“I think I was brainwashed by Jack Black in School of Rock“: not what you expect from a young black Hackney raised jazz musician/producer/vocalist making, broadly speaking, abstract hip hop. But RarelyAlways doesn’t really do the expected. From the earliest age, he’s walked his own path, absorbing culture and music from even the most unlikely sources, lending his skills and fearsome work ethic to the widest possible range of projects, always focused on the big picture. Not only a dizzying array of musical education and practice, but a whole ethical framework and worldview carefully constructed as he’s felt his way through life, are encapsulated in every bar of every track. It’s a lot in every sense: but somehow, as you’ll hear on his debut EP, this is all boiled down into a clear, concise and easy to grasp expression.
RarelyAlways was always absorbed by music. His single dad was a drummer, playing mainly gospel. He would book rehearsal rooms so the pair of them could “beat the hell out of the drums” for three hours at a time: straight away music was associated with being fun and therapeutic. The services his dad played in could last six hours, though, so the commitment and sweat required in music was also clear. At home he heard Motown most of all, but also reggae, and thanks to his family’s West African background lots of Fela and other Afrobeat. At school he played percussion in Samba bands and learned classical instruments, from the radio he picked up on more interesting songwriting like Gorillaz, The Streets and Estelle, as well as grime and hip hop.
But what he truly obsessed over was film music. “I kept watching Harry Potter” he says, “and I wasn’t even a fan of fantasy. I couldn’t work out why, then I realised it was the music.” That set off a curiosity and ambition: “it’s what made me open minded, got me into orchestra stuff.” But the film that got him directly onto his current musical path was… yes… School of Rock. “Not going to lie, that film got me playing bass,” he says, “and it set my tastes: I’m an old head.” He immersed in Led Zeppelin, Bob James and Earl Klugh, lots of funk like The Brothers Johnson – and if he listened to modern music it was stuff that echoed that seventies era: notably The Black Keys and Gnarls Barkley. “I was just thinking about my bass playing, so I listened to stuff I could play,” he says.
A self-confessed “hoodrat”, his inquisitiveness and ambition could easily have led him in other directions – but thankfully music gave him focus. He went to a music-centred secondary school, then The Brit School. Here he was able to indulge all his love of funk, rock and jazz, but also learn more about pop and other styles. By the time he left, he’d joined a band – “trip hop and rock, pretty heavy stuff” – and was playing gigs regularly around South London supporting acts like King Krule. They rarely earned anything, but he says the band experience “was a big deal for me, playing with older guys, doing something where I believed in the music. And it’s all paying off now.”
This late-teens period of hanging around South London also brought him into contact with the new jazz scene: people like Tomorrow’s Warriors and Henry Wu. Here he realised just how much camaraderie and mutual support could mean to working musicians. Many jazz players were working for pop acts like Celeste and Poppy Ajudha, and would put work one another’s way if gigs or other opportunities came up. Meanwhile he was also working hard on youth projects, mentoring at-risk young people and furthering his own understanding of peer pressure and its dangers: something that would become a recurring theme in his own work.
And now, all of this feeds into his solo work. Not just the jazz playing, though this is audible throughout. Not just the diversity of his musical experience, though this all adds up to create a uniqueness rare among artist debuts. Even his love of rock and metal is there, albeit embedded deep down: he has an avowed love of singers who “scream out what they want to say”, and though his vocal style might sound subdued on the surface, you can quickly hear the fearsome commitment of his voice. Everything, in fact, is there: his whole life experiences, his knowledge of self, his understandings gleaned from other musicians and the kids he mentors.
All of this adds up to an artist who stands alone, and can only be assessed on his own terms. You might hear hints of great British one-offs like Tricky, Roots Manuva, even a more laid-back Dizzee Rascal. You might hear trip hop, jazz, those undercurrents of rock, J Dilla style beat science, and more – you’re free to apply whatever terminology you like: as RarelyAlways says, “I don’t complain about pigeonholes, I don’t mind how you talk about my music as long as you’re talking about it.” But above all else, what you’re hearing is RarelyAlways, a talent emerging fully formed, certain of who he is, and even at this young age, ready to share important life lessons with the biggest possible audience.