As he returns from a creative stasis with the cathartic “Can’t Go Back”, the polymath talks John Bell through the songs that soundtracked the formative moments of his youth.
A shapeshifting force of nature from a seemingly bottomless well of creativity, London-born Kojey Radical is the kind of artist who might ironically only be typified by his refusal to avoid such characterisation.
As a rapper - though even here such a term doesn’t entirely reflect his unique take on the form - a poet, visual artist, designer, entrepreneur and creative director, Radical’s work has been prolific, but despite some recent appearances on tracks from Ghetts, Shy FX, Collard and Etta Bond, it’s been two years since the 26-year-old dropped a sizeable project of his own.
It wasn’t in lieu of decent material he assures me, but more “about really knowing myself, and knowing what I wanted to speak about, or what I really wanted to represent with the next showing. For the most part, I kept going back to this idea of honesty and trying to give people a sense of my story in the best way that I feel safe sharing, but in a way that people can relate to.”
His recent single "Can't Go Back" is lyrically direct and galvanising, tinged with a sombreness that’s in the past, but still raw. “I lost friends, I lost pride, I lost money, I lost hope / All my bills on the table, I see pills on the floor”. The tone is progressive and uplifting, fuelled by the spirit of relief from having resurfaced from personal depths and darkness. “It was definitely about me feeling like I had escaped feelings of depression and the things it's associated with, trying to find my way out of it. I stopped going back to those feelings but it's been dope seeing how many people can connect with that as a subject matter.”
Ever the entrepreneur, creating and releasing work again has had a therapeutic effect on the artist and allowed him to look not just past personal darkness, but towards future ventures. “I haven't made things in ages and that's a big thing for me outside of music, just making things. So getting into different industries, I'm trying to get into the perfume game and kill that, as well as running the festivals and doing some film work. Just staying busy.”
Whilst he’s looking forward, Radical’s song choices hark back to his youth, back to moments of falling in love with sounds, with anime, with leather and even with Corinne Bailey Rae. His choices are, then, linked by marked lack of pretence, curated with an understanding of the importance that time and place holds in the power of a song.
"This song reminds me of going on my way to school, when I had my little phone that could hold about 30 songs and having my headphones plugged in. I tried to make sure that there was a mixture of songs, ones that you could walk to, feel to, drive to, smile to and dance to, that weren’t always so rooted on hip hop, because I grew up on hip hop.
“I loved Jamie T, because as much as it was indie and in that world, he could flow, he could rap and it wasn't corny. Sometimes I hear people rapping and I'm like “Yo! This shit sounds mad corny”, but he was just vibey with it, he just seemed like a lad I would see down Roman Road or whatever, just getting too sloshed on the weekend. It felt like home.
"I was at a stage of unknowing, I was trying to really decide what I was interested in and what my personal vibe was, because I always found myself hanging out with so many different crowds and being able to interact and gel with them, and I think it was just because I was trying to discover who I was.
“Likewise here, you can hear the indie influence, the ska, the trip hop influence and on top of all that it's just a funny song. It reminds me of The Streets, who have a humour to the way they write songs, that make them feel quite personal. I'm a stan for life of Jamie T, I'm just waiting until I'm famous enough to make a record with him."
"The instrumental comes on and then you just get lost and start thinking about everything like, “Yo, what is life? What is the meaning of the stars?”
“This was the song I had every epiphany to, every single epiphany in my life. It's like you're sitting on a typewriter and by the time you look down you're actually on a cloud, going 50 miles per hour in the middle of the sky, but you've still got the typewriter and you're like “Yo, how did I not feel this?” You're just going, do you know what I mean?
“The piano line is just heaven and it reminds me of my favourite anime. I watched a lot of anime at the time and I heard of Nujabes through an anime called Samurai Champloo. It very quickly became one of my favourite animes of all time, so it brings back good memories.
"Reflection Eternal’ has got all of the essentials, it's a beautiful song.”
“What drew Kojey to this track? The answer is simple. "Corinne Bailey Rae.” I had an almost insatiable crush on her when I was younger. Anything that woman touched, to me it was gold.
“I remember being in my living room one day, seeing this cartoon come on the TV and hearing the first eight bars of this song and going “What the hell is this?” Then I saw this cartoon, Afro'd man singing this smooth jazz song and then in waltzes my queen-to-be, Corinne Bailey Rae, to just smooth over the hook. I fell in love and I’ve loved this song ever since. Deep story.
"Without going too deep, she had a lot of personal things in her life that almost made her have to re-evaluate her relationship with music. I think her journey is probably one of the most honest in female singer/songwriters and I respect her very much. I don't feel like the universe is ready for us to share a room together yet, so it hasn't allowed it to happen, but it will!"
“I first heard this track on my first job. I worked in an art supply store and everyone got to bring in their own CDs. There was a guy I worked with who had this CD, where it was like “Every other song was a Cody Chesnut song”, and this song just made me start wearing leather the whole summer.
“I was about 15 and I was asking my mum for leather jackets. It got played out when they used it on the Lenore advert, but other than that it was wavy.
“In terms of songwriting and storytelling I just like it when people are smooth. He ain't saying too much, he just told you, “I look good in leather. I'm a walk around, I'm a do this, I'm a snatch this up, I'm a talk to whoever” Why? “Because I look... good ...in leather.”
