Since stepping out from behind the boards as a sought-after producer in 2017, S-X has made one of the smoothest transitions into solo artist that we’ve seen in contemporary British music.
The 28-year-old singer-songwriter, born Sam Gumbley, made his mark on the music industry some years before launching his singing career: in 2010, S-X produced the grime reload classic “Wooo Riddim” and, in 2011, he created the backdrop for Skepta’s “Big” featuring Chip—this all from the comfort of his small bedroom in Wolverhampton. He later gained production credits working with the likes of Young Money (“We Alright”) and Childish Gambino (“Free At Last”).
S-X’s time at school would see him beatboxing for aspiring MCs in the playground, before going home and honing in on the works of his mother’s favourite rock bands, like Fleetwood Mac, and tapping into his DJ brother’s American hip-hop collection that would inspire the trap sounds of his first three mixtapes—Reasons, Temporary and True Colours—when his producer-to-singer transition began in early 2017. S-X has now established himself as a fully-fledged recording artist, one with unique melodies and vocals that haven’t been heard in the pop-R&B sphere before him. Having recently seen success by singing the hook on KSI’s 2020 single, “Down Like That” with Lil Baby and Rick Ross, as well as making noise of his own with “In Real Life” and “Distance”, S-X is now gearing himself up to release his as-yet-untitled debut album later this year.
We caught up with S-X over the phone to discuss his early relationship with music, transitioning from beatsmith to vocalist, his upcoming debut album, and more.
“Honestly, it feels like it’s the first time in my musical career that I’ve been doing something correct.”
COMPLEX: The past twelve months have been difficult for musicians all around the world. How have you found it both personally and professionally?
S-X: The first lockdown hit when I was a quarter way through making my album, maybe a little bit of a push towards half way, but it gave me a chance to really use the time to grow on the production—and the project as a whole. Obviously, we’ve missed out on the tour, but I think it’s just one of those things. My tours don’t do crazy numbers—they’re mostly in venues that fit a couple hundred people—which is chill, and it’s a blessing to be able to say that I do that, but it’s not like I’ve missed out on millions of pounds.
When did the music journey start for you? Is there a particular moment that stands out?
It started at school, really. I think it was at a point where everyone was MCing; grime was just starting to get big, and the older kids would just spray bars every break and lunchtime. Sometimes they’d have a speaker box that would play, but that eventually got confiscated by teachers so I became the guy that beatboxed. That’s how it all started, really, and how I got into music. I realised I could actually do something with it and then, from when I found out you could make beats on a laptop, I was like: “Yo! I’m out here now!” [Laughs] But back then, there was no YouTube or anything like that, so half the time I didn’t even know what I was doing! I just knew what the music was going to do. I can’t even play keys—like I can’t even play actual piano keys—but I know every chord, just because of the things that I saw on the screen. It’s kinda crazy, man.
Getting home from school and honing in on the interest that you developed, did you take any inspiration from your family and at-home surroundings?
When I was growing up, I was listening to a lot of my mum’s music, so like ABBA and Fleetwood Mac, and she used to play mad dance records, too. I was always around electronically-synthed music, you know? But more like on the sound of a trippy, pop wave—I guess you could call it that. But that’s how I really got into music at that age, because I was interested in different sounds. But for sure, I grew up in a very musical household; my brother was a DJ, and he would play all kinds of hip-hop stuff, so that’s how I got that aspect too.
Do you think that being an aspiring musician from Wolverhampton left you at a disadvantage in comparison to other talents that are based in London?
For sure, man. When you’re in London, you literally see a musician or celebrity in the street, crossing the road, without even realising. But in Wolverhampton, it’s literally every man for themselves. You see the odd footballer because we have a pretty big team now, but that’s about as big as it gets. That’s why, as a kid, I used to get the train down to London and just wait outside labels—at like 16, 17. I’d just wait outside the labels, because that’s where the right people are going to be! That’s what I always tried to do: go to where people are at. That’s where you’re going to meet people, you know what I mean? It might be a bit creepy, but people respect the hunger.
Walk me through your transition from making beats for artists to becoming an artist yourself.
I’ve kind of always sung. I’ve always written melodies for musicians in sessions and stuff, but more low-key than anything. Like, it’s my job! We’d have a track on loop and we’d come up with melodies and lines, but it took me a while... I never really realised that this was songwriting as well as producing, you know what I mean? So I’ve always low-key sung, but literally from the end of 2016, going into 2017, I just decided I was gonna write about some personal things and perform them over my own beats, and just experiment. So I just started putting it out and, honestly, it started doing really well—like, more than my beats. It’s been hard to make the right move, and the wrong move, but it’s gone well. Honestly, it feels like it’s the first time in my musical career that I’ve been doing something correct, which is kind of mad considering I’ve had Grammy nominations and stuff, so it speaks volumes for me. But on a personal level, it feels good for me to be doing something like this. I think a lot of people think that because I’m from the grime era, I’d be doing something that is more in that bracket, but I’m just gonna be doing what I want to do now because that is how you grow.
