The term ‘lowkey legend’ could have been invented for Shakka Philip.
Since his first EP, Foolishness, came out in 2009, Shakka has frequently found himself as the featured artist of choice, a smooth supporting hand in the background. This is hardly an indictment, though, for his credits over the last decade are sterling: he’s written for international stars such as Dua Lipa (which earned him a Grammy win this year) and Sean Paul, and he’s worked alongside some of the finest British talent, including JME and Basement Jaxx.
There have been previous flirtations with a more mainstream platform. His spot on the 2013 Wretch 32 hit “Blackout” saw the pair reach number six in the UK singles chart. Five years later he reached the Top 40 again with “Man Down”, this time as the lead artist, with AlunaGeorge. More recently, he co-wrote Ella Eyre’s platinum single “Answerphone”. That he already has two MOBO awards for Best R&B/Soul artist only enhances the idea that he should be a bigger household name by now.
2021, then, is the year when he’s finally ready for his moment. I spoke to Shakka from his London home, where his pride in the debut album that’s just around the corner was palpable. “The album is shaping up nicely, man,” he told me. “Love is a huge part of it. There’s also talk about perception and growth, self-reflection. There’s a lot of aspects to it.”
The first tastes of the album have been significant. A sense of the personal emanates from every beat, each lyric: it’s Shakka getting to sing about the things that he cares about — love in all its forms, personal growth and self-fulfillment — and it marks a return to his R&B roots.
And his concern and care for UK R&B is clear from our conversation. He’s thoughtful and intensely knowledgeable on the subject, whether it be its past, present or future. It’s why the inclusion of Craig David, “Fill Me In” being sampled in Shakka’s song “When You Pull Up”, feels so notable: it’s the symbiosis of two generational greats of the UK scene coming together. To have such a classic track of the genre assist Shakka’s vision, too, confirms the supporting player is fully ready to accept his moment in the spotlight.
BEST FIT: So how has the last year been for you, with lockdown and everything? What were your creativity levels like during it?
SHAKKA: If there’s one thing I try to do is focus on self-development. I put out an EP last year called Cabin Fever that was just a bunch of freestyles I did during lockdown. So I was keeping myself busy. In the grand scheme of things, I was just recording as much as I could. The last three songs I put out were made during that time period too.
We’ve got to talk about the debut album then. How’s it coming together?
It’s almost done. It’s weird, I don’t think I would have had as much focus if I hadn’t had this time period where I was forced to stay inside and finish it.
Do you have a name for it yet?
Everyone’s been asking me about this! I don’t have a name for it yet. I’ve been working on a name for it for so long [laughs]. I’ve got some tentative titles but I’m still in the process of finding some cohesiveness in the project. There’s still some tweaks to be made here and there.
What kind of themes are you exploring on this album?
It’s a lot of shades of love. Love is important for me. There’s this expectation that you have to have this connection to the streets as a black male yet there are other topics that are important to me and a lot of it is the different aspects of love. It’s fascinating to me how humans interact and how the consequences of different interactions can have an effect on everything else, love included.
Tell me about the new single “Solo”.
It’s a song I’m proud of because I’ve been able to talk about an aspect of courtship that exists and happens in a space that we’re all familiar with but we never find a way to discuss properly or address properly. It’s always a taboo subject. Everyone that I’ve played it to has been like ‘play that one more time’, they listen to it again and they’re like ‘bro, how are you able to put those words together?’ Whenever I get a reaction like that, like ‘I’ve always felt this but never been able to articulate it’, it’s such a win for me. I’m proud of this one, it’s very chill.
That’s interesting because you were on the soundtrack for I May Destroy You?
I was, yeah.
Those ideas you’ve just been talking about — the different shades of love, the different aspects of courtship and relationships — I think Michaela Coel explored these better than most in her show.
I think what Michaela did wasn’t short of a masterpiece, if I’m honest. It was perfect because the concept of consent right now and always has been grey. It wasn’t really a topic of discussion for a lot of people. So to have a piece of art that said ‘guys, can we clarify some stuff here because this happens and no one has an answer for it’ and to be told it in a sophisticated and sexy way, it’s really dope. I was thankful to be a part of it.
That particular song that was played in I May Destroy You hasn’t actually been released yet! It’s part of the album though and I’m really proud of it. I did it in Los Angeles with a gentleman called Al Shux. He did “Stars” for Kendrick and “Empire State of Mind” for Jigga … I say Jigga like he’s my best friend!
What about the single before that, “When You Pull Up”? Were you happy with the response to that?
When I did that song, I saw Wiley’s reaction — you have to understand, Wiley as a producer and as a contributor to British culture means so much. My growth wouldn’t have ended up this way if it wasn’t for his music. Treddin’ On Thin Ice was such a dope album, his contributions to grime was really dope, so to see that reaction from someone that I look up to was pretty surreal. So big up to Wiley. There were just a lot of people who reviewed it and radio supported it afterwards. It was really cool, man.
