Trading on the influences of such American hip-hop luminaries as Public Enemy and Mos Def, British MC Figure of Speech (born Derek Edwards) also falls in line with the traditions of his fellow UK native rappers. Anyone who’s followed the growth of UK hip-hop over the years will surely know well the impact of such figureheads like Roots Manuva and London Posse. A foot planted firmly in each culture, Figure of Speech has been carving his niche since his early days, penning rhymes and working with the likes of DJ and producer Andy Votel (best-known for his albums on the XL label, 2000’s Styles of the Unexpected and 2002’s All Ten Fingers).
After many years of toiling away recording demos and working a prominent career as an art designer, the MC has finally released his self-titled debut, produced by underground hip-hop stalwart Boca 45. The Manchester-raised, Bristol-based rapper has turned out an album that is every bit as immediate as the newsfeeds pumping information in our day-to-day lives. But it also maintains its pre-digital era roots. Recalling the past glories of such feted MCs from the UK’s golden-era of hip-hop, like London Posse, MC Mell ‘O’, and former Bomb the Bass cohort Merlin, the album is also heavily informed by the kind of incessant soul-funk that soundtracks the American Blaxploitation films of the ‘70s; his debut is a judicious bridging between current affairs and the socially-conscious erudition of hip-hop’s early days.
Figure of Speech waxes poetically and adroitly about the issues of race, crime, poverty, and injustice that haunt metropolises all over the United Kingdom. From the passages of his larynx, strained and weary from a life of difficult choices, comes a voice paternal and wise; the rapper lays down a knowledge earned with the experience of hard-won living as a Black man making his way through life, love, and work in his native Britain. Numbers like “Go Back”, “Fear Me” and “Mistaken Identity” illustrate the adversities that challenge many people of colour living in Britain.
“I’ve had to avoid attending a venue a couple of times now because the venue owner expressed some dubious attitudes in regards to race, for which I called her out at the time,” the MC says. “Leaves a bitter taste in my mouth because this person is directly benefitting from Black culture. I was really surprised at the lack of support I received at the time and the fact that people were not brave enough to put themselves on the line as I did. I speak about this on the track ‘Mistaken Identity’: I get it, you’re into the culture / You are into consuming the culture / But you are not an ally with the creators of the culture / Does that mean you’re a vulture?
“I see this sort of stuff all the time, where Black and Brown people speak up and a lot of our white friends who have more influence choose to stay silent. And we have so much more to lose when we speak up as well. A white friend of mine told me that he gets followed around more when he’s with me in a shop than when he’s by himself. These sorts of stories need to be shared more by white people to other white people.”
While the subject matter on the album remains earnest, Figure of Speech taps into a belly-deep groove with his enlisted producer Boca 45, ensuring that heads are also nodding while they are thinking. Some of the slinkiest funk can be found on such jams like “Stand Firm”; bongo-riffed and thrumming cockily with a walking bassline, the number stands exemplary of the trenchancy and wit that the rapper has in his employ. Other moments on the album demonstrate a willingness to experiment, as on the avant-hip-hop of “Deep Dive”, grounds that were once stalked notoriously by Tricky, but now turned anew here by the poetic intentions of an empowered mind.
Figure of Speech’s words are like Ōdachi swords; they fall heavy from the heart and mouth but land with swift and deadly force. Even when he’s leisurely strolling through a rhyme, he never loses edge or purpose. On the marimba-laced “Hunger Pain”, a bare-boned hip-hop strut keeps its boxy groove in step with the MC’s backbone-sliding verse: What do I define rhyme as?/ I define mine as escape the confines of visors and iPads / Feel the cypher’s fibres/ Touch the beat, loop cycles / Then my heartbeat guides us, he informs in a poem of social media saturation and technological over-stimuli.
“Mistaken Identity”, a spare percussive clatter, addresses the subjects of mixed-race and cultural appropriation. “The cultural appropriation I talk about is in response to the venue I mentioned earlier and the fallout surrounding it,” Figure of Speech explains. “I was calling out people that consume the culture but are not actually active in supporting Black people and calling out racist acts. It’s similar to going to a nightclub and being refused entry because you don’t fit the ‘image’, despite the white guy next to you who is dressed the same but is left alone. Meanwhile, the music you hear playing is of Black origin. It’s an incident that has happened to me.