Would you say that grime is a key influence in your sound still? “Wooo Riddim” is a total classic.
I’d say I’ve always been more of a hip-hop fan, personally. But grime was always a cool thing when I was growing up and, as a teenager, that was obviously what got me into music. It was the interest in grime that got me into music. But I literally started out playing the drums, so I’ve been influenced by loads of music. I just love music [laughs]. I’m always open to trying new stuff.
In your music, you consistently touch on topics of heartbreak, suicide, and mental health. How important is it for you to speak on these matters?
The thing is, sometimes they’re just relatable. People could adapt their meaning of my songs to whatever’s going on in their personal life. If I was just talking about fucking bitches, buying chains and smoking weed, and that was someone’s dream day out, then they’re going to love that song! But if I’m talking about suicide or mental health, or real life situations, then it’s going to stick with them on a deeper level. It’s all about perception, man. For me, music is all about feelings. I don’t feel like I write about real specific and personal things to me, I just write what comes to me. Some days in the studio are terrible! Like, sometimes I’m out here thinking, “Should I just quit?” and some days, it just comes. With my song “In Real Life”, I literally wrote it in 15 minutes, and the beat. It was just natural for me to write that song. Sometimes they’re just like that.
“I want to portray a solid message with the album, especially during a time where people need good energy and vibes.”
You have a really strong following on social media, more specifically on YouTube. How influential has the platform been for you, and how much has it helped you build your brand?
How I got linked into the YouTube scene was from connecting the guys on the TGF channel; we’re from a very similar area, like ten minutes away from each other. I started singing during my friendship with those guys—they started putting my early songs in their videos and it was being received really well by fans, so what I thought would be sick would be to keep giving them music. This is the new generation of TV, and it’s with your friends so it’s as organic as ever. But I never wanted to force it. It wasn’t like it was forced down your throat in every video; it wasn’t like I was asking for all my music to be put in their videos. But yeah, man, I can’t say the word enough: organic! It was just organic. That’s why I feel like I’m meant to be here.
You signed a publishing deal with Sony Music UK last year—congrats on that. Did the way you create undergo any drastic changes after you signed on the dotted line?
To be honest, it hasn’t changed, because I signed my deal during the first lockdown in April and we’ve been indoors ever since. So all I know is: indoors, studio, finishing my album, and really just waiting. Like, before my last song, “Dangerous”, I hadn’t dropped a song for like eight months so I was thinking, “Yo! Are the fans going to still like me?” But you know, it’s not turned into a hit record with hundreds of millions of streams, but it’s sitting on like three million views in a couple of months and I’m proud of that. To come back after eight months after not doing anything, to a pandemic, where people are not doing anything—obviously, we were on Gogglebox as well—I’m happy with how it’s done.
Since you decided to step inside the booth as a singer-songwriter, you’ve released three mixtapes—2019’s True Colours and 2018’s Temporary and Reasons—but the next project coming is your debut album. Has there been a different approach with making this album?
I’m glad you’ve asked this, because with my last two projects, Temporary and True Colours, they were both straight mixtapes—a compilation of songs. Some of the records are unmixed demos, but they contain little stories that I thought the fans would like. But with this album now, what I want to do is portray a message, one that’s not really in relation to itself. The music on the album is the usual S-X—heavy beats, fire melodies, relatable lyrics—but I’m experimenting a lot more. I want to portray a solid message with it, too, during a time where people need good energy and vibes. It’ll all make sense when it’s out... It doesn’t make real sense right now for the people reading this conversation, but I can promise you: it will.
How long has the process been in creating it?
A lot of the album started in late 2019; the first single, “In Real Life”, was made in March the same year. Some of the album was made in LA when I was staying at my manager’s house, and most of it was made during the lockdown. Like, in my studio, I’ve got a lot of demos and a lot of ideas that are there which I know where they could head, but a lot of it was just finishing those off. I’m excited for people to hear the new stuff, honestly. I’ve never put an album out, so I’m just looking forward to people being able to hear where I’m coming from, and hear my story.
Becoming an artist means becoming a full-on brand. How have you found being in front of the cameras and the centre of attention?
I think it’s just part of what comes with it. Obviously, it hasn’t even phased me yet because I don’t know if what I’m doing is correct [laughs]. Obviously it is, because it’s going well, but I actually don’t know what I’m doing so I’m kind of winging it. If I’ve got cameras in my face, then I’ve got to get used to it—even talking on the phone, it just feels normal. I can’t explain to you enough about it being organic, but it’s all just very meant-to-be. I feel like I’m on a spiritual path with it all written out for me, and I’m just turning the pages.
Aside from the album, is there anything else we can come to expect from you in the near future?
Yeah, man, my third single is with huge artists so be on the lookout for that. I’m just grateful that everyone is still paying attention, so fortunately everyone’s still here. There’s some good things coming. I also have to shout-out my fans—I love my fans, man. They’re just there for me, and I’m going to be there for them.