by Richard Thorne

Mazbou Q: Science In His Bag

by Richard Thorne

Mazbou Q: Science In His Bag

We mostly know him as a solo and collaborative hip hop artist – which is to say the artist Mazbou Q and/or the artist previously known as Unchained XL. For some however those names may have stronger connotations with social justice movements, like his own push to support local African musicians or more recently the Aotearoan response to the global Black Lives Matter movement. Richard Thorne talked with the artist/educator these days much better known globally as The Rap Scientist.

Actively present in the NZ scene as a conscious alternative hip hop artist and producer over six prolific years, Hugh Ozumba has also for that time been indulging another of his passions with various roles as an educator and mentor, both privately and professionally.

2023/4 has seen his work in that space literally take off, with the result that in recent months he has both lectured to advanced music students at Harvard and Berklee College of Music in the US, and worked one-on-one with young teens and hip hop hopefuls at Takapuna youth innovation hub, Shore Junction.

With the aid of TikTok, Instagram and Youtube in particular, Mazbou Q’s reach, fame and influence as ‘The Rap Scientist’ now extends from his Manakau city home studio right around the world. Explaining hip hop musicology to online viewers in short clips he’s a natural in that lecturer/presenter role, thinking and talking at the pace of a skilled rap artist, which he very much is.

If NZM readers want to learn about Mazbou Q in say, four or five of your singles, which would you guide them to?

Weight On My Bars, Pt.6 is a good track to start off with. I often open my sets with that song because the opening lines are kind of a literal introduction of myself. The next one would probably be Polymers, the song released in January, because that sort of talks a little bit about my story, and also from a sonic perspective it introduces myself as the kind of rap scientist, that kind of technical rap flow expert.

And then if we continue I’d say something like Don’t Stop Regardless. That track is probably two to three years old now, but I think it represents a lot where I came from, both sonically and message-wise, and in terms of the lyrics. How I came from the background of pan Africanism, Afro-futurism, issues on race and identity, and so on and so forth, and that song kind of sums that up quite clearly.

The next one probably would be In My Bag, which is again a recent single which kind of sums up my mentality at the moment, in terms of where my career is at and where I think I’m heading. And perhaps one more would be CLRS, actually. Again, it sort of talks about where I am politically and my view on things.

Is it reasonable to describe you as crazily prolific? You seem to have been dropping singles, EPs and even albums at a ferocious rate.

Not crazy prolific! But if you were, like to construct a spectrum from quite idle to extremely prolific I’d definitely be towards that side!

And that’s mostly because I’m just like, I’m all in a box, you know? I can produce, engineer, top line, and all that kind of stuff. So I’m completely self-sufficient. Whenever I want to release a song or create a song I can do that, and that’s been extremely beneficial to me. It was definitely beneficial in the Covid years.

In 2020 I released an album when a lot of artists were struggling to do anything because they couldn’t get studio time. It was great for me cos my studio is at home, everything I need is right here, so I was able to create a lot.

And you’ve made plenty of quality music videos over a short time too. Where do you sit on the argument about the value vs cost of music videos?

I’ve definitely done a few since 2020, when I renamed myself to Mazbou Q from Unchained XL. Before then I’d done a couple, but the majority of videos I’ve done have been since 2020.

To the point about their value and cost, it’s actually a big part of the reason why number one; I have stopped doing so many videos, and number two; the videos I have done have all been funded [mainly by NZ On Air]. Because to invest my own funds into that would run into the trap of spending a lot of money on something you don’t get a lot of return for.

Now, that isn’t to say that I don’t think people should do videos at all. I think the power of music videos is not necessarily to market a single song, it’s just to add solid things to your catalogue. One of the first things that people will look for when your name is mentioned anywhere, they’ll look on YouTube – before they look on Spotify or anywhere else. So it is a useful tool to have a couple of good quality videos that represent who you are as an artist for YouTube. Like if you end up in media, on the news or something, they are going to be playing a video.

