“There wasn’t ever a blueprint to follow”, Rak-Su on why The X Factor was the only way to go

Ahead of The X Factor Final, we got to know 4-piece Rak-Su to find out exactly why The X Factor was the route for them, their thoughts on winning and if they've got what it takes to be an artist outside of the show.

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Whether you’re a fan or not, The X Factor dominates our TV screens every year with tales of new hopefuls attempting to make their voices and names known. For some, it’s a platform to showcase their talents, and a chance to be seen by some of the most influential people in the entertainment industry and kick-start a career in music. For others, it will be their first and last chance at making ‘it’. But what draws artists to the show, particularly those that already create their own music and have their own style? We invited Watford hopefuls, Rak-Su into the studio to find out.

Notion: How was the shoot today? Did you enjoy it?
Ashley: Today’s been really good, a really different experience, any photoshoot we’d had beforehand have been with our friends in a park somewhere! So it’s the first time we’ve ever come to somewhere like Notion Magazine and done a photoshoot properly like in an official way. Obviously, because of the other names you’ve had in previously it’s just weird to think that we’re gonna be associated with Future, Demi Lovato, Little Mix and Mabel and other people who are established so yes it’s been a good day.

For those logging onto Notion from wherever they are in the world and aren’t familiar with you guys yet, can you tell me a bit about your background? I know you guys have been friends for a really long time.
Myles: Yeah so we’ve been best friends for about 15/16 years now, Jamaal came over from Barbados, he was born in Barbados and Mustafa was the very first person he met at our school. Me and Ashley have been playing football with each other since about the age of 8 or 9 and we had the same friendship groups. I went to the same school as the boys as well, so yeah we’ve been stuck with each other for sixteen years.

When was the first time you said let’s make music together?
Mustafa: Initially, me and Ashley used to make grime music off of our £1 mic in our bedrooms, and it was really bad music, terrible. Jamaal had never been in a recording studio, and Ashley said, ‘Look you’ve got the voice of an angel, we should get you in the studio’ then those two formed initially Tracks X Suits.

Ashley: I’d like to say that with the first song that we did, a load of our friends said that it was really good and that’s why we carried on but two weeks ago that group of friends came to our live show and told us they didn’t actually love the song and that they were lying to us!

(All laugh)

Ashley: Jasper and Pride said they didn’t like ‘Roses’.

Jamaal: They were just confused!

Ashley: Good thing they didn’t tell us that at the time, otherwise this wouldn’t have happened.

Before you auditioned for The X Factor, how much of your time was spent doing music? Was it a full-time thing?
Jamaal: It wasn’t actually.

Ashley: It was a double life.

Jamaal: We were called Tracks VS Suits, like Tracks times suits to kind of epitomise the double life of doing what you have to do versus doing what you want to do. For us, if we could make music in tracksuits and chill all day we would [have] but the reality is we had to go to work and for some of the guys they had to wear suits to work, and it was kind of like living that double life. We tried to embody that as best as we could, by going to work during the day and then quite often we go to Ashley’s house, set up shop, write songs, record, rehearse, go to the studio, come back, have a sleep and then wake up and go back to work again. It was balancing that and then towards The X Factor process we started to get a little bit more serious with it and it was just what we did, it became a routine. When did we all stop living the double life?

Myles: I think we all quit our jobs the day we got told that we were through to the live shows, so at the judges’ houses, the last day of the judges’ houses we all quit our jobs, on Monday.

Did your bosses say they saw it coming?
Myles: Yeah, yeah everyone kept our bosses in the loophole, for me it was very easy because his [Ashley’s] mum is the director of the company I worked for, so for me it was very easy, I told her on the phone there, yeah I’m quitting. She was buzzing, she was planning her £1.2 million house at that point.

Everyone’s gonna ask, cause I know you guys have had success before The X Factor, I’ve seen bits online, like you’ve been on Grime Daily. People will question why you did The X Factor.
Myles: You know, before The X Factor we were putting in so many hours, so much work into our music and everything was funded by ourselves. We did everything off the skin of our back, like Grime Daily. Everything naturally was funded by ourselves, we’d go from work literally straight to the studio, and stay up till two or three o’clock in the morning, making sure everything was perfect so yeah everything’s been pure and natural.

