Craig talks about the rising musician, Skinny Pelembe. Skinny will be performing at CAST this year on the 23rd of January so make sure to book tickets on the website HERE.
Words: Craig manga
I’m a man on a mission, a detective piecing together parts of a puzzle.
A sense of mystery surrounds the young man known as Skinny Pelembe. In the past few days, I’ve attempted to seek out this living conundrum who hails from my hometown, but his presence remains elusive. In a sense, I’m relieved. I want to retain that star mythos that surrounds him.
Just who is Skinny Pelembe?
What are his origins, his touch-stones, his motivations? I have no answer. But read on, to join me on a quest to find out and discover one of the freshest new talents in the known universe (let alone Northern England).
Donning my Sherlock cap (and headphones), I have immersed myself in the man’s modest but formidable back catalogue, whilst simultaneously scouring the net and music mags for interviews, reviews and bios, to flesh out the man behind the music.
Several objective facts surface. I do know that Skinny Pelembe was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, moved to the UK, then grew up in my own humble town of Doncaster, South Yorkshire. Presently, he is based in London. He describes himself, if pushed, as “grumpy” and “secretly funky”. He is an avid fan of old-school hiphop and many of its mutant offshoots, triphop and illbient. He plays sun-dappled guitar (and jazz-infused keys), sings in the sweetest swoon-inducing falsetto, has a magpie-like propensity towards samples, programs, produces and MCs. His sound is – oxymoronically – both huge yet intimate. The man has recently signed to Brownswood Recordings, releasing a brand new track ‘I’ll Be On Your Mind’, having already released wonderful output for the London imprint. He has received much-welcomed support from Doncaster-based Higher Rhythm studios and BBC 6 Music DJ Gilles Peterson. ’Should You Go’ was premiered on Peterson’s radio show, and features on the latest edition of the Brownswood Bubblers compilations. Skinny Pelembe is also part of the Future Bubblers collective, the Arts Council England-funded programme led by Peterson, for developing new, unsigned acts.
I pondered several key questions (of personal interest): What are his influences? What other artists inform his work?
Skinny, in some previous interview, admitted to some eclectic guilty pleasures amongst the usual suspects, “Wu-Tang, Erykah Badu, Johnny Cash… Roots Manuva, The Jam, Gil Scott Heron, Blur, Nina Simone, Daedelus…Van Halen…The Smiths, Fela Kuti, Mos Def…The Fall, DJ Shadow, Portishead. Whatever was on that months Mixmag CD and way too many cheesy mod compilations.”
Skinny started his fledgling musical efforts on acoustic guitar around the age of eight. A year later, in the UK, McDonalds project Our Town Story had kids recount their town’s history through music/dance at the former Millennium Dome. As a footnote, Skinny accidentally enrolled in the dance section and endured a week’s worth of freestyle and Bollywood classes because he was too shy to say he was in the wrong group. This probably informs the eclecticism of his music and his willingness to explore.
He asserts, ”I don’t know how you can think it’s okay to still carry on doing carbon copies of whatever has already happened, especially after hearing something like DJ Shadow, or Portishead… there’s something beautiful about tradition, heritage and purism but it’s artists like these that really stand true to what I love about hip-hop and music in general; sounding out your own unique voice.”
Then came the switch to electric when Skinny’s dad started buying tapes at car boot sales.
“(Dad) popped in ‘Baker Street’, and I knew, whatever happened from then on, I was either gonna have to learn how to play guitar solos or sax riffs. Guitar had more street cred in Donny, so that was it.”
Another life-shaper involved a complete stranger on Instagram. As a result of the advice he was offered, Skinny now writes down details of all his dreams in a notebook as inspiration for his lyrics, yielding results that are equally surreal and startlingly direct. These night scribbles are then woven into loose, textured rhythms and brightly tinted melodies. His songs exist in the wonderfully fuzzy margins of hook-laden dreampop (has there ever been a more apt and literal description?) skirting hazy, translucent psyche-jazz. The perfect overlapping centre of this crazed Venn diagram? Whoah.
So, those expecting Skinny’s output to be pure unadulterated pop might be disappointed. However, if pop means wide-ranging, anything goes sonic assemblages cut with a maverick sensibility, this might truly suit: It’s a cohesive body of work, closer in spirit to those multiple-genre, multi-tasking acts such as Beck, Bjork and Sufjan Stevens, although he sounds like none of these. This fleeting, flitting spirit crops up on recent single ‘Spit / Swallow’ which weaves and wefts cavernous dub textures, gauzy pastoral guitar loops, sampladelic textures and cut-and-pasted steel-tipped hip-hop beats (which intersplice samples/found sounds with real organic drum breaks to superb organic effect) into this fine-detailed sonic tapestry. It all hangs together perfectly with not a thread out of place. Beyond the superficial production sheen, there is a true talent for melody and true songcraft, every tune is an earworm. I’m rendered helpless. Melting in deepest Afro-psychedelic soulspace. ‘Toy Shooter’ follows in similar fashion, bridging psych-pop hooklines with beat-centric, electro-jamming freedom.
Maybe, I’m no closer to discovering who Skinny Pelembe is. But maybe this is the point. We should never pin down and dissect the butterfly. It should remain brimming with its own beauty and life. One thing is clear, Skinny Pelembe is a clarion voice, a unique talent, so let Skinny be.