While there was many a tale of woe for our Merseyside Olympians, in our midst there’s a man with the versatility of Jessica Ennis, the determination of Mo Farah, and the style and charisma of Usain Bolt, with the potential to dominate his chosen field just like they have. Lucky for us his chosen field is music, and his name is ESCO WILLIAMS.
He’s also recently picked up some silverware. Williams won the first ever MOBO Unsung Award, and with it the chance to showcase his talents to the nation at the official nominations party, after impressing on the nationwide MOBO tour earlier this year. As we sit down to chat in Leaf Cafe on an oppressively hot day, I feel a bit like Gary Lineker as I shove a mic under his nose and ask if it’s all sunk in yet.
“It has, kind of, but every time I speak to the MOBO people it re-ignites my excitement. They’ve been a bit Mission:Impossible about where and when they want me (for the live performance), but I know the eyes of the nation will be on me. I’m just getting ready to blow minds.”
It’s a mission that Esco is well-equipped to complete. Although the last six months have blasted him into a new stratosphere, Williams’ musical career is already a decade long. Starting out as a teenager with local community project Positive Impact, he sang with the Sense of Sound choir before striking out on his own under a range of monikers – J Esco the Geek, the JsOul project and finally Esco Williams. He’s about to drop his debut album proper, New Challenger; a stunning set of soul and jazz-influenced hip hop that may be retro in its sensibilities – don’t expect to hear about bling and bitches – but is unmistakably current in execution and subject matter. “Every single project I’ve been a part of has given me a new skill, and helped to shape the artist I am today: the complex lyrical phrasing shaped by rapping; my harmonic ear improved by singing with the choir. I’ve worked with a lot of different projects and people, seen them get signed, sat on, get dropped. I’ve seen what’s failed and what’s succeeded, and now I know what I wanna do and how I wanna make it work. Everything has led me to this exact point.”
Standing at this point is one of the most fully-formed new artists that Bido Lito! have seen in years. #TeamEsco has a growing army of devotees, most of whom helped fund the recording and distribution of the new album via the increasingly popular crowd source site Pledgemusic. “I wanted things to look good and sound good, and I know you need money to do that. I entered a UK-wide MTV competition [Brand New 2012] and came in the top twenty based on votes, so I thought ‘I wonder if all of those people would put down eight pounds for a CD?’ It was a gamble that paid off.”
In total nearly three hundred people didn’t think it much of a gamble, and now have their hands on a real treasure. The title track’s repeated reference to computer games – both lyrical and sonic (pun intended) – is no Snoop-Lionesque affectation, but an integral part of what makes the self-styled “Soul-powered Nerd”. Anyone in any doubt can merely read the Manga comic strip down his right arm.
“I was that kid – eleven years old, thirteen stone, reading comics, listening to music or playing computer games in a bathrobe. Back then I was picked on for it, now comics, computers and hip hop are billion dollar industries. What was seen as anti-social is now popular. I’m speaking to that generation in my music.”
Williams is as engaging a storyteller in person as he is on record. His appeal isn’t troubled by questions of credibility. I’ve yet to meet anyone else who can say they’ve supported Madness, Rza and the Sugababes, but it’s easy to imagine each of those wildly differing audiences becoming captivated. On stage he radiates the pure joy of a man doing what he loves, and has built a reputation as a fervent and frequent live performer with his band The Kontrollers. “I want to get on every stage I possibly can. In the past I’ve had to change my style because I knew there were no venues willing to book hip hop artists.”
That last point is a salient one, and goes a long way to explaining why a generation of talented young urban artists from Liverpool’s black communities feel they can’t get a gig in the city centre. It’s a subject raised more than once in this magazine and one Williams can talk about with authority. “Being from Toxteth, I know a lot of people in the neighbourhood feel that there’s no place for them in town. The music they’re into has been commercialised – dumbed down so much it doesn’t appeal anymore. I used to run a night of real underground hip hop that regularly made money, but was cancelled over concerns at the ‘clientele’. Yet go into town on the weekend and you’d see blood on the streets outside plenty of different bars”.
The progression of hip hop and R&B from counter-culture to pop music for the planet has undoubtedly come at a cost, with quality falling as quickly as quantity rises. Thankfully it’s not all doom and gloom. Williams is at the forefront of a new wave of local acts, such as Manukah, Coffee & Cakes for Funerals, and Wonderlust, reintroducing live instrumentation to soul and hip hop, and utilizing its ability draw from a wider palette, and a wider audience. “Liverpool has a long way to go, but things are changing. The braver venues are starting to realise that, whatever style of music you play, if you entertain the masses they will support you. I’m feeling support like I never have before.”
The MOBO awards will be in Liverpool again this year and, unlike 2010, it won’t just be a celebration of the popularity of black music in Liverpool, but the black music of Liverpool. Once he gets on that stage, the name of Esco Williams will be on everyone’s lips. I wouldn’t swap him for all the gold postboxes in Yorkshire.