11 May 2020 Interview: Manga Saint Hilare is proof that elite artistry can you help you survive in grime in 2020
Manga Saint Hilare Interview – The spirit of grime from the mid-2000s was all about repetitive triplets, energetic flows and having an aggressive tone that made you stand-out not only as a grime MC, but an artist that can make hits. Manga, as he was known as back then, was part of Roll Deep collective and has transitioned from punchline MC into a fully-fledged artist who pays incredible attention to detail.
The artist who was seen initially as a low-key MC who’d you think had the cheeky one or two punchlines from Roll Deep has always had questions from his fans about when he’ll get deserved shine that he showcases with his narrative-pointed style of MC’ing. You might seeing Manga as an ‘outsider’ from this perspective, a position of comfort which he embraces wholeheartedly.
Upon leaving Roll Deep, Manga added ‘Saint Hilare’ to his name and carved a new lane for himself, giving his loyal fan base a greater opportunity to understand the artistic formula he brings to grime. There is a sense of pragmatism and humility to Manga Saint Hilare that explains why is he able to enjoy an ever-growing career in a genre some say has died out.
His first project after his name change to Manga Saint Hilare was White Jeans Suit Confidence in 2015. He openly admits this body of work wasn’t among his best, but that’s an admission rooted in quality control more so than in doubt. Manga Saint Hilare’s next project, Outbursts From The Outskirts, helped him to build up trust with his audience. They knew what to expect, lyrically and production-wise, as Lewi-B produced the entire project, which is consistent with Manga’s desire to create projects that feature just one producer in order to create a more coherent sound.
Outbursts From The Outskirts portrayed his stylish lyricism and served up metaphorical and conceptional songs that made the project one of the strongest released in 2017 within the grime scene, even without any mainstream interaction. Since then, Manga has built a fan base and tapped into business advice he picked up touring with Astroid Boys, namely, to hold his own tours, to sell his own merch and to a grow a consistent stream of income outside of revenue gained from Spotify and Apple Music. When you sprinkle in skills he already acquired, like ensuring his album art is as close to actual art as possible, you begin to see why he’s been able to enjoy a career in music for well over a decade.
Manga Saint Hilare most recently dropped an incredible EP called Make It Out Alive. The project showcases a more vigorous development of his style and his freedom to express the respect and accolades for the genre of grime. As ever, the artwork is immaculate and helps fans conceptualise what’s being said, again reminding us that quality really does take precedent over quantity.
In 2020, not many grime artists can survive if they don’t get playlisted often or receive hundreds of thousands of video views. Manga Saint Hilare has bucked that trend and developed the type of fan base of listeners who know every word of every song he makes. Plugsville caught up with Manga Saint Hilare to discuss his time in Roll Deep, touring with Astroid Boys, Outsiders Live Forever and how to make it as a grime MC in 2020.
Back when you were in Roll Deep, the grime scene enjoyed some of its best moments, with iconic events like Lord Of The Mics, Eskimo Dance and Sidewinder. What makes grime a great genre for people that are new to it?
The energy. The energy and how unpredictable it all is. A clash can just start randomly, you can release songs whenever you want. You could have the same line-up on a show, the rave won’t be the same. If you go to an artist’s concert from another genre, it’s going to generally be the same. If you come to a show, you’re going to hear the same bars, but on a different beat, with a different set of people, in a different environment, that changes the whole experience. If you listen to radio and certain MCs are there, but this person is not there or that person isn’t, or if it’s another DJ, it’s also a different experience. So you can experience the same music but in different forms, and it makes the music exciting.
Talk about the role you’ve played in helping other musicians like Nafe Smallz find their feet in the industry…
Big up, Nafe. Kye was working on an event to help musicians in Luton. And I was living in Luton at the time because I’ve got family there. And Nafe was there, and he was sick. You could obviously see that he was mad talented. Then from there, we stayed in touch, grew a friendship, this was like when he was like 13. See the style he’s got now, that was all him. I’m not taking any credit for that. But in terms of helping him, we just helped in any way we can. Any contacts we could pass on, that kind of thing. I went on tour with Astroid Boys and I brought him along. I was supporting them, so I only had around 20 minutes to perform. I brought Nafe along and he did his one song in my set. In terms of new talent, anything I can do to help someone, I will. I’m not the biggest artist, I haven’t got a label or anything like that. It’s more like ‘cool, that’s mandem, I think he’s talented and I can help. So that’s what I try to do.
