October 2007 - Jamming

Unklejam With their irresistible blend of electro soul, Unklejam are the freshest and funkiest new act to emerge in 2007, but as David Hudson finds, the trio feel they're battling against the odds to be heard...

There's nothing typical about Unklejam. Sounding and looking unlike any other British act around at the moment, they're the first to admit that some audiences don't know how to react to them. But then again, it would be wrong to even label them a British group per se. Outspoken songwriter Tyson 'Tendai' Speede heralds from Northolt in Middlesex. His dad was in 80s reggae band Misty In Roots, so he was brought up surrounded by music and with some insight into the business. Bobby Joel Stearns was born in the East End, but then his family moved to Hawaii, before shipping back to Bradford when Bobby was nine years old, followed by a spell in Scotland. Then there's Adonistar, born and raised all over the U.S, he thinks of Miami as his hometown. By some weird cosmic alliance, the threesome met whilst out clubbing in London, and Unklejam was born. After a couple of years playing at underground gigs and working on bedroom demos, success has been slow in coming... and although recent single 'What Am I Fighting For' graced the top 20 on minimal radio play, they don't feel they've yet made the breakthrough they so clearly deserve.
Ahead of the release of their debut album, David Hudson caught up the boys for a one-to-one at the offices of their record label...

Who's responsible for the Unklejam sound? Who writes the songs? Is it a joint effort?
Adonistar: Yes and no. Basically, Tyson had all the equipment at his house so he would always come up with the basics, he does most of the songwriting. What happens was he basically takes elements out of all three of us, because that's one thing we talked about a lot, you know 'you do this, and you're more rocky, and I'm more like this....' So basically, in each song, there's an element of Bobby's background, my background and his background, so he pretty much came up with the songs like that.
Who are your biggest influences?
Bobby: We have different influences. We have different people who have inspired us musically. I guess, I'm mixed race so I grew up in a white family...
Tyson: [Cheekily] Oh we're not doing the mixed-race stuff are we...?
Bobby: So I didn't listen to black music as a kid [jokingly], no I listened to a lot of 80s electro stuff, and early 90s. I listened to Depeche Mode
Tyson: [Teasingly] Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan...
Bobby: And David Bowie, but this cat [points to Tyson] knows his David Bowie inside out, so you bounce ideas off each other, and each and every one of us has taken each other further in our musical tastes. But that's what I listened to. Tyson listened to things like Sam Cooke, didn't you...
Tyson: Old-school soul.
Bobby: Right. But one thing you said ages ago in an interview, that soul isn't just confined to black music. We have this pre-conceived idea that it does, but I remember you saying that Elvis Presley had soul, and David Bowie had soul... I guess that underlines or runs throughout our musical taste - people that have passion or have soul, and that isn't just confined to r'n'b or soul music.
Tyson, you come from a very reggae background - was that something you rebelled against?
Tyson: I hated reggae.
Bobby: Look at him, he's got no dreads!
Tyson: I absolutely, absolutely despised reggae. When I was a kid I went on tour with my dad, and there was just too much bass, but to be honest, some of it has seeped into my bones, at a subconscious level. It helped me out - singing reggae is the same as singing soul, in a West Indian accent. You listen to The Clash, and there are elements of reggae in it, but with a cockney accent. Even the Sex Pistols have some reggae. They went to Jamaica to record their album, and you've got to listen to the beat, and there's the same breaks and drops, but with a cockney accent.
As a band, do you find that people don't know how to pigeonhole you?
Tyson: The problem is that in Britain, there have never been any black acts that have been really, really great. There's been no black weirdos... so when they see you're black and you're weird, they quickly say 'Oh, they're black, oh, it's not going to work', that's their mentality. Some people need to get their cock out of their arse and realise that this is actually real and it's actually great, and it doesn't really matter if we're black or not, it's all about the music. Then they can stop - what's the term? - playing the fiddle. Stop the nonsense.
Adonistar: I think in this country, the thing is, they're so not used to it. They're so not used to it, they literally don't realise that they're overlooking it. It's just habit not to push something that they're not used to.
Tyson: There is definitely still racism in this country, but it's just not spoken. Back in the day, when my parents came to this country, they'd walk down the street and be called niggers and wogs, and that, in the street. Now, it's hidden. If you go to get a job, as a black male, to go and get a job, they'll sit you down and tell you how great and nice you are, but they won't give you the job...
Adonistar: That's probably still true, but I feel like in the music industry, and in other countries that I've been to, it's just a habit, it's not even a conscious thought of 'I won't because they're black', it's just like you're invisible...
Tyson: We have got so many discriminations. We've got discriminations because we're weird, we've got discriminations because we're black, and we've got discriminations because everyone thinks we're gay. We've basically got all the discriminations... we've got the three D's!
Bobby: But you know, one of those things that I think you've taken on from your dad, and I've taken on, growing up, that dogged tenacity not to give a shit, because you can't. Because otherwise you're just constantly fighting the powers. We do our own thing, and we don't give a shit what people think about it. People back in the day did the same thing. They worked, worked, worked, and gigged, gigged, gigged, and we will work, sing and write until people get the message.
Adonistar: Yeah, there are two things keeping us alive at the minute. One is God, and one is the fact that we're real and that we can actually deliver, and there's no doubt about that. You can act like you don't wanna play it on the radio, or pretend in the media that it doesn't exist, but you can't deny that when Unklejam stand on the stage, we deliver. That's the long and the short of it.


