— Capo Lee —

On free-styling, belt-drive decks, using his lunch money to buy records, working with Chelsea FC and always trying to help people.

(Photo submitted by Capo Lee)

It’s Saturday evening when Capo Lee takes my FaceTime call, clutching a mug of peppermint tea. He’s speaking to me from home in North London, the hazy evening sunlight filtering in through some blinds behind him. “I don’t feel like people have ever had time to reflect on a lot of things before”, he says thoughtfully when I ask him about how he’s had to adapt to a new way of life over the last few months. “Some people have getting busy and active where as other people have been struggling quite a bit mentally and I understand that, but me personally, I’m alright man.” 

It’s this calm, reassuring, almost nonchalant manner that has always set Capo apart. A grime MC who bloomed late — he only released his first batch of music as Capo Lee in 2015 — he speaks with a quiet confidence that can sometimes catch you off guard. His story began not with a mic, but with a pair of decks as a teenager, where he was a student at Winchmore School in Winchmore Hill, North London — the same secondary school that Skepta, JME and Shorty attended. “They were a bit older than me”, he recalls, “but they were about when I was there. Basically, at Winchmore school, we had this thing called ‘Winchmore FM’ and it was mad. One of the mentors at school used to bring decks along, and I’d see man just bringing records in every Friday and from that point, all I wanted to do was be a DJ, I’m not gonna lie. Remember that Nokia phone, the 3310 yeah? I had one of those, I can’t even remember where I got it from, I think it was a gift from a family member, but I swapped it for a pair of decks on the sly. I got some Numark belt-drive decks and when I first got them, I thought they were incredible. Bro, I used to come downstairs in the morning and just look at them. I used to wake up and it’d be too early to play anything so I just used to look at them.”

“Remember that Nokia phone, the 3310 yeah? I had one of those, I can’t even remember where I got it from, I think it was a gift from a family member, but I swapped it for a pair of decks on the sly.”

A favourite of so many DJs starting out, belt-drives were often sluggish and difficult to get to grips with, but they fuelled Capo’s early obsession for records. So much so in fact, that’d he often go hungry at lunch time. “All the lunch money I used to get for the week at school, I’d take it on a Monday and just go and buy records”, he says fondly. “I didn’t care about eating, I didn’t care about lunch. I just wanted to buy bare man’s records.” His first record? “I remember yeah, when I got the decks off my bredrin, he gave me two vinyl records. One was ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’ by Dizzee Rascal and the other one was DMX … (starts singing) ‘Ya’ll gonna make me lose my mind’ (‘Party Up’). I used to try and mix but I couldn’t even mix. When I got them, I used to think you’d plug them in and that was it, but there was no sound coming out. I only clocked that when someone said to me I had to buy an amp.”

Picking up a mic had crossed Capo’s mind too, but as a teenager he didn’t like how his voice sounded — “it was mad squeaky, honestly” — and being a DJ allowed him to shy away from attention and fuss. After leaving school, he continued to focus on his mixing and spent hours practicing in his room and on whatever pirate station he could get on. But one fortuitous trip to Heat FM in 2007 — famous proving ground for influential grime crew, Meridian — would prove the end of his fledgling DJ dream. “Me and my bredrins would go along to Heat FM sometimes yeah, but we were young, like mad young”, he says with a grimace. “We’d be in our school uniform and that and I remember there were bare crews there, loads of people. One day we rocked up there and the station guy, some big wham guy with a big bald head … like bare scary, he shouted over to us and said ‘You guys, stand up’. So we stood up, and bear in mind there were bare crews there too, some you might not know but crews like Bundem Crew from Tottenham and bare North London man that we looked up to. We stood up and he goes, ‘You guys are not good enough, you’re off the station, you need to leave’, in front of everyone. We were bare small. After that, I stopped for time, I just used to mix at home.”

His transition from DJ to MC wouldn’t happen overnight either, but he did have one friend who used to make rap beats in his spare time. “Sometimes I’d go to his house and just drop a little rap verse”, Capo recalls, “…not to put out or anything, just messing around. But that definitely got me into the idea of spitting.” A short spell in prison soon followed and although potentially destabilising, it gave him time to reflect and crucially, impress inmates on his wing. They’d hear him free-styling from in the corridors and recognised the potential in both his lyricism and delivery straight away. “Everyone used to say to me, ‘rah man you’re actually sick’ and I’d always be like ‘nah man, I’m too old for that’ and whatever. Once I got out though, I linked my friend and went to his studio, a producer called War Dot. He had some spare studio time one day, only about half an hour or something, but said to me that I might as well make a tune and see how it goes. I had bars already, so I just sprayed them over this tune, recorded it and then I remember sending it to Kwam, who I’d known from way back, and asked him what he thought. Bruv, this guy started sending it out to bloggers and bearing in mind I wasn’t even on Twitter and that back then, it was mad. Remember Hij from Grime Forum as well? He put it up as his top track on Grime Forum and that was a big ting when I came around in like 2015. So when I finally got on Twitter, I had bare tweets and mentions and all these followers. Hitman from Brum, he came with his blue tick and was tweeting like, ‘This guy Capo Lee, he’s actually cold’, and I was like ‘yes!’ and just carried on. I bucked Spyro and that was it.”

The track in question, ‘Ain’t The Same’, ended up winning a spot on a Grime Forum compilation in early 2015, which in turn sparked Capo’s desire to prove he wasn’t just a one hit grime wonder; this wasn’t a fluke. He started writing regularly, new tracks began to flow and Capo Lee was officially born. “I don’t really know where the name came from you know”, he says leaning back, scratching his head. “You know it’s just one of those words you hear in films, like ‘ah, he’s the capo’. I just used to hear it around. Back in the day, everyone used to call me Leeman and even JME and that still know me as Leeman from when I was young but I thought, nah I can’t be going into this as Leeman, that’s bare neeky. I liked the Lee bit, so I stuck Capo in front of it and it sounded alright. You know what as well? I used to search Leeman on Google and the Lehman Brothers used to come up first. I don’t know who they are but I’d always be like ‘rahhh’ so when I put Capo in front of Lee, I realised those two words are never together. Now, when you search my name on Google, I’m the top search. I was ahead of my time”, he chuckles.

“I used to search Leeman on Google and the Lehman Brothers used to come up first. I don’t know who they are but I’d always be like ‘rahhh’ so when I put Capo in front of Lee, I realised those two words are never together. Now, when you search my name on Google, I’m the top search.”

Capo’s breakout tracks, ‘Liff’, produced by Birmingham-based producer Mystry and ‘Mud’ ft. D Double E produced by Spyro, were both recorded in 2015 and quickly laid down a marker. His languid flow, off-beat and almost conversational at points, was an immediate calling card and proved a surefire match for more spatial, heavyweight beats. He didn’t attack instrumentals either, he navigated them, his arrangement and delivery of each bar precise but never formulaic. It was the link-up with Spyro however — now arguably grime’s most recognisable producer after his work on Stormzy’s first two albums — that’d really open doors. “A friend of mine from the ends, Sean D, had a studio in Enfield and one day I had to go and drop something off to him”, says Capo, stretching his arms out and pausing for thought. “It turns out that Spyro was there at his studio with Big H, Bossman Birdie, Prez T and they were actually recording ‘Side By Side’. Obviously I know them all from ends already, but I’d not met Spyro before. He looked at me and was like, ‘Yo, you’re Capo Lee innit? I’ve been hearing your tunes on radio man, they’ve been circulating’. He told me to send him some tunes, so I went home straight away and sent a load over. He actually ended up playing them on his next Rinse FM show and I was gassed.”

Refusing to get carried away, Capo reached out to Spyro again the following day to thank him for playing the tracks he’d sent over. “I DM’d him to say big up and thanks really but he replied saying, ‘What are you doing? Come to my house tomorrow’. So I got in my car the next day and drove over to his house. On the way, imagine this yeah, he changed his number as I’m driving over. I pulled up outside what I thought was his house but I didn’t know what door number it was and this guy’s phone isn’t going through. I sat outside his house for two hours. I didn’t know what was going on but I was like, he’s gotta leave his house eventually, he has to. Bro, I just sat there in my car for two hours. He ended up up DM’ing me to tell me he’d changed number and realised I was outside, so I went in and we started working on stuff. I don’t think we got anything down that particular day, but from there we built a mad close relationship.”

The connection between MC and producer can sometimes be overlooked, but in Capo and Spyro’s case, it became almost symbiotic; they brought the best out of each other in every session, cultivating a method of working that still rings true to this day. “Do you know what we do? I’ll go to his house or to his studio or whatever and he’ll be like, ‘What vibe is it? Are we going for spaghetti flow or mellow tings?’. The spaghetti flow stuff is that tech-y lyrical stuff, you know what I mean? But all the tunes we make, we make from scratch so I’ll even sometimes just be like ‘Oi Spy man, blank canvas’ and we go from there.”

As he starts to reel off another story about ‘Liff’ — “I free-styled the chorus over that Mystry beat the first time I heard it on Mode FM while Spooky was DJing” — Capo also recalls a near-on 20 minute freestyle on Rinse FM he recorded back in 2016, before making a joke about being “one of those guys talking like I’ve got bare history”. Despite his modesty, Capo’s made more of a dent on the landscape than the majority of his peers over the last five years, laying foundations for grime to flourish in new spaces — and none more so than in football. Although Stormzy blazed a trail via his Adidas link-up with Paul Pogba and Manchester United in 2016, Capo’s music has become a regular content sound-bed at Chelsea FC, for whom he recorded a special remix of ‘Style & Swag’ last summer. 

(Photo by Danny Kasirye for Gaffer Mag)

“I messaged Jamal Edwards at SBTV and asked who was repping Chelsea”, Capo laughs. “He said no one was doing anything and I said okay, we need to rep. That was literally how it happened. My first involvement was supposed to be in an advert. It had Trevor Nelson in it and a couple of other people, and Chelsea wanted me for a scene for about 25 seconds, it wasn’t long. They asked if could edit two bars from one of my tunes to use in the advert as well. What I did yeah, was I went and linked Spy, said ‘trust me, this is gonna work’ and we made a whole new tune. I went back and played it to the guys directing the video and they loved it. I was like, ‘what, wasn’t I supposed to do that?!’. The next day I got an email telling me that they were like ‘this track is so good, we have to do something with this’ and I was like, ‘Really? No way!’. 

An outdoor meeting at Stamford Bridge beckoned, but it took a while for Capo to believe any of their ideas would materialise. Thinking he’d probably end up getting a tour of an empty stadium and shooting a video “looking around at a few trophies”, he was taken aback by Chelsea’s plans for his music. “The squad was actually due to do the green screen bits for Sky Sports and all that, yeah. There was BT Sport, ESPN, bare people at this indoor centre at the training ground and it was like basically a big circle of different media outlets that the players would go to and have a picture taken and then move onto the next one. They said they wanted to setup a Capo Lee stall for me. I was like, ‘what, no way?’. Even when they told me that, I was like nah, that’s not happening.” Low and behold, it was pencilled in for September 14th — Capo’s birthday — and he turned up to a sea of first team players at Chelsea’s training ground in Cobham.

“I turned up yeah and everyone was just … there”, he says dumfounded. “The guy that directed the video, a guy called Gerald, I said to him ‘I can’t just go up to Willian and say, yo I’m shooting a rap video, do you wanna cameo in it?’, like I didn’t know what to say. It turns out they’d heard the song and a few of them were gassed on it, it was so surreal, I can’t even explain it. Olivier Giroud was like ‘this song is good, man’. He kept re-shooting his bit because he didn’t think he looked good, Willian had his arm around me. There’s even like a two-second shot of me and N’Golo Kante walking and talking, we spoke for about two minutes. I went over to him sitting down and said, ‘yo, so you do rest?’. It was just mad.”

The video shot that day was used in Chelsea’s official kit unveiling for the 19/20 season and the relationship has blossomed since, with Capo still working on exciting new opportunities with the club as we speak; he assures me there’ll be more news on that soon. “I still chat to a few of the players, me and Mason Mount talk a bit on WhatsApp now and again”, he says nonchalantly, “and I get bare Chelsea fans following me now. But I feel like the biggest thing about it was that no rapper or MC has made a video like that, like so intense with a whole team. I think for them it was a risk as well, but it got a few hundred thousand views on their channel and they were really happy with that.”

As our conversation starts to wind down, he begins reflecting on his career to this point; from the meteoric breakout rush of tracks like ‘Liff’ and ‘Mud’ to recent four-way EP, ‘Royal Rumble’, written just a few weeks before Coronavirus struck alongside Big Zuu, Eyez and Kamakaze. “I’m never content but I feel like this year I’m getting a lot of new supporters”, Capo affirms. “I feel like I’m getting brought through a lot more than in 2019 but even then I’ll still get DMs from people like, ‘why haven’t I heard of you before?’. Maybe I need to do some more collaborations with the big, big, big boys, I dunno.” He then points to grime being sidelined by other breakout genres like Drill over the last four years or so too, acknowledging that every genre has its moment. “It happens man. A new genre will come along or there’ll be a resurgence of another genre and something will get moved on. But in terms of grime, I feel like people mention my name now. I’ve realised that I’m actually established and I was never really aware of that before until this year. Just knowing that has given me new batteries.”

“..in terms of grime, I feel like people mention my name now. I’ve realised that I’m actually established and I was never really aware of that before until this year. Just knowing that has given me new batteries.”

And while those batteries may be fully charged, Capo’s never in a rush. He nods to Skepta as someone who waited, watched and bided his time for years, while others blew up all around him. “Look at Skep yeah”, he says confidently. “Look where he started. Do you know how many people he saw blow? He saw Chip blow, Tinie Tempah blow, Krept & Konan blow, Tinchy Stryder blow. Bro, he saw all of them blow worldwide before he did. And then now look. Do you know what I mean?”

“Personally, I would like grime to have another resurgence and then we can all walk around like, ‘we’re the top boys’ again”, he continues with a smile. “Remember when Skep and them man went to Radar back in 2016? It was mad. That’s what I wanna do, I wanna have people recognise us and be like ‘rah, there’s legends in the building’ and be pulling their cameras out. We need to be the new elite.”

(Photo by Quann – Skepta & Novelist, Radar Radio, January 2016)

Before we both hang up, I remind Capo of two moments that reaffirm his reputation as one of grime’s most genuine and warm-hearted characters. The first was turning up to spray at an event I was putting on with my record label, Coyote Records, back in 2017. It was my 29th birthday, Last Japan was playing his first ever all-night set at The Alibi in Dalston and Capo had seen me tweet about it on the night. He DM’d me and asked if he could come down, jump on set for a bit and have a drink for my birthday; he duly turned up and sent the club into frenzy. The second was calling me out of the blue about four months later to say thanks for a review I’d written of his ‘Capo The Champ’ EP for one of Crack Magazine’s EOY lists. “I’ve helped a lot of people in this music game, I don’t talk about it but I have”, he says sharply. “Like, there have been artists who aren’t from London coming here and I’ve transferred money to them, I’ve helped people with releases and recording spaces. That’s just me as a person, I like to help people. When people act surprised, I’m always like, ‘how are people acting out there?’. These are just normal things to do!”

(Photo by Asia Huddleston – The Alibi, Dalston, August 2017)

Capo Lee, Big Zuu, Eyez and Kamakaze’s ‘Royal Rumble’ EP is out now:

— Vicky Grout —

On Kingston, grime, shooting under pressure, building relationships, working with brands and the importance of taking time out.

(All photos submitted by Vicky Grout)

Chances are, if you’ve paid any sort of attention to music photography over the last five years, you’ll have caught one of Vicky Grout’s images. She’s arguably one of the the UK’s most prolific and in-demand young photographers, focusing on (but not limited to) working across music, fashion and streetwear. Perhaps best known for her gritty portraits of Skepta et al, her story is a tale of trust, hard work and most importantly, acknowledging when to take time out.

“I’ve been reading a lot and sitting in my garden”, she says when I ask her about how life in lockdown has been treating her, the sun beating into her room and casting a shadow over one side of her face. “Where I live now, there’s a big communal garden so it’s been nice to be able to chill there. I’ve played a lot of Animal Crossing as well and there’s been lots of cleaning the house. But to be honest, I’m quite enjoying this time. I know there needs to be a lot more going on in the long run, but right now I’m chilling. Some people might not be able to enjoy spending time at home, especially at the moment, so I realise I’m lucky to be in a position where I’m able to do that.”

Vicky grew up in and around Kingston in Surrey, a stones throw from the Thames — the river actually runs alongside it — and recently famed, rather regrettably, for being home to one of the UK’s biggest Oceana nightclubs during the 2000s; a destination spot for my friends and I during our student years. Her interest in music and photography was first piqued after finding a disposable-style film camera in a draw at home, just before getting her first part-time at Natterjacks — a skate and streetwear shop in Kingston that acted as a de facto hub for local skaters, musicians and creatives. “I’d say my interest in photography probably started when I was maybe like 11 or 12 years old”, she recalls, “I’ve always like photos and visual things since I was little, so photography made sense to me. It wasn’t until I found my family’s old holiday camera in a draw one day, just a basic, point-and-shoot Olympus film camera, that I thought ‘ah this is sick, I should try using this’. I started going along to gigs and shows from when I was about 13 and I’d queue really early and wait for hours so I could be at the front to take pictures, which I’d share on like, my Tumblr or my Flickr. They were literally pictures just for me, I wanted something to look back on for myself. That led to taking photos of my friends and just documenting random shit really and then when I got to about 17, working one day a week while I was at college, I realised I was spending all my money on film. It was just an expensive hobby and I never really thought I’d make any money from it.”

The cost of developing film eventually became too much and Vicky decided to have a break from taking photos, instead focusing on her college work, where she studied Art and Design, specialising in Graphics, before going on to undertake a foundation degree in the same subject at Central Saint Martins in London.  “I thought it’d be a slightly more reliable career choice for me”, she explains, “but somewhere between college and university, well the summer leading up to university anyway, I just started raving. Two or three times a week I’d be out, whether it was at Visions, The Nest, fabric, Fire in Vauxhall, Hyperdub nights, Swamp81, Butterz nights. It was crazy.”

“Two or three times a week I’d be out, whether it was at Visions, The Nest, fabric, Fire in Vauxhall, Hyperdub nights, Swamp81, Butterz nights. It was crazy.”

For anyone looking at Vicky’s work objectively, one of the key takeaways is not only the access she’s had to some of the biggest artists from the UK and beyond, but the natural light she captures them in. As we start to talk through her career proper, there’s one factor we keep coming back around to; trust. Without it, you’ll never capture the images you or the artist want and its clearly a delicate balance to strike. Vicky’s secret? “Those times I didn’t even go out with my camera, I was literally just raving”, she says. “I think over time I became a bit of a bait face in that scene as a raver, as a regular. I got to know people like Spooky, Novelist, AJ Tracey, Sian Anderson, Julie Adenuga, the Butterz lot just like that really. It must have been the summer of 2014 and that’s when I thought, ‘rah I need to be out and be everywhere’ you know.”

It was through these formative relationships, first forged on club dance floors and at noisy, gig venue bars, that Vicky became part of the fabric of a grime scene that was exploding, and starting to rear its head to the mainstream. Her first experience of being asked to take photos came via Siobhan Bell, who asked her to not only photograph, but curate one of her legendary Cherryade club nights back in 2014. “Because I’d kind of got to know some of the newer artists in the grime scene at the time like The Square and Novelist, she was like, ‘why don’t you help me curate a line-up and you can reach out to the artists and book them’?”, Vicky recounts, “and 17 year old me was like, ‘ahhhh!’. I remember for that first night, I booked Ollie Rant, Last Japan, Spooky, Novelist and The Square and it was such a sick night. Siobhan said to me before that she used to usually take a disposable and shoot the nights herself, so I said well look, I’ve got a proper camera, why don’t I shoot? She said that I could and that was that. One of the photos from that night is still one of my favourite live photos to this day. It’s a black and white shot of Spooky with The Square and Novelist more towards the front. Spooky must have dropped a banger because he had the maddest bass face and Novelist was shelling and it’s just the maddest picture. I remember getting photos back from that night and thinking, this is sick, I should do this more.”

With that, Vicky caught the bug. Artists she’d met in her raving days suddenly cottoned onto the fact that she was now heading to events equipped with a camera and word quickly spread that she was gifted behind the lens. “People at grime raves would see me with my camera and be like, ‘rah I didn’t know you were a photographer, can you take some photos of me?’, she says. “I think because a lot of artists had met me before without having a camera shoved in their face, it made them feel a lot more comfortable having me take their photo. I guess they trusted me because they’d seen me at these raves completely fucked, spitting every bar, gassed to even be there and just enjoying myself. I think they could tell I was coming from a good place.”

“I think because a lot of artists had met me before without having a camera shoved in their face, it made them feel a lot more comfortable having me take their photo.”

The buzz around Vicky’s name grew gradually from that point onward, but there was one particular moment that made her realise, albeit inadvertently, that photography could be a full-time career. Working part-time at Offspring in Kingston, Vicky harks back to early 2015. “It’d got to the stage where I was getting a lot of DMs about shoots and taking photos of this artist or that artists and even brands were starting to reach out”, she recalls. “I was still working maybe three days a week and I remember not being able to have my phone out on the shop floor, so I was having to check my emails and DMs on my breaks. Obviously if people need someone for a shoot, if you don’t get back to them quickly, they’ll just go with someone else so I felt that pressure. It got to the stage where my head wasn’t in, I’d become shit at my job you know? I didn’t wanna be there. I ended up getting fired later that year, which gave me the kick up the arse I needed, it forced me to go out there and make a success of it. And yeah, I’ve not looked back since.”

The transition from part-time hobby to full-time job wasn’t as harsh as Vicky would have anticipated either. Living at home enabled her to continue on a similar trajectory as before and she was able to build relationships with artists and PRs, as well as shoot interesting people she’d find on Instagram and head along to test shoots where she could; “It was all about meeting people”, she says bluntly. This organic, DIY hustler’s attitude lends itself well to Vicky’s spirit and demeanour; to talk to her away from the lens, she’s remarkably calm and laid back but on the job, she’s steely-eyed and markedly serious — everything is done with a smile, but to perfection. Does she ever get nervous shooting? “I still get nervous even now, yeah. It’s a confident nervous though, I know I can do it. There’s even times where I’ll have been booked for something and I know I can do the job, but I’m more nervous about taking photos that I’ll like, that’ll meet my standards. I feel like a lot of the time, publications and brands will be happy with a good image, but for me its different. I do actually remember shooting Skepta for Time Out back in 2016 and being nervous as fuck for that one though. I got asked on the day and had to roll up to Tottenham with my camera, the sun was setting and I was like ah, for fuck’s sake (laughs), but I managed to get some good shots and it worked out.”

The conversation soon turns to the composition of photos themselves; just what is it that makes a great photo? “It’s so subjective but I almost don’t know until I see it”, Vicky says, laughing shyly. “It’s only when I’m going through pictures at the end that I realise. But usually it’s a mixture of the lighting, whether it’s sunny or not, the time of day, the person’s expression. I hate it when the subject looks bored and lifeless, so I always try and capture personality.  But often you’ll just find a photo that stands out, whether it’s because it details a certain emotion being portrayed or because I’ve captured something happening in that specific moment.”

It wasn’t long before brands came calling. Vicky’s portraits and live shots were the talk of London, with her snaps of Skepta in particular serving as iconic timestamps of a crucial era in grime’s short history; she’d become the scene’s chief story-teller without ever picking up a pen. But how did she manage switching out the street for the studio? “I’m pretty lucky in the sense that I still get to choose most of the brand work I do even now”, she explains. “Even the big brand collaborations I’ll work on are mostly on brand for me whether its a sportswear brand or Clark’s, Adidas, Nike, whatever. There might be the odd thing I do that I won’t share but generally it’s all down to creative control and if I have enough of that, then it’s not too different to shooting Skepta on the street in Tottenham.”

“I actually feel like there’s less pressure riding on brand shoots”, she continues. “A typical one will amount to a certain number of looks, a certain number of locations, the models know what they’re doing … there’s only so much that can really go wrong. When you’re shooting an artist portrait, I feel like you need to make sure that they’re comfortable with you and that they’re gonna like the picture too. Shooting a model and shooting an artist are two very different things. Models will be out here doing the most and they’ll look great, where as artists are, most of the time, a lot more reserved. I will direct them a bit, in a way that’s natural to them, but I try and step back from doing that too much. Usually I’ll chat to them at the beginning because breaking down barriers is important, especially in a studio, and I’ll ask if they want to put music on. If they’ve got a mate with them, I’ll get them to chat normally and take a few candids as well, that’s a good tip for making people feel more relaxed.”

“Shooting a model and shooting an artist are two very different things. Models will be out here doing the most and they’ll look great, where as artists are, most of the time, a lot more reserved.”

When it comes to trying to pick out career highlights to this point, Vicky’s spoilt for choice but manages to pick out three that have either helped moved the dial or made her love the job. “I feel like the Skepta – ‘Shutdown’ image is definitely a highlight”, she says thoughtfully. “My career’s always been on a steady incline but the response to that one definitely jolted it a bit. I did a shoot with Rich The Kid for SSENSE too, which was great because I had full creative control. I had the production budget, I had to source the studio, the catering, studio lighting, everything! That was a lot of fun and he was really easy to shoot. And then…”, she pauses to think for a good few seconds, “…basically any photo I’ve ever taken of Jorja Smith. She’s just great.”

There have been inevitable speed bumps along the way too, but Vicky’s strength of character is another of her calling cards; I can’t think of many people who’d take getting fired as a springboard into launching a full-time career as a freelance photographer. Most of the on-job, in-the-moment difficulties she’s had to respond to and overcome though are owed to timing and the onus that’s placed on photographers to get shoots done as quickly as possible, often with little regard for aesthetic or craftsmanship. “I remember one artist I was shooting out in Miami for Adidas, it was quite a big one”, she recalls. “I was told I could have 20 minute shooting him on a small street and in the gardens surrounding where he was for the day, not for anything in particular, just for my socials and whatever and I was like yeah, this is gonna be sick, perfect. I waited around at the location and then his PR came down and said ‘right, you’ve got 5 minutes’ and I was like ‘ah, for fuck’s sake’. I still managed to get some good photos but I could tell he didn’t wanna be there, even though he was professional and polite. His PR said to me afterwards that it was actually his scheduled nap time, so that’s why I needed to be quick.”

“There’s another as well”, she says thinking back. “I was given 45 minutes to shoot someone in their hotel room for a cover of a German magazine, which was not a lot of time but really exciting. They wanted me to use lights and get shots with three different backgrounds. I set it all up with my assistant, shot him on one background for about 5 minutes, got about five pictures on the next background and then he got up and said, ‘Ok, I gotta go’. I ended up shooting in total for about 20 minutes. Again, I got some good pictures, but I didn’t necessarily get a broad selection of images for a cover. It’s cool though, I’m used to it now.”

Given the enduring pressures of the job, the inevitable setbacks and the tendency for photographers to self-critique, I’ve always felt like it can be a thankless task — a lot is demanded of them, but little is understood. So what is it that keeps young shooters like Vicky going? What is the recipe for success and what does she take solace in when things are at their most challenging? “I think firstly, you need to be passionate about whatever it is you’re shooting”, she acknowledges. “Whether it’s music, fashion, dance, nature, animals … whatever it is, make sure you’re obsessed with it. If you go in with the intention of making money, everything will feel contrived, it always needs to feel authentic. I’m always gonna love music and that’s a big part of why I’m still doing it now. As much as I hate it, it’s important to have an online presence as well. Whether that’s updating your Instagram feed or making sure your website is up to date, they’re things you have to do. A lot of people don’t see websites as important in the digital age because we have social media now, but clients, especially fashion or commercial clients, always wanna see a website. If you’re gonna go down the fashion photography route, I’d definitely recommend getting a physical book or portfolio too. I wouldn’t get one made until you have to because they are expensive, but if you’re going in to meet agencies and whatever, then they’re invaluable.”

“Whether it’s music, fashion, dance, nature, animals … whatever it is, make sure you’re obsessed with it.”

“My last piece of advice?”, Vicky asks rhetorically with a wry smile. “Just don’t be a prick. Being nice goes a long way. I feel like I’m a bit of a people person anyway, but you don’t necessarily need to be chatty, just respectful. If you’re on a set and you’re rude to someone, that client won’t book you again. This doesn’t just apply to photography either, that’s a lesson for life.”

As our conversation starts to draw to a close after nearly an hour, we come full circle, reflecting on the importance of looking after yourself and how pivotal that has been to Vicky’s career in particular. “I feel like all the things I’m doing at the moment, the self-care, reading, yoga, cycling, like I’ve always done those things, even when people used to ask me ‘why are you doing that, what’s that for?’”, Vicky says. “At the end of the day, nothing really matters. Obviously I’ve got to make sure I’ve got enough money to pay rent or whatever, but this period has reaffirmed that for me. I don’t know what things are gonna be like after this, so I need to take care of what I can.” 

If you’re looking for inspiration, Vicky’s also spent the lockdown period working on a short project for Polaroid, writing pieces for The Basement — “that’s been nice because I don’t get to do much writing” — and undertaking an online course via MoMA in New York, as well as taking time to relax and be kind to herself. “I was maybe in a bit of a rut for the past two years if I’m honest and it’s almost like now, I’ve found that drive again”, she concludes warmly. “while managing to maintain that self-care balance. And that is so, so important.”

Keep up to date with Vicky’s work via her website:

http://www.vickygrout.com/

— GRIME & DUBSTEP MONTHLY ™ —

A temporary home for monthly Mixmag Grime & Dubstep reviews while the magazine remains out of print — here are May’s picks.

(Photo by Vicky Grout)

Album of the Month: Footsie – ‘No Favours’ (Studio 55)

A proper general

Highlights

1. Pattern & Program

2. Under Water ft. J Appiah

3. Pepper Stew ft. JME

Everyone wants Footsie to win. He’s one of grime’s best-loved MCs and an incredible beat-maker to boot and as one half of the Newham Generals alongside D Double E, has taken grime from East London to the world. But ‘No Favours’ is a separate story, its own entity, a record made for and entirely by himself, shining a light on the soundsystem culture that birthed him and the friends and collaborators who continue to inspire him; remarkably, it’s also his debut album proper. ‘Pepper Stew’ featuring JME, the album’s lead track is an immediate entry point, a track that fizzes with the sort of studio energy that typifies the vibrancy of ‘No Favours’, while the record’s tender moments (‘Under Water’, ‘Easy For You’, both featuring J Appiah) hum with the glow of live instrumentation, tempered by thoughtful, reflective lyricism. There are also standout features from the likes of CAS, P Money, Frisco, Jammer and iconic sparring partner D Double E, but the binding agent across all 14 tracks is Footsie. Finally, one of the UK’s true underground champions is having his moment. 8/10

Tune of the Month: Boardgame James – ‘Swamp Thing’ (1000Doors)

Emphatically beautiful 

Three records deep in a matter of months and 1000Doors have already made a sizeable imprint on contemporary instrumental grime, coming at it from myriad angles and announcing themselves with a steady flow of thoughtful releases. ‘Swamp Thing’, lifted from Boardgame James’ recent EP, ‘Daydream’, is arguably the best track they’ve put out yet, coming hot on the heels of debut EPs from both Handsome Boys and Yamaneko collaborator, Rimplton. It unfurls like Murlo classics of old, rich on strings but heavy on weight, and builds to a euphoric crescendo of choral chants and warm, hopeful, infectious sonics. It’s just a gorgeous, gorgeous record. 9/10

Lolingo – ‘Blueprint’ EP (No Hats No Hoods)

Fast out the blocks 

Lolingo is one of the new school’s most talented young grime producers and here he details another five, barnstorming grime instrumentals that feel tailor-made for MCs but equally at home on a system. The booming, screw-face lurch of ‘Blueprint’ is a great entry point, while fans of The Square will remember ‘Italian Job’ — a playful, chopped and screwed piano-grime-funk odyssey — from various archived radio sets. Third track ‘Ritual’ is far heavier on the low-end and altogether moodier in conception, sewn together by an eerie, spiralling vocal sample, while the zippy, anxious string-work and frenetic, arcade bounce of ‘Rude Flex’ and the distorted bass wobble and huge, scything claps of ‘Rushdown’ nod to a marked versatility that belies his years. 7/10

Commodo – ‘Loan Shark’ EP (Black Acre)

The best bar none

What else is there left to say about Commodo? He tends to leave listeners and contemporaries alike scratching their heads in bewilderment with every record and ‘Loan Shark’ — which listens like a jittery sunset car chase through Arizona — is no different. An ingenious sampler, he toys with sound, texture and bass weight like no other and through the sepia-toned glare, filmic crackle and playful, Dick Dastardly-esque menace of all three tracks (‘Loan Shark’, ‘Hot Pursuit’, ‘Contraband’), ‘Loan Shark’ lays down his most emphatic marker yet. Is there anyone making better dubstep? If so, I’ve not heard it. 9/10

Von D – ‘Obstacles’ EP (Artikal Music)

A top notch link-up

Bit of a late contender considering it was released at the back end of March, but Von D’s ‘Obstacles’ EP was too good not to cover this month. Across three tracks for Artikal — the iconic, tour de force dubstep label run by J:Kenzo and Mosaix — he explores the genre’s outer reaches to the fullest. The title-track listens like a grand, marching procession, cut with crunching, low-end analog pressure while the oddball, distorted bounce, scything bass and pensive strings of ‘Goat’ flip the record on its head. Our tip are the mysterious, fluttery samples and the gloomy unease of final cut ‘Whatevs’, but the whole thing smokes. 8/10

J-Shadow – ‘Modulator’ (Simply Deep)

Ingenious

Mutated club sounds from rising star J-Shadow on Simply Deep, with a trio of ‘Modulator’ remixes also thrown in for good measure. The title-track is an ingenious, crash-and-burn melee of twisted sampling, breaks-y rythms and contorted, gremlin-like sounds, while the shredded bass and hyper-intense bleep patterns of ‘Gene And Defect’ are properly mind-altering. The warmer, synth-pad tones of ‘Side-Step’ soon make way for frantic, twisted bass onslaughts too, while the razor claps and grand, shard-like synth pulses of final tracks ‘Inflation’ and ‘Glaciers’ nod to the work of producers like Logos and Mumdance. The record comes backed by three remixes (9TRANE, Jubley, Pro.Tone) of the title-track too, all of which are worth diving into. 8/10

DJ Squarewave – ‘Last Train’ EP (Vantage Records)

Huge dubstep pressure

Big, booming dubstep heaters courtesy of DJ Squarewave here, who also enlists LX One and Sukh Knight to up the ante. The squelching pressure of ‘Last Train’ hits from the off, but it’s the array of contorted, aqua-synth sounds and tense, icy melodies that give it a real future-facing, Blade Runner feel, before ‘Cali Cartel’’ — a monstrous collaboration with LX One — strips everything back. The bass lands with a palpable crunch and the sparse percussive clatter, huge kicks and oddball sampling takes a real left turn, before Sukh Knight brings things full circle with his swirling, purple-y blockbuster remix of the the title-track. 7/10

Alix Perez – Ravana EP (1985 Music)

Monstrous 

Alix Perez has enjoyed a renaissance writing at dubstep tempo over the last 12 months, which culminated in the release of 2019’s ‘Last Rites’ EP, widely regarded as one of his best records in a hot minute. ‘Ravana’, released in early April via his 1985 Music imprint, continues that theme apace and even features Headland on mean and menacing EP standout, ‘Ends’. Very much at the darker, grizzlier end of the dubstep spectrum, ‘Ravana’ kicks off with the piercing, dagger-like synth sounds and eternal gloom of the title-track, which bleeds ominously into the spiralling pressure and contorted bass wobble of ‘Lifeline’ and the de-tuned, hyper-distorted funk of ‘Post-Mortem’. Relishing operating within these confines, Perez shines brightest with Headland on the undeniable ‘Ends’, a dark, dizzying and surprisingly moreish club monster. Proper record, this. 9/10

Korin Complex – ‘Winding River’ EP (Mircale Drug Records)

Surprise tip!

Darting, minimalist club favours from US producer Korin Complex, who drops off five new tracks — including collaborations with Carter Wolfe, Duckem and Pugilist — on a markedly distinguished new 12”. Sparse but heavy on percussion, the title-track is nifty and clever, building rhythm and groove with subtle poise, before getting the big ’n bashy junglist remix treatment by Coco Bryce. The bleepy, acid-y flex of ‘Ponder’ with Carter Wolfe is a standout, as are the warming, fuzzy bass tones of the crackly ‘New Growth’ with Pugilist, but our tip is vinyl-exclusive jam ‘Periptero’ — a gorgeous, washed-out, ambient dreamscape. 7/10

Flowdan – ‘Welcome To London’ (J.Sparrow Remix) [Tru Thoughts]

Already a cult classic

If Flowdan’s ‘Welcome To London’, originally produced by Plastician and taken from 2019 album ‘Full Metal Jacket’, didn’t bang hard enough already, J. Sparrow has sent it stratospheric here. A cult remix  for a minute already now, Sparrow — a true bass architect and understated UK originator —goes on the charge from the off, upping the tempo and the dread-o-meter to devastating effect. A real, no frills club bruiser. 8/10

Monitor

This month, be sure to keep tabs on Skream’s roll-out of his ‘Unreleased Classics’ series, detailing a slew of lost and forgotten beats lifted straight from the vaults  … be sure to check back for Oliver Twist’s ‘Kick Punch’ EP on Kenyon Sound, which is well worth digging in to … as are weighty EPs by Chad Dubz (‘Original Dubplate’) and CITY1 (‘Kiswahli’) on New Moon Recordings and DNO Records respectively … Jammz did it again and Free(‘d) Up The Riddims for a second time — Volume 2 is out now via Bandcamp and a must for grime enthusiasts and beat connoisseurs alike … JT The Goon put out a surprise EP on Earthspin Recordings this month too — ‘Unknown Journey’ is out now to add to his discography of incredible, if understated, instrumental grime releases … and also be sure to dig into Sativa’s ‘Homegrown’ EP on Strictly 140 this month, it’s some of the moodiest new school grime ammo I’ve heard in a minute!

(Jammz)

Ciaran Thapar

On South London, music as therapy, the power of language, Drillosophy and an eye-opening trip to Chicago.

(All photos submitted by Ciaran Thapar)

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, a vocation is “a type of work that you feel suited to doing and to which you should give all your time and energy, or the feeling that a type of work suits you in this way”. Opening my laptop, mind pre-loaded with questions about lyricism and Drillosophy, it’s clear that Ciaran Thapar has not only found his, but made it a vehicle for tangible, impactful change. As he answers my video call on a Thursday night from his home in Stockwell, I’m immediately struck by his enthusiasm and his passion. “Honestly I could talk about this for hours, so I won’t get too carried away”, he’ll go onto say numerous times during our hour-long conversation, such is the depth and detail of his insight.

