Speaking over Zoom, wrapped up in a cosy Carhartt Prentis Jacket, Shaeem Santino Wright AKA Lord Apex radiates a sense of bliss and excitement as we talk just days before the release of his latest album Smoke Sessions Vol. 3.
Photography by Jack Cullis
Apex is the type of artist who must never be underestimated when it comes to his grind. As he talks to me from his home based in East London – a perfect set-up with his girlfriend and beloved kitten Marcy – he confesses he was up until 7AM the previous night working on new music. The cool-headed artist is not someone who deliberates when it comes to materialising his vision. His approach to music is powerful for a number of reasons, namely because of his relentless attitude when it comes to work, accompanied by a sage and erudite nature. It must also be noted that his loved ones and without a shadow of doubt, his manager Max, have also played a grand role in his perseverance.
His latest album is the third edition in the Smoke Sessions series, which has racked up accolades in the past for it’s complex trenchant content. SSV3 shows his music at new levels of excellence, with raw and sharp content from the tantalizing rapper, shattering the boundaries of conformity. The album features a sturdy line-up of producers including The Purist, Blaize Wareham, The Kount, Mulade, Angus Luke, dropped milk, Slumfu, Maverick Sabre and more. Vocal features include verses from Louis Culture and Finn Foxell. It also doesn’t come as a shock that Apex continues his strong affinity with the high calibre of rappers that originate from New York with appearances from Smoke DZA and Wiki.
"Like You Know" the first single released ahead of SSV3
As his career grows Apex has never neglected his goals, creating his own pillars for success. Arguably, not many current UK artists have shown the level of dedication which he does. When he wasn’t taking in the sounds of Jamaica which came from his parent’s own collections, the young Apex would be found unearthing MTV box sets filled with 90s era music videos; the same videos led the budding poet to discover some of rap’s finest. This included the likes of Mobb Deep, Pharcyde, Wu Tang Clan and many more. One particularly poignant experience for Apex was when he discovered Big L’s masterpiece – “Put It On”, this track had a lasting impact on him he admits, “it was the first time I've seen someone put reggae shit on a rap song. It just blew my mind in terms of the possibilities within music”. This sparked something in Apex which became a tenacity to go against the grain and break down the norms within music. As a teen, he eventually went on to discover the very artists who have become pivotal in the multiverse of hip hop, including J Dilla, Mos Def and MF DOOM – to name a few.
Apex prefers to seek out what he terms “left field rap”, he will intently analyse each album he encounters and ensures it gets listened to from top to bottom. Another golden rule is that he will never neglect the importance of an artist’s first release “I need to understand where your mind was at when you entered the game. First out is the most important and always will be.”. This level of diligence has contributed to Apex being able to hone in his sound while remaining flexible and inventive. When rapping he lays his soul bare, sharing profound thoughts which bounce over woozy instrumentals. Often listening to Apex’s lyrics is like receiving an education. But an education that comes infused with a deep love of hip hop and the smoke of purple haze.
The flourishing artist is ready to become a ‘household name’, as put by Apex himself, “If not music we will get into comedy, if it's not comedy, it’s fashion and if not fashion, it’s movies, if not movies, we're going booth and getting soundtracks for video games... I'm really into everything”. If that doesn’t evidence his perseverance you just need to look at his past achievements. In 2014 the then 17-year-old launched his solo career on SoundCloud under the name Tino Vintage (an ode to his adoration of vintage clothes), piquing the interest of the burgeoning underground rap scene and it’s fans. He continued to retain his cult credibility that kick started his career under the name Lord Apex – a fitting title to match his agile lyricism and elevated ethos. In the past he has felt that the idea of being labelled as a ‘SoundCloud rapper’ was irksome. But now, he tells me, he “wears it on his sleeve” because it’s where he started, he adds, “It's always going to be a reminder of where you come up”.
Whether you are delving into his 2018 collaborative EP Stuck In Motion with fellow Elevation Meditation members Flowzart and Finn Foxell, or his ruminating 2019 album Smoke Sessions Vol.2 you can find all sorts of hidden gems across the Londoner’s extensive discography. From the time he started to put out a string of singles on SoundCloud, up until his most recent SSV3, Apex’s vulnerability has shifted. As someone who has released at least one project every year from the moment he started out he has inevitably written through moments of joy, sorrow and everything in between. It’s one of the things that makes him stand alone as an artist – reigning over the rest of the pack on some true “Apex shit”.
