It's an eons-old question: when it comes to success of any kind, can you simply graft your way to stardom or do you need something special in your blood? For artists like Ocean Wisdom, it's probably a bit of both. Now with his claws firmly sunk into the British rap scene, the Brighton-based MC spent his adolescence studying the bars of Dizzee Rascal and Eminem, and beat-boxing obsessively to whip up his vocal dexterity. But it's a real stretch to imagine that his bafflingly versatile (and almost record-breaking) flow is simply the product of a tight work ethic. His latest single, "Don", is a hearty example: over a racket of carnival percussion (hold tight producer Pete Cannon, arguably the hardest working man in UK hip-hop), Ocean spits like rapping is a reflex, with a rhythmic precision that smacks up some bars and slip-slides over others.
Lyrically, Ocean Wisdom continues to find more and more creative ways to tell you why he's simply better than every other spitter out there. And after four minutes of solid-gold bars, it's hard to disagree. On the day Complex caught up with Ocean, he was deep in "the boring admin" of his new record Wizville (out Feb. 23)—a side effect of having a label relaxed enough to hand over the creative reigns. And despite still qualifying for a Young Person's Railcard, he spoke with the confidence and resolve of a veteran about introspection, authenticity, and why learning to rap might be a bit like learning to make a sandwich.
So, first I wanted to talk to you a bit about genres. In the UK, there seems to be a real distinction between the grime and hip hop camps; different audiences, different airplay, different scenes. As someone who's worked with artists and dabbled with styles from both, which do you feel most aligned to? Does it matter?
I grew up on grime and US rap more so than UK hip-hop, so as a person from the UK who does hip-hop, you definitely hear the grime and US rap elements coming out. But my whole thing is about being the best rapper, the best musician I can be. I feel like the best thing you can do is create new music, new sounds and new energies. I'm interested in how my music makes someone feel and act, rather than what genre it is. If you consider grime and UK hip-hop as two separate fighting styles... It's just a question of how good are you at each individual style. The art of rap is like MMA: you can find lots of similarities and differences amongst the many varying styles, and you can be a master of one but a novice at another. In my opinion, if you want to master rap, you have to master all of it.
There is a difference in visibility between hip-hop and grime though, isn't there? I mean, over the last five years, grime has exploded, and yet UK hip-hop still feels pretty locked down, slower to reach the masses.
I think there's a massive misconception. I don't think grime is necessarily bigger than UK hip-hop outside of the UK. On the label, there are a few of us doing a lot of international shows and we've got fanbases across the world. I've just toured Australia and, before that, I played shows in Europe. France alone, I played over 20 times in 2017. I didn't see any grime guys there really, other than the top five at the time. I know what these guys are charging per show, I know how many shows they do. I feel the misconception stems from all the UK kids in the playground that religiously play the new grime guys. I reckon between the ages of 8 and 16, they're all listening to the current name on Link Up etc. That's millions and millions of extra views just from that. Grime is embedded in UK culture and UK people gravitate to it a lot. Personally, I love grime, because I grew up surrounded by it—it's personal to me. Whereas hip hop is much more of a world music. If you're talking about fans between 20 to 35, there is a devoted life-long fanbase. Most UK hip hop artists are...
—getting on a bit?
I was gonna say making music for an older market. Maybe part of the reason I’ve had the impact I've had is because I appeal to a slightly younger generation of UK hip-hop fans. I'm just trying to create a vibe and a good energy.
It's interesting you mention age, because your label mates have changed a lot over the last few years. People like Dirty Dike, especially, have started writing more introspective, arguably more 'weighty' material as they've gotten older. So much of your personal brand is about being in-your-face and confident—could you ever see yourself writing a record like that?
I have 'weighty' material, I just don’t oversaturate my sound with it. With me, if you want to find that sound, you have to listen to the album. I agree that introspection becomes more a part of your arsenal as an MC as you age—not to say it's not present in a young MC. For me, right now, I'm representing who I am as a person. I can draw my art from an emotional place, I just avoid doing it all the time. Luckily, I'm at the age where I can still mess around on a track and say outrageous things that you can only really say in your early 20s. And here's the thing with this: the reason I don't have a load of heavy politically-charged lyrics, for example, is that after too much of that people start to expect it from you. People quickly get bored of listening to a preacher-type rapper trying to take the moral high ground and school them on life at every opportunity. I feel if I say a poignant lyric every so often, it's gonna resonate much more than if I'm trying to be deep all the time.
