The rapper, singer and poet and his band, the Small Gods, bring together the two distant worlds of folk and hip-hop, creatively re-imagining urban music.
“I didn’t grow up with much exposure to folk at all,” admits Dizraeli (aka Rowan Sawday). “My first exposure to English folk, I guess, was probably some traditional sea shanties that my brother and cousin used to sing. They worked on a barge for a summer and they came back singing shanties. I thought these were brilliant – really gaudy, rude songs. I’d never really heard a traditional song that wasn’t a little bit naff. So I was interested in the idea that there was a folk tradition that wasn’t just twee and flowery like a William Morris version of English history. It was a bit more bawdy, similar to the world that I knew.”
It didn’t take long before Dizraeli began to notice more similarities between the hip-hop he knew and the folk he was just discovering. “Hip-hop’s always fascinated me; a music of the people with a strong oral tradition, music that’s isn’t afraid to tell everyday people’s stories and everyday language. Folk has all of that, and it has this simple instrumentation that can be replicated by anyone. I love how democratic that is. So folk and hip-hop have a lot in common to me, and that’s the part that I’m interested in most of all.”
Dizraeli first experimented with a folk/hip-hop fusion with his debut solo album in 2009, Engurland. For the album he brought together different musicians to record and tour, serendipitously piecing together the band that would become the Small Gods. “It took a while for us to find our sound together as a group. We all come from really disparate musical backgrounds. So it took a while for us to kind of find a middle ground where we had a sound that wasn’t a kind of collage of mish-mashed sounds, it was a genuine expression of us as people.” Three and a half years later and they’ve released their first album billed as Dizraeli and the Small Gods.
Moving in the Dark continues Dizraeli’s experimentation with artistic expression. “I guess we’re just trying to do something honest really. I’m really into the idea of being ourselves as artists, rather than trying to kind of squeeze ourselves into the mould of what we think an artist should be.”
One of the overriding themes of the new album is death. “Between the ages of 16 and 21 a whole string of my male friends died. I just found myself at funerals a lot, and musing on death, my mortality and how someone dying makes you want to live.” Several songs on Moving in the Dark touch on this sense of mortality. The track ‘We Had a Song’ says ‘as long as we’re remembered, we’re kept alive’ and ‘There was a Rapper’ deals with “the idea that however important you think you are, you will be dead at some point. And all the music we’re recording now is just going to end up as digital silence.”
But the album isn’t all dark and heavy. Dizraeli and the Small Gods have a playfulness to them and are able to weave tales that very much have a ‘music of the people’ at its heart. “I love the idea of a song having a really strong narrative – like the ballad form in folk. Hip-hop does that brilliantly as well.”
With a summer full of gigs ahead of them, Dizraeli and the Small Gods are sure to be coming to a venue or festival near you. You won’t want to miss them.