Ciaran, a youth worker, mentor, published writer, co-founder of music education programme, RoadWorks, and soon-to-be author, is perhaps best known for his association with Drill music — “I know everyone knows me as the drill guy but my career is about fighting against injustice” — but his story to this point began long before any interaction with music. “I started mentoring a teenager as part of a scheme five years ago while I was doing my masters in Political Philosophy at LSE”, he explains. “I’d done a year working in advertising and found the whole thing vacuous, so I applied for a masters, got on the course and then thought to myself that I could spend that year in deep study and thinking about what I wanted to do. I was lucky enough to be able to live with my parents in the suburbs, it was a privilege really, and even though I knew I wanted to do something socially impactful, it gave me the time to think. It wasn’t just the reading and writing and studying and thinking that would end up defining my life though, it was the fact that I signed up to this mentoring scheme.”

“I know everyone knows me as the drill guy but my career is about fighting against injustice”

Ciaran was first linked up with a 12 year-old boy called Jhemar Jonas, with the pair sharing a mutual love of music and lyrics. “Doing those fortnightly sessions with him was really beneficial”, he reflects. “I used to go to see him and we’d just spend a few hours talking about music lyrics. I’d print them out on sheets of paper and we’d go deep into them and dissect them, which became a pattern during the sessions. The first song we looked at was ‘If I Ruled The World’ by Nas. I really enjoyed it and used that experience with Jhemar to get into youth work full time. I ended up making mentoring teenage boys my specialism.” Six years on and Ciaran still mentors Jhemar, who is now 18 and the focal point and main character in Ciaran’s first book, which is due for release in 2021. 

Alongside his mentoring work, Ciaran was also carving out a reputation as a gifted young writer during his time at LSE, traversing everything from politics — “I’d written some bits on multiculturalism and British society for The New Statesman, my fundamental interest in everything I do” — to photography and a handful of commissions on music. His biggest scoop was yet to come, however. After moving to Brixton shortly after finishing his Masters, Ciaran’s youth outreach in schools and mentoring work with boys like Jhemar gave him early, first-hand insight into a raw, lived-in and hyper-localised new sound bubbling up on the streets; UK Drill.

“I’d moved into Brixton, was working in schools full time as a youth worker, volunteering at a community centre in Loughborough Junction and also working at a school in Elephant & Castle”, recalls Thapar. “At that exact period of time, crews like 67, 150 and Drill as a whole was like the best kept secret of the exact location I was working in. I had this crazy window into it from early on and from a very social perspective. I’d be chatting to a young person and we’d get into talking and it turns out this is the music he’s listening to. It wasn’t like it was ‘ah, this song is getting me gassed’, although it did, it just made me think that this is actually really important, it was a voice. I basically took the thinking and writing I’d been doing and applied it to drill really, and that’s when the journalism element started.”

Writing on UK Drill for the last three years, Thapar has penned insightful stories on the sound and its wider cultural story for everyone from The Guardian to Noisey, FACT, Crack Magazine and The Face, interviewing some of the biggest breakout names (Fredo, M Huncho, OFB, Skengdo & AM) in UK Rap along the way. But far from chasing his own headlines, as with all his work to this point, everything feeds back into his passion for youth work and challenging existing structures; providing platforms for the platform-less. “It’s always been about leveraging and advocating for people that I work with who wouldn’t otherwise have these platforms”, he concludes. “All of my writing is bound by that … injustice, really.”

Growing up, Ciaran’s household was blessed by the warm sounds of his dad’s vinyl collection — Motown, Soul and Rock — and he saw music very much as a coping mechanism, describing it as a way of “navigating life” and everyday struggles; “it’s your comfort zone, a place you can escape to”. His own listening habits saw him gravitate towards UK Garage, Hip-Hop and RnB during his early teens, before catching the Grime bug at 15 and “that was it for about five years”, he says with a smile. “I was proper nerdy about music. I’d read about it to try and understand where it was coming from socially and what it meant. Like, why is that UK Garage sounds so happy and celebratory? Why is that a timestamp of the late 90s and what does it mean for us? And like, even me listening to it on the radio as a kid, how did I feel at that time? All of those sorts of questions are really important to me.”

And these questions would continue apace with Drill. “It was like nothing anybody had ever heard before”, he says, leaning back and scratching his head a little. “Not only does it hit you with this darkness, there’s something about the sound and the aesthetic — the slang, the body language, the simplicity of some of the lyrics, the complexity of some of the lyrics, the bleakness. Something about that was telling me everything I needed to know about doing my job properly. It was reflecting my reality in music, because I was working with that exact demographic of young people. I could obviously have a bit of distance from it, it’s not like I felt the fear that these guys feel or I was going hungry or trappin’ or whatever, but there was something about it that really resonated with me.”

“Not only does it (Drill) hit you with this darkness, there’s something about the sound and the aesthetic — the slang, the body language, the simplicity of some of the lyrics, the complexity of some of the lyrics, the bleakness. Something about that was telling me everything I needed to know about doing my job properly.”

Matched up against the formative hip-hop and grime of his teenage years, Thapar notes a key difference between drill and other breakout, localised genres. “Grime was sick, but it wasn’t my reality necessarily. I saw a truth in it and it spoke to me but it was a form of escapism to some extent, in the same way listening to Dipset and G-Unit was”, he explains. “I’d never been to New York but listening to them, I’d get gassed and feel like I’d been transported there. With Drill, I don’t feel like that was the case for young people, especially in London. The music didn’t play that same role, it spoke to them in a similar way but it was literally reflecting a reality that only they felt they were living. It was very much ‘no adult can chat to me’, no adult knows what its like to be so socially anxious, so ostracised and beat down by modern society. You can’t speak to me, but this music can.”

On a purely musical level, drill’s sonics are well documented to have been influenced by Chicago Drill — a sound pioneered by rappers like Chief Keef and others — but already the UK strain has already started to flourish way beyond the streets. The beats — typically thick-edged, sludgy and dark — are matched by lyrics that range in their complexity but are always defined by their delivery; slow, syrupy and structured almost off-beat, the UK drill flow has become a phenomenon. “Drill guys don’t have to put their thousand hours in to get views on YouTube or to be seen or recognised”, Ciaran notes. “Those original names like LD and Harlem Spartans were skilful MCs, but it’s never been a prerequisite.” 

An eye-opening trip to Chicago in 2019 would compound Thapar’s thinking, as he got to grips with the sound and the culture that inadvertently birthed the Drill explosion in the UK. “I basically went down a Drill rabbit hole for about 10 days, it was nuts”, he says with a chuckle. “Like even the word itself, Drill, people write about it as if it only translates to shooting someone and there is an element of that, but it’s not the whole story. The slang that originated in this specific pocket of the south side in Chicago, like, if you were ‘doing a drill’, you were just going out to do something. Obviously it’s attached to violence as well, but the slang coalesced around the idea that you’d just done something and now you needed to come back and rap about it, there was an immediacy there. You’re not Kano, spending hours writing, listening to and studying your craft, going on pirate radio and fucking up your bars, going back to practise and correct things. You are a gangster on the streets, so you’d go out, do a drive-by, come back and get straight in the booth. The flow is therefore going to reflect that lack of preparation.”

While Thapar now acknowledges that UK Drill rappers now subscribe to a certain sound aesthetic — one that rappers like Headie One have taken pushed into new spaces (see his recent mixtape, ‘GANG’, with super-producer Fred Again) — a conversation with Chicago-based journalist David Drake, the first writer to interview Chief Keef while on house arrest and an influential voice in the city, offered even more insight into why the Drill flow is so distinct. “He said to me that the reason Chief Keef sounded slurry in his bars and didn’t really rap tight over his instrumentals was because he didn’t want it to sound too polished”, he recalls. “Like his thinking was, if I sound too polished, I’ve not been out on the streets. In order to sound like a real authentic killer, my music needs to reflect the fact I’ve been out there doing it. David Drake actually said to me that he thought Chief Keef was playing around with it deliberately back then, so when people would call him out and say he couldn’t spit, he didn’t care. He didn’t give a shit because he wasn’t following any blueprint before him.”

Within the wider rap scene in the US at the time, the ramifications of Keef’s popularity were huge, particularly on the music industry and the long-standing, traditional roadmap for success. “Where as Hip-Hop was all about practising your bars and refining them for performance and to entertain people with, the Drill sound totally rejected that”, Thapar explains. “That same nonchalance and neglect of that aspect of performance was applied to the music industry then, too. Suddenly you had Chief Keef who could get a million views on YouTube, get signed for however many millions of dollars and have the whole world singing his tracks, and all he needed was a video camera and a home studio. He didn’t need industry studios or gatekeepers, the bloggers of the 2000s. It represented a complete power dynamic shift and it still represents that now, even in the UK. Suddenly what’s popping wasn’t what XXL were putting on their covers, it was what rappers were uploading to YouTube from home.” Thapar goes onto mention Professor Forrest Stuart, his host in Chicago and local expert on the city’s Drill scene and the intertwining sociology of social media. “He taught me most of what I know about the scene in Chicago”, he enthuses, “and his new book (‘Ballad of the Bullet: Gangs, Drill Music and the Power of Online Infamy’) is ridiculously good, way ahead of its time.”

Taking this knowledge back to the UK and still bound by his passion for youth work, Ciaran co-founded RoadWorks in 2019 — a musical education programme aimed at young people and inspired by his own experiences over the last five years. Launched as a pilot last summer with close friend Reveal, a fellow youth worker, MC, founding member of UK Hip-Hop group Poisonous Poets and bastion of musical knowledge — “I don’t know anyone that knows more about Hip-Hop than him” — RoadWorks uses Rap and Drill music as a medium to help young people engage with topics like critical thinking. “Obviously we’re not prioritising engaging an Eton boy with classical music”, Thapar notes, “we’re prioritising the young people that tick all the boxes of disadvantage or disenfranchisement that mean that they don’t get a fair shot at education. Fundamentally, it’s about making education inclusive using music.”

The first RoadWorks venture proper? Drillosophy. “So I woke up maybe five, six weeks ago during the beginning of lockdown after spending the first week racing through my book, which was awesome”, Ciaran explains. “But in terms of being an effective youth worker and someone who was active in my community, I didn’t really feel that for about two weeks. I felt more peaceful and rested but I was ethically lacking in my daily routine. So, the plan for Roadworks was initially to go slow and then smash it when my book was done, so I could give it my full attention. Through the work we’ve done in schools over the last year or so though, we do have an amazing pool of resources that uses music, sociology, philosophy, trauma-informed youth work … basically cutting-edge youth work that absolutely works. It just so happened that I’d just spoken to Kwabz who runs Mixtape Madness in an interview for my book and he was saying on the phone that they were looking to support people financially with any ideas or content that could work for them. I said that me and Reveal were talking about how we’d love to film some videos from home and Mixtape Madness got behind it straight away and bought us cameras to film with. From there, I started neglecting my book and we reached unhealthy levels of productivity, but Drillosophy was formed.”

Condensed into six filmed video pieces (episodes one and two are online now, with a further four to follow), series one is a direct response to inequality and solving problems in society, only accelerated to reflect the moment we find ourselves in. “I think we were always planning on putting out a video series, but it might have taken two years without coronavirus”, explains Thapar, “but these videos aren’t just done over night. They’re the result of hundreds of hours of conversations and not just across music culture either. Me and Revs read everything there is to read about the sociology behind things and the newest research coming out about how certain technologies are influencing education, so we really know our stuff. What we’re doing now is a culmination of all those things in one place and it’s really exciting.”

The first episode, ‘Skengdo’s Cave’, is a play on Plato’s Cave — a classic allegory of Ancient Greek philosophy that explores perception — and a workshop (featuring Skengdo & AM bars) that Thapar has delivered for over 30 hours in the last few years, while episode two (‘Therapy In The Trap’) looks at Aristotle and catharsis via the story-telling in the lyrics of rappers like Ambush and Krept & Konan. Each episode also comes complete with editable educational resources which can be downloaded for free via the Roadworks website, making the Drillosophy programme adaptable for the classroom too. “You’re basically building your own curriculum I guess?”, I ask inquisitively. “Yep, that’s exactly it, that’s what we want to do”, responds Ciaran emphatically.

With Drillosophy taking off almost instantaneously, Thapar’s book debut — to be published by Viking UK (Penguin) — had to take a momentary backseat. Inspired by his youth work, ‘Cut Short’ details youth violence in London from 2015 to the present day and begins by zeroing in on the summer of 2018. “The book starts at the end of July 2018 with a big burst of chaotic violence that’s happening in Brixton”, Ciaran explains. “I spent about six months researching a three day period in particular. I wanted to talk to people in the community and focus on how local people were affected by it. Their stories weren’t in the headlines or reported on in the media and they weren’t told in music either, because a lot of it back then was all about bravado.”

The story then reverts back to Thapar’s first meeting with Jhemar — the first boy he ever mentored — back in January 2015 to ask the question, how did we get here? Although a narrative non-fiction book, it unpicks the underlying social issues of youth violence via telling the stories of three main characters, including Jhemar. “The main characters are three young men that I’ve mentored and they go from being aged 12, 13 and 14 to being 18, 19 and 20 over the course of the book and they overcome various different things”, he explains, “and each of the chapters is a bit like The Wire. I’ve chosen a different lens to tell each different part of the story from.”