It's difficult to oversaturate your music with good vibes and good energy. So that's what I do. A lot of the time, I'm just having a laugh, trying to be acrobatic with my flows and lyrics. I love wordplay and the English language so I play with that more so than topical commentaries. I feel like people can take a lot of that. I'd rather create the soundtrack to someone's holiday than someone's funeral. I'd rather create the soundtrack to a roast than an argument. I'd rather see a positive, hard-working young lad dancing to my music instead of a self-depreciating emo slowly moping to my deep introspective waffle. Having said that, the art of rap has multiple categories and I pride myself on being able to do them all. I've studied each style and each has its peaks and troughs. I’d be lying if said I didn’t love them all.
And how important is authenticity to you? Because tracks like "Brick Or Bat" and "Eye Contact" paint a picture of a person that's quite confrontational, quite aggressive. How much effort do you put into creating a persona for yourself?
A lot of people tell me my persona is very similar to my perceived rap persona. No one likes a fake MC. You spice things up, but you don't lie. I definitely feel the best way you can have a long career is to keep it real. As soon as you stop doing that, you're always playing catch up with yourself, you're trying to guess what people wanna see. I actually try and tone down violence on tracks! [Laughs] Certain things sneak in as it's a part of my life that has shaped my character. I was taught to be humble and passive to everyone. I was also taught to slap a bully if you catch them being a bully. I feel I put across both mentalities as well as I can. Tracks like "Brick Or Bat" are more a manifestation of something in me. But it's all energy and never literal.
I think it's fair to say you've become a lot of rappers' favourite rapper. Who do you think is killing it right now?
Bar-for-bar, I'm a fan of Izzie Gibbs, Eyez and a few others. I'm proud to see young MCs like myself doing their thing. I’m also a fan of Dizzee, Ghetts, Kano, Skepta, Giggs—they've broken down a lot of doors. I wanna walk through those doors. But with a lot of the other people in the scene, I'm mostly learning lessons about rap by picking up on holes in what they're doing. I'm happy with the journey I'm on, and I pride myself that I'm in my own lane. There's levels to this rap ting and other MCs recognise.
So does that mean you feel like you're done learning? I know you've talked before about having studied rap when you were younger...
It's like with anything: you think you've mastered something, then you pull back a layer of the skin and realise there's more. I bet there are people out there who have 500 techniques for making a sandwich. If you can apply that many techniques to making a sandwich, how many different aspects are there to a rap career? I'm always learning—I'm a student of the game. I often ask myself how people have done things, what it is listeners are gravitating towards. I think I've progressed more in the last year than any other time in my life; the difficult aspects are now second nature in the same way the easy stuff is. So now I'm at the point where, maybe, there's a simplicity I need to tap into. It's not necessarily always about rapping the most intricate thing—it's about what's the best sound, musically, which is sometimes a simple one. We call that complex simplicity.
Let's get onto the new record. You worked with Dizzee on Wizville. How does it feel stepping into the studio with an artist who's been such a big inspiration to you? Did your confidence falter?
When Dizzee shouted me, it was just very humbling. It verifies that what you're doing is being recognised by people bigger than you. I'd say, in general, when you find yourself levelling up you can't dwell on your nerves. When I went into the studio with him, if I'd thought about it too much, it would've thrown me off. Over the years, I've had a lot of defining moments and part of the skill is being able to deliver in said moments. This is something I do confidently every time because I know myself and I know my ability and I've put in enough practise to trust my 'auto pilot', if you will. Having said that, when I was recording, I think he knew I was a big fan of his so he always left me to spray my verse. I think he knew that if he was watching me, I'd feel a little like I'd have to prove something. When you're around someone that you've always looked up to, it can make you wanna try hard and that can sometimes be a bad thing. You might wanna sound casual and relaxed and not regimented.
Luckily, the vibe was relaxed anyway. I always hoped it was gonna be the case from listening to his music, 'cause I could relate to him. I think we have a very similar way of thinking. It wasn't like he tried to lord it over me, or anything. It's one of those rare situations where you meet someone who's always been an inspiration and you come out of the meeting feeling even more inspired than when you went in. I used to get asked in interviews who I wanted to collab with if I could choose anyone in the world, and I religiously said Dizzee. He was a big inspiration and one of the main reasons I started rapping. It was a full-circle moment for me. The only drawback is now, I need to find a new response to that question [laughs]. I'll probably start saying Eminem as he’s the only artist left that inspired me in the same way.
Who else can we expect to pop up on the new record?
On Wizville, I've got features from Dizzee Rascal, Method Man, Roots Manuva, P Money, Jehst, Chester P and Rodney P. I can't even believe it myself, and I've been sitting on it for a while. It's a proper good feeling, to get them all together on one record.