“Damon gave me some good advice,” begins Jelani Blackman. “He was like, ‘Just breathe and take your time’. Because obviously when you’re hit with the wave of that many people, you can over-egg it because you’re over excited or think you need to do too much. So yeah, he was like, take your time, and it was fine! It didn’t feel weird. I felt very comfortable, which was surprising because there was 20,000 people there…”
Recounting the story today with effortless chill, the West London rapper is actually recalling the career-making moment he stepped out on stage at The O2 earlier this year with Gorillaz. Yes, he’s talking about THAT Damon.
Called up by Albarn to feature on the title track of August EP ‘Meanwhile’, Gorillaz had previously included Jelani in one of their playlists before asking if he’d be free for some studio time. “It was like, OK cool, they know who I am, which is nice,” he laughs. “I’ve been a fan for pretty much my whole life and they’ve been very influential. I think ‘Clint Eastwood’ was the first track that I learnt all the words of the rap to. It was just different! It was a different style of rap and it really resonated with me. I didn’t realise until later on how groundbreaking that approach to rap was, and what they do and continue to do in terms of the way they traverse genres.
“The session was sick and the energy was really great,” he continues. “They had an instrumental and I was like, ’That’s the vibe’. It happened in honestly like, half an hour. I wrote the whole thing and recorded it all in one take. The rest of the time we just spent chilling!”
And did Damon offer up any other nuggets of advice mid-chill? “I think just generally about the music and the craft, and about following the direction of what you think [is best],” he says. “That’s what I’ve always done, but it’s not always the easiest route. And that’s what they’ve done and it’s always worked for them. I think now I’m most in the pocket of being able to know what I want to do, which has been good.”
“What comes out in this project is the MC in me.”
Riding high after the release of his ‘Average Joe’ EP in 2019, lockdown forced Jelani to have a rethink and refresh, channelling the energy he would have been using whilst touring into creating what would become his recently released full-length debut project, ‘Unlimited’.
“I feel like it’s very representative of me in a way that nothing really has been to the same extent before,” he explains. “There’s been a gap sometimes between my music, and what I like to do live, and my personality - but this feels very clear. I think the clarity is what connects with people because it sounds like me; it sounds like what I play live; it sounds like what I look like. It’s very much me as an artist and I’m happy that I’ve got a full length project that presents that.”
Though its core is rooted in his live set and the energy he brings to performances, the inability to actually play the songs he was making in real life often left Jelani feeling lost. Frustrated by what could have been and the uncertainty of the future, he recalls thinking: “Will I ever be able to do this again? Will I ever be able to play these songs live?”
Transforming those thoughts into the music, Jelani began to funnel the feeling and the energy of his future live outings into the songs. “Some of those tracks were very cathartic, they helped me through what I was experiencing,” he notes. “In it, there’s a lot of just me, and one of the things I used to do - which I had stopped - is to just [have] fun with it! And there’s a lot of bars in this project. I didn’t MC properly for time as Jelani, and I forgot how much I loved it. Slowly over the last couple of years, I realised how much I like doing it and how much that was really the roots of my musical performance and my musical artistry. That’s what comes out in this project, the MC in me.”
Above all though, he can’t wait to step foot on stage again, and he’s eagerly awaiting the chance to give his tracks their live outing. “I love the music I’m making now, and I think that that does come through and it’s infectious,” he beams. “I hope that people come away [from the mixtape] wanting me to play their city. That’s why I’ve made it. I’ve made it to play, and that’s what I want to do.”
‘Unlimited’ is out now via 18 Records / eOne Music.
As featured in the November 2021 issue of DIY, out now.