Why did you change your name from ‘Manga’ to ‘Manga Saint Hilare’?
Manga’s a pretty rubbish name, when you deep it. It doesn’t mean anything, I originally went with it because I just liked how the letter’s looked, back in school days. This was pre-internet days, so I wasn’t really thinking about search engines. For example, there might be an MC called ‘Blacks’ back in the day, but today, that’s not really going to help you. So I added ‘St Hilare’ because I wanted to differentiate between my time in Roll Deep and being a solo artist, and it also helps with search engines as well.
Your first official release under Manga St Hilare was ‘White Jean Suit Confidence’. What was the reception like when you dropped it?
It was good. People were still figuring it out. I was still figuring it out. Obviously, you’ve got to build up trust with your audience, they didn’t really trust man them times there. Some people did, but realistically, a lot of people were still unsure. You’ve got to prove yourself. You’ve got to be good! Who are you? What are you saying? To be fair, White Jean Suit Confidence wasn’t that good of a project, to be honest. It didn’t sound good, it wasn’t mixed well, it didn’t have much cohesion. But I was just learning init.
What was the concept behind your next project, Outbursts From The Outskirts?
Me and Lewi B made White Jeans Suit Confidence, he produced all of it. But I didn’t think the project was very good. I listened back to ‘Different Pattern’ and thought ‘this song is good, but I can make it better’. So I thought, if I re-record it, I can definitely make it better. So I restructured the beat for ‘Different Pattern’ and we changed it up. ‘Outbursts’ was the first time I felt like my audience trusted me. The initial reception wasn’t like ‘yo, gotta go get this ASAP’, but it took over people. It playlisted on 1Xtra, and I haven’t got a manager or label or anything like that, it was just off the strength of people enjoying the song. And it grew from there. It just kept spreading and the song kept pushing, and the whole project really was like a statement to say ‘yeah I’m here’. It was a step up from White Jean Suit Confidence, as I put all my resources, thoughts and ideas into making this project the best that I can.
With your next project, Outsiders Live Forever, how did the idea for that project come together?
The same thing, so people enjoyed ‘Outbursts’ and I continued making music. And I wanted to make another project with just one producer. At that time, it was. I always start with the title when it comes to my projects. I have to come up with the title first so I know what I’m saying. How you hear it is how I wrote it. So when you hear the intro, that’s the first thing I’ve written, when you hear the outro, that’s the last thing I wrote, so it flows. With ‘Outsiders Live Forever’, I just wanted to state my intentions. So, that was more about mortality and making sure my legacy is intact. The people that step outside of the path, are the ones that are remembered, rather than the ones who fall in line.
What was it like working with Murkage Dave on ‘We Need To Look After Us’?
It was cool, it was easy. That’s my bredrin, and I’m a big fan of his. His album, ‘Murkage Dave Changed My Life’, I think I was the only feature on the project. But aside from me being on the project, that’s one of my favourite albums ever. I always say this to him and he doesn’t like it, but it’s like ‘Boy In Da Corner’ for 30-year-olds. That’s what that album is. We’re bredrins and we talk a lot and I feel like we’re very similar. The only difference is he sings and I spit. That’s why it was easy doing a project with him because our subject matter is very similar. It’s just that he sings it and makes it sound sick and I gotta spit. It didn’t take long to record. It took about two weeks. Make It Out Alive took like a year, Outsiders took like a year and this one took like two weeks.
Your cover art for your projects is always immaculate, some of the best in the scene. Talk about why you spend so much time to create the visuals you do…
Because I think it’s important. And it’s what I like. I like that type of stuff. If you want to attract people to how you think, you have to explain it. I grew up listening to entire albums in full, so I create like that. I don’t just create one song or just one thing if you see what I mean. I don’t feel like I can tell my whole story in just one song. So in terms of the artwork, all of that is important. I remember when I saw Graduation, or when I saw Boy In Da Corner, it made me realise it’s important. I like art and I like graphics, I tried to do graphics at university when I went for like three weeks. I’ve got an interest in it, so that’s why I like to showcase that. I know some people don’t think it’s important, but I like to make sure that everything I present is the best work I can possibly make. There’s no point me putting all that time into the music itself, and then not presenting it well. Music is expensive to make. I see a lot of people spend time making music but then put it out with any old artwork, it just devalues it instantly.
