A few things about Zane Lowe: He saved a guy’s life at the NME Awards in 2006, he was the first person to play “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley on the radio, and his show on BBC Radio One, which has been going for almost a decade, has become known for iconic interviews with people like Eminem, Kanye West, and Rick Rubin.
The thing that most people don’t know, though, is that Zane Lowe started making music before he became a radio DJ. He started out in the early 1990s with rap group Urban Disturbance, released two albums with the band Breaks Co-Op (which included a single that won Song of the Year in New Zealand, his home country) and, in the last few years, has been producing and co-writing with a bunch of artists—including Tinie Tempah, Chase and Status, and Example.
Most recently he’s worked with Sam Smith. You know—the guy who’s only gone and sold enough records to break both Britain and America and has a voice that can coax grandmothers back from the menopause. The track is called “Restart,” the video was released yesterday, and you’ll be hearing it around a lot soon.
Because I had forgotten about Zane Lowe’s secret music past—and because he’s worked with some exciting people—I called him up to talk about our greatest love: music.
Noisey: So this is hardly the beginning of your music career. You’re an OG. You started out rapping, what, back in the early 90s?
Zane: I was inspired by the rap records at the time in New Zealand and was part of a small rap scene that was starting out. Me and my friends used to listen to Tribe and Hieroglyphics and Leaders of the New School and eventually things like Biggie, Wu-Tang, and everything else. We were immersed in that world.
Was the idea to be rap superstars?
We would try and impress each other really—which is the art of rap, looking to your peers and trying to blow them away with a verse. We made an album, we toured, and then it ran its course. To be honest with you, it’s a part of my life—you’re a teenager going into your early twenties, touring the country, playing shows, writing rhymes—it’s the perfect transition from adolescence to adulthood. Since then I’ve remained loyal to rap music. I love making beats, but I wouldn’t dream of getting on the mic now.
Never? I can’t believe you haven’t tried to bust a freestyle with one of the guests on your radio show.
The last time I got on a mic and rapped—in all seriousness—was about 17 years ago at a party. From memory, my friend took me aside afterwards and was like, “You need to stop.”
Was that one of your own tracks or were you spitting over someone else’s?
No, man! Everyone was getting on the mic and doing silly stuff. I haven’t seriously conducted any aspect of that side of music—like, in terms of being a vocal rapper—since Urban Disturbance stopped making records. The only thing I’ve done vocally since then is contributing a few vocal textures to the Breaks Co-Op album, which is pretty common knowledge among people who own that record. Since then I’ve been focusing on producing and co-writing; I was always a producer.
You were saying earlier that you would lock yourself in the studio and make beats for hours.
It used to be that way. I would make beats every day all day from the minute I woke up to the minute I went to work.
You’re writing and producing for other people now. Do you still have time to make music for yourself?
I do. I go through phases. There’ll generally be sessions and writing sessions that are in the diary. A lot of the time you bring an idea, but primarily you are looking to collaborate from scratch. I learned that pretty quick. If you come with a full idea it can be a closed approach, and it can almost be an unattractive situation for anyone you want to work with because they’re like, “where do I fit in this? You’ve already made this thing. Let’s work on something together from scratch.” And that’s where some of the best stuff comes from. But I definitely go through stages where I feel really inspired and won’t have an outlet for those beats or songs. I’ll do it for my own personal satisfaction. So, I’ll sit down for a few months and make nothing but rap beats, or I’ll write some songs. It’s for personal enjoyment and keeps you sharp; because when you go into the studio and someone goes “I really want the bass to sound like this” you can go “Well, actually I learned that two months ago on my own.”
You can bring a massive collection of samples, too.
Yeah, it’s kind of investment, right? It doesn’t matter if you’re doing it for yourself, by yourself, for the enjoyment of yourself, or whether you’re in a room full of people trying to contribute something to an end result; you’re investing in music. You’re investing in the process of learning more, being inspired, and being around it. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do—to be around music.
The list of people you’ve worked with is growing. I’m looking now and I’m seeing Tinie Tempah, Chase & Status, Example.
Chase & Status was a co-write. Sometimes it’s full production; sometimes it’s contributing a verse. The C&S project, they were having trouble writing a verse, and I sat down with them and Moko and carved it up. Sometimes I love the wordplay without worrying about the fucking bass drum frequency.
I heard you’ve been working with Future, too. Is that right?
Yeah. I did three days with Future earlier this year, which was an incredible experience; to work with someone who has that natural ability. He’s one of those artists who will—you’ll come up with something, and he’ll be absorbing, that’s how I would describe it—and then he’ll go, “OK. All right. Hit the mic live. Bring that project up and let me go in.” You sit there, and magic just occurs. It’s pretty wild. You can see why he’s one of the most in-demand writers, let alone successful artists on his own terms.
His hooks are incredible, as is the way his voice can carry the song. I could listen to “Turn on the Lights” for the rest of my life.
It’s crazy! He has this magic that he applies to his hooks that makes you go, “Oh my god!” It sticks in your brain instantly. I floated out of those sessions; it was good for my confidence as a producer to have him vibing on my stuff. That stuff’s now in the mix, and who knows. When it comes to putting albums together an artist like Future, and his peers, they’re constantly working. They’re so prolific and always making music, so I’d imagine those three tracks are currently sitting in a pool of about 300.
How did you end up working with him in the first place?
Someone involved in his project heard a song that I worked on with Maverick Sabre. She loved it and said "I would love to put you in the room with Future, he’s coming to the UK for a few days." We did one session, which led to another one, which led to another one.
The Sam Smith track—which is the most recent track you’ve worked on—had a video release yesterday. How did you end up working with him?
Everyone talks in music—about what they’re working on, what they’re hearing, who’s hot, you know? Everyone was like: The Sam Smith album is going to be colossal. He’s shaping up. He’s working with Jimmy Napes. The quality of his songs are amazing—so you knew it. My manager said “I’d really love to put you in the room with Sam.” I said “I’d love to. Good luck.” We did a session and a track called “The Lottery,” which didn’t make the cut.
But it did encourage both of us to get back in again. Sam is the most open, amazing, honest, beautiful collaborator. He’s an amazing writer, amazing artist who loves the whole process, and he was into it. I presented him with the bones—the basic rhythm track, the chords. We sat down, and after about maybe half an hour we’d knocked that track up. He’s very gifted and instinctive with his writing.
He loved the track. I loved the track. Everyone was really happy. It made it into the long form extended verison of the record. I’m glad that it’s a video. I think it’s nice he’s documented the last 12 months to it; it makes me feel special that it’s the soundtrack to that particular postcard.
Last question. What artist do you dream about working with?
[sharp intake of breath] Oh my god. [sharp intake of breath] Oh man. You know.The list is so ridiculously long. Everyday you make something and you’re like, such and such would sound good on that. I’ve started to help out Knox Brown on a co-writing level, and we’ve got three days coming up really soon and that’s… I’m so charged to do that. We’ve caught this wave, the music is sounding wicked, and I want to carry on with it. I want it to be as organic as possible. Every time I’ve tried to push this side of things it hasn’t worked out.
Because I’m in this other part of the music industry where I get to talk about music, or play it in clubs or on radio or whatever, I want this to remain really natural and fun. Fortunately I don’t have to think about making money from music; I’ve got other ways to make a living. I don’t have to think about whether it’s going to get cut or not; I’ve just got to worry about, when I get in on that day, am I open to the idea of making something really cool, and good, and great, and at the end of the day am I proud of what we’ve worked on? It’s sort of where I started in music; it’s where I started before doing the media stuff. It’s been really nice and great to get back into the studio and discover that side.
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