After 10 years of rhyming and exquisite word-play, UK Rapper / Producer, Derek ‘Sway’ DaSafo, exploded from the underground scene in 2006 with his debut LP ‘This is my Demo’. Since its release, Mobo awards, Mercury nominations, US Best British Act awards and countless collaborations have ensured that life has been nothing less than a rollercoaster ride for Sway. To fill us in on the ups and downs and the soon to be released sophomore album, ‘The Signature LP’, Sway made a call to the Outline HQ…
‘The Signature LP’, is due out on August 18th, can we talk a little bit about your expectations for this release?
I would say this album is the best music I have ever made in my entire life. When I say that it’s the Signature LP, I don’t mean that as it’s my signature album, I mean it as in, it’s a signature album for UK Hip Hop in general. That’s not me bein’ big headed, I just know how much time, effort, blood, sweat and tears have gone into making the album, that I know it’s gotta stand for something. It’s much greater than it just being Sway’s second album. Y’know, I’ve had to up the ante a lot, and I’ve taken it to a level and broken barriers that a lot of UK artists have not done before.
In what sense may I ask?
I have 34 musicians on the album, including a 22 piece orchestra which I recorded live. This was an amazing experience; I have a Spanish guitarist, live drummers… but its still a Hip Hop album. With me sayin’ all this stuff you might think I’m comin’ out with some kinda movie soundtrack, but it’s still straight up Sway, but at the same time musically, we’ve taken it a lot further. I’ve got some of the best musicians in the world on it, I got Mark Ronson as keyboard player in there and I’ve got one of the best bassists on there. With everything to do with this album I wanted to be high quality. That’s why the album has taken so long to put together.
It’s been well documented that you had to fight yourself through some troubled times to get here?
I had a lot of ups and downs whilst recording this album, so that’s why it’s so important to me. Sadly I lost two of my business partners who helped me release my first album. One was to a murder and the other to malaria. I also lost one of my best friends Kaya (the model), while I was making the album – in fact I was playing her bits of the album all the time – so that was a really hard experience for me. There are dedication tracks to all of them on there. That’s another reason that I need this album to do so well, and I’m gonna push it, ‘til the wheels fall off, ‘cause it’s a dedication to them. I know how much they have inspired me. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today…I gotta do them proud, know what mean…
All in all it’s been a pretty rough time for you?
It’s been a nasty time, but at the same time I’ve had my friends and family around me, to comfort me, and to be honest with you, the music has been the best therapy for me. Without the music… I mean, in total I lost 6 people close to me in the past eighteen months, my cousin who is my biggest fan in Ghana died of cancer last year… so yeah, it’s been a really nasty time in terms of what’s been goin’ on in my life. But all that stuff had a good effect on what’s been goin’ on musically with me. As soon as Puffy died, I knew I had to do a big track. So I did a track called Letters to Heaven and thought, ‘why don’t I put an orchestra on it?’ Then I thought ‘why not put it on this track and that track?’ So it cost a lot of money for me, but I’m sure if I go out there and work the record right I’ll get all of that back ten times over. So I’m looking forward to the release…
Have you any big name guest performers on there?
Yeah there are guest appearances on there. You might have heard that Akon is appearing on the album, but I’m not going to confirm that one… I gonna leave that as a surprise. I will confirm the Leo the Lion from the Streets is on the album, also it features Lemar. There is also a guest appearance from a girl called Coco, who is actually Stings daughter, and she sounds exactly like sting, it’s really strange ‘cause she’s got his own style, but individual as well; she’s a wonderful character man – she’s only seventeen. I met her through a producer – I didn’t care that she was his daughter, her talent stood up all by itself; she features on a track called ‘End of the Road’.
So you are feeling confident then?
Yeah man, I know this album has longevity; I’m not even looking for that top five in the first week man. I know all that’s gonna come, I know its going to sell. If I have to drag everybody out of their houses and take them to HMV by the neck, then I’ll do that…
From everyone you’ve worked with (Ian Brown, Madness, Lupe Fiasco to name a few), I wondered who has left the biggest impression upon you?
