Collaboration has long been a cornerstone of any underground scene. It’s a tried and tested method of overcoming traditional barriers to entry to the industry through pooling skills and resources and in the internet era, it’s become easier than ever.
Portrush producer CBAKL is no stranger to working with other artists and has spent the best part of seven years perfecting his craft and developing a recognisable sound that complements the style of others whilst simultaneously standing strong on its own. Inspired by the soulful sounds of early Kanye West and the dusty drums of J Dilla, he’s brought his own stamp to hip hop’s foundational crutches. If he were a footballer he’d be the deep-lying playmaker; confident in his range and position in the field and comfortably functioning as the conceptual glue that gets the team working like a well-oiled machine.
In recent years he’s cemented this role through collaborative projects with Don Kobz and singles with the likes of Elevation/ Meditation spitter Finn Foxell. Not wanting to get pigeonholed as a beatmaker for other artists, he dropped a solo album last year ‘Wisdom Is Misery’ that had no features and reached over 3 million streams. In a genre where artists frequently have their 15 minutes of fame and subsequently get lost in an increasingly noisy scene, CBAKL is taking the steady route and building up a catalogue and reputation that’ll ensure he’s here for the long run.
Having just dropped his latest EP ‘ Where Do We Go?‘ that features some of the most exciting rappers and artists from across the country including Nealo, Max Zanga, GavinDaVinci and Hazey Haze, CBAKL is cementing his pedigree as one of Ireland’s most exciting prospects. We caught up with him to chat about the importance of earning the respect of the people from home, building a legacy and how he brought together some of the most talented heads in Ireland to one tape.
Let’s bring it right back to the start, what informs that soul-inspired sound you have?
I grew up listening to Wu-Tang Clan, J Dilla, Pro Era etc, so I think it just came naturally when I started to make music. Soulful samples are great as they’re generally quite diverse, you can make anything from an upbeat house track to a straight-up BoomBap beat all from the same sample.
When did you first start making music and was it always that same sound?
The first beat I ever made was in 2014 using a cracked version of FL Studio, I use the legit version these days though. When I first started out my sound was very much old-school boom-bap oriented. I was listening to a lot of Biggie & Capital STEEZ at the time, so my sound has definitely changed over the years into that more soulful vibe we spoke about previously.
So you are from Portrush up north, was there much of a scene there that influenced you?
Not really to be completely honest, when I was growing up in the Port there was a good indie rock scene but if you were into Hip-Hop there really wasn’t anything happening locally, which I’d say is a big reason as to why I was producing for a lot of guys in America & the UK at the start.
You have been living in Edinburgh for the past few years, what’s the plan at the moment?
Yeah, I lived in Edinburgh for a year and it was great, would definitely recommend visiting at some point. I left shortly after Coronavirus ruined everyone’s year & I’m currently in the process of moving to Belfast which I’m excited about, I wanted to be a lot closer to the Irish scene that I identify with & living in Belfast will definitely help with that.
What is pulling you back home after time away?
I think the main factor is wanting to be amongst the scene I’m working in, as I’ve spent pretty much my whole music career making stuff for people in different countries, whether that was being in Ireland & producing for people in the states or being in Scotland and producing for Irish artists, I think I’m at a point where I want to be making projects in the same room as people & as the majority of people I collaborate with now are in Ireland it just makes sense.
Also, I think I have that thing most Irish people have where they complain about living at home but as soon as we get away we want to come back. There really is no place like home, especially if that home is Ireland.
You’ve previously operated almost exclusively on Soundcloud with a large part of that audience originating from America, the UK and other parts of the world. What made you want to work with artists closer to home despite having this audience online?
Having accolades from people around the world is nice but there’s something more fulfilling, for me personally, about having recognition in the place I’m from. It’s like that Action Bronson line on ‘Strictly 4 My Jeepz’ where he says he’s a hero in his hometown.
If I can say that I’ve made a difference where I’m from & inspired some of the younger people in the community to follow their own dreams I’ll feel infinitely happier than if I was living for these internet-era accolades of Spotify playlists and social media followers. I’ve been lucky enough to have both to some extent and the real-life acknowledgement is far more beautiful.
Conceptually was there anything you had in mind when creating ‘Where Do We Go?’
The main vision I had for the tape was to get some of the best Irish rappers together on one tape, as I feel there hasn’t really been many projects that bring everybody together in one place. I definitely have plans to expand on that vision with future projects too.
You have previously released a beat tape with offerings from Irish producers from all over the country and in ‘Where Do We Go?’ seven or eight featured artists are Irish. Why is it important to you to get artists from Ireland in the one spot?
I just think it’s great to showcase the diversity that this scene has to offer, the fact that artists like Hazey Haze & GavinDaVinci can co-exist on a project with artists like Local Boy & Monjola is a beautiful thing to me, all of their sounds are super different but when you put it together it just works.
You’ve got Max Zanga from Kildare, Gav and Hazey from Tipperary and Limerick, Lacuna from Dromore in Northern Ireland and Nealo from Dublin. Was that a deliberate attempt to showcase the talent from various parts of the country?
When I’m working on a project that has rappers & vocalists featured I’m mostly focused on thinking who would work best over a particular beat & trying to group them together to create the best possible song, so it was more so a showcase of the talent of my musical friends & peers in general. Talented artists are oozing out of every corner of the country right now so I think it was only natural that would come across on a project full of collaborators.
For you, what are the benefits of collaboration for the wider scene in Ireland?
I think it encourages a positive, collaborative culture in the scene. As an artist, you can get trapped in the mindset that your peers have to be your rivals & you need to compare your own journey to theirs, which can be a hard mindset to get out of. I think it’s important to grow together & compete in a healthy way, when a scene is in its infancy it doesn’t benefit anyone to constantly be beefing with the people around you.
What’s the difference to you between being a producer and a beatmaker and where do you place yourself?
I think a beatmaker is usually someone that’s focused on creating loads of beats and getting placements/leases from some big rappers, whereas a producer may focus more on creating a project of their own & bringing people together to work on it. I consider myself more of a producer now, whereas for the first few years I would have considered myself a beatmaker as I was mainly just making beats for other people instead of releasing my own projects.
Is there any artist you look at that you’d like your career to mirror or at least be able to take the good bits that they’d accomplished and apply them to your own career?
Kanye West for his innovation in the genre & Capital STEEZ for the knowledge he imparted onto his fans. If I can make a living off of doing what I love & educate/inspire future generations I’ll be more than satisfied with what I’ve achieved.
You’ve previously released compelling projects with no vocal features, so it’s clear that you don’t need to rely on vocalists and rappers to bring your music to life, but what informs your decision when you do decide to get others on board?
I think collaboration can often be one of the greatest parts about creating music. Dropping solo releases is something I love doing but creating a project with a number of collaborators can be a nice change of pace at times too. I enjoy the challenge of sourcing different artists that would fit on each track as well.