But having said that, in terms of what is most effective to be promoting yourself in this day and age, yeah, probably not music videos!

When you compile and release an album or EP how should listeners interpret that? Does it mean those tracks belong together, or is it simply you tidying up your workstation?

It’s more about tidying them away! Basically, my process is that I just start creating and releasing songs that I like. Then after two or three I might notice that there’s a theme that’s sort of evolving, and then I might sort of play on that theme in a few different ways for the following songs. And then at some point, I’ll aggregate it as an album.

For my last album, ‘The Sum Of Unfinished Businesses’, I did just release that as an album but in a waterfall way, so track by track. Each single was adding to it, so I basically redistributed the whole album for every release, just with an extra track, and that extra track represented the new song.

There are a couple of like practical benefits of that. The first one is, I have an album. Unfortunately the industry is still in a situation where they value albums, having an album is an important thing.

But the second thing is I’m able to draw attention towards the other songs in the album. So if I’m only releasing singles, every time a new single comes out people will listen to the single, which is fine. But if it comes out on the album then people listen to the single, and then it autoplays the rest of the album so the remainder of my tracks get a little bit more of a push every release. The last track on that album was released on December 29 last year, but there are still a couple more that I might add to it!

Given your developing focus on the science of rap it seems likely your approach to curating collections is different to most other artists?

Yeah. So actually, my last couple of singles released this year, aside from In My Bag, so we’re talking about Polymers and Physiology, you can tell by the artwork they’re like part of the same thing. So I’m building an EP that I’m eventually going to call ‘The Science Of Rap’, or ‘Rap Science’ or something like that, and that’s essentially gonna be me experimenting with flows and using interesting out of the box flows, so I can sort of teach it with my content.

So I’m pretty much marrying the music side of things with the content side of things and they’re speaking to each other. And it’s partly a promotional thing, and partly just an overall brand strategy. It’s something that I want to sort of establish for myself, as being like a sort of practitioner and content creator at the same time, rather than just one.

The ‘Nightwaves’ EP released June 2023 was three tracks with Jessie Booth – making it an outlier in collaborator consistency. Why so?

Actually, there’s another one, the Survr6 EP [2023] called ‘Metahuman’, that was also a collaby piece.

So I guess, in my mind, because I’m an eclectic artist and I love to do different styles, and compose in different ways and produce in different ways. The result of my first session with Jessie Booth was a stripped back, jazzy kind of number. And it wasn’t something that I’d usually put on my own discography – but it wasn’t far enough away for me to create a completely different side project. So I thought, okay, maybe this can be its own sort of album. And so the following two songs that I wrote with Jesse were in that world, because we were trying to create a certain vibe with it, we called it cafe hip hop!

Similarly, the album ‘Metahuman’ with my friend, Xj-Will [Joshua Williams] who is based in Kansas city, is the same concept, but instead of cafe hip hop it’s cinematic hip hop. It’s this epic kind of clash between cinematic sounds and rap. Basically, with side projects I’m open to doing that kind of stuff if I have a kind of creative pull and I wanna do something.

Presumably you create most or all of your own beats? Do you have beat writing sessions separately from lyric composition?

Yes, so far, or at least with the exception of the ‘Metahuman’ EP, all my beats are mine. My songwriting is definitely a synergistic process, but the beat always happens first. So I might produce up to 50 or 60% of what I think the beat is going to be, up to the point where it gives me something to write lyrics to, or to write top lines to. And then when I start coming up with rap flows, rap lyrics, melodies and all that kind of stuff, that will shape how I want to evolve and construct the beats further. And so I might write the song lyrically to about 80 or 90%, and then come back to the beat and start switching it up. And then I record, you know, it just all happens together.

Your change of artist name from Unchained XL was only four years ago, two of those Covid years. It seems to have been a hugely positive step, but specifically what have you been able to achieve as Mazbou Q that you may not have otherwise?

I think I had established a brand as Unchained XL that was, quite ironically, quite narrow, and had chained me down! So I sort of came up as this rapper who would incorporate like, the Fela Kuti highlife Afrobeat sound into my hip hop. And then coupled with that my messages were very, very political, like very political.