The band recently supported Sly & The Family Stone - an artist they hugely admire but one whom they feel hasn't received the recognition he truly deserved. Like Sly, the boys are not afraid to dress up, funk out and put on a show, but there's a serious ambition and motive behind the glitter and threads, and if there's anything guaranteed to raise their hackles, it's the assumption that they're some sort of camp novelty act. Tyson, in particular, is scathing of the lack of respect that he feels black artists receive in this country, and of those who have had success handed to them on a plate, or who have simply hyped up as flavour of the month.

Tyson: The problem with music nowadays is that people do not have a cause; they're just doing music for fun. We're trying to break barriers. Other people, they sit down, write two songs, go to number one - not mentioning no names - it's absolute bullshit. And you sit down there, 'what's your purpose?' Oh, nothing. You just make weird videos and chat shit, and that's about it.
Bobby: [Laughing] Yeah, where is your struggle?
Tyson: Yeah, where is your struggle?! There is no struggle, so you can come out and make tunes about being born in the 80s, or whenever the fuck you were born and all that shit, but the fact of the matter is, you have no struggle. Where does it come from? What do you do? You don't do anything. This is what I'm saying. Back in the day, everyone had a purpose, they had a reason. Sly didn't dress the way he dressed for fun, they were the original Californ-i-a. Do you know what I mean? They came from a place that they couldn't make the same old school soul that everyone else had done, because it wasn't accepted where they were from, so what they had to do, in the struggle, they had to change, and then white people started liking it. Gays started liking it. It was that kind of thing. Then they came to the forefront, and had this cult following after that, because of their struggle.
Adonistar: They didn't lie down and take it.
Tyson: This is what I'm saying, there was a struggle. James Brown, when he started to perform, he wasn't even allowed to eat in the kitchens that he was performing at. He had to go out the back and beg for food, he was starving. He couldn't even book into a hotel. Little Richard had to perm his hair and look pretty just in order to be accepted. He said to James Brown 'you need to go perm your hair as well cos you're not pretty enough, that's why they don't like you.' That's what we're talking about - they had their struggle, and we're still struggling. We got where we've got because of our struggle, and we'll continue getting to where we're going because of our struggle...
Bobby: And it takes people like you - journalists - to put it on the front page and take a chance on it. The things is, if we came out and just wrote a soul album, or an r'n'b album...
Tyson: We'd go on Choice FM. I could write that in my sleep, or on my Playstation. We'd put it out, go on Choice FM Weekender, we'd go nowhere in the chart, will go in Touch magazine, and they'd say we're so hot, and then we're fucked. Another black statistic, like Nathan, like Estelle, like Terri Walker, like every single black act that came out of this country... do you know why? Because black people don't buy records. They bootleg records. Everyone knows that. My dad has sold six million records. But do you know who he has sold it to? He sold it to the blacks. The blacks, via the bootleg shop round the corner, where they could buy it for a quid. Everyone knows who you are, but you have no money - where's the point in that?!
Adonistar: I saw on the internet the other day, a fan actually complaining 'cause they couldn't steal the music. They were like 'I've been trying to download the track but it keeps saying not enough sources to download', which means they were trying to get it from a file-sharing site, and I'm like 'why don't you just go on iTunes?'
Bobby: You've got all that to contend with, and then you've got to contend with people thinking that you're a novelty act. Some token black, weirdo novelty that's trying to be different for the sake of being different.
Are any of you gay?
Tyson: Yeah, we're all happy!
Adonistar: We're the happiest men alive!
Bobby: Next question!
Are you single or dating at the moment?
Tyson: I wanna date. I wanna date Lily Allen. I fancy her and Stacie from EastEnders.
Adonistar: Make sure you put this in there... I want Kelly Osbourne. And I know everyone says I'm crazy, but she has one of the best smiles in this country. It's between her and Kiera Knightly, who both have the best smiles...
They're slightly at different ends of the spectrum...
Adonistar: It's not about the body, it's about the smiles!
Bobby: Next question...!
Bobby, you write the blog on myspace - and you've criticised other acts for not making an effort with their style?
Bobby: I think that there has been a bit of a laziness...
Tyson: Everyone has lost the superstar element. I remember when I was a kid and I used to watch Michael Jackson, and I used to think he was an alien. He was unbelievable. When I was young, Thriller had been out for about ten years, but I thought it was new, because never stepped up to his plate. Even now, you look back at that and he was out there.
