The Intricacies of Shakka’s Style

“The freedom of a blank canvas, with no interruptions – I can’t part with that sense of freedom”

It has been a minute since the multi-talented Shakka Philip burst onto the scene in 2009, racking up collaborations with everyone from JME and Wretch 32 to Mr. Vegas and AlunaGeorge. The 30 year-old singer-songwriter and producer has displayed his creativity from early on, wowing with his early fan-fuelled releases (#ShakkaMondays anyone?) to the gold certification of his 2018 hit ‘Man Down’. Yet Shakka always manages to reinvent himself with refreshing takes on his sound, a mean feat considering how genre-defying he can be.

For a two-time MOBO award winner, he seemingly takes these feats in his stride as his decade-plus presence in the scene can attest to. On a quiet day in Central London, we talk about various topics including his recent releases, the need for collaboration and what to expect from his next album. Meeting up in a small cafe near Waterloo’s renowned graffiti arches, the atmosphere is fitting as the playlist seamlessly switches from the likes of SiR to Burna Boy, genres that the West Londoner either celebrates or infuses in his own sound.

When I meet Shakka he’s in the thick of a photoshoot standing amongst the colour and bustle of the Leake Street Arches. Pointing out spots that he wants to pose in front of, he’s constantly checking in with his manager and everyone else who’s also present. As I survey from the side lines, I notice his ease in navigating through the shoot as he frequently sings to himself (Frank Ocean is clearly a favourite of his). When we sit down later in the small cafe in Waterloo, I ask him about how he felt about the shoot, he enthusiastically responds; “The shoot was sick. It just felt like shooting with a friend. He knew what he was doing – he was confident – the colours, location, understanding of the brand… what I’m passionate about, what I wanna celebrate. It was just really nice man, really, really nice.” His high praise is a testament to our photographer Jordan’s shooting technique and personal touch. Ive done shoots where like, you get there, and then they put you in clothes that look cool on other people, and it almost feels like a mismatch … its like a blind date gone wrong” he remarks, sipping on a Corona whilst I opt for a latte.

As we segue onto the topic of clothes, one of his many keen interests, Shakka is clearly enthused as he shows me his custom-made leather biker jacket which features a hand-painted drawing of the anime character Akira on the back, an item he tells me was sourced by his styling team “me and my manager was like [to his stylist team] ‘how did you find this? Where did you find this?” If you didn’t know this, Shakka is a massive anime fan, with his passion truly showing through when he goes back and forth with Jordan on the subject; “I don’t claim to be the gatekeeper of anime but…” is a personal favourite quote of mine from their debate.

Drifting between the Queen’s English and London vernacular, Shakka is a big talker by nature and almost instantly apologies for the “verbal barrage” he’s about to give me. “We need to make sure we communicate this” is a phrase he says repeatedly uses throughout our conversation as he explains “that music ought to have a responsibility”. But he makes an important distinction – think back to Shakka attending Rihanna’s writing camp a few years back – it would be wrong if he had forced his life ethos in a song for her. “Well, I think when writing for other people my desire to show my message isn’t as important. I say this because that person is gonna be seen on stage… And so when you go their concert, you dont know who was writing it in the background. You dont know who was producing it, you dont know how the idea was conjured. You just go to the concert and you start singing their songs like its yours, like its theirs. And your association of that is purely based on when you first heard it. You know what I mean?”

There’s always these rules, like unspoken rules, in society that certain man have to behave a certain way.

When it comes to his own agenda though it’s clear that Shakka is keen on making sure both he and his craft stand for something arguably bigger than music. “For my artistry and for what I want to do – my aim, without being too preachy – is, to help firstly.” Shakka is eager to speak on the idea of unspoken rules in society for a Black man, “One of the first things is to help guys not be so forced to fit into this box of hyper masculinity. And also to help them be themselves. Like, especially growing up as a black dude there’s so many occasions where I’ve been in a situation like “man don’t cry…”. It just doesn’t happen. Or, like ‘is man gonna take that from certain man’. There’s always these rules, like unspoken rules, in society that certain man have to behave a certain way or they have to listen to a certain type of music or they have to greet people in certain ways. They aren’t open about certain things that they’re meant to talk about like certain groups or friendship groups it’s just like an unspoken rule where here’s how you communicate to man. You know what I mean? And I feel like I wanna expand that vocabulary, I wanna be able to allow a lot of men to be able to articulate whats inside their minds, whats inside their hearts, whats inside their souls.” As a young black woman, I try my hardest not to project or speak on things that I don’t know, so it’s intriguing to watch him reel off pressures that a black man from inner London would relate to.

I have many questions planned but the flow of our conversation doesn’t follow my lead! Usually I can be a bit of a control freak, but as I sit with Shakka I find the words come easier than normal, and subconsciously I embrace it. We get talking about Shakka as a song-writer, something that people may not necessarily know about him. Often the unsung heroes of the music industry (alongside producers, A&R’s and other seemingly BTS roles), songwriters are constantly overlooked in favour of the face of a song. What is often overlooked is the fact that Shakka has the relatively unique perspective of being both a singer and a songwriter. Shakka’s technique, is almost like a revision routine, “Every week, I’ll drive somewhere and go and study an album that someone’s told me about, or an artist I’ve had on my list for a while”.

I feel like I’ve had so many examples of strong black women

It’s clear as day that this is someone who loves music for what it is and the importance of it is in his way of thinking which he asserts in the music he writes for others. It’s apparent in the track ‘Too Bad Bad’ with Mr Eazi which he considers his best collaboration to date. There are things that we go through when someone passes away or we hear news about someone from another family passing away or someone who’s gone too soon, you know what I mean? So you either pour alcohol on the street or you take a shot in their honour. Or we have a nine night and spend time with the family…. And then listening to the beat, there was a part of me that felt like I wanted to get a sense of romance, a sense of hope. Even down to like identifying the fact that it’s not my brothers that take me out, it’s a woman. It’s a member of the opposite sex. I feel like I’ve had so many examples of strong black women, or just strong women in my family, you know what I mean? …She just has to be a goddess, my escape, my shoulder to cry on you know.”

I ask him, if he had to choose, whether he’d choose to only write for other artists or to only write for himself, expecting hesitation and perhaps a loaded answer, he answers instantly. “I’d choose my own thing” he states. “The freedom of a blank canvas, with no interruptions – I can’t part with that sense of freedom”. It’s a sentiment I strongly agree with as a fellow writer myself.

I’m curious how Shakka’s mind spans across the whole musical spectrum, “I can’t help it!” he replies, in a manner that tells me he thinks about this often. If you’ve ever heard a Shakka song, his appreciation of many genres is clear to see, but he doesn’t dwell on being assigned a box or label. I wanna say I have mixed feelings, I don’t really have feelings about it as such. By that I mean that I care about whether other people wanna share the song. If they share it I’ve done my job. If they take after the concepts I’ve done my job.” 

I have to know how he knows – when he hears a song, finishes the song, finishes the whole process – that it’s going to be a hit. The biggest challenge in any creative process is knowing when you’re done, but an even bigger challenge when it comes to music is knowing it’s going to work and it’s hitting the right notes, “I stand on the shoulders of giants. And I use that phrase to express the idea that I try to work with people who are smart with certain aspects of certain things. I trust my manager’s judgement highly because I feel like even when we first started working, she showed me many different artists and genres and music. I was like ‘I’ve never heard of this group before, I’ve never heard this track I’ve never heard this, I’ve never heard this’… and there was just so many different songs and artists that she was showing me.”

Teams these days are everything, and more and more artists are taking their own lead in defining their direction and careers. Knowing your audience and whether they’ll connect to your music is 50% of your job, once you’re out the studio, you can’t let it go without a thought. At every stage you see it in the way Shakka talks about his study, his process, and the intricacy of his preparation; “I’m playing it to people who have a desire, who want this to get out to many different people as well as understand the rules of a particular genre of music and why it connects to different people. So yeah, I send it to experts man, I send it to experts, I also send it to some friends. I try to get feedback from the people who I want it to connect with.” 

Opinions matter, and while the bylines are getting fewer and fewer as social media takes the place of critics, there’s still a place for critique and validation. I write reviews, and when I’ve written a review of a certain film, like a Marvel film I know who my Marvel friends are and I’ll send it to them first but then it’s not necessarily the same all the time. With other films, I’m like no my sister’s going to see that. So I ask Shakka how he decides the hierarchy on who gets to have a say? “It’s almost silly not to enlist the expertise of people you meet, people you network with over time, especially when you know they’re murking in that field. They’re just doing really well and they have a real understanding of that art form so yeah, I have a meticulous group of people that I play it to.”

With his cab on the way and an acknowledgement that we’re running out of time, we move on to his upcoming album and what listeners should expect – or not. “There’s more collabs… I wanna shatter expectations, so with the album I feel like I’ll do that. I could be wrong, it could be shit but I doubt that.

Not giving too much away, he’s still keeping his cards close to his chest as the endgame approaches. Shakka’s coyness is bettered only by the belief that he mentioned a moment earlier; and the knowledge that his approach is anything but half-hearted.I thought I was jumping ahead of the next generation, For me it was like yo, ‘I’m that guy’. But that’s what studying is, that’s what working by myself does for me, the freedom to – especially when you have your own setup and your own mic, and your own laptop and software and hardware – you can do pretty much whatever you want. Like the world is your oyster in that one bedroom.”

As his cab takes off, only time will tell if Shakka will be validated in his approach in 2020, but one thing he does reckon on is his fans have grown to appreciate not knowing what to expect from his projects, and it’s a trait he certainly knows how to play on