Ashley: And I think it’s also about finding your lane as well and finding yourselves as artists because as Rak-Su, because there’s four of us involved, where we draw our influences from is quite widespread and so the music that we make is a mix of a few different things. There hasn’t really been anyone who does exactly what we do or what we wanted to do which meant there wasn’t ever a blueprint to follow. I think if we made grime music for example, we’d have an idea of what path to go down, and if we made purely pop music it would be the same thing. But with this we didn’t know exactly where to go and we just wanted an opportunity to showcase our music to the most amount of people possible, so when Grime Daily was the best platform for us to do that we jumped at the opportunity to and when The X Factor became the biggest opportunity to do that, naturally again we jumped at it.

Do you benefit from that guidance on where to go with your music from the judges and the show in general?

Ashley: I think it’s less where we’re going with our music it’s been more what we could grow to as artists, that’s been the biggest difference. We’ve got Simon as our mentor, he’s never turned around and said ‘you should be making music like this or you should be doing that’. I think the most impactful things that came out of it have been ‘well it would be great if more of you could sing’ then we kind of had to look at ourselves and think well why not? Why don’t we try and get better at it? So yeah less direction on the musical front and more being challenged to just grow as artists within music.

Jamaal: Yeah I think The X Factor as a process has been a whole developmental phase for us. We went in knowing the type of music that we would like to make and not knowing if the public or general music would accept that or receive it and when they did it was exciting for us to see. The X Factor has allowed us to develop in the way that we want to and as Ashley said it’s almost like they’re just propelling us and giving that extra push.

Was it a surprise when you saw your tracks getting to #1 on iTunes?
Ashley: Seriously! We went into The X Factor process with the mindset of we’ve just self-released an EP, if we have an opportunity to have one of our songs on TV we will take it. So we walked into the first audition room wanting to get that one song on TV so more people could hear it and we didn’t want to embarrass ourselves. We were like let’s just not look stupid and everything will be fine. And obviously we got through the first audition and we’ve just been waiting for kind of everything to fall down and we’ve been waiting to be told no and kind of the ball just carried on rolling and to know that now we’ve had two songs in number one on the iTunes chart is just crazy! It doesn’t make any sense. I mean six months ago if you had told us that we would’ve gotten on to a 1Xtra C playlist we would’ve just bitten your hand off for it, I mean that would’ve been OHMY GOD! So it’s just crazy.

Is winning important to you?
Myles: Yes! Massively. I think as we’ve gone further and further in The X Factor platform we wanted it more, I think we’re getting more self-belief behind us and we’re still in a surreal situation. We still wake up every morning like is this really happening? Is this our lives right now and yeah honestly, we just wanna go the whole way now!

Mustafa: As much as we do wanna win, even if something happens and we don’t, we’re still gonna be working hard, even harder than we are now, cause I think this isn’t short term, it’s long-term.

If you look back at the history of The X Factor, look at the winners and the people that have come second and third, it shows it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if you didn’t win..
Myles: I think it just comes down to work ethic at the end of the day, every, each one of the contestants previously, they’re all different and from the outside it may look like that, but we don’t know their point of views, we don’t know how hard other people work. I mean for us, we work day in, day out and we rehearse every day till two am in the morning, then we’re up at seven, I mean if you have that kind of work ethic, nobody can stop you at the end of the day.

You guys write your own material, do you think you’ve got a slight advantage over anyone else?
Jamaal: You know what? Writing your own material is a tricky thing. We feel comfortable with writing our own material, we feel comfortable performing it, but on the flipside if we perform something that nobody knows it’s a very tricky thing trying to get them to be receptive to it. I can tell you we write loads of songs we look at and say ‘we don’t really like that’, so we tend to write loads of songs. It is a long-winded process trying to find that one song.

Ashley: And it should send us in good stead, because you know it means we will never get lost as artists. We were Rak-Su before we came into the program and by the time we come out of it we’ll still be Rak-Su, we just would’ve learned a lot more and so there is no reason why we should stop or slow down because as long as we carry on writing then we’re gonna keep on producing songs.

You have to tell me truthfully, all your songs, did you write them every week as you went along?
Ashley: ‘Mona Lisa’, ‘Dimelo’ and ‘Faith’, we wrote when the themes came out on the weekly basis.
That is a lot of pressure.
Ashley: Well tonight, that’s what we’re doing, we’re gonna have a writing session, we’re gonna list down, in a room, you know think of some ideas, think of some ideas, listen to some music, listen to some beats. Miles produces, so he’ll probably get his keyboard out and we will just come up with some stuff.

Mustafa: A lot of people see it as ‘oh they write one song every week’ it’s not even one song, it comes from ten different ideas and its like one out of ten bad ones, and we just sorted through all the bad ones and hopefully we end up coming with a good one like. The more you put in the more you get out and we’ve been trying to put in a lot.

