Everything Must Flow
It’s been four and half years since Yungen aka CJ Brookes put out project Black and Red. While a long-awaited debut album is still in the making, the rap artist felt it overdue for him to put out fresh material: “I thought, you know what,” he says from a sofa in Sony’s swanky West London studio. “While I still have people's ear, I want to put out a project to let them know 'yo, this is what a body of work of Yungen sounds like.’”
Cue Project Purple, a new record which is for Brookes something of statement of purpose, an indication of direction and marker of how he has evolved as an artist in the time since his last release: “Basically I knew that a lot of people were going were expecting my next move to be an album because I hadn't put out a project in four and a half years,” the South Londoner explains. “I wanted to put out a project to let people know what to expect from me.”
Since uploading his first video onto YouTube in 2010, a cover of Adele’s "Hometown Glory", he’s gone onto to release diverse singles, projects and collabs. He worries people don’t have a coherent picture of what kind of artist he is: “I've done loads of different kinds of tracks, worked with loads of different kinds of people and I think a lot of people may have been confused about what Yungen they would get on an album,” Brookes says. “A lot of people used to stop me in the street and be like, 'go back to the hard stuff man, we prefer you when you rap hard’ and some people would be, 'I love the record with Jess Glynne,' so I get like a bit of both. But I'm very much a rapper. That was my main thing on this project, to let people know I'm really just a rapper.”
He explains the roots of his music are derived from his humble beginnings growing up on a Herne Hill council estate. A first foray into the possibility of creating music came from listening to his cousin MC: “I used to think he was famous. But really he was just really known in my area. But I used to look up to him and was like, ‘this is this is sick, I wanna MC.’ And that's when I started.” He recalls the low-fi approach he fashioned for self-recording: ”I used to have like a little black tape recorder. I would just put the tape in and put the tissue on the tape so I could tape over myself. And it had a little mic and I'd press record and I'd rap into that. And that's how I started recording myself.”
One thing led to another and he found himself in a Brixton recording studio: “The first few times I think I just went and watched. I was so nervous to record. Then I remember my first song, Hometown. My friends said ‘we've got to do a video.’ And I was like, ‘no way, I'm not doing a video.’ I always hated cameras, I never used to take pictures. So the only way I was going to a video is if everyone from my area could be in it. And literally, I had everyone out on a hot summers day to make the video. And the rest is history. That's now on 999,000 views. When it gets to a million views I'm going to celebrate that one definitely.”
As for that name: “I was the youngest of my batch that I used to hang around with, people used to say, ‘ah you're the young 'un’.” While he protested to his nickname, especially around girls, when he went to the studio to record they asked his rap name, his friends said: Young'un! “I was like,’ it's not my name!’ But it was too late. That's how I started. Though now I’m getting old, I may have to change it…”
His background has played a key role in his success as an artist, with events in his past providing the drive and ambition to become a musician and making him the man he is today. “It was hard for me but I think that made me who I was. Even though I went through some really hard times, I wouldn't go back and change. I think I gained so much more from it than I lost from it.” He sees that the community created living on an estate was something actually very powerful, in spite of the deprivation many suffer. “You've got a bigger family, literally, like your friends are your family. We are all family. It's just a massive for me. In the end it's love.”
A number of incidents in particular had a profound impact on Brookes: a friend of his was killed at 15 on a moped after being chased by police, an event that shook him and his group of mates to the core: “When my friend died on the moped, we were all 15, we all had mopeds. It could have been any single one of us,” he recalls. “I was there on the scene about two minutes after and I had to watch my friend dying on the floor. That changed my life completely. I didn't ride my moped ever again after that. And it wasn't because I was scared. It just took one of us to lose our lives realise like, ‘oh, that's not cool, why we doing that?’ Everyone went down different paths after that, different lanes. Gladly, I found music.”
The trauma Brookes suffered through this event is something that permeates his music - as on the lyrics of Hometown “I sat there and held his hand while he lay there dead” - as well as his approach to life. So much so, even his fans know the anniversary as well as him: “I've never missed the day he died ever. I would always go back to the same spot. 2017 I was on tour and I was going to miss it. I went to mention it to the crowd but everyone already knew it was the date. And I was like: this is special. People have been following my journey. They know how important this day is to me. I’d never teared up on stage like that.” It’s a memory that’s stayed with him: “I've got a video of it a video and sometimes I watch it back and been like this is what he's done, he's got me to this point. It sounds crazy. But that was a big part of my turning in the right direction.”
Yungen also sees that the honesty and authenticity he is able to channel into his lyrics and performance based on his experiences, resonates with a lot of people. “My past and how I grew up has been everything for me. Obviously I've been blessed to have big chart records and stuff like that. But I think what's shaped me as an artist and the things that make people come out to my show is when I'm being real and talking about stuff that I've been through in my life that people can relate to.”
