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Spek Won – Machine Guns & Roses [Interview]

Toronto, ON – In a Making Of documentary I recently heard Q-Tip, who produced “One Love” on Nas’ definitive hip-hop opus Illmatic, exclaim that Nas reminded him of a “ghetto monk”. That was how Spek Won came across to me when I bumped into him in the crowd at Manifesto festival this past September. Rocking a black hoodie and backpack he appeared reserved, calm and serenely humble, the opposite of his b-boy on ‘roids persona that spontaneously combusted on stage minutes later with a super live set.

Spek Won – Machine Guns & Roses [Artist to watch] on

“In Jamaica they call it the gully, in North-America they call it the hood, out in Ghana they call it the zongo.”

He’s a Willowridge born, Rexdale raised Ghanaian Canadian with a Jamaican influence, who is equally inclined to delve into politics and police brutality as he is into relationships and personal hardship. Raised on golden era hip-hop – Rakim, KRS One, Slick Rick – his music is rooted in the conscious.

He’s also a part of 88 Days – a fresh creative ensemble of young, original artists across multiple genres who are collectively siphoning the progressive, multi-cultural and racially diverse beauty of Toronto and pouring it back out to you in a kaleidoscopic explosion of art.

HipHopCanada caught up with him to discuss his music, police brutality, Zongo Boys, 88 Days and why MuchMusic wouldn’t play his video.

HipHopCanada: So I guess you could say you’re an MC in the classic sense. I mean the way you manipulate your voice and whatnot to the references that you make, it sort of indicates that you’re influenced by mid to early 90’s hip-hop. So you want to talk about your musical influences or any MCs that really influenced you coming up?

Spek Won: I got many different musical influences but if we’re talking about hip-hop, I came up listening to old-school dudes, the pioneers, from KRSs, Rakims and Kanes and Slick Ricks and Ice-Ts and Ice Cubes and Public Enemies. I was just fortunate even at a young, young age – six, seven [and] eight – I had older siblings that were heavily influenced by hip-hop. It was always around me, it was always getting played even if I didn’t own the record or cassette tape. I had relatives and siblings that were always around me playing it. Hip-hop was the it music, the soundtrack. Hip-hop and reggae, those are the two [types of] music that you’re hearing when you came off of the school bus. When you’re blessed with the opportunity to grow up with that kind of music and see it from that generation, to all the way up to what it is right now, you can appreciate the different great eras of hip-hop. We’ve reached the point where business has taken over, so there’s not that much freedom in terms of people being confident to do whatever they want say whatever they want. It’s just a lot of ‘here’s the template, and let’s just follow it’.

HipHopCanada: People like to classify in hip-hop. I guess in that sense you could say you’re what they’d classify as a conscious MC, but then again you talk about carrying a tool (gun) and those types of situations. Where does that side come from?

Spek Won: That side is the reality side. You know this as well, us being young black men we grow up in certain environments and are influenced by certain people and certain friends. You have choices – sometimes we choose the left, sometimes we choose the right. Sometimes both. Then you eventually reach a point where you say I don’t want to do this, I want to do that. I’ve grown up with friends that have owned guns, or used to walk around with one or whatever. At the same time I’ve read books like [The Autobiography of] Malcolm X] or the autobiography of Huey Newton. So It’s almost like me documenting my life and the different things that have influenced me, that I’ve seen or had brushes with. So I don’t feel like it’s really contradictory, I feel it’s more like these are all the things I’ve seen. I’m not just going to give you one aspect of it and say I am that. I’m a human being I’ve been through many different stage and situations.

HipHopCanada: Yeah you’re reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X on the cover [of your mixtape Preemo Donna]. You also reference dead prez, Huey P. Newton. So how’d you get into the whole black consciousness thing?

Spek Won: I think throughout school, the Institution I like to call it, there was never any literature that was presented to me, in any class or any subject that interested me, that sparked my attention to say let me read this book finish it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book front to back my whole time in the institution. It wasn’t until I left school that I was in the real world and I was faced with real situations and real problems, where I developed this hunger for knowledge and had to face these problems and these real life situations. So I started researching online. I realized than I want to go in depth, this book tells you about apartheid, this book tells you about he Black Panther movement. Furthermore, who were the Black Panthers inspired by? Malcolm X. So you start going deeper and deeper into the matrix and before you know it you just have this hunger for reading. I guess I could say that the dose of reality that I was hit with one I got out of high-school and wasn’t getting accepted into colleges made me want to research and start digging into books and started educating myself with things I wanted to know, and not things that school wanted to teach me.

HipHopCanada: You also talk about unjust policing quite a bit. You address the police in a lot of your songs. Where does that come from, can you talk about personal experiences that made you especially vitriolic towards them?

Spek Won: I think as a young black man we all do. I don’t know too many young black men that can say they haven’t had experiences or brushes with police.

HipHopCanada: That’s definitely true.

