Interview With Jackson Turner (@EmceeHeretic)

jacksonQ. As an emcee who grew up in New York and is based in Beijing, you might be a bit unknown to some of our UK read­ers — can you intro­duce your­self and your music? When and how did you first get con­nec­ted with Hip Hop? When and how did you start mak­ing music?

I was born in Brook­lyn. When I was young, I moved right across the river from NYC to a spot called Nyack. My moms stayed there. My pops moved back to the city, to Wash­ing­ton Heights. I was first intro­duced to hip-hop by my fath­er. When I was 11, my pops gave me a Tribe Called Quest CD and told me to go home and listen. I did­n’t really under­stand the music at that time. Later, I dis­covered groups like Wu Tang, Nas and Big Pun on my own and that whole 90’s New York sound had a big influ­ence on me. I think at that age it was the raw­ness of the sound and the rebel­li­ous­ness of the cul­ture that attrac­ted me. By the age of 15 or so I had become par­tic­u­larly attrac­ted to the intric­ate lyr­i­cism of Hip-Hop.

I began to write, free­style and per­form around the age of 17. I col­lab­or­ated with a friend from school who could pro­duce (at that time he called him­self But­ter­balls; he still dee­jays and pro­duces today) and we made an EP. I was so young, I just dis­trib­uted the EP on the street and used it as a busi­ness card to give to people. Around that time I par­ti­cip­ated in a few free­style battles as well. The biggest one was held at the Uni­ver­sity of Buf­falo, where I was going to school. I took home 2nd place and parts of the battle were aired on MTV.

I moved to China at the age of 20. I was get­ting into a lot of trouble back home and needed to get out of the US. I star­ted to learn Chinese and travel around Asia. Later I found a decent job in Beijing and stayed. I got back into the music around 2009. There were a lot of dope under­ground emcees and dee­jays (both for­eign and Chinese), and the live jazz scene was pop­ping. I would go to the live shows and kick it and free­style with the per­formers after the show. One night, I went to see this dope jazz‑R&B band and I met their producer—Jewell Forten­berry. This dude was an ill pian­ist and pro­du­cer, and he could spit too. He had this band with the Chinese sing­er Tia-Ray and he would be killing the keys and rap­ping in between her vocals. He was the one who put me on. He intro­duced me to the key people in Beijing and helped me pro­duce (along with the Chinese Amer­ic­an pro­du­cer Soulspeak) my first full-length album. Jewell’s an amaz­ing musi­cian and per­son and I’ve been blessed to be able to work with him again on my latest album.

Q. Your music has a very soul­ful sound. How did you devel­op this style? Who and what are your influ­ences?

I think this has deep roots. In my ele­ment­ary school we had a very pas­sion­ate music teach­er. Her name was Judy Thomas. She would teach us these old Afric­an Amer­ic­an Gos­pel and civil rights songs. I’ve always been par­tic­u­larly moved by this kind of music, which I still love today. I mean, I’m not reli­gious really, but that Gos­pel music can move me to tears, that’s how power­ful it is. So as I grew older, I began to search out and listen to a lot of Soul music, which is the mod­ern evol­u­tion of Gos­pel.

My music has been influ­enced by a whole range of people from Nas to Eminem, to Bob Mar­ley and Sizzla, to Aretha Frank­lin, Ray Charles and Otis Red­ding. Even musi­cians far away from hip-hop, like Col­trane, Min­gus, John Lee Hook­er and Bob Dylan; they’ve all influ­enced me in vari­ous ways. I listen to all kinds of music and am con­stantly try­ing to learn and incor­por­ate new ideas from oth­er genres into Hip-Hop. This is how Hip-Hop began and, to me, it’s the spir­it of Hip-Hop.

Q. The mes­sage in a lot of your tracks has a strong anti-estab­lish­ment, pro-revolu­tion­ary thread (in line with the kind of stuff we love to pro­mote at IAM­HIPHOP!). How did you devel­op your way of think­ing? How import­ant is it for you to incor­por­ate these thoughts (and actions) into your music?

I would say my new album is more in the con­scious Hip-Hop tra­di­tion of Tribe, Mos Def and Com­mon. Cats look­ing to hear that hard-hit­ting polit­ic­al cri­tique should check out my 2013 album “Long Time Com­ing”. I def­in­itely am a polit­ic­ally minded per­son and I love polit­ic­al music. I don’t believe, how­ever, that all art should be polit­ic­al. I think art and music should always have a mes­sage of some kind—a deep­er mean­ing that goes bey­ond just the aes­thet­ic. So some of my music is polit­ic­al, some of it is about love or emo­tion, but all of my music tries to con­vey a mes­sage.

I developed my polit­ic­al views partly because my par­ents are both very left-wing and partly do to my exper­i­ences grow­ing up in New York. When I was young, my par­ents nev­er talked about polit­ics with me dir­ectly, but they def­in­itely provided me with a per­spect­ive on life that cham­pioned the under­dog. Later, when I was around 19, I star­ted form­ing my own polit­ic­al views. These views developed out of the exper­i­ences I had and the shit that I saw grow­ing up. As a teen­ager espe­cially, I wit­nessed a lot of social injustice and racism. I saw kids I grew up with go to jail, people get har­assed by the police and folks unable to get good jobs. I per­son­ally was arres­ted and expelled from high school over a rhyme I had writ­ten and this gave me a strong sense that the power­ful will per­se­cute people who they can­not con­trol. I also wit­nessed a lot of viol­ence grow­ing up. When I was 18, I saw a kid get shot five times right in front of me. This had a deep impact on me. It pushed me to look for answers to some of the social prob­lems we deal with in the US. Why were Black and Latino folks killing each oth­er and going to jail in much lar­ger pro­por­tions than white folks? Why did some folks get to go to col­lege and get high-pay­ing jobs and oth­er folks forced to sell drugs on the street? These were the imme­di­ate ques­tions I had that lead me down a socially con­scious path.

I love to see how music can edu­cate and inspire people down a sim­il­ar path. In 2012, I went to South Africa to do some hip-hop work­shops and per­form in the town­ships (ghetto com­munit­ies) there. I was invited by a group called Soundz of the South. Those kids are doing some really cool work with the com­munity. They were using the music as a plat­form to edu­cate people, some­thing sim­il­ar to what the Zulu Nation does. They later star­ted the Afric­an Hip-Hop Cara­van, where they took this same com­munity-based per­form­ance mod­el to some­thing like sev­en Afric­an coun­tries. That trip was an amaz­ing exper­i­ence for me and I would def­in­itely be down to get involved in some­thing like that again in the future.

Q. Is it these kinds of exper­i­ences and these ways of think­ing that lead you to Beijing? Why did you decide to move to China?

My jour­ney to Asia def­in­itely developed out of me becom­ing socially aware. If you read a lot about his­tory and polit­ics, you learn how the world is inter­con­nec­ted. Of course, I wanted to travel to oth­er coun­tries that I was read­ing about and see how the people of those coun­tries lived and thought.

I was always inter­ested in Asi­an cul­ture though. My grand­fath­er lived in China and Japan when he was in the navy. My step-moth­er is Korean. And so, since an early age I had been exposed to aspects of Asi­an cul­ture that I wanted to under­stand in more depth. I chose to come to China, in part because I felt like it was the foun­tain head of East Asi­an cul­ture, and in part because of its his­tory with Social­ism. I was curi­ous to see what Social­ism was about.

Spend­ing 12 years in China must have impacted your out­look. Do you feel thats the case? Are there any par­tic­u­larly moments that have had a par­tic­u­larly sig­ni­fic­ant impact on you?

China has influ­enced me in many ways that I can’t even explain. I’ve learned to be tol­er­ant, humble and mature. I’ve learned to under­stand the world from a dif­fer­ent per­spect­ive. A lot of the same issues that cats are deal­ing with back home, the Chinese are deal­ing with too. China has taught me a lot about my own coun­try and to see the world more object­ively.