What about that Craig David sample in “When You Pull Up”, you must have been pleased with that!
First and foremost I’m happy because they said yes, so thanks to those guys. I also wanted to reinforce the idea that we’ve been doing this R&B thing for a while. I wanted to pay homage to Craig David because he encapsulated not only a sound but an aesthetic we all recognised but didn’t know we needed. He was able to distill that sense of romance but through a medium like garage. Bear in mind that when he shot that video for “Fill Me In”, it wasn’t like he shot it in a fancy house, with alcohol everywhere and all the rest of it. You’d expect a crooner to have the shiniest outfits, all that kind of stuff. Yet this guy had dancers outside an estate block, practicing their dance routines. You had him going to the pirate radio stations with his boys and just singing the song on the mic. He was paying homage to who he was and where he came from. As a kid growing up and looking at this, I saw that and I was like ‘this is me, this is who I am’.
Was “Fill Me In” your favourite Craig David song I take it?
I just felt the lyric at that point made perfect sense with the context of the entirety of my song. When I heard ‘we were just doing things that young people in love do’, it just contextually fit basically. Thinking about whether or not it’s my favourite song of his, I don’t know.
Yeah, probably! Because he was spitting on that song. People say he was singing but that was a different kind of speed. And the whole Groundhog Day atmosphere to the video, no one was touching him when it came to that particular album, man. It was a very good time for music.
I wanted to ask about some of the other big collaborations you’ve done. You’ve worked with some stellar artists like Sean Paul, NeYo, Dua Lipa. What’s the best experience you’ve had working with an artist at that level?
Working with Sean Paul was fun. His sense of humour is understated but when it comes out, he can have the whole studio in stitches. He’s a very funny guy. He’s also very hard at work, he’s a machine. We would work from maybe 5 in the afternoon until 4 in the morning. This would be everyday. If you know anything about British songwriters and producers, we’re not that nocturnal! I speak for myself but I just want to stay healthy and keep my skin looking good. I cherish those times though because I would write choruses and hear him sing them and that was the most surreal part. He formed the soundtrack to my clubbing.
So watching Dua Lipa get nominated for a Grammy, how much do you feel a part of that? [Ed’s note: Shakka won his Grammy after this intevriew]
You have to understand, as a singer and a songwriter, there’s absolutely nothing that’s handed to you. Every song that you write, you and your team have to ensure that song gets to see the light of day as best as it possibly can. If it’s your brainchild that you’ve written for somebody else, you’re like ‘ok, I hope this gets the recognition it deserves’. So when it gets nominated for something like a Grammy, it’s incredible. When you come from the place that I come from, the council flats of Notting Hill, it wasn’t all that obvious that people were going to achieve Grammy nominations and nods like that. So when it does happen and then you call your mum and you tell her, she’s just a bit speechless for about four seconds! It’s wonderful to know that I can remind my parents that all of the hard work they put into me was worth it. That’s the magic.
Do you prefer collaborating or working on a song yourself?
Half and half. The beauty of collaboration is I can steal ideas [laughs]. Nah, the beauty of collaboration is that I get to learn from a lot of different people, look at their work, the instrumentation that they choose, the melodies, the phrases. There are just so many different ways to make songs, so many different ways to create. The downside is that I may have a weird idea that somebody else may not be compatible with. I might have to be in my own space to see the idea from its conception to completion, without any interruptions or disturbances or second guesses. Because a second guess can really change the trajectory of an idea. It’s half and half really.
Taking it back to the start, you were born in Notting Hill?
Born and raised. My dad came here in 1962, my mum came here in the 80’s and I was born in ‘89. It’s my home. Ladbroke Grove is 10 doors down from where I lived.
I remember reading somewhere that you said it was like growing up in a Disney cartoon.
It was because not only did you have so many different characters but the colours were so vibrant. And I don’t just mean the colours of the shops and the buildings on Portobello Road. It felt like the Olympics ceremony everyday, where you’d see one country waving their flag and then another. The schools were multicultural, the youth centres were multicultural, there was hardly a predominance in one place.
How did growing up in a place like that inform your music?
There’s always been a part of me that’s always wanted to push the boundaries of black music and show a broader representation of black musicians in general. I feel like there’s a sense of hypermasculinity when it comes to black music from a black male. This isn’t to say that Notting Hill filled me with the alternative or antithesis of hypermasculinity, it’s just to say that it showed me so many different characters which meant I was exposed to so many different musical perspectives. It’s why the EP I put out in 2015, The Lost Boys, felt so varied in sound. Listening to someone like Daft Punk helped me realise that it’s possible to have some R&B melodies and rhythms over a dirty house record. There’s also a strong element of reggae music in my early music and Notting Hill is obviously a major spot for reggae and carnival and Caribbean culture.
What other music influenced you growing up?
