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20 Jul 2012
Kanye, Derive & The Marshes: West In The East
Two days after the BBC Radio One Hackney Weekender, I decided to drift around Hackney marshes.
I used to walk on the marshes long ago, before it became a popular place for writers with failed imaginations. Long ago it was just walkers, latter-day flâneurs, come-down ravers and stray dogs. Nowadays every man and his Dictaphone amble through this controlled wilderness recording their irksome thoughts. Situationism without the situation. Détournement without the detour.
Still, the marshes retain a sense of mystique and intrigue that is hard to destroy, despite the Hackney middle classes’ best efforts. Perhaps my long abstention from meandering its myriad fields and paths allowed me to see it with almost fresh eyes. The feelings the marshes evoked were familiar yet alien at the same time; like meeting up with an ex who you no longer hate for hurting you, but still remember loving deeply.
The eyesores and new developments I had read about were strangely unaffecting. Anish Kapoor’s rollercoaster of Mordor left me cold. The Olympic stadium looked like a postcard in the distance; boring and sent from someone I was no longer in regular contact with.
The marsh was, to my surprise, cleaner than it should have been. I had expected cans of Red Stripe and Evian water bottles to be littered in the border hedges and gathered around the legs of the Great Pylons. Visions of rubbish piling up on the Lea Navigation, blocking the path of the Olympic barge had tickled me the night before and I was slightly sad to see this hadn’t materialised.
I walked in a straight line, diagonally across the football pitches. The sky was clear, save for some very strong aeroplane streaks. In the distance, behind the row of trees that bordered the football pitches I could see a figure hugging a tree trunk. He looked familiar somehow; black, with well-fitting clothes. I hastened my step, thinking it may have been an old school friend I hadn’t seen round these parts for years.
As I got closer I could see he was wearing a thick gold chain around his neck and had timber yard boots on. His eyes were tight shut; he was singing. He was holding a Zoom microphone and tapping the roots of the tree with his feet.
I changed the angle of my approach so I could make out his face properly.
It was Kanye West.
A few more steps and I could make out what he was singing. “Let’s have a toast for the Sinclairs. Let’s have a toast for the Debords. Let’s have a toast for the Will Selfs, every one of his dumb tales. Let’s have a toast for the Stewart Homes, who never give a fuck yo. Baby I got a plan, drift around as much as you can.”
I considered leaving him alone – he looked so happy. Then I realised what was going on. Kanye West was covering his own song in an ode to the exponents of psychogeography. On Hackney marshes. On his own. To a tree.
He didn’t see or hear me approach, so when I tapped him on the shoulder he jumped in shock. He spun around and put his fists up like Baloo in The Jungle Book.
“What! What!” he shouted at my face.
I put my hands above my head and asked him to calm down. I introduced myself, explained why I had approached him.
“Huh, that shit cray. I don’t look like nobody else, Kit.”
“So you into this shit too?” Kanye said after he looked me up and down and saw my notebook.
“What, hugging trees?” I asked.
“No, douchebag – the marshes.”
“Um, yeah. Well, I was, until it became over-populated with other writers.”
Kanye shook his head and offered me his fist to bump. “Word. Me too – I used to love coming here. Now it’s all...I don’t know, been done. You know what I’m saying?”
I bumped his fist and agreed.
Kanye put his arm around my shoulder. “I was coming up in here years ago. I used to see Iain Sinclair walking around mumbling to his self. We used to sit over on that bench by the brook and freestyle some marsh poetics for hours. That man was dope! Complicated rhymes, you know, salient stuff. Words I ain’t even ever heard before.”
Kanye led me towards the bench. He smelt of charcoal and Thierry Mugler’s ‘Angel’. I noticed how yellow his teeth were, for an American. We sat down and Kanye offered me a can of Orangina, shaking first like a true gentleman.
“I used to fantasise about this place back in Chicago,” he continued, “the open space framed by industrial obelisks. The strange incongruence of the nature reserve slap bang in the middle of the ’hood.”
I nodded. It was strange. I asked how he discovered the marshes.
“Oh, Sinclair is huge in the projects! Every brother reads Sinclair. London Orbital is a classic. The man makes living in the concrete jungle something to be proud of. Like, we can discover whatever we want to, right on our doorstep. Stewart Home too. A man can’t get enough of Home. Down and Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton could be set anywhere in America. We got way more hoes and serial killers than y’all do.”
I asked him how the Radio One Hackney Weekender went. I’d seen snatches of it on television but hadn’t been able to sit down properly and spend some time with it.
“Same as any big gig. Jay did OK until I come on and then the crowd went wild. You know that ‘Niggas in Paris’ is a grime tune right? First time I heard grime was right over there.”
Kanye pointed to the distance where Banquet Table sits.
“Some crazy Spanish kids were holding a rave. I was out on a regular dérive, when I heard this music. It was like, ‘You'll get a chip on the fore like BLAM! Drag your face ’cross the curb like BLAM!’ It was so raw. That’s where I got it. And that’s why Radio One set the thing here. They asked me and Jay where we wanted to play. I said the marshes.”
Kanye looked at his watch. The sun bounced off every side of every diamond like a strobe light at Stratford Rex.
“Kit, I gotta go,” he said getting up from the bench. “But I like talking to you. Will you walk with me for a bit?”
I said yes and we followed the path of the brook to Leyton Marsh, where I was shocked to find the indoor basketball courts had taken over this ancient lammas land. Kanye expressed his sympathies, quoting a William Blake poem I’d never heard before.
We passed the paddocks on the right and approached Walthamstow marsh. Kanye took his phone out of his pocket and asked someone to come and pick him up.
“You know most of my songs are about Hackney? You know everything I write comes from psychogeographic methodology?”
I said I didn’t know that, no.
“‘Gold Digger’? That’s about the time I took a girl to Springfield Park with a metal detector. Yeah, most people are surprised. You know ‘Through the Wire’? That’s about a time I cut through the fencing along the tracks of the old Silverlink route so I could paint a train.”
I asked what his tag was.
“It was TOX. But then someone else started copying me so I stopped. And of course, ‘Jesus Walks’ is all about psychogeography. Jesus was the first flâneur – he walked on water aimlessly. He’s an inspiration to my work.”
Before I could argue that perhaps Jesus Christ never actually walked on water, a helicopter appeared above us and lowered itself onto flat grassland by the railway bridge. Kanye shouted something at me, but the sound of the chopper’s blades drowned him out. I smiled and nodded, which he seemed to like so much he gave me a hug. Then he ran over to the helicopter and jumped in. The chopper lifted off and angled away from the Lea Navigation towards Hackney Central. I watched it get smaller and smaller until I couldn’t distinguish between it and the cormorants in the sky.
When I got home, I sat down to watch Jay-Z and Kanye’s set at the Hackney Weekender. Before Kanye came bounding on stage I could just about make him out at the back with some old white guy, chatting intensely. The old white guy signed a copy of a book that Kanye was holding. Kanye got up and ran onstage ready for Jay-Z’s introduction. He realised he was still holding the book, so he placed it carefully to the side of the stage. I paused the iPlayer and zoomed in.
It was a well-thumbed copy of Hackney: That Rose Red Empire, by Iain Sinclair. A security card picked it up and Kanye went on to rock the crowd till the concert was over.