The real reason jazz drummer Moses Boyd should win the Mercury Prize this week

Dancing Trousers

Recently, Moses Boyd was standing in a friend’s garden holding his godson in his arms when he received a phone call. He discovered that his debut solo album, Dark Matter, had been shortlisted for the 2020 Hyundai Mercury Prize. He’d forgotten he’d even applied. “So much has happened since the album came out. It was surreal,” he tells me, a fortnight later, smiling with humble pride. “I’ve watched the Mercurys for years, from Ms Dynamite to Dizzee to Sampha. They’re important.”

The Dark Matter European tour ended with a show at Electric Brixton, in South London, on 12 March 2020, days before the United Kingdom retreated tentatively into lockdown. I was meant to attend, but instead, erring on the side of caution, I opted to stay in. It was my first of many defeats by the coronavirus. I tell this to Boyd. He chuckles (the show was still sold out).

“That’s totally understandable. I think I probably did one of the last gigs in London. People are still hitting me up saying, ‘That was the last gig I saw and it might be the last thing I see for a while.’ That is definitely bittersweet. Because it was an amazing moment, but then it just stops. And it’s like, ‘So what do we do now?’ It’s a bizarre thing: what you expect the world to be like when you put something out then it’s radically different.”

Over the last half-decade, Boyd’s name has become synonymous with the explosive thrive of jazz music in the UK. He won a Mobo in 2015 for Best Jazz Act as part of the duo Binker & Moses, with saxophonist Binker Golding. His first solo show was at Corsica Studios, a club in Elephant And Castle, near London’s Waterloo, in March 2017. It would lay an authentic foundation for his dancefloor-friendly live performances. His most popular song, “Rye Lane Shuffle”, named after the bustling market artery running through Peckham, in South East London, had already been popularised after Four Tet played it during his Boiler Room set in 2016. The song was later featured on Displaced Diaspora, Boyd’s collection of collaborative works, in 2018.

Dark Matter bottles Boyd’s recalibrated spirit. The 29-year-old has been elevated from the pigeon hole of “jazz drummer” to become an adaptive channeller of British music. Released on Valentine’s Day, the album’s cover art shows a grainy fist carrying a lit torch. The ridges among the flames hint at the Union Jack. The backdrop is pitch-black.

“It had to be iconic, so you will see it somewhere, anywhere, and think, ‘That is Moses Boyd. That is Dark Matter,’” says Koyejo Oloko, Boyd’s manager, who designed the cover. Oloko has helped steer Boyd’s artistic direction and “build his visual world”. “I wanted it to pose questions,” he continues.

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Indeed, on looking at the physical vinyl sleeve — whose innards contain a QR code granting fans direct access to Boyd’s “inner circle” via WhatsApp — a few questions do come to mind. Some orbit the artist. Is Boyd a flagbearer for UK jazz music? How far can he stray from such a responsibility? Other curiosities span upwards, outwards, contemplating society and belonging. Is Britishness something to be championed? Or is its very essence burning away in the wind, turning to ashes in our hands?

Boyd has answers, but the truest way to access them is via total immersion in Dark Matter. The album’s name was inspired by his passion for the mind-boggling unknowns of quantum physics. Its sound — which Boyd says merges “the acoustic with the electronic, so the listener is like, ‘Is this real or not?’” — is an adventurous fusion of contemporary music cultures, a timestamp of where our country has been headed for the last few decades, musically and politically. Its message will move as many feet to dance as minds to wander and eyes to glaze.

“When I think back to when I was making it and the themes that influenced it, I was turning on the television and seeing Grenfell and the Windrush scandal and Brexit, all these injustices. I was travelling a lot. I’d gone to South Africa and America, so I was seeing what was happening in those communities, too. It was like, ‘Whoa. Where are we at as humans? What are we doing to the planet?’”

Covid-19 life, of course, has inevitably enveloped many people’s discovery of new music. Separating listeners’ fearful, homebound status from Dark Matter’s impressive wider reception misses a trick. I mention to Boyd that Riz Ahmed was coming to terms with a similar phenomenon when we spoke in April. I ask how the album fits into the world in 2020.

