My conversation with Hip-Hop producer and Ph.D., Configa
Artistry comes in many forms. Technical skill, hours, and years of practice in your field, DNA from creative parents, and many other places.
The most important place though is from your gut. The love and passion you have for something will always outweigh everything else. Don't get me wrong, skill, practice, and ability are needed. Passion and love though, that's inherent. You cannot rise to the top of your profession without it.
Hip-hop artist and producer Configa has all of the above.
Hailing from the UK, Configa has been on the hip-hop scene for over 20 years. Starting as an MC and eventually becoming a highly sought-after producer, Cofiga has left his mark on the world of hip-hop music with no intentions of stopping.
As a matter of fact, he's just getting started.
I've been a fan of rap/hip-hop since the early days of the mid-80s from my home in Brooklyn, NY. My fandom has continued through today, but I've always deferred to my roots from back in the day over anything new. Not that long ago, I had a conversation with one of my favorite rappers, Speech from Arrested Development. I did so because I fell in love with the band's latest release, For the FKN Love.
Upon listening to this album, the name Configa was omnipresent and I needed to know more. I've been a huge fan of Arrested Development since seeing them play at Lollapalooza in 1993. When I heard For the FKN Love though, it reinforced my love for the band but made me question if their Grammy-winning debut, 3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days in the Life Of...was still their best record.
I no longer think it is.
Configa's first time working with AD was on the record before For the FKN Love, Don't Fight Your Demons. Listening to that record, after For the FKN Love, you can hear the influence of Configa and his now signature production style. A trek through his work leading up to Arrested Development's last two records shows the evolution of his sound and his pioneering sensibilities.
We'll get into our conversation in a bit but I feel like this needs to be said first. I've never met Configa in person nor had I spoken with him before conducting our interview for this piece. I bring this up because the ease with which our conversation flowed, and the fact that we were constantly finding ourselves on the same page musically wasn't lost on me.
This dude is the real deal.
When you can speak with someone for the first time and have it feel like you're having a conversation about music with an old friend, you do not take that for granted. This is why I love what I do. Talking about music with like-minded people, artists or not, is the perfect way to spend a day. This is yet one more thing I refuse to take for granted.
Configa grew up, like most of us did, listening to the music his parents played around the house. A healthy dose of Motown and '60s rock n' roll laid the foundation for Configa to realize that music was his destiny.
It wasn't until 1988 however when the flame was first lit that would later turn into a full-blown explosion. Rap had made its way from the gritty streets of New York City to the grey skies of England. The song that introduced Configa to this brand new genre was "Push It" by Salt-N-Peppa.
At this point in history, it's important to remember that what was happening in the states wasn't reaching the shores of the UK in real time. Local and national radio wasn't interested in their counterparts' new, ethnic sounds across the pond. No one in Configa's town was into this new sound emanating from the U.S. which makes it even crazier that he held on to it so tightly.
Talking about these early days and why music (and hip-hop specifically) meant so much to Configa took a wide-angled lens of culture and society at the time.
"My main finding was that new ethnicities were being created through culture. What I realized about where I came from as a white guy in the UK was that there were other white guys that followed me and we became a hip-hop melting pot. We had phrases like boom-bop beats but with global sensibilities so I coined a term called 'glocal', global and local meeting at a massive intersection.
During this period, the early to mid-nineties, there really wasn't much happening in England with regard to the burgeoning rap scene in America. Configa was one of the few locals to take this new sound and view it as a way forward.
"The only thing that they had was Yo! MTV Raps and I think Radio One started their first national rap radio show in 1994. It was kind of barren, really."
This is a very important point because everything is easier in hindsight so some people may overlook how difficult it is to start a scene with almost no direction or guidance as to how it should be done. Looking back, Configa had taken a new genre he'd already fallen in love with and found a way to make it good enough for his local friends to want to explore it with him.
With almost no commercial backing or marketing to lean on, it was done with nothing but passion for the music and the grit of determination.
Music tends to make an impression on us at a young age. It usually finds us as we're searching for our place in this world. Configa is no different. He got his first gig as a DJ at 14 and two short years later he was selling tapes to his friends. He was hooked and there was no turning back.
In 1999, Configa was signed to a label for the first time as a rapper. Wanting to emulate what he was hearing from the artists he loved certainly made sense. A transformation was slowly brewing however and that metamorphosis would lead the world to meet the Configa we now know.
Maybe it was the DJ in him from when he was a kid or maybe it was the natural evolution of things but Configa stepped away from the mic and started producing not all that long after being signed. I asked him why that happened and the answer is straight logic.
"I started making beats because I couldn't find ones I liked"
I've talked with many musicians throughout the years who have said very similar things when asked about why they do what they do. Essentially they say something like, "I didn't like the riffs I was hearing from other bands but knew I wanted to play guitar so I created my own". That answer is the mark of an artist, a creator. Configa fits seamlessly into this category.
As a little more time passes, Configa gets the attention of Chuck D. from Public Enemy and is signed to his label.
"I was signed to Chuck D's label which at the time was called Slam Jamz. So I was signed by Chuck and released an album called Configaration, Vol. 1 and he's on the album. That was a blessing."
Since my introduction to Configa's work began with his production and collaboration with Arrested Development, I had to bring up the fact that he has worked with two bands who have helped shaped both music and cultural consciousness for decades. They also happen to be bands I've loved from the start.
"To work with AD (Arrested Development), is amazing, there's a video of me rapping along to "Mr. Wendal"...Public Enemy were my heroes, and to work with guys like this was crazy. It blows my brain...why me? Coming from where I did, a mining town where no one does anything else and so many people I was with died of drugs or just faded off the face of the earth, we really weren't meant to succeed. People like me weren't meant to go to University, that wasn't the plan."
Not only did Configa go to University, but he also obtained a Ph.D. writing his thesis on the intersection of hip-hop culture and ethnicity, exploring the hip-hop scene in his home region. Is there any wonder that his heroes are intellectual thinkers like Speech and Chuck D?
Now, we all know that rap music began on the streets of New York City in the late '70s/early '80s, not in a mining town outside of London. However, when looking at the global history of rap, it needed people to champion the sound and the culture in order for it to expand and take hold everywhere. Without that, who knows what its fate would have been?
I bring this up because rap music and culture took a long time to properly hit in small English towns like where Configa is from, his efforts amongst his friends and local scene make him a pioneer of the genre in his area. I stated this opinion to him during our conversation.
"I was remote, ya know? I was from the north and the north wasn't cool. We all tried to sound like what we were hearing but soon realized we needed to sound like ourselves. In the 90s there was a level of frustration coming through in this music. NWA was frustrated at the lack of opportunities in Compton for example. Even still, there was a message. Hip-hop just made sense to me and it was something I had to share."
Writing about music has afforded me some amazing opportunities to connect with really smart, creative people. Recently I was able to interview the aforementioned Speech of Arrested Development and he certainly fits the smart and creative description I just mentioned.
That led me to Configa, and once again, I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to talk about his career, hip-hop, and music in general with him. I can see why these two artists work so well together and are able to create amazing music. They're real, that's the bottom line and being real goes a long way in the creativity business. They're genuine and that's something money or fame simply cannot buy.
Configa plays an important role in the history of hip-hop and there's plenty yet to come. If you do just one thing after reading this article, listen to his music and learn more about what he's doing, you'll be better off for it.