There is no mistaking that UK producer and rapper ReFlex the Architect is a hip-hop head. Born Stephen Adams, the Southampton native has been chopping up beats since his early teens and in listening to his official debut production album, From the Highest, it’s easy to see how significant of a role golden era offspring, like DJ Premier and 9th Wonder, have played in shaping his sound.
Deep bass-driven grooves on tracks like “I’m Home” recall soul-rap manifestos like Little Brother’s The Minstrel Show and Mojoe’s underrated 2007 release classic.ghetto.soul, while gritty posse cuts such as “Lonely Pioneers” and “Here We Go” embody the backpacker spirit of prominent 2000s crews like Dilated Peoples.
As a long time hip-hop aficionado, I can appreciate such deep love for the core trademarks of the genre that have helped make it great for multiple decades now. But these influences only mark the tip of the iceberg when you dive into ReFlex’s new record, and he makes it clear why he is more than just a one-trick pony.
His collaborators come from all corners of the globe, enabling the album to be as comfortable in its pop sensibilities as much as its rap roots. The spontaneity of so many artists is all brought together by an energy that yields positivity and perseverance, best shown on tracks like “New Day” and “Brighter Day”, which are fittingly the opening and closing songs to the album.
From the Highest is more than your average beat tape. These are thoughtful, well-crafted songs, carefully constructed with solid progressions in each instrumental, inhabited by a diverse slate of guest rappers, singers and musicians that all bring a distinct sense of style and culture to the project. From the placement of each guest to the overall mixing of the album, From the Highest is not just a formidable release, but truly a complete body of work – a mark of a producer that puts his heart and soul into each and every beat.
I recently had the chance to talk with ReFlex about the release of his long awaited album. We spoke about our favorite tracks from the new project, how he started out making beats, his favorite current artists and more. Read our full conversation below.
This is your official debut album as a producer, but it sounds like you’ve been making beats for quite a while. How did you first start out producing tracks?
ReFlex: Yeah, I became a producer by accident really. I started rapping at 13 and for some reason, I thought all rappers produced their own beats. I didn’t know other hip-hop heads to tell me any different and I hadn’t started reading liner notes yet.
I’d been learning the keys since I was 10 and later the drums. I got a Boss DR-5 drum machine/sequencer as a present around the same time and learned the basics of producing beats on there. My family listened to a lot of urban gospel music like Kirk Franklin or Sounds of Blackness, so I’d spend days learning every little part of their songs and recreate it on my DR-5.
Where did the love for hip-hop come from? How did you initially get introduced to rap?
ReFlex: I heard hip-hop for the first time as a kid in Nigeria. My Granddad used to travel to America for work and one day he brought back a VHS tape of a movie called Breakdance and I was obsessed. At about 7 or 8 years old, I didn’t really understand the ins and outs of the culture, I just knew it looked and sounded cool as hell!
There’s two artists that made me see hip-hop as an art form. One was a group called Grits, who dropped an album called Factors of the Seven in ‘98 that blew my mind. The way they used words, flows and jazz-inspired beats sounded like nothing I’d heard before.
In terms of the second – as a kid I used to watch a show called Cosby Mysteries religiously and my favorite character was a kid called Dante. Then at 16, I stumbled across MTV (which we weren’t allowed to watch in our house) playing a music video of “Ms. Fat Booty” with Dante – who was actually Mos Def. I was instantly a fan, partly because of the video (laughs), but mostly, I wasn’t expecting to see one of my favorite characters from childhood reborn as an incredible emcee.
From the British Invasion to the modern grime scene, the UK has such a rich music history. What kind of impact did that culture have on you individually, growing up as an aspiring musician?
ReFlex: To be honest, most of it missed me. Like a typical Nigerian kid, I was obsessed with American music, so I discovered a ton about Motown or ‘70s prog-rock through hip-hop and crate digging, but I still can’t tell you much about the Beatles or Led Zeppelin.
I didn’t really check for modern British music until [age] 17 or 18 when I became a huge UK Garage fan and producers like MJ Cole, Wookie and Todd Edwards really began to influence me. To this day, UK garage is the only reason I know or care who Sia is. DJs would play Wookie’s “Exemen Remix” of her “Little Man” record, and it would shut the place down.
As for grime, I didn’t get it at first, I was too much of a backpacker. But when I heard Dizzee Rascal drop a proper hip-hop record with “Fix Up, Look Sharp”, that record was so hard, I gained respect for grime MCs. Since then, I kept an ear out for the odd grime tune here and there and I’ve slowly become a fan.
Refocusing on the new record – this thing is 14 tracks and loaded with rich beats and energetic guest appearances. You’ve stated that this project has been in the works for some time now. How does it feel now that it’s finally finished and out the door?
ReFlex: It’s a relief to be honest. The project took a lot out of me, probably because I completely underestimated the amount of coordination and headache a project like this would involve. I literally breathed, ate, slept and bled this project for a matter of years.
With how everyone brags about writing or producing tracks in 15 minutes, you start to doubt if it’s all worth it, and whether listeners still care about the artistry and the feel of an album beyond turn-up records. So to have it out there and hear that people are actually connecting with it musically is a great feeling.
