Thought I Was Better Than You

Hip-hop beats and tales of childhood naughtiness: Baxter Dury on his new record
By J.L. Sirisuk | 21 June 2023

Over two decades and across six records, there have been numerous reinventions of Baxter Dury – a lyrical acrobat and shapeshifting protagonist sliding in and out of character and narrative. With his seventh and most recent record, I Thought I Was Better Than You (Heavenly Recordings), Dury hits rewind and takes us into scenes from childhood – sketches of people, places and circumstance – all adding a sonic dimension to his acclaimed autobiography, Chaise Longue. Working with producer Paul White (Danny Brown, Charli XCX) Dury looked to US hip-hop for experimental inspiration – drawing influence from the likes of Frank Ocean and Tyler the Creator. “It’s just a whole new, sophisticated level of music they’re making, and that to me seemed the most inventive music that’s being made right now,” Dury says of this new hip-hop generation.

Sly, persuasive, and rooted in that Baxter humour and attitude we know and love, Dury seduces listeners into a world where fiction and reality are blurred. “Some of those are kind of biographical documents of what really happened, in an abstract narrative way,” Dury shares. On a lucid beat, we are led on an episodic journey across ten tracks as Dury, the son of legendary Ian Dury, explores the duality of growing up a “budget nepo-baby” balanced on the bohemian fringe. But with this record, Dury reminds us that he is not living in the shadows – he is the playful master of his own creative world, sculpting a distinct musical legacy. 

Photography by Tom Beard

J.L. Sirisuk: I love hearing about beginnings, how did the idea for this album come to you?
Baxter Dury: You’re always under pressure in some sort of vague cycle you want to match every two or three years – something is expected to come out. It’s good because my strengths lie in a lyrical narrative thing, and a lot of my subject matter had expired. I’m not really living a crazy life, just because I’m older, and more graceful maybe. I’m not exactly in trouble as much as I would have been when I was younger, so maybe the subject matter fades in a songwriting way. I was just looking for something to write about, really, because I’ve written the book [Chaise Longue] and I’d sort of got back into hip-hop over lockdown – more modern hip-hop, and the way people can appropriate stories in a sort of real-time. Hip-hop, rap, can do that, it can make dense stories simple but still mystical, so it’s not too documentary-like. And I tried to steal a bit of that attitude. Then I dug into the book I’d written to make it into a kind of urban tale. It was like West Side Story, or something, West London Side Story more likely. It was just a way of having some inspiration, it’s a motivational trick because otherwise you’re like, “What the fuck, where do I go here?” The mature man’s emotional landscape is a bit of a predictable car crash, so I tried to avoid that. 

JLS: Does the writing process feel different compared to past records?
BD: You always try and make it a bit different to keep your head intact, because otherwise, if you go around this Groundhog Day process, then the music ritual can feel pretty oppressive. You need to reinvent a little bit. It was born out of lockdown, me and my son here hanging out, and he got into music. He’s a naturally good musician and I sort of asset-stripped everything he wrote – he was a bit unsure whether he wanted to do music or not, so everything he wrote, I sort of nicked and then turned into a song, then I found somebody else that could put beats on stuff. It was quite a simple process. It kind of grew without me knowing it. It didn’t involve many people and that was quite a nice thing. It was good and pain-free. There wasn’t one argument.

The mature man’s emotional landscape is a bit of a predictable car crash, so I tried to avoid that.”

JLS: I really love the way you play with language, who are some writers you enjoy reading?
BD: Writers, as in literary writers? When I’m doing music, I find it quite hard to read because I find them two different sorts of outputs and inputs. But the kind of energy required for music is not in the same place for reading and writing. So I sort of switch into one to another. Sounds a bit pretentious, as though I’m some writerly person, which I’m not – but I kind of got into Murakami [Haruki] weirdly enough. I never thought I’d like that, but I love it. I love him, but I find the idea of liking him quite pretentious.

JLS: A lot of these songs are tied to your childhood. What were you listening to at that time in your life?
BD: I was brought up in a kind of bohemian, free arena, so I could do what I want and there was a lot of music around. We were very culturally enlightened, there were a lot of musicians. Considering that my dad was meant to be a kind of punk musician, they weren’t really into punk music. They were into American jazz and soul music, and Funkadelic. When I was young, I was into hip-hop coming from America. It wasn’t that universal here, so we were quite unique being into it, and the electro albums and all that stuff. That felt quite personal to my little crew. Where I was brought up, there was a lot of John Coltrane and Sly and the Family Stone and things like that. Amazing music.

JLS: And what kind of adventures did you and your friends get up to? I love the stories you share on the record.
BD: Some of those are biographical documents of what really happened, in an abstract narrative way. You know, I did petty this and that, more petty irritation than anything serious. I fall back into a slightly not normal family life. But I was looked after, you know what I mean? I didn’t need to steal anything to survive, put it that way. I was just a bit wild. Nothing that harmed anyone. I might have broken a window and stolen a smelly pen.

JLS: And how did hip-hop influence this record?
BD: I’ve always liked west and east coast hip-hop, but I didn’t listen to it for a while – it went into a kind of middle ground for a bit. My son and his friends, all those kids listen to Tyler [The Creator] and Frank Ocean and Kendrick [Lamar]. It’s a whole new, sophisticated level of music they’re making, and that seemed the most inventive music being made right now. It wasn’t like I was very pioneering listening to it. I just suddenly went, “Oh, has anyone ever heard of Frank Ocean?” Obviously, everyone had been listening to that anyway, but it clicked. It clicked how good it all was and how it has its origins in old hip-hop and explorative songwriting, in really sophisticated explorative songwriting, and it messes with so many different things, gender and everything. I don’t think anything else is that unique, or that satisfying.

We just used everything. All the equipment was quite high street, and it works if you want it to work.”

JLS: You mentioned that a very small group worked on the album. What was the recording process like?
BD: It was good. It was just me and this guy called Paul White, who’s a brilliant hip-hop producer working with American artists like Danny Brown. It was smart because I had these songs and I just wanted him to make the beats breathe naturally behind them. He sussed that out straight away and we worked easily and quickly. He also works in a different part of London where I wouldn’t naturally find myself, and as a result that influenced the type of people that we used.

He’s from Deptford, which is very different from the slightly claustrophobic bit of West London I’m from. It’s very nice where I’m from, but it’s a different vibe and I really benefitted from being in a different [area] with different types of people. People like J Grrey were on it, she’s an amazing singer. Another singer called Eska [Mtungwazi] who worked in his studio, and it was just a lovely, different way of working. A lot of times you work in studios with bands and, not to dismantle that process, but it can be quite exhaustive. It’s very expensive. You know, like getting posh microphones. It was just more egalitarian in that we didn’t bother with any. We just used everything. All the equipment was quite high street, and it works if you want it to work. It was an attitude. We did it quickly in office hours and it was actually really fun.

Photography by Tom Beard

JLS: Is there anything specific you hope people take away from this album?
BD: Well, entertainment is what its sole purpose is. You write something biographical, but you don’t always write it to try and tell a story, it’s meant to be a bit mystical and open to interpretation. I think a good song is always open to interpretation, if it’s too burdened by a sort of strong narrative sometimes it ruins it. I think if you’re forced to understand what it means, it doesn’t always work. So I hope it’s entertainment. It’s about energy as much it’s about story. I like the album a lot, actually. It’s compact and to the point.

I Thought I Was Better Than You is now out via Heavenly Recordings.


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