Following the recent release of the terrific standalone single ‘CITY’ and with his first ever UK headline tour set for later this year, south London artist and Elevation Meditation collective member Louis Culture speaks to Ali Shutler.
Brighton’s The Great Escape champions new, emerging music from across the world but tends to focus on rock, pop and indie. Last month, London-based “alternative rapper” Louis Culture took to the festival for two blistering sets that were easily amongst the weekend’s most exciting. Speaking to whynow after the gigs, Culture reveals he had no fear about taking to the stage. “I appreciate playing on line-ups where you might not expect me to fit, because I tend to gravitate towards spaces that aren’t so focused on genre.”
He’s not actively out to prove he’s more than a rapper, but “there’s just a broad range in what I do,” he explains, wanting to let the music do the talking. “I love rap and RnB, I’ve been a hip-hop head since the day I was born but I like the freedom to tap into other genres.”
“As a student of just music, I’m forever channelling multiple things,” whether that’s in the production, the instrumentation, or the vocals, explains Culture, who namechecks everyone from Frank Ocean to Paul McCartney and says he’s currently inspired by Tyler, The Creator, Daniel Caesar, King Krule and PARTYNEXTDOOR. “It’s very much a blend,” he says, wanting to take those different influences to create something new.
Louis Culture has always been interested in music and can’t pinpoint one lightbulb moment when he knew he wanted to create his own. At ten years old, he started messing around with recording software and creating his own tracks at a nearby youth centre in South London. Things snowballed from there. Lupe Fiasco was the reason he started rapping while seeing the success of young artists like Soldier Boi, So Solid Crew and Bow Wow was “inspiring, because there was such an emphasis on how much you could achieve at a young age.”
After releasing a string of singles, including his breakout 2017 collab with Lava La Rue, ‘Culture For 17’, Culture released his debut EP Smile Soundsystem in 2020. The record was very electronic and “focused on production” in a bid to show just how versatile an artist he was before When Life Presents Obstacle followed in 2022 and saw Culture shine as a raw, relatable storyteller.
“I felt like I owed it to the rapper in me to create a project that documented who I am before I went on another experimental journey,” he explains, describing that record as “the base of the house that I’m building up.”
Across the album’s ten tracks, Culture talks about his depression, his upbringing, his relationship with his mum and the things he saw growing up. “It’s very, very personal but I wanted to bring myself closer to the lister”, he explains, having taken influence from Isaiah Rashad’s Cilvia Demo and King Krule side-project A New Place 2 Drown, which was released under his real name Archy Marshall.
“Both those albums explored depression and darker tones,” says Culture. “I just remember listening to them as a kid and feeling seen. I’d go back to those records in times of need, and I feel like When Life Presents Obstacle could do the same for others,” he offers. Despite the different sonic influences across his back catalogue, there’s a running theme of Culture being an artist who wants to be there for his audience. “I’ve got no interest in being above anyone else. Optimism is the key,” he adds.
Despite the frank, vulnerable lyrics, Culture had no worries about releasing When Life Presents Obstacle. “I’m blessed to have come from this generation that’s grown up with artists like Pharrell Williams and Lupe Fiasco, who have always been very vulnerable and fought against the super masculine idea of rappers that came about with records like 50 Cent’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin’.” There’s still an honesty to that “tough guy shit”, he adds, and sometimes it is needed, “but it’s also important to pay attention to your emotions and pay attention to your pain. Sometimes it can inspire your best work.”
That outlook came about from growing up in South London and seeing the dark side of “hyper masculinity” as well as being a day-one Kanye West fan. “Regardless of what he’s said or done, he had that ethos of believing in himself, even if no one else did. That’s a beautiful lesson to be taught as a young kid,” says Culture. “I was ten years-old when My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came out. It’s hard to put into words what those sonics, those collaborations and that vision will do to a kid, but I always knew if I treated my own work with the right care, I could achieve anything.”
Earlier this year, Culture released standalone single ‘CITY’, which saw him once again team up with producer Yama. It came about at the very end of a session and was released ahead of a support tour with Che Lingo. “It just made sense,” says Culture. “I loved it when we recorded it and since performing it, it’s become a very personal and meaningful record to me.”
Inspired by life in London, Culture explains how “the alternative space I exist in has changed in so many ways,” with the track reinforcing the belief that success isn’t reliant on a time limit. “This shit isn’t always overnight and a lot of the artists that I look up to – whether it be Solange, Dey Hynes or Tyler, The Creator – have just been chiselling away at it. There are moments of buzz, moments of calm, and it’s just about sticking true to your vision.” While certain songs he writes are created with the hope of getting people through hard times or acting as an anchor, ‘CITY’ is a track he just wants people to “feel”.
Culture has been part of the music collective Elevation Meditation since he was in school and is constantly inspired by its members, including rapper Lord Apex, DJ-producer P‑rallel, and musical chameleon Finn Foxell. “No one is stagnant and we’re all trying to push ourselves, artistically,” says Culture. “It’s really healthy to look around and see there’s a normality to that. We’ve always just stuck to our guns, done what we wanted to do and worked how we wanted to work.”
As the group goes from strength to strength, Culture says, “there’s a real power in realising we’ve made it this far off our own ideas. There can be ignorance in it,” he warns, but luckily, the friends keep each other grounded. “It’s powerful to know we had these ideas in our bedrooms and they’re now connecting with people above and beyond any of the ways we could have imagined.”
When Life Presents Obstacle tracks like ‘Bezel’ see Culture tackle topics like financial hardship and government failure, which has earned him a reputation as a conscious rapper – but he’s not so sure. “I just comment on what’s around me,” he shrugs. “I’m just inspired by what I’m feeling.”
“Someone might say it’s my responsibility as a Black artist to comment on the Black Lives Matter movement but how you decide to deal with a situation like that is incredibly personal,” he continues. “There are elements in my music that make me seem conscious or ‘woke’, but I just speak my truth.”
“I don’t ever want to downplay my own Blackness either,” he adds, having seen people dismiss Black punk bands because that music doesn’t align with the stereotypical view of Black music. “It’s definitely more liberating to just do things as you wish to do them, in whatever way, shape, or form that is,” says Culture. “I just do me, and people can say what they say.”
He wants to pass on a similar message of belief to his audience. “Just be yourself and believe in your ideas.”
Later this year, Louis Culture is heading out on his first-ever headline tour. “It means a lot to me to be able to do that and I can’t wait for people to experience it,” he explains. ‘CITY’ may be standalone, but he’s already working on his next project. “It’s just levelling up and it’s an improvement,” he says, not wanting to give too much away.
“I’m just always going to do what I do, whatever people try and label it as,” continues Culture. “People tend to steer away from terms like alternative rap, but that’s accurate to what I do. I rap on most records but also delve into all these different genres.
“At the same time, my upbringing was about realising that Black music is within everything,” he continues. “I love rap to death and it’s responsible for a lot of my life but it goes so much further than that. I feel like the next project will solidify that more.”
“The sky’s the limit,” Culture says of his ambitions. “But I think the music will speak for itself. I feel like that has been my power, letting the music speak for itself and taking me where it wants to go.”