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“I guess, as a society in the UK, on a local level, we have such a far way to go. And I don’t think my album is the antidote by any means. But it’s an honest representation of where I was at the time. During the creation of where we are now, has there been much progression? I guess that’s what I want people to think about. What is changing? Where are the good and bad stories? On ‘Dancing In The Dark’, on ‘Shades Of You’, what things are going on?” he asks, referring to the two more explicitly “protest” songs on Dark Matter.

‘As a society, we have such a far way to go. And I don’t think my album is the antidote. But it’s an honest representation of where I was at the time’

“As a person of colour or not, are you doing enough? How can we all get together and help? It shouldn’t all be negative. There is hope in there. It’s not just ‘Chant Down Babylon’, offering no solutions. We’re more powerful together. We can fix these things. And there has been an amazing shift in mobilisation of people across the world. I feel like something is happening, where people have been like, ‘Enough is enough.’ Look at what’s going on across America. It’s black people and white people now on the front line, fighting against the police. So it’s not an ‘I-told-you-so’ moment, because I’m not happy about it. But having this period in lockdown has meant we’ve seen things highlighted even more. I didn’t expect things to get this crazy this soon. The album’s become like a soundtrack. And there have been some amazing responses, with people saying it’s really helped them to get through it, to meditate, think and take their head away from everything.”

Rewind the clock. It’s 24 October 2018 — two months after the UK’s hottest summer ever, the first time I’ve worn my thick puffer jacket since the previous winter. I’m ascending the grand staircase at 5 Carlos Place, a five-storey townhouse in London’s Mayfair. It’s rammed with people. Grace Wales Bonner, the British-Jamaican designer, has installed a showcase of her work. Mirrors, mannequins, drapes and fashion pieces hang from walls and railings. Broad green leaves suspended from plant pots the size of giant tortoises create shadows on the glossy terracotta tiling. A dining table boasts overflowing plates of vegan food, interspersed with goblets and thin, shiny cutlery. I grab a plate and tuck in, becoming self-conscious in the company of so many fashionistas trying to reconcile their immaculate dress codes with the temptations of evening hunger.

A saxophone sounds. Or maybe it’s a trumpet. So does, unmistakably, a drum roll. Everyone gets out their smartphones. I manage to find a spot on the landing. Wearing a white grandad-collar shirt, Moses Boyd appears through an open door. A marching snare drum hangs from a strap around his neck. He descends the staircase, dropping his drumsticks in fizzes to fill the thick indoor air with a beat. He’s followed by a saxophonist, then a trumpeter, both playing shrill accompanying notes. As the ensemble tours the house, everyone follows, muttering with excitement. As the music reaches a crescendo, Boyd returns to his full drum kit to do what he does best.

Boyd composed music for Dunhill’s menswear show at Paris Fashion Week in January. He says it comes naturally

“It was one of those nights that can only happen in London or New York, cities where you can go from one extreme to another,” he says, looking back. He has made a habit of collaborations such as the one with Wales Bonner. For example, he composed music for Dunhill’s menswear show at Paris Fashion Week in January. He says it comes naturally, partially because his brother designs clothes. More simply, he also senses a natural synergy between his music and the boundary-pushing tendencies of people in the fashion world. Af
ter all, jazz exploded from African-Americans to revamp global trends in popular culture during the 1920s. The genre has always functioned as an avant-garde partner to modernising fashion, creative experimentation and social protest.

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“You know when you see pictures of Fela Kuti, Grace Jones and Andy Warhol together? There is a certain vibration they’re all on. Our worlds are of the same energy and aesthetic. It’s a wider community of people like me, you know what I mean? Whether it’s writers, filmmakers, label owners. It all comes back to relationships. It’s just me hanging out, being at events and talking to this person or that person about music.”

I saw Boyd play again weeks after the Wales Bonner performance. The circumstances were more traditional, but no less memorable. Moses Boyd Exodus, his band, were performing at Islington Town Hall in North London. Nigerian-born singer Obongjayar — whose intense growl features on Dark Matter for the head-banging “Dancing In The Dark”, a rail against violence and racial injustice, “So much pain. So much pain” — readied the audience as the support act.

