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A Conversation with Allan Kingdom on His Progression & 'Northern Lights'

A Conversation with Allan Kingdom on His Progression & 'Northern Lights'

By Tom Winslade

Every now and then I’ll be wandering around the Internet, minding my own business, when I’ll suddenly trip out, stumble, and find myself locked into an unfamiliar new artist—sold on their sound almost instantly, and muttering a near-silent “who the fuck is this?!” under my breath. These little moments stick with me for a while; my first time listening to Kid Cudi on MySpace back in ’07/’08 is something that I still reference to this day. In more recent years, Allan Kingdom has become one of these defining online discoveries. Hitting me outta nowhere with the impact of a perfectly executed RKO, my good friend Soundcloud introduced me to Allan sometime in the winter of 2014. The first track I heard was “Wavey”, the stand-out cut from Allan’s Future Memoirs project which was released earlier that year. Featuring fellow Minnesotan implant Corbin FKA Spooky Black, “Wavey” served as an ethereal first look into Allan’s soundscape, with my interest being piqued even further upon discovering it was co-produced by the man himself.

I played Future Memoirs a whole bunch that winter, intrigued by what would come next. Although I already believed in Allan’s potential stardom, the last thing I expected was to see him on stage with Kanye just a few months later—no less at the Brit Awards, performing on my own home-turf here in London. Now he really had my attention. After a little digging, I learned that Allan had been working with the legendary Plain Pat, the OG connecting the dots between him and Yeezy personally. Looking back at that Kid Cudi comparison from earlier, it’s almost poetic knowing that Plain Pat is the same dude responsible for steering Cudder’s career trajectory.

Fast forward another year and Allan Kingdom has kept the energy snowballing—building upon his opportunities, yet remaining the same outsider kid from the North. He released a new project at the very top of this year titled Northern Lights, a display of his maturity as an artist, yet familiar in its signature self-production, melodic vocals, and down-to-earth persona that is omnipresent throughout everything Allan touches. Whilst touring the record, Allan briefly slipped through to Europe—including his first time back in London since “All Day” changed everything. Visiting on his own terms this time around, Allan made time to sit down with me and talk about his journey so far, his predictions for where hip-hop is heading and explain why performing live is when “it all makes sense.”

TOM WINSLADE: You’ve been building steadily for a little while, but it seems like things really picked up with the release of Future Memoirs a couple of years back. How would you best describe your journey between then and now?

ALLAN KINGDOM: It’s mainly been a case of adjusting, really. Growing and learning new things things every day.

Would you stay that your perspective changed significantly between that record and your latest, Northern Lights—or are you still approaching things in the same way?

The music has always just been based on life experiences, so in that sense the formula is still the same. I guess all artists get better musically with time. The same as anything, if you’re working on it everyday you’re bound to improve. For me, it’s always been about sharing my experiences, I guess I’m just getting better at explaining them now.

When did the music start manifesting itself, did you start out playing an instrument first or anything like that?

I used to play sax and piano, but I moved around a lot so it was hard to keep up with it. I had access to a computer everywhere though, and of course I had my voice—so I started making music that way. I produced most of Future Memoirs and Northern Lights, although Northern Lights was my first project working with multiple producers. I’m used to intimate environments when I make music—I’m used to just being by myself actually, that’s when I’m really at my most comfortable making music.

Your unique vocal style is the first thing that pulled me in as a listener. Knowing that you produce the majority of your own music makes sense in the way that your vocals and the instrumentation are so tightly knit. Has that always been your approach?

I try and use my voice like an instrument. So If I’m listening to a song on the radio, I often find myself hearing and singing melodies that aren’t even there. I take the same approach when I make music, so I’ll often start out by singing a melody and then I convert that to another sound—or sometimes I’ll keep it as a vocal, and fill the same melody with lyrics. The practice of doing that helps me come up with new ideas.

And sometimes the only thing you may have with you [to] get an idea is your voice and your iPhone...

Exactly. Or that might just be the quickest way of doing it, if I don’t know how to play that specific chord off the top of my head. I still do that a lot actually.

