Beatmaker’s Corner: Ragz Originale

Words: Yemi Abiade
Photography: Hyperfrank

Have you ever wondered what artists do in their spare time, outside of music, to wind down and soak in their success? Outside of clips suggesting hedonism and maximum vibes on social media, the modest ones are happy to engage in more down to earth forms of entertainment. For Ragz Originale, the answer to his music-related stresses is bowling—a pastime among groups of friends. It represents a detachment from the endless pothole of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook as an essential session of life admin.

“Not having social media is quite sick—you don’t feel like you’re in the same frequency as the rest of the world,” the Tottenham producer-rapper-singer tells me in East London, after losing to TRENCH’s very own Hyperfrank during a competitive game of bowling. “It feels like you’re living by yourself on your own terms. I only started bowling this year and I was terrible, but it just made me focus on myself; when you open up Instagram and check the feed, about twenty new things enter your mind that you think about, whereas if you don’t have social media, you just have your own thoughts.”

Having released his debut album, Nature, just last month, I begin to notice a creeping self-assurance from Ragz as I speak to him; the workaholic’s inner peace is fully intact, having finally shared his first expansive musical statement. This may sound strange, considering his production work on one of UK music’s most incendiary and celebratory tracks in recent memory, Skepta’s “Shutdown”, and though it released in 2015, by 2016 Ragz was already at a crossroads in his early career. Unable to truly profit off his skills as a sprightly producer, he offset this by working a day job in a steel factory, an experience he describes as “terrible.” Undeterred, he amplified his own aspirations by turning to his own artistry, paving the road that would lead to his 10-track debut.

“I think I was always an artist, but when you start off as a producer, there’s rarely anyone to produce for,” he says. “I had a whole year where I didn’t eat off producing because I had to wait for other people to put out what I did with them. They had to choose if they wanted to do anything with your work and if they didn’t, you didn’t eat. Because of that, I could only make my examples by making music for myself.” After a number of singles and production credits for Skepta, Denai Moore, Benny Mails and Mini Kingz affiliate Oscar #Worldpeace, Ragz Originale’s evolution from beatmaker to artist is evident all over Nature.

“It literally took me three years of writing bad songs for me to finally be able to get to where I wanted.”

The word ‘nature’ is important because, from his youth, music has been Ragz’s natural inclination. The son of a bass guitarist, he was introduced to Fruity Loops by family friend and Tottenham grime legend, Double S. “That was a big help,” he remembers. “I was making remixes for S, Chipmunk at an early age—that early energy was sick and meant a lot back then.” A grime head from day, Ragz took in the variety in production skill rife within the genre, but there were a few who made the biggest impression on him, namely Ruff Sqwad’s Prince Rapid and Newham Generals’ Footsie. It was Rapid’s operatic style that would leave an indelible mark. “When I listen to something like ‘Anna’, I always think: ‘How did he do that? How did he manage to make it sound so big, so raw but so musical?’ Or ‘Xtra’—that just sounds like a madness! You have to have some other kind of talent to do that. I’m a music nerd so I can appreciate these things, but he made me think more about what I put into my music.”

With age came a broader musical taste and, as he shifted away from grime and rap to tastes that would further expand his musical mind—he cites Tame Impala and Connan Mockasin as major influences—the vivid textures and layers to his catalogue began to take effect. Whether it was crafting complicated grime beats for the olders or shaping his own premier sound, Ragz’s creative process remains as simplistic as possible. “I tend to start with the melody and build on that,” he breaks down to me, his face lighting up as he flexes his nerd muscle. “A lot of the time, a sound will pop into my head that I then want to fully realise on a beat; it could be the weirdest sound ever, but the melody is really important to nail when I’m starting out."

This methodical approach is evident on his debut album proper which, in just under half an hour and 10 tracks, is sprawling, cohesive and wholesome. Grounded by its emotional depth and jettisoned by mature songwriting, where the album excels is in part due to its understated but progressive brand of alternative rap/R&B, but also to saying a lot with very little. And while producing has been a lifelong journey, the art of songwriting has proven a harder one for Ragz, but one he’s tackled with gusto. “It literally took me three years of writing bad songs for me to finally be able to get to where I wanted,” he explains. “I figured out early on that I wanted to write everything I felt in eight bars and repeat it over and over. I wanted those bars to have all the meaning the song needed, instead of writing twice as many bars and having the message lost. And after three minutes, you should have been able to get your message across.”

This efficiency is translated into the poignancy of tracks like “Endless” and “Disaronno Straight”, which are touching odes to the fairer sex. Ragz also put every bit of his energy and pocket into the album, as he explains: “I paid for the artwork myself. On the video set for ‘Disaronno Straight’, money was coming out of my pocket for hair and make-up. That’s how invested I was into it, and I think it’s paid off in the long-run.”

Of course, Ragz’s Tottenham connections were able to pay off in the ultimate way, starting in 2014 when he first encountered Skepta, having booked him to perform at an event he had organised. This fateful meeting would lead to one of British black music’s most significant moments in 2015. “One night he called me—I think he was gassed from being in the studio with Kanye West, and he wanted to keep going,” he remembers. “I got to his yard but he’s about to leave and he told me to wait, so I just got to work. I made three different beats for ‘Shutdown’ and the night after The Brits, where everyone was on stage with Kanye, we recorded it, then it dropped the next Sunday. Obviously, I didn’t know how big it would be, but it’s a great feeling to know that I’m part of such a significant moment in the culture.” “Shutdown” and later work with Skepta on 2016’s Konnichiwa album has certainly humbled Ragz, which is a great testament to a man who is not looking to be defined by one moment. As time goes on, so does his musical curiosity and his restlessness to test himself over new sounds and moods, because he values artistic growth above all else.

He’s not short of plans, either. “I already know what my next album’s called,” he says. “It’s gonna be a showerman album! More dub influenced, but in my own way. I’ve got a project with Oscar #Worldpeace that will come before, probably June 2019, then my project probably in October. I’m not gonna make Nature twice, so someone who liked it might not like the next one. It’s hard to do that—it’s boring.” But what Ragz will continue to demonstrate is his natural propensity as both a producer and an artist, crossing the tightrope between the two with ease, grace and panache. “A lot of people know me only as a producer but I’ve now met people who don’t know my production, they only see Ragz,” he tells me. “Sometimes, you do get that stigma of being only a producer and people can’t seem to get that out of their heads. But I’ll always fight against that.”

Posted on November 23, 2018