All Images courtesy of Wot Do You Call It.
For years Marco Grey had been treating his day job like a side-hustle and his side-hustle like his main gig. Now things were finally beginning to level out for him. Bigger budgets were starting to come through for his work as a director, and his photography blog Wot Do You Call It – started with his friend Quann – had in a few years blossomed into the most vivid and introspective archive of grime culture that there was.
He still had his job in retail, but he spent most of his time dreaming up ideas, mulling over concepts and filtering them through into his work. It seemed that lately, most of that had been done through the music videos he had co-directed with Jeremy Cole for Halfbrother (a new group made up of Murkage Dave and Patrick Scally), and for which the applause was increasing by the month. But today, in the last stretches of Spring, he had nothing much else to do than to sit in his front room in Walthamstow East London and play chess.
Hunger caught up with him to talk Wot Do You Call It, fear, curiosity and filmmaking.
Who is Marco Grey?
I don’t know [pauses]. A photographer, a filmmaker, an artist of some kind, I just make stuff that I enjoy.
How would you describe yourself?
As someone with a lot of ideas. The best tag line for myself that I’ve ever found is ‘a yout with ideas.’ I think that summarises everything, I have lots of ideas and I just try and make them.
Where did this journey of creating things start for you?
In school. I’ve always been interested in art, I always liked the freedom of it, the sense that I could do what I want, so I’ve always been a bit rebellious. I‘ve always sort of been inclined to do what I want to do, rather than what someone else thinks.
Do you think it’s important for artists to have that rebellious streak?
I think it’s important for everyone to have it really, I think it’s something that people underestimate, but the reality is if that you’re upset about something you’re probably better off making something with that energy. Art is one of the best ways to communicate to people without really forcing your opinion on them, it’s a sort of passive aggressive way of responding you know what I mean? That’s what I like about it.
You’re one of the only, maybe the only person, documenting grime who is an actual product of it and grew up around it.
I would say yeah that’s about right.
Do you think it’s important for people document the culture that they’ve come from?
I say yes…mainly because I think a lot of people fail to see the beauty in what we have in our own thing and it’s a…I don’t know…I think it’s a problem, not just for black people but for everyone. Sometimes you’re so used to something, you don’t even realise that you have expert knowledge on it or that it’s something that someone else is actively reading about or trying to discover.
I’m trying to show people that down the road is more important than out there. Out there is important but down the road is important to you, that’s your unique thing that you understand. I’m trying to let them know that their perspective is important and valid.
So yeah, I think it’s important that if you live something and you understand it completely, then you should be maybe an authoritative figure on it and look at ways to document that and communicate it to your people because if you don’t, things get lost. And that’s been my biggest thing, not just with grime but with everything, if we don’t actually put it out there to say ‘this is what it is’ then we just leave it for them to decide.
You’ve spent a lot of time documenting the experiences of others. But what has that taught you personally?
Wot Do You Call It destroyed any notion that these black boys in tracksuits are scary, not that I ever really thought that myself, but there was always that perception of it. That was the main thing it destroyed, that these people are dangerous or that this hyper masculine environment is a bad thing because it’s not, it’s really not. We’ve had two events now where we’ve had over 50 MC’s and they could smoke, they could drink in the room, everyone was grabbing the mic, it was very very aggressive but nothing broke out. And that’s the point, we can have our own places and things are not bad.
Even as a black person sometimes you can be fooled by these sort of ideas and take them on, so for me it just taught me not to be scared of young people man. Everything’s alright [laughs]. The idea of grime now is gritty this and that, and a lot of MC’s don’t have the best lifestyles but at the same time all the people I’ve met so far have been good people. Even the South London thing, I don’t believe that at all now. Before I was like ‘ohh South!?’ [laughs]. Because when you grow up in East London, South London was like the wild west, but now I realise that everything is cool.
One thing that really stood about Wot Do You Call It and your photography is that you always capture people in their natural kind of environment?
That was a conscious thing, that was very much conscious. All the time we’ve spent with the MC’s we’ve tried our very best to go to their areas and shoot them in their areas where they’re comfortable. We’ve found that that’s where you get the more interesting stories from them. I’ve got a picture of Novelist where I shot him on a road where he got stabbed when he was younger and he’s showing me his stab wound.
We didn’t go there with that aim, we just so happened to end up there. That was the first time I’ve been Lewisham by myself too, it was to shoot Novelist. As a black boy there’s a lot of areas that perhaps you don’t go to because you think it’s bad. It’s like Walthamstow, if you’ haven’t got reason to be in Walthamstow you haven’t got reason to be here. The people that are here, live here. So, I wanted to almost explore London a bit as well.
Is there a curiosity aspect to it as well then?
Curiosity is probably the main reason for doing everything. Everything I do is out of curiosity.
One of my favourite quotes is from Mos Def: ‘your curiosity has to be greater than you’re fear.’
Definitely. That’s brilliant. Just going to some of these places and putting yourself in positions that on paper may read as being dangerous, but I’ve had not a single bad thing happen to me. Sometimes you think about it like ah I’m going all the way to Peckham and I’m going to be home at this time. On paper, in your head, or what your head feeds you is ‘ah you shouldn’t do that, that’s dangerous.’ But I’ve genuinely not had one issue with no one, I’ve never had a fight, I’ve never had an argument with an MC, I’ve never had a problem with any gang. I haven’t had one problem and I’ve been running up and down London for a long time now I suppose. It was good to get over that for myself as well.
It’s like an imaginary fear.
Fear is a very very dangerous thing man. I think that even for me as an artist it’s something that I’m actively trying to get rid of and destroy in myself, so any preconceived ideas or notions I had, I want to destroy them for myself. So even with the ‘Go Tell The Mandem’ video I directed for Halfbrother where the theme was homosexuality in the black community and stuff like that, for me coming from a Jamaican background and even touching on that subject it was about getting over the fear of, firstly not being homophobic because when I was younger I probably was, so getting over that and understanding that I’m not, I’m not of that breed.
Where did directing come into things?
At first I was doing a lot of hood videos for my friends, then I realised that with hood videos you’re not really trying to articulate anything. I don’t know, I suppose I only really became a director two years ago and that’s just a progression from the photography. Once I realised that my photography was getting maybe as good as I wanted it to be I said ‘ah let me start doing videos.’
Now videos and filmmaking is probably one of the things I’m most focused on because it allows you to say what you want to say. With an image, especially my style where I prefer documentary, it’s hard because you’re only given what you’re given. But with filmmaking you can pick and be incredibly detailed, you can really create a scene. That’s what I enjoy, being able to really make it say what I want it to say. Most of my videos so far though, people haven’t got it yet.
Is that frustrating?
Yes and no. It‘s frustrating that people don’t understand it but it’s also personal so I’m not dying for people to get it.
You seem to always blend realism with other wider ideals.
That’s been my main thing, a mix of documentary and a sense of ‘I can do what I want, so why not do something crazy?’ ‘Go Tell The Mandem’ is about homophobia, ‘Sweet Talk’ is about like the disconnect between young boys, that boyish mentality of mistreating women, you know what I mean? I think there’s quite a deep message to be had from that. I’m almost preaching to people without being over preachy.
Is that a bit of a balancing act?
Yes and no but I think ultimately it depends on your process. I’m really looking at the feelings that people feel. Sadness is an emotion that is felt by everybody, so when you break it down, we probably have felt the same way, it’s just caused by different things. It’s just about understanding that.
Say for example, sexism has never been an issue for me, but I’ve probably felt that same emotion. We all feel the same emotions at the end of the day, sometimes you can’t allow the story to overtake the emotions, the emotion is the thing that can grab everyone.
Did you study filmmaking?
No I didn’t study anything. I’m not a fan of academia, studying and stuff like that, I’m not a big fan of it. I’m a big fan of studying for yourself but I’m not a big fan of studying so someone can say that I’m good at something. I studied Computer Science at University which was a good lesson for me because it’s quite fact based, it’s the same as Maths, it doesn’t’ matter what you think, it either works or it doesn’t work, and that’s one of the best things I think.
That’s why computing is good for me, because no matter what someone thinks about it, it’s about whether or not it works. That’s how I approach filmmaking, It doesn’t matter what you think, it matters what I think, but if it works it works and that’s it. It’s like Maths, you can’t fool maths, either you’ve got the correct answer or you’ve got the wrong answer but it doesn’t really matter how you got there, it’s just about you finding the answer.
In art and filmmaking, how do you know if it works, if you have the right answer?
It feels right, it just feels right. If it feels wrong then you know you’ve done wrong. Every time I put work out, to the point before I send it off I think ‘it’s shit it’s shit,’ then when I look back after, that’s when I realise okay it makes complete sense.