Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Kayo Chingonyi
Nine Songs
Kayo Chingonyi

Grime’s biggest albums are demystified on Spotify’s Decode podcast by the poet, professor, and polymath Kayo Chingonyi. Now, he’s turning the lampshade onto his own life as he talks Alex Rigotti through the songs that defined him.

22 July 2022, 08:00 | Words by Alex Rigotti

The last time I saw Kayo Chingonyi, he insisted we follow one rule, as he led a group feedback session on our creative writing poetry module: phrase any criticism as a question.

Almost a year later, I’m the one directing questions to Chingonyi as he journeys through his Nine Songs selections. Listening to him today is actually more reminiscent of Decode, the British sister of Spotify’s Dissect podcast series. There, Chingonyi immortalises the legacy of UK rap, its recent episodes dedicated to a track-by-track analysis of Skepta’s Konnichiwa.

It’s like a documentary, listening party, and poetry reading rolled into one. Legendary tales of clashes between MCs are reinforced with audio clips of those very nights. Bars are enunciated carefully and repeatedly by Chingonyi, uncovering new interpretations each time. You’d think Chingonyi would get sick of listening to these songs over and over again, but hosting the podcast has had the opposite effect, he tells me. “What it actually does is it reinscribes my enjoyment of particular songs that I already loved lyrically.”

Chingonyi’s Nine Songs present a startlingly clear vision of his long history with music, and by extension, his personality. He gestures to his relationship with music in Decode, and frequently draws on his life in his own works, cloaked in language that straddles the worlds of music and poetry. Curation comes naturally to Chingonyi, he recently published More Fiya, an anthology of Black British poetry, which he liked to “making a mixtape.” He’s also completing a memoir about travelling back to his hometown in Zambia. But each song here is its own fogged window, which Chingonyi wipes clean for us in his distinctively meditative cadence. One can virtually see the handprints in his responses.

Chingonyi’s expertise in and life experiences with music is incredibly vast. As a result, he struggled to whittle his final choices down. “If the theme is anything, then it’s that a tune represents one avenue of my musical interest,” he tells me. Indeed, the conversation skitters past numerous other artists: DMX. DJ Shadow. P. K. Chishala.

Yet the songs on this list stand firm: each were chosen because of their perennial nature. “I was thinking about tunes that I’d still be listening to after a long time, and in some cases that I’ve been listening to after a long time. I ended up with a list where I couldn’t imagine removing anything, and I felt that was a good place to start.”

Chingonyi provides articulate, expansive answers for the questions I ask. But after an hour of intense conversation, the last response he gives is surprisingly neat and concise when I ask, ‘What do these Nine Songs say about you as a person?’ “I like groove-driven music. I’m sentimental, nostalgic. I dance. And it could never have been just a list from one genre. I guess that’s the defining thing. I’m a hybrid person.”

“Stuck In the System” by Joker

CHINGONYI:“The moment of hearing this for the first time is so codified in my memory. I was in a record shop and it was being played over the sound system. I guess the reason they do that is to make you buy whatever the tune is if you like it, and it really caught me.

“I think sometimes when you like a tune, after a while it wears off, but that particular song doesn't, because of the unexpected way it came into my life. For me, that's the magic of listening to music and finding music is those serendipitous moments, where if you’d gone into that record shop 10 minutes later, they’d have been playing something else.”

BEST FIT: Your main trade is words – this is an instrumental. What do you take from this music when there's no words for you to dissect?

“This particular track is very orchestral. With Joker's production style, there's a lot of design in it. Something is being said, but I think there's a range of interpretations as to what that is. That's really meaningful to me, especially as a poet, because you tend not to be insistent upon a particular meaning. It may be whatever you were meaning to say, but there's also a network of other things.

“I think that's why poetry is a musical form: you're trying to employ language at a referential level to say something. But there's always the sonic level in which it acts on somebody's imagination and body in the same way that music does. I'm really moved by instrumental music for that reason because there's no… I wouldn't say distraction of words, but there's no guidance. You just have to be in it and find what resonances you can.”