And I had done that so much that I had kind of been pigeonholed into that. So when I got to a point in my career that I wanted to express some of my music a little bit differently. ‘I want to talk about some personal things, I want to talk about like love, intimacy, and I want my sound to evolve past just the Fela Kuti plus hip hop sound. What am I to do, because I feel if I release something it’s going to clash with that brand, since I had set up that brand so narrowly.’

That was probably the main driving force for me to name change. The second one was that I just felt the name Unchained XL itself more like a brand than a person. And I wanted to have a moniker that felt more like a person’s name, so people could call me Mazbou or Maz, which is what they do. It felt like less artificial.

So with those two things together, I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to do it.’ And interestingly enough I had a lot of people that were quite resistant to me doing it, who didn’t think it was a good move because I had started to build some momentum as Unchained XL. I had toured the UK, I had toured NZ a couple of times, had a few music videos and done a few festivals, so things were very established as Unchained XL.

People advised me that switching my name would be like starting again – and that was kind of something that I chose to weather. And in all fairness, a lot of it was like that, especially when it comes to streaming, I felt like with my discography I did start again, I didn’t have much carryover there. But in terms of like, my social media, and people’s general knowledge of me within the country and my place within the industry, it didn’t feel like I was starting again tot much thankfully.

It was a couple of steps back, but I managed to sort of accelerate forward in what I was able to achieve. I think a lot of the political stuff that happened in 2020 and 2021 around the Black Lives Matter stuff, that I was involved in as Mazbou Q, I think it was important again for me to just have a personable name. When it comes to being branded as the rap scientist, people knowing me as Mazbou Q, again, a personable name, goes hand in hand with like a title, where as if I was Unchained XL it would be two brands, like what’s going on? What’s his name? So those are the main ones.

Being an educator is something quite different from being a creative. You actively mentor hip hop newcomers privately and in school programmes, which others might find a career distraction.

I’ve always been someone who likes sharing knowledge. My mum was a trained teacher and loved explaining things to people, so I guess I inherited it from her but I’ve always loved doing that, in whatever capacity I was in.

In 2021 when we were in that super long lockdown I was trying to figure out a way to promote a song that I just put out. And so I went on TikTok and created a video that was me sharing my knowledge and sharing an approach that I had to rapping a verse over song. That video was called ‘Don’t rap on the beat rap behind the beat’, and basically was an explanation of how rappers use a rhythmic technique called micro timing that’s basically like micro deviations from the beat to add bit of swag to it, kind of like jazz musicians. And that apparently really resonated with the TikTok audience!

So that video went viral, I think is that like two million views and it really kicked off my TikTok channel. I went from 2000 followers to 68,000 in a week! So I kept making videos in that vein, where I would describe my approach, and it evolved into this thing where I’d also like research and rhythm theory, and sort of reach back into my roots as a composer, arranger, sort of classical musician from way back, and sort of talk about the rhythm theory ideas in the context of rap and hip hop.

That was apparently a really fresh thing for people, a real novel thing, a lot of people who had done music school in the past were in my channel saying, ‘Man, I wish you were my lecturer before. If only I could have learned this stuff using the music I love, like hip hop, it would have been great.’

So that kind of gave me the clue that I was really onto something, and all the ways that I had learned how to share knowledge and mentor people and instruct people that came from my earlier experiences sort of came across.

At another level just the sort of technical mindedness that came from working in software engineering and a systems role was important as well, because a lot of what I’m doing in music is I’m breaking it down to more basic elementary principles. I’m showing how these musical techniques function as systems of more basic things, put together to make something more complex.

I think people really appreciated that because I was lifting up the hood of something that was previously a black box to them. And they were like, ‘Wow, that’s how all this rhythmic stuff works’.

So yeah, that was kind of a combination between the two. And when I think about it that way, being the educator and the musician becomes not so far apart, because it’s the way I’m putting the music together.

