For this month’s First Look Friday, we talk with regal stoner rapper Lord Apex about being a student of American hip-hop, staying independent, and how rapping is similar to having sex.
Just before our interview was scheduled to start, Lord Apex decided to record a new freestyle. Responding directly to L.A. producer Flying Lotus’ challenge for rappers to spit bars over his hazy new beat “Your Screams,” the West London rapper made a whole song, one that trades profundity for nocturnal tales of being on the hunt for munchies. It took him less than 10 minutes, uploading it straight to his Twitter account. “I guess I got bored waiting [for you],” he said laughing, puffing on a joint that never seemed to ever get any smaller.
Less than half an hour into our Zoom call, the MC spontaneously started improvising a hilarious bar about riding on the back of a tiger while balancing playing a golden harp and firing arrows at enemies with an Ivory bow and arrow. He also got stupidly excited when I used the word “penultimate” in a question, realizing it could be the perfect adjective to finish off a stubborn couplet that’s obviously been troubling him.
You see, Lord Apex is in love with the art of rapping, and with a brain filled to the brim with surrealist lyrics, he has a compulsion to regularly empty his head of regal, stoner philosophy. “I used to rap in this [makeshift] studio in the back of a youth club. Recording was a first come, first served kind of deal,” the 24-year-old said when I ask where this natural instinct comes from. “We only had three hours, so it meant you had to be able to think on your feet and really come correct, because the next kid was always waiting for his turn.”
The rising rapper has developed a cult fan base thanks to the unique way his music mixes a Devin the Dude-esque feeling of being-so-stoned-that-you-might-smash-through-the-space-time-continuum with intricate rhyme schemes and off-kilter soul loops indebted to Madlib and MF Doom. By merging these different styles together, Apex has created something that’s all him.
“My flow is on some avatar, water-bending, sensei type shit,” he said. “It is a direct extension of everything I learned from DOOM, rest in peace. He had a lot of songs that went over my head at first, but every time I went back, I would learn something new. As I grow more as an adult and have more life experiences, DOOM’s lines make more sense. I think my music is like that too. I want to make weed songs that are just as iconic as Devin’s “Doobie Ashtray” or [Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s] “Buddha Lovaz.” My dream is to make the cover of High Times Magazine.”
That dream might be even closer thanks to Lord Apex’s excellent new record The Smoke Sessions Vol.3. It continues the smoked out, psychedelic atmosphere of the previous two entries from this underrated mixtape series. But while Apex might have appeared introverted on those previous projects, using intergalactic metaphors to deflect attention away from his own insecurities, this new album shows a willingness to confront the traumas from his childhood and triumphantly stare them down. “Mostly I smoke with all my demons / but I also know speaking can help,” he tellingly raps on the elegant “Speak For Yourself.”
Last year’s cinematic Supply & Demand LP was produced entirely by east coast producer V-Don, while Apex slotted in naturally next to Griselda eccentric Westside Gunn on trap crime noir epic “London Fog.”
As someone who cared more about the fashion of Uptown Harlem and the MCs of Brooklyn — Apex’s coal black cat is called Marcy — than Grime growing up, Apex’s kingly vocals are subsequently so fly that his American fans seem to quickly forget all about his British accent. Just like the legendary Slick Rick, who grew up in Mitcham, Lord Apex has the potential to act as the bridge between London and New York.
“New Yorkers and Londoners are like cousins,” Apex says. “Rick was so smooth that people didn’t even notice the accent. That is the vibe I’m on. I want to be the bridge between those two cities. Just give me two years to save up my money and I’ll catch up with Slick Rick’s chain collection too, I promise.”
For this month’s First Look Friday, we talk with London rapper Lord Apex about being a student of American hip-hop, staying independent, and how rapping is similar to having sex.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
As someone familiar with 2016’s Bamboo Forest project, where it felt like you were bottling things up by smoking weed, this new album feels a lot more confessional. What prompted that transformation?
