On ‘Conscious’, Birmingham rapper 12omo has made his DIY masterpiece

The talented lyricist tackles themes of fatherhood and hyper masculinity on the record...

04.09.20 Words by: Robert Kazandjian

Birmingham’s 12omo (pronounced Romo) cut his teeth as a talented, super-lyrical grime MC in the late ’00s. Despite collaborating with pioneers of the scene like Dot Rotten and Wiley, and having his work showcased on MistJam’s 1Xtra show, 12omo’s uncompromising perfectionism halted his career’s promising trajectory. Opportunities were missed and optimism began to fade.

12omo remained involved in music, but admits he lacked the necessary drive to really push his work forward; the steady pace of ‘real’ life rendered his dreams in the rear-view, temporarily. Over the last couple of years his sporadic releases have experimented with a diverse range of sounds from boom-bap style hip-hop to house. The wheels were turning again, but 12omo wasn’t yet sure where they would take him.

For some, the physical confines of our collective lockdown offered much needed psychological space for self-reflection and growth. What began as a freestyle session blossomed into an emotional outpouring. For a young man who’d always felt disconnected from his feelings, 12omo was moved by the therapeutic aspect of working in that way. After years of holding them back, the doors to his past experiences were flung open and he consciously explored those long-ignored emotions.

After more than a decade in the game, 12omo’s debut album ‘Conscious’ was born; a true product of the pandemic, it was produced, recorded and mixed at home by the man himself. A child of the early grime scene, ‘doing it yourself’ is in his DNA.

Sonically, ‘Conscious’ is a towering achievement, drawing on elements from rap, trap, Jamaican dancehall, grime, smooth R&B and even the long lost sounds of UK garage. Thematically, his intricately structured lyricism explores the rawness of grief, fatherhood, failed relationships and masculinity. It’s autobiographical Black British music which arrived at a time when the media gaze was focussed on Black communities’ constant struggle against both state and ground-level racism. 12omo’s personal testimony as a Black British man is significant.

We caught up with 12omo to talk about his process, falling back in love with music, therapeutic approaches, racism and much more.

Tell me about how ‘Conscious’ came about. Was it a planned thing?

I’d had quite some time away from releasing music. In 2019 I decided to start putting some stuff out. I started off with a little house EP, an instrumental EP, and then dropped one or two songs. Fast-forward to lockdown, I was kind of stuck. I hadn’t picked up the laptop. I wasn’t feeling any music at all. But I was doing everything else. I’m learning to play chess, I’m reading more, loads of different things, but music… I just couldn’t tap into music. Originally, my plan was to do genre-based EPs this year. When I’m lacking inspiration, I go through old files and it gets me going again. And I started to think, you know what, I’ve got quite a few tunes just sitting there, you know? Let me try and piece something together in my mind. Once I decided to do that, it’s like the album started to make itself. I wasn’t locked down at home, so I didn’t have all my stuff in the beginning. Then I was able to get my mic and stuff, and was trying to adjust to the new room and adding bits, changing bits and redoing the beats. I started adding voice notes, going through conversations I had with people from the past. I just felt really weird. I’ve never felt like this before with any project, or my music in general. I can’t even describe the feeling. But I thought, whatever’s happening, just keep doing it. Because it feels good. The whole project is mixed off of two different types of overhead headphones, air pods, and a little random Bluetooth Samsung speaker and then referenced in the car!

So do you think lockdown actually gave you the opportunity to create something like this?

I know if we didn’t go into lockdown, we wouldn’t have the project. I was looking to do genre based EPs. People like to be able to label your sound as something specific but they didn’t know where to put me. So to kind of counteract that and continue to feed my willingness to jump between genres I was gonna do specific EPs. That’s what would have been on the cards, and I would have never really done what I ended up doing with ‘Conscious’.

It sounds like before the album, you’d kind of fallen out of love with music. Why was that?

We’re gonna have to go way back, to like 2010. I was very hard on myself early on. I kept saying if I’m not in a good position by the time I’m 21 then maybe I’m going to start looking at other things. Yeah, I guess I had some success. I wouldn’t refer to it as that, but I had support from 1Xtra early on, from 2008/2009. MistaJam was playing some of my songs. I was working with Dot Rotten at the time. Backend of 2010 I had Wiley on my mixtape. I was in and out of London quite a lot with my team, called ‘Word on Road’, we had copped a camera and at that time it was us, and SBTV and then GRM Daily. They were all liaising with each other, which allowed me to come into the picture. I dropped a promo and a mixtape. Me and my manager, we’re both big dreamers and schemers, if you will. We had these mad extravagant plans. And then it was like, if we can’t execute it to that mad level, we’re not doing it. I think that was very detrimental going forward. It meant that a lot of things that we could have done, a lot of opportunities we could have maximised, we didn’t because we weren’t able to do so in the way we wanted to at that time. We just didn’t bother doing it. As a result, things slowed down a little bit. We had a few differences in opinion on what should and shouldn’t be done. Things faded a little bit after that. At that time, there was another side of life that I neglected. I started noticing more of what was going on with my friends because when I left school, from 16 to 20 I was just fully immersed in music. So a lot of stuff was going on with my friends and I wasn’t fully aware because of this little grind that I was on. I started to focus on the other side of life, really. And then I think I kind of got into that, more than I was into the music. I just didn’t have that same drive to want to push. I felt like if I ever wanted to take it seriously again, it has to be natural.

Was it more the ‘industry’ side of things that you lost interest in?

I’m very hands-on. And I think handing responsibility over to someone and feeling like someone’s not really pushing your idea or feeling like you’re not as able to freely create without an opinion coming in and making you doubt what it is that you do, looking back I know that probably wasn’t the best thing for me. But again, it’s a learning curve. I wouldn’t have known that unless I’ve been through it.

“When I can’t use the tripod for the camera I just rope my mum in!”

You produced everything on ‘Conscious’ didn’t you? It’s basically a one man show!

Yeah, mixing, mastering, recording, producing and even down to all the artwork and video editing. I mean, when I can’t use the tripod for the camera I just rope my mum in! The videos are shot on my phone and edited on my iPad as well. I’m not a video videographer or editor or anything. I just do it because I know that I have to do it! I didn’t study this, it was all done on the fly. I’m on YouTube learning how to use this and that. I’m just learning as I go along, because I know for now, this is the situation I have to deal with. Rather than let it stop me, like I would have before, I’ve tried to adjust the mindset to be like, the growth is fine, don’t be so obsessed with this idea of perfection.

What has triggered that growth?

I came to the conclusion very early on that having a job and sitting in an office isn’t for me. I literally lose my mind in those types of positions, you know! I realised very early on that I’m creative. In order to be able to survive in the industry and have a career, I’m gonna have to learn to get out of my own way. And all these little things that I keep doing, that stops me from putting stuff out, I have to do the opposite.

The content of the album is very personal and raw. Was that your intention, or did that happen organically?

I’ve got a track on there called ‘September F12eestyle’. It’s probably the rawest track. I was making the beat. I started mumble freestlying, trying to find the flow. The first line popped into my head. Then I started writing. It turned into this outpouring! I’ve never really been that open in music before and I’m not really that open in my personal life either. So it started to feel therapeutic in a way, going back in my mind and going over these situations and scenarios. I live in my head all the time. I just never really say these things out loud. And when I was listening back to it, I couldn’t stop smiling. I was like, You know what? This is sick!

“When people see the title they might think ‘backpack rap’ but it’s not that.”

Getting stuff off your chest is part of the therapeutic process.

Exactly. And after that I started to understand when people say music is relief for them because I never used to feel like that. So then, I said, do you know what? I’m going to stop holding back! In my lyrics, things would come to mind, but I’d feel like I can’t say that. So then I got on the ‘Conscious’ vibe. When people see the title they might think ‘backpack rap’ but it’s not that. It was just me realising that for anything to exist in this life where man is concerned, it begins with a conscious thought. It was like me deciding this is the path that I’m now going to take, understanding that I’m not perfect and trying to be better In recognising my flaws and doing things with intent and reason. So it ties into that.

The grief of losing your nan is another personal theme you explore. Had you done much processing of that grief when you sat down to make that album?

Not at all, and I still don’t think I have really. I say it on ‘Words off my Chest’, I push so many things aside to the back of my mind. I know one day I’ll have to address them. I mean, it’s her birthday today. It’s still hard, you know. That was a challenge with writing, I really had to go in there and pull these things out and say things that I wouldn’t really have said before, or have just said to myself. We’re getting there. And that’s why the album is called ‘Conscious’, I’m trying to make those conscious decisions to stop being so dismissive of my feelings. It’s doing more damage than good, but I don’t realise until certain situations arise and it’s like, why do I not deal with this? So yeah, it’s like self therapy and maybe actually seeking some real therapy and trying to get to the bottom of this.

That’s a big step, man.

Yeah, I’m trying man. Because I’m very much ‘adapt and go on’.

BLM was very much in the media gaze when the album dropped. How did it feel to be releasing such a personal project at that time?

I didn’t want people to feel like I’m trying to take advantage of the situation. And at the same time, going back to me dismissing things, as people were starting to talk about micro-aggressions, before then I hadn’t really heard of the term or at least not understood it like that. Then I started to think, hold on, I’ve been through that and actually, a man said something to me today. And then I’m getting mad. It was such a rollercoaster. It was probably a good thing that I was doing the album because I was so wrapped up in it. I was only popping my head out for short periods. I’ll be honest, a lot of the police brutality videos I haven’t watched because of the way they affect me. Do you know how many things we as a people are going through on a day-to-day basis, that we just think is just normal? I don’t want to carry that weight around because one day it may very well reveal itself and it’s gonna be a lot to deal with. The music kind of gave me a bit of a hideaway.

I think it’s a really significant project because it’s a Black British man’s very personal testimony.

Yeah, definitely, thank you.

There’s a wide range of sounds on the album from hip-hop to grime, dancehall and even UK garage. What’s the thinking behind that?

It’s from growing up on lots of different music and always liking different genres of music, that’s in me. I actually fall into genres. Like say I’m listening to radio and Shy FX comes on with some sick drum ‘n’ bass, I’m inspired. I actually have two or three drum ‘n’ bass tracks! They just weren’t right for this. I don’t know if I’m the biggest fan of listening to a project that sounds pretty much the same all the way through. As much as I’m making music for other people, I’m making it for myself first. If I was to have this project and not make anything else again, I think I’d be happy. No, I know I’d be happy.

Who would you say your biggest musical influences are?

If I’m honest, if we’re talking about grime, The Movement, and we’ll add Kano to the mix. Yeah, top spitters for me. That was my bag for grime. They were ahead of their time, 100 percent! And I’ve always felt like that with my own music. I’ve got a lot of old songs that I know if I was to put out now, they’d sit very well. I think back to the way that I was spitting and the flows that I was using when everyone else just had the reload bars. I was the guy that was spitting the full 16 or 32!

What about artists from other genres?

I’m gonna say Brandy, because of my mum. She’s 18 or 19 years older than me. So by the time I was 10, she’s 29. We’re not that far apart. So her musical tastes, I still remember a lot of them. I was a good age to take in all of them. She’s a singer, as well so a lot of my influences come from her and being taken along to the studio when she couldn’t get my nan to watch me. That’s where I get like the Nas, Common and Slum Village ‘boom bap’ sounds from, mum loved listening to them.

On ‘Words off my Chest’ you call out hyper masculinity. So what’s your ethos when it comes to manhood and masculinity?

I’m not even gonna sit here and say I’m heavily educated in all aspects of that topic, but for me personally, why is it that when I’m walking past a group of guys, I feel like I have to be screwing up my face and thinking about who I could bang up first? What is that about? No! We shouldn’t be like that. It’s just like constant measuring up and comparing and things like that. Nah man, I’m not with it. I just don’t want people to feel overly pressured by social standards and trying to upkeep with what someone says about what a man ‘should’ do.

“One day [my son]’s gonna hear these songs and I want him to feel like his dad was saying something.”

How has being a dad impacted you?

I’m so much more conscious about what it is I’m saying and the way that I’m saying it. One day he’s gonna hear these songs and I want him to feel like his dad was saying something. A lot of the times my lyrics are like onions in a way, they are layered up so you can listen to it and just take it as it is but there’s actually more to it. I think I’m just showing more intent with what it is that I’m doing and what it is I’m saying and how I’m saying it. You’re more able to tap into those kinds of emotions being a dad. He’s made me soft, man! He’s doing this thing where you leave him in the room at nighttime in his cot and he’s started waving bye at me now. It’s like ‘Ah, my heart!’ I thought, ‘How can I leave him?’ As I said before, being so disconnected from emotions, when he came it was a weird feeling. I was like I’m supposed to feel more than this. But then it just grew and grew, and even now it’s still growing, literally every day.

Watch the short documentary made for ‘Conscious’: