West London rapper Lord Apex coolly announces himself as ‘The Underground General’ on “SsV3”—the opening track off of his latest project, Smoke Sessions 3and he’s absolutely in his right to say so. At 24 years old, the White City-raised artist is spearheading a Wu-Tang-inspired, ‘golden era’ wave of wordsmiths approaching the culture in a holistic way, from bars to beats to directing, merch, and an inherent need to own their masters. This approach is best captured by his Elevation Meditation collective, which features the likes of Finn Foxell, Louis Culture and p-rallel. Sensei Apex floats at the forefront, a Yardie Miyagi sitting cross-legged on a thick white cloud of the finest loud smoke.

Shaeem Santino Wright grew up on a nourishing diet of US hip-hop—legends like Method Man and the incomparable Dilla, DOOM and Madlib left their mark on a young Apex, and his effortless cool on the mic and abstract vibe is a legacy of that schooling. This early hip-hop education was coupled with blasts of the very best overproof Jamaican sounds; listening to him rap, you get the sense you’re in a vast musical library and can pick up everything in his dexterous delivery—from Isaiah Rashad and Busta Rhymes to Beenie Man. Apex is a product of DatPiff’s mixtape generation too, influenced by artists such as Gucci Mane and Mac Miller. This means that he doesn’t hold the music hostage, steadily flooding the block with fresh product since he officially began releasing music on SoundCloud in 2014.

Apex projects range from the experimental—à la the psychedelic space-odyssey Interplanetary Funk and the G-Funk homage S.O.I.L—to cohesive, smooth listens like the Smoke Sessions trilogy. Last year’s immersive, V Don-produced Supply & Demand was a legit 2020 standout, pairing the rapper’s laid-back storytelling with Griselda-like, soulful soundscapes. He makes outsider music at its core, and there will always be folk who connect with his hazy message of celebrating difference and transcending shit circumstances and feelings. He’s mastering the art of balance too, blending dark and light, humour and pain.

As he’s grown as a man, Shaeem has also grown as an artist, and Smoke Sessions 3 sees him pair his usual introspection with bold, outward-looking assessments of the world he’s calmy travelling through—back-rolled spliff in hand. We caught up with Lord Apex to discuss his come-up, West London sauce, love, his new music and more. 

“I live for the people that own their differences, and I’m glad that I can put music out that makes people think about these things in a more positive light.”

COMPLEX: Just by looking at you and catching your vibe, it’s clear that you’ve been influenced by wide range of things. But what are some of your earliest memories with music?

Lord Apex: A lot of my earliest music memories are on the hip-hop side of things, especially Wu-Tang. My mum’s favourite rapper of all time was Method Man, and she instilled that in me. He was the first I looked up to in terms of style and flow and cadence. I paid heavy attention to him as a child. I grew up in a very Caribbean household, too, so a lot of reggae was played every day, but especially on a Sunday morning when I’d wake up to the sound of the hoover and the whole house being cleaned. I grew up on so many names, man, everyone from Buju Banton to Beres Hammond to Garnett Silk and Queen Ifrica. Then guys like Bounty Killer, Ninja Man, Vybz Kartel… It was a big mix of all that.

I can definitely hear the Jamaican influence in your delivery on certain tracks. 

I’ll debate this with anyone: I feel like Jamaican artists have the best cadences when it comes to finding flows. If you listen to bashment, there’s a lot of remixes of random pop songs—they’ve always been known to rap on anything, and I feel like I’ve got that same energy, where I can get on any sort of beat and it doesn’t sound unnatural because I can just pick up the pocket and just run with it.

This has got me thinking about the Beenie Man vs Bounty Killer clash during lockdown…

Yeah, man. Beenie Man is a big one for me. He definitely influenced “EM3” as well.

What was it about Method Man that resonated with you?

