Interview with Debris Stevenson and Jammz

Thu 20 Feb 2020

Interview with Debris Stevenson and Jammz

The coming of age story Poet in da Corner comes to Curve on Fri 6 – Sat 7 Mar, featuring lyricist and writer Debris Stevenson and grime musician Jammz. 

With just under two weeks to go until the production, we caught up with Debris and Jammz during their UK tour and asked them some questions about how Poet in da Corner was created and what barriers they have had to overcome.

Tell us about the origin story of this piece – where did it start?

Debris:  Me and Jammz have known each other for 10 years, and the first track I made for the show was made with Jammz five years ago. At that time I felt there wasn’t the same avenues to grow as an artist in the earlier career stages in grime, especially financially and I felt that that was really wrong. I felt that some of it was rooted in the massive injustices of how we perceive quality and education and great art in this country. Largely that Western colonisation of what we see as ‘skilled’, and ‘educated’. So, it really started from me wanting to f*** that up. I was teaching thousands of young people creative writing, performance and event coordination as life skills back then with a company I had set up called Mouthy Poets in Nottingham. I just felt like I’d done all this good stuff but what about where I come from? What about my parents? What about my friends? What about the ends? I felt like I’d run away from a part of myself and I had a duty to come back.

And that moment is literally what bore the show?

D: Yeah, and like the scene in the show with the boy outside my house actually happened, and I also used to cover Dizzee tracks a lot at my shows. I used to do ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’ with a friend of mine, Franx Franklin who used to play the guitar and sing. I knew all the tracks back to back and I then thought what if this was an academic exercise?  The first draft was jokes and was like 200 pages long. It had all the metre, all the rhyme schemes annotated in it, and I’d be like “this relates to this Dizzee line because of this”. Many of the tracks in Poet in da Corner have the same flow and are based metrically on the Dizzee tracks. Then, I approached Jammz with this hilarious idea. Stop Dat was the first track that we ever wrote, which isn’t the track now that it was then, but I was like let’s try it. I worked with different MCs on every track. So, loads of MCs, loads of producers worked on the show – there is a list of them all in the playtext preface! 5 years later, here we are!

Meanwhile, Jammz, what were you doing in the bit before working on Poet in da Corner and the Stop Dat track?

Jammz : In 2014, I had just got my first adult job working in a trading company and I was doing music at the same time. At this time my music stuff was picking up, so my work life and music career was mad. I didn’t tell anybody at work that I was doing music. Crazy stuff would happen, like I’d use all my annual leave by February to go and do shows. I remember when I toured with Kano and I had to tell work a mad lie, and it got to a point where physically my body couldn’t hack it anymore. I was going to work on a Wednesday morning, flying to Ireland on a Wednesday night, and while all my friends were going out partying, I’m getting the plane back at 6am to go to work, and getting changed into a suit in the airport. It was madness. So yeah, at that time Deborah kind of came to me and said she was working on this project, it’s about Dizzee, and asked if I could come and help and write a song. I was doing a show with Kano in Nottingham, and me, Deborah, and my DJ Jack, we all wrote the first tune together and from there, it kind of developed. A couple of months later, Deborah met me on my lunch break, and I remember she said “You’re going to quit your job one day” and I was like, “Alright… maybe.”

I think at the time work was a safety blanket as well, but it got to a point where I caved in one day and said to my manager “Look, I’m a musician, I do music, I’m going on tour to Australia next month.” and they looked at me like, he must be chatting s***. Then I showed them the articles written about me and my music, and they said “Oh wow. Amazing.” and that was it. At that time, Deborah was going through the process of having meetings at the Royal Court and I never had the intention of becoming an actor, I’m an actor, that’s not my trade. So I came to the Royal Court one day and by that time we’d written a couple of songs and I had actually started to contribute lines for my character, SS Vyper. We did a reading one day and Hamish Pirie and Vicky Featherstone were in the room, and we read it and Vicky was like, “Yeah, you read that so wonderfully. You might as well act in it.” and I was like “Okay. Sick!” And that’s how I ended up here.

This is an incredibly physical piece, can you share a bit about the movement and physicality that we see in Poet in da Corner?

D: I’m actually making a show called ‘The Write to Rave’ at the moment which is in R&D, and through that I’ve become a lot stronger and more flexible. They’ve really invested in me as a dancer and as a choreographer. Yeah… I’m bare hench now! I wanted to be a dancer when I was a kid, and a lot of people told me “Oh, you’re not picking up choreography, you’re a bit slow, don’t do it” but for me, grime is physical man. That’s part of what I liked about it. If you look at all these different MCs, take D Double E for example; how it’s like a current strikes through his feet and his sound is so inherently physical. Poetry is physical, it’s a mnemonic technique. That sense of flow and rhythm is how you memorise, it lives in the body. You know, when you start singing the lyrics to a song and you didn’t know you knew them, that’s in the body. So, for me, dance and movement is really important with all my work. I rate Jammz so much because when I asked “Can you do the show?” He was like, “Yes. but I’m not dancing.” But he has! And I rate and love how he gets involved with everything. He’s a MC and that’s physical and that’s on stage. And it’s like, if we’re going to do a show about grime, we couldn’t just sit there.

J: I feel like with grime, 90% of grime is a feeling. I don’t care what beat you made, what lyric you’ve written, what promotional plan you’ve drawn for your new album, it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, it’s the feeling and the feeling is 100% physical. So for us to do this show and not have a movement component or a component that represents that, to me would have been a failure because that’s the only way I can imagine we could explain that feeling to you.

