William Shields' impact on UK hip hop has been immense. The Huddersfield raised Londoner’s early EPs like ‘Premonitions’ or the Low Life backed ‘High Plains Drifter,’ remain cultural classics to this day and as Jehst, his trademark delivery, one loaded with wit, lyricism and habitual love of interesting syllable patterns, still rings as true and as intelligently as it did back when his first album ‘The Return of The Drifter’ – a conglomeration of his early EPs and singles – dropped back in 2002. Standing, in his own words, as a ‘lovable rogue known to compose colourful prose,’ Jehst’s cutting tongue and the variant selection of textural backdrops he spat over, set him apart from a lot of his peers and his debut album proper, ‘Falling Down,’ was a full realisation of his own artistic vision.
A long time fan of hip hop music and the outspoken culture that went along side it, ‘Falling Down’ chronicled a sometimes bitterly English perspective. Loaded with a lyrical brilliance that came balanced with social signifiers that enabled everyone that listened to pick out and understand his style of poetic couplets, Jehst was name checking Red Stripe, wide screen DVDs and Transformers whilst addressing political and social issues on a street level. His delivery and vocabulary was an incredible example of a microphone dynamo coiled and ready to spring, and given the platform that the surge in UK rap around this time gave him, his profile arced upwards purposefully.
His follow up, ‘Nuke Proof Suit’ was a denser sounding exercise in Jehst tensing his production muscle; a pseudo-concept album that captured a sluggish energy overload. Tracks like ‘Work Ethic’ maintained the impossibly high standards of lyricism that’s become such an essential part of what Jehst does and his follow up, ‘The Mengi Bus Mixtape,’ showed the other side of his personality; the record label boss intent on reflecting the shine of his success onto his immediate family. And whilst they both received a warm welcome from the fans, those still chomping at the bit for new material, behind the scenes things started to slip through Jehst’s fingers.
“Obviously I planned for the new album to be very quick off the back of the mixtape and really, at that time I was still working with the manager that me and Klashnekoff had been working with since 2003,” Jehst reveals to us, sipping at his coffee in the shade of a secluded park in Farringdon; ‘We’d been building up towards another album and like, a long term arrangement that would see us all through y’know? And then as per usual, life’s what happens when you’re making other plans so... after the mixtape came out, the distribution set up, the label set up... I just wasn’t happy with it. It was all going through my manager at the time, because he’d gone on from managing us to running the subsidiary label that distributed my mixtape. It just totally changed the dynamic of our working relationship but after that it was just me re-addressing the whole label side of things. I was stuck on the idea that I had to do this album myself and put it out independently. I probably could have saved myself a lot of time and heartache if I’d actually gone knocking on doors but I thought ‘if I don’t do this now, I never will.’”
“I was stuck on the idea that I had to do this album myself and put it out independently.” - Jehst
Jehst’s return to the album circuit comes 5 years after his last recorded release and honestly, ‘The Dragon Of An Ordinary Family’ is all the stronger for it. That slight lisp and high pitched vocal delivery has become an incredibly comforting sound over the years for anyone who’s played and replayed his previous material, and on his new long player Jehst pulls no punches. Having assembled fifteen of the strongest beats (with one interlude) from the cream of the production crop – people like LG, Chemo, Beat Butcha, Mr Thing, Jazz T Zygote and Jon Phonics - he’s continually reassessed his position, working hard on building a label that can facilitate his grandiose vision.
“Every time there been the window of opportunity to knuckle down and get the album released there’s been another artist or another project that’s sitting there waiting; it’s an ongoing saga man,” he concedes when pressed on the long hiatus between projects. “Some people have said to me it’s probably worked out for the best; its built anticipation and also, the smokes cleared. A lot of the over saturation of UK rap has dissipated. You’ve got your pop stars, you’ve got your cult heroes and pretty much all that noise created by a million people trying to put a record out through Boombox or replicate Low Life’s success or whatever, they’ve all gone back to their day jobs, so it makes it easier... I’m not shouting over the room.”
“I tried to engineer [this album] so I’d just be able to concentrate on writing and recording and just being the vocalist,” he continues, visibly recounting his journey to that decision in his head. “In some respects it was just really to deliver something for the existing fan base. I’m always very much like ‘don’t compromise’ and ‘don’t cater’ for the industry, but actually if there are people that are supporting you, coming out to your shows and buying your records then, cater to them – without compromising what you do.”
“Also there’s no other artist doing it. When I was doing Nuke Proof Suit, it was like, what I’d already done on ‘Falling Down’ had created some kind of a blueprint and other people were making things in a similar vein - not to say that people were biting, but in terms of delivering lyric heavy records like ‘Sagas of Klashnekoff,’ like Kyza ‘The Experience,’ like any of the Verb T projects, or someone like Manage with his album - there was all kinds of people just focused on the lyrics. At that time I wanted to focus on the overall sound and the production and make it about hip hop rather than just about rap, and to put myself in that position of like a Lewis Parker, or a Dilla or an El-P; people who deliver a sound. But for this album I just felt to give the people, the fans and the people who come out to the shows what they want and just knuckle down with the writing.”
And it shows. ‘Dragon...’ is seasoned liberally with Jehst’s ability to take the everyday things we digest as consumers and twist them into the recognisable strands of his different threads of thought. Thematically he’s given his early ideals, that sense of a living unease and the futility of the powers that be, the time to really manifest themselves and on this album they blossom into often incisive recognitions and biting commentary on tracks like ‘England’ or ‘Sounds Like Money.’
“I think I’m just drawing on everyday experience, writing from it and getting that frustration out; remembering to use music as catharsis,” he agrees when quizzed on the themes present in his raps. “I think you start doing that, just making music in your bedroom for your mates; you’re doing it to get it out of your system. And then you start making stuff to deadlines and commercial concerns start to creep in and that overshadows the therapeutic nature of making music and I think that’s something that I’ve tried to keep myself in check regarding - to remind myself why I was doing this in the first place. I’m not doing this to sell x amount of records or do x amount of gigs or make x amount of money. I mean all of that’s nice, the more gigs, the more record sales, the more money the better, obviously! But it’s just to bring it back to the essence of self expression. It sounds really arty farty but that’s what it is, without that you are just making vacuous... kind of... filler.”
Jehst launches his ‘The Dragon Of An Ordinary Family’ album in Room One on the 17th June. Tickets & info are available here.