Grassroots and Culture: Exclusive Interview With Natty

April 4, 2011

Words by Jason “J-Rockaz” Orford

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The nickname Natty is usually assigned to a Rasta man, or a dude with dreads. Sometimes, the name is a substitute for brethren, or bredren. For example: “Yes Natty, pass me de fire.” So when we came across a young, UK artist with that moniker, wearing locks but mashing up the world and outdoor festival grounds with grassroots-y folk and Dave Matthews/Citizen Cope/Spearhead-type vibes, our curiosity was sparked. An inexperienced ear may mistake his music for reggae, or his voice as that of a son of Jamaica. But no, and no. Though he’s a raggamuffin and soul rebel at heart, Natty is one part Southern African, and one part Italian. Already a seasoned, polished recording artist who’s spread his positive messages about life to festival heads in all four corners of the globe, Natty appears well on his way to a great musical career. His 2008 debut album, Man Like I, was a testament to the power of the reggae-inspired rhythms that anchor much of his music. A sophomore album is scheduled for release on Atlantic in September, and plans for a tour with Ziggy Marley are also in the works. In the meantime, meet Natty.

LargeUp: How did you get the name Natty?
Natty: Well, I never really kept my hair pretty as I was growing my dreads so my bredren dem, just start calling me Natty. And that’s how the name come about, really.

Q: Did you grow up with Rastas?
A: Yeah, kind of. I didn’t come up that way but I kinda went that way when I was about 16, 17– just by myself. Before that, I was just a normal kid into hiphop and garage music.

Q: Your music doesn’t sound anything like hiphop or garage. Were you influenced by those genres in any way?
A: No, man. That was like another lifetime, honestly

Q: So you’re in another life right now?
A: I could tell you, It feels like I’ve lived three lives already (laughs)

Q: What part of the UK did you grow up in?
A: North London… I left house when I was 17. I moved down to South London, to Brixton, which you may know about–and I stayed there in South London for six or seven years. Now I’m back up in North London. But North London is my home, I would say.

Q: How would you describe your music?
A: I’d probably say it’s roots music.

Q: Did roots reggae influence you?
A: Yeah, roots reggae, roots folk. Roots to me, is more like anything that comes from, or anything that’s dealing with, Earth-type feelings, you know what I’m saying? I’m influenced by folk music a lot, as you can tell… Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, all types of hiphop. That’s another form of folk music–just a different way of doing it. Or folk is a type of hiphop. Whichever way you want to say it.

Q: Do you like Michael Franti?
A: Yeah man, I like Michael Franti for sure. I bought the first Spearhead album when I was about 15.

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Q: Do you ever you get mistaken for one of the Marley children?
A: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s happened before.

Q: And how do you handle it?
A: Good question. It used to get me, ’cause when you’re younger, your ego is more prevalent. I’d be like “Nah, man…what you talkin about…move! You’re just saying that cause I’m light-skinned and I’ve got dreads.” But after a while, I figured it’s an energy thing. People can see that I make music and if they need a reference point then fine, dat’s dem. Now I’ll just be cool, and keep it moving.

Q: Are you more into Ziggy or Jr. Gong?
A: Jr Gong.

Q: That’s what I thought you’d say even though Ziggy is on that folk tip. Why is that?
A: I think Ziggy maybe appeals to a slightly older crowd than me. For example, when I was young, my favorite rap group was Smif-N-Wessun. Before they were Cocoa Brovaz. There is that side of me which stays firmly grounded in dealing with the real right nowโ€”what’s going on [at] the street level.

Q: Okay, Walking round town with the pound strapped down… I know what you mean.
A: But then I might do that in a way where there’s an acoustic guitar going through, or twist it up a bit.

Q: You learn a lot about artists by looking at their fans. What can you tell us about the folks at your shows?

A: That’s a good question as well. I was having this conversation the other day with someone else. Do you have the United Colors of Benetton in America?

Q: For sure
A: Literally, my show looks like one of them. You got dreads over there, rude boys there, the indie kids in the front screaming, old people in the back dancing.

Q: Given the overall positivity of your music, do you ever feel like a minister, preacher, prophet or world peacemaker type of character?
A: Umm… no. Well, I’d say yes and no. I say yes, because I understand there is a responsibility with music, and I understand music is powerful, so I’d much rather say something positive than something negative. However, I wouldn’t want to take any credit for anything because I don’t really reason with the preacher man too tough. I’m not really down with people who say, Stand up, follow me and we’ll go and march on Babylon. I see myself as just a vessel for positive energy. So I’m not really doing anything, I’m just holding onto messages that are coming through me.

Q: How does it feel when you’re performing?
A: It depends what kind of gig it is. If the band is on point then it can get kind of spiritual or euphoric. But if that band is not on point then I can get zapped out of that bubble and be like, Yow! Fix up and play your tings right!

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Q: Tell us about your musicianship…
A: I used to work in a recording studio before. I produced records. But before the producing, I was just a tea boy. I was an assistant engineer, put it that way. Then I got lucky, recorded an album that went big, and became an engineer. I got to be programmer on things like Mos Def, Floetry, some Nile Rogers stuff. It was nice, ’cause I soaked up all of these different musical influences and I got to see the recording processes firsthand. Then I started making my own beats. I’ve [always] been very musical but I never studied it in school. Now I’m at a stage where I only like to make music [with] people, not computers.

Q: No computers?
A: We’ll record with musicians and try and keep it futuristic and add stuff after.

Q: Are there any well-known artists or producers you would like to work with?
A: Jr Gong for sure–he’s one of my favorite artists. Even Diplo and Switch. And then I might want to do something on a straight Niyabinghi tip and go record in the hills.

Q: Do you prefer the outdoor festivals or the more intimate indoor venues?
A: I appreciate them both, but I’d choose the first. We did a not-so-great festival, and it was raining…we were second to last, in front of about five thousand people and everything lined up. The sun came out. Them things don’t happen often. I’ve done about a hundred festivals in the UK. The one in Glastonbury was nice, as well as Summer Sonic in Japan was also nice.

Q: Tell us about Japan…
A: I actually had a No. 1 record in Japan. I had song called “Bad Man.” Which makes you wonder how come it goes to No. 1 but doesn’t get released anywhere else. But that’s another question [Laughs]. I do feel all the people [in Japan] and what they’re going through. I’ve always gotten a nice vibe from that place.

Q: So coming full circle, how did you and your family come to be in London?
A: My mother is from Southern Africa. She’s from a country called Lesotho, a tiny kingdom which is inside South Africa. It’s the bit we don’t hear about in the history books. The bit of Africa that didn’t get taken by South Africans. And my dad’s parents were Italians. When I was younger, I got brought into a Jamaican family and my elders were Ras. Then I realized that Rasta is actually an African thing and these are my African roots comin’ out, you feel me?