Welcome to the first ever Artist Spotlight, Shottaz stylee. The idea is to introduce you to artist’s we see working hard and are worth checking out. We hope to help you discover new artists, giving you an insight into who they are in the process.
To kick things off, we are honoured to have New Zealand’s fastest rising artist on the hip hop scene, Unchained XL. This is an artist who enjoyed a breakout 2017, and has already set himself up for a huge year in 2018. I could exhaust every superlative in the dictionary to describe his music, and I fear I still wouldn’t do him justice. His music first reached my ears when I heard the song, Walk Out, which was definitely a great introduction in my book. I then randomly found the video to Weight On My Bars, which really piqued my interest in what this artist has to offer. Throughout 2017 he has made significant strides in the NZ hip hop scene, making bold moves that are to be commended.
Off the back of the release of his debut EP, Foreign Legacy, I had the pleasure of chatting with Unchained XL about his music, his inspirations, and aspirations as an artist. Read the interview below for a better insight of who Unchained XL is:
(scroll down to the bottom of this post to listen to Foreign Legacy on spotify)
Max Shotta (MS) – Firstly, thanks for taking the time to have this interview with us. To kick things off, can you give us a brief introduction to who Unchained XL is?
Unchained XL (UXL) – I’m an Igbo Nigerian New Zealand rapper and producer. I blend traditional afrobeat-inspired textures and rhythms with various styles of hiphop, usually using a combination of live instruments and synths.
MS – You have just released the EP “Foreign Legacy”, which is arguably the hottest first quarter release this year, in my book. What inspired the Foreign Legacy project? And what are the main themes you’d like people to take away from the experience?
UXL – Thank you! I consider this project an important qualitative leap in defining my trajectory as an artist. The singles I released prior to Foreign Legacy, particularly “Global Citizens”, dealt with the tension of my dual cultures, and the resulting difficulty of defining my identity for myself. So this EP is about me having come to terms with who I am, and recognising the group I am part of – Afrikan Kiwi cultural pioneer. I’m deciding what kind of legacy I want to create and leave for following generations.
MS – Being a Nigerian, born in the UK, raised in New Zealand. What are some challenges, if any, you have faced in trying to breakthrough in the music industries in NZ and abroad?
UXL – Not being “Nigerian enough”, nor being “Kiwi enough”, which in some ways, I think, puts a limitaiton on my relatability. But I think this could eventually work in my favour, as there are a number of third culture kids – not just of Nigerian or Afrikan descent – who have grown up and strongly identify with this kind of thing.
MS – You seemed to find a unique balance on this project, as in every piece of the puzzle seems to fit perfectly with regards to production, conversation, and features. What was the process like in arriving at the final product that you delivered to the masses?
UXL – Thank you. The original plan wasn’t to create a body of work, it was to release consecutive singles. This was for a number of reasons, but mainly because at the time I was still working full time and felt like committing to an EP or album wasn’t my best use of the little time I had.
“E No Dey Easy” actually came out late last year, and “But Do They Know” was finished even before that and remained unreleased. These two tracks I felt were the first two that really defined my “afrofunk hiphop” sound. “But Do They Know” especially was lyrically a summary of what Unchained XL is about. I eventually changed my mind and decided that a body of work could be of high value, as a strong statement to the NZ industry as to who I am. So I decided to work toward an EP and include both tracks on it.
My goal in creating the other three tracks was to keep everything sonically consistent by maintaining a strong presence of afrobeat textures, but at the same time I wanted to switch it up in terms of the styles of hiphop that were being integrated in. So on there you have Trap, Grime, Boom Bap etc, all unified by afrikan percussion, guitar ostinatos, retro basslines, electric piano riffs and other key features of afrobeat music.
MS – Speaking of features, are there any artists that you would have loved to have on the project that you weren’t able to get across the line? Which artists are you looking at collaborating with on future songs?
UXL – To answer the first question; no. I thought Nuel, Phodiso, JessB and Azubuike were exactly what I needed at the time. They provided amazing diversity and consistency.
In terms of future collabs, there are a few people I’ve connected with overseas who I’d love to create with. Tumi Williams (Afro Cluster, UK), Magugu (UK), Pia Renee (US) and Leah Concinaldi (US) are all folks I’m in talks with at the moment.
MS – You run an amazing live show series called “Afropolitans” in Auckland, can you give us a brief idea of the concept behind the shows, what inspires them, and what the vision is moving forward?
UXL – My goal so far is to give Afrikan NZ artists another platform. I say “another” because I recognize there are other initiatives going around, which is great. My focus is on hiphop, soul, funk and groove. The idea ties in to Unchained XL being about cultural “architecture”, as everyone involved is a steward of at least two cultures, some of us many more. We’re all getting together and drawing from our many cultures to create a unified new one, I think.
The plan moving forward is to hopefully inspire young artists on the come-up to want to get involved. Afropolitans 3, which I’ve just locked down the line-up for, will be the first Afropolitans that I’m not performing at, which for me represents the fact that it is a platform for others and not just a chance for me to play shows.
MS – Another thing that stands out, for me at least, is that all your visuals to date have been top quality. How involved are you throughout the process of creating your music videos?
UXL – Thank you! The three videos I have out so far were just my good friend Geoff and I coming up with a simple concept and nailing it. They’re all very low budget and simple, but I believe they are effective. My theory is that as long as the concept is sound, the performance is tight and the camera is half descent then it’s sufficient for a great clip. I usually come up with the concept and general ideas of the shots, then Geoff executes and edits, and it turns out great.
I’ve just finished filming a video for “But Do They Know”, and this one was funded by NZ On Air, so I thought I would hand over the concept and execution to a team and be much less involved. We had some fantastic shots so I’m confident it’s going to be awesome, and a good step up from my previous vids.
MS – I noticed that you recently made the transition into being a full time musician, how difficult was it making the switch? Can you give us an idea of what your typical day looks like as a full time muso?
UXL – Because I was spending so much time on the peripheries of my day doing music previously, the transition wasn’t too hard. There were specific short term goals to achieve that I was already working on, so I hit the ground running. The more I devoted my time to it, the more doors I saw slowly openining, which required more of my time. So the potential problem of having nothing to fill out my days was not a problem at all.
The money side of things is a different story, however. I’m blessed to have the support of a great wife who is holding down the breadwinning at the moment, who is also great moral and practical support. That, in combination with sensible budgeting, makes things more than manageable for the time being. Plus, the belief that this will only be a temporary situation is one that keeps me going.
My day typically looks like admin, admin, admin, and admin. Haha but in all seriousness, I do a lot of emailing, usually in the morning, and if I’m not disciplined in sturcturing my day, the whole day turns into emailing. But if I manage to set a plan before hand, I’ll end up doing some personal development (i.e. practicing rapping, singing, piano, bass, etc) and production work as well. Then in the evenings I may have band rehearsals, or networking at gigs, etc.
MS – Who are your main musical influences? In a few words can you describe what about them inspires you?
UXL – M.anifest, Jidenna and Black Thought. M.anifest for his afrikanness and unique hiplife sound, as well as being an exceptional wordsmith. Jidenna as an igbo-western hiphop role model, and Black Thought because, well, did you hear his 10 minute freestyle?
MS – What can you expect from UXL in the future near and far?
UXL – Black Excellence.
Check out Foreign Legacy on Spotify: