Mubarik Adams is a child of the night. There’s a quiet intensity in his demeanour that comes alive when the moon chases the sun behind the skyline—he finds comfort in the darkness, and favours the lonely hours between midnight and dawn when the streets are quiet and distractions are few. This is when Adams, better known as Emay, does his best work.The son of immigrant parents from Ghana, the 23-year-old spent much of his youth moving from shelter to shelter in the sprawling commuter caves of Toronto before settling in the east end of Hamilton as a teenager. It was here that he began experimenting with music in earnest—first as an aspiring producer and beatmaker, and later as a socially-conscious writer with an innate feel for balancing clarity and ambiguity in his lyrics. Trends mean nothing to Adams. They never have. What he values in music and art and literature comes from somewhere much deeper. He’s interested in speaking truths and pushing the boundaries and perceived limitations of the genre he loves more than anything. That mindset formed the basis for his latest five-track EP, the remarkably smooth and refreshingly honest Sinner, Song-Writer. It’s the precursor to Adams’ forthcoming full-length record with music for romantics, idealists and dreamers in search of something more.
When we meet to discuss his life and musical ambitions at a quiet café in downtown Hamilton, Adams orders nothing from the menu. His thick winter coat and fur-lined hood never come off during our conversation while patiently waiting for the tape to begin rolling. He’s polite and accommodating to a fault, but shies away from small talk. Our meeting is little more than a distraction from the glowing screens and thumping studio monitors that drive new beats into the bones of his home at all hours of the night. I can sense that he has one eye on my list of questions and one on the back door of the café, but I don’t take this as a slight. Emay, simply never stops thinking about music.
Noisey: Many of the lyrics on Sinner, Song-Writer are overtly political, mixed with a lot of social commentary and self-reflection. What informs most of your writing?
Emay: I would say I’m just motivated by life and my life experiences, especially growing up. My mom and my father came here as immigrants, so growing up was kind of like being in between Canadian culture and the culture my parents brought over as well. Seeing all their struggles and how hard they had to work just to get very basic things that most people already have, like citizenship and other things like that. I’m just very accustomed to struggle. I kind of grew up being desensitized to it. But once you step out of it and look back, you’re like, ‘oh, that’s actually not how it’s supposed to be.’ It’s kind of messed up.
One of my favourite lines from the album comes from the song "Refresh"—“The Beatles said to Let It Be, but I choose to pry the eyelids wide open to the scene and let the lemon squeeze.” Can you expand on the meaning behind that line?
I wasn’t trying to say that the meaning of the song “Let It Be” was that The Beatles didn’t want to change anything in the world. I was just referring to the title, because that’s how a lot of people understand it. A lot of people say we should just let society be the way it is. But then I’m like, ‘no, let’s open our eyes and look at society and try to analyze it and figure out how we can better things.’ The lemon squeeze part is referring to reality being sour.
The vocals on your new EP are right up front in the mix, and the lyrics are perfectly clear. Is this because you want the listener to carefully consider each and every line?
I think that comes from the fact that in a lot of my previous work, I was doing the production as well as the vocals. It was kind of a battle between how loud I wanted the beat to be and how loud I wanted the vocals to be. For the most part, the beat would win. Which is kind of unfortunate, because a lot of people were telling me I should have made the vocals louder or that my lyrics got slept on because people weren’t really hearing them. So with this one, given that it’s a project where other people produced the beats and I’m the one who mixed all the vocals, I wanted to put them at the forefront. I wanted it to be like a rap project, and make sure that every single word is heard. My writing style can be not-so-clear at times. Sometimes it can be very ambiguous, and the ways I like to describe certain things aren’t as blunt as a lot of other rap is. There’s still some elements of that, clearly, but it was kind of an opportunity for me to just be straight with my lyrics. Which is what I did, pretty much.
How does that approach change in a live setting, when fans may not be hanging on every word?
People usually aren’t there specifically for the lyrics. It’s more so just the energy and the overall feel. Obviously with certain choruses and hooks, if they’re catchy or whatever people will start singing along, which can be very helpful. But at the same time, I don’t concern myself with catchiness in music. I just like hearing dope lyrics, dope beats, whatever it may be. However the artist puts that together, that’s how they put it together. If it resonates with me it resonates with me, and if it doesn’t it doesn’t.
Let's talk about your use of social media. Your Twitter feed includes quotes from Karl Marx and critiques of government policy alongside YouTube clips and album reviews. Has it always been important for you to temper self-promotion with political and social commentary?
