I really enjoy discovering artists who keep something of themselves back. In this day and age, it's so easy to expose and bare so much of yourself through the unlimited channels of social media, but recently, more and more musicians are opting to hide their identities. West London-based musician Jelani Blackman hasn't gone to the extreme of hiding his face in every picture or using a doppelgänger in place at his live shows, but his movements seem to be very sophisticated. Everything he does seems to be carefully planned and calculated in a superbly refined way - at least from the outside looking in, which made our pending conversation an interesting one.

Usually, it's pretty easy to get and idea of someone through their social media channels, but with Jelani, it seemed a little more difficult as many of his respective channels were bare-boned and straight-to-the-point; even down to his SoundCloud page which, to date, still only has four tracks - one which is his highly praised collaboration with composer/producer Brian Eno and equally mysterious duo Sylas ('Layer').

Jelani embodies the term "artist", successfully wearing multiple hats at one time, be it a rapper, singer, or producer; he can pretty much do it all. His musical background stems from the early days of grime - a genre that has gained in popularity somewhat over the past few years - but before grime, Jelani was playing the saxophone; an instrument he still incorporates into his shows today.

We're in his hometown of West London at a local pub when we sit down for our chat over a drink. It's a pretty dreary late-winter, early spring day and hasn't long stopped raining. We settle on a small table having unintentionally passed each other briefly. As Jelani sips on a beer, we quickly fall into discussing each other's backgrounds until I remind him that he's the one being interviewed. "My mum has lived on the same three roads all her life," he tells me. "It wasn't always like this!"

Let's start at the beginning. How did you get started in music? Why did you start making music?

Music was always around. I was encouraged to play the saxophone when I was about six years old and it just rolled on from there. I always enjoyed being a part of something related [to music] and writing as well; writing was my first interest. Grime provided an avenue to writing and music at the same time. I didn't play keys or anything like that so I wasn't writing songs but I was writing lyrics. As time went on I progressed into putting that into a more musical context - not that grime isn't musical, but just in a more structured context instead of just bars.

If writing was your first passion, what were you like at school? Did you excel in English?

That was always what I was best at. I've always done academically better at English than I did at music, even at A-Level, I got an A* in English but I got a B in music and I still decided to pursue music. That's the road that I chose!

With that being said, if you weren't doing music, what would you be doing?

Good question! I think I would have to find something that wasn't in London if I'm being honest with you. I love it but I hate it so much. I'm from here and I've been here my whole life but I couldn't be here and not being doing something creative. The only reason I'm here is because everything I have, in terms of music, is based here. If it wasn't for that then I'd base myself somewhere else. I just want to travel and explore; that's really what my whole thing is about.

I can't really imagine being in the UK and not living in London, there's little comforts that I'd miss too much I think...

Yeah, and I'd miss some too but for me, I don't feel like I've seen everything that I need to and hopefully, the aim now is that through music I'm going to get to travel more. That was always something that was on my agenda. If I get to do it through music, then that's how I do it.

I want to talk a bit about the 1-4 EP and your music in general because you're releasing your music in quite an unusual way. What prompted your decision in releasing music through EPs and mixtapes instead of just releasing an album or one body of work?

To be honest, the first EP was never conceptualised as an EP, that wasn't the thought process behind it. It was me working my sound out, really. We started with 'Twenty//Three' and built around that, in fact, the last track 'Sincere' is the first song I did with this guy called FRED (who did the whole thing) and the first song that really felt like a Jelani track so we went from there. That's why it's called 1-4 because the whole basis of it is, it's not definitive as a body of work, it's 1-4; it's the first four tracks that we made, which I appreciate and I think not enough people give themselves space to say "Ok, this is my music, this is what I sound like" and then go from there.

So the next EP is in a similar vein but that's not the next "thing". The next "thing" is going to be the mixtape and that... the whole story behind that is, it's a collection of slowed-down jungle samples, made into a whole bunch of interesting tracks and I'm really excited about it. It was quite a quick process. I made it with a group of people that I know well and it's really communal. I'm excited about it now because tonight I'm playing a couple of tracks from it for the first time, some of them have been finished and it's becoming a thing that's about to come out, it feels more real now versus before when they were just tracks I enjoyed. I'm going to call it Jelanji.

You've pretty much answered my next question, which was going to be why is it "mixtape" and not another EP but I suppose those terms are quite broad...

The first EP... I think it will always have a special place in me because each one of the songs exists - for me at least - in their own space. They're all part of the beginning but they're all part of their own space individually. I don't know if you can but I can hear the links between them but they're very individual. I wouldn't be like "Ok, well I know exactly what this guy is now" by listening to it. I don't know, I think it would be difficult to say that. That's not to say there isn't clarity but I think there's a sound there that's me more than a specific type of music.

You mentioned that your beginnings are in grime - what are you listening to at the moment?

It really, really differs. I'm quite cored with my listening habits, but I'm listening to Tory Lanez actually, his back-catalogue. One thing I enjoy doing - which I also do with TV shows - when I know when something is good, I leave it for a little while and then when I've got a moment I just indulge in the entire show. I'm kind of doing that with Tory Lanez at the moment and I'm enjoying it, it's good. I was at home earlier and I went from listening to Movado to Sam Cooke to Bill Withers to switching on Wiley's Step freestyles. I did that over the course of a couple of hours so as hard as it is for me to define what I sound it, it's harder for me to specifically define what I'm listening to but those are some examples.

That's understandable. People I've spoken to in the past have said that when they're creating their music, they tend to switch off from listening to music so as not to be inspired by or emulate what's already out there. Are you the same?

I refer to other things but... it is difficult. What I have noticed can happen to people is, when you do a lot of sessions - and I'm sessioning all the time - it becomes harder to distinguish between what you've done before and what you haven't done; it becomes really difficult and you have to begin to rely on instinct which is tricky. It sounds really ambiguous way of saying it but there's so many melodies and so many things that you will have heard, even while you're just around, to pick out what's new is fucking difficult, even within things you've done before, it's hard! If you're writing two new songs every day, obviously things are going to come back into the mix because that's where you naturally veer towards. I don't avoid music but I'm very picky with what I listen to. I can't just put on the radio and let someone play me their playlist, I can't do that. I have to really trust them.

You've probably discussed 'Layer' - your collaboration with Sylas and Brian Eno - quite a few times but I'm quite interested to know how the collaboration came together?

It was really nice actually, it was an organic process from me working with FRED. There's a group of us, we all make music together as friends and FRED is incredible; he was composing orchestral pieces when he was like, 13. He came across Brian [Eno] so they already kind of had a relationship. As he got more into production and the levels went up, they worked on Sylas together. I was working with FRED at the time and it just happened! They played me the track and I just said: "Yeah, let's do it!" It wasn't contrived in any way...

... It was literally just a case of being in the right place at the right time?

Yeah! And it worked. It could have easily not worked and could have easily been scrapped [Laughs].

You've been releasing your music through Quality Time Recordings in LA - Count Counsellor is also signed to them, whom I spoke to last year briefly. How did the two of you come to meet and start your working relationship together?

Well, actually it's because I know Count so we were already working together. I had music that I wanted to put out and they wanted to put it out, it was as simple as that! They were already aware of my stuff because of that connection and they're great guys, I really like working with them. It works really well.

Prior to that, had you had conversations with other labels? Perhaps some of the majors?

What I'd found was, preliminary conversations aren't really necessary for me to be there. I went to a couple and I was like, "I'm not doing them anymore." [Laughs]. They don't give me anything and if I'm honest, I went away feeling a bit like something has been taken from me and I've gained nothing from it and that's nothing to do with the people but I don't need to be a part of that. When it's necessary, that's when I'll jump in. When I first started working with Quality Time, the EP was different and it wasn't an EP project, they were just on board to work which is great, I was like, "this is perfect, let's work!" I can do what I want to do. I don't want to be bogged down, like, this is working towards this, this and this; I'm just going to be creating something so half of the EP was created spontaneously after I started working with Quality Time.

How do you feel about comparisons? I've seen names attached to you like Frank Ocean, which one might seem as a bit of a disservice and it's interesting that his name is usually the first to come up when trying to showcase new, black, slightly left of centre artists. How do you feel about these types of comparisons?

I love Frank Ocean so I would never complain but I see what you mean. I think comparisons are an easy way for people to attach a sound to a name that people don't know, essentially. I understand why - it's harder to describe music than to attach a name of someone else's music that you know. People are lazy, they'll be like, "this sounds like this, that's why it sounds good" instead of "this sounds like...." And then describe the music. It's harder, people are lazy. I understand. It's not a bad thing to do, sometimes you need that reference because some people won't even understand if you write what the music is about. It's quite abstract to write what music is and then hear it in your ear, it's hard. So to have a reference point is necessary. If it's a reference opposed to comparison, then I think it's fine but if it's just "he's like the English Frank Ocean" then I would start to have more of a concern.... but only slightly [Laughs].

You mentioned your desire to travel earlier, do you have any plans in the pipeline to do any touring?

I'm going to be up in Leeds for Live at Leeds in April and I'm going to be in Brighton for the Great Escape in May. I'm also going to be performing in London in the same month but I'll be about and I'll make sure everybody knows when I'm playing live. Live is my favourite thing to do, definitely of anything to do with music.

What is a typical Jelani Blackman show like? What's your setup?

It's hard to say because I play saxophone so that is involved in the set at times. It's changed since the last time I played live and it may change again, that's the best I can give you! [Laughs]. It's really fluid; it's whatever makes the music the best result at the time and where the stage of music is at. It's not so rigid that I would ever create music to fit, it's definitely the other way around so if for some reason I started writing loads of shit with harps in it, I'd probably try to find a harpist and get them involved but at the moment I don't. The basis is me but things can come in and out of the set.

Why did you decide to play the saxophone?

I don't know... I think I just thought it was cool, I was an odd child...

It's a great instrument!

Yeah, to have the foresight to play the saxophone when I was nine, now I'm like "Great shout!". I just really liked the sound in a live environment, piano didn't interest me... I think I just thought it was cool and Jazz was around when I was growing up, it wasn't an unfamiliar instrument to me. I knew what it was. It would have been great to learn a chordal instrument as well to be fair. I can play the keys but not to the level where I would say that I'm an expert. That's always in the back or my mind... well it's in the forefront really to get more competent but I'm doing so much - it takes a lot of work and practice every single day. I just don't have the willpower or time to do it.

As a grime fan, what are your thoughts on the grime scene today? It's changed so much from what it used to be.

My thoughts on grime are that someone who's at the head of this new movement in grime needs to make a new Boy In Da Corner. That would clarify, consolidate and really make grime mean something. Any of the artists that you would name at the forefront of grime made an iconic album like Boy In Da Corner - that typified grime now - that would be what grime needs. I think for anyone to go and make a commercial record to try to sell down to the world... like, Boy In Da Corner was fucking lucrative because it was so good; even though it was quite niche it was really, really good. It was at a time when grime was new and didn't even have a massive fan base. Now grime has quite a significant global fan base, if someone make a Boy In Da Corner, that's all that it needs and I think that's what should happen.

I think that Stormzy should do an equivalent of untitled, unmastered, make it with freestyles, release it as an album and see what happens. His freestyles are good - they're doing better than some people's singles! You have people filtering in offering different opinions, the music industry is really a minefield and you feel like you're not doing the best things for you as a person. I reckon Stormzy's untitled, unmastered would be the modern Boy In Da Corner - that would really consolidate why grime is important as a genre.

What's your plans for the rest of the year? What are you looking forward to?

I'm looking to be playing live a lot more and I'm looking forward to putting more music out. Last year was a tough one, I was in the middle stages of everything so there wasn't anything out and that was hard. But that's not the case anymore. I'm excited! I'm looking forward to more music coming out, there's bags of it. I'm just looking to do more this year.

What would you like your musical legacy to be?

I'd like people to think that he made things that I wanted to show other people. That's what I want to be remembered for.


Jelani Blackman's 1-4 EP is available now on iTunes via Quality Time Recordings.