Renaissance Man: An interview with Homecut frontman Testament

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“I’m very much embedded in Hip Hop… everything I do has got that Hip Hop undercurrent to it. If I’m doing a Jazz tune it still has a Hip Hop aftertaste,” says Andy Brooks aka Testament, Homecut’s infectiously charismatic frontman.

Despite it being a windy day on London’s Southbank, Testament is enthused as he talks to SoulCulture’s Tola Ositelu about his musical heroes, using rappers as points of reference where others would use more pedestrian examples.  But to limit Homecut’s sound to just Hip Hop doesn’t take into account the group’s varied style and myriad musical inspirations.  Testament cites an impressive array of artists as influences from Hip Hop staples Nas, J Dilla, Madlib and Mos Def to Jazz and soul legends Bob James, Grosvenor Washington Jnr, Gil Scott Heron, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Erykah Badu and more obscure acts such as Moondog. He’s partial to a bit of Bossa Nova too. With such a dazzling list of musical icons, Homecut must be a collective of some very informed individuals…

“I am Homecut,” says Brooks, 30.  This is no arrogant assertion; Homecut is just Testament and a selection of tight musicians. Starting out as Homecut Directive, a debut single “Come Revolution” was released in 2003 to critical acclaim.  So how did the line up become so streamlined?  “Come Revolution” did us a lot of favours… [it] opened a lot of doors, in terms of getting good reviews, shows and stuff. We [Homecut Directive] decided to go into hibernation and make the best album we could. During that time the band just dispersed and I was the only one left.  Then it became Homecut: just me…”

Testament is a creative force of nature all on his own.  Singer, rapper, freestyler, musician, composer, poet, human-beatbox, producer and sound engineer he is your archetypal renaissance man.   Nonetheless he gives a typically self-effacing British response to being hailed as such.  “You know that expression Jack of all trades and master of none..?” he laughs.

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The name Homecut has an original twist to it but it’s more than just a snappy title rolling easily off the tongue. Testament explains how it encapsulates the ethos of the project.  “In Hip Hop a cut is a scratch of a record or a sample. But we don’t use samples… we mainly make it ourselves. Everything on the record is very much live. I only use samples on two tracks… and even then that’s like a snare drum and a kick drum.”

Testament clearly relishes the live sound.  His debut album, No Freedom Without Sacrifice, features 40 musicians from all over the country and beyond.  As he puts it, “The whole [UK] scene is represented there.”  The album’s lead single, “I Don’t Even Know”, made the Top 10 Hip Hop/Rap chart iTunes [UK] last summer and features two of Britain’s finest: Soweto Kinch and the mighty Ms Corinne Bailey Rae.

“I’ve known Corinne for years,” he explains.  [Ms Rae also featured on the “Come Revolution” single in 2003.]  “We both studied English Literature at Leeds University.  She lives round the corner from me.  She was round my house for a cup of tea and I was playing the roughs of the album and she heard the groove of “I Don’t Even Know” and she said, ‘I wanna be on that track’. It’s a lot better for her being on it, her vocal just melts the track…”

Testament brings much of his fascinating life experience to the table when crafting his songs. The son of a Ghanaian mother and English father, Testament’s cosmopolitan upbringing has seen him live in cities as diverse as Harare, Zimbabwe (where his father taught for three years) and London before settling down in Leeds. It is no surprise then that this international outlook adds some more flavour to the Homecut sound as heard on songs like “Harmony”.

Is this perhaps why Testament has such an interest in people and their individual stories? Testament keeps his philosophy simple: “If something moves you it moves you, you know? I think everyone has a story. There’s a wicked quote by Tracey Emin; she talks about [how] she’s become an institution. She thinks everyone should be their own institution, and there’s a lot to be said about that. Everyone has a story, we’re all made in the image of God so we all have something of worth…”

Fairly open about his faith, does he ever feel pressure to keep it to himself in a society where beliefs based on absolutes are seen as exclusive?  “I don’t think that’s true. Lupe Fiasco is a well known Muslim, Mos Def is a Muslim…” he muses. “People don’t want to be preached at… if you’re a preacher, great, do your thing – but I’m not a preacher, I’m a rapper…”

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“St Francis of Assisi says, ‘I preach all the time, sometimes I use words’. That, for me, is more powerful. So if I do a song about living in the city, whether I talk about God explicitly in that or not, how I talk about it will make Jesus smile… That’s cool, we’ve just got to be ourselves. Whether people notice the Jesus side of it or not I want people to be uplifted.”

Seeing Homecut live in action it won’t be long before you pick up on Testament’s wry sense of humour. How does he strike the balance between potent lyrics, credible no-compromise artistry and not taking himself too seriously?  “What gets me excited as an artist are people just being themselves,” he says. “If you are a Method Man and being completely loopy or ODB completely being yourself on record; I’m excited by that.”

No Freedom without Sacrifice [a quote by Zimbabwean politician Morgan Tsvangirai] can be quite a heavy moniker at the end of the day… I wanted it to be a snapshot of my four years and they were quite a tough four years. But I also had quite a few giggles.  For me, being a lyricist, it’s a lot more powerful to say something and leave people room to breathe, smile and reflect – instead of a karate kick to the eyeballs. That’s not fun. I’d rather have a dialogue…”

No Freedom Without Sacrifice is out now. Click to buy a digital copy.

Homecut online: MySpace / Twitter / Facebook

Photography by Naomi Ncube.

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