“How Can We Turn These Hard Times Into Something Positive?:” An Interview With Henry Wu

Joel Biswas speaks to the multitalented London artist about growing up in Peckham, taking a hiatus from music, and his new project Wu Hen.
By    August 20, 2020

Please support Passion of the Weiss by subscribing to our Patreon.

In conversation, Henry Wu is exuberant and impatient. Ideas and stories flow in a tart South London patois and he drops interjections like firecrackers. When we speak, he’s on a park-bench in Peckham, less than a mile from where he grew up in the early 2000s, poor in material things but soaked in diaspora culture. That sense of place is at the heart of a sound he’s propelled far beyond the confines of its physical borders, putting the ‘bruk’ in broken beat with his Wu-15 dance records and sparking a renaissance of bass inflected jazz with his celebrated 2016 album Black Focus made with drummer Yussef Dayes. Drummer, producer, keyboardist, DJ, label-owner and bandleader, Wu is an adept befitting of his vibrant and tangled roots – someone who grinds like a hustler, parleys like a rapper and steals like an artist.

It’s fitting that the genesis of his latest album Wu Hen can be traced to a gig at the Moroccan Lounge in L.A. in 2019. Comparisons have often been drawn between L.A’s jazz explosion of recent years and its sister scene in London of which Henry is a prime mover. This album is also something of a personal triumph. After the splintering of Yussuf Kamaal, his follow-up album The Return belied its title with a raw and introspective vibe just as artists like Nubya Garcia, Joe Armon-Jones and Theon Cross began to fill the space he’d helped open.

Born of live performance and created with a nucleus of American musicians from his touring band, Wu Hen is all about expansion. It features brilliant turns from the likes of Miguel Atwood Ferguson, Lauren Faith and unbelievably, Mach-Hommy. It’s a producer’s album bringing his many influences and identities side by side with a stellar cast of players bouncing off his ideas. Rap, grime, house, garage and a million other polyglot sounds make up his palette but it’s the restless energy and infectious swagger of his home in that powers this record –a physical place, a lineage, and a state of being. — Joel Biswas

When I first started checking for your music, I couldn’t figure out who you were or if you were more than one person. Henry Wu is just one of a number of aliases – there’s Wu-15, Kamaal Williams and now Wu Hen.

Henry Wu: So I’m half Chinese and my family from China. They are “Wu.” And there are different surnames with Wu but if you look at the symbol for my family it’s like the original wu (laughs) like a dynasty, no joke. Like my grandfather had 24 kids, it’s mad. So I’m from the Wu dynasty would you believe it, in Peckham. I was always known as Wu at school from when the kids saw that my mother was Chinese. So they called me Wu. That’s the name, my official name. Kamaal Williams is connected to a later on part of my life and people call me Kamaal because of my faith.

So how did your new project Wu Hen and your collaborators on this record come together?

Henry Wu: So in 2019 I went to America to do this tour and I wanted to use all US musicians. So I called Mark De-Clive Lowe and said “Yo, I need a bassist and a drummer that can ride out for me.” And he was like “Don’t worry, I got just the guys,” Marlon Speers and Greg Paul – like the two most American names you can think of! (laughs). So I go to LA and imagine, I’ve never met these guys bruv, and I met them on-stage like an hour before a sold-out show. Everyone was there. And we just became brothers. By the time we got to the end of the tour in Atlanta, I met Quinn Mason and I heard him play and I was like “you sound like Bennie Maupin” and he’s like “That’s my guy”. So the next day, I’m like “can we get Quinn Mason for this Adult Swim appearance I’m making?” And the rest is history. He didn’t have a passport. He’d never left the US. And so we get him his passport and took him to Europe the next month. And the first gig is the Montreaux Jazz Festival. Bang! His first gig outside the US and he tore the shit out of it. So that’s the band, Greg Paul and Quinn Mason. That was it. We brought in Rick James a bit later on. And at the end of three months touring, we were telepathic so we jumped in the studio and boom, recorded the album in one week and then six months of post-production. We put all our pain into that one. We recorded it in Peckham.

You brought them to the hood?