You dropped a sick video alongside P Money in the video for ‘Not Around’ from your latest project, ‘Make It Out Alive’. What’s the reception been like?
It’s been good. The whole project, people are really enjoying it. This is probably the first time I’ve released a project and people are waiting for it. With ‘Outbursts’, it was a creeper, so I released it then people caught onto it and it grew legs. Outsiders Live Forever, I didn’t release any singles, I just said ‘it’s coming on this day, here you go’. With Make It Out Alive, I released singles beforehand – I had ‘Don’t Hold Your Breath’, I had ‘At All Times’, ‘Thoughts & Prayers’, and then the project came out. I’ve built up trust with my audience to the point where they were waiting for it, so when I dropped it, it’s been a great reception. People have taken it in. I’m quite lucky that my supporters take in my work how I intend them to. They’re not looking for the singles, they didn’t just listen to the P Money tune or just the Izzie Gibbs tune or Novelist. They’re starting from the start and taking it all in. so far, it’s not really been one song talking to people, they like the whole thing, which is a blessing.
Do you feel frustrated by the matter of fact you keep releasing consistent projects after projects and feel you should have the deserved accolades to be in a better position?
You can’t do nothing in frustration. Music is all opinion-based, it’s not facts. It’s not like sports where you can say ‘I scored more goals than you, so I’m better than you’. It doesn’t work like that. If I was a football player and I scored ‘x’ amount of goals, my value would increase. Whereas music, you can release what you feel like is your best music and it just doesn’t take off or get the views and streams that someone else would. There’s nothing you can do to change people’s opinions, you just got either keep going or just stop.
I remember seeing you live at Astroid boys tour at their London show, it was an absolute shutdown. Then you also came out with Murkage Dave during The Streets’ tour. I know one venue was smaller and the other had thousands of people. What was the difference in the energy at these shows?
I did six or seven tours with Astroid Boys. I learnt a lot doing stuff with them, like a lot. I learnt about merchandise, creating a fanbase. Astroid Boys haven’t got the same streams or views as other artists, but they can tour the whole country, up and down, three or four times, each time with packed out venues, with people that love them. So I learnt a lot about creating for your own audience by watching them. Before I was trying to cover the middle ground, then I realised, them people there, are just for everyone. Then when time passes and you’re not the in-thing or that sound isn’t popular anymore, they just go away. So I learnt about ‘yo, talk to your people and build up your tribe’. There are lots of things I learnt from that experience, it was probably the most valuable thing I’ve ever done. I came from Roll Deep as well, so I’m calm with doing shows. We’ve done Glastonbury, we’ve done Wireless, everywhere, Rinse FM, everything. In terms of doing shows, I’ve been quite lucky because I’ve done every venue, done Wembley, Royal Albert Hall. Not as Manga, but either part of Roll Deep or with DJ Target or someone else.
I know you had the ‘Outsiders Live Forever’ tour, which looked absolutely mental. Which city showed you the most love? Because each show had great energy from the photos that were captured…
All of them. Cardiff was sick, all of them were sick. As I said, people that come to my shows, are not in the middle ground, they really know it. So it’s not like ‘they’re just here because this is the in-thing’, anyone that comes has gone out of their way to be there. I don’t want to say all the shows are the same, but at each one there’s a set of people who know the ting, they’re not just here for the fashion. That’s the exciting thing, all of it’s love. Whether I’m in Cardiff or London or Nottingham, it’s the same vibe no matter where I go. I even went to Germany as well, Stuttgart, it was love! I was planning the same for this year, but it ain’t gonna happen…
From my personal experience as a photographer, I’ve always said the smallest venues make for the best shows…
Of course. When I did The Streets tour with [Murkage] Dave, we’re supporting and I’m coming out with the support act. It’s a massive crowd, Brixton academy, 5000 people. First of all, they’re not there to see me. They’re not even there to see Dave. Them shows are sick if you’ve got a big song to support it. I don’t really get gassed playing to big crowds that don’t know my ting, just because it’s a big crowd. I’d rather do a show with 400 people that really want to be there. Like I’ve said, I’ve done big shows. I’ve done Glastonbury, Wireless, I can’t think of a place I haven’t performed at. So I’ve performed in front of big crowds with Roll Deep, but my first headline show in Birthdays with 200 people, was better than all of that. Or the first time I supported Astroid Boys, and people were actually asking for me, it was better than all of that. again, I’m doing grime and they’re like a punk band, the crowd is like ‘who is this guy’, but nearer the end, when they were announcing the tour, people were tweeting saying ‘yo Manga better be there’. And that’s sick. Music is a connection. If Astroid Boys get back together and say they’re doing a tour tomorrow, there will be people there. If there’s a ‘Boy In Da Corner’ show, I’ll be there, because that’s what I grew up on.
