Interview :: Len Bowen

Len Bowen stands in the middle of a street stroking his chin as if deep in thought

by Angelo Lamsen

Photos by Khammy P and Len Bowen 

The following is an interview with Len Bowen, a Rap artist hailing from Winnipeg. Known for his lyrical prowess, Len has crafted a diverse catalogue of songs, ranging from soul-searching meditations to electrifying battle-ready verses. Here, we discuss his latest project, NTHN4GRNTD, and dive into what influenced it.

Stylus: Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the project?

Len Bowen: The inspiration behind Nothing for Granted was the challenge of letting people know, first of all, my humble beginnings. Everything I’ve gone through and the support system that I had, being my mother, my friends growing up, my group members from the Shades who still support me even though I’m a solo act at this point, and all of the relationships I’ve built and the ups and downs I’ve gone through to get to this point. That’s really it. It hasn’t been an easy road. Along the way since the pandemic, I’ve got my manager in place now, Wayne Booth, who’s helped accelerate what I’m trying to do dramatically. And the work I did with Fourth Quarter Records early in the pandemic, putting out Flow Nostalgia, one and two EPs, and the years in the making EP following that, which led me to Nothing for Granted. So it’s just been a natural progression and staying consistent with everything I’m doing.

S: How do you go about choosing the tracks for a project like this? How do they all tie in together?

Len Bowen: I wanted to paint a picture. I wanted to make this picture cinematic. I wanted, when you hear the first track to the last track, it painted a picture. So Black Orchid is basically the outset where I’m starting my day, and I’m in a good mood, and I’m kind of reflecting on things I’ve gone through, looking back at days when I was first getting into studios, being young, naive, and hungry, and people seeing that and kind of taking advantage of it for their own personal gain, whether it was making money off me for studio time or a grant or what have you, and just meeting people over the years and growing from experiences to the last track, where I’m basically late to the party talking about the city needing more self-pride and confidence in themselves and cheering for the home team more instead of the visitors. No one’s going to respect Winnipeg unless we respect ourselves. So until we start supporting each other, whether it’s DJs, MCs, rap artists, B-boys, whether the DJs are playing the local artist’s music, or whether everyone’s coming together for one common cause, nobody else is going to respect us. You go to other cities, and it’s like they might as well have their own flag because of how hard they rap it, so we’ve got to get on that page as far as Winnipeg goes. So between the start and the end and everything in between, it’s just really going through different phases, whether it was relationships I’ve had, ups and downs of the game, and just the moral support that I’ve had over the years, not to quit and continue to make music.

S: Listening back to the songs you picked for this project, were there any that stood out to you afterward, maybe something that surprised you? Like this could be a real hit, this could get millions of streams, or was it just like, this is a good body of work, I like it, boom, let’s put it out.

Len Bowen: Oceans and Beaches, for sure, with the right machine behind it, I think that could be a global hit. I think the production, the hook, the way everything came out, just the lyrics, the sequence, everything just came together and fell into place. I think it just makes sense, and the irony is that the track was ready, the project was dropping in the summertime, and it’s totally geared towards summer and getting people on the dance floor to enjoy themselves and have a good time. Also, Big Dreamer 2, which is basically me coming full circle from the original Big Dreamer that came out on my first EP, Long Story Short, over ten years ago, is like my Rocky V story, where I’m sitting there having a conversation with my mother and talking about everything I’m still going through and reflecting on her support through the years and the jewels she’s dropped on me, the advice she’s given me, and also having the perspective from an up-and-coming artist who’s on fire right now from my city as well. So it’s kind of like the OG and the young gun going back and forth. 

S: So yeah. Yeah, I mean, those two songs are really like, as far as a vibe, like two different vibes, but both dope.

Len Bowen: Yeah, two completely different vibes, but still, I mean, Big Dreamer 2 is saying a lot, and I know a lot of people, no matter who you are, can relate to that song in one way or another or at least appreciate the sentiment of the song. And Oceans and Beaches is basically, there’s no song on this project that replicates itself. Whether it’s production or subject matter, every song is a life in itself, and it’s basically giving you eight chapters of my life condensed into a project. So that’s really what I was trying to accomplish, and I think I did that.

S: That goes into your collaborators. How did you go about choosing your collaborators? I know YSN Fab is on the Big Dreamer 2, and you have JRDN on the Million Dollar Baby. Also, Andrew O of The Lytics. So, how did you go about choosing people to collaborate with?

Len Bowen: The majority of the collaborations on the project are relationships I’ve built over the years with artists. I’ve known JRDN for years before he blew up and won the Juno. And we’ve worked together in the past on previous projects I’ve released. So it was basically reaching out to people that I have a rapport with because I wanted it to feel, I wanted it to be organic. There are only a couple of artists on the project that I really haven’t worked with before. Aeson Eastwood and YSN Fab, but I built a rapport pretty quickly with them, and we got it done. Basically, when I’m making music, I see the outcome, and I’m pretty good at curating. So it was a situation where I had tracks where I was telling stories, tracks where I’m just giving you bars. But, the majority of the project is story-based. And I wanted there to be a lot of dynamic in the sense where you weren’t hearing me over and over again. And that’s what I tried to do: create a rollercoaster ride of emotions, vocal tones, and production. And where I saw this artist fitting into a particular track, I honestly just reached out. I told them the concept. I gave them the beat, whether they were on a verse or a hook. And I’m really good at painting the picture. So, nine out of ten times, the outcome is what you hear.

S: Moving into lyricism, after you’ve written the rhymes and everything, do you ever think back, are people going to get this? Do you ever wonder if it will take a while for people to understand what you’re actually saying?

Len Bowen: I already know when I’m writing a song whether people are going to get it right away or they might have to listen to it a few times before they catch everything. So I just make sure when I’m writing, I’m being honest with myself, and I try not to do anything too deliberate. I want it to be organic and natural, and if a track is straightforward, so be it. If a track is more lyrically complex and you have to listen to it a few times, so be it. And the great thing about that is it keeps people coming back and listening to what they didn’t catch the first time. So, I just unintentionally have a healthy balance of both on this project. I’ve been doing this long enough that when I do a track, I kind of know where I’m going with it. So it just so happens to turn out like that. I might do a track where you might think the lyrics are straightforward because of how I’ve delivered it and not catch a clever line or double entendre or metaphor or cliche or analogy the first time. I treat writing for music as if I were writing for a script or a movie where there’s such a thing as lazy writing. Where the outcome is predictive, and I’m doing the same thing when I make music. I can lead you in a direction and think it’s going to end like this, and it doesn’t.

S: With that approach of Martin Scorsese, as in you’re the director and this is the story you want to tell. Do you think that there are any issues with people writing and rapping like that but have not lived that specific life?

Len Bowen: I’m from the era where it’s all about your street cred, and if you say it, you should have done it, lived it, or experienced it in one way or another. Fortunately, Hip Hop and Rap have gotten so big to the point where it’s pop music, and unfortunately, fake is the new real. So people look at this as entertainment. People are okay if you don’t write your own lyrics. People are okay if you don’t live the life that you portray in your music because it’s just entertainment. It is entertainment, but if you want to take it back to the foundation of Hip Hop and what this is really about, as far as the emceeing aspect goes, it’s about being clever, it’s about battling, it’s about saying something dope. It’s about being a voice for oppressed people, but it’s also about being who you say you are. So from that aspect, yes, but it’s a grey area now because the genre is so big where it’s entertainment, and it’s acceptable to just literally be a character.

S: Now, production on this project. Who produced the album, and how was the process of choosing the right producer?

Len Bowen: So the project is exclusively produced by TOUGH DUMPLIN, a.k.a. MC Collision of the legendary group Nefarious. I’ve known TOUGH DUMPLIN for years. We’ve worked together in the past on songs like Slip Away, which was a collaboration with my old group, The Shades, and Mood Ruff, that made the soundtrack for the movie How She Move, which was a dance movie out of Toronto. He’s done tracks where he’s produced for The Shades and been featured on songs with The Shades, as well as myself, Len Bowen, as a solo artist. So we always kept in touch and, again, going back to building relationships. I’ve known him for a long time. I first met him when he came to Winnipeg for an old hip hop festival out here called Peg City Holla that was put on by Mood Ruff. And we just kept in touch over the years, and the opportunity presented itself for us to work together on a full length project. So he did everything on there as far as the production goes.

S: The meaning behind the title. Can you walk us through the choice of that and how it’s spelled?

Len Bowen: There’s no vowels. So it’s broken down, and NTHN4GRNTD is taking nothing for granted on my road to get to this point. Building relationships with artists, friends, strangers, anything that’s happened to me along the way that’s gotten me here, whether it was an opportunity or a disappointment, knowing everything happened for a reason. The four, the number four, instead of spelling the word out, F-O-U-R, it’s kind of a numerology thing. I was born on November 4th. My mother was born on June 14th. My dad was born on June 24th. The apartment that I grew up in 16 years of my life in Central, I lived on the fourth floor, apartment 409. The number four has basically followed me around my entire life. And I wanted to implement that in the project somehow or some way. I was looking for titles, and I had a few, but nothing really felt right. Then all of a sudden, nothing for granted came to me because I knew before this project started, honestly, how good it was going to be. I told TOUGH DUMPLIN before I picked a beat, before I even had a topic that this was going to be great. I put it in the air. And when it was finished, I was like, I don’t want to have a title that is basically blowing my own horn before people hear it. I wanted to remain humble and hope that people give it a chance because, at the end of the day, I’m coming from Winnipeg, Canada, where it’s tough enough to make headway in the city, never mind outside of the city. And I’m trying with this project. I worked harder on this thing than I’ve worked in a long time on anything else. Not that I didn’t work hard, but I really isolated myself to create this body of work. And I think it’s overdue for Winnipeg, whether it’s myself or another artist or group, to be a part of the conversation on a national level. You know what I mean?

S: Absolutely. So, like you said earlier, you’ve been doing this for a really long time, especially considering how short of a lifespan careers are in hip hop or people just rapping it. Let’s just say rappers in Winnipeg, right? They rap for a couple of years. Nothing hits. They quit. They move on with their lives. How have you stayed relevant within the city? How do you keep continuing to rap? Because there’s so much discouragement out there, like after five years, after ten years, after 15 years of rapping.

Len Bowen: Just never giving up on myself, putting out consistent quality in the music that I make, and not lying to myself about where I am as far as making music. Always looking at it objectively. I go to the same people every time I make music, and I share with them, which is my group, the Shades, Bigs, and Bad Manners. Once I get the call sign from them, you know, my cousin out in New York, Rohan, who’s basically my brother, who I’ve been going back and forth from here to Brooklyn for like 17 summers straight practically. My older cousins, Chubby D, and Ryan Facey, are people that I consider family and their opinion of my music. I respect their opinion on another level of what I’m doing, and there’s no one to yes man around me. So if something’s whack or could be better, they’re going to let me know. This is like a discipline to me that I’ve been doing for so long. It’s a muscle that I’ve developed, and I always listen to my previous body of work to ensure whatever I put out next is better. Because if it’s not better, there’s no point in putting it out. So that’s the added pressure that I put on myself every time I make new music that I’m going to share with people in the form of a project. So not a lot of people are willing to do that, and life, let’s be real, for as long as I’ve been doing it, life gets in the way. It could be your health, it could be your relationship with your spouse, it could be your job. A lot of things can happen to people over the years that make them walk away from this. But I’ve been fortunate to be able to balance life with the music. Maybe because I’d be lying to myself if I acted like this was just a hobby because it’s not to me, and it’s not about the money. I do it because it’s a huge part of who I am. It’s an extension of my personality, and that’s why I continue to do it. Whether other people’s motives or agendas were different, whether they were doing it for clout, to be popular, to make some money, whatever the case may be. Those weren’t mine, and maybe that’s the reason I’m still around. Or maybe I just don’t know what to say; maybe my mental stamina is just different from others. But whatever the reason people walk away, it’s their own personal reason, and I’m on my own personal journey with my music.

S: Alright, that’s all the questions. Any shoutouts you want to give or message you want to put out there? Any last things you want to mention?

Len Bowen: Shoutout to my team, my manager Wayne Booth, 4th Quarter Anthony, and The Shades. I wouldn’t be who I am as an artist if it wasn’t for my brothers, Baking Bad Manners. Shoutout to TOUGH DUMPLIN for working with me on this project and helping me grow as an artist and take my music to another level that I didn’t think was possible. And to everybody in the city, just remember this is a brotherhood, and we’ve got to start working together and not against each other and growing as a community. And supporting unconditionally is the first step.

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