“It’s all about hope for me,” says Willem from the Belgium hip-hop duo blackwave. about the driving component behind their new album, ‘no sleep in LA.’
Producer Willem Ardui and rapper Jean-Valéry Atohoun keep patient with their project blackwave. They tirelessly work towards long-lasting and timeless art forms rather than chasing current trends and quick cheques. With the new record ‘no sleep in LA,’ Willem and Jay banish the silky poetic veil and lean toward more personal topics such as finding purpose, grief, and love.
Still navigating through the industry’s hurdles and finding the right balance between work and staying sane, Willem and Jay build on the comfort of their contrasting characters; they complement each other like yin and yang.
On ‘no sleep in LA’, blackwave.’s soul-infused hip-hop, multi-layered melodic sound fronts around the truth and newfound beauty of collaborating. Willem and Jay are happy to abandon the idea of perfection and would rather face their demons than pretend.
In our conversation with the forward-looking duo blackwave., Willem and Jay share more about their journey and what they wanted to express with the new album ‘no sleep in LA.’
How are you both doing today?
Willem: I’m okay! In a strange place honestly. Our album is dropping in one week and it’s hard to pin down how that makes me feel. Excited, stressed, overwhelmed, confident but at the same time insecure… a bit of everything.
Jean: I’m doing great although it could be somewhat better since I’m still recovering from breaking my wrist and collar bone a couple of weeks ago. That aside I’m hella excited to finally send out my fav project to date we’ve been having for ourselves into the world.
Where did we catch you?
Willem: Sitting in the coffee bar right outside my studio in Antwerp, enjoying a cup of green tea.
Jean: On my way to the hospital to do my bi-weekly check-up. :’)
What is keeping you busy this Summer?
Willem: Trying to navigate between working and relaxing. Playing festivals, doing some promo stuff and getting everything in order for the album release, constantly overthinking everything. Right in the middle of all that I also went to the south of France (around Nîmes) with my family, trying to empty my mind. Was really impressed and intrigued by the timeless remains of the Roman Empire in the area. The summer’s always a strange time to be an artist.
Jean: In between all the blackwave. related activities such as gigs and promo I kept myself busy working on myself, hanging out with friends and doing a shit ton of sports, that was until I broke my wrist and collar bone during a little indoor snowboarding session haha. I don’t mind it too much but it’s been quite an experience moving through life and performing single handedly.
Could you talk us through how you first started making music together?
Willem: We first met at a gig I played with a band I had at the time together with our (now manager) Bert. Jay studied sound engineering and had to live mix our concert. Everything that could’ve went wrong did go wrong; the soundcheck was a mess and at one point the mixing desk broke down. But still it led to us meeting! We’re both kind of introverted people at first, so we just shook hands that night, said hey and that was it. When I later learned that he was a really skilled rapper and writer, I contacted him on Facebook because I was looking for someone to start a hip hop project with.
How did you come up with your stage name blackwave.?
It’s a reference to a wave that is mostly black, outside of the outer point which is white because of the foam. It refers to our contrasting characters and lifestyles, like yin and yang that work together somehow. We liked the metaphor when we started the band.
How do you usually get around waiting a song together?
Willem: When we first started out it was usually me who made a beat that I then sent to Jay. He would write some parts, send it back and then I would finish with some of my vocals. We mixed everything ourselves too. Right now it’s more of an organic thing. We try to always get together in a studio somewhere and start something from scratch. A lot of times with just the two of us, but we also learned the beauty of collaborating. In Los Angeles this really helped us to break through some kind of rut. For ‘no sleep in LA’, we worked with a bunch of different producers, artists and instrumentalists, and then took it back home to finish it up together with our mixer and good friend Tobie.
How would you describe your sound?
Jean: It’s like my or perhaps your favorite smoothie in the morning. (lol) A mixture of genres, with hip-hop/rap at its base and there being no limitations for the extra ingredients added. We love to look back and take inspiration from things from the past but equally from the present and try to do our own thing with it. There’s often a beautiful contrast going on simply because of the differences between me and Willem, as people, as artists that always end up complementing each other and create an intriguing, cool dynamic. Which I think in itself, on top of the smoothie mixture, is one of the biggest factors that creates the blackwave. “Sound”.
Willem: Melodic, multi-layered, soul-infused hip hop with thoughtful, introspective lyrics and an uplifting feel.
In what state of mind were you, when you wrote ‘good day’? What made you want to capture this feeling?
Willem: I was not in a good place then. We just released our debut album and I had a hard time processing everything that surrounded that. We kind of lost direction and didn’t know where to take our music and career. It really weighed heavy on me and I felt like I lost my purpose and the will to keep going. There was a time where I couldn’t come out of bed and was just scrolling through the internet for weeks on end. I had a hard time going outside or seeing people. It was really bad. But through different things I luckily found my way out. Writing music was definitely a part in that. This song was the first one I wrote after that period and I still hadn’t recovered completely. It’s never one thing that pulls you out from so deep, but being able to channel it in a track helped me for sure. It was important for me to be honest about it, so people see we’re not perfect and they’re not alone.
Jean: I found myself balancing between experiencing extreme ups and downs when we got to LA and let that inspire me for the chorus I wrote then. I wrote my verse quite a lot later, approximately 2 years later. From the minute Willem had his verse layed down, I fucked with it heavy and thought it was one of his strongest thus far. I just had to match that energy and which I felt at the time I couldn’t. My father passed away at the end of August 2021, which saddened me very deeply and had me distance myself from any social interactions because I didn’t know how to act with what had just happened. Once that emotion and grief had somewhat settled I felt the urge for me to translate all of that into lyrics, to somewhat cope with it, release it and let it exist within something I’m passionate about. Which turned out to be a musical embodiment, forming the second verse of ‘good day’.
What did you take away from writing ‘cracked screen’?
Willem: The initial idea for this track came about when one day I realised how much I was ‘living’ through my phone by dropping it and by the screen cracking. All of a sudden I started to notice the screen itself, instead of being completely immersed inside this world of internet and social media. It sparked the first idea of the chorus: ‘Live my life behind a cracked screen, nothing’s what it seems’. From there it evolved into a track about all these different aspects of idolisation both from the perspective of idolising as well as being idolised. It’s about the fronts we tend to put up on the internet, and the moment those fronts start to shatter in front of you.
Musically I feel like it’s a journey. We played with a lot of different variations of the beat, as well as different flows and melodies in the vocals. We wanted it to feel wild and unexpecting. The track constantly hits you with a new angle, in the instrumentation as well as in the vocals.
Being able to work with Lute on this track was honestly such an honor. We’ve been following him for quite a while now, and he’s always been an inspiration to us. I remember vividly his track ‘Still Slummin’ being one of Jay and mine’s mutual favorite songs during the era we were writing our debut album. You could say that track influenced and shaped our first musical steps as a duo. For his verse on Cracked Screen, he perfectly got the message that we were trying to convey and gave it his own twist and perspective, completing the song and concept.
How would you describe your relationship with social media?
Willem:Unlike many other people in the industry I don’t believe it’s necessary to show people everything on there, post multiple times a day, and constantly sell yourself to be a successful artist. I believe in the power of mystery in story building, and that doesn’t require constant online presence. I also cherish my personal space, and don’t feel comfortable in seeing myself as a content creator.
Jean: Basically non-existent. I love making cute posts when I feel like it, which is like once or twice a year at max recently lol. I don’t really believe in the need for it. I do think it can play an important role in an artist’s career but people often tend to forget that the art in itself is what’s most important and not the couple of posts made about it. Which might not even reach the people due to algorithms. I think it’s very draining at times due to some of those standards but can’t neglect its use in terms of reaching and building your audience. Still looking to find a better and proper balance between my current approach and how it’s expected to be.
How do you feel about making a name for yourselves in the music industry in such oversaturated times?
Willem: I think that if you stay true to yourself and don’t chase trends, if you’re really passionate about what you do, it will show. I also don’t really care about going viral or quick success. I’d rather have some longevity and timelessness than making a quick buck and then fading away. I mostly care about making great art that will stand the test of time, and try to not get caught up in everything outside of that.
Jean: I follow Willem on this one. I think it’s important to stay true to your own identity and let that live within your artistic craft. Your own unique identity in combination with a well honed passion that’s lived for always delivers and automatically adds longevity to the name without feeling like being part of the saturation.
What are some of the themes you will touch upon in your sophomore album ‘no sleep in LA’?
Willem: We touch some of our most personal topics yet. It covers themes like depression, loss, love and desire, trying to find a way in life, learning from the past and living in the now. In the end it’s about hope for me. I’m a hopeful person and I want people to feel empowered and inspired by our music and stories. If that’s the case then it has reached its goal, whatever the numbers say.
Jay: Themes and topics we previously would mask behind a silk veil, hidden in poetry have now been pushed forward and laid out bare in the open. Very true to heart subjects like grief, love, loss, finding purpose, ourselves, worse and better days with an all encompassing message to stay hopeful and never forget there’s always a light at the end of your tunnel.
Could you also elaborate on the album title?
Willem: ‘no sleep in LA’ represents a lot of things. We made most of the songs in a three week period in Los Angeles after we came out of a really dark personal time in our lives. By going from studio to studio, doing at least two sessions a day and barely sleeping because we were feeling so inspired, we slowly found ourselves again. LA represented some kind of dream back then. It represented facing our demons and getting rid of them. It represented the constant battle of trying to make it as artists, but also of trying to be at peace as people. It felt like that feeling couldn’t last but somehow it did out there. When we came back to Belgium, two days later the first lockdown started. More and more we went back into this dark place that we were in before going to LA. What started out as a working title for our demo-playlist grew to be the perfect summary for the story we were trying to tell.
What are you manifesting for blackwave.?
Willem: At this point in time I’m just super grateful and happy we’re able to do this. Make music and make a living doing it. Whatever comes out of this release, it’s already a win for me. We made it up until this point. I definitely want to take it further but I also want to live in the moment and enjoy what we’ve built.
Jean:I just wildly appreciative that we’re in the position we’re in. I look back at this with a lot of my friends how we used to dream about doing shit like this back when we used to make music at home and look at me now actually doing it. It’s nuts! I wanna hold on to it and manifest that we reach that musical world domination we long for. Not in quick fashion, no matter the time and work it may take, I believe we got it.