INTERVIEW

We met the Atlantan rapper on his first trip outside of the States to talk about Phil Collins

forte-bowie

ForteBowie – “no space bitch,” as he puts it on his Twitter profile – is a 23-year-old Atlanta native who has just left his home country for the first time. He has come here to showcase his music to a UK audience as part of a support slot at London’s Corsica Studios and a one-song cameo appearance during his pal and precious metal enthusiast Trinidad Jame$’s performance at Brixton Academy. It’s a brand of smooth, contemporary RnB, infused with a twist of hip-hop, but while his ability to both croon and hold his own as an MC will draw comparisons to Drake, Frank Ocean and The Weeknd, ForteBowie approaches his music with an eccentric sense of pop playfulness that aligns him more closely with Prince, Andre 3000 and swaths of blue-eyed soul.

As I’m introduced to both of his managers, it’s obvious that lofty hopes are being pinned upon him. Though for all his eagerness – words tumble out of his mouth at a rate of knots – he is resolutely grounded, stating that just the simple act of being able to connect brings him fulfilment. “It’s amazing just seeing opinions. Even if people don’t like it, just seeing that people are listening, that means a lot. Reaching more and more people.”
Sitting outside a pub in Dalston, we speak at length about ambition, his ardent appreciation of ’80s pop and the significance of Atlanta to his ethos, as well as, interestingly, how he’s actually a shy guy beneath it all. Our chat, as it turns out, ends up lasting almost an hour and when, about twenty minutes in, Forte starts to yawn and I gesture to round things up, he implores me to ask more questions. It’s a personal reminder of how enjoyable it is to meet a musician who possesses that raw zest for their art, and while I usually loathe to deploy exclamation marks outside the realm of text messaging, an interview with such an effervescently cheerful force of nature just wouldn’t ring true without them. “Everything is good,” he insists. “I’m in London, man! This is my first time out of the country.”

He isn’t lying. His Instagram posts from today chart his and his team’s journey across the Atlantic, climaxing with their trip into central London along the Piccadilly line. I suggest that they seem to have had a lot more fun on the Tube than their fellow commuters. “People were just looking. Tourist motherfuckers! I thought, these people look really sad.”

As if on cue, a beggar comes over to ask us for change and Forte stops to check his pockets. “I can’t use American money out here for anything, right?” Unfortunately not, I say, but he remains wide-eyed and nonplussed. I don’t think he quite trusts me yet. “For nothing?”

A huge part of Forte’s charm comes from this seemingly blissful unawareness of life’s conventions and he appears to have an equally healthy disregard for social expectation. While a lot of artists certainly profess not to care, he seems genuine, and he channels this blithe spirit into an appetite for everything life has to offer. “I could go to a show where there’s nothing but indie motherfuckers and, like, hipsters and have fun.” I tell him that he’s come to the right part of the city. “Yeah, well I love hipsters. I love hipster women. I can be there and be comfortable and then I could go to the hoodest club on the southside and chill. I just grew up kinda different. I grew up around a lot of close-minded people but my parents moved to the States from Cameroon. They were never really extremely strict. I just get on with people and musically I’m a bit of a chameleon.”

fortebowie-1

While there is an innocence to his worldview, that’s not to say he’s just fallen out of the sky. A lot of graft has gone into getting even this far. Forte writes the songs, plays every single instrument and produces the music himself – he has done since beginning to tinker with Fruity Loops in school. “I was making doper beats than anyone else in tenth grade,” he says. “I feel like I was training all my life up until that point.” An offer to join the roster of TIG Entertainment, a label he now shares with Jame$, came about just under a year ago. “I’ve known Trinidad for a while,” he tells me. “He was my friend from before he even started doing music. He got up with Fly [CEO of TIG] and Fly was like, ‘Yo, let’s make something happen. I’m putting a label together.’ But it’s all hard work and love. I couldn’t have told you where Trinidad Jame$ would be at… ‘cause he didn’t even know! Everything’s just a blessing, man.”

It looks, then, like he could be a part of something special, having been on the imprint from the outset. “Yeah, and I end up on it with a friend of mine. Even if there’s an issue we gotta talk it out and find common ground. Our situation at the label is a lot different from a lot of people’s. It’s a hands-on situation. It’s all love.”

The gang mentality of TIG is forged out of a strong sense of where it’s come from and Atlanta is a pervasive force in its music as well as a key reason behind Forte’s arrival in the UK. “Trinidad happens to be in London touring with Wiz Khalifa this week so I was like, ‘Yo, let’s do the song together.’ The song’s called ‘Southside’, which is pretty much about the south of Atlanta, where we’re both from. So we thought it would be epic to do that song in London, to be like, ‘We came from here and now we’re here.’ I think when I get older I’ll be like, ‘Man, that was something crazy.’”