With the final deadline looming, Thapar will pen the epilogue over the next few weeks — it is the realisation of his life’s work so far and a testament to the spirit and the passion that he pours into every thing he does. 

“I am trying to make a dent in our society with the book, for sure, and with Drillosophy too”, he concludes as we start to wrap up our conversation for the evening. “I want to raise awareness and make people feel the inequality that exists in our society. It’s easy to know about it, but to feel it and to care about it is a different thing entirely.” 

Read more about Roadworks, Drillosophy and Ciaran’s work here:

https://www.ciaranthapar.uk/ // https://www.roadworksldn.org/

— Henrie —

On Reprezent Radio, DIY film-making, God, #NS10V10 and staying true to the essence of personhood.

(All photos submitted by Henrie)

Henrie Kwushue is busy. Really busy. Over the past few weeks, she’s become a vital cog in the meteoric rise of No Signal’s 10v10 segment, as well as continuing to run her weekly, three-hour show on Reprezent Radio, recorded live from home. It’s a mild, balmy Thursday night when we manage to catch up and as I dial in on FaceTime, she’s on the phone to her auntie. “Give me two minutes, sorry!”, she says, before finishing up her conversation, unmuting her computer microphone and smiling. “Hello, sorry about that”, she says warmly, “I’ve always got so many people that I need to talk to.”

A little over six weeks ago, facing an uncertain amount of downtime and a complete shift in how she’d need to approach her work life — “everything I do is outside, it’s people facing, I was like rah, how is this gonna work?” — Henrie was forced to reevaluate. A prolific presenter, DJ and host, her work over the last three years in particular has marked her out as a natural in her field; composed, unflappable, witty and a top-notch selector to boot, she is now at the forefront of a new generation of broadcasters with the world seemingly at their feet. For someone entirely self-taught, motivated and hungry to progress, isolation initially felt like one of the most testing periods of her career so far.

“For the first two, maybe three weeks, I was definitely playing The Sims for about seven hours on end”, she says, totally deadpan, “I was genuinely just making my own Sim family and doing the most vicariously through them. But work did start picking up eventually, I started doing voiceovers from home and odd little bits that utilised my work online with social media platforms, which was good. It has taken a while though, I had to get my head around it first you know?”

Her journey to this point started when she was just 14. While many of her friends at school were gunning for retail placements for work experience in London, Henrie was determined to get into radio. “We were in year 9 and everyone was like, ‘yeah I wanna go work in Boots’ or in a primary school and I remember thinking I don’t wanna do that, that doesn’t sound fun”, she recalls. “It must have been 2009, maybe 2010 and back then it was a lot easier to get in contact with people, because everyone had their emails available online. I’d be emailing The Metro, ITV, The BBC, anyone I could get hold of really. I remember just being like ‘I don’t know what I wanna do in your place but please, I just wanna be in the media, can I do something even if it’s just for a week?”

“We were in year 9 and everyone was like, ‘yeah I wanna go work in Boots’ or in a primary school and I remember thinking I don’t wanna do that, that doesn’t sound fun”

Henrie did receive a load of responses, but the majority of platforms turned her down because their placements were only open to those 18 years old and up. There was one exception, though. “I found a place called Reprezent Radio, it was in South London and it was a community station”, she explains. “I asked them and I got it and I was like ‘shit’ because I knew I didn’t wanna end up at Superdrug or whatever.” Her first interview during her placement? Akala. “It’s honestly crazy stuff thinking about it. I was super young so I wasn’t that clued up but I knew he was Ms. Dynamite’s brother and I knew he was important. I interviewed him when I was 14, it’s mad.”

Now, Reprezent Radio has become a vital platform for a swell of young DJs, presenters and MCs from London and beyond, even earning a visit from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle back in 2018, with Henrie becoming part of the fabric of the place alongside other talented presenters like Remi Burgz, Joe Walker, Scully and Naina. But her grounding in radio first started at university in Leeds, where Henrie studied broadcast journalism and was a regular on Leeds Student Radio, regularly voted one of the UK’s best student radio stations.

“I didn’t take it that seriously but the station always wanted me to go to The Student Radio Awards back then”, she says sheepishly. “A lot of the people there thought they were just gonna go straight off to work for BBC News like, tomorrow, and I was like, ‘nah, this is not me’. Whenever they’d push me to go to the SRAs, I never thought I’d win anything because I was the only person like me, the only person who had a show like mine, spoke like me, looked like me. Every year, I said no to going but they still let me win. I’ve actually got an award here for Best Female, so things like that were really cool.”

Armed with the experience she gained in Leeds, Henrie not only maintained friendships with staff at Reprezent Radio but struck up new relationships during the summers she spent back at home in London too, meaning she was perfectly positioned to segway into radio once she returned to the city after graduating. “I covered a few shows when I wasn’t at university anyway, so when I finished for good, I went straight to Reprezent”, she says proudly. 

It was Reprezent that’d give her a first taste of overnight success back in 2017, too. She’d been trialling a series called ‘Lyrics For Lyrics, CALM!’ on her show when a young, soon-to-blow Hardy Caprio strolled in and took up the challenge. “He’s such a lovely human being first and foremost”, she says fondly. “The basic idea was that he cusses me and then I cuss him in 16 bars. I didn’t even know what 16 bars was at the time so I just said ‘whatever bars suit you sir’ kinda thing. I ended up going first and he went second and absolutely finished me. Everyone picked it up. Drake, GRM Daily, SBTV, everyone was talking about it. That was the first moment where it felt like everybody was like, ‘have you seen this?”

“The basic idea was that he cusses me and then I cuss him in 16 bars. I didn’t even know what 16 bars was at the time so I just said ‘whatever bars suit you sir’ kinda thing”

Among her other highlights on Reprezent so far, Henrie recalls a show with The Compozers — Koffee’s touring band in the UK — who played a mini-set (including ‘Toast’) with toy-sized instruments, Mo Gilligan aka Mo The Comedian joining her – “it was incredible having him on, incredible human being” — and face in the news, a comedian and all-round personality, jumping on the show. “She’s just the best”, Henrie beams. “She came on the show and smacked it, like I knew she would.” Without probing too much, it’s clear to see that Henrie was already mastering the art of making original broadcasting not only accessible, but engaging — and on quite a scale. 

As of just over a year ago, she DJs now too, a crucial weapon in the arsenal of the modern-day presenter where it pays to be good at just about everything. Such is her standing, she’s already played at fabric, galleries including Tate Britain and The V&A, and sets for world-leading brands like Nike and Adidas. She’s also a regular at DAMNSHAQ’s club night, DAMNSHAQ’S House — “I fell in love with everything there, the music, the staging, everything” — which has honed her skills as a selector. 

If radio wasn’t enough, Henrie has now taken documentary film-making into her own hands, too. Clearly a natural on and off-screen, she decided to put together a filmed series (‘Is Your Area Changing?’) exploring the social changes affecting different areas in London, inspired by a bus ride through Peckham at the back end of 2018. The first episode, launched in January, focused on Brixton, with the second focusing on Peckham — a third episode centred around Dalston is due to drop in the coming weeks. Filmed completely independently and lasting between 13-17 minutes an episode, the first two films have already racked up over 110,000 views on YouTube between them. 

“I remember being on a bus going to my friends house and I had to go through Peckham about a year after I graduated. I remember looking out the window and thinking, this feels different, like nobody wears dungarees and Converse in Peckham, what’s going on?”, she asks before bursting into laughter. “I then had to get on the bus back home later that night at about 1AM and it was so different. I can’t even explain how different it was, it was a side to Peckham I’d never seen before. Obviously travelling through Peckham at night you’d be scared anyway, but this was a different type of scared. Why must there be two extremes? People were everywhere, it was like party ’til you die, totally crazy.”

“I remember looking out the window and thinking, this feels different, like nobody wears dungarees and Converse in Peckham, what’s going on?”

After chatting with her peers about content ideas a few months later, that journey remained etched in her mind. “I was thinking about things I could do, content ideas and that. I spoke to a few people about it and was like ‘ah yeah guys, I’ve got this idea about something I wanna document, I’m not sure if it’ll make sense to you’ and everyone I told was like, ‘that sounds incredible’. I remember saying, ‘shit, are you sure?’, she laughs, “I just didn’t think it’d go anywhere.”

Despite her degree experience and having “loads of runner jobs”, Henrie and a small crew headed out with just a camera — “I know how production works, but we didn’t do a single thing, no storyboarding, not a ting” — and got to work. “We’d come up with the script as we filmed, so looking back I don’t really know how we managed to pull it off”, she says with a smile. “It was so DIY and made right at that moment, so I couldn’t even go back and film it again even if I wanted to.” The response to the series has been enormous, not only taking Henrie herself by surprise, but also re-sparking local debate about the need to protect and preserve existing cultures amidst the backdrop of London’s seemingly never-ending boom. 

It’s perhaps no wonder then that Henrie has become one of the faces of the Internet’s breakout lockdown sensations, No Signal, and specifically, its 10v10 segment over the last four weeks. Powered by RECESS — a London party embracing and celebrating black music and black culture — No Signal was launched as an online radio station about 12 months ago, operating as a sister company and boasting little more than 50 followers on social media. 

As a regular DJ at RECESS parties and early No Signal broadcasts, both of which Henrie credits with helping her establish herself as a selector, she was the first person founder Jojo called with a new idea a few weeks ago. “I can even tell you when it was”, says Henrie, scrolling frantically through her call history, “…well the first show was sometime in early April and I think he called me a week before that, so literally not even a month ago. He said he wanted to do something around clashes, but a bit like a game show, and that they’d love me to be a presenter. At the time, I didn’t have much going on and it felt like it was a good opportunity me to keep me presenting and stay focused, so I said ‘okay, cool, let’s do it!”

Having seen rappers like Tory Lanez’ and his Quarantine Radio broadcasts attract hundreds of thousands of fans on Instagram Live and the UK find itself gripped by an obsessed with competition of any sort — family quizzes,  Tik Tok dance routines, running PBs et al — JoJo and the crew at No Signal developed the 10v10 format. Half game show, half clash, the show pits two diehard, well-versed fans against one another in picking 10 tracks from an artist’s back catalogue, which are then put to listeners who can vote to decide which fan, artist and track wins each round, making the fan just as important as the artist; in essence, the fan who reps harder, wins. “We did a pilot show and it was just the most DIY thing ever”, Henrie laughs. “I love Jojo so much but because none of those guys really do radio, I remember being like ‘okay we’re live!’ and having to come up with my own script in my head as I went. Genuinely, a week after that pilot show, we went straight into the first live show.”

The first ever 10v10 clash saw Kanye West vs Jay-Z’s discographies go under the microscope, which Henrie presented on April 5. Since then, No Signal and the #NS10v10 hashtag has melted the internet (and at times, the No Signal servers) to go completely global; two weeks ago, Henrie presented their Wizkid vs Vybz Kartel clash, which attracted over 600,000 listeners from over 99 countries, including Burna Boy locked in live from Nigeria. Even ex-Arsenal footballer Ian Wright tuned in for last week’s Rick Ross vs Lil Wayne show, presented by Reprezent alumni Scully, nodding to how far the base premise of the show has permeated culture already. As for Henrie, she finds itself inundated with tweets from listeners congratulating her after every broadcast, which goes to show that however popular the format gets, her ability to present on the fly under intense scrutiny is vital to the show’s success. It is a truly one of the most extraordinary UK music stories to come out of this lockdown period so far.

“We (me and Scully) both have people on Twitter tweeting about it all when we’re live, which I think helps amplify things and I definitely have seen it spread like that, but we’re at 76,000 followers now”, she says passionately. “I started following the station when there was less than 100 followers, so it’s absolutely mad to see how much it’s grown. It shows there’s a space for it.” With the eyes of the UK media and no doubt, a sea of brands, now fixed on Henrie and the No Signal crew, she hopes that the format can continue once the UK lockdown is eased. “I like the way it’s going now, I like the audience we’re bringing in and I just think it’s sick, so I hope we find a way to keep it going once we can all be around each other again”, she concludes.

There’s one common thread running through all Henrie’s pursuits to this point; faith and her relationship with God. From her radio shows to speaking to her in person to scrolling through her social media output, God is quite often front and centre, the driving force behind her passion for music and creating content. “I feel like God is a big part of who I am and a big part of my career thus far because some of the things I’ve accomplished, honestly if I told you some of the things I’d done you’re gonna be like, ‘rah, that just sounds dumb, like how?”, she says laughing, her face breaking out into a beaming smile. 

“Honestly, my life before was a mess. I was genuinely working at a Kiko store (an Italian cosmetics company) and I was doing 16 hours a week and I hated life”, she continues. “I had to do people’s makeup and all the rest of it. It’s not like I don’t like makeup but I don’t wanna be drawing eyeliner all day. I walked out mid-shift one day, didn’t even wait for holiday pay. I was gone. From there, I had to reevaluate everything I wanted to do in my life but I feel like everything came with ease after finding God. People say to me now like ‘rah, how have you only been DJing for a year and you’re already playing Tate Britain?’ and I can only point to God. I genuinely believe without God, I wouldn’t be able to accomplish at all.”

As we start to wind down our conversation, my head still spinning trying to quantify just how much Henrie already does and is still yet to do, talk turns to the future. And far from reeling off a tick-box list of things to achieve, Henrie’s ambitions are pretty simple. “I’d just like to be someone that people identify with, I don’t wanna be anything too much or anything too little”, she says thoughtfully, “and I just wanna remain being Henrie. The essence of who I am I don’t ever really want to change.”

Listen to Henrie on Reprezent Radio every Thursday between 4-7pm:

http://www.reprezent.org.uk/#/shows/henrie

— Scratcha DVA —

On grime, dance music, journalists, jaded periods and teaching the world Scratchanese.

All photos submitted by Scratcha DVA

“Is it too dark or nah?”, asks Scratcha DVA as our video chat starts. He’s speaking to me from home in Luton, where he’s spent the entirety of the lockdown period so far. “I’m pretty much isolating most of the time here anyway to be honest, unless I’m going into London or whatever. I’m in the yard a lot, so it’s pretty normal. My studio’s here as well.”

Scratcha’s story is an interesting one. A day one grime producer turned Hyperdub alumni with a unique take on pretty much everything, I’ve always felt he’s served as a watchful guardian of UK underground music, consistently releasing boundary-pushing records traversing multiple sounds but more recently, cutting through the noise with vital comment and critique. It all started after getting a bit in his own words, “pissed off”, with the lack of visibility his grime beats were getting back in the early 00s. 

“I was making a lot of tracks and there was just nothing coming back, which was fine for the first couple of years or whatever, but like, you could end up having five different beats on five different mixtapes and everyone’s happy, shotting their mixtapes and getting their names out there. The MCs would get so much love and I’d just be like “alright, cool”, can we have anything? Can I have some money? It was just weird back then.”

As it happens, Scratcha’s studio at the time was housed, quite literally, above a nightclub in East London — Purple E3 in Mile End to be exact. “I’m recording all these grime sets in there but every weekend, all I’m hearing is ‘dum, dum, dum, dum’ (mimicking a kick drum) from downstairs”, he recalls. “So I go down there and there’s all this house and funky going on, literally straight from my studio. This was the era of your MA1s and Kismets and I just remember everyone inside was having mad fun. Like it was fun. Before you know it, I’d started to make some slower beats and then there we are, I’m in Funky, see you later guys!”

“I’m recording all these grime sets in there but every weekend, all I’m hearing is ‘dum, dum, dum, dum’ from downstairs”

MA1 would go onto remix Scratcha’s first ever Funky track, ‘I’m Leaving’ ft. Alahna, back in 2009, which opened him up to a whole new network of producers and sounds beyond the world of grime he’d grown up in. But it was a flyer, picked up in a record shop in Gants Hill in Ilford, that’d change everything. “I used to go in quite a lot and this was back in the day where you’d get flyers everywhere, like paper ones with mobile numbers printed at the bottom, remember them ones?”, he says laughing. “I was flicking through a load and picked one up and it said ‘Producer’s House’ and underneath, it said something like ‘just for producers’. It was clearly a House and Funky thing, which I was making at the time, so I was like cool and called the number. Turns out it was Cooly G on the other end of the line, but I didn’t know her at the time. I explained I made house and funky and that, so she asked me to send her some tunes. I sent her a couple of tunes later that night, she had a listen and ended up booking me.”

That one booking would form the start of a relationship that’d ultimately lead Scratcha to Kode9, label boss at Hyperdub, after the pair starting writing tunes together. “One time, I was at Cooly’s yard and we were making some tunes and I think I must have gone to the toilet or something, I come back, and she’s sitting on my laptop. And I hate it when people touch my laptop”, he recalls with a wry smirk. “She’d been going through stuff and ended up on this beat I’d been playing a lot on Rinse at the time, it was just a loop. I knew it wasn’t finished but when it’s your tune, you know how to play it. You wouldn’t send it to anyone else, but you knew how to work it into a set. Anyway she kept listening to it and was like, ‘I like it, I wanna play it’, but I kept saying nah, it’s not finished. She got her way, ended up playing it and Kode9 heard it. He actually called me on the phone and was like,’what’s this tune?’ I told him it wasn’t finished but he was wasn’t having it and said, ‘nah, it’s finished’ and that was it. All I did was put an intro on it in the end and that was ‘Natty’, bruv.”

“He (Kode9) actually called me on the phone and was like,’what’s this tune?’ I told him it wasn’t finished but he was wasn’t having it and said, ‘nah, it’s finished’ and that was it.”

Released in 2010, ’Natty’ laid the foundations for a now decade-long relationship with Hyperdub, which has since seen him put out a further six EPs and two full-length albums with the label, punctuated by releases with Keysound, his own DVA Music imprint and a 2019 re-issue of a quartet of his most sought after early grime beats by new-school aficionados, Dream Eater. In time for Bandcamp’s most recent fee-waiving day on Friday, Scratcha also co-released ‘Mixx & Scratch’ — a four-track collaborative EP with fellow grime OG, Grandmixxer

With such a rich and diverse back catalogue and a DJ career that’s taken him all over the planet, it’d be easy to define Scratcha in ‘veteran’ terms, but such is his appetite for tapping into new sounds, his music still feels decidedly future-facing, fresh and exciting, and his outlook feels youthful. He’s even managed to stave off feeling jaded or resentful. Apart from a disillusioning period four years ago, that is. “Ah it was was probably 2016-17 sorta times and I just thought fuck this, fuck that, fuck everyone, fuck music even. You have to feel like that sometimes though. When you’re jaded, I’m always aware that you can’t go back there. You can’t be jaded forever. And now I’m super happy with where everything’s at.”

One bugbear that’s refused to go away however, is Scratcha’s relationship with music journalism, which continues to irk him to this day. First irritated by working tirelessly on writing his second album, ‘NOTU_URONLINEU’, back in 2016 and finding journalists’ responding indifferently to the record, he’s been keen to change the dynamic ever since. “I remember that album coming out and nobody was really getting back to us and it was just like, really? I’d just locked myself for the best part of a year in a room, I’d covered up the windows so no light could come in, it was pitch black the whole time, and I’d made an album. Like, really?”

“We as artists, we make music and we decide to give it to the world though”, he continues more seriously. “Journalists will then come along and slot themselves in between that, me giving my music to the people. You can say what you like, critique it, score it out of 10, whatever, I’m totally okay with that. But then, just know that I’m gonna score you out of 10 as well, because, why can’t I?”

To counter the possibility of unfair critique and journalists writing about music releases with a perceived lack of context or understanding of what it takes to make a record, he’s spent the last few years trying to flip the script. “I have this plan, which I’ve been trying to put into action for a little while”, he says, grinning. “I had five journalists lined up and I wanted to get them in a studio, Red Bull ideally, give them each a key, give them a month and see what they come up with. One of them had to have a decent knowledge of how to use the DAW, but yeah, I think it’d work. Then we’d get some musicians to review it. It needs to be flipped so they can think, ‘hang on, that was a product of my hard work and my creativity’ and you’re out here saying I should have done this and that instead.”

Another of Scratcha’s plans is centred around his SMS-style text language, which he’s adopted since he first got a mobile phone back in the early 00s. It’s become an extension of his personality, which I’ve found helps him make important points and give valuable insight — especially on social media — without feeling like he’s being harsh or conversely, preachy; it softens the blow. Dubbed Scratchanese, he’s been working on a dictionary for the last two years, which he hopes to release by the end of 2020.

“I’d could pull up emails from 2004 and it’s the same shit, some of it was worse back then bruv”, he laughs. “When I say something on Twitter or on email or whatever and someone replies saying I don’t understand what you’ve just said, I’m just like, can’t you read? It’s clearer than English! I just never got out of the habit of typing like that when I first got a phone, but seriously though, I’m gonna be doing pocket-size hard copies of the Scrathanese dictionary by the end of this year.”

“When I say something on Twitter or on email or whatever and someone replies saying I don’t understand what you’ve just said, I’m just like, can’t you read? It’s clearer than English!”

The idea isn’t to stop at just physical copies either, Scratcha wants to go global. “I was talking to someone about going to teach Scratchanese recently. My boy lives out in Seoul, he’s a teacher out there, and we’ve been thinking about me flying over to do some classes as well. Eventually, the way I see it, it’s gonna be the norm to just type in shorthand and to communicate like that. I’m just already there, ahead of the curve.”

As our conversation winds down and the reality of retreating back into lockdown stasis starts to hit, Scratcha remains upbeat, energised by where he sees dance music headed. There are nods to labels like Nervous Horizon — “I saw it coming with them lot, them guys are dons, I like them a lot” — and the new-school class of DJs and collectives who have breathed new life back into UK dance floors. “I feel like the generation of people like Yazzus and LCY, these lot wanna party, you know what I mean?”, he says enthusiastically. “The tempos are up and they just wanna rave. Just watch the Boiler Room sessions from our era, boring as fuck. Then look at theirs, the energy is completely different, it’s mad. They’re not confining themselves to one sound and everyone involved in that whole wave is making all sorts of stuff. It’s healthy, bruv.”

“To be honest”, he continues, “you can just do what you want now, there’s no gatekeeping and everything is open. And that’s what music’s supposed to be like.”

Scratcha DVA & Grandmixxer’s ‘Mixx & Scratch’ is out now on Bandcamp:

https://scratchadva.bandcamp.com/album/mixx-scratch

— Jammz —

On grime, theatre, radio, practising patience and never giving up.

(All photos submitted by Jammz)

Grime MC, producer, actor, script-writer, label owner, chef? “I’ve just been doing bare cooking bro, so much cooking honestly”, says Jammz as he answers my FaceTime call on Thursday night, sipping a glass of Wray & Nephew’s and mixer. Originally, we were supposed to catch up on Wednesday, but such is Jammz’ schedule — even during a nationwide lockdown — something cropped up. “I do a bit of everything, bruv. I’m a creative, I help link things together and connect the dots.”

When the current COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK in mid-March, Jammz was about to embark on a nationwide theatre tour with Poet In Da Corner — a play written by long-time friend Debris Stevenson that has since gone on to earn critical acclaim after debuting at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2018. 

“I’d been following it for a while but she first came to me with the play in 2015, 2016”, he recalls. “It’s basically a play about how Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Boy In Da Corner’ changed her life while she was growing up and she initially just asked if I could write some songs. It was basically a case of taking the tracks from Dizzee’s album and using them as a blueprint to write new versions of each one, but making them more applicable to her life and her experiences. I actually wrote the first one (’Stop Dat’) when I was on tour with Kano in Nottingham.”

His re-booted version of ’Stop Dat’, co-written with Debris, soon turned into a whole album’s worth of reimagined material, with the pair going back and fourth, cramming in sessions where they could while he remained on tour. With a first-class degree in creative writing, Debris broke down Dizzee’s original album tracks in terms of their structure, patterns and even cadence; “I just followed her lead and that process to begin with”, Jammz reflects. But his involvement wouldn’t stop there.

After deciding to change director during the play’s early planning stages, Debris asked Jammz if he’d like to be involved in character development; unbeknownst to him, she’d earmarked him for a role already. “Once the director changed, the role of the character (SS Vyper) I was helping to develop and oversee instantly became bigger”, he says warmly. “I was now suggesting lines and even potential story lines, which eventually lead me going along to The Royal Court in 2017 to give a reading for the role. It was just a reading and I wanted to go along because I’d obviously followed and been involved with the whole process, but I wasn’t expecting anything from it. After I’d given my performance, the AD, Vicky, came over and said, ‘You read that so, so well, you might as well act in the play’.”

After I’d given my performance, the AD, Vicky, came over and said, ‘You read that so, so well, you might as well act in the play’.”

“I think Debris had kinda wanted that all along”, he continues with a grin, “so I was like ‘alright cool, let’s do it — what’s the worst that can happen?”. Despite initially struggling with his lines — “bruv it was so hard at first!” — Jammz and Poet In Da Corner went onto score rave reviews from across UK media in its opening run, logging 4-star reviews from The Guardian, The Times, The Metro, the Evening Standard and Time Out.  

It’s an interesting entry point into Jammz’ make-up and wider artistry, which runs far deeper than any one discipline. An active grime MC since his college days, he initially struggled to make an impact on the wider scene, aside from a group of friends and people local to his area. It was 2010’s ‘I Am Grime’ EP — written as a response to grime artists of the time choosing to sign with major labels and move into more mainstream pop spaces— that would inadvertently form the groundswell for Jammz to really make his presence felt. 

Despite coming up in a congested scene dominated by venomous, fiery young spitters like Kozzie and Marger, Jammz made it his mission to be heard. He was a regular at The Old Blue Last in Shoreditch, one of the few venues in London that would host regular grime events at the time, where he’d try and get on the mic whenever an opportunity arose. But it’d be a run of ‘I Am Grime’ t-shirts, released in collaboration with day one grime blog, Once Upon A Grime, that’d first make waves and pique people’s interest. “Nobody knew who I was, but the t-shirts travelled further than me at the time”, he concedes with a smile. 

With I Am Grime established as a brand, Jammz’ breakthrough tape ‘Hit Then Run’ (2015) would then go on to light the touch paper for a career that has seen him dominate London’s airwaves, tour the world and spearhead grime’s latest golden generation of MCs alongside names like AJ Tracey, Novelist and Big Zuu. DIY internet and pirate radio spaces aplenty had breathed new life into a despondent scene and grime soon became the go-to genre on everybody’s lips. 

“Everyone just wanted to be the sickest MC.”

“That whole period was so much fun, I ain’t even gonna lie bruv”, he recalls. “Nobody was doing grime with the intention of blowing back then, mandem just wanted to go radio every week and spit. In the beginning, it was a way for me to channel stuff and it was just a release really. Because I went along to places like Flex FM and Mode FM so regularly, I ended up meeting a lot of like-minded people. Everyone just wanted to be the sickest MC and over time, everyone got better and better. It was such a pure thing.”

“I’d say we created a whole new ecosystem you know”, he continues. “I got to meet so many DJs and so many producers, who in the end all started making things with each other and created new ideas, new spaces. So much work came out of that period, it’s mad thinking about it.” Standout singles with Local Action followed (‘Final Warning’ w/ Finn, ’10 Missed Calls’ w/ Dread D) as well as 2015’s ‘London Living’ with Plastician — a track he acknowledges as one of the most defining of his career so far. Two instalments of his extended ‘Warrior’ EP series, both of which drew widespread critical acclaim for their lyrical content and beat selection, were also important yardsticks in Jammz fast-emerging career. 

Ultimately, it was a time that proved bountiful for all, but one that also mapped out different futures for different artists. Despite later being profiled alongside Little Simz, Stormzy and Krept & Konan in The Guardian at the back end of 2016, Jammz was never motivated by stardom, instead dedicating his time to utilising his skills to push grime in different ways. “Sometimes the picture is bigger than what you can see in front of you”, he says firmly, “and without all the stuff I’d done in my early career, I probably wouldn’t be doing the stuff I’m doing with Poet In Da Corner now.”

“Sometimes the picture is bigger than what you can see in front of you”

“Essentially, it’s all timing”, he continues. “I remember going to Fabric with P Money very early on in my career and he’d ask me to come on stage, but I’d never bother to spray. I just knew I’d go on the next time and do it twice as well. I’m cool being patient and to be honest, even if I don’t get the accolades, one thing I have got is a fanbase that support me. And they’re flipping loyal, bruv.”

That loyalty has become integral to the growth of his I Am Grime brand, which now incorporates a monthly radio show on Rinse FM with DJ and co-head, Jack Dat, and the label arm, which has housed a variety of Jammz’ vocal and instrumental projects. A vastly underrated producer and beat-maker to boot, Jammz released his first 12”, ’Keep It Simple / The World’, in 2016 after teasing the beats for months. It’s a record that has since taken on cult status, such was the speed with which the first pressing sold out, but rather than give into fans’ voracious appetite for new beats, Jammz again sat tight and waited. “For me, I’m definitely a fan of teasing music for ages. Like 6-8 months at least, until it’s undeniable. The same thing happened with ‘French Montana Riddim’ (another cult Jammz & Jack Dat instrumental, released in 2019*), that tune was rotating for four years before we decided to put it out. I’m patient. I like building things slowly.” 

On reflection, Jammz’ slow-build, long-game approach to all aspects of his career has benefited him unilaterally. But is there a part of him that wishes he wasn’t, in his own terms, ‘a jack of all trades’? “It works against me, it proper does”, he concedes. “But do you know what I think it is? When you’re good at a lot of things, people will look at you and think you don’t need help. People will send help and support to people who visibly need it, rather than amplify the stuff that you’re already doing well. I used to get hung up about it but over time I realised that’s just how it is and it’s easier to just crack on, innit?”

“When you’re good at a lot of things, people will look at you and think you don’t need help.”

And crack on he has. With ‘Free Up The Riddims Volume 2’, a second anthology of blistering, long sought-after Jammz productions, recently dropping via Bandcamp, I Am Grime Radio still running monthly on Rinse FM and a host of creative projects keeping him busy in isolation, it seems that even when the world has ground to a halt, Jammz is still finding ways to work. “One thing I don’t like doing is sitting still for too long because otherwise my brain just wanders”, he confesses, “so this whole period has so far made me sharper at what I do. And more dedicated about what I do.”

Jammz – ‘Free Up The Riddims Volume 2’ is out now:  https://iamgrime.bandcamp.com/album/free-up-the-riddims-volume-2-2

Sinead Harnett

On love, isolation, growth, creativity and flipping the switch.

All photos submitted by Sinead Harnett

My text alert tone goes off on Friday afternoon, three times in quick succession. Before we were due to catch up over FaceTime later that evening, I’d asked Sinead Harnett to send a couple of photos that captured what her everyday, isolation reality has been like over the last three weeks. First, came a photo of her piano, zoomed in to capture the full scale of the keys. Second, a framed photo of her nephew, Leo, with two KRK monitors placed either side. Then, a photo of her kitchen sink piled high with pots, pans and dishes. “How can I thrive in any way?”, she asks as we first start chatting, “I hate working from home. Or, rather, I hated.”

As an artist who’s worked tirelessly the world over since first breaking through in 2011, Sinead has spent much of the last decade going from writing session to writing session, and from meeting to meeting. Rarely taking time out — or giving herself a chance to heal from past trauma — her creativity often stifled and her moods sometimes erratic, she concedes that not all of her journey to this point has been plain sailing. Now, suddenly faced with the proposition of an uncertain period of time at home — “At first, I was like ‘oh my goodness’, what am I gonna do?” — Sinead has, in her own words, “flipped the switch”.

“Suddenly this switch went off in my brain and I realised, hang on a sec … I’ve been running around for the whole of my career, cramming in as much as I can; double session this day, flight there this day for a week’s writing camp, five meetings this day, a concert tonight and then finishing up, the album next month. I just thought to myself, why have I been living like that?”

It’s a question that has since sparked a flurry of activity from Sinead’s front room, beamed live via her Instagram account to a watching audience that is rapidly growing with each short broadcast. She’s even joined Tik-Tok, too. “Before, I was so busy running away from things and thinking, ‘who am I as an artist?’. Now, I wake up and look in the mirror and look at myself and think, ‘oh, you again!’. It’s made me realise, okay, this is who you are. It’s been a big realisation for me and a lot of people around me are saying the same thing. I know that what I’m choosing to do now is a lot less than I was doing before, but I feel like I’ve got a voice that I want to share with people.”

The time at home hasn’t been limited to just self-reflecting or jumping on Instagram either. “Another thing”, she quickly follows up, more passionately this time, “Why the hell were we allowed to fly as much as we did? Why does traffic fill the roads? How is the plastic industry still thriving? Why is the meat industry still ridiculous? The amount of damage we’ve done to the earth is incredible. We were living stupidly.”

Sinead released her debut artist album, ‘Lessons In Love’, in the autumn of 2019, a deeply personal record that traced years of trauma and heartache, but one that she was determined to frame in a positive light; all experiences, good and bad, can serve as lessons. Given her steely attitude to facing the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic so far, I wondered whether or not writing and releasing it had in any way prepared her for coping with life in isolation. “Basically, 2016 is when everything started to turn for me”, she recalls. “Up until then, I spent a lot of my life going in-and-out of really dark phases. I had a lot of healing to do for different reasons; all of us come with baggage, all of us have struggles, all of have issues and complications from our childhoods. The album, and all of the writing I did from 2016-2019, was a big part of the process of coming to terms with that. I knew I couldn’t move forward without facing myself and starting to like myself. I can see, even now, looking back at photos that I didn’t. I was so lost.”

“The amount of damage we’ve done to the earth is incredible. We were living stupidly.”

The album spawned singles like ‘Pulling Away’, ‘Leo Bear’ — a song dedicated to her nephew, Leo — and ‘Be The One’, which was recently re-booted with guest vocals from Col3trane, all of which not only feel entirely relatable in terms of their content, but also vividly cathartic; you can feel Sinead letting go, track-by-track. “The biggest lesson of the whole album is one of self-love”, she admits. “It’s almost like I had to write it and let it go. And now I’m a much more self-aware and self-loving person.”

In the midst of this album-writing cycle came a captivating COLORS performance of ‘Body’ in 2018, which saw Sinead fly to Berlin to record the track live in front of a small crew of videographers; “I’d much rather perform in front of a thousand people than three”, she concedes in hindsight, “it was so intense trying to get into my zone!”. It’s since amassed almost 15 million views and unbeknownst to her at the time, put Sinead on the map for an army of new fans. The ripples of that one performance can still be felt today, too, so much so that she was recently invited back to perform an isolation live stream via COLORS’ Instagram — a performance that piqued her interest in using Instagram to broadcast during the current pandemic. “What I love about COLORS is it’s such a discovery tool, people want to find slept-on, hidden gems on there” she says thoughtfully. “It’s interesting because a lot of people have said to me it felt like a moment, but I didn’t really see it like that at the time. When you’re the hamster on the hamster wheel, you don’t always know what you’re doing. Or where you’re going.”

Since that first COLORS performance on Instagram two weeks ago, Sinead has laid herself bare on the platform, not only as an artist performing live vocals and short sessions, but as a person, speaking openly, telling jokes and doing impressions of her mum; “It’s allowed people to see what a big, raging dork I really am”, she laughs. “Seriously though, we’ve got so much time to show who we are now, and we’re finding out how many people are actually hilarious. During the first week when everything with the lockdown was put into place, I felt it’d be wrong to share funny content and initially, I was feeling quite down myself. But I feel like it’s got to the stage now where we people need relief from the severity of the situation.”

I knew I couldn’t move forward without facing myself and starting to like myself.

As well as laughs, Sinead’s also brought a dose of activism to her live broadcasts, with those tuned in raising over £1000 for the NHS in 37 minutes during her latest stream. The method? Getting men to twerk live on camera, with some even choosing to pour cartons of milk over themselves — a tongue-in-cheek riposte to the apparent global obsession with girls twerking, which has seen artists like Tory Lanez and Swarmz smash Instagram Live records and amass thousands of new fans during isolation.

“I’m not gonna lie to you and say that people tuned into their Instagrams aren’t entertained, because there’s such a big demand for female bodies”, Sinead explains. “But what’s alarmed me most about the clips on social media are the comments popping up. People seem to think it’s okay to be mean and say awful things about the poor girls on camera. So I just thought, imagine girls got guys to dance. Would people like it?”

Despite being only two broadcasts deep, the answer to that question already seems to be an overwhelming yes. And guys seem just as keen to be involved, too. “What’s funny is that some people don’t know anything about Tory Lanez or Quarantine Radio, so I’ve had loads of guys prepped and ready to go with milk and all sorts. After the reaction to the first, I felt like I had a responsibility to make use of it and the NHS is in desperate need of PPE right now, so it made sense to fundraise. The response generally has been great. A lot of people have got in touch to say it’s a really good way to flip the switch, have a laugh and do something good at the same time.”

“So I just thought, imagine girls got guys to dance. Would people like it?”

With so much time on her hands for the first time in her career, it seems that Sinead Harnett is finally coming out of her shell. At ease with the person she is, confident and witty — “At this point, I reckon I could have my own talkshow on TV now” — writing freely and finding new ways to let fans into her world, she’s found silver linings in the most testing of situations. But more than anything, the lessons she’s learnt in her life so far, played out so viscerally on her debut album, have given her the perspective to confront the challenge of isolation head on. 

“When and if this blows over and becomes a thing of the past, I really want to find a way to spread the word about treating the earth with the love and respect it deserves”, she concludes. “Personally too, I and I think all of us, need to slow down. I’m gonna do less, travel less, relax more and (mimics accent) ‘Just take it easy!’ as they say in Nacho Libre. The freedom this time has afforded me has helped me be more creative than any full diary ever has.”

Sinead Harnett broadcasts on Instagram Live weekly: https://www.instagram.com/sineadharnett 

— GRIME & DUBSTEP MONTHLY ™ —

A new, temporary home for monthly Mixmag Grime & Dubstep reviews while the magazine remains out of print — here are April’s picks.

Album of the Month: ONHELL – ‘Grime Beats Vol.1’ (Deep Dark & Dangerous)

ONHELLISH!

Highlights

1. Athena’s Grime Beat

2. Tomatillo Heat

3. New Beat Who Dis

ONHELL has quietly gone about his business for Plastician’s Terrorhythm imprint and Deep, Dark & Dangerous over the last few years, but it was 2019’s ‘Graveyard Shift’ single with Trim – a track we reviewed as one of the best we’d heard in a long time — that palpably felt like a eureka moment. His follow-up (and debut beat tape / LP of sorts), ‘Grime Beats Vol.1’, continues this exploration of UK grime aesthetics through a US lens apace, pulling together a collection of heavyweight instrumentals full of devilish intent. From the evil, distorted square wave buzz of opener ‘21X Riddim’ right the way through to the thuggish, ice-cold glare of ‘Athena’s Grime Beat’ and the jittery, skeletal unease of ‘Wolf And The Cub’, the tracks deliberately bleed into each another, creating one looming, nightmarish canvas. The cinematic, star-lit screech of ‘New Beat Who Dis’ is perhaps the collection’s most emphatic, but every track on ‘Grime Beats Vol.1’ is heavy on menace. 8/10

Tune of the Month: Last Japan ft. Killa P – ‘Exhale’ (Escha Remix) [Circadian Rhythms]

Don’t forget to breathe!