In our interview we covered a myriad of topics from the road to his latest release, how the industry has shifted and his affinity with NY, to the focused mindset which has pushed him thus far. In the words of Apex “It's UK domination so don’t even talk my name the same way. And it's not cocky. It's confidence because I understand how much energy I put into this.”.
"Bebop" – One of Apex's first singles released on SoundCloud
NW: Congrats on the new album Smoke Sessions 3 which is coming out on 4/20. Ahead of the album you've released two singles, one of them being "I Need a Light" with Harlem's Smoke DZA, which is crazy. How did this collaboration come about?
Apex: Man, my partner in crime Max. He's just a man of many links and connections, he's a respectable guy that's got a lot of mutual respect. So, with him, being in the line of business that he's in, he's met a lot of artists along the way, it's a small business. We had a few options for that joint but it was one of those where I'm a stoner... I've been a fan of the ‘stoner artists’ around the world, so I knew I wanted to eventually tick off that checklist. When the option came up to get Smoke DZA on a track, it just seemed like a no brainer. I mean, we both appreciate the plant in the same way. And more than that, I feel like our vibes are just always on the same shit, but just from two different places.
I see you've got a lot of links with people in New York, some amazing artists, like Wiki on one of your new tracks, and you've even done something with CJ fly and Westside Gunn on that album with V Don... A lot of great artists from New York.
I've gotta shout out other heads from New York. I kind of grew up with a few cats from over there – not in person or online but just through music and collaborating. Definitely got to shout out Grim Dozer, he's from New Jersey, me and him have been collaborating since around 2015, he produced "Pretty Penny" for me and just a few other underground trains. But he was one of the first people I worked with out there. Also shout out to Brain Orchestra and Ferrevada, he's a rapper producer from out there. It was a crazy thing. Because in terms of the states, New York is the only one that I've visited. I've been there twice actually... I flew into New Jersey but it doesn't really count because I wasn't really chilling there. I feel like growing up to those sounds, it was kind of inevitable I started to link up with these energies in person. I mean, that's why hip hop started. So like, a lot of my appreciation for that shit fell into New York because I understood this was the culture that birthed it.
Yeah like 70s disco tracks getting flipped in Harlem..
Yeah, you know what I mean, exactly. I wanted to get a better understanding of the city.
The sounds of New York do seem to complement your own individual sounds in quite a special way. Your bars also have this unparalleled level of poetry and introspection. Can you talk me through your creative process, how do you go from a melody, lyric or a small idea into a full song or album?
It's crazy because first of all, on the new album... The first line, or even the first words, I uttered on the whole ting is 'Eyes closed'. And I don't even know why I said it, but it made sense, it was natural, I was freestyling. Often this method just feels like a testament to trusting my gut. When I play a beat or I'm in the process about to write something, the first line or phrase that comes to my head – however strong I feel about it I'll try to stick with it and build off that. Outside of that I guess I would try to make the first lines shocking. The first line has always got to be like, ‘what? where is the story about to go?’. Like when you hit the joint, you just say some, some random high question like, why do we call the 'lounge' the 'lounge'? It could be a feeling... but you gotta grab ‘em. Like a movie trailer, you want to grab them from that first shot. So they're just in there no matter what happens.
Definitely, you have to make that first line jump, it is hard to get people to pay attention to things these days.
“I don't think there's anyone in the game that's as hungry as I am. It took me a long time to realise that common sense is not common”
So what kind of things helped you hone in your sound and musical identity? Any notable inspirations from your childhood?
Yeah, definitely. For me, the most notable is growing up on reggae music. Growing up in a Jamaican household, a British Jamaican household – It's music every day. When you listen to the lyrical content of a lot of reggae, it's very revolutionary, very rise up and stand up for your rights sorta shit. So just subconsciously the lyrical content stayed in my mind. It's a lot of dudes who have rougher voices that have these beautiful melodies put these beautiful songs together. And it's done so much for me in terms of how I approach everything, I can kind of see how that influence just plays a part in everything, even down to just words flowing in and out of each other. I gotta credit everything to all the early reggae, the early bashment. I even grew up with this giant box of videotapes and I used to have a lot of 90s MTV top 10s on there, so it would be a whole bunch of like New York rap and just whatever was popping at the time. As a kid I was seeing all of these music videos – one of the first I remember seeing him was Big L 'Put It On' and it's one of my favourite songs to this day just because of that memory.
That track is something else.
I think why it was so pivotal for me is because there's a little reggae bridge in there, where some guy comes in, and he's just in his little yard ting for like two seconds. And then it just goes back to rap. But it was the first time I've seen someone put reggae shit on a rap song. So it just blew my mind in terms of possibilities within music. And that was definitely a very strong starting point for the foundation
I can definitely see the impact of J Dilla, MF DOOM, Mos Def on your sound, the sort of artists who have helped people realise that they can do something a little different, a little outside of the box. Would you agree?
I feel like, even looking back now, this is the first time I've realised this but they caught me at a very impressionable age. Just in my own personal music journey, I kind of stumbled across them in my early teens like 13, 14, 15 and just listening to how they broke all rules just implemented a lot from me as well, where it could be DOOM in this one minute song. And there's no hook on it. But he just blows your mind line for line. I used to really study how artists put their albums together. When I heard Mad Villainy for the first time it was the first time I've heard a rap artist just put a straight and instrumental in the middle of an album. It threw me so much because it was like I didn't even know you were allowed to do that. Little by little each time I listened to them they really just broke down barriers where you can't put us in a box. Even hearing Quasimoto and Madlib and how he just pitched up the voice and I realised I didn't know you could do that. So it was the first to make me truly understand the possibilities of how weird you could get with your music. And how left field it could be. I'm the type of guy that's super attracted to anything that sounds left field, that hasn't been done before. So hearing all of them music combined like that whole trio. Madlib, Dilla and DOOM. All three of them were the perfect teachers to just let me know this is the blueprint of what all my shit to sound like.
The blueprint becomes a blank slate – whatever you want to make it. Like Mm... Food by MF Doom. He just spends a whole one minute spitting into the mic. Literally. So I’ve heard that you got 'Lord' from Madlibs, alias, Lord Quas. But tell me about the meaning behind 'Apex'?
It was kind of a weird one. My first rap name I was going by was Tino Vintage. And my middle name is Santino. So my friend's name in high school for me was Tino, and I have a heavy love for vintage clothes. And just vintage things in general. Just as I was diving into my own music journey, I probably only got two songs and just in the midst of that I knew I wanted some form of name that had an 'X' in it. Because at the time when I chose it there weren't a lot of artists that had X's in their name, and I just felt like the letter really stood out a lot. Like you got DMX, Xxxtentacion. They're very prevalent and stay in your mind. So when I heard the word 'Apex', and again as a teen, hearing it for the first time outside of apex predators and all of that stuff, it just really resonated with me. So it became Tino Apex. A few months later I actually looked into the definition and understood this whole meaning of being the top of everything. And I'm thinking 'you fuckin right', that's what I want to do. I want to be at the top of everything. The current energy was birthed, like the name you get called, really becomes an energy and the more power gets added to it. I finally dropped like two or three more songs as Tino Apex. And then, around the time is when I dove in and found Quasi and realised 'well this is what I want the sound to be like', and I want to remember this moment, and anytime I think of 'Lord', I think of how weird the music can be. The first song that comes to mind because it was the one that made me think was “Shroom Music”. I just thought 'this is off the planet, he's on suttin right now. That's where I want to go with it'. So I took Lord on. I wanted to add to that list of 'Lord's out there. There was already a whole bunch of Youngs, Bigs and Lils. I wanted one, but I didn't want none of them bait ones. One of my favourite rappers is Lil Wayne, so even as a homage to him, but at the same time there’s so many Lils I don't like it would make me not like the name. There aren't too many lords outside of maybe Lord Infamous and Lord Finesse etc.
Thinking back on your first releases, like Bebop in 2014 and then looking at your most recent ones, like 'I Need A Light', would you say the vulnerability in your songs has shifted?
Yeah. I've come into myself more as an artist, I really studied again, I studied every genre and listened to everything possible. With me, music is so much more than 'Oh, I'm just listening to this to get me through my day', even though that's what a lot of it does. For me, because I am an artist, I really look at the music and see these are humans behind it.. First and foremost. They've lived similar experiences, whereas everyone goes through things positive or negative, but everyone translates it differently with music. So every time I hear a new song, hearing how someone translates an emotion based off something they went through, because I love the language. I love English. I love forming and creating these patterns in words alone. It's down to sound as well, I like to capture a perspective of where the artist was at in their life and what led them to get in this vibe? What led to that chain of events and led to this song being created? I still study album structure. So I listen to an album from top to bottom. You can capture every emotion in a song. But you just have to be in touch with yourself enough to know that it's gonna come back tenfold and help in so many different ways. It takes a lot out of an artist to get the sadness out because you just went through something and every time you’re writing it’s a constant reminder of that situation. But you got to be tough enough because you could end up with a million people that's like 'Yo, you saying that helped me because I could relate to it, I've gone through something similar'. The more artists I listen to, whether it's some Earth Wind & Fire, some Curtis Mayfield or Boards of Canada, it's just raw, the more I understand how people are in tune with their emotions and how you can translate it. But the more I listen, the more it allows me to be vulnerable and say ‘alright bro, let's just tell the truth’. The more honest you are with yourself, the better music is gonna be. 100%.