A good example Brookes says is 2014 track "Don't Take It Personal" which recalls another traumatic event in his life when he was taken for a short time by a crazy guy on his estate and had to see a psychologist for: “I didn't put it on Black and Red because it was a song that I made in a really weird space, talking about the situation and the paranoia I was going through. I was so happy to get it out but I kind of didn't want anyone to ever hear it. So I put it on SoundCloud, and I tweeted it once and never ever tweeted or spoke about it again.” When he went back to check the track it had over 300,000 listens: “I was thinking, where are people finding this song? I haven't promoted it! But then I realized so many other people must relate to these things I'm talking about in this. Now, no matter where I am in my career, no matter how happy I am, whenever I have a down day I'm going go to the studio and I'm gonna rap about it. Because there's someone out there in the world that relates to it.”
"Purple means peace, wisdom, wealth and loads of other things....this where I am now. This project is about growth and just being at peace."
This realisation approach is what gives his material a distinctive edge, with Brookes unafraid to display a vulnerability and depth of emotion that goes against the grain of the stereotypical hyper-masculine personas peddled by the rap scene. It’s a tone Brookes in particular wanted to set on Project Purple: “I start it very deep. I then have my little macho chats in it and stuff. But I made sure I started it very personal and very deep because I wanted that to bring people in. So what they would remember, ‘whatever you hear from now, the first song is what he's about, really about.'”
The colour theme meanwhile for Yungen reflects his contrasting and shifting moods: “With my first project I started doing a mixtape called Black. I was just in a really dark space and I had like four songs I made for it and was just going to call the project black based on my mood,” he explains. “But as I was recording more and more, like there were a lot more songs that became like passion songs, I had a few love songs in there.” This led to him creating two separate projects put it into one called Black and Red and which featured collabs with Wretch 32, Krept & Konan and Sneakbo. He knew his follow-up should also be a colour but needed to find the right one: “It was going to be Blue. But then I was looking at what blue represented - more like sadness and stuff like that. And I wasn't there. Then I was reading through purple and its meanings: peace, wisdom, wealth and loads of other things. And I was thinking - this is where I am now. This project is about growth and just being at peace.”
It’s not only his mood that has shifted since his initial releases but his skill and comfort in putting down tracks: “When I first started, I didn't know how to make a song. I would just rap for three minutes straight, no chorus, no hook, nothing. As such, the second track on my project is called 'No Chorus'. So I’m showing people, that's where I've come from, literally not even knowing how to make a song. I just used to hear a beat and just sit down all day and write lyrics and I couldn't put together a song.” Now, he still feels “a nervous excitement anytime I release something, no matter how confident I am about it or anything. The 10 minutes leading up to it coming out, I'm like ‘what are people going to think of this.” But is much happier recording: “There was a point where I just couldn't record anything, I just had like a block. Now I'm just so happy recording, I free-flow in recording. I'm in a good space.”
Dappy-featuring single "Comfortable" also captures a new perspective on his current status and fame: “It’s just about being comfortable where I am right now, just being comfortable in life on what I want to give back and what sort of person being here, in this position, has made me. I used to look at 50 Cent and the chains and I was so sure that I was going to buy a chain when I got money. And I don't have a chain now, I don't think it's cool. But giving my mum money, sending my mum on holiday with her friend is the best thing in the world to me. That's what comfortable is really about, just being comfortable in yourself in being able to look after your family and stuff.”
"There was a point where I just couldn't record anything, I just had like a block. Now...I free-flow in recording. I'm in a good space."
While "Pricey", featuring One Acen, goes in another, more lighthearted direction after Brookes was teased by his friends for not showing off enough: “My friends used to always say, 'you don't brag enough bro - people probably think that you're still doing the same as you were doing before.' So I got in the studio with One Acen - a new hot up and coming artist, I think he's really special - and played he played me this hook and I jumped on it. I was just having fun with one really, just talking about clothes and stuff. You, know, rap stuff.”
Tangibly evident in the Yungen’s music is the influence of listening to copious amounts of RnB growing up, courtesy of the records his three sisters were playing constantly: “In the '90s, nothing but RnB got played in my house. I had no choice to know every RnB songs. TLC, my sisters loved TLC, they loved the group Jagged Edge. Then they started loving Usher, then more B2K. Sometimes I'm driving on Snapchat playing RnB and some people are like. ‘is this all you listen to?’ Well, this is what I grew up on time. So yeah, this is all I listen to. He also notes his Dad’s Jamaican roots and music taste further molding his sound.
And of course, he was heavily inspired and influenced by the rap artists of his teenage era: “Eminem - he's someone who is so just honest, he'll just tell it how it is. He'd talk about crazy stuff with him and his wife. I loved listening to it. 50 Cent was the first person I saw though and thought, ‘wow I want to be like this guy, he's a rapper. He seemed like he was a gang star. I was like, this guy is the guy.”