I get into a lot of conversations with people who ask me, well, ‘All the tracks that you’re dissecting using all these rap techniques are the rappers actually thinking about this stuff?’ And that’s a really interesting conversation. It’s one that I’m tired of having (!), but to be fair it as an interesting conversation.

And the answer I allude to is, ‘Just because some people might not know how to articulate what they’re doing, or even think about what they’re doing in a certain way, doesn’t mean they don’t have a kind of deep, technical intuitive knowledge about it. I think these rappers know exactly what they’re doing, just not in the way that you’re hearing it from me. And I think that’s a discordance for a lot of people. But yeah, it’s interesting.

Your lecture tour of four quality US universities was an extraordinary recognition and opportunity.

Yeah, it’s the most significant thing that has happened for me as an educator. Actually I’d say it’s the thing that took it from the online world into the real world – because prior to that, people knew me as ‘that guy from TikTok who does the rap stuff’. But when I went to those colleges and gave those lectures, it was like, ‘Ohh, he’s that guy. He’s going to universities – he’s an actual real deal.’

So I have been able to leverage that experience to do some other things. For example I just got back from Melbourne, I was at Box Hill Institute, which is like an adult education centre with a contemporary music programme. I gave a lecture there, did some workshops, that kind of thing. l’ve also done BigSound and the SXSW Sydney events, as both an artist and educator. So all those things together kind of made me, you know, made me an educator in the real world – and I’ve been able to leverage that.

Did that experience change your sense of place, sense of purpose?

Absolutely it did. It absolutely changed my idea of what’s possible. And it really, really challenged my imposter syndrome, which I still have, both for the good and the bad, right? The good in the sense that, ‘Okay, if these music professors have watched my content, and they think it would be valuable for me to go there, then I must be doing something right.

Then, the bad in the sense that, ‘Oh, crap, now I’m going to Harvard, I’m gonna be presenting to a lot of people and if they don’t think I’m legit this is gonna be a problem!’

So it kind of created that fear as well. But, you know, all I could do is just go there and do my best. And I did. And all my talks are really well received, which is pretty great – and that’s definitely given me more confidence in terms of what I’m doing. It’s sort of helped me understand the essence of what I’m doing is legitimate, and there’s a place for it. And so now, I’m just kind of discovering exactly where that place is, tossing up a few things, pulling on a few threads.

How quickly and exponentially did your online following expand once you were identified as The Rap Scientist?

I think what I guess legitimised me in the eyes of the students was that I was doing something on TikTok. But it wasn’t until late last year that I started to grow on Instagram, a lot. At the start of last year I was at 7000 followers, by the end it was 120,000. So there are a few posts that year that really sort of boosted me and I think the Instagram clout, if you want to call it that, is a lot stronger than TikTok because I feel like TikTok is this place where virality is really encouraged, the algorithm is tailored for virality. So if you managed to get a few viral posts and a few 100,000 followers on Tiktok it’s great, but it’s not that special. But if you can do that on another platform like Instagram or YouTube or something, then it’s like, ‘Okay, maybe this guy’s actually doing stuff in the real world.’

Have any your of clips led to any surprise brushes with any musical heroes or similar?

Actually, I’ve had the craziest last couple of months in terms of that. I think the thing about how Instagram clout works is that clout begets clout – like the more followers you get, the more followers you’re going to get. Because you know, if you see someone with 20,000 followers post something, then see the same post by someone with 100,000 followers, you think that must be more legit.

So in the last couple of months, when I’ve sort of gotten above the 100,000 follower mark I’ve started getting some insane followers. Like I got a follow from Lupe Fiasco, you know! And then Joey Bada$$.

Jacob Collier was a massive one for me, that was a moment when I was like, ‘If I ever have impostor syndrome is now, because what does a dude like Jacob Collier find interesting about what I’m doing?! And then I’ve had a few other sort of biggish names as well, so it’s really dawning on me that what I’m doing has potential global impact, like it’s very much extending far beyond what I imagined it initially would.