“I’ve always been a bit of a show-off. Even when I was really young. Mum would be pushing around in my buggy and I’d be singing the lyrics to Prodigy “I’m a firestarter”, now 27-years-old and no longer doing Keith Flint impressions, South London-based Oscar Jerome has since then evolved into a fast-rising and much-praised singer, songwriter and guitarist whose uniquely lyrical, liquid playing channels a myriad of genres spanning jazz, soul, blues, hip-hop, Afrobeat and rock.
This year he’s toured both sides of the Atlantic (including one recent run of dates with Kamasi Washington), sold out the likes of Village Underground and EartH in London, released a live album and three singles (including latest cut ‘Lizard Street’ and the 6 Music playlisted ‘Gravitate’) and starred in the campaign for Stella McCartney’s Beatles-inspired ‘All Together Now’ collection. On top of that, he’s now signed to Caroline International after the label caught him at this year’s SXSW.
Oscar first started learning classical guitar around the age of eight, encouraged by his dad who is himself a budding guitarist. Music was always at the forefront of Oscar’s childhood, his early years spent annoying his neighbours with loud rock bands in his garage as well as soaking up the eclectic sounds his family were playing around the house. His appreciation for hip-hop started with his sister showing him 2Pac and Outkast, his dad’s love of jazz got him hooked on George Benson and Wes Montgomery, while it was his obsession with blues guitar that would, in turn, ignite a passion for West African artists such as Ali Farka Touré and Fela Kuti.
This was all back in Norwich, where Oscar was born, a place he says was a key part of his development as a young musician. Upping sticks, he went on to study jazz at Trinity Laban aka Trinity College of Music in London, where he spent 4 years honing his skills as a jazz guitarist. Over the last 9 years in London Oscar has performed and recorded with countless acts, Kokoroko, Lianne La Havas, Joe Armon-Jones, Moses Boyd, Kamasi Washington, Maxwell Owin, Jordan Rakei, Onyx Collective, Nubya Garcia, Yussef Dayes and Dele Sosimi to name a few.
Two particularly formative projects would come out of Oscar’s time at Trinity. In the early days, along with his close friend Joe Armon-Jones, Oscar was part of a band called SumoChief. A four-piece, they specialized in Dilla-style instrumental jazzy hip-hop beats and made a name for themselves at the seminal STEEZ nights in south-east London, frequented by a huge number of acts making moves in London today. You can still get a taste of Oscar’s more beat-driven and dancier side on his recent single ‘Gravitate’, a homage to broken beat pioneers, or his collaborative track with Manchester-based DJ-producer Hidden Spheres (‘Words Can’t Explain’) and the many remixes of his own solo work which have been provided by the likes of Wu-Lu, Glenn Astro, Max Graef, Ben Hauke and Hector Plimmer.
The second was the now critically-acclaimed Afrobeat band Kokoroko which Oscar is a key member of. Kokoroko were named “ones to watch” in the Observer earlier this year and Oscar wrote their breakthrough track ‘Abusey Junction’ that, at the time of writing, has 32 million plays on YouTube alone. A standout from Gilles Peterson’s We Out Here compilation, the track also features on the band’s debut self-titled EP which was put out on Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings.
Talking politics has been a big part of his work as an artist. Perhaps unsurprising when you consider some of his lyrical inspirations include Rage Against The Machine, writer James Baldwin and Joni Mitchell. Not just because of her politics, Joni Mitchell is one of the many folk artists who Oscar is a fan of, and he cites his love of John Martyn et al as a direct link to the more naturally-inclined side to his songwriting: “I love living in London, and I would say it’s completely my home now, but I’ve still always got this side where I have to get outside, into a green space, and keep that connection.”
Often the politics embedded in Oscar’s work are somewhat introspective or surrounding themes of identity and self-expression. He’s particularly interested in how these are manifested through aesthetics. This is something that’s most clearly articulated with Oscar’s single ‘Misty Head / Sunny Street’ that was released at the start of 2019 and saw Oscar collaborating with his brother, a drag artist performing under the name MOTH, in the official video.
Ahead of Oscar’s long-awaited debut album scheduled for release in 2020, Oscar has just released the ‘Live In Amsterdam’ album. Recorded at a sold-out show at the Dutch city’s Bitterzoet venue earlier this year, Oscar says it’s a chance to capture the significantly more fluid and improvisational set-up of his live shows. Renowned for his riotous live performances, when taking to the stage Oscar’s jazz-inflected soul takes on a whole new life on the live album; his musicianship coming to the fore via a blast of virtuosic guitar freak-outs that are aided and abetted by lyrical saxophone, funky basslines, hard-hitting drums and glistening keys. Alongside the release of ‘Live In Amsterdam’ and new cut ‘Lizard Street’, this Autumn Oscar has a lengthy European tour through October and November that will include his biggest headliner to date at London’s Heaven.
There are clearly very exciting times ahead for the multi-faceted and deeply-creative Oscar Jerome. Although it seems unlikely he’ll be doing Prodigy covers again anytime soon, it certainly still feels like the best is yet to come and that we’ll all be hearing a lot more about Oscar in the not-so-distant future. Go see him live and see for yourself.