To be honest with you, it’s a recent collaboration. I mean Ian Brown is a legend and Madness are legends too and being in a studio environment with them was a massive deal for me. They were very inspirational for me and made me realise how far I’d come. As of recently though, I did a track for the Kaiser Chief’s album and that was a great experience, ‘cause they were actually big fans. What happened was an accident, in fact, and you are the first person to hear this story; Mark Ronson was supposed to produce a track on my album, but his schedule had been crazy. I was looking for him to give him a bit of a grilling. Someone told me was working in a studio down the road from where I was, so I was gonna give him a surprise grilling. When I got there, he had left, but the Kaiser Chiefs were there, so I was like “how you doin’ guys”, you know, blah blah blah. I knew their songs and knew a lot about the band, but I didn’t pretend like I knew their names or anything. I asked them to get Mark to call me. Then we left my friend and album producer Guy, got a call from their engineer, asking, ‘Was that Sway the Rapper?’, so he was like “yeah”. They asked if I would go back to the studio, because they were really big fans and wanted a word with me. That word turned into a word on their track, then that word turned into a verse on the track which turned into a song with the Kaiser Chiefs, and it was all done within the space of an hour. So I met them within the first minute of the hour and ended up finishing a track with them in the last minute of the hour…that was amazing!
You are still relatively young, but have already achieved a lot as far as music is concerned. This can be confirmed with MOBO awards and a Mercury nomination. But can you tell us which achievement a you most proud of?
To date it’s got to be the release of ‘This Is My Demo’. So many artists hide behind mix-tapes and singles, collaborations etc, etc. It takes a lot to say “look, this is actually a project”, and then throw it out there for everybody to judge. If you’ve been an artist rapping for over ten years and all of a sudden you come to a level where everybody knows who you are, when you go to release an album, that becomes your moment of truth, and it takes a lot of nerve to actually do that. I was being held so high, ‘cause I was good at freestyling and at one point my mix-tapes were the hottest out there, so it was not easy to drop an album. I had to consider that I would be going out to a wider audience, but I didn’t want to lose my underground thing and I wasn’t prepared to make songs that took me out of that zone, just for the sake of trying to appeal to a wider market, so it was a healthy balance that I had to find. I think we got a good balance, cause I didn’t lose my core fanbase by doing tracks like ‘Little Derek’, in fact I gained more from that, more people. So that’s been the biggest achievement for me.
In 2006 you won America’s prestigious public-voted B.E.T. Award for ‘Best UK Artist’, beating acts such as Kano, Dizzee Rascal & Plan B. Do you think that winning this opened doors for you in America?
Oh yeah, greatly. The thing is, the Americans have a lot of love for their celebrities. I don’t know if it’s just an over-here-thing, ‘cause if people here see a celebrity, nine out of ten of them couldn’t care less. But over there, if they see someone on that level they make so much of a big deal, and I realised that when I went over there. I was on T.V. for all of like ten seconds and after that I was being stopped outside Virgin Megastore – I just couldn’t believe it. I think there are so many people over there trying to get on T.V. that if you make it on T.V. you are ‘a Somebody’. I really liked the way they took to me. It opened so many doors for me; it got me into DTP which is Ludacris’ camp, and it got me doing collaborations with them. Me and Lupe Fiasco’s friendship was sealed before the whole B.E.T thing; we’d been friends for a while… he looks out for me. Pharrell is a good friend of mine now, well, he’s an alright friend (laughs). He’s in London now and he ain’t called me yet, so we’ll see how much of a good friend he is (laughs). Akon as well, I’m now part of the whole Konvict Muzik Family. It turned out to be a massive experience man, they really respect the lyrical ability but the sad fact is, it’s gonna take an awful lot for one of us to break properly over there. Dizzee is doing quite well and Kano too. The girls are doing really well over there like Corinne Bailey Rae and Lily Allen, Amy and Estelle, but the guys…we’re not singing, we’re using our accents out there. It still hasn’t sunk in for them that you can actually rap in another accent. I mean it took them fifteen years to get around the dirty South accent and then they finally got with that. So it would be like us hearing someone rapping in like…a German accent, its different. We got to make the English accent cool. We got to go over there as a team. I don’t like the fact we go over and try stuff separately, we need to go over strategically and attack the market together. Someone needs to sponsor some kind of invasion…(laughs)
I’d read that when you were 11, you used to re-write your hero’s lyrics and re-sing their tracks? Is this true and if so, can you tell us the most memorable one you did?