While adamant not to repurpose what’s gone before, Forte is conscious of his place in the city’s musical lineage. It boasts TLC, Killer Mike, Janelle Monae, Deerhunter, Usher, Toni Braxton and, of course, the original Atliens, OutKast amongst its stars. “Definitely. Definitely. I’m 23 and I think a lot of artists around my age know about that legacy and lineage of Atlanta,” he says, “the culture and what we’ve done for music, period, but a lot of people don’t take that into consideration and just say, ‘Let’s make music for Atlanta right now,’ instead of, ‘Let’s make music from this city and give it to the world so they can keep it forever.’ A lot of people get caught up sounding like copycats of what was before. A lot of people feel like their first resort is to do some OutKast-type shit and it just comes across as just some fake-ass OutKast shit. Your best bet is to do you. I always keep that in mind.” As we talk, it becomes clear that these grasps for something original, something genuine, are a recurring theme. Imitation won’t suffice: “I gotta find my own way.”

fortebowie-2

The music of the city is only a small part of what has shaped Forte’s music, however. He’s namedropped everyone from The Police to Phil Collins and the mention of the latter elicits a noise so guttural that I’m not sure whether the reaction has been good or bad. It turns out to be extremely positive. “‘Easy Lover’, man. That’s one of the greatest songs ever. The intro is amazing. That’s what gets me going. A lot of pop music influences me, especially ’80s pop. I grew up listening to everything. Like the soft rock stations, my aunts and my mom would listen to that a lot and they would play nothing but ’80s shit all weekend. That’s why my favourite song is Tears For Fears – ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’. You know those songs as soon as you hear them. There’s just something about ’80s pop.” Before I even get a chance to mention my own personal pin-ups of choice, he swoops in: “I have the best of Daryl Hall and John Oates in my car.”

Modern indie is also a source of inspiration, indicative of an RnB and hip-hop scene that has come to have an osmotic relationship with rock music, traditionally the preserve of white musicians. Indeed, he samples Fiona Apple on his debut EP, ‘Vice Haus Deluxe’. He says: “If I wanted to get up and do a whole indie folk project I could do that. I’m one of those dudes that can take something and internalise it so when I do it, it sounds like me, it doesn’t sound like me trying to do an indie folk album. Music is music. There shouldn’t be any genre block-offs. I know a lot of people who I talk to and know in Atlanta aren’t going to listen to Fiona Apple just because it’s Fiona Apple and they’ll be like, ‘Who the fuck is that?’ But if I sample that and put a beat behind it they might go back and listen to it. I’ve got Kate Bush samples on there. I’ve got George Duke.” He bubbles as he lists off John Denver, Joni Mitchell, krautrock and UK house and garage. It’s obvious that he does his research; something he’s been doing since before he could walk. “My mom says by eight months I knew how to use a cassette player. I knew how to put tapes in and put ‘em on and press play.”

Forte’s voracious appetite for music continued into his teenage years, when a missed sports trial proved serendipitous. “I was gonna try out for football but the physical from my doctor didn’t come in on time and I was so mad. All my friends thought I was so lame. My manhood has always been tested because I’ve always been in chorus instead of football.” When he tried to study music, however, he found that its structures quelled his love of the art. “Then I went to one school and I majored in music and that was the worst thing I could’ve done. I was doing all the theory, history. I don’t want it to be an assignment and it almost ruined it so I would just go to my dorm and record all day. My parents were so upset when I flunked out but they support me 100% now.”

With his first proper music video under his belt, set to excellent debut single ‘Gucci Mayne’, his parents may well see that faith pay dividends, though he downplays the significance of his starring role. “It was hot that day. It was hot and fun, that’s the only way I can describe it. We had paper towels to wipe down after every shot. If being a rockstar means I need to be sweaty as fuck then I’m not sure if I want to be a rockstar.”

And what about the song’s title, taken from fellow Atlantan of the same name? “‘Gucci Mayne’ is a term we use in Atlanta. There’s a rapper called Gucci Mane, of course, but if somebody asks if you’re ok you say, ‘Yeah, I’m Gucci,’ like, ‘Yeah, I’m good.’ People say that all the time. When I found out a lot of places don’t say that it was just crazy because that’s just slang out there. But I have to give you me, and I’m from Atlanta. You can tell when an artist does something for a certain area or a certain demographic.”

By laying bare the various stages of a breakup, from bravado to hurt, Forte also proudly wears his fragility on his sleeve, a quality that isn’t generally equated with his style of music. “I can’t make songs about stuff I don’t know about. I really have to get off what’s on my chest. If I’m feeling really emotional then that’s gonna come across. That song is pretty much what every human being goes through during a break-up. People rarely break up with someone and move on the next day.” He pauses. “Why shouldn’t I make a song about that? Because somebody’s gonna be able to connect with that more than, ‘Look at my car.’”

I see that we’ve been speaking for just under an hour. Forte, however, stills wants to chat. “I thought we had more questions, man! Let’s talk about shit.”

« Previous Interview
Next Interview »