Emerging MC Tago Jones is on the rise, hitting us with strong, socially conscious messages whilst interweaving dynamic beats from producers all over the world. His latest project Tago Unchained, alludes to Tarantino's film 'Django Unchained,' bringing strong messages of empowerment. The entirety of the project highlights a running theme of the history of slavery with messages from Nina Simone, Richard Pryer and Eric Garner sampled and dispersed across the EP.
We chat to Tago about the meaning behind his latest project, his thoughts on the hip hop scene in Europe, and the importance of generating meaning through his music. Ayla Dhyani writes.
You just dropped Tago Unchained. Tell us about the meaning behind the project.
For me, I’ve always been very fascinated by stories of very brave men and women during slavery who showed signs of resistance. I find that you always hear about black people in bondage and captivity, but we never really hear about people who fought back. The movie is based on the story of another guy by the name of Ned Turner, and growing up I heard about his story. I was always fascinated by the story of this strong guy who gets his freedom and I loved the concept when I first read about Django Unchained (even before the movie came out). But the way that I actually decided to do a whole EP based on the movie was actually just a coincidence. I was listening to some new beats on my laptop and just playing around with a few things while my Pops was watching the movie on DVD. Then all of a sudden I find this beat and some lines came to my head (some old lines that I has just scribbled down) where I said “assassination on wax, that’s execution on tracks” then all of a sudden I hear “it’s Tago unchained, my n**ger making it rain.” And right there I knew that this was it and that’s when I decided to do Tago Unchained as a whole concept. I really pushed myself with this project as well. With the song “I Like The Way U Die Boy," I remember watching the movie for the first time and when Jamie Foxx said that line, I just thought to myself “that’s hip hop, that’s a song right there.” So with that song, that’s where I started to mix in the theme of the EP. There might be a particular line in a verse in one song, but then in another it’s actually the chorus line. With "I Like The Way U Die Boy" there's a double-time flow and I had never actually rapped like that before. So I had to really sit my arse down and be really disciplined in order to write the song. It was a good challenge for me.
Considering you’ve highlighted a running theme of slavery on this project, is it important for you to generate themes and meaning throughout your work?
Definitely. I’ve put messages into all the previous projects that I’ve done, but in a very subtle way. They might not be overtly political or overtly militant, but I would have lines where I would point to a certain message. However, not many people picked up on it and I guess with projects like Tago Unchained, it’s just more overt and outlined. But I do still try to do it in a way that might have a commercial appeal on a production level. I find that is important. In my opinion, underground hip hop tracks that do have political messages all tend to have the same sound, and I think the next step is to make those messages marketable. Tupac’s records for instance have those real commercial vibes, but had a deeper message. So I think artists, who are on the platform, should really use it to generate stronger messages.
What is your opinion on the climate of hip hop today? Where do you think the genre is going?
That’s a really good question and I can answer it in so many ways. I believe that hip hop is in such a great place now. I grew up on a lot of 90s hip hop and I don’t think we’ll ever get back to where it was back then, especially from a cultural perspective. It had a lot more relevance then. From about 2001 to 2004 would probably be my least favourite period in hip hop, where there was no originality and artists were just putting out an image. But I do see somewhat of resurgence now. Today, at least from a musical standpoint, the fact that you have so many different types of acts that are all having success at the same time makes a difference. Like you can have Meek Mill doing street sh*t and Drake who has his style and Kendrick who has his style, but they are all allowed to exist at the same time. In the 90s you could have Wu-Tang, Tupac, Biggie, Nas, Snoop, and A Tribe Called Quest all at once and they would still all have a presence. I feel like we kind of lost that at some point, but now we’re in a place where different types of acts are all allowed to be successful at the same time. So I think musically, hip hop is in a great place and I think it’s been like that for a couple of years now. I also think because of the competition, and maybe because hip hop, from a commercial standpoint, is not as huge as it once was. So a lot of people are really aware that they have to put out quality products to compete with the next man. But I would also like to add that I do wish that more of the huge artists took a stand on certain issues. It doesn’t have to be in their raps necessarily, but just in the way that they live and carry themselves on an everyday level. Jay Z never really says anything, but behind the scenes he takes action. Like with all the protests in Baltimore, him and Beyonce would funnel money to bail protestors out of jail. I mean, I don’t necessarily believe that every artist should come out and say something specifically, because every artist is different, but fact that people do put messages in the music means that the message is needed.
