You'd be rather hard-pressed to find an individual in the grime scene as complex as Joseph Ellis. Earning sonic stripes firstly as Young Dot, the brazen, fear-inducing MC from South London who came up under Essentials, he later grew into a fully-rounded musician as Dot Rotten and went on to get signed to Mercury in 2011. Ellis released a handful of chart-friendly singles in "Overload", "Keep It On A Low" et al., but his mission to change the face of British pop was short lived: major disagreements in-camp caused the outspoken act to retreat, reflect, and reconsider his options. The verdict? Start his own label: Minarmy, which has since released projects from the likes of Ipswich-based grime outfit Brotherhood, R&B/pop singer Jamal Woon, and Ice Kid: the ever-elusive emcee.
Few wordsmiths with a penchant for 140 beats per minute could step to either of Joseph's alter egos—on wax, or live in a clash—however for the past few years, his pen has been in retirement to focus on producing as ZEPH ELLIS, for some of the UK's finest musicians. As recent as last week, though, Dot Rotten was brought back to life via a diss track for his old OGz crew member, P Money. Beef between the two has never before been put on record; until now, that is, with P Money creating a whole EP around it called Snake. Complex caught up with the newly revived Dot Rotten to discuss said lyrical war, and why he's so misunderstood.
What should we call you these days: Young Dot, Dot Rotten or ZEPH ELLIS? You seemed to have resurrected Dot Rotten in a big way on your new tracks "Real Talk" and "Organised Grime".
I currently look after two brands: ZEPH ELLIS and Dot Rotten, and both do two different things. ZEPH ELLIS is a producer/engineer who provides instrumentals and caters to artists' music needs, while Dot Rotten provides lyrics and songs and songwriting. So, basically, call me whichever you feel comfortable with because they're both my brands.
In those diss tracks, you call out P Money and a few members of the OGz—which you were once a valued member of—and it sounded like you got rid of a few demons, too. But why did you decide to drop the tracks now after all these years? It's been a whole decade since you actually left the group.
First thing's first, JP: I don't have any demons to get rid of... None! As for why I choose to release them right now, anyone who has any idea about the Dot Rotten brand has a real understanding of what's been going on over the years. But, from now on, I'm just gonna let the music do all the talking.
For those that don't know, what was the real reason for you leaving the crew?
It's a very simple but basic answer—I wanted to.
I think you're a misunderstood character. People always want to know what's going on in your head; why you tweet the things you do, and why you say the things you say. Do you care about people's perception of you?
If I spent time caring about people perception of me, I wouldn't create half the music I do. The fact that I'm misunderstood stems from me not giving people more to know about me, as well as the fact that everyone has something to say about me which spreads a bad stigma. But regardless, I just keep doing me. Loads of people are discussing how I tweet, but it's got to the point where, as I'm growing as a man, I don't even want to say anything. Yeah, I've said some crazy stuff in the past, but that's just me, innit? All artists are crazy and everyone's entitled to their opinion. Whatever people think about it, they're gonna think about it. I can't really change their perception.
As someone who's been there from the start, what are your thoughts on the recent commercialisation of grime? Personally speaking, I think the scene, right now, needs some of that early rawness back.
I don't know where others stand, but I know where I do: I plan to make the most of all the opportunities that are brought my way. As for the rawness and the grime scene, I didn't plan on rapping again and I scoped that even though I might not want to, it's much bigger than me. The people have been asking for it, and, although I'm not a slave to my fans, I understand when I've starved them for too long.
Who's currently ticking your boxes on the lyrical front?
[Long pause] You know what it is? I don't listen to anyone to rate anyone. I'm a pen guy, so when it comes to lyrics, I don't chat no shit. I'm not trying to chat shit in my lyrics one bit; I'm trying to hit them with metaphors, similies, multies, and give people something to learn from. My frequency, my energies, my chakras are not energised by half of the things I hear today. The producers are the guys, though. They're the ones keeping the scene bubbling over. From drill to trap to commercial producers—they're the real stars to me. I want to see the producers earn what artists earn, because there are so many industries built around producers.
All artists are crazy and everyone's entitled to their opinion.
There would be no clubs without producers; no alcohol sold without producers. There wouldn't be iTunes without producers. There would be no music behind adverts without producers. How are you going to sell RSPCA without that sad music in the background? So, if I could change anything today, it would be how producers are treated. An artist should be bench-pressing their producer in the air, like: "This is my producer."
Production-wise, as ZEPH ELLIS, you've had a great run. 2015 was a good year for you especially: your "XCDX BXMB" beat got laced by Kano and AJ Tracey and was easily one of the biggest instrumentals of that year. Even 2005's "Bazooka Riddim"—which is still probably my favourite production of yours—ten years on, it still goes off in the rave. Do you think today's producers have the ear to create grime classics like back in the day?
This is the thing: you've got beat-makers and then you have producers. Currently, the producers following my generation are '90s babies; they were born '95 onwards. They're not getting your Earth, Wind & Fires, your Stevie Wonders, your Miles Davis'—they're not getting real music. For me, 1988 onwards—even though that's the year I was born—it was the year of the boundary of the old and new school. It was the year of families still linking up on a Sunday for good food, with reggae banging out from every corner. I just feel like, in this current time, a producer will deliver what they know sounds right—because he's got that ear. Whereas a beat-maker creates solely for the voice of a rapper.
A classic is based on one person's opinion and if others agree, producers have the power to make epic stuff and do all the time, but if it doesn't capture the culture's attention, it goes straight into the achieve. I made "Bazooka" when I was 15 years old and I'm 28 now... I guess it's just good to see your work last the test of time, and it gives me a good idea of the life span that instrumentals have if they get taken in to the scene. In addition to AJ and Kano, I've also produced for MoStack, Mist, Stefflon Don, Birdman, Sy Ari Da Kid, President T, Wiley, Jammer, Nafe Smalls and a few more acts as well.
You've had your label issues in the past, but can you see yourself signing to a major again?
Listen, I have no manager, no marketing team, no PR guy, no radio pluggers, and no label. Unless a team with all the above get in contact with me and intend on having my best interests at heart—and they keep it 100 with their intentions—then I'll stick to how I have it right now. The fans are my label. They back all of my movements.
What's the next move for Joseph Ellis?
The Dot Rotten brand has been dormant for a while and this recent comeback will progress in good speed. I just plan to put as much worth back into the brand as I possibly can, but I guess only time will tell. As for my ZEPH ELLIS brand, this is where I invest the majority of my time and will continue to produce amazing music for the culture. I'd like to score some films as well.