We had The Fugees, that was playing a lot. Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions. Ready to Die and Life After Death by Biggie. There was also a lot of UK garage because my sister had a Fiesta car and she had recordings of all those garage tapes. She also knew what her favourite pirate stations were. So all I heard was Sticky and Sunship and EZ and Todd Edwards. A lot of that stuff. The breadth was wide in music styles.
And what R&B artists were you listening to back then?
Destiny Child’s The Writing’s On the Wall and Usher’s Confessions did something to me when they came out in my early teens. They helped me to articulate young love, that inner space of courtship. When you’re moving to girls for the first time and you have no game. It’s not like your parents are teaching you the phrases, you’re on your own! And you’re not the only one, everyone’s freestyling, but those particular albums were like a manual, a Love 101 [laughs]. I’m happy that there’s a part of me and my musical influences that can now be flexed to the rest of the world and that’s a huge part of the album.
I wanted to get your thoughts on the current state of UK R&B. Do you think it’s healthy?
I think it’s sick. Bellah is sick, Mahalia is sick, Sineéad Harnett is sick. I could go on and talk about so many different artists who just do really dope stuff. Tiana Major9 has been merking differently right now and her voice has sounded consistently effortless for years. To see the growth is dope. Also to hear us in the UK talk more about romance and love. It existed around 2012 and 2013 but nowhere near as much as it exists now.
Do you think US listeners were perhaps snobbish towards UK R&B once upon a time?
I think there are many pockets in the US that just have a sense of snobbery in general. As humans when we’re accustomed to what we think music should sound like, we’re going to be like ‘what are those guys doing over there? They’re essentially rapping over rhythms and it sounds like what we’re doing but I can’t understand their words. It’s second-rate, I don’t want to listen to it’. It’s a simple assessment but people forget the lineage is different. The hip-hop or trap that exists in the US was once Southern trap music and before that it was New York rap and before that it was funk and jazz and prior to that it was blues. Whereas with us, we have the scene that we have now and a generation before that it was afro-swing and a generation before that it was grime and garage and before that it was jungle and before that it was soundboy music and before that it was reggae. There are huge similarities but also differences between the two family trees of music, if you want to call it that. It doesn’t mean one is less important than the other because both of them have had cultural impacts on planet earth.
There’s much more crossover now.
Cross pollination isn’t a weird concept anymore, it’s not foreign. Like Skepta and A$AP Rocky’s ‘Praise The Lord’ just feels normal. Mahalia and EarthGang makes sense. It’s important for the marriage of sounds to happen as regularly as possible so we make opportunities for everyone to go and get, irrespective of what they sound like.
You’re working on your own label, Westside Productions, is that right?
That’s my outfit, it’s in its early stages. There’s a lot of things that I want to facilitate but I’m still in the stage of putting a different team together.
How important is it to you to help the new generation coming through?
It’s so important, especially now. R&B in the UK is in a space where we can really have some great projects that can represent a time period. I’ve worked on so many different projects, I’ve toured with so many different auses) musicians, I’ve been in and out of deals, I’ve heard A&R say so many different things, managers say so many different things. I feel like I’ve seen so much stuff in other words. And I meet so many different singers and writers and producers who are on the come-up who have conversations with me and ask questions. That reminds me that there are things I can share with people. I feel like Westbourne Productions has the endeavour and desire to actualise that.
Was it different for you when you were starting out?
I didn’t really get that in 2010. There weren’t camps put together, there was guidance here and there. We had to really go to certain places to find the cheat codes because they weren’t given to us.
That’s over a decade in music now. Did you ever see yourself lasting this long?
Yeah, I did [laughs]. This thing for me doesn’t feel like a career. It’s important that people understand that. I’m having fun next to a mic. I come up with the concepts, I record it and then we see how we can share it with the world. My main aim is just to come up with new ways of doing that. I’m not taking any of it for granted, people can easily just switch off. I’m thankful to still have people press play when a new song comes up on Apple Music or Spotify.
So you feel in a good place with your music currently?
Yeah, I do. I was actually speaking to my manager around February, and I said ‘this has been the most consistent I’ve been since I left the label’. It’s actually the most consistent I’ve been in my entire career, I haven’t released with this frequency or quality.
Aside from the album, what’s the plan for the rest of 2021?
We want to have a bunch of moments. I definitely want to put out some more videos. I’ve got some plans for some other projects with some other people but I can’t say what they are until they manifest themselves. We’re hoping for a tour, the pandemic permitting. Doing a live show is everything for me.
How will that first live show back feel?
It’s kind of hard to try and extrapolate what that feeling will feel like. It will be a party because they’re not just songs that we hear, they’re moments. You might have a pull up, you might have a part of the song that everyone loves chanting at the same time. You might have things that we do at shows that we can’t do in real life or that you can’t do through the means of Spotify or Instagram. They have to be in front of people to ask the questions, to communicate. That dialogue with fans and that ability to escape into a different place, that’s something that I miss, that’s something that I’m looking for.