“I had to speak on it all” – Matic Mouth on lockdown life, the need for change and his cathartic new album

For Sheffield artist and rapper Matic Mouth (real name Marcus Smith), the first lockdown of 2020 allowed him the time and space to pen his thoughts on the high-profile social injustices occurring amidst the backdrop of a worldwide pandemic.

The resulting album, Here Comes the Pain, represents his most personal and visceral piece of work to date; it’s a haunting, hair-raising record that packs no punches while exploring race relations, normalised oppression and the fragility of postmodern identities.

With a second lockdown coming into effect not long after the interview, the magazine was forced back into a hiatus, meaning we had to sit on the feature until we were able to return to print. However, a few months down the line, Marcus’ points remain as salient as ever – perhaps more so as we leave what could be a final lockdown and reflect on the social impact of 2020 – while the album is still very much available to stream and download online, with all Bandcamp proceeds donated to Blueprint for All, formerly known as the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust.

Crazy times to catch up for a chat, Marcus. How was lockdown for you?
Such a weird one at the beginning. It was like “What’s a lockdown?” My night job is managing a nightclub, so obviously that was zipped up and put away to one side for a bit. Once I realised what happening – and I found this was common amongst a lot of creatives – it was like *claps hands together* “Right, OK!” I went and bought a second-hand drum machine; every day in my kitchen I’d be working on music until I went to bed. It got a bit claustrophobic but with the first lockdown you had the good weather, and that provided a bit of a band-aid for the situation.

There were some positives to be taken out of the first lockdown, I think. It took a lot of people back to basics, which isn’t always necessarily a bad thing.
I heard these amazing stories about people striking up proper conversations over fences with their neighbours for the first time. Ironically, it reminded me a bit of my childhood, seeing people sat in the street on garden chairs drinking pints. It was all a bit DIY.

Yeah, almost like being forced back into a sense of community. You couldn’t go anywhere else, so you made do with what was on your doorstep again. Like with most big cities, a lot of socialising tends to gravitate towards the city centre rather than within communities, especially for the younger generations.
I think we needed a bit of that, living within our communities a bit more. People were always looking for the big night out, or something impressive to put up on social media. It did take everyone back to basics, and I enjoyed the equality involved in how we all had to do it as well. It was a leveller: this was probably the first thing since the World Wars that affected us all together as a planet.

I always thought that for artists there was almost a bit too much going on and it must just put your mind into overdrive. How did you find that aspect of things?
You are constantly absorbing. For me, the racial injustices that we saw throughout lockdown, a thing so close to my heart, enabled me to direct my attention almost solely on those events. It might have even helped my sanity in a strange way.

I think lockdown meant there was nowhere to hide for people in terms of the coverage: the usual life distractions were not available and it meant everyone had to face up to the Black Lives Matter movement and what was being said. People only really had social media and news-scrolling for entertainment during lockdown, which worked well in terms of raising awareness.
Nobody could get away from it. As a mixed-race person, someone who has dealt with these issues my whole life, what’s really sad is you can get used to it. You are raised by your parents, who tell you it’s going to happen, that’ll you have to work twice as hard, etc, so you can kind of fall into smiling and ‘being the bigger person’ when you come across racism. Or when someone’s being racist indirectly, you’re like: “Hey, I can’t really explain that, so I’ll just fall in line and get on with it.”

But, for me, George Floyd and Amy Cooper showed the world that there’s two different types of racism among many other difference degrees of racism: blatant, direct and physical racism that saw a man die, but we also saw this weaponised racism that gave all people of colour the proof to say, “Look, this is what we’re dealing with.” It was almost like a big chunk of the world woke up and said, “Jesus! We never knew this shit happened! I’m not into this!” I had some wonderful dialogue and open conversations with my non-black friends, in which they would try to understand what they were seeing [in the Amy Cooper video]; they knew it was wrong, but just didn’t understand why this woman would call the police. There was really important dialogue happening, and big parts of the world started to come together. But it does take real action – a real awareness and culture change, not a quick profile picture change. This is something we’ve collectively known, as a people, for so long, and how many campaigns do we have to have? But I’m hopeful that this could be the turning point.

But it does take real action – a real awareness and culture change, not a quick profile picture change.

The whole year has felt like something of a tipping point on so many things, and you wonder where we go from here.
I think with Covid-19 – and it doesn’t even matter what you think about lockdowns and the virus itself – the point is everyone has suffered. It gives us a common thread. It’s triggered changes in so many things: how we work, socialise, the importance of being a bit kinder to ourselves. I think we’re going to see a renaissance soon from this, which seems like it a weird word to use, but we’re going to get so much in terms of culture, music, films, art – all inspired by this past year. It’s gonna be a while before it simmers.

On that note, you’ve described Here Comes the Pain as a musical time capsule. Tell us a bit about putting it together once studios reopened.
As soon as we were allowed out for the first time, I was straight into the studio. I got in touch with the producer, TeeJ, and wanted to get it done. The music itself sounds a bit like how I felt during lockdown – thoughts just going at a million miles an hour. I had to speak on it all, I had to. When you’ve been the subject of racism, it doesn’t hurt any less when you witness it happening to others. To me, it sometimes feels like you can’t hit back, but I was in the mind state of NEEDING to hit back this time. Music was my way to hit back, so was donating all proceeds to the Stephen Lawrence Trust.

There’s a line in the track ‘Phoenix’ which kind of nails it: ‘misery into music, pain into a passion’.
This has been the most therapeutic music I’ve ever made in my life. Sometimes that’s said as a cliché, but I genuinely mean it. It allowed me to say things that I’ve wanted to say for a long time. The track ‘Those Eyes’ was inspired by the couple who came out onto the lawn of their house pointing guns at Black Lives Matters protesters who walked past, and an image of the couple was shared on Instagram by human rights activist called Shaun King with the caption ‘Those eyes’. It felt good to take a quick inspiration like that, transform it, and get it back out there – and a lot of the album worked like that, as a response.

Was there any track on that was particularly cathartic or emotional for you?
Yeah, ‘Elijah McClain’. I literally cried when I read about what happened to Elijah McClain. I did a bit of research about Elijah, getting to know his spirit and the type of person he was – a beautiful soul until the end. I was a bit conflicted about making that song because I didn’t want to be seen as exploiting his death to make me look good, so I thought the best way to speak about him was just to use his last words and let that be a way of him living on. You can see what I mean about this record being a bit like therapy? After I finished making the album, it was like my body and mind knew I had said what I wanted to say.

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