CMA Awards 2018

U.K. Star Mist Talks U.S. Rap Influences, Putting His City of Birmingham on the Map & How Prison Changed Him for the Better

Ashley Verse
Mist

Since being released from prison in 2014, Mist has been on the rise shaking up the U.K. rap scene with his honest, pain-ridden tales. Coming out of Birmingham, Mist is breaking barriers emerging as the go-to artist from his hometown. “In the past, you couldn't tell someone if they heard that new guy from Birmingham. I don't think people would have even paid attention,” Mist tells Billboard. “Doing what I’ve done, people know about Birmingham now.”  

Mist's music features a slower flow and bouncy, sample-heavy beats -- a noticeable difference from the rapid syncopated breakbeats and fast-paced flows of grime. His impressive resume includes two EPs -- with one, the Diamond in the Dirt EP, breaking the U.K. official charts top 5 -- two sold out tours, and a list of cinematic music videos banking in a combined 70 million YouTube views.

 

Despite not yet releasing his debut LP, the U.K. upstart has skyrocketed in popularity since his release from prison in 2014, and he’s doing it in his own way. “I felt like I didn't want to do anything that anyone else has done,” he explains. “What I did in the industry, people have to respect it.”

Billboard talked to the U.K. rapper about a number of things including his hometown of Birmingham finally getting the spotlight, how he’s shaking up his own sound, and the reason for the constant flexing in his extravagant music videos. Check out our conversation below.

I want to ask you about your time in prison in 2014. Looking back at it and seeing where you are now basically on top of the U.K. rap scene, how can you say prison affected your career?

A lot of people say prison makes or breaks you. I can say it made me. It made me look at life differently. I valued things that I never valued before in my life. I just looked at life from a different angle, and I kind of stepped back from all that fast-paced living and [started] living just for one day and actually looking at where I want to be in life and in my future. It made me, man. It gave me a drive. I feel like before I went to prison, I never had a purpose.

Even though I had a daughter and a family that were relying on me and what not, I didn't know that until I went to prison. All those people were taken away from me. I came out knowing that I had a purpose. I didn't, in my head, think it was going to be music.

Noisey just released their documentary on Birmingham, which you’re featured in. How does it feel seeing that Birmingham is finally getting its shine, knowing you played a part in that?

It feels great. For years being in the music industry I remember having an excuse where I thought that we didn't get enough light shined on where we come from. We don't get the chances or get invited to the awards ceremonies. Everyone that wins an award is from London, you know what I'm saying?

Actually, being a part of a culture where I've won awards and have come up, and now being looked at from different perspectives where only London people would get looked at before it, gives people the incentive to keep pushing. Artists that were in Birmingham that have been trying for years that feel that they're not getting a looking, that can't be an excuse anymore because I've actually done it.

Listening to the Diamond in the Dirt EP, there’s traces of U.S. rap in your sound. Is that you trying to shake up the U.K. rap sound by bringing more of U.S. influence to it?

It’s mostly me shaking up my own sound, really, because in Birmingham, the West Coast scene is very big. West Coast uses a lot of samples with voices and what not but their tempo is not as fast as what I've been using. So working with the producers that I want, I always try and create a sound that I have in my head. Every beat I try and put everything that I want. Like the Birmingham scene, we've got this thing called baseline -- it's similar to house music. That's a big scene. With my music, I try and make it for the club scene, as well as still being able to relate from where I come from.

You and Steel Banglez are the premier rapper/producer combo in the U.K.  What makes that relationship work so well?

I think that’s because he listens to what I want. There's a lot of producers who feel they know it all because they are the producer. They don't feel anyone can come into their area and tell them what they should be doing. I feel like producers that allow the artist to actually put their part into the beat always works. I always can hear the beat in my head and for the producer to actually take that on board and make it happen is better for you. You enjoy your own music more. I like to be involved in that deeply. If I know I told the producer to put that certain sound in -- and then I hear, for instance the fans say they love that sound without me even telling the fans it was me that birthed that sound -- it's great.

I remember seeing a documentary Noisey did on the music scene in London and how competitive yet controversial grime is. Coming from Birmingham, how did you find your own lane?

I found it by being different, because I am different. Coming from Birmingham and actually making the noise that I did, in the scene when I did land in it, I liked it. I liked being different and going to venues where I was the only person from Birmingham there. I came in with a completely different sound. I came in using Punjabi language in my music, which I don't think any other artist has done. I've done my swag and my vibe, Birmingham-style raw rap, you know what I'm saying? Not hiding anything. A lot of people say my music gives them shivers, because the level and how deep I go in with the lyrics hits them. That's what I liked. It wasn't really a thing where I felt it was a problem being different. 

Is the debut album coming? And if not what else needs to be done?

Yeah, of course. That's what I'm on to next. I don't have any names for the album yet or when I'm going to drop it, but it’s coming. I feel like I haven't even scratched the surface of the story that I'm about to tell. There’s so much. I want to bring some artists to my label and sign them. I want artists who are different, and I'm in a position where people listen to the people that I can bring onboard. It doesn't have to necessarily be my genre of music. I want it to be different. I want people to know the level that this can be taken to. You can play an instrument and be signed.

Let’s talk about the “Wish Me Well” video. I was getting “Mo Money, Mo Problems” vibes, to Snoop walking through NYC in the “New York, New York” video, to Busta Rhymes with the glow-in-the -dark face paint. How big has the influence of U.S. rap been on your career?

All those videos you mentioned were from my era. Coming up, I used to watch this show called The Box. I'd come home from school, throw that on and watch the music videos. Busta Rhymes, Biggie, Mase, Diddy, Snoop Dogg -- they were all huge influences on me. I feel like I've took a piece of all of those artists and tried to build it into my brand, so people can say, "Yo, Mist is different!" You can't take inspiration from someone and do it exactly the way they did it. You have to do your version of it. You won't get recognition if you don't do it your way. I take pieces from every artist up to this day.

You’ve filmed in Iceland, Dubai, Kenya. What’s the inspiration behind the constant flexing?

I think my first video where I wanted to see scenery and life was my "Scene Smasher" video. I went to this place called Lickey Hills, which is just outside of Birmingham. I didn't get to actually see what I wanted there, but from there I always had the vision that I wanted to get with the landscape and get that boss-type video. When I did Dubai, we didn't know where we wanted to go but we wanted a beach. Going to Dubai opened my mind to making this into a trend.

The next video I wanted to make I knew had to be in the snow. Don't get me wrong we still let out a few other singles in-between that just to keep it relevant and still good videos with nice scenery. But we knew we needed snow and "Hot Property" ended up being that.

Speaking of “Hot Property,” there’s a part in that video where one of the huskies has your chain on. What made you include that? 

[Laughs.] I was sitting with the dogs, and I don't know what came over me, but I was so connected with them. I was involved with them. I was on the sleigh with the dogs climbing on top of me. The one I put the chain on was actually the dad. The mother was off to the side not trying to get involved, while the kids were all over the place, and the dad propped up real close to me and just chilled there. So I said, "Let me put this chain on him." 

We ended up taking a picture first, but seeing that, we knew this had to be in the video. The dog knew he had that chain on. He was sitting there flexing hard. That went viral so fast. I think I’m going to have a monkey in my video. It has to be very involved and different. Not like how monkeys have been used in music videos before.