Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
”Yeah, that is my goal,” Oliver Sabin (AKA Unicorn Kid) replies unwaveringly when I echo his words, “You want it to be a Top 40 record?” That’s apparently the aim of the unnamed debut album to come, and I’m stumped.
Unicorn Kid is one of those indefinable new era musicians who make little to no distinction between, frankly, anything. It’s a creative universe that consists of collaborations with Sia, Kate Havnevik and Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke, only to be abandoned in favour of vocal samples from 8-bit artist Talk to Animals or disco-icon Loleatta Holloway. It’s one where you can compare Lady Gaga to David Bowie and Grace Jones, embrace pop while channelling the spirit of early house or conceptualise your ‘brand’ with daring focus while wanting nothing more than to promote love and acceptance. It’s a free-feeling sentiment encompassed by 2011’s ‘Tidal Rave’ EP as it joyfully declares “we are the whisper of ecstasy dreams!” in the banging rave of True Love Fantasy, as well as the elevating, proggy rush of the recently dropped single Feel So Real.
Unicorn Kid – True Love Fantasy
“I think there are maybe two ways of getting to write a Top 40 record,” Sabin says about the concept behind the album he’s just finished the day before. “There are artists like Carly Rae Jepsen who are born into the pop machine with that intention, and then there are people coming in and crossing over with an original idea. I guess, I’m kind of somewhere in between that because the intention was to cross over. It’s always been the plan.”
Down in London for a spell from his hometown of Edinburgh, Sabin is taller than I expected and much friendlier and more open than I could have hoped. It’s easy to make that mistake, though, because, as someone inextricably associated with that ultra-cool, self-aware network of gender-bending enigmas that seem to exist exclusively on Tumblr, Unicorn Kid the Net Persona is bound up with the teen webspeak, technophile idioms and online in-jokes that can be alienating for any out-of-touch Luddite like yours truly.
But then, Unicorn Kid isn’t just his Twitter account, and if he’s being haunted by a digital trail going back five years, it’s only because such is life for his generation of 90s born babies. If it isn’t his early days as a cherub-faced 15-year old with a signature stuffed lion-hat creating chiptunes, then it’s the pastel-pink crew cut, ‘Tidal Rave’ and its inevitable associations with the imaginary micro-genre of seapunk.
“You can’t really associate yourself too much with a particular genre, especially a fad genre, because when it dies, you’re going to go with it.” – Unicorn Kid
In fact, I’d been chasing Unicorn Kid for the better part of a year, having identified him as the only substantial expression of that elusive aesthetic at the time, but at the mention of said non-genre to his management, negotiations stopped cold. “I might have said that I didn’t want to do an interview about seapunk,” Sabin chuckles apologetically, as he adds it was just a facebook appreciation page of ‘Tropical Rave’ that was never supposed to be the subject of a New York Times think piece. “It just became this stupid, vapid thing; kids wearing bindis and photo-shopping dolphins into their background. It was fun when it was only a few people but then it started to represent something that I didn’t really have much affinity with, or even liked. It was, literally, just a brand that I came up with for that EP and then suddenly you’re typecast as this ‘seapunk artist’. The one thing that it taught me is that you can’t really associate yourself too much with a particular genre, especially a fad genre, because when it dies, you’re going to go with it.”
I’m not a freakin seapunk you dumb bloggers. I’m not even punk I hate punk I live w. my parents !
— UNICORN KID March 3, 2012
As the most recent of many identity crises Sabin has experienced in his formative years, it’s seapunk that finally tipped Unicorn Kid toward a full embrace of pop music, which he describes as one of the most democratic, non-elitist modes of expression he could think of; the opposite of what made his high school years hell. “I’m anti-hierarchy and exclusivity because I had such a shitty time when I was younger,” Sabin says about growing up openly gay from the age of fourteen. “I came out because I was at this under-18s Goth night and all my friends saw me kissing this guy. My brother was at the school so that night I came back home and I was like ‘Mum, Dad, I’m gay’. It was a non-issue in the family, which was really good, but at school it was really bad. I got bullied really bad for it.” That’s where Sabin found himself retreating further into music as a way of coping, and by the end of it he was doing remixes for the Pet Shop Boys in his Easter break.
Pet Shop Boys – Did You See Me Coming (Unicorn Kid mix)
It’s hard to imagine the pressures of being a rising recording artist during those crucial teenage years, all while navigating the confusing and cut-throat world of the music industry. Because, even there, Sabin found himself coming up against prejudice: “I had this agent who said, ‘yeah, you need to stay in the closet. In electronic music you cannot be gay. Because women don’t like it and men don’t like it.’ I was like, ‘fuck that’,” he says laughing, while adding that the music industry is still a very homophobic one. “That’s why Le1f is interesting because a lot of people have never seen a gay black man before; a lot of people are still very uncomfortable with that. His video was put on WorldStarHipHop and there was so much shit on there.” Sabin is referring to the stream of homophobic comments that followed a post of the New York rapper’s brilliantly popping Wut video on the controversial content-aggregating blog. “Even with A$AP Rocky, people practically threw him a fucking parade when he said, ‘I don’t care if people are gay’ and it’s like, why? ‘Good job, you’re not a shithead’.”
Inevitably, Sabin would look elsewhere for the acceptance he wasn’t getting at school and the global social network of similar, like-minded artists whom he counts as friends, including Le1f. “When I first came out, and still now, my friend group consists of mostly, or all, straight people. So I never really knew much about gay culture and everything I did know was through the internet,” he says, continuing that, in Edinburgh, there’s really no queer underground culture to speak of. Hence, the online socialising.
Funnily enough, you can hear the fibre-optic connection in Sabin’s speech. It almost sounds more of the United States than the United Kingdom, even though he’s never spent a great deal of time in North America beyond touring. “I’ve got a weird accent. I think it’s partially because my mum’s English, I’m gay and I’m from Scotland,” he chuckles before adding that, as part of a youth culture that knows no borders, it’s probably just as likely the result of a global dialect that comes with mass communication. “I have a lot of friends online and I talk to them a lot so, I don’t know, there’s this kind of internet language, I guess. It all becomes a bit universal in the end because we’re all talking to each other all the time.”
“It’s weird because I’ve always existed in this space between the mainstream consciousness and this kind of indie world. I like both but I don’t really feel like committing myself to one thing. And yeah I’m self-aware, but so is Rihanna.” – Unicorn Kid
It’s strange, because here is a bright young thing with an analytical mind that has a deep understanding of the world in its complexities, yet his music and his attitude is as far away from self-conscious as you can get. “It’s weird because I’ve always existed in this space between the mainstream consciousness and this kind of indie world. I like both but I don’t really feel like committing myself to one thing. And yeah I’m self-aware, but so is Rihanna. She knows she’s making pop music.”
In fact, Sabin will happily rub shoulders with the likes of future-conceptualist James Ferraro and dark “circumambient” Grimes, while opting to perform to teen crowds supporting the likes of synth-pop musician Owl City and comedy music group The Midnight Beast. “Every one of the Owl City gigs was amazing. They were really good shows. I really loved the crowd, everybody loved the music and it was just right for me. I know a lot of people see that stuff and are like ‘what is he doing? Why is he touring with them?’ But they’re the worst kind of people to have being into your music, the people that really care about that sort of thing. The thing that would stunt me growing up was this idea of guilty pleasures; feeling guilty about what you like. But the moment I was like, ‘yeah I really love happy hardcore dance music. I really love nu metal music,’ all that kind of stuff… It’s when you can start to feel free about what you’re doing and when you can actually be happy.”
Unicorn Kid – Need U
That brings us back to Unicorn Kid’s chosen mode of expression and how that is the real future of music “because regardless of whether you’re gay or straight, that you’re poor or rich, everybody loves pop. It’s not exclusive to anybody.” That’s not to say, though, that it couldn’t also use some help in the “diversity” department, which is why Sabin has taken it upon himself to buck the trend and offer a less than hetero-normative take on catchy melodies and all round good times. “That’s also kind of the reason that I like to do Top 40. I can’t actually think of that many openly gay pop artists and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a pop song sung about a man from another man, or sung about a woman from another woman. That Katy Perry song doesn’t count.”