“We are who we are, and we’re comfortable with that.”
It’s a cold winter morning in the far reaches of North East London, and an industrial complex turned-loft space is coming to life as Afro-Irish group Blackfish Collective wake up to continue on their arduous journey towards widespread success. The group have lived together in London for three years now, creating “flavours”, as they put it, from their bedroom studio. It’s no surprise that such a diverse body of sounds are borne from a group of friends with origins in Nigeria, Angola and Zimbabwe, who spent their formative years growing up in Ireland. Several of the members saw their first taste of recognition as part of indie band The Notas, which now falls under the umbrella of the collective, but they won’t let anything confine them to a particular style or genre.
Group founder Prettyboy Francis and Vice President PRNC$$ are sipping tea in the kitchen, discussing the philosophy of the group.
“With collectives, people expect you to do one style of music, but because of our background, we’re so eclectic, and for us having our own world, we are in charge of what comes out,” PRNC$$ asserts. Odd Future provides a relative comparison that often helps people to understand what they’re about, but I’m curious if the span of styles makes for a tough pitch to the industry. “We don’t care, you either get it or you don’t,” Francis replies to this suggestion. “We were in a label meeting with a major label and they asked us, ‘What are you guys?’. You either get it or you don’t. We are who we are, and we’re comfortable with that.”
With integrity at the heart of their ideology and a such a unique group format (neither label nor band per se), they accept that it’s not going to be a fast road to stardom, but Blackfish Collective are confident that there’ll be a point when people latch on to the essence of their multiplicity.
“We will get to a point where we’re chauffeured around,” PRNC$$ says. “But a lot of people think that music is this thing where you make it overnight. There’s only a handful of people that actually get to experience that.”
For now though, “It’s about self-sustainability, about being able to wake up and be your own boss,” Francis explains, as he leads us into the studio to hear some of the upcoming mixtape, ‘Dubh’. “This is the introduction into Blackfish world,” PRNC$$ says. “We’ve got some heavy stuff, we’ve got some pop stuff, we’ve got some commercial stuff, we’ve got some indie stuff in there.”
The mixtape is a selection of Blackfish Collective songs that the group have been working on and fine tuning to the point where they feel they just need to get it out there and focus their efforts on the album in progress. Fortunately, songs like ‘Tikka Masala’ and ‘Yemesi’ are worthy singles in themselves and a great taste of the variety that Blackfish has to offer.
Regardless of the spread of sounds and voices that are present on ‘Dubh’, there’s still a huge sense of cohesion and flow between each of the members. At its core, Blackfish comprises Prettyboy Francis, PRNC$$, Caleb Kunle, The Vice, Mo-Tabs and DemiGosh, and under this light, the collective begins to resemble an artistic representation of the Avengers. Francis confirms this thought. “We all feel like superheroes, because we all do different things, and we all kick ass, and with superheroes it’s also our world. So on the new mixtape, ‘Tikka Masala’, it’s dark and it’s creepy, but it’s one of our worlds, and we’re going into our alter-egos.”
The origin story of Blackfish Collective provides a fascinating insight into a creative zeitgeist that happened at a youth club in Balbriggan and brought much of the group together. As an asylum seeker, PRNC$$ first learned to play the drums when she found a disused kit at a church in a direct provision centre. Moving into “this council estate in Balbriggan that happened to have lots of black kids”, she met Francis, Mo, Dublin pop/R&B artist Soulé and other members of The Notas. It was at a Foróige youth club was where they learned most of what they know, she tells me.
“One of our mentors was Gaz Harding from Darling. He was teaching us music, and after he left, Messiah J was teaching there, so we were doing hip hop and indie and we had access to Macbooks and Garageband.”
“Messiah J at the time was one of the closest to home rappers,” Francis adds. “He was the first person to tell us about sponsorships, about Doc Martens and how to get them.”
The opportunities that sprung from the Balbriggan youth club didn’t end there, and the aspiring teenage musicians were given the opportunity to work with numerous mentors who helped them to grow and develop. Looking back on the early days reminds Francis of an experience he had through Rap Ireland.
“We were in the studio with Maverick Sabre, we were about 13 or 14, and he used to sing like a Jamaican. He was doing that song, ’That young man wants to run…’,” Francis starts singing. “‘They found him a gun’… [laughs] We were like, ‘Who’s this white guy doing this Jamaican thing?’, you know, and we were all laughing at him. Then two years later I saw him over in England and I was like, ‘He was onto something’.”
A few years later, Blackfish Collective made the same decision as Maverick, to move from Ireland and try their hands at making it in the UK. Prettyboy Francis believes that when you’re competing for success where the industry is bigger and more structured, you’ll be susceptible to more criticism, and that’s for the better.
“In Ireland, you’re in a bubble. Whether you like it or not, you’re in a small bubble, everyone knows each other, it’s hunky dory, but here, you have people who will tell you, ‘Yo mate, I don’t like you, I don’t like your shit’, people to give you the reality.”
There’s a wider scope for gigs in the UK too, both as individuals and collectively, whereas options were limited in Ireland. Moreover, there’s a feeling that Irish artists who make it abroad are treated much better when they return home. PRNC$$ takes the summer festival circuit as an example of when this is most evident.
“You’re playing those gigs for 20 free beers and free tickets. To me that was just ridiculous, that we’re not valued as much as… Let’s say Rejjie Snow. He goes out, becomes bigger somewhere else, and when he comes back home he’s offered more money, he’s got quality management, a quality booking agent.”
Francis adds that, on top of this, it’s important to consider the size of Ireland if they want to make a career from their music.
“I know it’s harsh, but if you’re serious about being a musician and you want to live off it, you have to go passed Ireland. It’s limited. What’s the population, four or five million? So what percentage of that would listen to your genre of music? There’s only so much of that you could live off.”
The decision to move is working out well so far for Blackfish Collective. Caleb was the winner of the NME Emerging Artists Project, offering him an opportunity to work with producer Murkage Dave. According to PRNC$$, he applied for the competition on the bus after a night out “on the lash” and got a call the next week to tell him he won. Blackfish Collective as a whole were also the winners of the Afropunk Festival Battle of the Bands 2017, which gave the group a year-long residency at Roundhouse Studios. It’s an experience that still stands as one of the highlights of their career to-date.
“We were backstage with The Internet, Willow Smith, Danny Brown. It was amazing, because it was the first time we felt like celebrities. We had Henny on tap!” PRNC$$ tells me with a smile. Prettyboy Francis has his own fond memory from that night. “There was me telling Lianne La Havas I love her and then seeing Thundercat take her from me. I was absolutely smashed, thought I’d take my shot.”
Still, Blackfish Collective have by no means lost touch with Ireland and often return back for gigs. For the moment though, it’s about learning the industry on foreign soil so that a blueprint can be taken home to help the Irish scene thrive.
PRNC$$ explains, “Once we’re at a stable place, we’re definitely going to do a lot more work back home. Right now it’s about getting the collective going, and the momentum building. Once everything is in place, it will make more sense to be involved in the scene, when we have a lot more to give.”
As we wrap up the interview, Prettyboy Francis breaks from his humble self on a final note.
“I do feel like I am the best rapper to have come out of Ireland in the last 10 years,” he tells me. “And you can put that on the record. I will prove it and solidify it by the end of this year.”
It’s a fundamental principle of the law of attraction, to speak one’s dreams into existence, but with the talent, quality and support that oozes from the Blackfish Factory in North East London, nothing’s out of the question.
Blackfish Collective play the Sound House on February 15 to coincide with the release of ‘Dubh’.