It’s a storm-drenched afternoon in October as we chill out with singer and producer Jesse Boykins III at the Ninja Tune office in South London. However, despite the near-apocalyptic weather Jesse is in good spirits. One listen to his new collaborative LP ‘Zulu Guru’ with fellow partner-in-rhyme MeLo X and you can instantly see why he’s so nonchalant about our County’s appalling weather. He’s too busy caught up in the wonders and positivity of nature and the universe, “I’m just a firm believer in the power of energy, vibrations, waves and nature,” the Miami native tells us.
His calm laid-back demeanour sets the tone as he stirs his green tea and puts us at ease as he talks about spirituality, working with MeLo-X and stepping into New York for the first time.
So how did you and MeLo-X first hook up?
MeLo was born and raised in Flatbush Brooklyn and it was really ethnic. As Cultural diversity goes there were a lot of Jamaicans, Haitians, Hispanics, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, I grew up in Miami and I lived in an area which was pretty much the same. The upbringing was kinda cool because we were both influenced by that culture: the islands, the rhythms and dance music, it’s a natural part of our lives and how we were raised. It’s funny cause when I was 17, I was going to school in New York I didn’t have any other friends who were Jamaican and usually did when I was back in Miami. So when I met MeLo it was like two years after I graduated from college and he was DJing at a party and he was like the illest DJ you could get, don’t matter how old people are or who you are at the party, he was just amazing. I went to one his parties he was DJing at, and I don’t really stay at parties but I was there till it was over and I was like “ oh shit” and I haven’t even met him yet.
So when you actually meant him and heard him rap what were your first thoughts?
I heard him rap over a song that Mickey Factz put out called ‘Incredible’. I was like “Melo can rap? What the-? He’s better than everybody who’s working with me right now. Next time I saw him I was like “Yo where you from”, and he says he’s Jamaican, “For real? I’m Jamaican too” and he had heard of me from doing other features with other rappers such as Theophilus London and Micky. It was cool cause I lived in Bed Stuy at time and I kept hitting him up, he was mad lazy. He ain’t want to leave Flat Bush unless it was for a show. I was like “Yo, come chill at my house. Let’s do a record.” and this fool took like two months to get to my crib, Flat Bush and Bed Stuy ain’t even that far apart. He finally came to the house and he had this Roots instrumental that he took from a track that ?estlove produced. He started rappin, but he just spits the whole thing, it’s not in song form yet and I was like “You just wrote a story basically, you know gotta make a song now”, he’s like “yeah, that’s why im here”.
When you got New York for the first time how green were you?
I was confused man, it was so different. I didn’t even do any research before I left because it was so last minute so I just showed up to that shit like “Oh, okay”. It was so brand new and everybody was moving fast and everybody had so much to do all the time and I’m like “I don’t even have that much to do, I gotta get busy”. That’s one of the things that New York instilled into me, everyone’s like doing something or saying they’re doing something and the type of person I am, I was like “I gotta get my life together too”. That’s the kinda vibe that New York gives you and that’s why artists move to New York because they’ve already surpassed the level where they’re from. But they move there and they realise everybody’s on the same level and they gotta go hard just like them now. That’s why when I moved there it was just so crazy how focused everybody was.
You’ve stated that you’ve made a new genre called ‘World Soul’. How would you describe it? What is the ‘World Soul sound?
It’s a lot of things actually, but the root of it is ‘Soul’. When you think of Soul Music people always think black music but to me soulful music is anything that comes from the heart. I always say that Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder and even Bob Marley is Soul music. Doesn’t matter about the genre, its more so about the feelings you get. And then I say ‘World’ because we’re in a day and age where we are influenced by and we have access to the World. We don’t have to do anything. I remember growing up if I wanted to know something about another country I’d have to go to the library and I’ll have to find books but it’s not telling me what’s currently going on in that country. Now you can go online and see things and be a part of these crazy worlds which you wouldn’t be a part of if you didn’t have technology and that’s pretty much the world aspect of it. It’s the culture… period. Not in a section or a sub-culture, it’s just culture. It’s not a race thing either it’s a human being thing. I find that a lot of the times when people listen to an artist they depict them based on their race what kind of music it is and that’s not the case. You should just say it’s good music if it’s good.
The titles and themes in the album seem very Afro-centric. Was that the approach you were going for?
Not necessarily, everything came up pretty organic as far as titles go. Really a lot of the titles came from me and MeLo talking about life situations and wondering if anyone has expressed them through song or in a certain way or a certain perspective. We’ve been doing a lot of research on African culture so it’s already a part of us, just like doing a lot of research on Asian culture as well. Everything’s pretty organic, that’s one thing we appreciate about working together, it’s not like “Yo, we gotta make a song like this”. It’s like: “Ay man, remember what happened like three days ago when shorty called you and told you… that’s crazy right? You ever though about why she would say that?”. And he would right away make a song about that, that’s pretty much how we went about the titles.
