Even among a generation of individualist talent, Mansur Brown stands out. Born and raised in South London, he came up through the young UK jazz scene that gave the world Nubya Garcia, Moses Boyd, Kamal Williams, Emma-Jean Thackray and dozens more who effortlessly wove their playing into the grime, club and soundystem music they’d grown up with.
But Brown’s horizons are broader still. He’s a virtuoso classical guitarist and adept on just about any other instrument he picks up – and is also an ambitious producer, writer and conceptualist, all of which has found its boldest expression yet in his new mixtape, NAQI Vol. 1 & 2.
The first part of NAQI grooves powerfully, leaning heavily on the digital Afrobeats that have formed a vital part of London’s rhythmic background over the past decade – but hinting too at R&B, grime, even Middle Eastern patterns.
The second half is beatless, contemplative, free-flowing.
But themes develop and repeat throughout. Brown’s guitar often swerves into the fast-flying patterns of flamenco, but just as often it explores simplicity and abstraction – touching on 1980s ECM or New York minimalist composers.
His understanding of synthesis, too, joins disparate dots: on the same track, his sounds can evoke Burial, deconstructed club and, especially on the 10-minute climax “Meikai”, cosmic 70s soundtracks and jazz fusion.
It is, as this all suggests, hugely ambitious – but it’s a surprisingly easy listen given all that, perhaps because it’s a very direct personal statement.
We asked Brown to talk us through his process and inspiration, track by track.
It’s saying “No way will I be exploited in any way. I'm confident inside myself. I'm confident as a person, and because of that I'm able to say what my boundaries are and that I won’t be pushed around.”
It comes straight in heavy hitting drums locked in with the bass to represent fullness. That gives it a heartbeat: something saying, quite aggressively, “I'm there now, I'm completing myself.”
But the flamenco guitar represents the beauty of getting to that place, so the aggression of saying “I’ve had enough” exists simultaneously with the beauty of that self-acceptance.
The same thing is happening really, but this time the bass and drums represent hard work, and the rest is the good feeling of being lucky. It’s reflecting a time when I was putting in a lot of work in the endeavour of my career or what I wanted to achieve, and even spiritually – and there’s that thing of the harder you work the luckier you get.
You start realising that the work you're putting in is actually paying dividends. When you're in your creative process, it comes to a point where you've learned all the technical aspects of it, but then it's so ingrained in you, you're not thinking about it anymore – I was definitely in that state making this.
This relates very much to that element of being in that flow state when you’re creating. When I was making the beat came together in that way and I was just happy in that moment. So when I called it ‘Fever’ it was about that momentary thing, and then thinking about how when things are working out you need to cherish the moment.
It’s about realising your own greatness, so I was no longer thinking about how I’d got to that point or trying to achieve confidence, but surprising myself, holding on to that element of momentary confidence and accepting that, yes, that means I’m proficient in my craft.
This is describing when you have to rise out of an issue that you have. Throughout the track it has these kinds of “crystal” sound effects, and to me they represent a paradise or heavenly place, what you’re looking for.
It starts slow paced, and that’s about searching, finding our places, how we're going to get out of this hole that we're in, then it starts weaving beginning with the synthy effects, then the flute, which is the different emotions that we have to compile together to get out of our problem.
Then when the bass comes in, it's sort of like, “Okay, we're here and I've found my footing now.”
And then through the track, it’s more about with the bass and the drums, they’re like my feet: I'm actually walking with confidence through my problem, my issue.
‘ME & YOU’
This is about the conversation you’re always having with yourself, and about self-doubt. So “me” is my physical self in the world, and “you” is that inner voice that might be saying, “You can’t do this, you can’t do that.”
The track is about the battle of getting that speech between you and yourself basically in synchronisation. You don’t want to silence that voice, sometimes you need to listen to it, but you need to get emotion and logic in sync. Too much emotion and just wanting to feel good in the moment and you can act erratically, so it’s important to hear the logical side regulating that.
The sounds here are about that – the reverberating guitar is being gentle and kind to yourself, and the harder sounds are about being more harsh or disciplined.
This is when you’re just on it. You're there and you're just walking through and you've got your head screwed on, and you know what you want, and you're just working really hard just to get there, really.
There's no doubt. There's no, “Oh, I can't do this.”
That’s why it’s at the end of the first part, of Vol. 1, because that's definitely just about, “Okay, now I know what I want in life.”
It comes straight in with the drums and the bass and keeps driving and driving with that confidence, and the repetitive guitar is like a mantra, a kind of self-talk of affirmation.
So ‘Naqi’ is interesting. When I started think about splitting the mixtape into these two parts, I thought about purity.
‘Naqi’ means “pure” in Arabic. It’s about how when we’re children or we're younger, we are open and free. We’re in the world, we’ve got a blank canvas and we can go wherever we want with it.
Unfortunately, different experiences of our upbringing, they begin to shape who we are as people, and then what’s hard when we get old is trying to unlearn certain things and trying to get to that place of being as open as possible. So that’s what this mixtape is about: overcoming your problems, not just to find a place of peace, but to find a place of being open to new ideas that can actually be helpful.
‘Path’ is similar to ‘Mission’ but from a different perspective. This is where you’re comfortable with yourself, you’re genuinely happy in your heart and mind, you know what you want in life, and you can look in front of you and actually see the world a lot more clearly from this point.
Not the walking, driving sense of ‘Mission’, but being at a standstill and having clarity about where you want to go.
The guitar has this very chordal melody, it deliberately echoes ‘Mission’, but with a more sultry or delicate approach to get that calm feeling.
You can be introspective, but it’s also important to reach out to people. ‘Touch’ is about how important it is to do that, to talk about your emotions and talk about your difficulties. We all might sometimes want to go into ourselves and disappear, but sometimes that might not be the best thing, because all we've got is our own perspective and our own outlook and that’s limited.
So this is about how it’s OK to reach out your hand, to be vulnerable. It’s OK to have people give you advice, or let yourself be emotionally reliant on individuals that actually want to help you and provide the comfort for you.
Meikai is a climax or ending, where it just goes freeform. It’s about having made your mistakes as a human, you’ve been to those dark places or places of discomfort where you might feel stuck, but now you’re worked on yourself to the point where you can make decisions that are more free-flowing.
Your decisions are actually congruent with a positive outcome for yourself, because now you've developed the skills and ability to be able to make the right decisions for yourself and other people.
I was there with this track. I was at the synth, and I didn’t to stop and think about picking a sound, it was just quick, quick, everything adding up. So the idea and the music are both about when you reach that cloud nine, as they say: that magic point where everything just clicks.
All Images: Filmawi
This feature of Behind the Songs was created with 9PR.
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Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.