Adonistar: Yeah, why couldn't we turn into a wolf!
Tyson: Why did Michael Jackson turn his skin white? He must have known something that we didn't know! He must know something that we don't know. He must have realised, being his black self when he was a kid, he must realised, 'you know what, I'm not gonna go nowhere, so I'm gonna go bleach my skin and put some weave in my hair'. This is the problem... in life I was brought up in a West Indian family. My nan is half white and half Asian, my granddad's black. You come to a family gathering and we've got white people, and Asian people, and black people, all together, so in my family it's normal - in fact in most West Indian families, it's normal to have people of other ethnicities. You don't even think if they're black or white, you just think, 'that's my aunty', you don't think 'I'm black, she's white, how does that work she's my aunty'. It's only when you come across a wall that you think 'how come that keeps on happening?' What happened there, when you start thinking 'Oh, I'm black'. You forget sometimes!
Adonistar: Yeah, you forget!
Tyson: We're sitting down, yeah, and we're Single Of The Week. Yeah? We have this little fucking box on the page, and then you see a big double-page spread on The Horrors. Who the fuck are The Horrors? They have never charted in their life, they have never been anywhere. More people know about us, we have played bigger gigs and we have charted much higher, but we're a square in the corner and they've got a double-page spread. Why? You tell me why. Can anyone answer this question - that's what I want to know. Beat me, hit me, hang me, burn me in the fire, but the fact of the matter is, I'm gonna be here, and we're gonna make this happen.
Given Adonistar and Bobby's background in the States, have you played any dates in America yet?
Tyson: No.
You must be keen to?
Adonistar: We're keen to play dates everywhere. We go to France, Japan, the States...
Tyson: I'd go to Bosnia.
Adonistar: New York, Miami... let us go to my hometown and play and gig.
Bobby: Anywhere where people keep the funk alive.
Do you think you'd have a more receptive audience in America?
Tyson: There's more people so obviously you'd get more people in. The thing is, we got to number 16 in the charts [with 'What Am I Fighting For'] purely on the power of our performance and our music, because these little wank-stain papers were just fucking with us. We had no fucking press. We got to number 16 with fuck all. We weren't even A-list on radio, we were B-list on radio, and we still got to number 16. That show's you that we are fucking serious. No other fucker could do that but us. No-one! The fact of the matter is that we ain't had shit, and we still went top twenty, with nothing. Imagine that we had everything that Born In The 80s had - fuck The Horrors - yeah? We would have gone number one without a doubt. We weren't even high on TV rotation, and no press. Everything that you're meant to get, we had about a quarter - imagine we had the other three-quarters - fucking hell. We'd be number one. We'd be Jesus. They'd be hailing us like they're hailing Winehouse. Although I do like Winehouse, but they are hailing her like she's Jesus.
Bobby: The thing that does pee me off about Winehouse though is that, fuck about with your life off stage, just do it, but at least try and get through a few more songs on stage for the paying punters.
Tyson: To be honest with you though, I love that about Winehouse, she doesn't give a fuck. She don't give a fuck. Amy Winehouse is real, that's why I like her. But what I'm saying, they're hailing her as Jesus Christ now, yeah, she is the one, she's gonna do a Bond song, she's gonna be world wide, she's gonna sell 5-6million records... why the fuck ain't we there? Do you know why? Because we have to fight the fucking power. If this group here was white, we'd be number one, 'cause I'm telling you, there wasn't one tune out that was better than our tune when it came out, and I will sit here and bite my knob off and throw it in the dustbin if I am wrong, cos I ain't never been wrong. People need to stop fucking about. It is 2007. We need to get together and be happy and stop the bullshit. This is the problem, this is the struggle and this is what we need to change. "We can't put a black man on the cover of our magazine 'cause our magazine won't sell" We need to stop that bullshit. "Oh, they're a bit too flamboyant, everyone might think they're gay..."
Has the record label ever made suggestions about what you should and shouldn't talk about?
Tyson: Yeah, they don't want you to talk about any gay stuff or black stuff... but who gives a damn. They want you to shut your mouth, and just pretend like you're the boy next door.
Bobby: And as you might gather, it ain't happening with us!

An abridged version of this interview was published in Out In The City,
October 2007 David Hudson

Unklejam album The new single, 'Stereo' is out now. The album, Unklejam, is out 29 October 2007. It can be downloaded from iTunes, or click on the artwork on the right to go to Amazon. To hear tracks, visit the myspace site at www.myspace.com/unklejam

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