“It's one of those wake up in the morning and feel yourself riddims, “I look good in motherfucking leather.” It's a groover. A lot of my favourite songs are Sunday music, where you wake up, you don't have a million things to do and pace the day and put music and groove to how you feel.”
“I would have been about 15 when I first heard this and it was just... everything about it. I go back to this idea of Kandinsky, who could hear colours and see paintings though sound and music, and Pharrell's music reminds me of that synesthesia.
"Every time I come back to a classic Pharrell record I can see every instrument like a painting. It's bright. It's looks exactly like what he was influenced by at the time, which would have been like all the Takashi Murakami stuff, the crazy big anime eyes and the almost Mickey Mouse creatures sliding about and just grooving and dancing.
“I always play back weird cartoons in my head of dance sequences, because back in the day with 2D animation they could only animate a certain amount of loops. In Batman Beyond they've got the best ones, with the club scenes where everyone's moving and dancing, and I just picture that every time I hear this song. It came on the other day, I think that's what reminded me of it, and I played it for the whole day.
“Everyone's gonna have a Pharrell that they love because he's been here for years and years, and it’s the same thing for Kanye. Everyone has a Kanye that they love, so in that regard I might not be in the middle of my fandom but I'm always going to love and respect their music because of what it's given me over the years. I like Pharrell's ability to just not care when he's making a record and do what sounds best for it, and I enjoy Kanye's vision outside of music; what he's willing to put in outside of the music to make people look at the music.”
"I was in college around this time and we were all obsessed with Odd Future. I wasn't a fan of Frank Ocean until I heard this song and then I was like “Yo, this guy is WAVEY, what are you talking about?!” I think that's around the time I got back into the idea that videos need to be next level, otherwise they don't need to exist. I took a visual influence from them, one hundred percent.
“With ‘She’ I think it's just the storytelling mixed with the analogue sounds. None of the instruments sound like they should go together, but they do.
“Tyler's not stopped, and anyone who doesn't stop and keeps on being themselves is always going to be an influence on me.”
“This was the first time I really blazed a whole proper zoot to myself, and I left this earth and fell in love with this song.
“I will always put this on my top ten songs of all time, because me hitting the joint and connecting with the music happened like photosynthesis, like it was meant to be. The song came on, I hit the thing. I was in Stratford about to go link a girl, who I think dissed me, ha ha. I remember standing at the bus stop, I took my zoot out as soon as the song came on and I hit it. I just wanted to stay in that moment forever and ever and ever, and I will always remember that. It's probably the deadest story, but it was an amazing feeling.
"I think it's the combination of everything in this track that does it for me. Kids want a modern version of everything their parents had, so it's reggae influence and the 'Still blazing' sample reminds me of old Bob Marley. You could see the old Rasta smoking up, but now I've got this song that I can rap to, chill to and skate to."
"I was in New York, on a rooftop with this director and filmmaker who's amazing, her name's Sabaah Folayan. She let me stay for a few days and was mad helpful in my first time in New York, and that song had just dropped.
“I remember going over the bridge to her crib and going on her rooftop - because we both agreed we weren't going to listen to it until we got back. We went onto the rooftop and played it. This song comes on and I'm staring at the skyline of New York, I just felt this real euphoria and a moment of peace.
“I've found that my attraction to music isn't what's in the song; yeah the chords sound nice or the drums are cool or whatever, but it’s really more about what moment that I had at the time to make me even remember the song and feel something. I feel like music and sound are the easiest way to trigger memories. Memories are kind of all we have when it's all said and done, and I feel that will always be a memory I will remember and cherish. But then, I could like a song one day and then the next day I'm like ‘Turn this racket off’ because I'm not in the mood for it, but if everything connects and you hear a song, that song will be your favourite forever and you can't explain why.
“He's a dope songwriter, and his ability to tell a story while singing is why he is who he is, and why he's risen to where he's risen.”
“Viktor's a friend of mine, and I don't think I've actually ever told him this, but he was probably one of the biggest influences on me getting into and starting music. I met him through a friend of mine called Jasper, and Viktor was always next level with what he was saying or what he was doing, the intention behind his writing and the ability in his vocal.
“I remember the first time I heard this song. He played it to us early, and I sang it to myself for months after that. When he finally put it out I listened to it so many times that I think I just had to get sick of it. It's his ability and sometimes things just come down to ability. He is the most able artist that I've ever come across when it comes to music, he makes it look so effortless.
“The scene was young back then, so there was no ego involved meeting anybody. You were still trying to suss out what's going on here, there and everywhere, but there was no ego. It was really more like, ‘Yo, you make suttin’? Yeah, I make suttin’ What you make? Ah, I make this kinda stuff, let’s play it to each other’ kind of vibe. I miss those moments and those years of music, because it was the most peaceful. I mean, people still cared about how well they were doing, but there was so much less ego that it was just fun.
“It's one of them ones where our journeys took off, so we haven't seen each other in a long time, but I hope it does go full circle and we manage to catch up, because he makes some of my favourite music of all time. I feel like the world is gonna have to know Viktor Taiwo in some way, shape or form.”