A Mad World Reasoning - Interview with Gentleman
12/08/2022 by Gardy Stein
After 30 years in the business (he started out as selector and MC with German soundsystems like 7 Star, Pow Pow Movement and Silly Walks in 1992), Tilmann Otto aka Gentleman can look back on hundreds, probably thousands of shows, a catalogue of ten albums as well as countless singles and collaborations. He's been Trodin On his Journey To Jah with Confidence, giving us music of Another Intensity and exciting Diversity. Developing his craft with each New Day Dawn, he was the first Reggae artist to perform at MTV Unplugged and has always made sure to keep the Conversations with other artists lively and relevant. His songs have resonated with us through many a Blaue Stunde at home alone or on festivals with friends, and he has succeeded in opening many doors and ears in Germany, both for the genre Reggae in general and Jamaican artists in particular.
His new album Mad World thus continues a long tradition of high-quality releases, a mission of bringing both musical joy and serious lyrical reflection to the people. Very much at home on the 12 tracks included and true to his roots, Gentleman teamed up with his homies Jugglerz and Hägi for the production, and the result is simply awesome.
Reggaeville reached out to the artist's temporary home Mallorca via Zoom to learn more about the creative process, ask about his take on the much-discussed issue of cultural appropriation as well as his post-lockdown summer and future plans. Read on to find out what Gentleman has to say and why he considers artists to be Sponge Bobs:
Before we start talking about the new album, tell us a bit about your post-lockdown summer. A lot of festivals happened again, how did you experience them?
It was very beautiful to play again, play shows again, because lockdown was hard. The first year in lockdown we kinda appreciated that everything was coming down, the world is on pause, but the second year was difficult. And the third year now, we thought like 'If it's not happening now, we will face some crisis!' In the whole music industry, a lot of people really did suffer from the whole pandemic. I thought that, after the pandemic, it's gonna be the explosion of joy, but then the war start and the inflation and the energy crisis, it's like we're moving from one crisis to the next, you know. But I'm just very thankful, to answer your question, I'm very grateful. We played like 55 shows this year! I could see the faces of the people again and the vibe was outstanding, it's just very nice to be on stage with the musicians, performing new songs… we played some wonderful festivals, so I'm very grateful!
I saw you at Summerjam, you were riding in a rubber boat over the crowd… was there any moment at all where you felt a bit scared? Because it looked kinda scary!
(laughs) Yes! Actually it was a kind of mistake, because… you know, Viva Con Agua is a charity organization that I support, it's about drinking water which is a very very important issue right now. They came to me and said, "There is a boat and it would be nice if you can make a call to the people concerning their cups, to just throw it in the boat, because one cup is one Euro!" But when I saw the boat, I wanted to step in, and then they said, "Don't step in!", but then I was in the boat already, and all of a sudden I was stagediving with the boat and I was carried to the FOH and I thought, 'Shit, I need to come back to the stage!', but then I realized that if I put my weight to the right side, the boat moved to the right side, and left to go to the left, so I could navigate a little bit, you know. It was very beautiful, a very outstanding experience, and Viva Con Agua is a very very wonderful organization! And the boat thing, I think I'm gonna establish it in my stage shows, we'll always have a boat now (laughs). All the musicians are sitting in boats, nobody is on stage no more.
(laughs) That would be interesting! Also, at the Keep It Real Jam… I wasn't there, but I saw some pictures how you sang in the middle of the crowd, with the people… this must have been amazing!
Keep It Real was a very special situation for me, because my good friend Mighty Tolga he passed away the day before, you know… nuff respect to Mighty Tolga, rest in peace my lion!
My condolences… You said in another interview that as an artist, as soon as you are heard, you have a responsibility for what you put out. Can you elaborate on that? What do you think artists who have a certain reach can or should address to move things?
I will never be in a situation to tell people what they need to do, but to me, from the personal aspect, I realized that the moment you reach a lot of people, you have a certain responsibility. Because, the word is very strong, there is a lot of strength in the word, so we can definitely make a difference! So, when I write a song, I feel like, ok, it can make a difference, it can be beyond entertainment, it could be like a different approach, but I allow myself to make mistakes too and share that with the people. Vulnerability is something too, it's not about always having the clue and having an idea how it works, it's all about sharing a certain vibe with the people. For me as a music lover, when I feel alone in my thoughts, in my feelings, and I hear a song and then I hear one line which is completely reflecting my thoughts, then I feel like, 'Yeah I'm not alone!' and this is the power of music. Yes, of course we have responsibility, regardless if we are an artist or not.
Talking about the power of music, during lockdown there were discussions about the value culture has for society, because it took much too long before artists and related professions got any support when they couldn't perform. What do you think culture and especially music brings to society?
It makes difficult situations bearable, that's what culture does, it makes it much easier, it's a vacation from the distress. What I did miss in the pandemic was a sign, a signal from the politicians to say culture is important too, especially in a time like that. And they say culture is something we don't really need, but we do need it, culture is a very very essential thing in society. It is necessary, more than that!
Another issue that is very present right now is the heated discussion about cultural appropriation, taking place online and in the media. How can artists, musicians especially, handle that difficult balance? Where does inspiration end and cultural appropriation begin for example in music, when fusing different styles?
I think it's a very thin line. The debate is justified, I think it's good that we talk about it, and I love the fact that we start changing the children books. There are certain books that my mum used to read to me that I would never read to my daughter, you know. I think it's good that people, even schoolteachers start to talk about that Christopher Columbus was not a nice guy! To me, it's very important that we remember the heritage, where is it coming from. For me it was like, I was 18 when I went to Jamaica the first time, and I fell in love with the music without even knowing about the background, but the second approach was like, 'I wanna know where this music is coming from that I love so much!', so if the interest for the heritage is not there, to me then it's cultural appropriation. But if you show love and appreciation… an exchange it's always something that makes us grow, right, if you don't exchange no more, then we stay in our lanes and it's super boring. It's a very thin line, we need to be very sensitive. So, on one hand this whole debate can lead us to a higher level, but on the other hand, it can cut us down, because if we don't exchange no more, if we don't allow each other to dive in different genres, in different cultures anymore, it's like we cut it, you know.
I think it can become a threat to creativity, too. The discussion that Zukunft Pink caused, for example, because Peter Fox used Amapiano beats and was criticized for it, how does this make you feel as an artist? Do you feel blocked in any way by that?
I personally don't feel blocked, because I got a lot of love from Jamaica, which was very important for me from day one. I started the music in Jamaica, and I feel like you cannot really attack me because the people did know the song Intoxication in Jamaica, the heritage of Reggae music. Intoxication was all over the radio, everybody knew that song and nobody knew who that artist is singing the song, you know. It is also about quality, if you put passion and love in your craft, I think you cannot go wrong.
Passion and love is something that you always put in your works and that's definitely felt in your new album Mad World. First about the cover picture, where was it taken?
It was taken in Mallorca! You know, during the pandemic we played a couple of shows, we did this drive-in cinema shows, and beach chair shows, for me it was better than playing nothing. But after that, as I said, the crisis started with war and inflation and energy crisis, and there is so much going on, and it's like… we're moving from crisis to the next, there is a lot to say right now as an artist, because we need input, you know. If everything was irie, for me it's very hard to say something, so it's always a challenge, always something where you feel motivated. I realized in the city I was kind of stuck, I wasn't so creative, so I felt like I need to go in the hills, I need to go in the nature, I need to reflect to get a peace of mind and to manifest my thoughts and my feelings in music. That's why we decided to rent a house in Mallorca, it's easy to reach from Cologne, and we built a studio in that Finca and then Jugglerz came… There was no pressure of a release date, no pressure of sharing the song with people, it was just the vibe of the music, and it's a very nice new way to record for me personally. Nowadays I go to the studio and I feel like I don't need to show it to anyone, it's just for myself, but then it's nice and then I wanna share it with people. That was kind of effortless, and with Jugglerz, you know we found a gear now, we know exactly what we need to make a song work, you know, and they are wonderful musicians, and it was very joyful. I think it's very important to laugh a lot, to hold a vibe, not to be too serious. I know it from previous album, without calling no name, but I was mind-fucking too much and then it's like a long process, but this album was very light in the making.
You said you started playing around without pressure to release, so at which point did you decide to release it as an album?
Universal Records said that, 'Hey Gentleman, you wanna make an album?' (laughs) I mean, we didn't have no release date and then they called and said that it would be nice to drop an album soon, and we said yes we have songs! And they listened to it and they loved it, you know.
Apart from the production side, the credits say that you had also support in the songwriting, can you say something about the process? Was that equally organic?
For this album I wrote a lot by myself, but Daddy Rings, he is my brother from another mother, Daddy Rings and me we a par from 1999, you know, it's always a blessing with him! Sometimes I write a song and I have some doubts here and there, and I'm not sure about this line or that line, and when Rings a come in it's just… he just come with that confidence and he changes little things, and it's just like the two a we get much stronger and it works. Compared to the German album Blaue Stunde, it was very easy for me, even though it's not my mother language. Actually it should be the other way round, but for the Blaue Stunde album I needed like three years and I had so many demos… Monday I loved a song and Tuesday I dash it away, you know. I think I did like 80 demos for the Blaue Stunde album, and I think 16 songs reached the album in the end. For the new album now it was very effortless because this is a craft I know, that I grew up with.
Which part did Phenomden play, because I read his name in the credits?
He came to Mallorca too, he is a good friend of mine, we just vibe together, and for Jah Only he put a little input in there. Actually a great input!
Talking about great input, you also have two great features on the album, one is Stonebwoy and the other one is Etana. Was this the first time you recorded with them?
What made you choose those two?
I think it's not even about choosing, it's more about what happens and what's not happening. We had the songs together already, and it was like now it's the issue of features, we should have some features on it. That was the time when Summerjam happened, and Stonebwoy was there. I met him a couple of years ago, and we linked up again and on Sunday evening we said, "Yeah let's go to the studio, man!" It was very spontaneous, it was never planned, and I played the song to him and he felt it and so we voiced it, it was very uncomplicated. And then, you know, we wrote that song Island Breeze and it was clear that we need a female feature, and then Jugglerz came up with the idea and said, "Yow, what about Etana?" And then we called her, we played the song, and two hours later she came back with the vocals. Very effortless!
For Can't Lock The Dance with Stonebwoy you also have a video out, was that shot during Summerjam?
Interesting! A lot of videos are published already, and I think most of them are shot in Mallorca, is that so?
Yes, Over The Hills and Things Will Be Greater were shot in Mallorca. Jah Only was actually shot in Mallorca and in LA and Las Vegas, where we did the Mad World video, so we did parts of the Jah Only video there, too.
In the Mad World video, we see some huge letters in the desert spelling "The End Of The World". Where did you find these?
(laughs) It was between LA and Vegas. We were shooting the video together with Aloe Blacc for his album, and then we went to Vegas, and on the way we saw these letters, and we were like, "That's crazy, it's like made for the video!" It was such a blessing, it fits the concept of this song, these huge letters from this artist called Jack Pierson, he put his letters THE END OF THE WORLD in the middle of the desert.
How does it come anyway, I mean, you rarely do covers, how did the Mad World cover find its way on the album?
Actually, I never made a cover yet! I mean, together with Ky-Mani Marley we did Redemption Song for the MTV Unplugged live show, but that was only live. I always thought that covering a song is not my thing, because the song is there already. I don't judge it, but it was never my thing to cover a song, but when Meska from Jugglerz came up with the idea that it's a new kinda vibe right now to use a big song and just take a little piece of it, you know, and make an own song out of it, I kinda liked the idea. It reminds me of the Sing My Song vibe where you interpret your own vibe into a song that exists already. But I was super scared, because Mad World is such a big song and I grew up with it, I'm really in love with that song, I can never stop listen to it. Then it was like, "Ok, let's see what happens!" and I started singing the hook line and Jopez from Jugglerz started playing the keys and all of a sudden, we had goosebumps. And goosebumps never lie, you know, when you have goosebumps it's right! So that was the moment when we realized, "Ok let's do it, let's go further, let's accomplish that!" Then it went pretty fast, we wrote that verse together and made it our own and I think it's a wonderful song because you still recognize it, but it's our own vibe.
Yes, it's great! What Them A Go Do is the one song that reminds me most of your older works. Is that because the Evolution band played on that?
We did some overdubs with them in Berlin, yes, but I feel like the whole album is kinda… I mean, I cannot re-invent the wheel, you know, I feel like this drive to make music and go back to the roots, it's a little bit like a Journey To Jah vibe when it comes to the lyrics and the music too. I mean, it's 2022, so it sounds different, but to me it's like going back to the roots, it's the craft that I know, that I love, that I wanna do. We didn't think about it too much, we just did it and that's what came out. I was very into it.
Talking about goosebumps, the one song that touched me to the point of tears is Far From The Rage. I think that's the only one that has a different producer. What is the story of this song, when did it come to you, how did you develop that one?
Well, the producer is called Hägi, he's also on the Jugglerz team, he is doing a lot of stuff in the Hip Hop world too. He's a good friend of mine and we came together already in Germany for the Blaue Stunde album, he is a wonderful producer and for the German project we wrote a lot of songs together. He came to Mallorca just to visit, and I showed him the studio, and even that song happened very effortless, and it was a very real situation. Like, when you have weed and the lighter and grabba, you have everything, but you don't have a paper, so I had this line in my head already (sings) "5 o'clock ina di morning, couldn't sleep, I find it later, today me nah go rush my faith… lucky me I found a bag of weed I even found a paper…" The line was there already, we were building the riddim around it, it was full of joy. I love that song a lot, it's actually one of my favorite songs on the album.
Mine too, it's beautiful! Talking about the first two, Defining Love and Over The Hills, one can feel that you really thought a lot about the situation of the world, I mean the album is called Mad World. The metaphor you used of crossroads, how can people make sure that they choose the right path when they stand at the crossroads?
You cannot be sure, but the thing is, you have to make a decision at the crossroads! (laughs) It's like when you drive a car and you are there at the crossroads, you have to decide quick, you know. Sometimes it's an intuition, it's a vibe, and to me, when I look around right now, and I always see myself as a Sponge Bob in a way, because artists are Sponge Bobs, you know, they see things, they feel things, and then they manifest it in the music. This pandemic and the whole crisis, I felt like it's a verge of change where we are right now. We can't live how we used to live, something needs to be changed, it's a new chapter, we don't know where it is going to, it's like a no man's land kinda vibe. It's a vibe of, in every crisis there is a chance, and actually that's the whole vibe of the album. It seems super grey and super dark, but there is always light, always sunshine above the clouds, so that was the idea. I felt positive even in this crisis, I felt there is a lot of opportunities, because now we need to change radically in a lot of things, a lot of changes. It would be sad if the world go down and we are not a part of it (laughs), you know what I mean. So, at the crossroads it's… I think we have to take a thousand decisions every day, no matter if it's small or big, but we're full of decisions.
Looking ahead to 2023 which will be your 30th stage jubilee, there are some big things coming up like the Cali Roots Fest. Is it your first time there?
Yes, the plan for next year is, because it's an international album again, so we put the pass button on Germany, Switzerland and Austria because we played a lot here with the German project. With Mad World, we gonna tour outside these countries.
How will you spend Christmas and New Year's Eve?
With my family! We'll take it easy, we'll calm down a little bit. I like Christmas time, even though I'm not a Christian, even though my father is a pastor and I grew up in the church and I respect the church, but the church was never the place where I felt God. I found God more like in human beings and in traveling and in music, but I like the time at the end of the year when everybody calms down a bit and everything is closed and people get together… For me it's a family thing, so we get together and eat some nice food.
Final question, tell us about your farming ambitions! How is it going?
It's pretty nice! I mean, it's a vision that I have, I started with some tomatoes, but then I had too many shows so they kind of rotten (laughs), but when I have time I will continue. I love that vision to be independent to a certain extent, I love the idea to put solar energy on our roofs and have an electric car, and to have your potatoes and tomatoes and herbs and everything, and you just need to go to the supermarket for some few things, I really like that idea. I don't know if it's doable, but I definitely wanna try it. And I have the opportunity in Mallorca. I also didn't leave Cologne, I still live in Cologne, I just move back and forth, but we have a second home now in Mallorca, a lot of space to grow plants and all kind of things.
Great. Did you make a concert already in Mallorca?
No, not yet.
Will there be a release party for the album?
At the Ballermann? A Mad World release party! It actually would fit the Mad World title, the guys with the motto shirt (laughs). No, no release party like that, the whole promotion thing I kinda keep it low. I hope people will appreciate the album and discover it!
Thank you so much for the insights. All the best for you and your family!
Wish you all the best, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!