Henry Wu: Hell yeah! We were like cruising around. And they are like, “Kamaal is for real. Like for real for real!” Because you know, people wonder. There’s a lot of fake shit out there, let’s put it like that. And some people aren’t sure, like “This guy, he’s got Arabic on his album cover…” I’m like, “Come through and see me and see my environment,” not on some beef shit. Everything that I present is real. There’s no façade. I mean everything I say. I am who I am. I’m out here music or not. Forget the music, I’m out here. When they came and saw that, they’re like, “this music comes from a real place, with pain and joy.” My thing is about turning pain into joy. How can we turn these hard times into something positive? And music is one of those things. If we didn’t have music? Fuck. I don’t even know what I’d be doing.

How did you hook up with Miguel Atwood Ferguson?

Henry Wu: Miguel was just fan and I’m a huge fan. It was a quick one. We share a publicist. He called me up and said “Kamaal, There’s no doubt in my mind,” and I was like “Say no more” and I sent him the tracks and he added strings. I didn’t change a thing. I was in my studio and put it on with the strings I thought “Oh my god, we just made history. Everything is going to be ok.”

How did Mach-Hommy come to be involved in this record and did his verse make it onto the final record?

Henry Wu: I had to let him know you’re dealing with the real London people. I’m like Mach. You get him on the first pressing of the vinyl, that’s how deep it is. We’re keeping it like cult classic. You know how deep it goes? Check it, Lauren Faith (who appears on the album), that’s Roy Ayers daughter man!! He’s got a family in London, innit. Obviously, his family in America don’t know and she’s reaching out to him on this track, singing “I don’t need to hide from no one,” do you understand? She’s singing to her dad and that. It’s mad! She told me this after we’d been working together in the studio for like two years. That’s how you know my ears are working. That’s how you know my ears are tip-top. My hearing is on another level – I’ve got autism, Asperger’s but I could hear music in my head from like a child. It’s like certain senses are overloaded. So I was thinking to myself this girl is definitely special but I hadn’t worked out why. Now I know it’s in the DNA.

Peckham feels like the both spiritual and physical home of a lot of dope music. Who should we be checking for?

Henry Wu: People like WBeeza who is an incredible producer, people like Hard House Banton. Growing up, I was more into rappers than local artists. Most of my people in Peckham are not connected to music and art. They’re just here, doing their thing. But I grew up with all kinds of people. A lot of the music stuff comes out of gentrification. You’ve got all these art colleges, Camberwell and Goldsmiths and you have this big mix of artists from all over the world and then the rawness of Peckham which is the hood – it’s just like any other hood, it’s normal life. But it’s real. It’s a mixture of Jamaican, North Africa, West Africa, Asian – the combination of that, the concrete jungle, the hustle and bustle. What makes it different is that it is fierce and it is fast, like all of inner London. To have come from here, grown up here you have to have gone through some shit. There’s no hiding it. If you wanted to leave your house and play in the park or go to a pub or go to watch a game of football or get on the bus, you had to go through some shit just to go anywhere. So anyone who has come through that, when it was a jungle, you come out of it a tougher person, a wise man you know? What makes it special to me is coming out of that era. I learned the game of life here.

What was your path into music?

Henry Wu: This is SE 15 right here and it’s where I was born, where I went to school. I grew up with my people here, my entrance into life. For me it’s all one thing. You know I don’t see the industry as different from life but for me school was a big thing – my local primary school was very musical, very forward-thinking for the time. Everyone went to my school, all kinds of people. We had an African percussion ensemble that played every Friday and the lady who ran that brought the group to school and said any one who wanted to join just needed to come down to the music department. And I went down after assembly and it blew my mind and I joined. I’m nine and I started playing the djembe, the djembe was my first instrument (laughs), it’s mad isn’t it. I ended up leaving the group and moved straight to the drum kit so that’s kind of like how I started – playing along with beats and stuff. And now I hit thirteen, fourteen and I’m rapping, I’m into UK Hip Hop, I’m fucking listening to Skinnyman, fucking Kalashnikov, Dizzy Rascal’s come out, Wiley – you know what I’m saying? So all of this stuff I’m around, I’m rapping, I’m doing my thing– this is my musical background. At the same time, my Dad’s obviously playing Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, Marvin Gaye What’s Going On? all this shit just mixing up. So to the point where I’m 17 and I was in a band, one of my best mates is the drummer Emmanuel Franklyn Adelabu from Brixton and he’s the first one from my generation to get into jazz and gospel in terms having that knowledge, he was the one. I wanted to be in his band but he was the drummer so I needed to play something that no one else played so it was keys because no one else wanted to – like keys were a bit of a nerdy instrument, right? You think of a pianist, you’re thinking of some straight-ahead guy those days any way. Back then wasn’t like guitar and drums the cool ones? I picked up keys and it was the same as drumming to me. I picked it up really quickly and I was like, right this is what I’m playing now. I felt like I had a little bit more of a knack to it, I had a bit more of an edge because I was coming at it from a drummer’s perspective so the way I was playing, I was only playing with drummers.

I managed to get out of mad situations – I was kind of half out here doing crazy shit but music helped me focus away from that until I got a break. I got a call one morning and it was the assistant for Genius from Rinse FM and basically, he asked me to come and play for Katy B. I grew up with Katy and we had a couple of bands together called the Illasapiens and the Stepsons and they like hip hop, two-step vibes with Katy singing and doing bits and bobs and we were doing stuff on like BBC Maida Vale and so we’re doing our little thing there, like 2010. And then what happened was everyone in the band quit music and converted to Islam and Genius is like “What’s going on – are we doing this tour or not?” and I’m like “Look, let’s go.” We’ve gone on tour for like two years supporting Tiny Tempah, Magnetic Man, we were with Diplo and Mark Ronson… We were doing Parklife, we was with everyone. I got that little insight into the industry as a session player and I learnt the game. I saw what it takes to make a pop star, I was in the environment, I saw the real shit to the point where it disturbed me so much that I quit music and I went on my spiritual path and I became a Muslim.

So you gave up music for a while?

Henry Wu: I’ve come off the tour now and it’s like, I’m in the room with Mark Ronson and Benga and Diplo and it’s a lot. I’m seeing the Hollywood lifestyle, the drugs, everything. I’m like, “This is cool but now what? We made a hit record and we’re in a hotel, champagne cars and it’s like now what?” My thing was I need to start again. So it wasn’t that I quit music because of Islam – I just needed to go deeper. I sold all my keyboards. I had already made the first Henry Wu EP at this time but I wanted to go and study Arabic and learn about Islam, travel and kind of find myself after two years of madness. And I did. I spent three years studying, I learned to read and write Arabic, spent time in Morocco and met a lot of amazing people who are family now so it was a great time for me. So when I came back into the game in 2014 and 2015 I was so sure of myself, I had redefined myself and it was like I was untouchable. From that moment on, nothing could stop me because I knew my purpose. No fear – I know the game, I know labels, I know how to deal with this shit, with these people. I’m going in ruthless. So I was like bang! Dropped the EP, like Peckham, bang! Before you know it, Sounds of the Universe sells out the 12 inch white label on 22a and I’m invited to come DJ and I don’t even know how to DJ. But I’m like, “Let me call up my elder who can show me how to use the CDJ’s”. I came back like, “Right, get them things running, put Post-It notes on them, hook it up, beat-match this shit right now in five minutes,” you know what I’m saying? That’s the shit. Cool, learnt that. So from that moment on I fell in love with Djing, just freestyling doing my own thing, playing live cuts and live edits, building up my little style. The Henry Wu thing took off. I sold 5,000 records. And I’m like “Cool, let me know bring it back to live music now” and that’s when the Yussef thing comes off.

The album you did with drummer Yussef Dayes as Yussef Kamaal, Black Focus is considered a seminal record for a lot of people. How did you two first connect?

Henry Wu: Since I was 17, the foundation of a band for me is keys and drums so I was doing that. I hooked up with Yussef in 2008 at my first event in Peckham. It was jazz event called Soul Food. Yussef was playing in this band and we asked them to play. He was fourteen then, a prodigy. He joined as the drummer for the Henry Wu trio and we start gigging and Giles Peterson caught wind of it and was like “I want you to do the Worldwide Awards.” And I’m like, “This is our break so we’re gonna call this thing Yussef Kamaal and call it “Henry Wu presents…” and we’re introduce this band to the world at the Worldwide Awards and lo and behold we ended up signing a deal with him and the whole thing took off faster than you can fucking imagine. I was just glad to showcase Yussef to the world. That’s my thing, once I have my platform it’s all about bringing people through and I saw Yussef at 14 years old tearing it up. His dad said to me “One of you needs to get a hit soon,” because we ain’t making no money right now was like “Don’t worry, Mr Dayes, I got you. Watch.” And we had a hit. Bang, you got me? And all praises to the Most High, we’re living off that shit now, you know what I mean? It’s mad!

