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In Conversation With: Degs

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Usually, in the darkest of times, we find beacons of light that fill our lives with the positivity and inspiration needed to help pull us through whatever issues we may be facing and propel ourselves into a brighter future. The release of Degs’ debut album ‘Letters From Ndegwa’ is one of those beacons.

Representing his own journey in music that has been far from easy, ‘Letters From Ndegwa’ is Degs’ most personal body of music to date. Exploring the experiences and memories contributing to his journey since signing for Hospital Records in 2018 – from struggles with mental health to the role of relationships – Degs has produced an album wholly representing himself as a person.

From his proud Kenyan heritage and R’n’B roots, to the soulful liquid drum and bass that has become his signature sound, the album demonstrates Degs’ vast musical range – one pushing him to create an ambitious project featuring his own rapping, singing, songwriting, producing and instrumentation.

Following on from a successful string of releases including his ‘Mixtape Sprayout’ and debut single ‘Poveglia’, ‘Letters From Ndegwa’ represents the next instalment in a journey that is only just beginning for the artist.

Data Transmission caught up with Degs during his self-isolation to talk about the release of his debut album and the journey he has been on. Listen to Degs ‘Letters From Ndegwa’ Virtual Album Launch Party podcast below while you read the interview!

The last time we spoke you were still beaming from the release of your ‘Mixtape Sprayout’. Now we are chatting about your debut album…

The last year and a half has been surreal. Looking at the journey from the mixtape to the album, they are two very different projects. The mixtape was me in my rawest form displaying words and thoughts, whereas the album is more of a measured approach to creating a body of music that is not only representative of me, but also draws on styles and influences from other artists when I was growing up.

It’s a shame the album release had to come in the midst of the strange time we’re living in…

It’s weird! Looking at it in a positive way, everyone is glued to their phones and everyone is at home. When Hospital suggested doing the album launch podcast as a replacement for the original launch, which was at the clothing store NICCE, I wasn’t 100% sure we should do the stream. But we did it and it got a really good reaction. It helped that there were a lot of people with not a lot else to do haha!

At least it gives everyone time to listen to it through and appreciate it in its entirety!

Exactly. You’ll never beat the impact of performing a track live to people who haven’t heard it before, but releasing the album under these conditions is definitely a lot more personal. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who seem to be resonating with the messages and picking them apart more than usual. This situation will alter the way people listen to music.

Absolutely. Did it feel strange hosting a virtual launch party in your living room?

Yeah, it was really weird. I pre-recorded the launch and hung out in the comments during it. I planned so many things leading up to the album, but because of this situation, we had to change plans. It was good fun though, and I was shocked at the reactions in the comments.

It must have been nice having friends such as De:tune and Citrusfly there supporting you also.

Yeah and it was good to play their music as well! With them being active in the comments it had that homecoming vibe about it. When I played both theirs and Levela’s tunes things were going off in the comments! It was brilliant seeing all of the reactions.

The talk of you growing your afro was also causing reactions in the comments…

It’s not by choice haha! Originally I was going to get a trim before the album launch, but then restrictions came in place from the government, so I’ve decided I’m going to grow it until this all blows over.

You’re going to look like how you did back in the old days!

Exactly! Maybe with a few more grey hairs… I’ll be giving off that Morgan Freeman vibe haha. I haven’t got enough wisdom to fill those boots yet, but I’m working on it.

Despite probably giving you a few grey hairs in itself, you must be really proud of the album you’ve created.

At the moment the overriding feeling is relief. I’m grateful to Hospital Records for giving me the opportunity to make something that has made me push myself in areas I’m not usually known for – such as producing, DJing and instrumentation. A lot of people didn’t know I could play instruments, so it was good to show them that. You only get one debut album, so I needed to make a project that represented me as a person. I tried to listen to it today funnily enough…

You haven’t listened to it yet?

No because I just cringe at myself man! I don’t know what’s wrong with me haha. I hope people resonate with the record and can see the graft that we as a team put into it, because Hospital constantly pushed me to not make something that is safe. They gave me the confidence to improve my skills. I’m looking forward to creating a second album now because of the things I’ve learnt on this journey.

It’s good they’re pushing you like that! So what is Ndegwa… Is it the land of Degs?

Haha, I wish! That sounds pretty cool… Let’s just say Ndegwa is basically the roots of Degs. It’s pronounced with a silent N and stems from me being half English, half Kenyan. Ndegwa is my Kikuyu Kenyan name. It’s also my middle name and is where the name Degs comes from.

Awesome! So in terms of the whole album, is it representative of your journey with Hospital?

Yeah, but not necessarily the entire journey itself. It’s more representative of the things that happened within that time period and where I’ve managed to get myself to now. There are a lot of stories in there stemming from the Hospital Records timeline, so it’s definitely a record that is in a sense representative of the more emotional and mental responses to how the situation has unfolded.

The last two years must feel like a bit of a whirlwind. When we last spoke you mentioned your jump up days and how back then you had the ambition to build your own liquid project. Now that dream has come true!

It’s crazy. Back then I wasn’t really a musician in that respect. I was travelling to different cities playing room twos and threes, getting warm cans of red stripe if I was lucky. So fast forward to now and it makes me feel grateful to have done all of that because I’ve built a more personal career for myself.

Tell me more about the album concept. What experiences and memories were you trying to get across?

On the album there are elements of my Kenyan heritage, particularly the last track ‘Pamoja Forever’, which is definitely content around unity. There are also parts trying to explain family and relationships in many respects and mental health, whether it’s positive or negative. Particularly with tracks like ‘Head Trip’ and ‘Driving Under Lights’, which convey situations where I wasn’t in a great place, but wanted to talk about what happened in a vague enough way so that other people could resonate with it. It’s definitely the most personal project I’ve ever done.