With something like Twitter or Facebook, it’s kind of an extension of myself. Obviously, Emay is like a brand—but it’s me, Mubarik Adams, and it’s an extension of myself. I feel like I have to allow people to know who I am as a person and what my thoughts are, whether they’re political or personal or whatever they may be. It helps the music as well, so when I do put out a track or whatever and I’m referring to certain things in the music, people will say, ‘oh, I remember you posted this once or you tweeted this once.’ They can make connections. I think that may also inspire people to look more into certain things they didn’t know about.
Would you say there’s a unified Hamilton sound when it comes to producing beats?
I don’t think Hamilton necessarily has it’s own distinct sound, but there’s a lot of different and interesting things that all kind of mesh together at certain points. Someone like Hut, he’ll be very experimental. He has a lot of beats that are kind of offbeat and very progressive, which resonates with me because my production style is very similar to that. Although it sounds extremely different, it still has that kind of idea. Whatever you give me, if I feel it, I’m going to do what I can do. I don’t usually have issues with producers, in terms of format and beats, because a lot of the time they just send it to me and I work with what I get. Whereas, a lot of other rappers would be like, ‘oh, I want you to change this, put this at the beginning.’ Not to say that I don’t care, but I just like having a really raw kind of feeling to the tracks.
Is it difficult to structure a coherent record in that sense, when you’re getting beats from all kinds of different people and not influencing what they’re sending you?
For this project, it was very different for me. On a lot of my older stuff I did the production as well, so it’s a lot easier to have that cohesive sound. Whereas for this album all these different producers were bringing their own kinds of sounds and it came together naturally. The thing I try to accomplish with a project, is I want every track to sound different but the same. It’s kind of a thin line, and it’s hard to balance that. But I feel like it worked really well with Sinner, Song-Writer, and it came together very organically.
The Sinner, Song-Writer EP boasts a number of other prominent collaborators, including Star Slinger and Giraffage. How did you go about connecting with them?
For Star Slinger, I met him though Last.fm, actually — and kind of MySpace at the same time. I just talked to him through his user profile. This was before he blew up or whatever, so it’s kind of cool to see him grow. But at first I just talked to him, and we’d send beats to one another. He taught me a few things on the production side, and that’s how I met him. Giraffage I don’t know as much. That beat [for the song “MAIR”] I was able to get from him like two years ago or something like that. I had actually finished the track at that time as well. I kind of just put that stuff away for a while and was just dealing with life stuff and random things. At a certain point I was like, ‘oh yeah I have this project I should finish.’ So then I went back and re-wrote certain lines from that track with Giraffage, and re-wrote a lot of the lyrics for the Star Slinger track as well. I put everything together again, re-recorded things and finished the project.
A lot of the album’s tracks have an undeniably smooth sound, but the lyrics always carry a strong message. Are you ever tempted to go harder with the production in order to really drive a point home?
My next full-length project is leaning a little harder, especially because my earlier style of production was a lot more ethereal and kind of atmospheric. The drums were there, but they were still kind of muddled with all the other stuff going on around them. With the current project I’m working on, I’m focusing more on hard hip-hop drums and things like that. It’s not as electronic as Sinner, Song-Writer. But it’s difficult at the same time, because sometimes I hear a beat and I just want to go for it, and that contrast can make it more unified in a weird way. It’s interesting when you have a soft beat with heavy lyrics. They kind of balance one another. [The full-length album] will still have a lot of the electronic elements to it, but it’s got more raw sounding drums similar to a Joey Bada$$ or something like that. But it’s definitely not boom-bap. It’s really hard to explain. I kind of want it to be very hip-hop, but very progressive and very a lot of things. I guess you’ll see that in the end result. It’s a lot of different things, that’s for sure.
Tell me about your own experimentation with beat-making. What types of beats and samples do you tend to favour?
I feel like that’s something I could never lose, because that’s pretty much where I started. I started out just messing around on Fruity Loops, whether it was with samples or just playing with the instruments within it. Eventually, I was getting sounds from all these different places, and just putting it all together. Initially with my production style, I just wanted to emulate DJ Premier, 9th Wonder, Pete Rock and other really well-known hip-hop producers. I started off just sampling soul records, and at one point I tried to do a classical thing where I just wanted to sample classical music. That went terribly wrong and the initial tracks I made sounded horrible. I couldn’t find the sounds I needed to. In my solo music now there are a lot of classical elements, like a lot of strings and it’s more cinematic. But it just didn’t work at first. So I went from sampling soul to classical, and then for my first full-length project, Adam, I did a lot of indie and alternative rock sampling which has kind of become my thing now. I think you’ll probably see a lot of those sounds for my next project.
