TrueMendous Interview: Storytelling, busking & walking your own path

Spend some time digesting TrueMendous’ debut album project, The Misdiagnosis of Chyvonne Johnson, and you’ll begin to hear past the machine gun flows and rambunctious attitude that the London-based, Birmingham-bred MC has by the barrel and discover the naturally gifted story teller at its heart.

It’s something TrueMendous hones in on straight away as an early influence, as we discuss the album, her background and inner city busking over zoom on a muggy Thursday morning.

“I have a passion for creating stories… Creating a concept, finding an issue, sometimes finding resolve, sometimes not,” she tells me in a calm, collected tone, before explaining that it was the classroom where her natural flair for spinning a yarn became apparent.

“It was actually creative writing and poetry in English class where I really excelled, and then it came to that period in secondary school where everyone was jumping on the emceeing thing… I kinda jumped on the bandwagon to be fair.

It’s a surprising admission from an artist who’s been lauded by the music press for her originality, blazing her own trail with a run of releases on legendary UK Hip Hop imprint High Focus that have set her apart with their dry lyricism, formidable flows and open approach to influences.

While she may have been following the crowd initially, TrueMendous’ approach to building raps has been unique from the get go: “Most people were doing it over grime but I took a different route… I wasn’t really talking what they were talking about. In the early stages I didn’t know how to write without incorporating a story”.

TrueMendous began her career in Birmingham

Beginning her career at open mic nights in Birmingham before moving on to London, I’m interested to hear what TrueMendous has to say about her home town, the so called second city; “I feel like Birmingham was a really good starting point, but after a period of time what I’d been doing was what I was still doing, everywhere I could have performed and everything I could have done I’d done”.

I press her about the scene, wondering out loud if the support the city has for Grime and Drill is echoed with its indigenous Hip Hop; “I don’t feel I was supported much by the scene at all, maybe 10 years prior there was a scene but those people are big men and women now so there’s an age difference.”

She’s frank that with the current state of affairs, it may come down to a numbers game; “if there’s a hundred grime artists and three hip hop ones then that’s gonna influence what kind of opportunities there are”.

With her first performance taking place in 2013, TrueMendous is no stranger to the grind of the independent artist, yet recent years have seen her profile explode – getting signed to High Focus, supporting members of Jurassic 5, playing Glastonbury and getting a track featured on FIFA – these are all the hallmarks of an artist who’s “making it”, but she’s bashful about her place in the world:

“I still feel like I’m heavily, heavily unknown, and the journey is long, especially because I’m not taking the route of sexualising myself and coming out wearing next to nothing”.  

There’s an outsider attitude in TrueMendous’ work ethic, which is perhaps reflected in her ballsy delivery on record and her success that has at least in part been fed by busking. A perfunctory glance over her social media will show her stood with a mic in city centres around the country wowing passers-by with her complex flows and word play, and when she talks it’s with the self-assured presence of someone who has beaten their own path;

“Busking for me has played the biggest part, that’s probably how I’ve gained the most following, within the past two years it’s really been a drastic increase”. It’s a grassroots approach that has served her well, getting her name out there where it eventually made its way round to High Focus boss and legendary UK rapper in his own right, Fliptrix, who signed the HUH? EP, her first release with the label, in 2019.

With Misdiagnosis marking TrueMendous’ first album project proper, the ambitious young artist was keen to present a diverse set of songs that play on her influences, introducing notes of neo-soul to the boom bap bread and butter that appeals to High Focus’ core audience.

“I put more effort into this project, I needed to differentiate it from my earlier material, I wanted to incorporate more genres, flow patterns and subject matters and just see how versatile I could make this album – how good it is is how good I could have got it”.

TrueMendous praises the calibre of the High Focus producers

Working with the High Focus stable of producers, with collaborators on the album including Dirty Dike, Ill Informed and Chemo, Misdiagnosis is a milestone in terms of production, with TrueMendous’ razor sharp vocals backed up with some of the best producers in UK Hip Hop;

 “What I like about High Focus is the producers will match what I’ve done [with vocals] and then that will spark something in my head to change the vocal – it just improves the overall sound”

Much has been made of TrueMendous’ signing with High Focus, with the music press consistently prefixing the artist’s name with the claim that she’s the first female signing to the label. But with album opener Cause a Scene taking direct aim at the music press with the line “avoiding bloggers still forcing all these comparisons with women who came out before me”, it’s clear that TrueMendous puts little importance on her gender.

“Its not me that ever brings anything up, it’s always others that bring it to by attention but I’m fortunate that there’s a lot of people that haven’t spoken about it and just said she’s sick” before adding with a warm laugh “I’ll take it if it gives me the edge”.

But its hard to avoid the questions, especially in regards to a woman coming up in such a male dominated scene; “I think if there were just as many women as men in Hip Hop then the question would get drowned out, but until the point that there are as many woman as men being put out at the same time the question will always be there – it’s a bit irritating coz it’s just gender, but I understand it at the same time”.

Her approach to the subject draws comparisons to Little Simz, and we end the conversation talking about how finding your own way and avoiding the trappings of a certain scene have insulated TrueMendous from some of the difficulties that she could have faced coming up.

“Even though I do music I’m not in the music scene like that, it’s very toxic but coz I’m carving my own lane I’m not going to all these events or following everyone on social media, I don’t find it difficult coz I’m just walking my own path”.

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