Rap that sears its way forcibly through a blues band while at the same time overwhelms you to close your eyes and sway, is a winning combination when executed properly.
Winchester rapper and songwriter Lucan Mills, whose debut EP Level 1 awaits its official iTunes release – 10 years on from gracing stages as a support act for Tinie Tempah and G Unit – marks the beginning of a new chapter for the 26-year-old.
To keep the music in its rawest form, Lucan has composed his own sound – an uptempo fusion of hip hop, jazz and funk – weaved together with realism and lyrics that puncture each note played by his seven-piece band. More than two years in the making ‘without them the live shows wouldn’t be what they are,’ Lucan admitted, and they go by the names: Graham Henderson (Bass); Alex Villar (Guitar); Louis Yalaz (Drums); Jen Watson (Saxophone); Kit Marsden/ Herty Hill/ Jacob Stoney (Keys); and James Tashario (Vocals).
In the lead up to national tour dates, the first being tomorrow at MK Dons Stadium, myself and Lucan had a lot to talk about – like how he learnt to rap so quick, the ‘weird’ music industry, and why he’ll be forever grateful to the likes of David Bowie and Jay Z.
Now you’re from Winchester but my geography is poor, so I can see that it’s kind of close to London. Was music a bit part of the scene growing up there?
Well Craig David was Southampton based and it was very much the garage and hip hop scene down there growing up. He would emcee in a club called Rhino, which I did too a few years after, so there was definitely a buzz around it and everybody listened to the music – but don’t get me wrong, I was probably the only one rapping in my school at the time so that was different.
You must have definitely stood out then.
That’s a good way to put it! Especially back then it wasn’t as widely accepted as it is now so I definitely got ‘but you’re white’ all the time and people would take the mick, but I’m still doing it now so that faded off over the years.
What was your response to that ignorance?
Back then I used to just laugh it off. I loved doing it so much and knew that I could do it, that I just ignored it and got on with it. But when I got to college and was making more tracks, people understood that this is what I wanted to do and accepted it.
Listening to your voice now, you don’t sound like how you rap – you rap quite hard which reminds me of grime. Did you take influences from grime when you were crafting your sound initially?
100 percent. I’m a massive Kano fan and when I was growing up, he was just lyrically brilliant and in the US – Jay Z and Eminem were the biggest influences for me. I would study their tracks, not just their lyrics but it was more about flow, and I was also listening to a lot of UK grime. I can switch between all of them, it just depends what beat I’m listening to, but at the same time I’m very careful because people will say I’m not a grime artist. There’s a fine line between what’s going to be credible and believable.
I understand that. You mentioned Kano and Jay Z – were they the rappers that you would imitate when you were developing your rap skills and speed?
Definitely, some of the early tracks I learnt like So Ghetto, a really old track off one of Jay Z’s first albums and Imaginary Player, all those songs about flow and lyrics, and the way he would change tempo was similar to Eminem and Kano in P’s and Q’s. It was all about tempo for me at the same time as being lyrically impressive and thinking quick on my feet. David Bowie was also a big influence for me, I went to a show of his just before he’d finished touring. I’d listened to Bowie all my life because my dad was a huge fan and I took a lot in from watching how he’d perform and his stage presence.
You probably get told often that your music is distinctive but there’s obviously been some conscious decisions you’ve made to achieve that sound.
It was difficult because when I first started making music I would rap over mixtape beats and other people’s stuff but with my own music, I was always very conscious that I wanted to have a live band. So once I’d made that decision it was a case of bringing together really good musicians who wanted to be part of it. I spent a long time crafting the sound – adding saxophone, having keys and synths – and trying to incorporate everything together to give it a live jazz feel that’s funky and different, at the same time as keeping the hip hop element strong. I’m still working on it – it’s constantly evolving but it took a while to get the sound that we have now.
It’s mad, when I first got them together I had my songs, we’d go into a room and go through them all but it’s different with a production track. You’ve got the band that play it but then I very much wanted their input into the music as well, so the tracks completely changed from the production version that we had into the live version. What you hear on the EP now is not what they originally were and with all these creative people as you say, they all had a different flavour that they wanted to bring to the table. Those songs evolved over a year or so before I actually went in and re-recorded the EP from scratch live. It’s a real collaboration of ideas but I want to take it even further because there’s so much that we can do to merge the live and electronic sound together and make something huge.
One of the songs I really like on the EP is Stay Lucky. Although it’s not the lead single, it’s very pretty and heartfelt – where was your head at when you wrote and recorded it?
That song I wrote originally as a poem, it was never a song. I can’t even remember what inspired the rhythm or what beat I was listening to, it was just a block of writing, but I loved the words so much that when I first started performing live with just me and a guy on piano, I got him to play this nice riff and I would rap the lyrics, almost like spoken word. I carried on doing that for a year maybe more and it just evolved. It wasn’t until a few months before I did the EP that I decided I wanted it to be a proper song and literally within a few seconds I came up with the Stay Lucky chorus, which stemmed from a story with my granddad and this ring he gave me with a horseshoe on it. The chorus isn’t complicated but it really fitted the tone of my singer’s voice. It’s one of James’ favourite songs to sing, who is my vocalist when we perform live, but on the EP it’s Wadé singing.
You’ve been gigging over summer and on the 31st October you’re playing at the MK Stadium so @menmademusic asked on Twitter if you’re an MK Dons FC supporter?
I’ve actually got a season ticket for MK Dons because my dad used to live in Milton Keynes and when they got promoted to the championships it was a really good deal. I haven’t had a chance to go to many games recently because I’ve been away, which is annoying, but I’ll be at the home game with the band. It’s a good atmosphere when I’ve been so to be asked to perform there is really cool and random because I don’t know how they knew I was even a musician – but it should be a good day.
Tell me about Ed Sheeran – you performed on stage with him and I know it was a lucky coincidence.
I was at a night in Clapham a couple of years ago and Jamal Edwards from SBTV came in and had bought Ed along. A mate of mine was running the night at the time and I happened to be sat chatting to him [Ed] about it. He went on stage to perform You Need Me and then he said, ‘I want to call some rappers up I was chatting to earlier’ and I had to take the opportunity when it was there, so I jumped up on stage and made it up as I went along. I’ve got the video forever so hopefully if I meet him again, I’ll show it to him.
Most artists have a bigger vision and motivation for why they’re an artist, what would you say that yours is?
I just know it’s what I’ve always wanted to do from the minute I can remember – the pictures of me putting headphones on, strumming away on a tennis racket watching Bowie on the TV when I was about four. My vision has always been to be respected for doing what I love and if another rapper turns around and says, ‘You know what? You’re a brilliant rapper’ – that’s my dream. When you see artists like Ed Sheeran sell out Wembley and the crowd are chanting the songs – just pure respect for your talent – that would be special. It’s not about the money. I know people say that all the time, it’s a boring cliche, but money can only go so far. If I could have a massive crowd of people all singing my songs and actually the songs do something for them, that would be everything to me.
And what stadium would you love to sell out?
Oh, Hollywood Bowl, Wembley, Coachella, Glastonbury – but for now Brixton Academy would be awesome.
For tickets to see Lucan Mills headline at Bloomsbury Lanes, London for their Hot Vox music launch night click here.