Spek Won: Exactly. I think that’s universal, if you came up in a housing project or you grew up in a rich neighborhood, the police have an automatic aggression towards you. I can remember being young and seeing them have some of the man dem on their knees with their hands behind their heads, displaying them out in front of their buildings, searching them. I can remember them coming through and harassing relatives. [And] when you start getting older you start driving and realize the different attitude they have towards you when they pull you over. They see you walking down the street by yourself in the neighborhood you realize the different attitude they have towards you. I’m kind of like a systemic anomaly if you can call it that, I look like a quote unquote criminal [or] their description of what a criminal should look like but I have absolutely no criminal record. When they come at me with that aggression, I could tell the difference between how it is when they come at me [and] when they take my identification and run it through and realize I’m clean. They become less aggressive. It’s like whoa, they automatically have that label on me.

HipHopCanada: Got you. Moving on I think it’s fair to say you killed it at Manifesto.

Spek Won: Oh yeah, I wanted that bad. I don’t like to toot my own horn but I know how bad I wanted that show. So I’d agree with you [Laughs].

HipHopCanada: You weren’t one of the headliners but you really got the crowd into it and interested. So what responses did you get speaking to people afterwards?

Spek Won: People that were actually brave or confident enough came towards me and be like ‘hey what up, you killed that show! I liked it’. A couple of b-boys came up o me afterwards to let me know ‘whoa, that was crazy.’ My homeboy KJ, I brought him and a few other 88 Days members on stage with me.

HipHopCanada: Is that Wolf?

Spek Won: Wolf J. {Macfarlane], Brendan Phillips, Leilani and the rest of them. I remember KJ afterwards came up to me and was like ‘yo man, it was almost like you blacked out’. The thing is we do shows together all the time, and I guess that’s what surprised people ‘cause they’re expecting this dude to just come out and rap not knowing that from the beginning of 2010 to now, I’ve been doing a minimum of at least 3 shows a month. Me, Wolf, KJ, we go hard with that. We do shows upon shows. [So when] you’re doing that you’re experimenting, you’re honing your craft, you’re getting it tighter. You’re realizing this works? Ok, I’m going to keep that. That doesn’t work? Ok I’m not going to do that. It just all built up. So when I got to that one stage where I knew I was going to have the attention of the people…

HipHopCanada: Right and you had that freestyle about Much Music not playing your video. What was the politics behind that, what happened there?

Spek Won: First and foremost, I don’t want to shit on Much Music. It’s not out of fear or anything like that. It’s just that I understand they have their system they go according to. I believe in giving the people what they want. That’s the video (“Hip-Life”) that’s got like 10,000 hits on its own, just off of the love being just being a joint that’s on OTA Live. It was like I came out of nowhere. Fresh new artist on the scene, boom! It was a very community based, cameo heavy, creative video. It was shot within the span of a day. I had cameos from everybody in the city. People love the video, everybody loves the video. I bring it to [Much Music] once, twice, I even called and it’s like ‘no, we can’t play it’. They just never gave no good reason. The reasons they gave me sounded like bullshit. At the end of the day we keep it moving. I think that would’ve given me that extra push that I might have needed but it’s whatever.

HipHopCanada: You brought Rochester and Tona out [during your Manifesto] performance. Who else are you feeling in Toronto and considering maybe collaborating with?

Spek Won: I say this all the time, and this is no disrespect to MCs out there in Toronto, I got mad love for every MC out there, but I like working with R&B singers more than I like working with MCs.

HipHopCanada: Why is that?

Spek Won: Because R&B singers add this whole different element to a song. I think it’s also because I just wish that was a world I was involved in too. I’m an undercover R&B lover. I just love the marriage between poetry, hip-hop lyrics and R&B, the contrast.

HipHopCanada: Whose idea was it to spit over only [DJ Premier] tracks?

Spek Won: I was working with a couple of producers in the city, trying to get beats from here, beats from there and whatnot. One thing about producers in the city of Toronto, or anybody in the city of Toronto, if you’re not hot at the time and people don’t really see it benefitting them too much and they’re not getting paid it’s difficult to get people to work with you at the level that you want to produce music. I’m a person where I could spend two weeks on one song to get it perfect. I don’t think anybody else has that endurance to go that length with me. I think because I didn’t have a producer that was willing to go in with me serious on an album, I had to do it my way. I sat down and came up with the concept, I’m going to choose one producer and take all these songs I have written and find instrumentals for them that match.

HipHopCanada: Has that changed now? ‘Cause your name is getting out there.

Spek Won: Definitely. Now you get producers coming at you. It dies down when you’re name dies a little bit but then when you come out with another single like “2nd Chances” and videos then people remember you like ‘oh yeah, that guy’. A lot of artists that see you everyday and shake hands with you, they see you making moves then it’s like “let’s get in, let’s do this. I got this idea.” There’s nothing wrong with that at the end of the day, hip-hop is at a point where consumer have a very short attention span. People can forget about you ‘cause there’s so much other things going on, you have to remind them who you are and what it is you do.