What resonances or interpretations did you take from that music that made it meaningful to you?

“I think the resonance that built up around it, it's to do with the musical culture I've been growing up with in my late teens especially. I was at university at the time, grime and dubstep were having their first run of popularity. We would go out dancing to dubstep and I'd grown up around my cousin being in grime crews, making radio sets and that kind of stuff. So it felt very connected to a musical culture I recognised.

“The other thing was that it was the meeting of grime with dubstep, which wasn't really happening very much. In that early phase, things were less codified and we’d hear grime tunes at a dubstep rave and vice versa. There was no real separation in the music and some people thought of it as the same genre.

“Joker really ran with that hybrid form between the two, so it was kind of a take on the contemporary sound of that moment, which also made sense with my own musical upbringing and heritage. I did like dub and reggae, but that side of dubstep didn't immediately catch my imagination until later. And it was much more the grime-inflected, garage-inflected side that moved me.”

“Death Moves” by Reservoir Dogs

“I first would have heard the tune on pirate radio in ’99, or 2000. And the overwhelming resonance of the song is that it came out around the time my mum died, and that's when I really got into garage as a passion, because of the euphoria you can feel listening to the music.

“It's so visceral. If basslines appeal to you, then it's visceral. But then I think it's also the way that, for example, snare drums and kick drums are EQ’d in a garage tune. There's a very particular frequency range that's used, which really appeals to me. I studied drums in school – not to any proficiency, but the drum sounds that really appeal to me are those crunchy ones that are layered with a wood block, or something hard and percussive.

“This particular song, I feel like it connects to the Joker track because the bass line is so pervasive. It's incredibly deep, guttural… dirty, for want of a better word. I'm connected to the earth when I listen to these kinds of basslines, even though they're made by machines, there's something that moves me about them.

"And that's the thing I love about garage: its human music made in collaboration with machinery and when that balance is struck right, there's a statement that a track can make about what it is to be human and experience groove and what it is that makes you dance to something. If it's too robotic, then you probably don't want to dance to it, but if there's a balance, if there's some flaws, there's some texture, often you do.”

“Missing (Todd Terry Mix)” by Everything But The Girl

“I would have been between five and eight when I heard it for the first time. I think the thing that appeals to me is the longing. A pop song with a genuine connection to emotion is really difficult to write, and I think they struck the balance really well. There’s something bluesy, or jazzy about Tracey Thorn's voice, so it sounds classic in some ways. Even though “Missing” was really popular, there's this eternal resonance in the voice.

“The ways that I'm connected to soul music is through that feeling of longing. In R&B, that longing is reflected through a romantic lens. In the blues, the longing is for another life or a better life. Sometimes, the longing is just a musical, incomplete feeling which is searching for something, but you don't know what it is. So I love the longing in the song. And that's what really moved me.

“I didn't, in fact, like house very much when I first heard the song, and still the groove got into my body. I think part of that is that mixture between the repetitive 4/4 of the kick drum. Todd Terry’s drum programming is wild and very intricate, but I think that mixture between repetition and something vulnerable and wounded is always going to appeal to me. If it sounds too polished, I'm unlikely to resonate with it.”

“MPB (Paradise Ballroom Mix)” by Womack & Womack

“I was listening to a recording from a club night that Floating Points used to run, called You’re A Melody. I never went down to one of the nights, but the music they played was music that would always move me.

“There was this tune just nestling in the midst of everything else. And I was like, ‘Wow, what is this?’ I had to keep rewinding the mix and it just got into my head, I was singing it all the time. There were loads of tunes in that mix that I loved, but this one, because of that different groove, got under my skin.

“There’s forcing someone to dance with something more obvious, and then there's beguiling someone into moving through something more gradual. Each element is introduced really gradually, it's a masterclass in production. The vocal is so pure, and there's so much emotion in it. It's repetitive, but it doesn't feel that way – and especially if in the context of a DJ set, it's played exactly the right moment, it never feels stale. It always feels fresh.