Social­ism in China is a dif­fi­cult ques­tion. The Chinese have basic­ally aban­doned Social­ism and embraced cap­it­al­ism. This has brought a lot of wealth to the coun­try as a whole, but the wealth is being dis­trib­uted more and more unevenly. There have been a lot of improve­ments in the past 30 years in China, but also a lot of prob­lems that they can­not eas­ily fix. I think China needs to slow down the eco­nom­ic growth and focus on issues of soci­ety, edu­ca­tion, and cul­ture. If there is to be real social­ism in China, it can’t be the wel­fare state and it can’t be author­it­ari­an rule; it’s gotta come from the work­ing people them­selves.

Q. How much of an influ­ence has Beijing and your travels in China influ­enced your music?

I would say my music comes out of my iden­tity as an Amer­ic­an. Most of what inspires me music­ally is my con­nec­tion with New York and the exper­i­ences I’ve had liv­ing there. In fact, Hip-Hop helps me get back to those roots. China has influ­enced me in oth­er ways, but music­ally not so much.

Q. How is your Chinese lan­guage skill? Can you under­stand Chinese emcees? Can you spit bars in Chinese?

My Chinese is pretty much flu­ent. I can under­stand Chinese emcees if I listen care­fully and rewind and double check the shit they are spit­ting. Oth­er­wise, I can com­mu­nic­ate nor­mally in Man­dar­in with no prob­lem.

I can spit writ­ten bars in Chinese but I can’t really free­style. I’ve got a few songs writ­ten in Chinese which I will drop at some point. I’m always con­cerned though that the songs I’ve writ­ten in Chinese are good for a non-nat­ive speak­er, but that they will seem corny to a Chinese per­son because I can’t express myself poet­ic­ally in the same way they can.

Q. What is the Hip Hop scene like in Beijing? How do you per­ceive it and what is your place and role with­in it? How does it com­pare to New York?

Hip-Hop cul­ture in Beijing is strange because it is extremely divided between Chinese and for­eign Hip-Hop. The Chinese Hip-Hop heads are either cre­at­ing their own under­ground music and per­form­ing it at live shows or they are doing the club thing. The for­eign Hip-Hop heads are mostly involved in deejing and hype-man shit in the big night clubs. There are some people in Beijing who are try­ing to break down these bar­ri­ers and make music and do events that involve both sides. I have always viewed this as one of my goals of doing music in China, though I have not always suc­ceeded.

The Chinese lan­guage Hip-Hop scene is inter­est­ing because it has main­tained the old-school 90’s cul­ture and for the most part has tried to stay loy­al to that. I see this as both a good and a bad thing. It is good because it is pre­serving a tra­di­tion that is dying out. It can be a bad thing, how­ever, when Hip-Hop iden­tity becomes too rigidly focused on the golden age 90’s cul­ture. Music is a cre­at­ive art. I think the real chal­lenge that Chinese Hip-Hop faces, as Hip-Hop faces every­where, is how to bal­ance the tend­ency to pre­serve with the tend­ency to innov­ate. If they can fig­ure that out, I think we will see a lot of beau­ti­ful music in Beijing.

The oth­er thing that is essen­tial in order for Chinese Hip-Hop to flour­ish is to have fin­an­cial sup­port. Wheth­er this means the dir­ect sup­port of record labels or indir­ect sup­port of spon­sors, fans, and inde­pend­ent organ­iz­a­tions, the fact is that without ser­i­ous sup­port of the music there will be no future. From what I have noticed, there seems to be a much stronger sup­port on the dan­cing side of Hip-Hop, and very little sup­port for ori­gin­al Chinese lan­guage Hip-Hop music. This may be because break dan­cing isn’t per­ceived as a threat in the way that Chinese Rap music is.


Q. Youve just dropped your second pro­ject The Found­a­tion EP. Tell us about the cre­at­ive pro­cess you went through in cre­at­ing this pro­ject.

‘The Found­a­tion’ is a pro­ject which cuts to the heart of the music. To me, Hip-Hop music is about two things; the groove and the art of lyr­i­cism. Hip-Hop comes out of Soul and Funk music and ori­gin­ated as a kind of urb­an dance music. Today, a lot of what is con­sidered Hip-Hop is barely danceable—there are no changes in the songs; things have been sim­pli­fied and made mono­ton­ous. Real lyr­i­cism has incred­ibly com­plex rhythms and rhyme schemes; just like that of a drum. Today, the art of rap­ping has become almost a joke. Rap­ping has no mes­sage and is rhyth­mic­ally flat and routine. ‘The Found­a­tion’ tries to get back to the roots of the music and cul­ture, while still being fresh and innov­at­ive.

Five songs made the final cut for the album. Each song is meant to dis­play a dif­fer­ent style that I am cap­able of as an artist, as well as the dif­fer­ent styles that Hip-Hop is cap­able of as an art form. Themes on the album range from the philo­soph­ic­al, to the hard­core, to the party groove, to the romantic love song. In my mind, this range of sounds and themes form the found­a­tion of Hip-Hop.

The title ‘The Found­a­tion’, also comes from the name of the last song on the album. This song is about under­stand­ing love as the basis of human­ity. To me, love is the spir­itu­al force that unites human beings as a com­munity. It is the force that cre­ates new life; the force that heals and strengthens us. The album title, ‘The Found­a­tion’, also car­ries with it this mean­ing because all the songs on the album are meant to be uplift­ing in some way.

For this pro­ject, I was blessed to col­lab­or­ate with a vari­ety of pro­du­cers, mix­ers and fea­tured artists. I was able to team back up with the immensely tal­en­ted pian­ist and pro­du­cer Jew­ell Forten­berry, who has worked with Chinese sing­ers Tia-Ray and Fang Da Tong. And I also had the priv­ilege to col­lab­or­ate again with the main pro­du­cer of my first album — Soulspeak. Oth­er pro­du­cers I worked with include the Nor­we­gi­an pro­du­cer DJ Peewee, Afric­an pro­du­cers from the Tri­ad Music Crew DJ Moss Da Boss and DJ Shaba, and the Azerbaijani pro­du­cer Dojo Shaol­in. On the EP, I have two fea­tured artists. The first is the Ger­man sing­er Lisa Rowe, who’s 2012 single “United” with the Dan­ish duo Nik & Jay did extremely well in Den­mark. The second fea­ture is from the French reg­gae artist Gen­er­al Huge, who is a mem­ber of the Ulti­mate Band Crew. Finally, the album was primar­ily mixed by the Ger­man mix­er Michael Seifert, who did an out­stand­ing job. I also gotta thank the Japan­ese illus­trat­or Haku-Ryu and the Chilean graph­ic design­er Jose Alvarez for the dope album cov­er art­work. In addi­tion to writ­ing the song lyr­ics, I acted as exec­ut­ive pro­du­cer through­out, provid­ing the over­all vis­ion and scope as well as coördin­at­ing, arran­ging, revis­ing and fund­ing all the music on the album.

Q. So this is an extremely inter­na­tion­al pro­ject. You have a lot of tal­ent from all over the world con­trib­ut­ing to your sound and imagery. Was that delib­er­ate? Does this affect the nature of the pro­ject?

 It was delib­er­ate in the sense that I sought out people who had the sound or fla­vour that I was look­ing for. As I said I wanted an album that had a wide range of sounds. I thought the best way to achieve this was to work with a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent people. As rough drafts for the songs developed, I star­ted to under­stand more clearly what was needed in each song and looked for people who could bring that spe­cif­ic fla­vour. The album is even more inter­na­tion­al when you include the ses­sion musi­cians I worked with (who were not form­ally cred­ited on the songs). Artists like the Thai sing­er OMG, who did back-up vocals on two of the tracks; Detroit bass play­er Dan Zyl­in­ski; and the Chinese viol­in­ist Xu Ming­mei all brought a unique feel to the pro­ject. Not only am I lucky to have worked with such diverse and tal­en­ted people, but the album also bene­fits from this diversity. We were able to achieve both the music­al range that I wanted and a strong con­tinu­ity between the tracks. That’s not easy to do. So I feel very proud that we were able to pull it off.