M.C. Hammer, ‘Can’t Touch This’…my version was a lot more than can’t touch this, but I can’t say what it was…too rude (laughs)
There is a line on ‘This is my Demo’ where you say ‘five albums that’s what i’m gonna do, five albums then I’m done, then I’m through’. Is that still your plan?
Yep definitely, it’s still actually my plan. A lot of people are trying to talk me out of it, I’m only on album two now, so… Anyway, people might not want to listen to me after album number five. I’m twenty five now, so still pretty young. In five years time, I’ll be thirty and I wanna be a millionaire, with properties all over the place and I wanna be running different types of businesses. I also want to branch off into politics a lot more, ‘cause that’s something I’m kinda getting more interested in right now. I’m having meetings with MPs, I’ve been to Downing Street, and I’ve been invited to the house of Lords. I really am concerned about the welfare of the community, and the way that, not just Black people, but young people are getting demonised. I want to be involved with things that can help change that. I’m not trying to be a youth worker, or start acting like a saint and telling kids to do well, but if I can help somehow with my status, then I definitely will…I don’t want to be one of those rappers that tries to go on for long, doin’ shows and getting out of breath…
You’ve created your own independent label Dcypha; what was the importance of independence for you, was it more about financial gain or creative control?
To be honest with you, if you look at the successful Hip Hop artists in this country, you got Roots Manuva, Skinnyman, I could throw Dizzee Rascal in there as well, but if you look at them, they are all signed to major independents. Reason being is ‘cause people like that, in a commercial level you just don’t get it. I mean unless it’s straight bubble gum pop they can’t market it to the right people. Somebody sitting in an office in Sony/BMG doesn’t know anything that’s going on in Tottenham, Northumberland Park, ‘cause there’s no reason for them to go there. Whereas someone like myself or my team know exactly what’s going on from Tottenham to Brixton, because we are the streets. So I felt like I had so much hype on me and such a buzz about me I felt like if I was to join up with one of these corporate people, they were just goin’ to flop me; they are not going to understand where I’m coming from. So I got the revenue myself, got in with a few business partners, we pooled our money and realised it ourselves. It wasn’t even part of the plan to be an independent or anything like that. I just wanted my records out and I needed them out quickly. Now I’m at a level that if I wanted to I could link up with a major, but I’m quite comfortable where I am…
Do your business commitments sometimes get in the way of the creativity? If so, how do you manage to keep them separated?
Yeah, subliminally though, not on purpose. For example, when I first started rapping I was the sort of guy that would do a 48 bar verse. People would tell me it is too long and I’d be like I don’t care. I’m a rapper, if I want to rap for 48 bars, I’ll rap for 48 bars. But now, if I’m in a studio and doing a song, the first question I ask now is, how long is it? If its gone over four minutes, I’m like right, we got to take this bit down. I’m thinking more on a commercial level. It’s not like I’m turning down the lyrics, I do want people to hear what I’m saying. That’s one thing the Americans have always praised me for in comparison to the other UK rappers they’ve heard. As long as you understand English I’m pretty sure you are going to understand what I’m talking about… so yeah, the music can mix with the business side nowadays, but it’s subliminal innit…
Finally, have you been to Norwich before, and do you have a lasting memory of playing?
I have been to Norwich before, but to be honest with you, it was in the middle of a tour, so I can’t be specific with you…