“He recycled the bass on his remix to “Ain't Nobody” by Chaka Khan & Rufus. I’m moved by the audacity of making two bangers with the same notes! Like, I can't get over how you could play those two tracks next to each other and people would feel something. It's a wonderful track.”

“Home With You” by Marie Dahlstrøm

“I heard it first in lockdown when it came out. It wasn't even properly released at first; there was a video with no moving image. When a track grabs you in that context, then you know there's something deeper.

“It's just a very sweet and intimate track. The idea of home became enormously complicated by the global pandemic. It's a song that makes me feel warmth and tenderness and a sense of intimacy.

“I love rap, and I love hard and sometimes aggressive music. But equally, I’m moved by tenderness, and I'm struck by how many of the emcees I grew up listening to listened to enormously tender music. DMX used to love Alicia Myers; there's like a gospel disco tune called “Thank You”, and there's a video of DMX getting his head shaved and singing it. I'm really struck by how this kind of tenderness can connect with anybody. That's what I really love about the track: you could play it to anybody, and I'd wager they'd feel something.

“I like how builds on the bodies of work of someone like Erykah Badu, for example, or even D'Angelo. Mixing different styles, I think, has been an important throughline in recent R&B and soul as well. I love that the percussion knocks at the same time as this tenderness - that's a good balance to strike for me.

“And I absolutely love when people use vocoder on a track! Especially when they use it as effectively as they do here. It can go terribly wrong, but I think they struck the balance really well.”

“A Love Supreme Pt. 2, Resolution” by John Coltrane

“I had Giant Steps long before I listened to A Love Supreme. But sometimes, when there's hype around something I don't listen to it immediately after I hear that hype. I had Giant Steps and I was like, ‘It's about Giant Steps for me’ – I was a jazz snob at 15! But then I used to go to this record shop near where I lived where the guy behind the counter was this really friendly, open guy. I think one time I went, A Love Supreme was on sale, and I bit the bullet and was like, ‘OK, it’s time.’

“When I was studying for my A Levels, I listened to a lot of instrumental music: Goldie’s Timeless, and Endtroducing by DJ Shadow. A Love Supreme is one of the things that got me through my A-Levels, it was that connection with the music. That rhythm of thought was really helpful to keep some part of my mind engaged, because I'm neurodiverse. I have ADHD and I didn't know that then, but it kind of makes sense that I would listen to something like A Love Supreme whilst studying and feel at peace.

“Part of what keeps me listening to it is that I can’t decode or detangle the music at all. It resists interpretation. Interpretation is a really powerful thing, and it gets you deeper into what a song or an album does. But when the album or the music resists that, then there's something that you can find in it every time you listen. That's why I keep listening, because I feel like I will never reach the end of what the album has to give me.

“I really love when you can feel a band communicating with each other, especially when they don't use words, when it’s just instrumentation. There's something really special, and maybe something arcane or primordial? Because there would have been a moment in which some proto-human figure decided to make a sound using an instrument of some kind. Did someone else join in? Like, what will happen next in order to get us to this place where people play such a wide range of instruments?

“To me, thinking about that is magical, and a recording like this is the height of that in terms of how people can play together and be in a group, but also express individual flair.”

“Everything I Own” by Ken Boothe

“One of my friends at university loved this tune and played it for me. When she played it, I recognised the notation, and when I heard it, I was like, ‘Damn – this is how this tune was supposed to sound.’

“I have a theory that there's a reggae version of every song. This is a version of a song by Bread, which is an Americana soft rock group, which my dad really loved. I much prefer Ken Boothe’s version because of the yearning in his vocals. I love both versions and I like to move between them. I really like the possibility of listening to different voicings of a song, because I think sometimes you need the ideas and sometimes you need the feeling.

Ken Boothe has a really distinct inflection – what do you make of it?