“The mixed-race reference is about how people label us as ‘confused’ when in my case I find it’s the world around us that’s confused. I know who I am, as do most mixed-race people. Sometimes people have problems with us if we identify as Black, especially when we achieve greatness. However, if we do bad, i.e., stab someone, our Blackness is never questioned. I’m basically calling out the hypocrisy.”
As the album progresses, the atmosphere darkens. A chilling air suffuses “Battle Axe”; with only an eerie hum of ambiance to sustain the number, Figure of Speech drives home a lyric of political duplicity and misguided anger. Old-school hip-hop resurfaces on “Humble Abode”, in which the MC relates the experience of the Black community’s struggle against white corporate culture. Listen closely for a meeting of European and American club cultures, as a Bronx-influenced beat rubs brotherly shoulders with British electro. And when the rapper seethes, he turns a simple groove into a booming shuffle of thunder and menace; “Get Over It” gives critics of the Black Lives Matter movement a serious castigating, forging a scathing diatribe over a swaggering beat and cellar-deep synth buzzes.
There’s a wealth of experience that informs the MC’s material. Figure of Speech is an album that canvases a man’s life of personal and professional engagements with the public at large. The narratives to be found here ring with journaled encounters from all corners of a conflicted culture.
As he recounts of his experience working in design, “As a designer in the music industry, I once refused copy from a big label for an ad because it was pushing racial stereotypes and portraying a band from LA as gangsters, even though this was far from what they were about. They ended up having to change the content because of my stance. I couldn’t work out if the original copy came from a place of ignorance or if it was a conscious tactic to cash into the whole gangster rap thing. At that point, I realized I was in a place of power. I was immersed in hip-hop culture, so I had the knowledge and confidence to speak out. It felt like a small victory.”
Those racial contentions have also grown dangerously personal, entering the individual and private realm. “I had just finished a meeting with my producer Boca 45 and friend of his who was giving us some advice about publicity,” the MC recalls. “I was running through the theme of the album and the backdrop that influenced its making. It was a very positive meeting.
“We went our separate ways and I stopped off for a quick bite on the waterfront in Bristol. It was a sunny day and all was good. I was just minding my own business, reflecting on the meeting, and then out of nowhere some guy approaches me. He’s now in my face, breaching social distance and chatting nonsense, clearly intoxicated. I calmly but firmly ask him to step back and then he starts calling me a c**n, as well as trying to talk ‘Black’, in an attempt to get a rise out of me. I had literally just finished a meeting where we spoke about racism and this happened straight after!”
Though a relatively new name as a solo artist making waves in his own right, Figure of Speech has already earned the admiration and respect of such esteemed notables like Geoff Barrow of Portishead, his longtime friend Andy Votel and singer-songwriter Jane Weaver. The album is also just beginning to make some of the Best-Of 2021 lists in his native UK. The MC often prefaces any information on the album with a clear and purposeful statement: “This is an anti-racist album.” It’s a statement backed by intentions unadulterated and with the money to prove it; the album was entirely funded by Boca 45 and the artist himself. Independence in its truest form.
On the question of how he sees the matters of race and racism affecting youth today, Figure of Speech is at once pragmatic and optimistic. “I think racism was more obvious when I was young,” he reasons. “People would say why they don’t like you to your face. So, on the surface, it looks a lot better [now]. The fact that you see Black culture in popular culture more now than ever must have a positive impact because back in my youth it was rare.
Seeing yourself reflected in popular culture has a huge impact on self-esteem, which can’t be underestimated. Unfortunately, we still get far too much bad press, which has the opposite effect and is endemic within Britain. Although there is less name-calling, I think the youth face many of the challenges we did, which are deep and structural.
“To end on a positive note, I think it’s encouraging that young people are confident in organizing and speaking out. This needs to be translated into meaningful change and representation in areas of decision-making, but if they keep organizing and pushing, the gatekeepers will have to start listening.
“I have a sense that young people are more informed than we were and are empowering themselves to create their own lanes, which is great to see! Artists with big names like Akala, Dave, Little Simz, and George the Poet are highly influential and are making people listen. I think this all has a positive impact. As artists we need to maintain this confidence, keep speaking our truth.”