Laylow: “I don’t make music to be playlisted”

Article publié le 29 octobre 2021

Text by Maxime Retailleau taken from Antidote’s « Karma » Issue (winter 2021-2022). Translation: Rachel Valinsky. Photographer: Lee Wei Swee. Stylist: Yann Weber. Hair: Yumiko Hikage. Make-up: Thierry Do Nascimento R.. Fashion coordinator: Nikita Radelet. Production: Thomas Delage.

After taking us on a ride to meet the cyberpunks with his first album, Trinity, the rapper from Toulouse has just given his career a new boost with L’Étrange Histoire de Mr. Anderson [The Strange Story of Mr. Anderson] — his second, conceptual music project, that draws inspiration from his autobiography and is both intimate and politically engaged.

With every new project I drift, Laylow is adrenaline,” warned the rapper in “Trinityville,” one of the lead tracks on the futuristic album, Trinity. A year later, in July 2021, the artist offered up the most beautiful Lamborghini skid of all time in the short film of L’Étrange Histoire de Mr. Anderson, which anticipated the release of a record by the same name a few weeks later. While nodding to The Matrix (Neo being Thomas A. Anderson’s chosen pseudonym), Laylow forsakes the fascination for the digital which had inspired his previous projects to make the tires of his dream car squeal on unexplored roads.
In this new record, the rapper returns to his beginnings in music, when he first became aware of his artistic potential, staging them through dialogues with a fictitious double, Mr. Anderson: these many skits constitute the backbone of an album that alternates between poetic melancholy, cathartic anger, and self-avowed risk-taking. This is the sonic side of the Tim Burton-inflected film, directed by Laylow’s closest collaborator, Osman Mercan, with whom he co-founded the collective TBMA (Travis Bickle Mr. Anderson, with the latter pseudonym being taken up by the Franco-Ivorian artist within the context of his video and beatmaking-related activities), with which they produced almost all of the rapper’s videos, as well as others for Nekfeu, Hamza, and Wit., all of whom are featured on the album. The loop is closed. We hope you’ve fastened your seatbelts.
ANTIDOTE: You just released L’Étrange Histoire de Mr. Anderson, which is currently topping the sales charts in France for the second week in a row. How are you feeling?
LAYLOW: When you make an album, it feels like a year and a half of running in the dark, but when you’re done, you get this incredible feeling, which I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. It’s beautiful. I think anyone can try their hand at that, but ultimately, there aren’t that many of us doing it. Even making money doesn’t produce the same effect; it’s not about winning or scoring points, or anything like that. When you’re done, you’re like, “Fuck, I made it out of there, I was in so deep…”
Laylow: Tank top, Givenchy. Pants, Dior Homme. Necklaces, Givenchy.
We got used to your autotuned tracks, but your voice in L’Étrange Histoire de Mr. Anderson is often natural. Did you do this to emphasize the personal nature of the album, which acts as a metaphor for your own journey?
I was happy with Trinity, which was about love, but for me, being an artist and revealing nothing about yourself is a bit sad. I felt like something was missing, and I wanted to address that with this album. But I hadn’t really planned on using less autotune. What I did know going into it was that I wanted to use boom bap sounds and pay homage to the 1990s and 2000s, and I felt like that would work best if I didn’t overuse autotune. Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to use it anymore, I’m an autotune guy, I love messing with my voice. But it’s good not to use it all the time, so that when it appears in a song, it’s a real slap in the face.
The album is inspired by your beginnings in music, your own doubts about your artistic path, and the incomprehension you faced when you started to express your desire to break through. What led you to start rapping in the first place, while your parents were against it?
The town I come from, Plaisance-du-Touch, near Toulouse, is super quiet and there weren’t many Blacks or Arabs there. My childhood years were fine, but with my family, we felt a bit different from everyone else. Then, in the early 2000s – I was about ten years old – I started watching a lot of music videos on MTV, which had a big impact on me. That was my first influence. I was watching rappers on TV as well as basketball games, with Black players who had tattoos, braids… At that age, you’re looking for role models.
What pushed you to continue?
In Paris, where I’ve been living for a while now, there are rappers who get a lot of views [on YouTube, editor’s note] all over the city, but in Toulouse, that’s not the case. There were a few guys, like Dadoo or Joke, who broke through in Montpellier when I was really young, but overall, there aren’t many rappers from those cities. I liked to freestyle, to call up my friends to make a music video, but we had few examples, few references, so people quickly think what you’re doing is weird when you try things out there. On the other hand, Mister V – who came to Toulouse because he had friends who lived there – found me and my friend Sir’Klo cool, and we made some sounds with him one evening. The next day, I got thousands of likes on Facebook. We were signed to Barclay, even though I was barely of age, which was both a good and bad thing. I received a small money advance. But at 18, I wasn’t very clever. In Paris, there are guys who are super well supported, but in the South, it was different, and I made a few mistakes. They cancelled my contract after six months, but the whole thing gave me motivation, I knew I could believe in it. Then, I was fortunate to go to Paris, where I realized that I could go about things in a more clever way than I had before, when I was hanging around and all. I really tried to educate myself by watching movies and listening to albums, which weren’t necessarily promoted in the media.