We discuss how the rap music scene has evolved since the '90s - while US artists traditionally would dominate, the UK has always had its own flavour and in recent years truly thriving. Brookes sees that there’s something distinct about our homegrown scene that is some elusive combination of our cultural mix, diverse music influences and linguistic differences, particularly slang: “I don't know what it actually is to pick out but I feel like we maybe just have our like our own little sound. It's not one sound but loads of different sounds. There's obviously grime but there also this new Afro bashment. There's even like the UK RnB kind of thing coming into it. We just have our own little vibe. Even with the slang - I think that that's why Americans come over and they love it.”
On his rapid rise to fame, Brookes has clocked up a number of high profile collaborations, not least 2018’s "Mind On It" with Jess Glynne and "Intimate" with Craig David - “that was a big moment for me. I was very like, ‘oh my God, I'm in the studio with Craig David. I was going to play it down but I was just real with him, telling him I was massive fan.” He believes these not only drive him to raise his game but also can help him develop as an artist: “I think it really helps me, it always pushes me. I always work people I'm a fan of, I don't want to ever just work with someone for the sake of it or because it could benefit me. So when I get in with them I know have to be on my best form, to be on the level I think they’re on.”
I ask what has been the biggest turning point - his platinum-selling 2017 collab with Yxng Bane "Bestie" hitting the UK Top 10, a nomination for ‘Best Newcomer’ at the MOBO Award’s, or being shortlisted on 1Xtra’s ‘One To Watch’ List? For Brookes it was, “signing my record deal. I remember always thinking - you sign a record deal your life changes. It was such a big moment for me and for my family as well. When someone asks, whether a cabbie or your mum, what do you do? I can say, I do music, I'm signed to Sony. I'm a musician, that's what I do. It felt so sick to be able to say it. Then success with my single 'Bestie' in 2017. That’s when I said, ‘okay, this is real now.’”
Coming from where Brookes has, there’s a palpable appreciation for what he’s achieved but also a generosity of spirit to bring music to his fans and help give a platform for emerging artists, as he relays the time he convinced the record label to put on a free gig for a 1000 people and he brought up on stage rapper EO: “I’d just heard his song German. He’d never done a performance in his life but I knew his song and told him it was massive to me. So I brought him out. That's where we are now, where artists that have been doing it for a long can help bring up other artists.”
His route to fame also shows what is made possible now by music platforms and social media channels: “Without YouTube I wouldn't be here now. I’ve seen so many new artists coming through, never heard of them in my life, they come through with an absolute smash and I'm like, 'who are you, you're special, where have you been all this time?’ We have such big platforms now literally you can make a song, shoot a video, put it out, and it can be the biggest song. It's crazy.”
Performing live is also just as important as making the music: “I love it, performing is one of my favourite parts of this whole thing. I love recording, love making music but soon as I make a song I just want to put it out and perform.” Though I’m also surprised to hear: “It’s also my favourite thing because I don't like going out, I hate clubbing!” In particular though, gigs help him connect with the people listening to his music: “When I go and perform and I try to just look in the crowd and look at different people's reactions - sometimes those people are just starring. And sometimes crying. Sometimes there are people just in their zone, rapping word for word. That's the best feeling ever, just being able to watch and see it those different people.” Even winning over the skeptics just offers a challenge: “I love watching someone that doesn't really look interested and I'm thinking, I'm gonna win you over by the end of the night..”
Having already smashed it at gigs around the UK, including a headline show at Shepherds Bush Empire - “that was electric I felt like the room was shaking, properly” - and the Capital Summertime Ball at Wembley Stadium as well as festival stages, this year he has SW4 and We Are Festival lined up with an album tour to kick off at the end of the year. His sights are firmly set on the O2 arena for future though: “I watched Tiny Tempah there in 2015 and was like, 'I could do this, I could really do this.’ Tiny's someone that really inspired me. He’s just like me like from South London. He's just a young boy whose grown up like just like me. But he sold out the O2 arena twice. Even working with Dappy and knowing he's done the O2 arena. I'm like, this is possible. I want to do that one day. I will do that one day.”
"I don't want to be too underground, I'm here to be the biggest, d'you know I mean?"
He’s certainly not shy to state his ambitions: ”I want to be the biggest, I want to be able to tour the world” but doesn’t think that should necessarily meaning losing touch with his roots or the grittier sides of his sound, as Stormzy has notably achieved: “I think you can be in commercial and still be in underground at the same time. I've got a close friend Stormzy who's done that. Underground, he is our King. But he's also the rapper in the commercial world. That's the amazing balance. When he puts out something everyone listens to it. That's definitely the lane I want to be in, I don't want to be too underground, I'm here to be the biggest, d'you know I mean? Sometimes people get lost just trying to just satisfy a couple of people. I'm here to be heard by the most people.”
But an upcoming smaller gig in some respects is one that will mean the most to him: “I'm doing Brixton Academy which is like five minutes from where I grew up. I literally used to have to pass there everyday coming home from school. So that's going to like a homecoming.” Will his friends be impressed to see his name up on there in lights? “No actually my friend's proper cringe when they see a poster of me…” So, no matter how ambitious you are or how big you get at least your ego will always stay in check? “Definitely,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye.