Meet Dalston's 50-person hip-hop collective: The Silhouettes Project

 (The Silhouettes Project)
(The Silhouettes Project)

Concealed by a looming iron door, where the lines between Dalston and Stoke Newington blur into one, lies an oasis for London’s most exciting musical talent. The inconspicuous brick building first opened as a chocolate factory in 1904, but today it is known as Total Refreshment Centre, an ex-live music venue turned community hub.

Like a classroom, there are wooden desks, whiteboards and musical instruments scattered in each corner — plus stacks of records to dive into. Though the walls are plain, you can tell they hold colourful memories. I’m meeting the community that finds sanctuary here, 50-person jazz-rap/hip-hop collective The Silhouettes Project, on the eve of the release of their sophomore album, Volume 2. Not all of them, unfortunately, just co-founders Jaden Osei-Bonsu and Asher Korner, who use the artist monikers Eerf Evil and Asher Kosher.

Since last September they’ve been releasing one track a week from the new project, and by the time you’re reading this, it will have been released in its entirety. ‘We’ve had play on Radio 1. We sold out Koko — that’s a three-times bigger show than we’ve ever organised before! It’s mad. This album means a lot,’ says Korner, 31. ‘Volume 2 feels like there’s a system in place and we can go on for years doing this.’

Both from London (Korner from Hackney, Osei-Bonsu from Thornton Heath) with backgrounds in youth work and music production, the pair met in 2018. ‘Me and Ash bounce off each other,’ says Osei-Bonsu, 29. ‘When you’ve got that energy you wanna make something happen’ — which is exactly what they did, founding The Silhouettes Project a year later.

For Korner, the project was a natural progression from his 2016 endeavour, Route 73, a non-profit recording space for emerging artists that still exists within Total Refreshment Centre. ‘Jaden was a youth worker, I had a studio and we wanted to make music. We thought, let’s do something.’ And thus, two people became 50.

In the beginning, it was a game of connect-the-right-musical-dots. ‘During those first sessions we had this whiteboard of rappers, producers, singers and we were drawing lines between them and pairing them up based on what we’d think would work,’ says Korner. ‘Then they produced these songs and it was like, “Yo! This is working.”’

Their eponymous debut album featured more than 35 artists, 15 tracks and quickly racked up millions of streams. Spotify figures were rocketing, but it was coming together for weekly live jam sessions that proved to them they were on to something. ‘We thought, how do we get live music back into the ends? How much do you spend on a night out in London? So much money. But this was a free night. The only money you’d spend would be bringing your own beer. We’d have 100 people in here, a crazy sick live band, artists could jump up and get involved. That was the moment we realised this was really beautiful,’ says Osei-Bonsu.

Off the back of the first album, The Silhouettes Project swapped jam sessions for live shows. ‘Last year we went to Paris twice, Glastonbury, We Out Here, Cross the Tracks,’ says Osei-Bonsu. ‘A lot of these artists wouldn’t have had the chance to play at Glastonbury or Koko, not yet anyway, but we’re doing it together so everyone gets that opportunity.’

Togetherness, equality and transparency are at the heart of this community. ‘Everything’s transparent. All the artists can see what we’re doing. Even when we spoke to the lawyers, they said this is one of the fairest structures we’ve ever seen in the music business. There’s not a lot of money in it, but we’re not doing it for that,’ says Korner. ‘All of the money is split evenly between the artists. It’s coming up with structures that allow us to feel more in control of what our message is in terms of challenging the industry.’

One hundred thousand audio files get uploaded to Spotify every single day. So all of these individual artists are trying to find their gap

In principle, splitting the money evenly sounds like a good deal, until you realise how many people are involved... ‘On the first album we had about 35 artists. This time round, we’ve got about 45 artists,’ says Osei-Bonsu. ‘There are different scales to people’s involvement, so it’s hard to quantify,’ adds Korner. ‘It goes to over 100 if you include the wider community of people who have come to the jams or who have recorded in the studio.’

Of those 100-odd people, the collective has helped launch the careers of rising stars such as Enny, Bel Cobain, Nix Northwest and Lex Amor. And in today’s industry, emerging musicians need all the help they can get. ‘One hundred thousand audio files get uploaded to Spotify every single day. So all of these individual artists are trying to find their gap and weigh in to the mainstream,’ says Osei-Bonsu. ‘This model of bringing collectives together allows a group of artists who are in the same world to gain more traction if they do it together. It’s just maths.’

Catching attention on streaming platforms is far from the only challenge for new artists, says Korner. ‘More than ever, our screen time is up as a species, yet our consumption of music and individual pieces of content is down so much,’ he says. ‘People are watching videos of cats and people falling over, rather than diving into a 24-track album of their favourite artists. No one’s even got time to listen to an album anymore...’ Osei-Bonsu interrupts: ‘Or discover an artist! If the algorithm isn’t feeding you an artist, then you’re not gonna go and look for that artist. If you’re very introverted or don’t like the camera, then it’s very hard to market yourself. You should be enough being an artist, but now an artist has to be X, Y, Z.’

It’s clear The Silhouettes Project doesn’t follow formula or tradition, purposefully moving against industry norms. Instead, their aim is to prove the extent of what community can achieve. ‘People think if it’s a community project it has less regard than something like Guildhall or something of excellence. But it’s like, nah, what’s getting created in these spaces is super important, that’s the message,’ says Osei-Bonsu.

People are watching videos of cats and people falling over, rather than diving into a 24-track album

As we speak a woman furiously types in the corner of the room. She hasn’t said a peep, until we come to the end of our interview and she jolts forward: ‘Say we need funding!’ During the time we’ve been talking, she has been applying for grants. Korner does as he’s told. ‘We’re constantly under threat of development. Our rent is going up by 50 per cent, so there are constantly things coming at us as a community,’ he says, then has an idea. ‘Can we make that the headline actually: “FUNDING”?’

Despite countless obstacles, the founders don’t see The Silhouettes Project taking backwards steps anytime soon. ‘It’s been kind of linear. We did the Jazz Cafe and now we’re doing Koko, the next one might be Brixton [Academy],’ says Korner. But first things first. ‘We need to keep the space,’ says Osei-Bonsu. ‘If this much has come out of such a small room, what else could happen?’

‘The Silhouettes Project Volume 2’ is out now