"Barka created the layout and painted the shells. It wasn’t intentional but sometimes things are already ordained and it felt like the right time to share this series of photos with the world. We could have done a whole new photoshoot or million-pound videos, but I'm trying to keep this album natural to my story to this point."
Interview by Georgia Mulraine
Photos by James Potter
An opening statement but not an introduction, Yussef Dayes' phenomenal debut solidifies what we already knew about the talented multi-instrumentalist: his art derives from raw individuality. Building on the already solid foundations of his acclaimed releases so far, Black Classical Music sees Dayes create with renewed purpose, inspired by his growing family (fatherhood, both new and old musical partnerships), his eclectic music taste and traditional cultural jazz flavours.
Dayes' has been patient in his journey to step out as a lead, but the wait has been more than worth it. Building a platform as a major player in modern jazz, the drummer and producer reaches beyond any definition of what we may expect jazz to be, incorporating electronic, reggae, and soul elements to create the most engaging grooves. This is just one of the ways Dayes' translates his personality into his music. Another, as already touched on, is the natural involvement of his family. Dayes’ music is heavily inspired by his mum (who passed away in 2015), samples his daughter's voice and ultimately, a dedication to his family: ‘the lights of his life’.
An album which has since been up for Grammy consideration, we were lucky enough to witness the grooves and powerful performance of Black Classical Music in real time (with two sold-out in-store shows at Rough Trade East). We were also fortunate enough to grab Yussef for a chat ahead of his two sets. A chance to pick his brains on the journey behind the album, all of its musical easter eggs and the importance of family in his music.
Congratulations on the release of Black Classical Music, it’s a debut we’ve been so looking forward to at Rough Trade and we are really pleased to celebrate and highlight it as an Albums of the Year 2023 Top 10 title!
It feels like this moment has been brewing for some time, as you’ve long been prominent in London’s jazz scene, with various conceptual projects and acclaimed collaborations (with artists such as Tom Misch and Kamaal Williams). Can you pinpoint the specific moment or feeling which made you decide it was time to put a solo project out there - where you able to tap into inspirations and influences you hadn’t before?
It wasn't specifically planned for 2021 to start recording. I suppose all throughout the journey, there are times on your mind when the idea is there and I just wanted to build up to this point, so I could build a platform, build a fanbase. There were various different records and moments that lead to this point, to finally release my debut solo album. It was 2021, we were just coming out of COVID, things were still a bit blurry with what was going on and I wanted to start creating again and that’s when the debut album came into the works. My daughter was born at the start of 2020 and she was really a big inspiration to me so I was like, “ok. I need to step this up”.
You’ve been part of the Brownswood family for a while, first releasing with the label back in 2016 for Black Focus, your collaborative album alongside Kamaal Williams. Brownswood joins many musical dots for jazz and the genres around it, and certainly seems like a good fit for yourself. How was it working with the label on your debut, in partnership with Warner, Nonesuch, and your own label Cashmere Thoughts Recordings. Did it help the process already having that relationship with Brownswood and Gilles?
It's been wicked. Most of the stuff in between has been independently released, with my label Cashmere Thoughts (Love Is The Message, Blackfriars, Welcome To The Hills or Blacked Out). There is a beauty in independent music which is important and obviously, Brownswood represents this - they put this deal together with Warners and it just felt right. I was very proud of this record and wanted it to give it an extra push to make sure the distribution was right and have as many eyes on the album as possible. Obviously, Gilles Peterson is a musical connoisseur, he knows independent music inside out and we'd worked together for Black Focus so there was already a link there. It felt like a nice 360 to come back around and work with him again.
Although this release stands out as a defined solo statement, there is a strong theme of collaboration and family running through the project, from the strong label partnerships around the album, the eclectic features, recording with your longstanding partners, Venna, Rocco, Charlie and your daughter Bahia. Did you always picture familial connections being an important part of your solo work or whatever you put out going forwards?
For me, loyalty and chemistry are a combination that is important - you aren't just instantly a good band. Sometimes it can take years for it to get to a point where the sonics and what you are doing are unified and sometimes it happens really quickly, where the collaboration just connects. I think you can really hear that on the album as well. The first songs we made for the album were Black Classical Music, Tioga Pass, and The Light which came together with those core members of the band. In terms of the nucleus of the album: Rocco, Charlie, Venna and Alexander, with Miles James, Malcom Catto and Rory Cashmere on production. With these sounds, it's a new world in some ways whilst carrying over some of the past formulations. I didn't want to suddenly start coming in with a brand new sound, but there are some tracks where you can hear new sounds being explored. Family is important to me, but it’s also important to share the light with the people who’ve always been a part of the journey.
The album title, Black Classical Music, sounds like it could be a huge umbrella for all the styles and influences found inside this project. How, if at all, conscious of genre were you when creating this album? Was this album name something that came to be when the project was near completion or was it driving it from the beginning?
The title came to me nearer the completion of the album. Over the last few years I have been reading more from my inspirations and understanding some of the language that they would use to describe their music. This inspired the concept of the title and became something that helped me navigate the sound that I’m traversing through that isn’t limited by genre. I had my own questions about genre, I didn't want to be boxed in. You'll be listening to the track with Chronixx and then you go to Raisins Under The Sun. The variation of sound wasn't pre-conceived, these were just things that were happening naturally. This isn't only a jazz record, or purely reggae. It's not so intentional that I just wanted to showcase these styles that I'm into. It just felt like Black Classical Music summarised what I was trying to say. This album is also dedicated to my mother, my daughter and my family
There’s a really beautiful aesthetic around the album, in the album artwork and the recurring shell imagery. Can you tell us a bit about that and what it was like to finally see the record in it’s physical format?
A lot of the artwork for my releases is created by Barka. He's an amazing artist, a good friend of mine and another pillar of Cashmere Thoughts - the label. From Love Is The Message, Blackfriars, Joshua Tree and most recently Black Classical Music, he was the artistic director behind the album sleeve. If you know me, you know I wear my cowrie shell necklaces. Cowrie shells are most abundant in the Indian Ocean and various parts of the African coast and across the world. It's a shell that's kind of iconic but has a lot of different meanings for different people. For example, in some places in West Africa it is used as currency and a form of stature. When I went to Senegal I got this one made for me and I just feel like it has a little charm to it, a little mystique, it was my little thing you know? The same with my drums, they are very one-on-one to me and very special. The tune with my mum on it (Cowrie Charms), you hear her teaching a yoga class. There's lots of chimes and shells and it's kind of a little play on the mystiques of things like that. It's amazing to see the exclusive box set (featuring branded ProMark drum sticks, and branded Afro comb), the vinyl, the different colour variations and the mint Rough Trade Exclusive edition.
It's special to see all of this here now. The cover photo was taken by mother Barbara Hicks. There’s a series of photos my mother took when I was around 9 years old just felt right to be the cover of my first solo album, an ode to tapping into that childlike energy and spirit. Barka created the layout and painted the shells. It wasn’t intentional but sometimes things are already ordained and it felt like the right time to share this series of photos with the world. We could have done a whole new photoshoot or million-pound videos, but I'm trying to keep this album natural to my story to this point.
Yussef Dayes - Live From Malibu
Rough Trade Exclusive LP.