I feel like in my earlier years, when I was smoking, it was a lot more to do with numbing certain memories. I was on some [post traumatic stress disorder] bullshit and I was smoking constantly, just blocking everything out. It’s gone from that to a lot of self-realization. Even though I might be anxious in real life, I am striving to be the most honest person around when it comes to the subject matter of my music. If I can be honest, it might help someone else to be honest too. I guess the therapist thing has always been natural to me. My pops is a very wise man, so I’m naturally on that sensei vibe.
On “Vernacular” you say you want to share your wealth and change your system. What does that actually look like?
I just enjoy giving back. When I was at college, I’d give my last bud to someone if they didn’t have anything to smoke, and now if my homie needs studio equipment, I will put £100 towards it because I know how talented he is. The more money I am making, the better position I am in to help those around me. Success to me looks like building my own village and filling it with creatives. There will be those circular huts from Dragonball Z and you go into each one and there’s every flute in the world to choose from. Akon has his own city, so no one is gonna tell me shit, bro. I am trying to level up the playing field and give some balance to the game, and make these upper class, white coke heads feel threatened. It shouldn’t be crazy for a Black man to own a couple of buildings.
It feels like you’re a real student of hip-hop. Why is that so important to you?
At 16, I was studying all the great rap albums from [Nas’] Illmatic to [Big Pun’s] Capital Punishment and working my way down those best album lists, taking notes and integrating each MC into my own style. If you don’t carry on the principles of the legends then your music will never be timeless. [That lack of respect] is the reason why we have so much microwave rap music right now. It’s important to study every Max B verse, but André 3000 too. You need that range.
On “Love Me Or Hate Me” you say you switch up your style every quarter. It isn’t uncommon for three or four Apex projects to come out in one year and for them all to sound really different. What’s the aim?
I already have a few rock demos in the stash, so you can definitely expect a rock album. I love electronic music and I’m e-crate digging right now for ambient-style beats to rap over, so I can try to hit brand new pockets [with my flow]. I want to do a Snoop [Dogg] and challenge myself to do a whole record with nothing but singing. I guess I don’t want to make the same album twice. The first person who comes to mind is Danny Brown, who is a great example of switching your style up every project, while it also feeling like a natural evolution. He just dives deeper and deeper into himself. I like that.
I guess whether it’s rapping about getting lost in a mosh pit with a lover or the song “High Forever” on the new record, you feel like a big romantic at heart. Do you really think rapping and having sex are similar?
That romanticist poet side is def there. I just feel like I really appreciate women. I grew up around a lot of women and I like the energy they give off. I like the knowledge they give me. I said “the Lord made love to the mic.” That’s how rapping feels for me. When I make a new song, it is like busting a nut for real. That climax — “oh shit.” When I found the beat for “Rise Up,” which was originally called “Erotic Literature,” and penned it, it just felt like sex. Rap excites me. I could listen to it every day for the rest of my life and still be content. I will be listening to Future when I am 80.
What’s the end goal here?
I want to make music to cry to, to smoke to, to dance to, to smile to — for every emotion. I want to show my fans that if they manifest something into being then it will come true. I never get scared, you feel me? If you threw André 3000 at me, I think I would hold my own.
Signing to a label isn’t even part of the plan. My music videos are not a problem as all the best directors want to work with me. I’m around a whole bunch of producers, musicians, and engineers, so the music isn’t an issue either. We don’t do ghostwriters. We can do everything in house, and we can do it confidently, even down to sorting out the merch. As soon as you sign, you are giving up some of your power. With me, I am all about maintaining all of my power. Always.
After I take over this rap shit, I want to get a High Times Magazine cover and take over the marijuana market. I will create a global community of rap fans and weed smokers. When I get the “stoner of the year” award, I am gonna sit under a cherry blossom for a week. Put my feet up.
Thomas Hobbs is a freelance culture and music journalist from the UK. His work has appeared in the Guardian, VICE, Financial Times, Dazed, Pitchfork, New Statesman, Little White Lies, The i and Time Out. You can find him on Twitter: @thobbsjourno.