From Hip-Hop Roots, Marlon James’ Pop Debut Flourishes

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After parting ways with the rap group Tre Leji and scrapping his hip-hop/R&B crossover project Guzo Lou, Toronto-based singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer and engineer Marlon James has accomplished the very challenging and highly unpopular task of transitioning from hip-hop to pop music. James’ debut self-titled EP had been finished for more than a year and a half and was sitting in the artist’s basement home studio before it was unveiled last month.

In between working as a studio manager and audio engineer at Toronto’s Livingston Studios and offering his production and recording services to a host of local rappers and artists, Marlon James’ ambitious, multi-faceted solo career thrives. The nine-track release, which features a cover of Jai Paul‘s “Str8 Outta Mumbai,” could easily hold up as a full-length album. But as an EP, the format gives his a little more room for experimentation. It’s a texture project, dabbling in house, funk, electro and R&B, a medium for James to explore all the possibilities hip-hop couldn’t contain.

Read our interview with Marlon James below.

Talk me through your background in music leading up to the Marlon James project.

Marlon James: I’ve been playing music pretty much my whole life. I started off in a rock band way back in the day. We were doing really well for ourselves in high school, and our lead singer went to do Canadian Idol and ended up on like the top five. So that sort of disbanded that group. I got more into the production side of things, more of the beat-making thing. From there I ended up in a hip-hop group called Tre Leji for a few years doing production and a little bit of rapping.

After a few years of producing for a lot of different rappers and engineering and mixing that, it got really stale to me really fast. I still love rap music but, I don’t know, working in it is kind of like… took a toll on my sanity. I used to go by a different pseudonym, Guzo Lou, and at some point I just decided–Marlon James is my name, James is my middle name. And I decided to go al naturale, you know, like more musical, a little bit more singing than rapping and trying to make it as unique as possible and that’s how the Marlon James thing started…A lot of the reason it was a self-titled EP was because, to me, it was just like very bare and exposed and on the table a picture of what I’m trying to do as an artist.

Are you still active in Toronto’s hip-hop scene?

MJ: I’ve got this group called the Juice Money Collective, which is sort of outside the Marlon James thing. We’re kind of the go-to R&B/hip-hop live band and we back up all these artists, a lot of local artists, but we’ve done some stuff with Iman Omari when he came through the city and a few other cats from down in the states–but that’s sort of my side project.

What instruments are you playing on the new record?

MJ: I’m a bass player first and foremost. And then when I record my stuff I play pretty much everything track by track, like drums, bass, guitar, sax, put it all together. Everything you hear is me aside from a couple of solos which have features from players around the city, people I work with a lot. The one song “Shine” is the only cut off the album that was done with a live band off the floor. I took those tracks back to my studio and did a little overdubbing myself, everything else was sort of like, I’ll program the drums and then play part of it live, maybe the hi-hats and the snare and then just layer on other elements as it goes.

What’s your favorite track to share with new listeners?

MJ: “Transmission” seems to be the underdog that everybody’s really feeling, actually. I figured it would be “Shine”. Everybody in my circle has been telling me “Shine” for the past year and a half but everyone’s really loving “Transmission,” so we’ll see. My favorite is probably “Shine” or “Dirt House.” I love “Dirt House,” I just think it’s funky. I got my homie Ben Foran, who’s one of the most wicked guitar players in the world to lay down some crazy solos on there. I basically just told him, think Michael Jackson “Thriller” shredding and just go ham, and that’s what he did. This guy is living in Morocco now and playing guitar living who knows where for the past two years. I haven’t heard from him in ages.

“Transmission” was the only track you wrote with a pen, pad and an acoustic guitar before bringing it into production phase. What sort of conditions did you set up for yourself in writing the rest of the EP?

MJ: For the rest of the songs on the album, it was how maybe a beatmaker would attack the process in that I’m just experimenting with sounds and different chord progressions and everything. The songs slowly start to take shape. Sometimes I’ll have to sit with them for a few weeks or even a month before I can really figure out where a song is starting to go and what I want to do with it. Then there’s cases with songs where I’ll just get into a zone and finish the whole thing in four or five hours, mixed and everything. The Mac DeMarco cover that I put up, I didn’t write that one but the whole process to putting it online was probably like four or five hours. That had a lot of live instrumentation on it as well. I don’t know, once you get going just with the momentum of the creative process you don’t really stop unless you feel like it needs to stop.

Is that DeMarco cover the first material you released as Marlon James?

MJ: The first thing I put out was either “Wonder Why” or “Away.” This was a long time ago. They were out for a few months, took them down. Then I was really pushing the Mac DeMarco cover. I was just testing the ground for the Marlon James thing because it’s been tough completely rebranding, even in terms of having done the hip-hop thing. I was pretty plugged in with the circuit of the city, who to reach out to in terms of blogs or whatever to get my music heard. Coming though with the Marlon James thing, the music is completely different and the scene is completely different. It’s been a long and interesting process of trying to start from the ground up all over again. I feel really comfortable with sound and the general aesthetic of what I’m trying to do with the Marlon James thing.

What is the Marlon James live band going to look like?

MJ: I spent the last year or so experimenting with the live format, because the music is really a hybrid between electronic and organic stuff. A month ago I finally had the budget I needed to bring on everybody that I wanted to. Indie 88 which is one of my favorite radio stations in the city, they do an artist series and they did this big show and it was at the Steamwhistle Brewery which is this great Torontonian beer, so they did this big show and they had the full band. Bass, guitars, drum, keys, backup vocals and myself on guitar and vocals. That was the first time it’s really started to make sense, what I wanted to do with the live thing in terms of Marlon James.

What’s your favorite record of 2016 so far?

MJ: The Anderson .Paak [Malibu]. That’s defintiely something for me. I can like an artist but if somebody puts out a whole body of work, and I like every single song on it, then you’re good with me, you know? He definitely pulled it off with this one.

Stream the Marlon James EP below.

Angel E. Fraden

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