What's missing from Canadian hip-hop right now?
I feel like there’s too much copying of American hip-hop. I feel like we have to be more distinct in our own sound and create our own reality through music. I think someone like Drake has actually done a good job of taking various different elements — like southern rap elements, but with more of a lyrical kind of rap flow at times, depending on what song it is. I feel like he’s done a really good job of creating his own sound, and now a lot of people are just copying him, unfortunately. I think k-os is someone else who’s been able to mold his own original sound. If k-os comes out with an album, you don’t know what’s going to be on it. With Drake you know what’s going to be on there, but it’s still good because it’s his own thing. Although we do have those artists, I feel like we need more of that — people just being like, ‘let me do my own thing,’ as opposed to trying to be like someone else. A lot of that doesn’t come consciously, but a lot of it does. I’ve talked to artists who say that if they want to make it, they have to sound like this or that. That’s what a lot of people have in their minds. For me, I might have started off trying to emulate people, but that was just because I knew I had to grow my style. At a certain point it’s like, ‘where is me in this?’ That’s when you have to take everything you’ve learned and try to create yourself out of that. I think more people need to do that.
You touched on a dividing line between what’s going on in the United States and what should be happening in Canada. Do you feel that distinction should be more in the production and the beats, or more on the lyrical side?
I would say both. There’s so much you can do, in terms of production. Let’s just try to go beyond certain things we’ve been given. Experiment more, try different things, try new drum patterns and just go crazy. With rap, too, it’s pretty much the same thing — copy and paste. We should try to do something that hasn’t been done before, whether it’s with your voice or your lyrics and what you write about.
When can fans expect a new full-length record from Emay?
I started working on it pretty much right after I finished my first full-length project, Adam, which I released in 2012. It’s on my SoundCloud if you look far down enough. If not, it’s on another Soundcloud called Tomorrow Archaic. At first, [the new record] was just a bunch of sparse, random ideas that I had. The title track for it, which I’m not going to release yet, I finished it almost before I started working on Adam, but it just kind of sat around. Eventually I started making other tracks, kind of took a break from that project and then went back and forth with it while working on Sinner, Song-Writer. So it’s been a long time coming, for sure. I feel like this next full-length project is going to be kind of like, I don’t know, like my Illmatic or something. I want to be careful, because I don’t want to be like, ‘oh, this is the next greatest thing ever,’ but it’s kind of like the project I’ve been working on my whole life. I feel like it’s going to mean a lot for me to put it out, more than any other project I’ve ever done.
When you mentioned Illmatic, I didn’t think that was an arrogant thing to say. I took it to mean this is going to be the record that puts you on the map.
Yeah, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be the map of the music world. More like my own map, in terms of my own progress of creating music. Stylistically, sonically, I just feel like it’s a better version of me — production, lyrics, everything. My writing style has evolved a lot, and I’m writing in different ways now. I’m doing a lot more different things. I feel like it will be hard to swallow at first, but once people start to take it in it will be easily comprehended. Right now, I have maybe five or six tracks that are written and locked in, that I know I’m using for sure. But I went into my music folder the other day, and I didn’t think that I had made as many beats as I actually did. There are maybe 25 beats in there that I said I was going to use for sure. Obviously I’m not going to use them all now, but I’m hoping for it to maybe be 13 or 14 tracks. For this one it’s all me, which is probably why it’s taking a lot longer. Some of these beats I’ve had for years. It’s just that I’ve gone back a million times, fixing small things.
Would you say you’re a perfectionist in that regard?
Definitely, and a lot more artists who are rappers and producers have that. Someone like Q-Tip, he was a super-perfectionist with Midnight Marauders because he wanted it to be cohesive. If it weren’t for that perfectionism, it wouldn’t have turned out that way. But at the same time, you have to get stuff done. It’s kind of annoying to be a perfectionist sometimes, but it’s necessary if you want something to be dope. You have to put the work in, because you don’t want to just put a bunch of random songs together and put it out. That would be kind of weak. So yeah, I’m definitely a perfectionist.
Andrew Baulcomb is a freelance writer based in Hamilton, Ontario. He’s on Twitter @abaulcomb.