Last month, SVMI released his debut EP ‘MA MOOD’ on Manchester-based record label NQ. In the three years since SVMI was behind the camera filming Aitch’s breakout hit ‘Straight Rhymez’, his own career and the scene in Manchester have rapidly picked up momentum.
This is something he sounds at ease with when I speak to him: “it’s happened fast, that’s how it goes”. That said, it has happened for SVMI on a slightly different trajectory to most.
SVMI first emerged as a cameraman for some of the big names in the Manchester scene around 2016. This gives him an insight into the changes that have taken place: “we were all around each other […] everyone’s come up together, as a city”.
Five years ago, though, rap was much more concentrated in London. It was different for Manchester artists. “There wasn’t that much of a scene, it was hard”, SVMI says. Now though, “times are different, the eyes are on Manchester”.
Specifically North Manchester. Because there’s a real North Manchester focus to what NQ do. SVMI was raised in Cheetham Hill and lives in Prestwich. There’s actually a bar on the EP about getting an Uber from Prestwich to Blackley – on a song, funnily enough, called ‘MILAN’.
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A lot of the momentum that you see with NQ now started around 2015, coming out of the M40 postcode. M40 stretches north away from the city centre, encompassing the Etihad Campus, Newton Heath and Moston. It’s bordered by Failsworth and Harpurhey. In those days, Adex – who now runs NQ – was managing Samurai, and Aitch was still going by the name 40Aitch.
SVMI has known them all since then, although he’s not from M40: “I’m a Prestwich boy. But I’m a North Manny boy, more importantly […] shout out to the South as well, they’re doing their thing, but I feel like we’re the ones bring the very new special sounds”.
“I’ve seen Adex build it from the ground up. I’ve seen him doing his thing and it’s sick, and now I’m signed to his label. I’d rather be signed to a label from Manchester, with people I know, and who understand what I’m trying to do”.
SVMI is of South Asian heritage, which makes him rare in the UK music scene. “I feel like people don’t take you that seriously as an Asian artist”, he says.
We talk about Hamza Chowdhury, the Leicester City midfielder who is one of only four British Asians to play Premier League football. Whilst representation is no answer to structural inequality, having examples of visible success is undoubtedly important for young kids.
“I’m confident in myself, and I know my shit’s different. I know I’m bringing the new wave and I know I’m gonna be that Asian guy who’s gonna be taking it to the next level”, SVMI says.
I’d rather be signed to a label from Manchester, with people I know, and who understand what I’m trying to do
As the 2010s progressed, the Manchester scene began to move to the next level too. In 2018, Joe Blow, a rapper from Oakland, CA and a veteran of the ‘old-school’ West Coast hip-hop scene, featured on ‘Bay to the Block,’ a song with Chorlton’s Tunde and Culps. SVMI shot the video.
Figures from across the city, including Tunde, Culps, Aitch, KDON, IAMDDB and Tyreezy, all began to develop larger audiences around this time, alongside producers like LiTek, RDNM, Kamali, and WhyJay. SVMI was right there throughout.
“Being around a lot of talented musicians, filming a lot of different artists, just inspired me to make my own sound as well […] ‘Cos I’m filming everyone, and I’m hearing all these different sounds constantly, it’s easy to just digest it, and come out with my own version”.
“That’s how good music is made. Every bit of music takes inspiration from somewhere”.
It was LiTek who produced most of the MA MOOD. The beats are melodic, with that woozy, West Coast sound that explains the involvement of figures like Joe Blow. The first half of MA MOOD is bouncy, with an R&B influence that is becoming increasingly distinct to the city’s musical output.
But as the record progresses it becomes more introspective and emotional. ‘FEEL ALIKE’, the last song on the EP, opens with a piano, before SVMI’s voice comes in, sitting in that pocket he occupies, somewhere between singing and rapping.
“I wanted to bring a different aspect to it”, he says, in reference to FEEL ALIKE. And, when he says I’m blind to emotions, yeah I mean that with my chest / but some days I don’t even feel the best, you can hear the emotion in his voice, and in the lyrics and production too.
You sense this shift into more emotional waters can be difficult for up-and-coming rappers. What that lyric communicates is the desire to front up, and cope. It’s about moving through difficult times and coming out the other side.
“It’s not what people expect from me all the time. For my first project, I wanted to bring different sounds. Not just my straight jumpy, bouncy R&B-type trap vibe […] I’ve never ever made a tune like that”.
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“At the time I was going through some shit”, SVMI says. “I made [the song and] shit made me feel better when I made it”.
Crucially, as much as the song is about coping with the hard times, it’s written with a subtlety and self-awareness that doesn’t pretend that difficult times don’t happen.
This is a fine line to tread. I don’t feel no more, SVMI says on ‘OFC’. There’s a worry – what with all the talk of schemers and snakes, big spending and loveless relationships – that SVMI ends up celebrating the type of nasty, self-reliant individual you have to become to successfully negotiate the world he describes. On FEEL ALIKE, he raps: Nowadays it’s me, myself by myself now.
But this is a somewhat bad faith reading of music: that rappers ‘glamourise’ parts of their lives, whether it be drugs or sex or violence. You see this a lot in the public debate about drill, and there’s an important point here: describing violence and saying ‘violence is good’ are two different things.
What SVMI and others do, at their best, isn’t glamourise but aestheticise their experience – they take it, describe it, and turn it into art. It’s a way of trying to make sense of things.
“Sometimes you’ve got to just pour your heart out”, SVMI says. “I’m saying some shit, I’m actually saying some shit on those tunes”.
SVMI’s debut EP ‘MA MOOD’ was released on NQ and can be streamed here.
Joe Ronan is Head of Editorial at Salt Magazine and is from South Manchester. He is interested in books, music and how the internet is changing culture. He also writes about sport. Follow Joe on Twitter @JoeRo99.