I don’t envy that pressure, that’s for sure. What would be like your ideal theme?
Myles: A Rak-Su theme!

Ashley: Or week one! Express yourself! That was great!

No seriously, What would be the dream? You must have some songs banked, that nobody’s heard before, songs that you’re holding onto…
Myles: We’ve got a lot of songs, it just goes down to what we think would be suitable enough for the show at the end of the day, as long as it’s original I think a theme doesn’t really affect..

Ashley: If they did a grime theme that would be unreal! I’d love that!

I’d see a lot of other people struggling with that one on the show.

Myles: Do you know who would’ve done well with that? Sean and Conor Price, Sean is a good rapper.

Ashley: I mean if we had to find a way to get around the George Michael theme, I think other people should accept other challenges.

What has been the most nerve wrecking moment so far? I’m sure every week is nerve wrecking.
Jamaal: So ‘Mona Lisa’ week was very nerve wrecking for us I think cause when we did the, you know you do that rehearsals and stuff like that and it dawns on you that there are only three acts going through and the week before that when you look down and you see somebody else you always knew that there was at least one more person that was gonna go through. I think that was really daunting because you go out there and you stand on stage and you wait for Dermot to say who’s going through and obviously he takes his time to build up the suspense and that was probably one of the most nerve-wrecking moments.

Ashley: The most nerve wrecking moment for me was at the end of week two, which was Latin week, when Dermot said that next week was gonna be George Michael week and there was gonna be a double elimination. At that point in time my stomach just [made a] weird noise cause I was like not only have we gotta do a George Michael song which is always gonna be a challenge to live up to such an artist but it’s also double elimination which ultimately got scrapped but yeah I was really worried at that point in time.

Mustafa: You know what? It’s every time we perform and we have to wait to find out if we had gotten through or not, every single week it’s the same nerves. Like even if we get good feedback from people after we do a performance, there’s still the nerves there, so for me I think it’s every week like the results time, always, always nervous.

Performing on such a big stage as well, I guess that’s a bit of a step up from anything you’ve done before.
Ashley: Before The X Factor, the biggest performance we’d done was in front of two hundred Under 18s people, in the town hall in Aldershot, and when we turned up there, there was a little backstage area with a Play Station and we were absolutely buzzing! We were like, we made it! This is it! We were like we’ve got a dressing room! And that was the stand out performance that we’d done because prior to that the average show that we’d do, would be like forty/fifty people and if it was like sixty/seventy that was great!

How are you getting on now then? I always wonder about getting on that stage for the first time, you must be so nervous!
Myles: I found it easier.

Ashley: So much easier!

Myles: It’s less intimate! When you have ten people and a dog looking at you, you have to look back at them and you have to kind of look directly at their faces. At boot camp there was four thousand people, you just look and it’s..

Ashley: A sea of people

Myles: Yeah, and you can look around the whole place init, it looks like you are interacting directly with people.

What is the atmosphere like between you and the other contestants?
Jamaal: It’s weird because you build a bond with the team, with the researchers, with all the other contestants, and it’s almost like a family vibe always around the house. It’s very helpful because everyone is in the same boat, everyone is very talented and you kinda always want everyone to go up there and perform. In the house it’s quite chilled out, quite relaxed and we tend to do events together as a family as well, so you just tend to build up that bond with the contestants, I mean everyone is a good laugh to be honest.

If you had to form a supergroup with two of the other contestants, who would it be?
Ashley: Rat Price is already a thing, when we were at the judges’ houses we were like you know what if one of us doesn’t through we’re just gonna create a super group and then you’ll have to put us through, and then, no maybe some feminine vocals might be a useful addition as well, Ray Ray might add some spice.

Jamaal: Ray Owens and Sean and Connor Price.

Okay and last question, before you have to run, why should the viewers vote for you?
Ashley: I think the viewers should vote for us because out there, there’s gonna be other people who all have a passion, a dream and inspiration but don’t quite know what route they need to take to make it successful, they don’t know when they’re gonna get their break and they don’t know how their break is gonna come about and I suppose if our story is gonna show anyone anything it’s that you never know what life has in store for you. I think since we’ve been handed the opportunity, we’ve stuck to our guns and we’ve been ourselves and actually we’ve been embraced so yeah, the champion of originality.

Photo Credits

Photographer Tom Cockram @ PROBATION
Stylist Aisha Jimoh
Grooming Min Sandhu @ Carol Hayes
Digital Operator James Kenny
Lighting Assistants Raphael Aghahan & Ollie Trenchard
Production Studio Notion