Is a follow-up a possibility? You teased a follow-up on Twitter a while back. He’s getting a lot of attention with that Tom Misch project, Some Kinda Music.

Henry Wu: [laughs] I’m gonna keep it one hundred and fifty thousand percent for Passion of the Weiss, you get me? That Tom Misch shit is wack, it’s corny. Obviously Yussef is still my boy, he’s still incredible, he’s still the best. But let me tell you something — that Tom Misch is wack, it’s corny. It’s dead. Yussef needs to come back to the real source, whoever he works with. But that Tom Misch ain’t really running. It’s good for the numbers and thirteen-year old girls and that but obviously the man needs to come forward and do this real thing again because it ain’t Black Focus, it ain’t that. Big up to them, they did a thing, a different type of thing but we know what the real thing is and the man needs to come back to the roots.

You guys split quite dramatically during the supporting dates for Yussef Kamaal.

Henry Wu: Yeah, that’s a real controversy, some political shit there going on behind the scenes and it was a rough time. We had to split the shows up and I’m just glad we came through. I’m he’s doing his thing, making money. I made [follow-up album] “The Return” as an attempt to bounce back from a real situation. I mean, I made that album in my mom’s front room with like a few dusty mics and a soundcard. I just mixed it and released it. But it was good, it was good, it was good.

The vintage sounding production was heavy on that. Do you think of yourself as a producer?

Henry Wu: Yeah, I was just going a little deeper with it, maybe a little lo-fi but still that same vein. I don’t consider myself a keys player or a musician, I’m an artist and everything I do try to keep it in the vein of an artist. I definitely call myself a pianist.

Reconciling your faith with music or at least the industry is clearly part of your journey. What is your purpose, musically or otherwise?

Henry Wu: When people ask me about faith, I say that it’s not about the religion or me being a Muslim although it is important to know why. But forget the prayers, forget the beards, forget the whole practicing concept. The main principle is monotheism – believing in God or the Creator, believing in the Most High. That’s the fundamental principle. Everything else around it is culture. For me, Islam means that there is an intelligent creator behind the universe – simple, boom. I don’t believe this happened by chance, that this is a coincidence. It all stems from this idea that “Is there something behind this universe? Was the cause for this universe? And if so, what was the cause?” And your journey starts. Some people find it through Buddhism or Christianity but for me I happened to find it through Islam. All the paths to understanding our existence are all valid and just as good as each other. I don’t think that because I am Muslim that there is some kind of exclusivity.

Musically, this is all about acknowledging a cause behind our existence. It’s all to do with understanding that this is a gift I’ve been given for whatever reason, to turn a struggle into something positive and make tribulation into something easier. Why do I have the right to make music? To tell people to listen to my album? I don’t really but you know, the Most High does. I am nobody. I am a piece of shit. But man’s got the gift from God and if I don’t believe in it then I’m not grateful for it. Ultimately, my message is that we’re here for a short time. Look around. Where do we come from? Where are we going? And these are all things that come through our music.

A lot of people would say that the Yussef Kamaal record on Gilles’ Brownswood label was the start of this so-called UK Jazz renaissance. Do you feel like you helped spark what we’re seeing now?

Henry Wu: Let’s separate those things. Brownswood is a different thing. It’s not really my team, my movements. Moses Boyd and Joe Armon-Jones, I know those guys and I’ve got respect for those guys. Their thing is out of the universities, the conservatories, the textbooks. Not to be disrespectful, but our team coming straight out of the concrete, straight out of the soil. Like real ones. K-15, L Jeffers, Jessie James, W Beeza, you get me? Certified names you might not have heard of. Tenderlonious is real. 22a is real. Our thing opened the door for everyone and what Giles did was say “Fuck, they’ve split up now and we’ve got to sell more UK jazz” so he signed loads of people. Don’t get it twisted, they’re good. I’ve seen their live shows and they’ve got a little fire behind them but when it comes to making records they’ve got a long way to go. I’m behind it but it’s not the same. And for me, Black Focus is head and shoulders above everyone else. It’s the Wu Funk. My sound. Something that came out of London, in between house and broken and funk and jazz. It’s gonna be a worldwide franchise. It’s gonna be like 7-11. Wu Funk on every corner.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!