Musically, you can hear a lot of different influences throughout the album. A lot of tracks have a nice soul-tinged bounce to them, while others carry a strong boom bap and underground vibe. These two styles seem to be sounds you are rooted in pretty deeply. Would you say that’s true?
ReFlex: For sure! Nothing hits me the way that kind of production does, and it definitely bleeds through in my music. I’m into a lot of other non-boom bap artists, but a lot of those artists also incorporate either soul samples or influences, which drew me to them. It’s like Big K.R.I.T. used to say, “If it don’t touch my soul, I can’t listen to it.”
Would you describe the soundscape of From the Highest as a culmination of all your influences or are there a few in particular that you think helped create the overall aesthetic of the project? What current artists that you listen to inspire you the most in a musical sense?
ReFlex: I’d say it’s a whole melting pot of all my influences, yeah. My main hip-hop production influences are Dilla, DJ Premier, 9th Wonder and Dr. Dre. And I think you can definitely see some of their influence on my album.
Beyond that though, I have a ton of influences, like Timbaland, S1, DJ Khalil, DJ Dahi, or even Linkin Park, that people may not necessarily expect. Some of the current artists inspiring me right now are Kendrick, Rapsody, Oddisee, Hiatus Kaiyote, Big K.R.I.T., Sampha, Dert and Thundercat.
As I said before, there’s a lot of different styles here, which you really see in the music. “What It Takes” incorporate some electronic elements, “Alive” has a pop infused grooved to it as well. How important do you think it is for producers to challenge themselves by experimenting with different sounds to get out of their comfort zone?
ReFlex: Super important, yeah! It’s always been something I’ve been drawn to – either due to my short attention span or as a product of looking up to producers like Dilla and Timbaland, who have reinvented their sound several times.
I love the “Alive” record, but it was a challenge for sure, especially to someone who grew up on underground hip-hop and thought that pop music was pretty much the anti-Christ. I got Sundance’s vocals back and played the track for a friend of mine, Tom Isaac, who’s also on the album, and his feedback was “it sounds poppy, but in a good way.” I felt like my real hip-hop credentials had just been revoked for a second. Tom’s a hip-hop head too, but he challenged me to just embrace those pop elements rather than running from them.
Staying on “Alive” – I love the guitar solo on the track’s outro. It has an awesome, dirty and distorted feel to it. How did that part of the song come to be?
ReFlex: Yeah, I love that solo. That’s Chris Taylor, a ridiculously talented musician and producer from Southampton here in the UK. We’ve worked together on some of Tom Isaac’s music and gigged together as part of his live band, so when I decided I needed a dirty guitar solo, Chris was my first call. He sent me like 4 or 5 killer solos, so rather than pick one, I got greedy and comp’d all my favorite bits together into 1 solo.
Some say the fault of a lot of producer records is that they lack unity and often feel more like a collection of songs rather than a single album. Your album has a pretty tight, cohesive feel to it, even with the wide variety of guests you brought in. Was this something you kept in mind when you were crafting the record? How did you envision so many different voices coming together like that?
ReFlex: I really appreciate that feedback, ‘cause 1000% yes, that’s exactly what I was aiming for. I remember reading an interview years ago, I think it was either Dr. Dre or will.i.am, where someone asked them about the difference between a beatmaker and a producer. Their response was something about a producer making great songs and projects that feel whole, not just beats with raps on them, and a beatmaker just makes fire beats and has no input on the end product. That concept stuck with me and was the aim for this album. I wanted it to sound like someone actually had an overall vision and produced it with structure and movement.
Your crew Scribbling Idiots shows up a few times throughout the album. You guys have released multiple projects as a collective in the past. What’s the chemistry like there since you guys have had your foot in the game for more than a few years now?
ReFlex: Yeah, my crew is nice! I’ve been part of the group since like 2001 and have made some of my best music with them. For a group with members in like 5 or 6 different states in the US, as well as 3 different countries (US, UK & Germany), the distance doesn’t show in the music at all. It does help that there’s a core of MCs that live relatively close, but for people like me in the UK, we’ve built up such a dope working relationship over the years that I automatically trust they’re going to do my beats justice.
That level of trust is important, ‘cause I’ve given the crew so many beats that I was determined to keep for myself, and every time they’ve bodied it. Even as an MC, they’ve pushed me to become much better at my craft.
I have to say, I really dig the album man. It’s an achievement worth celebrating. Any plans of going on tour? What’s in the works for new music?
ReFlex: Thanks man, appreciate the love! Touring this album would be tough with the MCs spread out all around the globe. I’m already working on a ReFlex solo record where I’m rhyming and producing on the whole thing, which is one that I’m aiming to take on the road.
I’ve got a few records I’ve produced or rhymed on for my bro Cas Metah’s next project, which will be coming out in 2018 and I’m also part of a new crew called adLiberty Grooves, headed up by Wizdom, who’s on a number of tracks on my album. We’re putting the finishing touches on our debut mixtape which will be out in the next few months.
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Follow ReFlex the Architect on Twitter to keep up with his latest news and music. Stream his new album From the Highest today.
Photos taken from ReFlex the Architect’s Facebook page. First image by Rajai Denbrook.