Each of his shows is different, with new guests invited on stage and dialogues with the audience sparked

It was the first time I had witnessed Boyd’s full-bodied style in all its glory. I would later see it again in October 2019 at Fabric, the world-famous nightclub in Central London, where he teased songs from Dark Matter. Each of his shows is different, with new guests invited on stage and dialogues with the audience sparked. But the warmth of Boyd’s open arms and the theatrical glitz of his clashing cymbals is ever present. Under a spotlight, he uses his authority on the drums to conduct his fellow performers with respectful glances and nods of the head. He breaks into solos, then platforms others around him — bandmates, younger mentees, older mentors — to do the same. Every so often, on breaks from the melee, he speaks into a microphone with a cheeky grin, pausing to guide everyone through the dizzy stories of his music. He leads to empower the community, not to centre himself: to underline, not overshadow.

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The drum kit is the pulpit of Boyd’s address, but he has so many more edges from which to leverage expression. Many of them, he poses, “people don’t see”, which has limited how the world has come to describe and therefore understand him. What about when he’s at home playing around on production software on his laptop? Or when he’s in the studio hosting a show on the radio, holding a conversation with a guest or selecting songs using buttons and switches? Or when he’s in a live recording session with other instruments and their players, for which he can pen notated music on paper scores? Boyd admits that the label he’s been given “isn’t enough”.

When listeners hear the new album, he wants them to ‘wonder who Moses Boyd even is’

“Outside of music, if I’m at a dinner party, I like to be the last person to say who I am. I want you to see me as me first. I like that in music. If I go into a session or a studio and nobody knows anything about me, then cool, because I can start again and be anything you want me to be.” When listeners hear the new album, he wants them to “wonder who Moses Boyd even is”. His drums are there, as ever, sure. But his production skills, the talent of his collaborators and the snippets of sound recorded on his phone from years of adventuring across the globe pile on top of one another, blurring who’s who and what is what.

“Although there are lyrics, the majority of the album is instrumental,” he says. “So the challenge, which I like, is how do you synthesise emotion without saying much? I got really into how I can make songs with a certain mood and texture and atmosphere so that when I do have to talk about it, people can be like, ‘What was that?’”

Throughout the creation of Dark Matter, Boyd would “pack a bag with a laptop and drumsticks”, migrating from studio to studio, living room to living room. “It gets geeky and techy,” he concedes. He offers to show me some of his equipment and picks up a large modular synthesiser in his left hand. To the untrained eye it looks like any old 1990s machine. Most of its interchangeable modules are missing. “I knew nothing about it. I’d buy one module, test it, not like it and sell it. I was obsessed with it. A lot of the sounds out of that made it on to the record,” he explains. His “go-with-the-flow” attitude is reinforced by his independence from the prying eyes of record label execs and the padding from the trusted, tight-knit family that he and Oloko have built around them since 2017, which features the likes of singer-producer Klein and poet James Massiah.

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“I’d be in sessions and if there was any spare time, I’d plug in my hard drive and try this thing without overly stressing about what this drum kit is like or these mics. I’d be like, ‘Let me just do what I can, take it home, see what happens, build it from there.’” Boyd’s solo, DIY approach is reminiscent of previous Mercury Prize nominees. In his early twenties, Mike Skinner of The Streets recorded the crisp vocals for Original Pirate Material while wrapped in a duvet in his bedroom. Around the same time, aged 16, Dizzee Rascal began self-producing beats for his album Boy In Da Corner during lunch and break times at school while playing around on the computers in his music department.

“I’ll go to this person’s house, say, Joe Armon-Jones,” a keyboardist from Oxfordshire whose fingers jab away on the soulful, Burial-esque 2-step anthem “2 Far Gone”, “and I’ve got this rough idea of chords. We’ll chat, we’ll sit, he’ll put up a microphone, we’ll record something, I’ll take that home and see what happens. I was conscious of not wanting the songs to be typical jazz songs, where you get the head, then everyone’s solos, then the head again. I wanted to just try to do something different. I was listening to a lot of different Motown songs and how every song is just a piece of music that is so well arranged and orchestrated. Everything has a moment and comes in at the right time.”

Moses Boyd learned to play the drums at secondary school. “I was lucky. There was a good music department. It has a track record of producing great musicians,” he explains. In the local borough, Lewisham in South East London, there were numerous arts and music centres. “That’s not to say I went to all of them, but I was aware of them. That does something to you when you’re coming up. You see the representation of music around you.”