It was that effortless cool. He didn’t even seem like he was trying, you know what I mean? I kinda paid attention to that because he was still speaking the most deep stuff, but then he came with this whole cool persona. And even his style, his apparel was very influential for me.

And then there’s the Trinity of Dilla, MF DOOM and Madlib. What was it about them that attracted you in your early teens?

They’re like my Mount Rushmore. When I started diving into the more underground things—frequency-wise, I just connected with them. I was, and still am, very attracted to any music that sounds like it came from another planet. I do like the more abstract sound and side of things, and those guys were the first I heard that just broke the rules. Whether it was DOOM doing “Accordion” with no hook, just eating the beat up for a minute, or Madlib featuring himself as Quasimoto, they were underground and they didn’t care. They turned me into a Rick and Morty-type of rapper where I experiment anytime I record. I’ll rap on anything, try anything, any flow.

Photography by Remy Bourdeau

Dilla and Madlib are iconic producers, and DOOM is a legendary rapper, but they were all very sick at both.

They don’t get enough props for that. Dilla is one of my favourite rappers. With Madlib, I had the Lootpack album on repeat in college. I was listening to Quasimoto [Madlib’s rapper alter-ego] daily! I was listening to Dilla raps daily. When you make beats, you don’t even have to be the best lyricists—they were about finding pockets because they make the beats. For me, personally, they always had the best cadences and the best flows on songs. Dilla has some out of this world stuff, bar-wise, but it was just slept on. The whole industry was hating on the idea of being a producer and a rapper. It was like, “Yo! Stick to one!” Now, bro, the generation we’re in has that golden-era feel where there’s a whole bunch of new-age guys who are really spitting. But the difference is everyone’s producing now. Everyone’s directing and everyone’s making all their own merch, too. I feel like there’s about to be a shift in people respecting the culture, the lyricism and respecting the bars again. It’s a whole new bag. The underground is different now.

It sounds like you’re taking on a proper holistic approach to the art.

Everyone I’ve been making music with for the last few years is consistently on an elevation to greatness and is doing better things than last year. I mean, even down to the artists you guys mentioned in your rappers to watch list this year—we’re on the rise right now, and I’m excited about it. What’s happening now is we’ve realised how these industry man sleep, and we’re taking ownership of everything. So what’s gonna happen is on top of everyone directing, producing and doing a-to-z by themselves, we’re also holding onto our masters and we’re not signing with no one because those guys don’t know what they’re doing. If they carry on sleeping, they’re gonna miss one of the biggest opportunities ever.

When I listen to you, I hear so many different influences in your flow and delivery. On “Up Early”, I was picking up Isaiah Rashad and on “UK Shit”, I swear I could hear D Double E.

You’re not wrong! Isaiah Rashad definitely influenced “Up Early”. I’m so on 100 on everything, I’ll tell you the song: “Up Early” was influenced by his track “RIP Kevin Miller”.

And D Double?

D Double is one of my favourite UK artists to this day. He’s unorthodox. He came out different and I was attracted to anything different. He came up with a whole new flow, a whole new set of ad-libs and a whole new energy. He was like a stoner dude but with grime music as his essence, you know? He’s another yard man with that Caribbean influence, too. He came at it and brought a whole new sauce, so I’ve always respected him and deeped his ting. I wouldn’t say “UK Shit” is directly influenced by him, but he’s definitely been an influence in terms of the UK artists I look up to.

“I grew up around a whole bunch of smooth dudes. I can’t put it in any other way than that. They were about their business and their money—but in general, their demeanour was smooth.”

What was coming up in White City like? 

