London Has Its Hero: Murkage Dave Interviewed

Discussing genre definitions, identity, and the need for creative freedom...

Very few artists come like Murkage Dave these days, the man is authentic to the bone and as an independent artist has the creative freedom to express himself however he so desires, and through this you see an incredibly accomplished artist shine. Dave is an artist that fully comprehends that through his platform he has the ability to dissect certain sociocultural concerns that are so prevalent in the modern day in mental health, gentrification and incarceration, whilst consistently doing so in his totally unique and original fashion.

Not afraid to speak his mind, Dave has regularly faced prejudicial struggle that has seen him, as a Black man, often labelled as a grime artist or a rapper – a label that is hugely frustrating for an artist that has achieved so much within the indie music scene. Murkage Dave moved to Manchester in his youth and spent a large amount of time during his formative years in the club scene, experiencing Garage thrive at the forefront of British culture, whilst also taking heavy influences from hip-hop and R&B, all the way to The Smiths and Joy Division, and it is so clear to hear when listening to Dave’s latest album ‘The City Needs A Hero’ that he has infused all of these various styles together to create an excellent body of work.

Connection is everything to the East London-based singer, so in an attempt to break the barriers between fans and musicians, Dave was recently seen running around the streets of London interacting with his devoted fans. With the fans being a vital component of the music industry, it feels really refreshing to see an artist valuing them as such.

Murkage Dave spoke to Clash about his latest album ‘The City Needs A Hero’, his love for online chess, and early educational experiences with the likes of Skepta, Mike Skinner and Tricky.

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First of all, congratulations on the new album, it really is an incredible body of work. With the album being called ‘The City Needs A Hero’, were there any events in particular that influenced this title?

It wasn’t really any events in particular, it was more just observations of when there’s those big global events that happen, or when something’s trending and it’s a big global event that has gone wrong, I find that there’s always an energy of like ‘oh, what’s this person gonna say?’ or ‘what’s this person gonna do?’, you know, what are certain politicians going to say or do about it, or what’s this celebrity going to say about this cause or whatever. I find it really interesting that we look to these individuals to almost solve these big problems.

So, the hero can be anyone really?

I mean, yeah, and if that’s the journey you’ve taken then I’m glad that you’ve gone in on it, that’s good. That’s kind of what I was trying to have intended, everyone is going to take something different from it, but that makes me happy that you said that.

What is your personal favourite from the album?

My very most personal favourite would have to be ‘East London Smile’. ‘Bad Advice’ as well because I just kind of took it somewhere else with that, but it’s hard to say, in terms of songwriting, ‘Please Don’t Move To London It’s A Trap’, that’s one of my proudest, I was able to capture the walk around the block in Hackney, but I think sometimes with the singles because you play them so much, and I’ve been performing them a lot recently, you don’t put them on the same level because they’re not as new, so that’s why it’s good to look back at the album as a whole, because they’re changing my life.

‘See Man Smile’ I really love that song, it’s one of the more popular songs on the album, so in a way, it kind of loses a slight bit of value to you as an artist, but then when you look back, I’m super proud of the whole album and I really love that song.

And a great song on the album is ‘Please Don’t Move To London It’s A Trap’, you actually moved away from London to benefit your career?

Yeah, 100% it was a bit weird, it’s funny now because a lot of Londoners are bigging up Manchester, going to Manchester for weekend trips and stuff like that, but I remember when I went up and people were saying ‘What are you doing that for? Why have you left London?’ No one really understood it. But for me, definitely, it gave me a space to be myself and grow in a way that was unique to me with less pressure, and I just kind of incubated myself as an artist in Manchester.

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So, do you feel like that’s when you really formed into the artist that you are now?

Do you know what, I think actually coming back to London was where it happened in terms of me as a solo artist, definitely. But I think that just me growing up as a man, as a human being, I think I did a lot of my growing up in Manchester. So, I feel like a lot of my life experiences and a lot of the stories that I have are from those times, so it’s a bit of both.

And aside from that, you’re quite well known for having a rather dry sense of humour, did you ever consider a career as a comedian?

No, do you know what, doing stand-up comedy is something that frightens the shit out of me. I feel like in terms of performance, the only arts that come close are maybe improvisational jazz in terms of how naked you are when standing up there, you’re telling jokes and if it’s not going well, it can get nasty quickly. Whereas with me, as I have written the songs, I know what ones are good and what order to put songs in, you know what you have to work with, with jokes, you can’t do your best jokes again. But it’s funny man, Romesh Ranganathan is a friend of mine, he said that I should do stand-up comedy, but I feel like he was just being a bit nice – he’s always trying to gas me up, man. I think that it would just frighten me, it’s probably something that I’ll never do.

Because Romesh is a massive music fan as well, isn’t he?

