. Derek Safo to discuss number ones, MCs with the 'next factor' and why he'll always be a North London boy.
Your new album is set to drop at the end of the month. Can you tell us a bit about what we can expect from the album, and how it differs from ‘This is My Demo’?
The first album was more of an underground album, it was more on a street level. It was me finding myself as a musician. It was basically the culmination of my career up to that point and so it was really varied in terms of influences- there were influences on there from ten years ago. It’s become known as one of the flagship UK Hip Hop albums and it marked a change in the industry. It created a model in terms of self-branding and self-promotion. I’ve noticed that a lot of people have had more confidence in taking control and going down the independent route since it was released.
The new album is going in a lot deeper. It’s an important album for the scene and I was able to do a lot more with it because I now have collateral and clout. On the new album, I’ve used a 22 piece orchestra- before I wouldn’t have been able to afford that.
I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs whilst putting together this album. I’ve suffered a lot of tragedies over the last two years and this has been my way of coming to terms with those tragedies; my way of venting and crying. I’ll always be proud of it because it was not an easy time to be recording: going to people’s funerals and seeing their families grieving. The first album gave people a chance to get to know Sway, but this new album is more about getting to know Derek Safo as a person.
You’re well known for having defeated the likes of 50 Cent and The Game to win Best Hip Hop Act at the 2005 MOBOs. Are you hoping to be up for an award again this year?
Yeah, of course. I’d always like to be nominated. The album doesn’t drop till the 29th so if I were to win something it would be off the back off the singles that I’ve put out there… F Ur Ex completely shuts down places when I perform it in the clubs. The kids especially love it. And Saturday Night Hustle has been big as well. If you know the days of the week, you know the words to that track!
TV has taken well to the new stuff...I’ve been able to spend more on videos this time so that’s been reflected in the amount of airtime they’re getting.
So you feel positive that the LP is going to be well-received?
Yeah definitely. As I said, the singles have gone down really well. Saying that, I was never intending to make an album with a few stand-out singles: I wanted to make a whole album. I don’t want people to go on iTunes and just buy one or two tracks. I don’t want them to say ‘Have you heard Sway’s track with Lemar?’, I want them to say ‘Have you heard Sway’s album?’. I wanted to take it back to when people would buy an album and listen to the whole thing.
You’ve collaborated with some pretty big names, both in the UK and the US. Who would be a dream collaboration for you?
My dream collaboration would be Michael Jackson: he would be at number one. I also really like Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. I’d love to work with them one day. One of the aspirations I always had was to work with Madness, but I actually did that last year and the track went Top 20. Not a lot of people in my scene know about that.
You’ve obviously got pretty eclectic music tastes. Who are you listening to right now?
I really like Ian Brown, who used to front the Stone Roses. I listen to his album a lot. I listen to a lot of international stuff as well, stuff from Nigeria and Ghana, of course. Reggae, Dancehall…I like Busy Signal. A lot of different stuff. My iPod is like HMV, I’ve got everything on there. I try to listen to a lot of stuff outside of my own style of music, ‘cause I think it’s easy to get too influenced by artists who are doing a similar thing.
You’ve worked closely with various artists from the US. Is breaking America on your ‘to-do’ list?
Definitely. I sit down and talk about it with Akon a lot, trying to work out the best way to do it. ‘Cause I don’t want to do it on some gimmicky, novelty level. I want to be accepted and respected by people in Harlem, people in Queens. People who love Hip Hop. I don’t want to just be known as some novelty British rapper. I respect Lady Sovereign, but I don’t want to go out there and do it on that level. I want to do it like Estelle, who is getting so much respect as a vocalist. I’ll probably get into it through my production; spend a while producing tracks so people get to know my name and then take it from there.
Speaking of production- how much of the new album have you produced yourself?
I’ve produced six tracks on the album. Akon has produced two, alongside Georgio- he’s part of the Konvict Muzik family and he works on most of Akon’s tracks. He’s about to blow up in a big way.
I’ve also done tracks with some UK producers- Silverstone and my boy Turkish. He’s always got a banger for me. I was speaking to Pharrell about a possible collaboration with the Neptunes.
Is that going to happen?
I’m not sure. He’s told me he has respect for me as an artist but I think it would take something big for that to happen. There would have to be a reason for me to get on the plane and go over there. I’m not interested in bugging Americans. The collaborations I’ve done so far with American artists- Chamillionaire, Styles P, Lupe Fiasco- they’ve all been on a mutual level. We’ve both reached out to each other to make that happen.
So you can’t see yourself ever moving out to America, even if you were to become successful over there?
Definitely not. I’m a North London boy! I mean, Ghana’s my hometown and I make sure I go out at there three times a year. But I don’t want to leave London. I could see myself staying in the US for long periods of time, maybe three months. But I couldn’t live there. It doesn’t really suit me, I’m a quite a conservative person.
What do you mean by that?
Outside of the music, I’m quite quiet, quite shy. I don’t really go out much. If you see me out, it’ll be at a big event. I don’t really go to clubs or anything. I don’t like talking to loads of people: when I go out I end up having the same conversation fifty times and it gets kinda annoying. I’d rather stay home and write or watch films.
What’s your favourite film?
That’s kind of a vague question! But I’d say you have to see ‘The Game’ with Sean Penn. That film will change your life.
So you’re not really into London from a social perspective. What is it about the city that holds you here and continues to inspire you? ‘Cause some people would say that the British Hip Hop scene is kind of dying out…
I completely disagree. The urban music scene in the UK is stronger than its ever been. We’ve got Dizzee at number one. Estelle at number one. Wiley at number two. And it’s not just in London. There’s a huge amount of talent all over the country- in Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester.
Which UK artists would you say have ‘next’?
There’s a lot of really exciting talent in the UK right now. If I get given fifty demos at a performance, there’s always at least one or two that are like ‘Wow’. If I had to name names, I’d say Young Kof- he’s from Liverpool. Wariko in Nottingham. Stig of the Dump in Newcastle.
Everywhere I go in the UK, there’s talent. But what needs to happen now is for radio stations and TV get behind it. There are bus drivers in this country that have more talent than the people who have their music out there. They’re just not getting any exposure. I think people also need to recognise their strengths. Not everyone is like myself or Dizzee: not every artist has managerial skills or promotional skills. Some people just have the talent. So the people who are putting out music and should really be working as managers need to recognise that, and start working with those who just have the musical ability.
What’s next for Sway? Do you have a five year plan? Or do you go with the flow and take things as they come?
No, I definitely plan ahead. But I don’t want to give too much away! Obviously I’ve got my new album out at the end of this month and I’ve also been working on another album called ‘The Two Fingers Project’. That’s a collaboration with an experimental producer called Amon Tobin. He does really different stuff- he’ll go to a zoo and record a sample of a giraffe. So I’m hoping that’s going to introduce my work to a different crowd. Might be the soap-dodgers. But that’s cool. I don’t care if they don’t take a bath as long as they buy the album!
'The Signature LP' will be released on 29th September, 2008