“Art is what remains. These days, I’ve been thinking a lot about the mark I am going to leave behind – maybe because I’m getting older.”

You became a real film buff, which helped you build up a diverse repertoire of references to draw from for TBMA’s video projects. Where does your passion for cinema come from?
Osman turned me on to it. And what was so cool about him, when we met, was that I was introducing him to rap culture, which he didn’t know, and he was showing me movies, like Fight Club. Maybe you saw those films when you were 17 or 18, but my parents didn’t watch too many feature films, so it wasn’t the case for me.
Afterwards, once I settled in the capital, I went to college, to Paris 7. I tried to go there in the morning, and then, on Friday and Saturday night, I’d try to make a name for myself by doing some freestyle in front of a group of sixty people or so. In college, all I did was watch movies in the lecture hall. I discovered Italian cinema, Japanese cinema… I went there for four years, at the end of which I got my degree. So, I was really immersed in the 7th art alongside rap. Since then, I’ve tried to continue to educate myself.
How did the idea to make this very ambitious short film, L’Étrange Histoire de Mr. Anderson, come about?
Osman is my best friend, and he has always helped me with Laylow, mainly by challenging me. He wanted to make a movie with me. We thought it would be a good way to visualize my albums, which often include interludes, pauses, different atmospheres, etc. We started writing it; it took a long time and was really hard. The film inspired me for the album – which I finished at the same time – in particular the track “Lost Forest.” I hope we can make more of them. I already have another project in mind, but it costs a lot of money [laughs].
Laylow: Bomber and pants, Antidote Studio. Sweater, Givenchy. Glasses, Gucci.
I actually wanted to ask you about that, because the evolution of your videos is really impressive. You’ve gone through many stages with Osman over the years: your first videos were quite DIY, and then others were more advanced, and the one for “Megatron” was a real slap in the face when it came out. With this short film, you’ve just outdone yourselves again. As an independent artist who releases his albums with his own label, how do you manage to set up these kinds of projects, which require large budgets?
Art is what remains. These days, I’ve been thinking a lot about the mark I am going to leave behind – maybe because I’m getting older. The more money you put into a project, the less interesting it becomes for you financially. But I’m more concerned about what will remain afterwards. When you bleed yourself dry for a project, three years later, you can look back at it and not feel any of the sweat and blood you put into it.Megatron,” for example, was a very difficult video to make: it was shot in Ivory Coast, I did the casting myself, and it’s very hot there! I sweated it out, I negotiated the rates, I thought I was never going to be able to do it, and now, when I watch it again, I say to myself: “It’s so cool!” End of story. When I start something, of course it can cost me some money or be exhausting or both, but I always try to give it my all because I know that the public is waiting for something to happen. There is often a moment when you can sense that artists are out to make money, that they have abandoned the challenge they first set out on. I can’t just go in the commercial direction, even though when I started, we dreamed of becoming rich. But I can do both. Tyler, The Creator wrote that in a tweet that resurfaced not too long ago: he said he’d do it the way he wanted to do it and he’d make money by following his dream. So, when I release a music project that sells, I put twice as much into the next one.
This short film also marks your real debut as an actor (even though you have already been in many music videos before). In it, you play yourself as well as Mr. Anderson – a role you had to get into character for. What was the shoot like for you?
Playing myself, Jey, was easy. But Mr. Anderson was hard. It was a big shoot, there were almost a hundred people watching me in the cage. It was tough. I wanted to be like the actors who play great characters, like the Joker, but it’s really hard to let go completely. The last day though, when we shot the end scene in the bar, I felt a little more comfortable. I was starting to play the role better, but unfortunately it was already the end of the shoot. When we finished, I already wanted to play the role again, to keep improving it.
Your film and videos also feature figures imbued with mysticism, like the card reader in your video “Division Rouge” or the witch in L’Étrange Histoire de Mr. Anderson. Why did you decide to dip into esotericism?
Whether in videos, movies, or even music, I feel that this kind of magic allows the mind to travel further. But I don’t really like to talk about subjects like astrology, because it drives me crazy. When I start to get into a subject, I’m the kind of guy who can spend six hours on it: then I feel like my life is defined by my sign or a chart or something, so I try not to get into that too much. Especially because we have our own “witchcraft” problem in Ivory Coast. It’s crazy because everyone tries to be rational, and then suddenly someone may say: “Yeah, it’s because he has a wizard spirit in him.” Some crazy things happened to kids because they were supposedly “bad luck,” when in fact, they weren’t. There are dark stories, some even got killed. I went there with my mom, and when you’re a young person who does a few stupid things and has fire in his eyes, people are quick to jump to conclusions, so I know what I’m talking about. But I don’t really want to go into that…
Laylow: Jacket, pants, loafers and glasses, Gucci.
Osman is credited as the sole director of nearly all of your recent music videos, as well as L’Étrange Histoire de Mr. Anderson, which you co-wrote together. Is this the end of the TBMA collective?
No, it’s not over, but it’s true that now we need to get better at what we do: I have to rap more, spend more time in the studio, and he is making his career as Osman Mercan. But I’ll always be close. Our first years in Paris were really special, when we had no money and were shooting little videos. We were roommates, with my manager too, and I would rap next to the editing tower. That’s how we composed the first three EPs: Mercy, Digitalova, and .Raw. Then I lived alone, which was good for me too. That’s when I made .Raw-Z, Trinity, and L’Étrange Histoire de Mr. Anderson, and when you listen to the sounds you can feel it: there’s a more personal vibe, like someone in his own matrix. Letting the ideas flow through the night, being in the groove, I love that.
Beyond being your most personal album, L’Étrange Histoire de Mr. Anderson is also your most politically engaged project. The track “Lost Forestdenounces police violence, while “Help!!!” criticizes the indifference towards domestic violence. Why did you want to give a political dimension to your album?
“Lost Forest” was the first song I wrote for L’Étrange Histoire de Mr. Anderson after Trinity, in the middle of Black Lives Matter. I spent two weeks watching documentaries, trying to understand. I wanted to make a sound about police misconduct. I had read And Then There Were None [by Agatha Christie, editor’s note] and thought it was interesting how the characters died one after the other. I put it all together to create a kind of scary tale [in the piece, police officers push one of the story’s protagonists to shoot his friends, editor’s note]. I was hearing about friends getting into arguments, where one of them says “I’m Arab, you’re Black,” we’ve all experienced that, it happens a lot, and it’s heartbreaking to hear something like that. Society creates situations that lead us to rise up against each other. I wanted to talk about all of this, but without saying it too directly.
“Help!!! ” is a little different. I wrote this text because I was thinking about times when we’ve been weaker. I would have liked to hear a track like that when I was 18 or 19, it would have moved me, made me see certain things in a different way. I wanted to talk about it and make a sad fable about it.
How do you write your lyrics, which seem very instinctive for the most part?
It’s often the music that gives me ideas. When I listen to a production, I get into a mood. In this album, it’s worth mentioning that I was present when we did all the production. I don’t really like to have beats sent to me by email, because I like to feel the moment when they’re being made. That way, I think of things as soon as I hear the first chords. There are some tracks that I did in one go, like the one with Damso for example [“R9R-Line,” editor’s note]. We composed it in one night, there is a lot of good stuff in it, you can feel it in the sound, it’s super energetic. But sometimes it takes me longer. “Lost Forest,” for example, I started in March 2020 and it’s the second to last song I finished, two months ago, writing the second verse at the very end.
Laylow: Bomber and pants, Antidote Studio. Sweater, Givenchy. Glasses, Gucci.
L’Étrange Histoire de Mr. Anderson includes your first collaborations with English-speaking artists, slowthai and Fousheé. What drew you to featuring them?
I love what slowthai does, he’s so crazy, he’s so free-spirited, so it was a real treat to connect with him. But it’s a challenge to perform with English speakers. In the studio they don’t understand your language, so you really have to step it up. And Fousheé was a different kind of invitation: it was more like a host, a little bridge. It’s very Kanye to put a voice on an 8 bar, but I think it’s very beautiful, I love it. If I could, I would do it twenty times in the album, even if it means messing with its structure.
Which artists have inspired you the most musically? Kanye West, whom you just mentioned, and Travis Scott and Yung Lean, who also modify their voices with softwares?
At first it was 50 Cent. Then Lil Wayne, because he has a special voice, and was short and weird. I started thinking, “Actually, you don’t have to rehash all the clichés, this is cool too.” Then, much later, when I was 18 or 19, there were the early Travis tracks, which were a real slap in the face to the industry. And then right after that, [Kanye West’s, editor’s note] Yeezus came out. That was the album that really changed things for me. Later, I went to Paris with my team, and we started to listen to Yung Lean a lot while we were on substances. There were other artists I liked for certain reasons, like J Cole or 21 [Savage, editor’s note], but not as much as the ones I just mentioned. It’s age too. When something strikes you at 19 years old, it stays with you. There’s always something that makes me go back to those artists and say, “Oh fuck, they slay.”
Beyond creating your own sound, you also have a singular approach to the clothing and accessories you wear, especially in your videos, like the double-breasted jacket in “Megatron” or the grillz with silver chains you wear in some scenes of the video, which also appear on the Trinity cover art. What are the biggest influences on your style? Movies? Manga? Or celebrities, like basketball player Dennis Rodman?
It’s fucking crazy that you say that, I have a song coming out called “Dennis Rodman.”
Laylow: Turtleneck, Dior Homme. Pants, Antidote Studio. Glasses, Tom Ford.
ASAP Ferg had already titled one of his songs like that…
Yeah, I know it’s been done, but I don’t give a shit. In “Oto” (2016) I was already talking about Dennis Rodman. He’s a crazy guy. A real fashion fan can tell you about the latest Balenciaga collection and know all the pieces. But what I like is the styling in cool movies like Romeo + Juliet, with DiCaprio, because it’s not about brands, or the commercial side of things. And you’re right to talk about manga. When I was a kid, I found the characters quite stylish, unfortunately. I say “unfortunately” because they are drawings, so it’s a bit stupid to say that, but the jackets, the flows, the haircuts, and everything… it wasn’t my culture, but I found it inspiring. In the end, I try to dress my age. I love it when guys like Pharrell experiment with things; he’s cool but at the same time you can tell he’s not 18.
I read that usually when you have just released a project, you are already preparing the next one. Beyond your upcoming Dennis Rodman track, do you have a new EP or album in the works?
This is one of the first times it’s been a little different. But I’m thinking about it, I’m not going to let myself go. I think the whole digital aspect I had developed through the 4 EPs – where there was a creative madness related to computers, because it was a period when our whole team spent a lot of time on them – was crystallized with Trinity. Then I crystallized the story of my beginnings in rap with my last record. I don’t know if I’m going to do another album right away. I’m also thinking about a mixtape format, and something having to do with radio – because I love driving in GTA and listening to the radio stations in the game, for example. Maybe I’ll do a new project before I do an album, something “choral,” again, because that’s really what I’m into. I really like to experiment with new formats, even if it can get in the way of the musical harmony. Overall, people liked L’Étrange Histoire de Mr. Anderson, even though some people tell me that it’s hard to listen to, that it’s hard to include in a playlist. But I don’t make music to be playlisted, I don’t give a fuck about that. On the other hand, I’m going to take some time to think before launching into another project of this scale… I mean, I say that but every time I start on another crazy project [laughs].
What is your biggest dream now that you’ve really made it?
When we shot Nekfeu’s “Martin Eden” video with TBMA, he gave Osman a gold record. Osman said to me, “Now I’m waiting for yours.” Even though I knew I could probably do it, at the time, it was really a reach. It wasn’t exactly a dream, but those awards and all, that was something I had seen since I was a kid. When you get one, it’s cool [the Trinity album was certified gold in 2020, editor’s note]. But I don’t think I have too many limits anymore. Because dreams are also limits. And now it seems lame to talk about a gold record as an ultimate goal, although when I got it, it felt really crazy. So now I’m a little afraid to talk about my new dreams. But I would say that it is to leave a beautiful mark in time, to continue with my team, knowing that it is possible to succeed by doing things in a different way: our own way, which neither our parents, nor anybody else, had told us about.

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