You moved around a lot when you were growing up, before eventually setting in Minnesota and graduating there—and I remember reading before that the whole experience of attending all these different schools often made you feel like an outsider, naturally. I was wondering if you could explain that period of your life?

Yeah man, we moved around a lot because of my mom’s work as a scientist. I probably moved something like 7 times, but it was all the same northern region of the country—Florida, New York, Minnesota, etc. I guess it was just a case of finding the right spot to settle in. My mom came from a different country, then I was born in another country and then we both moved to a new country together—so it was always a case of fitting in, the same as when anyone moves to a new place or a new school or a new job.

Would you say that outsider perspective is something that follows you into hip-hop? Your music certainly stands out from the crowd, but how do you feel about the hip-hop community? Do you hang out with other rappers?

I hear other rappers be like, “Man, I hate rappers. I don’t fuck with rappers...”—but honestly, I’m down to hang out with whoever has good vibes. If anything, I feel like a lot of rappers don’t fuck with me! I’m like that kid at school that’s like, “Yo, let’s hang out, let’s play video games,” and all the other kids are just like, “Nah”. Sometimes I feel like that, but as I get older, I’m realizing that whoever I naturally connect with will just happen, you know? My sound is a reflection of my real life, so if I sound like an outsider, that’s because I feel like that—that just reflects in my music.

I hear that. On a similar note, when you listen to some rappers, you can tell by their delivery that they only listen to rap. You don’t strike me as one of those guys, in fact I can hear an eclectic mix of influences in your sound.

I have these time periods where I listen to a lot of the same thing at once, so right now I’m listening to a lot of reggae—but it changes. I always go back to hip-hop, but I think that’s just because when I was growing up, I found hip-hop when I moved to the US. A lot of rappers my age were born into a world where hip-hop already existed, where it was more familiar, but for me, it was just another tool that I could use to express myself.

“I like to say I’m optimistic rather than positive.”

Let’s track back that two-year time period between Future Memoirs and Northern Lights. In between those two records, you had the whole Kanye thing, debuting your feature on “All Day” live at the Brit Awards here in London. I was wondering what it was like coming back to perform in the city this time around—considering the last time you played here was on that award show stage.

It’s cool, because the Brit Awards was like I got invited to someone else’s party—which still felt like it was my moment—but it was more of a unifying experience for everybody. No one else will ever understand what that meant for me as an artist, or the grime scene, or for hip-hop—that whole message that we sent out. The best thing was just feeling like I was part of something. This time felt way more familiar. I was playing to the people that I know listen to my music, so it felt like we knew each other. It just felt like I was hanging out with my friends. For an artist, that’s the perfect vibe.

I feel like you give off a pretty positive vibe in person too. I’m sure that plays a part in connecting with your fans.

I like to say I’m optimistic rather than positive. Everybody is fucked up in a certain way. To act like I always have the most enlightening answer wouldn’t be right—but that’s just life isn’t it? I’m all about the quest, to try and find something better. I think that’s the least that we can all do.

It must be amazing to perform in another country and have such a warm reception, too. You already know you have fans here from looking at social media, but I imagine it’s only when you’re at the show and in that zone that you realise how far your music reaches.

It’s the best feeling ever. There’s nothing above that—that’s the height of creating, for me. Like if I was a painter, I’d assume that the first time I ever showed that painting to someone, that “here goes...” moment just before you reveal it is the same feeling as performing music live. That’s why I think touring is so essential, now that I’ve had the chance to experience it properly. It’s in those moments that it all makes sense.

I actually wanted to talk about touring. You opened up for Denzel Curry on a fairly long run back in the spring, and I remember seeing some particularly crazy footage from it. How was that experience?

It was amazing, because it was really just a tour that we did by ourselves. Everybody loves to say they’re “independent,” that’s just a cool word to say—it’s like “organic,” it’s just a buzzword. But that tour really was just us. It was even cooler because I’m from the north, and Denzel is from all the way down south—two areas that are both overlooked in many different ways—and we came together without any help, just touring the country and playing our music. That was a beautiful experience for me. Building something like that together, two opposite ends of the country, experiencing a lot of things together for the first time. It was dope.

It’s an exciting time for artists such as yourself and Denzel, too. There’s this whole new wave of artists who are poised to take over. Looking at Drake and Kanye’s albums from this year as example, they’re both great records, but projects from the younger artists such as Chance [the Rapper]’s Coloring Book are where the levels are being raised, and it really feels like it’s time for a change. I was wondering how you feel about that, and perhaps what you’d like to see more of in hip-hop now that it’s opening up again?

Right now, that’s exactly what gets me so excited—I feel like there’s a space that’s not being filled. There’s always gonna be that space, but what I look forward to is how human it’s all getting. For me, that’s something that I like to see. I feel like hip-hop comes from a place where there was a lack of things, so it was always about exhibiting everything you had—but now, since things have changed and hip hop has become a multi-billion dollar thing, it’s always going to come from a different perspective. The message to empower is still there, but some messages get old, and you don’t need to hear the same thing forever. That’s what’s happening right now, it’s like, “Yeah, we already know that”—and let’s move onto the next thing. Now we’re looking at the progression of the original message.

“I feel like hip-hop comes from a place where there was a lack of things, so it was always about exhibiting everything you had… Now we’re looking at the progression of the original message.”

I think that’s exactly it man. Originally, exhibitionism was a major factor, and flexing an ego came as standard—but although that’s still there, it’s always the most grounded artists that are making the lasting connection. Even looking at Drake, the most successful rapper on the planet right now, his success came from the fact that he presented himself on a very personal level, and people feel like they could relate to him. There’s a certain vulnerability within the current figures in hip-hop that has become the common denominator within the new wave too.

Money, cars and bitches—that’s all amazing, but I feel like the best artists are always the most personal ones. Even hip-hop in the ’90s, the ones we respected the most from that time period are the ones that put their souls out there on a platter. Part of that comes from admitting that you’re flawed, and that you still want the success, so you’re gonna go out there and get it anyway. It think that’s exactly it, just being honest with your intentions. It’s about the positives and the negatives. Reasons why you are the shit, and reasons why you’re not the shit. It’s just about being real. It’s the same in anything, even pop music. Bad pop music doesn’t mean anything, there’s no substance—it’s just glitz and glamour. But the good pop artists are those who put it all out there, same for rock music, same for any music. People see through the bullshit.

Speaking on success, “All Day” went on to be nominated for a Grammy—so now you’re a Grammy-Nominated artist, too. I was wondering, what your perspective is on awards in music—because they can often be quite divisive? Is that something you pay much attention to?

I think all humans always need a way to compare and feel like they achieved something. It’s like going to college and getting a degree. Sometimes artists don’t really get that physical thing that says, “Hey, I achieved something”—apart from one of these awards. I feel like most people need that, so it’s cool. It’s motivation, and I think it’s a good thing symbolically for art in general. I really believe it’s a positive thing.

It’s nice that these award shows are finally starting to catch up with the rest of the music industry too, in that the Grammys have now expanded their rules to make streaming-only releases eligible for nomination. This is great news for an artist such as yourself who would favour releasing music via streaming services.

There’s no reason that steaming releases shouldn’t be eligible. If they didn’t do it, that would just be silly. Think about it—regardless of whether I, as an artist, charge for my music or not, it’s still a body of work, and that doesn’t make it any less of a credible release than a physical CD or whatever. It doesn’t make sense to put these different ways of releasing music in boxes that define them as “official” or not anymore. I think it’s an amazing idea, even from a business standpoint. More people will be interested in these awards shows if it opens up to a wider degree of artists, and in turn more listeners. I do think award shows are important though. They spawn a lot of beautiful moments. Kendrick’s performance at the most recent Grammys, that was a groundbreaking performance on the world’s stage. The fact those moments are happenings at the Grammys, you can’t hate on it completely.

I’m with you man. That’s a good note to wrap things on too. Real quick, let’s talk new music. You’ve already dropped Northern Lights this year, but should we be expecting to hear anything else?

There’s some new music. Hopefully we’ll get something out before the end of the year. If I had my way I’d be dropping music all the time, but sometimes you’ve gotta let things simmer first. There’s plenty more coming though.

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Words by Tom Winslade. Photography + Illustration by Annabel Lake.

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