By 16, he’d started travelling all over the capital to attend jam sessions: from Camden’s famous Roundhouse to The Haggerston, a pub in East London, to train with jazz veterans Alan Weekes and Brian Edwards, to West London to learn about “Orisha and the sounds of Yoruba land, Nigeria” from percussionist Kevin Haynes. He met with other young musicians. He stayed late to learn from elders before catching the night bus home.

By 16, Boyd had started travelling all over the capital to attend jam sessions

“It was like a radio station that we were trying to sneak into and get our turn on the mic. It was exactly that,” Boyd says, likening his formative years to the inception of grime in the early 2000s, when MCs would gather to practise their bars and clash their way to fame on the illegal airwaves. During his teenage years, Boyd met Nubya Garcia, Theon Cross, Shirley Tetteh and others. It is not a coincidence that these are now some of the biggest names in UK jazz’s so-called revival.

“There were some weeks when you’d see us all at a different jam session every night, Monday to Friday,” he recalls. “I started out as a session drummer playing in different bands, so I’m just very aware of the different styles and hats and jobs, whether it was playing bebop, funk, reggae. I’m acutely aware of the progression of black music. When you understand your growth and what you’re influenced by and your culture and all of that, I think it’s very easy to see where you fit in,” he continues passionately. I ask him to explain his take on how his music has been classified over recent years, as London’s jazz scene has become world renowned.

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“The ‘UK jazz’ label, I understand it. I get why it exists. But, really, if you were to ask me, I’m just the continuation of the music of the black diaspora. I feel like most people resonate with people like Shabaka [Hutchings], Nubya, Theon and myself because we’ve grown up via the UK strand, which is influenced by sound system culture from Jamaica and the West Indies, where my family comes from. So, we’ve grown up listening to reggae, bashment, dancehall, grime, jungle, lovers rock, all of these sound system babies, and we’ve been able to go even further and look at the source: the acoustics from New Orleans… taking these instruments from Europe and making ragtime and bebop. We understand the lineage. We’re taking the old instruments, the tuba and the drums, but we’re playing music that is made and designed for a sound system.”

There is no better example of this transatlantic alchemy than the lead single from Dark Matter, “Stranger Than Fiction”. Deep, triumphant horns replace the cold basslines and metallic thwacks that typically featured in early 2000s Ruff Sqwad grime instrumentals — which had themselves been inspired by the futuristic soundscapes of hip-hop super-producer Timbaland, another influence on Boyd’s musical mind growing up.

“The rhythms and the frequencies are built to go through a sub and a top and a mid,” Boyd explains, referring to the different parts of a sound system setup. “But when you come and see it, it’s played by real analogue humans.” Although most listeners might not detect or even care for the intricacies of such a historically sensitive production style, it doesn’t really matter. To those belonging to a more outward-looking and diverse portion of the British population that has, in recent decades, come to see homemade black music as a cultural treasure to be cherished, Boyd’s output lands neatly. “I think the average person… they don’t have to understand it all how I’ve just explained it. They can feel it. They get it. It makes sense to them.”

‘The “UK jazz” label, I understand it. I get why it exists. But, really, if you were to ask me, I’m just the continuation of the music of the black diaspora’

Now that the album is out, Boyd awaits the Mercury Prize announcement on 24 September. He is up against Stormzy and Dua Lipa. Having held a residency on BBC Radio 1Xtra throughout 2019, he covered three of Gilles Peterson’s BBC 6 Music shows in August of this year. With the future of live music — of everything — uncertain I ask what’s next.

“A weird thing happens when you make your own projects or albums. You get so consumed by it. It’s like this thing you have to exorcise out of yourself. It has to come out. I can’t relax until it’s done. Until I see those wav files and they are mastered and it’s sent off, then I can breathe. With this album, I found it hard to do anything else or put my energy elsewhere. So I feel like now it’s out I’m happy to wait and get back to collaborating with other people. I’ve been making ideas with other people in mind, not for me.”

Later in the day, Boyd will head to a remote cabin in the woods. He’d rented it for his siblings to escape the city. “Obviously, I’m still promoting and hopefully, if shows start again, touring. But creatively, it’s not really about me at the moment. It’s quite nice. It’s a liberating feeling, where I can just switch off the Moses bit and be like, ‘Now it’s time to do something for somebody else.’ I’m getting through a couple of beats a day. That’s where my head is at.”

Dark Matter by Moses Boyd is out now.

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