“I PICK MY OWN LANE, I DON’T MIND IF IT’S A SLOWER PROCESS”
A conversation with TheColorGrey
TheColorGrey is hard to pin down. That might sound like taking the easy way out, but between his wide-ranging musical interests and abilities it’s just not so black and white. Few MCs possess the ability to spit bars as well as belt a tune, it’s an anomaly that is celebrated in hip-hop, with artists like Lauryn Hill and Drake. Will Michiels, aka TheColorGrey, or just “Grey”, is one of the lucky few who can do both. He brings hip-hop sensibility to vocals and melodies with (what seems like) ease. Listening to the polished verses, drippy choruses and jazzy instrumental passages in songs like Options feels like you’re suspended in mid-air and you’ve discovered some new free genre somewhere between hip-hop, R&B and soul.
Grey is a true wunderkind, doing everything from writing, singing and rapping to producing and arranging his songs. He also delivers visually, with a catalogue of crisp videos which keep up with his incredible story-telling abilities. Watching them now, it’s easy to miss that it all started with a broke Michiels navigating a world of naysayers.
I spoke to TheColorGrey about what it took to get here, how he’s still grinding and the future he’s creating.
SARAH OSEI You know how I discovered your music? I was at a Loyle Carner concert in Amsterdam…
THECOLORGREY Oh! I remember that show.
SO …and you opened the show.
TCG That’s such a long time ago! Haha.
SO Yeah, you opened the show and it was such a vibe so I looked you up later and started listening to your music.
TCG Oh, that’s awesome. Thank you, I really appreciate that.
“I didn’t go to a musical school or whatever, I did everything on my own, by myself.”
SO So, tell me, how did you get into music? What were your early musical memories?
TCG How I got into music… I think as a kid I was already influenced by different genres because my brother used to listen to hip-hop and he used to make his own beats and rap. My father would listen to rock and a lot of Bob Marley. Then you had my mother who listened to a lot of Congolese music. So I witnessed all of these musical influences at a very young age, so I was immediately drawn to music. And I think when my brother left the house, he left me his little keyboard and that’s when I started to make my own beats — I think I was ten or nine. And then a few years later I started writing raps, yeah.
SO Oh, so you taught yourself how to produce?
TCG Yeah, definitely. I didn’t go to a musical school or whatever, I just did everything on my own, by myself.
SO I read that you studied journalism and you actually broke off your studies to pursue music.
TCG Yeah, haha, that’s true.
SO What gave you the confidence to do that? It must be a really scary move to make on your own.
TCG Yeah, well it was scary, because I was broke as fuck, haha! But the thing was music was something that I’ve always wanted to do and you know, you only live once so at some point I was just like “Okay, you know what? I’m just gonna go for it, I’m just gonna give it a shot and if it doesn’t work out I’m gonna pick back up this journalism thing again.” But actually things kind of worked out immediately and I never stopped. I’m still doing it, still grinding to make the music work … It was actually in my first year of university that I quit. I was like “Yo, is this really gonna be it for me or am I still gonna try to do something with my talent?” I had like 500 bucks, I think that was it. I was broke and I decided to make a video for this song I had called Sins and my friend who’s a director [Anthony Nti] helped me out. You see, the video we made, you cannot actually make that for 500 bucks, that’s like thousands of Euros. But somehow we just managed to get the video done and when I released it labels started calling me, managers started reaching out and that’s kinda how I rolled into it.
SO That’s crazy. What were the biggest challenges you faced leading up to that point?
TCG I don’t know, it never really felt like a challenge to me personally, it always felt like it was the right thing to do. That’s also the name of the first EP that I put out.
SO Do the right thing?
TCG Yeah, Do the right thing, because it just felt right. It wasn’t like a challenge, it was just me doing me.
SO What’s the hip-hop scene like in Antwerp?
TCG It’s kind of a special city because we speak Dutch in Antwerp and so you mostly have Dutch rappers and then you’ve got a few guys like me who rap in English… It’s kind of weird. I can’t really define the Antwerp hip-hop scene, also because Belgium is such a small country to just talk about the scene in Antwerp, it’s way too small. I can talk about the scene in Belgium which is booming right now actually, especially the French part is going really, really hard. But for guys like me it’s always been difficult to really, really break through, because I’m not making music in French or in Dutch. I pick my own lane, I don’t mind if it’s a slower process.
SO Yeah, I lived in Amsterdam and I know Dutch rap is really booming in the area, but like you said, it’s very rare to find rappers who are doing English rap.
TCG Exactly, it’s the same thing in Holland, they have such a big scene, the Dutch scene, so that it’s weird when people start to rap in English, they’re like “Yo, why you rapping in English? Just do it like the rest of the rappers.” Haha. But I think it’s pretty cool because for some reason — I don’t know why — when I come to Holland it’s like people appreciate me more than they do their own, you know. Maybe because I’m not from there. I think if I was from there and I would rap in English they would look at me different.
SO I think it’s because of your style of music, which is so eclectic, it’s kind of hard to pin down where you’re from. Maybe people are more open to it when they view you as a foreign rapper.
TCG Oh, okay, haha.
SO So do you think it would have been easier if you were a rapper from let’s say London or the States? Do you think you’d have less obstacles?
TCG Maybe I would have less obstacles… Well, speaking of challenges, I feel like this is maybe the challenge: for me to be in a country where they speak French and Dutch and to totally do something different. But I’m not the only on though, you have many English rappers — okay not many — but there’s a few that also rap in English. It’s definitely not the easiest way to go about it, yeah, but I kind of like that challenge.
SO It makes you stand out as well.
SO How would you describe your music?
TCG Um… I think it’s a blend of soul, hiphop, funk, R&B, sometimes with a little jazzy touch. And lyrically I can go from conscious stuff to like just talking bullshit on a record. I don’t know, I don’t think I really can find one word for my sound.
“I just wanna do whatever I feel like without being put into a box.“
SO And where did the moniker ‘TheColorGrey’ come from?
TCG Haha. It’s actually from a book that my grandfather gave me when I was sixteen years old. One of the characters in the book said to another character “You know you shouldn’t be disappointed in people because they’re not perfect. No one is black or white, they’re grey.” And for some reason that line just stuck with me and I just kept thinking about it and gave it my own meaning. I took it further and that’s when I decided to call myself TheColorGrey, because I don’t want to be labelled black or white, or my music is this or that — I just wanna do whatever I feel like without being put into a box. That’s the way I look at it.
SO Do you separate yourself from TheColorGrey? Is that a stage persona or is that just you as a person?
TCG I think there’s a little bit of me in there as well. Yeah, I think so.
SO I saw that you started your own label, ‘Corner Vibe Records’.
TCG Yeah, but that actually, that’s on hold for the moment, no one’s signed to Corner Vibes. I’m actually too busy establishing myself as an artist, that the responsibility of running a label, I can’t really deal with it right now. So for the moment that’s on hold.
SO But what was the motivation behind starting that label?
TCG Well, the motivation back then was just to do something for my city and my friends, the guys that are talented out here. Because hip-hop in Belgium, it’s very young over here. I mean in the States people have been doing it for forty years, but over here it’s been popping for only like the last three to four years… But maybe I underestimated it a little bit, haha, so that’s why it’s on hold. For now.
SO You recently released Nothing at all.
SO I really liked the final line, I think it’s: “You are the God that you praise”.
TCG Oh, haha! I’m surprised that you caught that because I’m actually not really pronouncing that sentence on purpose. Yeah that’s exactly what is say.
SO What’s the meaning behind it?
TCG Personally, I don’t believe in a God or whatever. Even though my mother and my brother are all very religious, I could never make that connection to religion, I just look at the world differently. You know, when this or that happens, or something good happens, a lot of people go “Oh, thank God”, “Praise God” and I just don’t feel that way. To me, whenever something good happens I guess that is just humanity to me. I think you are the God you should be praising.
SO I like that. How did you go about writing the song? Because you actually kind of do everything in the creative process.
TCG Pretty much, yeah. Well actually the process for Nothing at all was totally different than what I’m used to, because it was the very first song that I did with my band. We rehearsed the song — I used to never do that when I made a song. I used to make songs in my room, just make a beat, find some melodies, write a rap, record it and boom, it’s done. But now I had to really rehearse with everybody and make a B part and the outro. It’s a lot of work, but I loved it, I enjoyed every moment of it. Basically I had this demo for three years I think or two years, and it was just chords and a basic drum beat and then I wrote my lyrics and I played it for my musicians and I told them “Okay, I want to turn this into a real song, because I think we could really make something of this,” and then everybody added his own little touch and that’s how Nothing at all came about.
SO When you’re creating music, who’s ear do you trust? Is it all based on intuition or is there someone whose opinion you really respect?
TCG It would probably be my guitarist, Niel. He’s like my right-hand man, I send everything to that guy, everything.
“I’ve always said that I don’t wanna become a superstar, I just wanna make a living and go places and know that my music is being appreciated. If I can do that I’m the happiest person alive.”
SO You mentioned that now you have a bigger team because you’ve been performing and stuff. How did you get these people around you?
TCG I guess it’s just how the universe works, haha. It’s not like I was necessarily looking for them, or looking for Niel, it’s just, you know, the way things grew organically. I mean, I met Niel on Facebook six years ago. We started chatting and sending ideas to each other and one thing lead to another. Next thing I was in the studio making a song and we never stopped, we really clicked on that level. It was actually easy to find my band because Niel knows a lot of musicians and yeah, that’s the way it goes…
SO When you look ahead at your career, what are the things you want to achieve, like what are you looking forward to the most?
TCG Um… I would say, performing in different countries. You know, really exploring the world. I’ve always said that I don’t wanna become a superstar, I don’t have to become this big star, I just wanna make a living and go places and know that my music is being appreciated in more than three countries, haha. So yeah, that’s it for me, if I can do that I’m the happiest person alive.
Interview SARAH OSEI