Q. What are your goals for this pro­ject? How are you releas­ing it? Will you focus on Beijing, China, Asia, New York, the US? Are you plan­ning any tours or inter­na­tion­al shows?

‘The Found­a­tion’ EP is being released com­pletely inde­pend­ently. For now I am focus­ing on the digit­al dis­tri­bu­tion and pro­mo­tion and so haven’t prin­ted any phys­ic­al cop­ies of the album yet. This may change in the future if it seems like I also need the phys­ic­al dis­tri­bu­tion.

My plans for the album are to build more of an inter­na­tion­al fan base so that I can meet up, learn from and col­lab­or­ate with people doing this all over the world. I will focus on Asia because that’s where I am closest in prox­im­ity too. But I will also devote a lot of atten­tion to pro­mo­tion in Eng­lish speak­ing coun­tries like the US, UK, Aus­tralia and South Africa. Ger­many, and Europe in gen­er­al, will also be a focus. I plan to travel to Ber­lin in Octo­ber to shoot a video with Lisa Rowe.

I am cur­rently try­ing to work out tour plans for sev­er­al coun­tries includ­ing Japan, Korea and Ger­many. If any­one read­ing is inter­ested in hav­ing me per­form def­in­itely get in touch.

Q. What are your plans bey­ond this EP?

I want to keep trav­el­ing and keep doing my music. I’d like to get more involved in organ­iz­ing events and cross-cul­tur­al music col­lab­or­a­tions. I’ve teamed up with a part­ner — Danny G. — and the two of us have star­ted an organ­iz­a­tion called No Play Con­cepts. No Play is involved in record­ing and pro­du­cing music in Beijing. We hope to not only help grow music in China, but also facil­it­ate more col­lab­or­a­tion between Chinese and inter­na­tion­al artists.

Q. Finally, do you have any advice for any Hip-Hop heads who might be inspired by you and want to travel to China, as fans or as artists?

Def­in­itely come check out China. China is a beau­ti­ful coun­try with amaz­ing diversity. From the Muslim Uyghurs and Kaza­khs in the West, to the Tibetan and Mon­go­li­ans, to the Han Chinese them­selves, music is alive in China. If you a straight Hip-Hop head come to Beijing and check out the Nat­ur­al Fla­vor ven­ue or dee­jay Wordy. If you into Reg­gae, check out dee­jay Rad­dam Ras. Shang­hai, Guang­zhou, Wuhan and Xi’an also all got dope under­ground Hip-Hop scenes. You can travel and eat great food here for real cheap.

Q. Its been a pleas­ure build­ing with you, we hope everything goes well with The Found­a­tion EP and with your future goals and ambi­tions. Before we fin­ish, let every­one know where they can find your music.

You can order my new album ‘The Found­a­tion’ EP on Itunes and on Amazon:

You can find my old album and music at:

Fol­low my face­book page at:

You can watch my vids on my You­tube chan­nel at:




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Apex Zero

Apex Zero

An emcee, beat­maker, film­maker and writer from Lon­don with Gren­adian roots, Apex Zero has spent his life learn­ing and liv­ing Hip Hop cul­ture, using it to inspire and affect change. Based in Beijing for a few years and reg­u­larly tour­ing the globe, Apex is well trav­elled, and uses the les­sons this provides to inform his art and out­look. He is a mem­ber of the Glob­al­Fac­tion digit­al pro­duc­tion house and the inter­na­tion­al Hip Hop col­lect­ive End of the Weak.

About Apex Zero

Apex Zero
An emcee, beatmaker, filmmaker and writer from London with Grenadian roots, Apex Zero has spent his life learning and living Hip Hop culture, using it to inspire and affect change. Based in Beijing for a few years and regularly touring the globe, Apex is well travelled, and uses the lessons this provides to inform his art and outlook. He is a member of the GlobalFaction digital production house and the international Hip Hop collective End of the Weak.

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