Ahead of the release of their second full-length project, Villa Lo Town, I sat down with Jamurai (DJ), Ryo (MC) and Julian Mika (MC) – aka Hip Hop group Grand Wa Zoo – and let them explain their formation, development and how they hope Villa Lo Town will be received.
First of all, how did Grand Wa Zoo form as a group?
Julian Mika: “I would say it was one of them organic situations that you can’t even make up. Ryo and Jamurai are brothers and I met Ryo when I was real young, from primary school. We grew up listening to Jamurai dj-ing in his room – sitting there being schooled into that world, listening to all kinds of music, not just Hip Hop, but also Funk, Soul, Jazz – everything. I was doing music before, then we got to a point where Ryo and I were like, ‘We should record some tunes’, so, we went through and it sort of just clicked and we thought we should just this properly and started putting out music. When [Jamurai] started producing, started playing us beats and shit, we just thought it was hard, so it evolved from there.”
Ryo: “What’s funny, as well, is that I was a straight up fan of [Julian Mika] before I even started doing music—“
Julian Mika: ”And we were both fans of [Jamurai], so it kind of just worked out.”
Jamurai: ”I didn’t get into production until quite late on, because I was really into my DJing and I loved doing that, so I was a DJ for about six years before I even tried to make a beat. I felt like I’d just listened to so much Hip Hop and I really knew the kind of sound that I wanted to create because I felt engrossed in it. After six years of DJing I thought it would be sick to do shows where I played my own shit, so that naturally led me to production and at the same time these guys had been writing a lot, so it just made sense to try and put it together.”
What’s the meaning behind the name?
Ryo: ”It’s funny because we get asked this a lot and I always want to know what people think it means first. It actually stems from our father, who was a big Frank Zappa fan [and] knew him personally, as well, so, our whole childhood was basically listening to him.”
Jamurai: ”It was part of the soundtrack to our childhood – the music of Frank Zappa.”
Ryo: ”Along with a few others, like Michael Jackson and all that kind of stuff, but at the same time Zappa just always stood out. As soon as we were born [our dad] was blasting that shit in our ears, so we were very used to it. One day, one of his albums I came across – and also I’d heard the lyric in one of his songs – Grand Wazoo stuck out when I heard it. We didn’t even have a name at this point, so we heard the name [Grand Wa Zoo] together and thought, ‘that sounds cool.’”
Julian Mika: “We created our own little meaning for it because we separated the words Wa-Zoo.”
Ryo: ”It was inspired by the title that Zappa had made originally but we gave it our own meaning.”
Julian Mika: ”The translation would be ‘Grand’ – meaning big. ‘Wa’ is a word that means—“
Ryo: “Peace or harmony in Japanese, as well. And the ‘Zoo’ – the world is a fucking zoo, man.”
Why did you feel more comfortable as a group rather than individual artists?
Jamurai: ”For me, personally, I had a stab at writing lyrics, but I never felt very comfortable with writing and I just found that working with sound so much better – I could express myself and I didn’t hesitate with it, it was just something that felt more comfortable.”
Julian Mika: “It was one of those things where it was a just natural thing. I can’t even put an explanation behind it, but for me it just worked, it felt good. There’s nothing better than being with your brothers up on stage and performing music and creating. There’s an energy there that you can’t take away from that.”
Ryo: ”This doesn’t feel like we one day made a group – it was that from the beginning. The connection that we have – we’re all brothers here.”
Julian Mika: ”I feel like it did exist before it actually did exist. It was just natural, very natural.”
Who are your most notable musical influences?
Jamurai: “I’ve got to say Frank Zappa really set the bar very high in what I considered music. He was just very out there and [he] didn’t pander to anything, he was constantly reinventing himself. In terms of Hip Hop, my favourite producer is Pete Rock. Petestrumentals, for me, has stood the test of time, I still think to this day the dynamic of the production – the complexity of it is second to none, you can’t top it. Dilla has a massive place in my heart, but for me Pete Rock [was the originator]. To have a whole album of just instrumentals and to have that many different layers and styles and feelings – that guy is top dog, for me.”
Julian Mika: ”I can say Kendrick Lamar is someone. I feel like To Pimp A Butterfly – when that came out – it was one of those moments in time where I felt like my kids would be asking me about this album.”
Ryo: ”Before [To Pimp A Butterfly], we always wondered if Kendrick had ever heard of Frank Zappa because of the style of it – there’s no real formula, everything always changes and it just shifts into so many different things. Musically it’s crazy. When To Pimp A Butterfly came out, it was the only time I’d heard something recently and thought, ‘Damn, it almost represents what Zappa was doing’, there’s a similarity. I have so much respect for Kendrick, man.”
Julian Mika: ”In terms of current [artists]; Kendrick, J. Cole, I’m also a Drake fan because I love his melodies and I’m a massive fan of melodies.”
Ryo: ”The Hip Hop [influence] came from my brother – the Pete Rock’s, the Big L’s – Big L’s one of the guys I listened to religiously, we just got hooked on him real quick. Nas – all of those guys. Joey Badass, I respect him very highly.”
You’re about to drop your EP Villa Lo Town; first of all, can you explain the title?
Jamurai: ”The ‘Lo Town’ represents London and, for me, the word ‘Villa’… it’s a beautiful place, a place that you can go to find peace and it doesn’t have to necessarily be a physical place, it can be a place in your mind or beyond that. So, Villa Lo Town is basically just trying to find your peace, wherever that may be, in the place you come from, which for us is London.”
Julian Mika: ”We won’t say how we were inspired from it, because I feel like that’s something that will be nice for people to try and figure out themselves.”
Ryo: “There is another way of how [the title] came around—”
Jamurai: ”There’s a song lyric that partially inspired it.”
Julian Mika: ”We’re actually not gonna tell you too much. Obviously London is known for [being] gritty, dark, rainy and that, so, we were thinking that is obviously going to partly be in the music, of course, because that’s where we come from, but also [it’s about] changing the concept. It’s also that place where you can celebrate and feel like it is a beautiful place.”
Ryo: ”You can make it a beautiful place. It’s the contrast of the two and marrying it together.”
How does Villa Lo Town compare to your previous project Lost For Dayz?
Ryo: ”I think the main thing is that this is completely in-house. So, musically, the direction changed because everything is our production, our writing.”
Jamurai: “Lost For Dayz was a patchwork of different producers and it was more of a mixtape, but not to undermine it either. I think what we created from the different pieces of production we’d chose, we still created each of those tracks into a song and it wasn’t just like a mixtape in terms of MC’s jumping on a beat, we crafted those songs and made concepts.”
Julian Mika: ”It’s hard to listen to that stuff – it’s even hard to listen to this stuff – because you’re constantly trying to better everything. I feel like when you look back, each thing is a stepping-stone. I think it’s different because it’s just a maturity thing, as well. We learnt a lot, we went through a lot of shit and then just put out this piece, innit.”
What would you say are some of the main differences?
Julian Mika: ”I think Lost For Dayz was restricted because we were finding beats from other people, whereas with [Villa Lo Town] it was a chance to really create music from scratch. This doesn’t exist anywhere else. The freedom that it brings and learning that it can get really overwhelming as well. I think something that Jamurai brought to the table was that less is more – I feel like you’ll find that the genius is in what we didn’t use, than what you did.”
Ryo: ”It’s basically that maturity thing, all of this journey has matured us. You just learn constantly how to approach things, how to do it, now I understand work with musicians.”
Julian Mika: ”It’s all about the music – it’s always about that. You can get people around you who say [things] – fuck that, it’s about the music and it’s about that vibe. Do you fuck with it, or not? It should be polarising because it’s art. To sum it up, I think this project is the start of a real collaborative thing between us. [Villa Lo Town] has given birth to that and created an environment to create freely.”
Jamurai: ”That’s already started to reflect on what we’re now working on, as well. I feel like the dynamic of my production has grown so much since [Villa Lo Town] was finished. The very first track on [Villa Lo Town] – Pete Rocket – is one of the first beats I ever made for Grand Wa Zoo. It took me a long time to really like that song – at one point I didn’t want it to be on the project, because I’d listen to it and [think] ‘I’ve grown so much since then.’”
Julian Mika: ”It’s an important landmark – it’s important to let people in on it. You want people to see that progression, and people want to be a part of that. I just hope that people just feel it and they can vibe to it.”
Jamurai: ”We have to always remind ourselves that it’s old to us but new to [the audience].”
Do you think the UK Hip Hop scene is in a position to thrive?
Julian Mika: ”When Jamurai was on the Loyle Carner tour, one of the things that we took from that was that there is an audience that fuck with this type of sound – it does exist. If things are lined up correctly, you make some good music and you’re put onto the right places and platforms, then it does exist. There’s only one thing I always personally say to myself; not staying within any rules or boxes. Look at Grime – you wouldn’t have thought that it was going to do what it’s doing now, and that is inspiring, because at the end of the day that’s all part of UK culture, so it does show that the evolution is possible anywhere. I do also believe that with one extreme comes another, it becomes a balance – people who fuck with [Grime] heavy also want something else, eventually.”
Jamurai: “That’s the nature of fashion and trends, when something has taken the spotlight eventually there’s going to people who are onto the next thing. I think music with substance will always be attractive; it’s just a timing thing. No matter whether I think the UK Hip Hop scene is going to blow, it’s just something that I feel compelled to do, even for my own satisfaction. It was interesting going on that Loyle Carner tour and seeing that there’s a young crowd of people whose first exposure to [UK Hip Hop] and they have no idea how deep it is, so it’s only good.”
Julian Mika: ”I just think that good music thrives at the end of the day, [and] ‘genre’ is becoming a smaller word, and I think that if you just have good music and a good vibe and you’re lucky enough to get put into the right places, then there’s gonna be people who want to mess with you.”
Beyond the release of Villa Lo Town, what are the future plans for Grand Wa Zoo?
Jamurai: ”I’ve got a ton of different pieces I’ve been working on recently, there’s no particular framework for a project in mind, the only thing we’re really trying to structure now is the shows we want to do, which tracks we’re going to perform, what new stuff we can bring to the table. We’ve been performing the Villa Lo Town tracks for time, so, I think that figuring out which of the new stuff is going to translate.”
Julian Mika: ”That’s the next thing – evolving [our music] into a live show. How do we turn this into an actual performance and not just two guys and a DJ? How do you turn it into something that people will want to come and see? That’s another thing that’s really important to start bringing in, the actual entertainment idea, [because] we are entertainers, we’re here to entertain you. I think that’s the next thing I’m excited about – how we present the music, because I also believe that the music that we do we, we have to teach people how to listen to it. I know that sounds weird but that’s what the live performance thing is, it brings a new aspect to it.”
Ryo: ”You hear it differently when you’re in that world, you’re just fully absorbed. It’s different to going home and listening to it on your own. We also have songs we created at the time within that two year period which are just in the catalogue, it’s there, we just don’t know what to do with it at this point. We want to put things out, it’s just a matter of when, how, etcetera.”
Julian Mika: ”We’ve got a lot of things we can play with in the meantime. I think it’s important now [because] we’ve been away for so long that from this moment we want to keep the content going and keep things moving and keep putting music out because that’s how things grow. You have to water the seed and turn it into a plant. We’ve got some water to give!”