Since the late 1990s, Jehst has been a constant in UK hip-hop, applying his lyrical talents to countless records while continuously raising the bar in the scene through his tenure as YNR label boss. 17 years on from his first release, Jehst is still a driving force, working with emerging artists and making music that isn’t willing to accept boundaries within the genre. This month, Jehst is on the road, stopping off at The HiFi Club Leeds October 7th before heading south to Kamio, London the following night. Ahead of the shows, we jumped at the chance to pick the brains of one of UK hip-hop’s most influential figures.
Hi Jehst, how has life been treating you lately?
All good thanks. Putting in work with the release of Cappo's new album 'Dramatic Change of Fortune' on my label YNR Productions. We're keeping the campaign going with some more singles and videos dropping, plus we've got him supporting Sleaford Mods on tour so that's going to be keeping me busy for the next couple of months.
When you started making moves in the late 90s, what did you find had the biggest influence on your writing style?
A lot of New York MC's like Nas, O.C., Organised Konfusion, Wu Tang Clan; rappers who were current at the time and just using language differently. A lot of emphasis on imagery and wordplay and referencing other art and current events in a kind of Post-Modernist way. I was learning about that stuff in college at the time and making the connection. UK guys like Blak Twang and Fallacy had a big influence too, I'd have to put them in the same category lyrically.
('I drink Moët with Medusa, give her shotguns in Hell'. Through Illmatic, Nas demonstrated his abilty to intertwine literary imagery with a social commentary, in turn crafting an arresting time capsule of 90s Brooklyn, NY.)
Your rapping style is one that has inspired and been built upon by many artists, so how did you come to settle on it?
I don't know if I've ever really settled on it. I feel like it's important to keeping pushing forward and evolve so hopefully you're always getting better and developing your craft. It's a big compliment but also somewhat of a pressure to have been so influential on an underground movement that's still very absent from the mainstream.
Your lyrics combine social commentary with a little bit of dark humour never too distant. Do you believe it is pivotal to yourself as an artist to be honest and satirical lyrically?
Not necessarily satirical, at least not all the time, but definitely honest. Honesty is key in terms of trusting yourself to be true to your instincts in the act of creating. That's how you make your best work.
Looking back at your early releases, did you feel any pressure to bring something new to UK Hip Hop?
There was no pressure back then. Just the hunger to participate in the culture. I felt very connected to a certain particular wave of like-minded artists who had an understanding of how so-called 'Golden Era' producers were creating a certain kind of sound; the guys basically following in the footsteps of Marley Marl. Then I guess there was a school of lyricism that saw Rakim as kind of a foundation-laying figure in a similar way. These were like the fundamentals, the building blocks to then bring your own style and content to; the canvas for your personality or alter-ego to shine. I think the emphasis was more on being classic than being 'new' at that time; and there was more of an understanding that if you could be yourself and not try to copy somebody else then your style would automatically be original anyway. Displaying originality was so fundamental to participating back then that it was just second nature. Biting was strictly frowned upon.
Your YNR label is credited with being an integral part of the early hip-hop scene alongside the likes of Low Life. Do you have a particular vision for the label in the coming years?
The honest answer is no. I'm not really trying to pre-empt the future of YNR right now because ultimately it's a labour of love and plus I always want to let every individual release and campaign have it's time to flourish in it's own right. So it's an open book right now. Although I can definitely say that you'll be hearing some music from an artist called Confucius MC in the not-so-distant future.
Would you agree that UKHH is experiencing one of its most successful periods to date? If so, what has enabled this to happen?
Consumer choice. The internet has empowered people to choose and also empowered artists to supply both digital and physical content directly to their core fanbase. It was all an inevitability. Because the demand was already there but the artists didn't really have the tools to supply directly, they were far more reliant on the old power structures of the music industry to reach their audience.
You have a reputation for being quite the prolific recording artist; off the top of your head, how many tracks do you think you have featured on?
I really couldn't say but it's got to be in to the hundreds by now in terms of just features alone and definitely if we're including solo material. Yeah, it would be well in to the hundreds.
One of your latest collaborations sees you team up with Lee Scott, perhaps one of the more ‘out there’ artists on the circuit. With Lee Scott’s Blah Records for an example, how important do you think DIY creativity is to UK Hip-Hop?
It's fundamental to Hip Hop culture in general. I guess we tend to wear our hearts on our sleeves and kind of wear the Punk, D-I-Y aesthetic with a certain pride in how we present ourselves over here; maybe more so than in other countries so I guess it's a big part of our national identity.
Looking at the rise of grime in the recent years, do you think it is possible for UKHH to reach similar levels of mainstream success?
Well I was just going to say with the whole UK D-I-Y thing, it's the same with Grime. The D-I-Y aspect is a matter of pride. I think most people don't really differentiate between one type of rapper and another, it's more of an internalised concern within artistic and also industry circles. And that resonates in the media obviously too but in general I believe the public are just as open to the idea of a Four Owls or Loyle Carner song playing on the radio as they are a Skepta or Wiley song. It's just about it being the right song and having the right push behind it.
Finally, I’ve got to ask; your track with Lee Scott released earlier in the year, “Campbell & Algar”, can you talk us through how you thought of the line ‘Underdressed like Hunter S at his blunted best’. It’s quite something…
I've no idea! It's just the type of nonsensical stuff that I come up with. Me and Kashmere from Strange U actually did a whole album inspired by Hunter S. Thompson under the alias Kingdom Of Fear so it's kind of a running theme at this point. If you like lines like that then you should definitely come to the show, I've got a ton of them!
Jehst plays The HiFi Club Leeds Friday October 7th and Kamio London Saturday 8th October.
Photo courtesy of Jehst