I grew up around a whole bunch of smooth dudes. I can’t put it in any other way than that. They were about their business and their money—but in general, their demeanour was smooth. Everyone was smooth. Everyone dressed nice. Every other day, we’d go down to Global Sports and it would be new fitted caps, new Air Forces, new Avirex jackets. If I give you the depiction in my head, it really looked like a whole bunch of UK Dipset niggas. That’s really the energy of how I dress now. My older cousins, Warren and Liam and their homies put me on to all that. When I was growing up, they’d all be on my block day to day. So when you’re a child around a whole bunch of 18-year-olds, you start chilling like an 18-year-old way before you’re ready. It was cool to me. I was seeing the elevation of people who were just about what they were about, liking nice stuff, and doing it bigger and better each year. I didn’t even know what they were really into, because I was still a child. I grew up around a whole bunch of people who love bikes, love dogs, love clothes, love to laugh. That was the energy of the block I grew up in.

What did you learn from being out there so young?

By the time I was 16 or 17, these guys were like, “Bro, we’re over the streets. We’re moving on with life.” So I’m feeling like the streets are tired. I’m not about to jump in because I’ve seen what it does to man. I’ve seen who’s been away. I’ve seen who elevated out of it. I’ve seen who’s stuck in it, and I’ve seen who we’ve lost in it. I started going studio in Year 9… All these insights matured me to be like, “I love this music thing! I’m gonna just stick to this and keep doing it.” And  here we are now.

Artists from West London, regardless of the lane they sit in, seem to have a really distinct sense of charisma and style. I’m thinking AJ, Digga D, Central Cee, Fredo and yourself.

When you deep it, artists from West bring a whole new sauce. You see everyone grew up around a whole bunch of saucy guys.

Do you think income inequality being so stark in West plays a part in that?

I grew up across the road from White City station, seeing constant change in my environment, local businesses losing their premises because we’ve got new corporate people, new hipsters with money coming in. I grew up seeing gentrification happen in real time, and it’s still happening. They’re building these luxury apartments behind the station and they’re starting at £750,000, but that’s just gonna drive rates and rents up for everyone else... These are things I’ve peeped since the age of 16, when I started rapping. Gentrification will happen, but I’m not gonna let it happen to me! I’m gonna make sure my family’s good at the end of the day.

You’ve been officially active in the game since 2014. How important was SoundCloud to you at that stage, in terms of finding a community?

Super important because I’ve met people through SoundCloud, like I’ve really gone to their countries and linked up with them. The energy was just spontaneous. No one was getting paid. It was just like, “Yo! I just came up with this crazy beat. I’m gonna upload it.” Boom! I’m on SoundCloud. Songs were getting 10,000, 20,000 plays in one day because the connection between everyone was just so deep, from the fans to the producers and rappers. In the beginning, it was just good song upon good song, good beat upon good beat. It was wild! And that’s history for a lot of new wave artists. For all of us who get the chance to do these interviews and stuff, there’s gonna be a million different SoundCloud memories. There’s so many links that happened between people—like, yo, this stuff was destined.

Talk me through the principles of your Elevation Meditation collective.

Like I mentioned before, one of my earliest influences was the Wu. They were kind of the blueprint, because I understood theirs was more a collective mentality, a tribe mentality. Each individual member was so hot and had their own fanbase, and was so different and diverse, that they all had individual album deals. Knowing all of the members of EM—from Xav to Finn Foxell, Louis Culture to p-rallel—we’re a crazy entity. So we could do this whole group thing, but I know that we’ll be big enough to just go and do our own things too. We all think very much in unison, but we think differently. When we do come together, we make the most holy, off-the-planet music—it really sounds like it’s elevated.

But on our separate journeys, everyone’s been able to put themselves in a nice position and we’ve all got things that we’re working on. The fans still look at it as a collective thing because we just represent each other collectively. If p-rallel drops something tomorrow, I’m gonna make sure I represent all of that. Same goes for everyone; that’s always been the mentality, and it’s just been beautiful how it’s trickled into whatever interviews we’ve done. Publications are noticing us as a collective and we haven’t even done our first project together. So, for me, that’s like a whole new story that hasn’t even unfolded yet. We just stay patient, keep it on a natural thing, and we never wanna force it because we know that whenever we’re ready, it’s gonna be crazy.