Yeah, he’s amazing. But he’s an incredible stand-up comedian, I think because he does so much television it almost gets overlooked. He’s done so many shows, and he’s killing it, but his stand-up comedy is incredible. I’ve seen him at the Hammersmith Apollo, both times with my girlfriend, and obviously Dave Chappelle was the goat but I kind of feel like I laughed more at Romesh, it was insane, but I guess it’s more uniquely British.

Yeah, for sure. So, going back to that when you were learning your trade you worked with some of the biggest names in the industry in Mike Skinner, Tricky and Skepta, how useful was that to learn from them?

Yeah, I mean, with Skepta that was a lucky thing, he produced something for Jaykae and Jaykae asked me to do it, so it wasn’t scheduled, I wasn’t in the studio with Skepta or whatever, but when I was working in Manchester, I booked him a lot as a promoter, so if we bump into each other we say hello, but yeah, he’s very inspirational. Mike was an interesting one – I met Mike at a time when I was really trying to escape the club, and Mike was trying to break into the club scene, so we kind of met at the club door, but then Mike was really influential on me in terms of songwriting, he taught me a lot.

With Tricky… I mean, what’s to be said? He’s just such a unique human and I think just the fact that he fucked with my shit just gave me such a big boost. He’s the nicest guy and just so humble, just such a normal cat, but he’s also the left-field king, isn’t he? He’s that guy. So, for him to reach out, and as a Black artist who’s outside of the 1Xtra scene thing, it was so nice for him to reach out.

You’ve also been supported by the likes of Pharrell, Young Fathers, Iggy Pop, and Mike D from the Beastie Boys all from various genres in the music industry, which is a real testament to your versatility, how did it feel to receive praise from artists like this?

You know, I realised I feel like a lot of the time, when I get love from artists who are super established in whatever area, whatever field, I feel like they always interact with the most honest record that I’ve made, or the most real statement, and I think that’s so helpful to get that feedback and that information, because then it’s rather than like, I don’t know, some kind of A&R or whatever pushing you in a inorganic direction, you get people that you really respect musically pushing you in a totally organic direction. It’s like an affirmation that it is okay with being myself. 

I think every artist does this, when you start off you copy the artists that you love, and then you maybe see some shortcuts, and you try and do stuff, but I think that really becoming an artist is like being in tune with yourself and expressing yourself, I think that all the great artists kind of see that bit in me. Young Fathers particularly, like Kayus from Young Fathers is one of the reasons why I even make music as a solo artist. He was like ‘What are you doing?’ I remember I’d just dropped a couple of tunes and he was like, ‘You need to make an album with this. This is great’.

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Following on from that, the authenticity you manage to interpolate into your lyrics and the inclusion of topics such as mental health, gentrification and incarceration – is this something you’ve always done, or was there a certain point in your career in which you thought it was important to get across these messages within your music?

I’ve always been doing it in some sense. I look back even when I was super young, and I was going by the name of Dave Lewis, even the stuff I was doing then there’s still like an element of social commentary. I think I’m just like someone who’s not really part of anything, I’m more of an observer. I’m able to kind of see how it’s done over here, see how it’s done over there and tell the story to each side.

The other thing is that it’s a good way to not end up being that intense person at a party. I’ve got a lot of things that I really care about, and really think about, I’m not really like a small talk person, I’m someone who wants to get into a subject, but I’m aware that there’s a time and a place, so to stop myself from being that person at a party, cornering in some poor person, talking to them about like social issues when they’re just trying to have a good time, I’ve got that outlet to put it in the music and examine it in that way.

So, it’s always beneficial for you as well because it allows you to vent these concerns through your music? Yeah, for sure. It’s great, man. And do you think your ability to be so calculated within your lyrics stems from your love of playing chess online?

Hahaha, not really, but I think chess is an incredible game. I was really into chess when I was in primary school, but when I went to secondary school, I ended up at this school where I was the only Black kid, and the chess club was so nerded out, I just thought that I’m already in a spot of bother here, I need to just try and survive. So, I didn’t, I didn’t join the chess club, and I regret it because I could have really gone somewhere with chess, but I feel like that kind of stunted my playing ability. So, you know, by the time I was 11, I wasn’t really playing it as much.

I think it’s one of those games that teaches you patience, and to make you look down the line, it’s a really funny question, but it doesn’t really do anything for my songwriting, but definitely my overall mentality as an artist to avoid the shortcuts or avoid whatever the buzzing thing is at the time and think about what’s gonna make me happy, what’s gonna create a positive impact in my environment and the world around me and things like that and kind of go for that, rather than just go for whatever the cheap quick thing is.

That’s really interesting, though. On a slightly more serious note, in the past, you’ve been pigeonholed incorrectly with genres that don’t fit your music style whatsoever, and you’ve been very openly frustrated regarding this, and quite rightly so – it’s a concept that needs to be addressed in order for music to move forward. What would you say to journalists and writers that label your music as rap and grime?

