One of Britain’s finest hip hop productions, High Focus Records has earned itself a spot among the most influential collectives working today. Featuring a range of independent artists that embody the label’s thoughtful, impactful and artistic style, High Focus is a vital platform for UK producers and MCs, and has a trophy cabinet full of spectacular releases to show you, if you’re interested. Ahead of their shows in Leeds, Bristol and London, we profile a handful of the label’s most innovative stars.
The Four Owls
Expert lyricists with sharp ears for sampling, The Four Owls represent some of the best that High Focus has to offer. The band consists of the label founder Fliptrix and three of his most epigrammatic mates - Verb T, Leaf Dog and BVA. Delivering lines with precision and power to match their tightly knitted beats, the four sit at the top of their game but with eyes fixed on what’s above.
Essential Listening: Life In The Balance Ft. Jam Baxter
Set up beautifully by a choice piano sample which pirouettes and glides in the background, Life In The Balance features masterful lyrics that explore the challenges of life with a maturity that is often lost to brag culture. Interesting and thoughtful, the track’s content is perhaps best summed up by the call to arms cry of the hook - "Life in the balance, rise to the challenge”. The production also borrows from Nina Simone’s Wild is the Wind, adding a soulful touch to a track that sparkles and delivers heavy blows all at once.
Wise beyond his years, Ocean Wisdom didn’t so much gain attention as take it by force, entering the room and slamming the door behind him just to make sure that his presence was felt. Brighton-based but in demand across the nation, his sharp tongue and self-assured demeanour sets him out as a legend of the future and a sensation in the present.
Essential Listening: Walkin’
You need a certain amount of confidence to make it in the rap game, but this track suggests that shouldn’t be an issue for Ocean Wisdom. The young MC calls on Dirty Dike for production duties, but leaves no room for doubt as to who demands the attention, at one point dropping the beats altogether to indulge in a startlingly assured verse in acapella, taking on rhymes at head-spinnin speeds.
With beats less pronounced than hip hop norms, Edward Scissortongue’s aesthetic is moody and quiet in comparison with the more extravagant High Focus stalwarts, but manages to deal impactful blows which few can match. Outlandish and creative, his sound is perhaps the most distinctive that the label has to offer, often revolving around acoustic melodies and melancholic samples rather than the more immediate rhythmic patterns that dominate the genre.
Essential Listening: Theremin
The slow, sorrowful friction of horsehair and string carves a melodramatic picture into the background of this track, whilst Scissortongue mixes tones of disgust and despair in his war torn poetry. Lyrics of hopelessness and misery delivered like a narrator snarling at the scene he’s been charged with bringing to life, this is one of many genuinely stirring tracks that the young MC has conjured up.
Encompassing a vintage sound in tandem with a taste for experimentation, Verb T has been plying his trade as a storyteller for quite some time, having asserted his sense of humour, wit and lyrical thoughtfulness for a good 15 years as a rapper and producer. A journeyman on tour and frequent guest in studios of hip hop’s biggest players, Verb T has ridden a wave with style without ever letting the success go to his head, releasing 9 albums along the way. Another wise old head and integral part of the High Focus crew, he also makes up one part of The Four Owls.
Essential Listening: Where You’ll Find Me
Rap doesn’t have to be glamorous or hedonistic, that’s just a misnomer. Sometimes even Fiddy C and Snoop need a night in with the TV on to break up the monotony of partying and lugging round their president-packed wallets (although Fiddy’s isn’t quite so heavy these days). Anyway, rappers are people too, and Verb T isn’t ashamed to admit it, as he announces in no uncertain tone in Where You’ll Find Me, a track about relinquishing the party lifestyle in favour of a quiet one on the sofa. British hip hop doesn’t tend to be as ostentatious as its North American cousin, and this song shows that that isn’t a problem.
Introspective but with an observant eye for the world around him, Mr Keys is another lyricist on the High Focus rota whose lyrics could appear in an A-level poetry anthology without ever feeling out of place. Forthright and blunt at times, though able to express ideas with subtlety and grace at others, Mr Keys produces lyrics that can hit hard when necessary but often need careful excavation to really shine. Beats are secondary, framing his words but never detracting from the picture that Mr Keys chooses to present.
Essential Listening: Icarus Instinct
Melancholic dream passage of wind-through-trees electronic work, “Icarus Instinct” draws its name from the winged protagonist who flew too close to the sun, painting a picture of post-storm calm as Mr Key weaves rhymes between gently clacking percussion and ambient sounds. Soulful and therapeutic, a poetic journey through bittersweet musings culminates in the adoption of a laissez faire attitude that threatens to emerge throughout, expressed best by the poignant last line: “Nothing ever stays the same but everything will be fine”. Thoughtful and engaging, this is another High Focus standout track, epitomising the depth of sentimentality that the label’s artists seem so adept at navigating.
Words by Andrew Kemp
Photos courtesy of High Focus