What musical inspirations did you draw from when you two were making this album?
I feel like that the album is pretty eclectic in itself, it doesn’t necessarily have a sound, it has a feel. I feel like that’s undertone and underlined by the lyrics and the melodic choice that I use in the album. But as far as the sound goes… that’s why I call it World Soul because there’s a song that sounds like it could be samba and it’s Brazilian and there’s a song on there that sounds like a folk song that somebody wrote in Wisconsin somewhere. There are definitely West Indian influences in the album and me and MeLo said that this is our mini-reggae album.
There’s a lot of references to Africa in the album as well, have you been to Africa before?
It’s so funny actually cause ever since last summer I told my crew “we gotta go to Africa”. Some them are from Ghana and Nigeria, so I when talk to them, they’re moms’ is in the background cussing them out in that traditional shit. I was like “I wanna go to Africa man”, watching all them Spike Lee movies and everybody was having monologues about going to Africa and I got a couple of friends who actually visited and came back and they always say it’s amazing. Also a lot of people over there started hitting us up in America reaching out to us and I’m like “This is cool, we got African fans man. That’s wassup”. We went there twice this year, I went to West Africa last August and I went to South Africa like two weeks ago.
Did it feel like a spiritual experience for you?
Every time I travel I make it a spiritual experience it doesn’t matter where it is. It was definitely a different feeling going to Africa though, cause how society depicts certain things and living in America it’s hard to get certain information in the true light of what it is. Growing up we don’t learn world history, we just learn American History and then all the bad stuff that happened to the world. We don’t really learn about Africa or Asian history culture and history so we have no idea. So when I went it was like a new lesson just like anywhere I go, I always take it in like that no matter what.
I notice you’re wearing an ankh across your neck, are you at all spiritual? Do you have any spiritual beliefs?
I’m pretty spiritual I guess, but I feel like spiritualty is sense of acknowledgement in its simplest form. It’s being present, in-tune and aware. All these things that we naturally have it’s instinctual for us to be those ways. End of the day I’m a human being just like everyone else I live life, I make mistakes and sometimes I don’t make the best decisions it’s natural it all happens. I don’t judge or think about things in boxes that spate them, everything’s connected to me, that’s what I believe spirituality is, acknowledging your connection.
Your album has a unique title, ‘Zulu Guru’. How did you come up with it?
Well, we named the album ‘Zulu Guru’ for a lot of reasons, the way I came about the name is actually really funny. I was doing a song, which is on the album, called ‘Strange Recreation’ back in like ‘07 or 08 and I was like 22 or 23. In the intro I was like: [In Patois accent] “The Original Zulu Guru ya’na” and my friends, who where these two dudes from Kentucky, was like “What is this fool talking about? What did you just say?”, “I said I was the Zulu Guru”, “What is that?” and I told them “I don’t know”. It’s funny cause I was taking classes in Buddhism and African History classes in college and that’s what we were reading at the time and I got so intrigued by it, that’s how it started. I hadn’t listened to the song in so long and one day I was listening to the old music I was making and I heard ‘Zulu Guru’ and I was like ‘damn’, thinking about getting into Hinduism and African culture again, full circle. I thought about it and had to express it to myself what it meant to me.
‘Zulu’ is associated with being a warrior but talking to you seem very calm and peaceful. There’s nothing aggressive about you.
Like you said: prideful, territorial, stubborn, bull-headed, passionate, that’s all the masculine aspect of the man. And Guru is: the teacher, the spiritual leader, the mediator, the lesson giver, the feminine aspect of it. I feel like a lot of men in this world don’t how to be both masculine and feminine because it’s bad. Like it means all these things to be masculine and feminine at the same time and people don’t how to balance between that. That’s what I’m constantly doing being, which is being touch with my emotions and sometimes if you want to bump the wrong way I’m a say something. You know what I mean? I’m not a punk, I can defend myself and stand up for what I believe in, I don’t need anybody to help me with that. But I don’t need anybody to tell I can’t express my emotions in the moment, you hear what I’m saying? Just because I’m a man I can’t shed a tear or get a little emotional? My dad died, you feel me? And MeLo’s the same way. On some songs I’m talking like a Zulu and he talking like a Guru and on others he talking like a Zulu and I’m talking like a Guru and on some songs we both and sometimes we not.
Words by Jerry Gadiano
- - -
'Zulu Guru' is out now.