“The more honest you are with yourself, the better music is gonna be.”
Your approach to music seems quite unrelenting. You've released at least one project every year since starting out, which means you must have written through some tough times. What's the reasoning behind such a relentless approach?
Man, I don't think there's anyone in the game that's as hungry as I am. It took me a long time to realise that common sense is not common. And my idea and procession or logic is not everyone else's. So for me not liking my current state of living – not to say it was super bad and shit – but just once you realise you're a person that wants a lot of things and circumstances have led you to be in a place where you can't get a lot of things.There's two or three ways you can go, you either hit the road and you go do your shit because it's the only way you know, or you study the game and think how can I come up with this legally. I've never seen no rappers from out here that I can look at and be like 'yo, they've done it all'. They got all the cars. They got all the cribs, they moved their family out and moved their momma out. It's rare. The immediacy for myself to try and get up there and get my family good was different for me than it was for a lot of others. I feel like there's a lot of people that are chill and say 'oh, I'm gonna work on this one project for the year'. But all my favourite artists will drop a mixtape a minimum every three months.
Definitely, a lot of American artists do that…
Yeah, I feel like they understand the grind though. They understand how serious it was, they understand the importance of music and the numbers. So quality over quantity. But the more quantity, the more assets I have.
You're pushing your boundaries.
Yeah. My whole thing is getting the demos out, we can go back and focus on when we got time. But let's just get these out.
It's a rare mindset in the music industry. A lot of people do sit on their laurels and just wait for things to happen.
“Quality over quantity. But the more quantity, the more assets I have.”
How do you feel the music industry affects the sort of music that artists make these days?
It's lame man, because I've got friends and other artists I work with that will say 'if I do this for this song and if I could get in this playlist...', and that's before they've even made the song and I'll say, 'My brudda, by just saying that you've cursed the song'. You just ruin the energy that way, you should just try to make a good song – and believe that if it's good, people are gonna like it. And that's how I tried to approach everything. Everything is algorithm and numbers now. When they started to release numbers it changed everything. Even early before streaming, but even that was like, oh, wow, this video got a million views, so now your whole perception has changed of this person just because they've reached this level. And I think a lot of those numbers that we see online don't translate into real life. In real life every artist is dealing with something like depression or a whole bunch of other stuff like family troubles – whatever it could be. Now it depends on the perception of the people that aren't in the industry, those who don't even see the dirty ins and outs so they just think 'that person must be living amazing every day, they must be celebrating every day'. To get where you want to go you got to do a lot of stuff you don't do. But you just got to understand and play the game. That way you can be in a position to change the game. You can't change the game if you don't play the game. But the difference with me is I let the fans know how shit goes. I'm not gonna shy away from telling them if the industry is moving funny. There's a lot of costume stuff that goes on in this industry. And it's really ‘the more you know’ sort of industry.
“You can't change the game if you don't play the game.”
Obviously, this year has hit different for everyone, especially within the music industry. There's the stoppage of live shows which included your tour with Mos Def last year, which is sick. Is that still gonna go through?
That was super exciting for me, because that's one of my biggest inspirations of all time. So much so I probably can't listen to his music, that much. I listen to it for certain emotions, because he's another one that's come at pivotal points in my life. On top of that, he's my mum's favourite actor. So he's always held a special place in my heart. Crazy enough I got the opportunity just a few days into meeting Max, that was the one thing that let me know this man's about business and he don't play. He was like 'bro I can get this...' and within two days it was happening. And he's someone who is serious about suttin. I work in terms of working and getting to where I need to get to, I'm quick with that. I might be slow with everything else I do in life because you have to have some form of balance, but when it comes to work, I like to work quick. And Max is a quick worker, we work on the same time.
Do you miss doing live shows?