“I really love that he made versions of American tracks, because he brings them into his orbit or his musical language. I love the little inflections and flourishes and runs that he adds. He's one of my very favourite vocalists in that genre. There were loads to choose from, but I really love what he does because it makes me sway.

“The Bread original, as a song in terms of composition it’s great – the ingredients are all there. But I think in terms of expression, there's a particular aesthetic they were going for which feels a bit more restrained. Whereas with Ken Boothe, you really feel like he would give everything he owns, you know? In the Bread version, it's an idea, a line. In Ken Boothe, it's like, ‘This is how I feel.

"That's the difference: there's an addition of an embodied or visceral emotion – which isn't to say it's not there in the original, but in the original it’s there at the level of ideas. In Ken Boothe, it's there at the level of sound.”

“Hard Work” by Children of Zeus

“Children of Zeus are a soul band, a rap band, they do R&B, they also do this kind of lovers rock style of reggae. To me, they're a quintessential Black British band because they do everything. So when I listen to “Hard Work”, I'm hearing Massive Attack, Loose Ends, Imagination; I'm hearing a breadth of musical culture from this place that’s like home to me now, in which I've grown and developed my taste in music. So it means a lot to me.

“The album that it's on is called Travel Light, and I love the whole album. There are moments in the album that I like out and out: stand-out moments where you would dance and lose yourself. But the way that they've codified sound system culture into this one track is really powerful.

“I've seen them perform three times and if they don't perform this song, people are feeling a way about it. And when they do perform this song, all of the different people who come into a room to see Children of Zeus are in unity for a moment.”

“Kambowa” by Shalawambe

“Something that people might not know about Zambia is it had a really thriving musical scene, especially in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Part of that is because Kenneth Kaunda, the President of the First Republic, was a musician. He really invested in musicians. And so there was a number of musicians operating under the banner of a genre called Zamrock, which is basically local Zambian music mixed with psychedelic rock and funk. It sounds as tremendous as you'd imagine from that description.

“Shalawambe are from a later period in the eighties. They're not so much Zamrock as like a different take on how local Zambian music can be mixed with a global sound. What I love about the track is there's the feeling of Makossa or Soukous from West Africa in the guitar playing. But there's also a particularly Congolese style, I would say, in the guitar.

“They’re a band from the Luvale tribe, which is north-western Zambia, bordering Angola. Many people in the Valley tribe come from Angola or they have roots in Congo as well. Things like how you play guitar travels. It’s a quintessential Luvale track: if I play that track to a Luvale person, a sense of kinship is immediately heightened. It's a classic to people of that tribe.

“It means a lot to me because I'm half Luvale; my dad is from the Luvale tribe. As a consequence of that, strictly speaking, I’m Luvale. My mum was Bemba, so in my mind I’m both, because I'm guided by a different political context and not just a paternal one – but hey. That Luvale side is important and I feel the richness of that heritage of its music and culture when I listen to this track.

“The thing that I absolutely love is that people don't know what language it is, but I've played this at parties and they dance. They're like, ‘What is this? What are they saying?’ I don't care. I think that's the thing about music that can transmit feeling through sound, because when you don't understand the language, it becomes sound again. There's something pure about that. So that's also something I love. I'm not a Luvale speaker, so it's not intelligible to me at the level of language, and maybe that makes it an even deeper connection I have with the song.

You mentioned that you tried to pick one song or two songs from each genre that's important to you. Do you listen to a lot of Zambian music? Why this particular song out of everything?

“I listen to quite a lot of Zambian music, and I might have picked something by P.K. Chishala from his Church Elder album, but I chose this particular tune just because of that pride I feel when people hear it and are moved by the sound.

“There's something that Elijah [of Butterz] said recently: if you listen to music only in English – I’m paraphrasing – you're missing out on such a richness of culture. I think that's true. Listening to this track and playing it for other people is part of my trying to get people to listen to a broader range of music across a global span. And listening to this track is something that reminds me not only to tap into Luvale music, but also to, I don't know, listen to Thai music, or music from Nicaragua, and be open. Be open.”

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