With the EP, you used producers from the US, Denmark and Russia, is there a reason you chose to work with producers from all over the world?
I can’t remember how I came across it, but somebody said, “yo, you can actually find any type of sound if you just go on the Internet.” So then I just started networking. I would find a nice beat online and then hit up the producers. Then all of a sudden, people would just start sending me stuff. Sometimes I would expect to pay them, and sometimes I would just open up my email with a new link to a beat.
That’s one thing I love about hip hop – it’s such a universal language.
Exactly! And there are so many talented people out there all across the board. You don’t always need the biggest, ‘baddest’ producers if you want quality sound. Of course with the final mixing, that’s something else, but just in terms of a good beat there a lot of the producers out there and everyone is just connected through it. Even Drake was saying back when he was in Canada, a lot of people would say to him “you have to go to the States to be able to make it,” but he said “no, if you’ve got the music, I can do it from right here,” which I love.
You grew up in Denmark. How do you find the hip hop community in Europe?
Actually, I would love to see more of the European hip hop community branch out globally. Even though I’m here, I feel like I don’t get to see all of it. I think it’s always different. Even depending on the way that people respond to it culturally. For instance, Germans would probably react to the music differently to how Danes would, but like you said, it is such a global language. To be honest, in terms of Danish hip hop, I don’t think that it’s that original. I feel like Danish hip hop artists have this thing where they translate the slang. For instance, they’d take a word like “homeboy” and they would translate it directly, and to me that feels a bit cheesy and not that original. But I think in the last 5 or 6 years, they’ve taken the sound that is popular in the States, which in a sense, I think is good. The Danish hip hop community used to be represented heavily by the underground hip hop scene and that was the highest form of the art. But this generation doesn’t really go for that. It’s not this thing where if it’s underground it’s good and if it’s mainstream it’s bad. They just go for what’s good, and that’s appearing more and more in Danish hip hop culture.
You mentioned you listened to a lot of 90s hip hop, who would you say has musically influenced you the most?
There are so many. So many. Because even now when I look back at the 90s, it’s even more glorious and just every aspect of it is beautiful. I think as a kid especially it was Warren G, and Tupac And The Outlawz. Coming up, we based our whole musical style on the Outlawz, both in the way that we were rapping and the production. I feel like those guys were the greatest rap group and it’s a shame that they never really blew up. But of course Outkast from the 90s, and I can’t even forget Ice Cube. But it was not just the music that I fell so in love with, but just their presence. The Wu-Tang Clan, Biggie or even Queen Latifah just had a presence as whole and like I was saying earlier, there's just that eco system that existed in 90s hip hop where there were so many styles that all existed at once. There were so many quality artists that all had their own sound. Even if you were popular, you didn’t have the same sound as the next man. Like Tupac’s music didn’t sound like Snoop’s music or Nas or Wu-Tang. It all sounded different. Now that hip hop has become so big, it's inevitable that people are going to start emulating certain styles and sounds.
So, what’s next for you? Is there a certain path you want to undertake with your music?
I’ve always had this thing where I just play around with a name title and I really want to just ride the title theme. Now that I have Tago Unchained, the next one might be Tago In Love and then do songs about love, relationships and whatever comes with that good or bad. Just do a six-part EP of that kind of stuff, at least for a couple of projects.
Do you tour and perform a lot?
Yeah, I do. We had a private launch for the video and then opened the club up to the public. I’ve been performing in Copenhagen and I’ll be touring at different places throughout Denmark as well.
What moves you?
That’s such a great question. I don’t even know where to begin. Great music moves me. Growing up, I would listen to a lot of 70s soul and R&B as well. I would find samples from hip hop songs that I love and then find the original. Just listening to the keys on a Roberta Flack record, that moves me and I feel it deep in my chest. When we were talking about Outkast as well, it inspires me that they have a full catalogue of just great albums. Same with Kanye West. I want to have a great catalogue - to not just have one album that’s dope, but push myself to put out quality music constantly.