I mean, yeah, it’s tough, isn’t it? Because on a very personal level, you kind of take that, and as an ethnic minority in this country, you just internalise that, and you just think, well, you said that because all you see is like one thing, that’s the problem, isn’t it? You’re looking at me and you basically should just call me a n*****, because then it would be easier. Do you know what I mean? It would just be like okay, cool, we’ve got to the point, you think I’m a n*****, and then that’s it.

But like, when I zoom out, it’s not as deep as that is it, on a macro level it’s more just like, maybe that person shouldn’t be writing about that kind of music, they should be writing about more popular music. I think maybe they should just stick to genres that they really know, because I think that’s a lot to do with what it is. I think also one of the things which I’ve been thinking about a lot lately which I just made the connection with is because I sing in my speaking voice, I think that throws people off sometimes.

A lot of artists, obviously you’ve got guitar and indie artists that sing in their own accents, but a lot of pop and R&B artists from Britain sing in American accents, which I think is really weird, but that’s what a lot of them do. So, I think because I sing in a British accent, it makes people think that it’s rap because my stuff is kind of rhythmic, the way that I write is rhythmic, so if you’re hearing a British accent, you might just think I’m talking, because you’re not hearing that American pronunciation… so that’s another factor, I’m trying to throw these guys some rope.

That was quite an interesting point actually, you know, the people that do label you that, they just shouldn’t really be reviewing that kind of music?

If you asked me my opinion on metal, I’ve been to a few metal gigs, I’ve got friends that are in metal bands, but I’m not going to give you my opinion on a metal album, because my knowledge is limited.

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If you were to coin your own genre specific to you what would it be?

Well, here’s the thing, I have a friend from France who is a good oral surgeon and he said, “look, I love your music, but when I tell people about it, I don’t know how to describe it”, and he said the closest thing he got was underground pop because it’s like pop, but it’s not commercial, because I guess pop since the late 80s has become super commercial.

I think, I don’t know, it’s really actually just like pop music, if you think about the recipe of influences that I’m bringing in, but I’m also very influenced by The Smiths and The Cure and music like that, but production-wise you know, I’ve been a club promoter, I’ve been a DJ, so there’s notes of that, there’s all kinds of stuff in there.

So, if anyone that kind of smashes together that many influences, you know, whoever it was, be it David Bowie in the past, or Madonna or whoever like that, it would get called pop. So yeah, I think it is really pop music, but it’s just like if I was 19 and white, everyone would just say it was pop. 

So also, you have a really good relationship with your fans. I saw on your socials the other day you were running through London meeting them. As an independent artist, how important are your fans to you?

Oh, I mean, man, they mean the world to me, and I think that they’re all really cool as well, I think that they’re really funny. I really like hype and braggadocious rap music, but you do find that their fans, if you go in their social comments, that their fans are just like chatting shit at them because the thing is, if you’re listening to the music and it’s like, ‘I’m better than you, I’m this, I’m that’, then the fans are gonna come back at you with that energy. With me, I think because it’s like, ‘Oh, let’s think about this, let’s be empathetic’, then the fans are like that, so it’s a really nice relationship. Obviously, you get the odd person that is like… you know, but for the most part, I just have really positive experiences with people that are into my music, and I think that’s also because I’m not really living a drastically different life. So, the people that listen, we live in the same kind of places and we do the same shit, so it’s pretty cool.

I feel like I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because obviously I don’t have a manager and I don’t have a label, so putting out this album has been hyper stressful, I’ll be honest with you, but I have to just stop and think this is really cool, I get to do music that I stand by 100%, and there’s people that embrace it, and they come to shows, and telling me all these amazing stories about how the music helped them in their life, so that’s fucking sick, you know what I mean? So, for me, it’s like doing stuff that’s fun and it’s just like anything, it’s just like how going on a date night with your girlfriend strengthens the relationship.

Yeah, that’s cool. So of course, you’ve worked with so many incredible artists, but are there any artists in particular you’re really feeling at the moment?

Yes. I’m a bit late on Self Esteem, but she’s really doing it. I think the approach and the honesty mixed with ambition and the songwriting, and just the way she’s smashing it all together, I really, really love it. I mean, there’s loads, Fontaines DC, I love what they’re doing, they’re bringing back the feeling, and I really like Central Cee, really, really like him.

Yeah, he’s got a big future, that’s for sure.

Yeah, yeah. You know, he’s got that kind of like James Dean thing where he’s super-handsome but then there’s this kind of observational and introspective element to his writing that I think there’s not a lot of UK rappers doing that, early Dizzee did, but yeah, he’s got that thing.

So lastly, what can we expect from the rest of 2022 from Murkage Dave?

Oh man, I’m making some more videos, I wish I could make a video for every song on the album and just really apply myself creatively, I’m getting straight back in the studio, I’ve got two projects in my head that I just want to go and create, I’ve now got the option to go and do this so I’m just going to go and do it.

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‘The City Needs A Hero’ is out now.

Words: Ben Broyd

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