Is grime dead in 2020?
When they say grime’s dead, to me, that means it’s not the popular genre right now. You’ve got afroswing, drill, all of these movements, that is now a youth genre. So grime isn’t a youth movement anymore, it’s not the voice of the streets. If we want to hear about what life is like in London or Birmingham or wherever we’re not going to grime to hear those stories. Whereas before, that’s where I’m going to hear those stories. The genre obviously can’t die, but it can lose popularity, which I understand. If you’ve got a good grime song, they’ll like it, and that’s where I think people get it confused. I think the times of grime being the monopoly genre, or the genre that everyone has to funnel through, is gone. The thing is now, only the people making good music will continue because DJ EZ is not short of bookings if garage is dead. So Solid Crew are not short of bookings if garage is dead. Like I said, P Money’s calm, JME’s calm, I’m trying to be calm. Then you’ve got people like Jaykae, Big Zuu, Capo Lee, all these people. They might not be doing as well as other rappers, but they can live.
I feel like the main thing grime audiences needs to understand is to not be stuck in the past. Because I think that’s what kept people away from it, the elitism. People really love this genre. For instance, AJ Tracey, he came from grime and then started experimenting with his sound, but grime audiences and even other MCs will be like ‘that’s not grime’. They say the same about Stormzy, ‘you’re not really grime because you didn’t go radio’. Bruv, Stormzy didn’t need to go radio. We had to do that. We shouldn’t keep trying to convince people to stick to the old rule when it’s a new day. That’s what sets it back, it has to be like how it was. So how can it move forward then? I say we big up Stormzy, big up AJ Tracey, big up JME, big up Skepta, all these people, Chip, everyone. Big them up. There’s no other genre where as soon as artists start making music that’s a bit outside the box of the genre, they start cutting them off. It only leads to contempt for the genre.
Can new grime artists survive on doing grime just alone?
Yeah, you can, if you play things smartly. Don’t just rely on your streams. Keep on top of your social media, keep on top of everything. Know where your money is. I don’t spend bare money on videos, because I’m not a big YouTube artist. So I’m not going to spend my energy and time and spent 10 bags on a video because I’m never going to get that money back. I’d rather spend it on the sound of the song and if I needed to maybe a DJ mailout list, make some merch, things like that, things that people can physically hold that will give you money today. With grime, what’s sick is that you can keep your costs low. Take [Nafe] Smallz as an example, because that’s my bredrin. So Smallz, just before this virus broke out, I was in the studio with Smallz and Kye, and he had the new Balenciaga’s on, he had all these things. But if he doesn’t have them things on, it’s not Smallz. When he’s doing a video, he has to have everything. Them jackets are not cheap, all these things are money. He puts a lot of thought into his visuals, so they see him, they fall in love with his image and what he’s saying and then people say ‘cool, we want to live like that’.
With grime, the costs are lower. Make it accessible, be clever, give them something to buy, and you can make money. I just do grime, I don’t live life sick, I’ve got my flat, I got my good car, I pattern up and this is what I do. I haven’t got a rolly but I’ve got bare crepes. So you can survive, but you have to be smart with what you’re doing and understand where you invest your money. I say I know I’m not a YouTube artist, but let’s say someone like Yizzy is, then yeah, you push your video harder. Whereas I know people want my projects then do it like that. give them physicals, go give them a tour, give them merch, and I make my money through that, with an ongoing customer.
Stream Manga Saint Hilare – Make It Out Alive below: