Since graduating in 2010, Leeds College of Music alumnus Tavinder "Cynikal" Sanghera has been turning heads across the British hip-hop scene - as both an artist and a producer. We caught up with him in London to find how he's been making his mark.
A Northerner in heart and soul, I spend my first of my two-day visit in London grumbling about the price of coffee, the pollution, and the cost of a smile on the underground. The feeling seems to quell somewhat when I meet Tavinder Sanghera, aka Cynikal, for a sunny morning green tea on Carnaby Street, at an unintimidating and bustling Speakeasy Espresso.
It may well be the three-year Yorkshire nurturing period at Leeds College of Music that’s instilled him with such cheeriness, or perhaps the fact that, since graduating in 2010, Cynikal has been leaving his own distinct thumbprint on the UK hip-hop scene.
The reasons for this, he says, could be multitudinous: his business-mindedness, his pre-conservatoire years performing the circuit, his adamancy that when he signs a record deal “it’s going to be a deal for life”, or the fact that he’s had to stand his ground relentlessly as one of few Asian rappers in the UK. But, from an outsider view, it looks as though his steadily growing success has come about more from his attitude and approach to understanding himself as a person and that comes, it seems, from the age-old mantra of getting yourself outside of your comfort zone.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say you shouldn’t define yourself, “you shouldn’t ever try to be someone”, but the more I’ve thought about it, I think it’s really important in this day and age. You do need to try, not to be something but to be someone – to find what you’re comfortable with, and to find your identity.”
“So many people feel like they’re comfortable – that they’re just rolling with what’s natural to them. But what if that’s not natural to you? What if that’s what was natural to you, and now you’re just so comfortable with it, you don’t realize it’s not satisfying or real. What’s now natural to you might be very different – but you haven’t found it. So you have to look outside of what feels comfortable and really find what’s individual to you.”
So what exactly is it that Cynikal is offering, that has everyone from the BBC Asian Network to SBTV heralding him as “one of the most anticipated British artists of the year” who “always brings his A-game to the table”?
“The thing about my music is that it’s not defined by how I look. It’s executed with the original spirit of hip-hop culture in mind – and part of that is delivering who you are honestly to your listeners. My fan base is so diverse: I have people over 50 coming specifically to see me, kids of every race and background.
“Let me just make my music, because when you hear me on the radio you don’t know what skin colour I am. Unless I mention it in my lyrics you don’t know where I’m from or anything. So I’m trying to make it one of those things where it doesn’t matter.”
Cynikal is also one of the few performers on the UK hip-hop scene successfully marrying his artistry with production – to offer a full package of skills that helps him gain perspective from the start to finish of what he’s delivering.
“I’ve been a musician since I was 13,” he explains, “and I started rapping around the same time that I started producing. When I dropped the mix tape [Breakfast] last year, it created quite a buzz. Normally my arrangements of other tracks create quite a bit of attention – I never just cover tracks, I rearrange and produce them.
“But this time, my original tracks got quite a lot of attention as well. That gave me the confidence with the new EP that we’ve put out this year, and the recognition of me as both an artist and a producer.”
His skills to do so come from his early start performing on the hip-hop circuit, blended with his conservatoire experience.
“I remember when I first got my acceptance letter from Leeds College of Music I was so excited, you don’t even understand. For a rapper to go study music is kind of weird, but then to be at a conservatoire – because I’d looked at conservatoires as this unachievable place to get into – especially for what I do. There is really only one conservatoire that gives you a course that would teach you Music Production well, and that’s Leeds College of Music. To get in, I was like “wow!””
“The environment, the teaching, facilities and just the fact that it’s an institution dedicated to music, that’s amazing. You can be in a music studio and across from us is a jazz recital and downstairs someone is classically training. You will meet people there that you won’t meet in other walks of life even though they’re all musicians. That was really cool, learning things from different people and different influences.”
His passion and upbeat spirit seem almost surprising against the back drop of the relentless hard work that is going into his efforts to brand himself as a well-rounded artist-producer – not to mention establishing his music in both the hip-hop and mainstream pop scenes.
He, for one, is quick to shrug this off: “when people like Kanye West came out on the scene they were really heavily involved in everything, and people sort of realized that you can be a rapper and producer at the same time – you just can’t sleep as much.”
Though artist-producers are seen to be a dime-a-dozen now a-days, it seems anyone who has heard, seen or met Cynikal, would argue pretty strongly that he’s not of generic stock. It’s been his ability to not only embrace his strengths as he knows them, but to also consistently question what those are, that are setting him apart and above other artist-producers.
“The way I see it,” he says, finishing off his green tea, “there are over 7 billion people on this earth and there are going to be a lot of similarities between a lot of different people, but no-ones the same. Two fingerprints can be very similar but they’re not the same – you have to find out what’s different about your fingerprint and find out how you can make your imprint on the industry. And if you do that, I think you can leave a legacy.”
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