Yeah. That's therapy for a lot of artists. We're drawn to need big crowds and be moving so many people at one time. It may be the person that's the most shy in person, but the music is so powerful they're able to move 10,000 people at once. But a lot of that feeling has been drained because we haven’t been able to do that in a year. You want to be able to thank your fans in person. And the easiest way to do that, in the quickest way possible, because you're meeting so many at once, is through shows. I was a fan and now I'm at this point, so I'm always going to show my appreciation for you guys. These are big moments for both the artist and the fans. There's a lot of fans where they might have gone to their favourite artists show and had a personal moment with that fan. And that one little moment has given them the energy to believe in and do anything they want in their life. That little thing, we haven't had on a big scale for a whole year. So there's inspiration that's been taken out of us as well, because we haven't been able to remind the fans that they can do anything they believe in, because that's how we get to where we got to, by believing. So now once we get to a certain stage in our job and our mission feels like a reminder for everyone, especially the fans – that you can do it too. I would rather all of my friends and fans become successful because that's the mission
People like to box stuff up and stick labels on things. I've seen people describe you as a 'SoundCloud rapper' or they decide your sound is lo-fi. How do you feel about this?
I think that’s cool because I definitely hate labels. But man, I didn't start to feel some form of peace till I started to wear it on my sleeve. When I started to wear it on my sleeve and say, you know what? Yes, I am a SoundCloud rapper. I met all these amazing musicians that I still work with six, seven years later on SoundCloud. We've all become successful in some way or another and lived out our dreams because we were just making music in our bedrooms. And look where we are now. Yes, I am a fucking SoundCloud rapper. Cool. So be it. It got me here. They should have been on it too. Once I started wearing it on my sleeve and owning it people are now like 'oh, he's not a SoundCloud rapper, he's just an artist.'. It's always going to be a reminder of where you come up, like talking about Wu Tang, they'll say they're 90s rappers. Why? Because they came up in the 90s, that's how you remember them, that's your introduction to them. So I am a SoundCloud rapper, but also so much more than that. Because if you ask me two years from now, it's gonna be like, oh, clearly not, because he's been doing a lot. But I still am because that's where I came from.
One last question to finish about your new album. What were your main priorities with getting the sound right for that project?
Trusting myself, not rushing myself. Trusting Max. We're both creative. Our love for hip hop runs very deep. Especially for him, I know he can relate to my love and appreciation for New York because we grew up in that similar way. When we have a clash, it's never a personal clash. We're fighting for the best products. And that was a big one for me because I've never made an album with another mind like that, it was really just me allowing someone else into the space that's always been sacred to me. And now we've got to a place of synergy where we just bounce back and forth with the ideas. I could make a song and might not come up anyway, because of samples. And that's a whole different part of the game that even fans don't know about. But with that being said, just trusting in everyone, trusting myself, trusting in the process. This is the first time I can tell you, I'm confidently happy with every track, start to finish. Whereas before because the hustle was so immediate. I might have a verse I want to re-record but I wasn't going to because I didn't have the time. So now it was the first time I decided we aren't going to put everything up until every lyric, every verse, every single thing is right. And it sounds how I want it to sound. It's the first time we've done it. So I'm super excited for people to hear it. Album of the year. We're coming for multiple tings. It's a take over from now like from the moment this tape drops. It's UK domination so don’t even talk my name the same way. And it's not cocky. It's confidence because I understand how much energy I put into this. I put more energy into this than I've put into any album I've ever done. So I'm just confident I'm saying on top of this hill on my Apex shit.
On some Apex shit for sure. Seems like you've been preparing for this your whole career.
My whole life.
As a fan of rap the first album is your most pivotal point in your career. It changes everything. It's going to be the thing they compare you to for life. I don't think people understand the importance of it. To the point where any new artist I listen to, whether your album dropped in 87’, 62’, or 91’, I'm going back and I'm listening to the first album, because I need to understand where your mind was at when you entered the game. First out is the most important and always will be. So I had to put everything into that.
“This is the first time I can tell you, I'm confidently happy with every track, start to finish”
It’s clear you've put your full faith into this, and it's worthy of it for sure. Your name will be on everyone's lips.
Oh, it's gonna be a household name. If not music we will get into comedy, if it's not comedy, it’s fashion and if not fashion, it’s movies, if not movies, we're going booth and getting soundtracks for video games, if not video games, we can do some voice acting for cartoons. I'm really into everything. So we're gonna be a household name. Smoke a lot of dope. Make great music... I live with my lover and live a beautiful life. Me, my baby, my little kitten Mouse – eight months now. Big growth and that. Life is beautiful man. I never imagined me living this life. If you go back and listen to the lyrics from 2016 projects, we really manifested everything we're doing right now.
Big props to you for getting that by 24, honestly. It's been great hearing about how you bring things to life. Keep living that blessed life.
Yeah definitely, it's never going to stop. Much love. Thank you, and make sure you go listen!
Check out the video below for an insight into Apex's journey to making his latest album.