HipHopCanada: Speaking of that, what projects do you have coming out now, what can we look forward to?

Spek Won: I got my first album I’m ready to push, it’s called MG & R – Machine Guns and Roses. It’s a very contrasting album title. The project is set to be released next year, February. It’s going to be a double album with 10 to 12 tracks on each side. The Machine Gun side is going to be more political, boom bap, he hard hip-hop that everybody knows me for. The Roses side is going to be more relationship and love oriented.

I’ve got production on there from my boy Lucious from Tone Mason – I’d say he’s like executive or head producer of the album. I got three other underground dudes. My boy GMF, he’s the one who produced “2nd Chances”. My boy Kola from the Ooh Baby Give More, a black punk rock group I’m not sure if you heard of them – he’s the drummer, he also produces. You should check them out, the OBGMs. Another dude by the name of Ziggy Lee, he’s originally from Miami, he moved to Toronto, and I met him through my boy Quest. He just has that 808 flavor that just messes with my brain whenever I hear his beats. Those are the three youngins that are under the Lucious umbrella right now. We’re working on this project.

[Besides that] I have a joint with Erik Flowchild and the other Zongo Boy, Lord Quest. We did this one joint and we’re actually getting ready to shoot a video for it. It’s a dub track; it’s got that real African drum pattern, hip-life bounce to it. So we’re going to shoot that and that should be out in December.

HipHopCanada: What’s the concept behind Zongo Boys?

Spek Won: Zongo Boys, Zongo Nation. When I went back out to Ghana I was chillin’ with my cousins and relatives. My cousin was taking me through the hoods. In Jamaica they call it the gully, in North-America they call it the hood, out in Ghana they call it the zongo.

HipHopCanada: What areas were you in? Nima, Mammobi and those areas?

Spek Won: Nima is like zongo times 10yo, I wasn’t out there [laughs]. I wasn’t out in Nima ways I was out over in a place called Dome, just right beside Achimota area. Accra has a lot of zongo areas out there.

HipHopCanada: I actually went to Nima, a friend I was working with lived there.

Spek Won: Yeah man. [My cousin] was explaining the whole zongo lifestyle to me, just the way it is out there, why they call it the zongo. I was chillin’ with him and his boys and the different things they do. Out here you got dudes on the blocks selling drugs. Back there you got dudes in cafes running fraud scams. That’s their hustle, that’s their lifestyle.

HipHopCanada: They call it sakawa right?

Spek Won: Sakawa, that’s like a whole different level. That’s like voodoo mixed with fraud. Whereas doing a 419 or moogoo boys as they call them, that’s just frauding people. Sakawa is that next level where you go and see the voodoo priest and he gives you that little extra ability to fraud people.

HipHopCanada: Like sleeping in a coffin and crazy shit like that.

Spek Won: There you go. You got educated when you were out there eh [laughs]? Those are the next levels man; sometimes you go sleep in that coffin you don’t come back.

HipHopCanada: That’s true. Overall, what is it that you want to accomplish with music then?

Spek Won: Overall I just want to represent my nation. I want to represent Africa, the African people. I want to use this as a tool to get into the hearts of different people to be able to follow a cause. Everyone has their podium, I feel like music is my podium where I get to speak, at the same time express my creativity and what I feel. My opinions. If you’ve heard my first mixtape you’ll see I’m strongly opinionated and I really don’t hold no punches. The aim or the development, which I’m 100% sure [I will arrive at], is for me and people that are like minded in a position to be able to rally others to come together, so that we can work towards several different uplifting causes and movements for the continent of Africa. For our families and our loved ones.

HipHopCanada: Who is 88 Days?

Spek Won: 88 Days consists of a lot of people. I hope I don’t miss anybody but you got Spek Won, KJ, Wolf J McFarlane, Ayo Leilani, Brendan Phillips, Abstract Random, OBGM, Masaki, Amenta, Maiko Watson, Bahia Watson – who’s starring in A Raisin in the Sun in Toronto, Nadine Stillman and Yannick Anton. This is a very diverse group, it’s crazy. You come to our shows you can see anything from R&B and hip-hop to photography, art exhibits, or Bahia Watson doing a monologue or one of her pieces from a play or something, it’s amazing.

Written by Atkilt Geleta for HipHopCanada
Photography by Aden Abebe from the Ryerson Black Student Conference

Photography by Aden Abebe

Spek Won – Machine Guns & Roses [Artist to watch] on

Spek Won – Machine Guns & Roses [Artist to watch] on

Spek Won – Machine Guns & Roses [Artist to watch] on

Spek Won – Machine Guns & Roses [Artist to watch] on

Spek Won – Machine Guns & Roses [Artist to watch] on

Spek Won – Machine Guns & Roses [Artist to watch] on

Spek Won – Machine Guns & Roses [Artist to watch] on

Spek Won – Machine Guns & Roses [Artist to watch] on

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