Did the album involve a lot of self-reflection on your part then?

Yeah absolutely because I was involved in so many other elements of the project. The longer you’re in life the more experiences you will find, and the more situations will happen that inspire you to write about stuff. When I write lyrics I don’t tend to plan much. All of my lyrics are brain farts… I don’t even know what happens. I just tidy it up a little bit and there we go!

I get the impression ‘Head Trip’ reflects on a particularly personal experience.

‘Head Trip’ was written around quite a strange period of my life in regards to mental health, as I wasn’t quite feeling myself. The track talks about this temporary head trip of a weird experience I was going through, but one I decided to be proactive about and rationalise in my head by using confidence as a tool to get past that situation to the one I am in now. It was a personal tune. The last lyric is ‘you’re the only master of your brain’, trying to explain to people that it is possible to regain control of negative connotations in your world.

That’s so interesting! With this album, it feels like you’ve had the opportunity to really explore your own range – from the feel-good of ‘Levitate Your Mind’ to the downtempo of ‘4 Days’.

It has been fun! ‘4 Days’ in particular is a track focusing on the R’n’B and soul elements of the music I listened to when I was growing up. It’s nice to have a track like that on the album which isn’t D&B. It’s very imperial and soulful. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a track that absolutely represents me – particularly the influences that it draws from.

What was it like being able to work with artists such as LSB and S.P.Y on the album?

It’s crazy. Luke LSB was one of the first people to hit me up when I was initially putting up sprayout videos in 2017. He sent me some instrumentals to work on, one of which ended up becoming ‘Trade Places’. That track was the first one written for the album. It was also amazing working with Carlos S.P.Y as well. When I heard he wanted to produce something for the album I literally jumped at the chance. It’s a really proud moment to have LSB, S.P.Y, Logistics and everyone else involved on the album.

When I first heard your track with S.P.Y, I was not expecting it to be as beautifully delicate as it is… It took me by surprise!

Carlos has got so many tools in his locker man! I think he produces too much good music for Hospital to put out… You’ve probably got to slow him down rather than speed him up. He did an amazing job with ‘She’.

I imagine featuring your brother on the album was just as special.

Yeah absolutely because just before I signed with Hospital we released our baby album Asprilla through our project Kikuyu Soul. So much has happened musically to both of us since then, so to be able to come back full circle on the project is incredible. What he produced sits perfectly where it is on the album. He’s definitely going to be a big part of my music going forward.

Carrying on the family theme, earlier you mentioned ‘Pamoja Forever’ being inspired by your family heritage?

Absolutely. My mum’s Kikuyu tribe are one of solidarity and Pamoja is a word in Swahili that means together. It is particularly relevant now because the world we live in is very divided in 2020 and strangely the viral outbreak might bring us closer together… Music is a weird one. At the time I wrote it I was in a great mood and wanted to write a song encapsulating that. I think it leaves the album on a positive note, which is one of the main things I wanted from the album – to leave a positive influence on people’s lives.

It’s also fitting because most people’s journeys in life come back to their mums…

It’s cliché me saying it, but my mum is my biggest fan. She really has supported me the last few years in particular when I’ve been jobless trying to make this happen. It’s definitely good to touch on her heritage and my family as a whole. I’m very proud of both my English and my Kenyan roots.

One thing I thought I would have seen on the album is a collab with London Elektricity. Was that ever on the cards?

Funnily enough, there was a tune that myself and the top dog did together, but he didn’t like it, so he took the instrumental and put someone else’s vocals over it… haha!

Savage…

Bro I am going to get him back for that. Tony if you’re reading this, trust me, I’m coming for you…

Haha! Despite not working together on the album, I imagine he has still inspired you a lot.

Absolutely. Tony Coleman embodies Hospital Records. Obviously we’ve worked together on the mixtape, but we’ve also done countless live sets together. I miss that energy so much. Liquicity Winter Festival was one of the last times we played together. It’s weird to think that was one of the very last shows I played! I wish I appreciated that set a little more.

Are you missing the jazz hands?

I’m definitely missing the jazz hands! I had to get them out on the live stream. I hope I did him proud because they are such an important part of the Hospital Podcast. It was a celebration, so we were celebrating everything including Tony’s jazz hands.

Are we going to see more of DJ Degs in the future?

You never know… He comes out once in a blue moon and has a bit of fun. That stream was the first time I’ve ever been a DJ and a presenter of a show at the same time.

First you need to actually listen to your album…

Like I say, I tried to go through the album but I can’t put up with my voice right now. It’s all too emotional. I need more wubs. That’s what’s coming in album two, more wubs.

Funnily enough I was speaking to a friend about your album and he said he was hoping for more wubs…

Haha! Tell him there are always wubs on the table. Hopefully people will have seen the stream and the music I like to play – including jungle, wubs and liquid. I’m very new to this game and there are so many different sounds I can start doing more. Production-wise I know how to make a half decent wub… You might hear a few wubs in my next productions, you never know.

The world needs more wubs!

If the world needs more wubs then let Degs provide. Enough of emotional Degs, for the rest of 2020 I am going to make wubs. They will be called Degs’ wubbos!

Many thanks to Degs for his time and for being so open and transparent with his answers. Also, thanks to Hospital Records for pushing Degs to create this wonderful debut album!

Degs ‘Letters From Ndegwa’ is available now to stream below and you can buy it from here

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