D: I need to shout out Aaron Sillis as well who’s the movement director on Poet in da Corner, Shanika Wallace, Glenn Hudson who are choreographers on the show, and Gabriel Infante, who has been training me and Kirubel up on all of the gymnastic techniques in the show. Aaron works in an amazing way. We all did so many explorational, freestyle stuff to really look at the embodiment and gestures of our characters. From day dot it was always physical. I’ve had a personal trainer, Alex Campbell all the way through this process, we’ve had gymnastics sessions and we have physio every week. It’s a long process and like Jammz said, 90% of grime is a feeling that lives in the body. We’ve really stayed true to that in terms of the process.

What about the lyrical action, and the way you wrote the rhymes?

D: We had a lot of conversations about that like, which are the tracks that you sit down and really listen to? Which are the tracks that make you bop? Which are the ones that live in the body and make people want to get up? Which are the ones that might not work as well on the album as they do live? Different tunes function in different ways. Like Doom is really a story you listen to or witness and then you’ve got tunes like Fix up which is actually just a vibe.

So these tracks and this play weren’t just written for the stage, they were never just meant to be limited and exist as one thing?

Nothing I write is ever just one thing. My writing is a bath bomb – many different things wrapped very very tightly into an orb – anticipating explosion on contact.

Debris, in Poet in da Corner you talk about having dyslexia and how that has shaped your journey and your art?

D: I didn’t actually get diagnosed as dyslexic until I was 21 and it was described as the clearest case of dyslexia they had ever seen. I fought it for a long time. My type of dyslexia is an area called abstract symbols and sequencing, which means I don’t understand letters put in sentences with no context. Dyslexia is just the name of something, a way that your brain works that doesn’t fit the system. The system is made for like a very narrow set of things. I mean, the western system, the English system, is largely based on bureaucracy that is no longer relevant. There’s pressure on teachers that means they can’t teach in a way that is largely open to other ways of thinking. Ultimately, I am a poet because of my dyslexia. My poems are short. They’re concise. You can read them quickly, and never do abstract symbols and sequences have more meaning and context than in a poem. So, as soon as I started reading lyrics, as soon as I started hearing bars, everything made sense. Things that before made no sense made sense. I often say with every disruption, there’s an opportunity. It’s disruptive not learning like everyone else. So, I think yeah okay, the system is hard, but make your own system and you will learn to be a leader because of that. You will understand more about yourself, you’ll understand how you learn, and that is more important than memorising a series of facts.

Poet in da Corner plays and breaks with the traditions and conventions of theatre. How do you think it does that and where does it do that?

J: I’m very passionate about grime and the genre of music that I make, so to be able to do that in theatre, in  a space like this where it doesn’t live, is one of the biggest traditions that you can break. Sometimes when we do the play, I feel like a lot of people come to the theatre and they feel like they can’t stand up, they can’t make noise. But, in this play, I very much love it when people laugh out loud and have some kind of connection to it. Even at the end, when I tell everybody to stand up, a lot of people are still kind of confused as to whether they actually can. I feel like Poet in da Corner has broken theatre traditions and also in terms of getting people that look like myself into a theatre. Me and my mates would never link up on a Friday and say “Yo, let’s go to the theatre, but why not?” The theatre is for everybody and I feel like Poet in da Corner is actively encouraging new people to come here and create an experience.

D: I didn’t grow up going to the theatre. So, really my first introduction to theatre was through Mouthy Poets, the company that I started. We were based in a theatre, so that was sort of how I got introduced to it. If you’ve seen Poet in da Corner, you’ll know my life was pretty weird, right? Even being a dyslexic poet or whatever, it feels like going A to B hasn’t always made sense to me. I’ve had to take the scenic route. So, for me, I’ve always had to have tradition explained to me as it’s never been something I’ve understood. So, I think, when it came to theatre, I didn’t even know what the traditions were to be honest. I really didn’t know.

It’s like what Jammz said, I’d say to my friends “Let’s go to the theatre” and they’d be like, “What’s wrong with you?”  I think people talk a lot about barriers to theatre, and what they don’t talk about is boredom. There’s this thing in England, where it’s like if something is clever, it has to be boring. People don’t always appreciate that this show took five years to write, like, I think we’re on draft 20-something. The amount of skill that’s going into what we’re doing, just because I want to make you laugh at the same time doesn’t mean it’s reducing its quality. So, I’m just always trying to make things fun. I’m just trying to bring people together that wouldn’t usually sit next to each other. I’m trying to bring experiences together and trying to remake tradition, just be human and create connections. I’ve had to relearn about other people perpetually throughout my life and I want to enable that for other people.

J: Just to add to that, that’s the beauty of what this play does for me. A lot of people look at the kind of music I make, that aren’t from where I’m from, and they have this perception but then you come here to the theatre and it’s explained to you, and it’s breaking down barriers at the same time. So many people come here that typically wouldn’t listen to grime music. It’s an education and now you understand it you don’t need to be afraid of it.

Poet in da Corner comes to Curve, Fri 6 – Sat 7 Mar with free aftershow discussions on both shows! Experience a production that breaks theatre traditions and conventions and get your questions answered by Debris, Jammz and the rest of the cast live on-stage. Click here to book your tickets.