Circadian Rhythms follow up 2019’s multi-artist ‘Partisan’ project with a quick-fire re-issue of Last Japan classic, ‘Exhale’ ft. Killa P. Re-booted by label affiliates Sully and Escha, it’s the latter’s explosive remix that gets our nod, twisting the original inside out and back again; Killa’s vocals are pitched up, the bass shredded – it absolutely crunches – and Last Japan’s original, freeze-dried melody finely re-tuned to dizzying effect. Although a CR crew member for a while, it also forms Escha’s first ever official release – not a bad start, eh? 8/10

Bayalien Sound System – ‘Tabs’ EP (Bayalien Sound System)

Beam me up, Scotty!

More space-age, mind-altering dubstep from the ever-reliable Bayalien Sound System Crew, who look to the stars more than ever before on new record, ‘Tabs’. The cosmic, bleepy, FX-heavy sound rolled-out on booming title-track ‘Tabs’ forms a primer for big and bashy, hyper-distorted wrecker ‘Hottest’ and the contorted, dizzying, ray-gun funk of ‘Pusher’ but things get wildest on super glitchy, sample-heavy wobbler, ‘Black Beans’. Jump in! 7/10

Creep Woland – ‘Chamberlain’ EP (Astral Black)

An ode to jungle

Scottish producer Creep Woland serves up four breaks-y rollers for Astral Black here, fresh off the back of their latest ‘Frass FM’ comp. The gloomy, meandering lean of opener ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is a perfect intro to Woland’s music, easing listeners in with lighter, more delicate tones and textures, before explosive ripples go onto re-shape entire tracks. The deep, lo-slung bass tones of ‘Medieval Draw’ are beautifully warm and fuzzy, while ‘0800-Falkirk Triangle’ harks back to OG junglist rave aesthetics, again laced with more deft, blissful atmospheric touches. Hopeful final jam ‘Lord Chamberlain’ signs off in style with bright, shimmering layers, soft keys and more crunching breaks. 8/10

ALXZNDR – ‘Golden Gate’ EP (Scrub A Dub)

Pure bliss

US producer ALXZNDR, already making waves in the clubs, debuts for Scrub A Dub with six new ones on the crisply-titled, ‘Golden Gate’ EP. Rooted in melody, the title-track opens with grand, paradisiacal strings, Murlo-esque patterns and cascading eski flutes, while the grinding pressure and long, dwindling pan-flute chimes of ‘Lei Shen’ are a gorgeous listen. The growling, skittish dubstep pressure of ‘A100’ is a slight excursion, albeit again tempered by the pan-flutes, while the ceremonial trumpets and colourful steel pans of ‘Johari Bazaar’ are joyous. Final tracks ‘M_C_W’ – complete with classic 80s electric guitar riffs – and the playful, jazzy romance of ‘Red Raider’ are equally as good fun. Surprise record of the year so far? Quite probably. 9/10

B:Thorough x JT The Goon – ‘Calm Levz’ (Textured)

Straight up incredible!

B:Thorough christens his new Textured imprint by linking up with one of grime’s elder statesmen – and most underrated beat-makers – JT The Goon on the hugely impressive, ‘Calm Levz’. Across five tracks, bookended by idyllic ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Sunset’ mixes of the euphoric ‘Night Wave’, the pair reference both classic and new-gen grime sounds and ideas. Second track ‘Floaty’ melds together ominous stabs and gremlin-style tones, tempered by deft melody flashes and trademark JT string work, while the sugary, accelerated rush and low-end boom of ‘Grimey Sat’ is a genuine ‘wow’ moment on the record. The title-track – again widescreen, melody-rich and hi-def – finds the two in reflective, thoughtful mood before the ‘Sunset’ mix of ‘Night Wave’, a moody, hoods-up square wave joust, draws a remarkable debut EP to a close. 9/10

Taiko – ‘Giant Big Man’ EP (Infernal Sounds)

God-tier link up

As if the levels needed raising, Taiko links up with Infernal Sounds – consistently one of the UK’s best dubstep hubs – on a monstrous new record. Title jam ‘Giant Big Man’ jumps in at the deep end, as a playful, near-hypnotic lead melody line and filmic crackle meet signature thumping bass pressure from the off, while the eerie, whirring menace of sketchy B-side cut ‘Slingshot Dub’ – albeit offset by delicate key melodies in part – is harsher, grittier club ammo. The booming, chest-beating march of rugged final joint ‘Pen To Paper’ might just land as our favourite of the lot though. 9/10

Truant – ‘Clifton / Bushkin’ (Juan Forté)

Essential 12”

Another all killer, no filler plate from the Juan Forté crew, this time courtesy of elusive producer, Truant. A-side ‘Clifton’ is an absolute wobbler – think thick-cut, whirring bass weight with enough in the tank to worry the biggest stacks and an icy reverb-heavy melody – while on the flip, ruff-and-tuff roller ‘Bushkin’, goes hard in the paint again, this time with a warping, gloopy bassline and a slew of Bushkin (of Heartless Crew fame) vocal samples. Proper! 7/10

Surge – ‘Ebb & Flow’ EP (Wheel & Deal Records)

Huge club weapons

Surge is back on Wheel & Deal with five blistering new tracks on new EP, ‘Ebb & Flow’. The sinister, skeletal pull of the title-track opens with fiery purpose, before the greazy, guttural, low-end rumble of second track ‘Barren’ is positively ghoulish. This same theme continues apace via the eerie, electrified barbs of ‘Shellshock’ and shuddering power of bouncy, throwback jam ‘Original’, but Surge saves the best ‘til last on crunching, pensive final track ‘Holocron’ – just listen to those strings! 7/10

Dunman – ‘Isolation’ EP (In:Flux Audio)

Big, bold and unapologetic

Dunman goes in on new EP, ‘Isolation’, his first for In:Flux Audio and latest in a series of releases that have seem him straddle both grime and dubstep worlds. The huge, clattering pressure and hollowed-out wobble of opener ‘Isolation’ is no frills but effective in the dance, while the razor claps and jittery, fractious energy of grime bulldozer ‘Master Of Claws’ nod to a producer intent on making an impact. Third track ‘Originals’ tones down the mania (and the tempo), this time re-focusing on a deeper, OG steppa sound, before joining forces with newcomer Panix on another moody, hoods-up wobbler (‘Hail’). If that wasn’t enough bang for your buck, there’s a syrupy, hyper-distilled, percussive re-work of the title-track by J.Kong thrown in too. 6/10

Monitor

Fresh from dropping a EP from Handsome Boys (Moleskin & Boardgame James), new grime label 1000Doors are back with the release of Yamaneko collaborator Rimplton’s mind-bending debut record, ‘Low Oxy’ — if you don’t know, get to know (!) … Sukh Knight continued a rich run of form with the release of big and bashy new dub, ‘Hooligan’, on his DAKU imprint … emerging Leeds-based grime/club label 1Forty dropped another essential record early in March — 1FGRM005 features weighty vocal tracks from YGG and Logan, as well as smoked-out instrumentals from Hamdi and ManGo … Dream Eater continue to harness the rarest and best choice cuts going, with a hot and heavy new plate on the way from Ironsoul — keep your eyes peeled … and look out for a new album from grime vet Footsie in May — ‘No Favours’ features a slew of guest MCs across 14 tracks on what is shaping up to be one of the best grime albums of 2020! 

— Plastician —

On music, family, the importance of community and becoming lockdown Twitter’s unlikely quizmaster.

All photos submitted by Plastician

“Play ‘Japan’ flashes up another message from the chatroom in a virtual ‘pub’ on Twitch, where over 140 players are 15 questions deep in a general knowledge quiz while a Spotify playlist of 80s synth-pop plays in the background. Plastician, decked out in a yellow England goalkeeper’s shirt and drinking a can of Belgian lager poured into a latte glass with a tiny handle on one side, is the host. “Play Japan”, he responds laughing, “how many more of you are gonna ask that tonight?”.

Still defined by his trailblazing years as one of dubstep’s OGs, Plastician cuts a very different figure 15 years on as we catch up to chat over FaceTime from his home studio the following night. Now married with two children and a consultancy job at Pirate Studios — a nationwide, multi-faceted DJ school, workshop and production studio operation — he seems relaxed and content as we start talking.

“I don’t feel too bad at the moment to be honest”, he says. “I think people’s careers go through ups-and-down and that, but I feel like I’ve started to appreciate the process a little bit more recently.” Like a lot of DJs and musicians, the process — letting music take its natural course in so many words — is something Plastician struggled with, especially after the excitement of the dubstep explosion started to wear off. In 2013, he recalls, suddenly gone were the days of packed-out FWD>> raves, three or four bookings a week and the stream of new artists and music that had first propelled the scene into mainstream consciousness.

“That was when the dubstep and whole bass music bubble burst a little bit I think. I had to do a lot of re-jigging in that year and the learning I did back then, I’ve taken that on ever since. It normalised everything for me. It was difficult to take at first because I felt hard done by, maybe by the industry and some of my friends who were suddenly doing better than me. I wasn’t getting the same love or the bring-ins, and I started to think, am I not cool enough anymore? Mentally, that was quite tough.”

Rather than submit or give into bitterness, he dug in and rode out the proverbial storm, learning to become both mentally and financially independent. He poured a lot of his time back into Terrorhythm, his original grime and dubstep hub that spawned some of the great early Plastician productions (including 2007’s ‘Japan’). Rebooting it with a focus on new artists and new sounds the world over, he took a backseat for the first time in his career.

“Out of that whole period came this interest in Wave music, which is the polar opposite of what I should have been investing in on a business level”, he reflects. “It’s music that doesn’t really work in any club setting, that no promoters want to book and at the time, had no real audience, but it was the basis of what I was listening to most on Soundcloud.”

Although he concedes the term ‘Wave’ can mean different things to different people, it can be loosely defined by it’s leanings towards trap music, often written through a cinematic lens with intense, emotional melodies and flashes of trance-like euphoria. “It was never critically-acclaimed, but there was a genuine following of people who were really engaged in that whole side of what I was doing at the time. A lot of kids making it now are coming in from the EDM world and maybe it’s not quite as exciting as it was initially, but it’s still something that intrigues me.”

Indeed, it was Wave that first spawned his ‘Wavepool’ series, which saw Plastician collate productions from a slew of inspired new producers into hour-long mixes, the first of which dropped in 2015. They would go on to pick-up a lot of traction, especially in the US, and served as both an entry point and discovery tool for anyone looking to get to grips with the sound. He soon became a de-facto flag bearer for the scene and through his Rinse FM show and newly-galvanised label, helped build a new URL community that birthed producers like Noah B, Deadcrow, Skit, Glacci and more recently, Juche, as well as crews like Liquid Ritual. 

“..being involved in emerging genres is something that I hope I’ll be able to do forever.”

It was as he spoke about his fondness for Wave that I started to understand what makes Plastician tick. Although there’s still part of him that retains a competitive edge — “if someone gave me an opportunity, put me in a techno room and I’d fuck it up” — his main driving force is community, finding things and then building things.

“That’s what excites me musically, discovering stuff”, he says passionately. “When I find something that is not a million miles away from my taste but is maybe different enough that it’s like, ‘fuck, I need more of this’. Before long, you’ve found 10-20 producers and then you’ve got an entire set that plays to a certain sound, like Wave or whatever.” 

“It gives me a lot of job satisfaction”, he goes on, “If I feel like I’m making friends as I go or people appreciate the things I’m doing and people show you love, that’s a nice feeling. One of the things I’ve taken from all the years of touring I’ve done for example, is how many good friends I’ve made. It might just be because I had a few days off and had to spend time with them, but I’ll leave places and think ‘Ah they were actually really cool’. From that, I’ve now got some real strong relationships with crews in LA, Brazil and China. I’ve made friends everywhere. For musicians that are trying to get into this, the whole touring thing and being an artist, they’ll realise when they look back that some of the best things about everything they were doing was just hanging out with people.”

This spirit doesn’t just extend to touring, his label or DJ sets, either. His love of emerging technologies and new ways of connecting people, particularly online, also saw Plastician trial ‘Unreality Journeys’ — an immersive, online radio platform he hoped to develop after choosing to leave Rinse FM in 2017. “When I started out, pirate radio was really spontaneous, you only had one chance to listen in and that was it”, he reflects. “When you were broadcasting, it was quite exciting. If the studio phone line was getting busier week-on-week, it was exciting because you realised people were taking time out of their days to listen in and you’d find out you were reaching new places because people would text in like, ‘Yo we’re locked in from Sutton’ or ‘Shout out to Mitcham’. In the digital age, the broadcast quality might have improved, but that original excitement was lost.”

At the time he chose to leave Rinse, his show was proving to be one of the most popular on the station, quickly amassing hundreds of comments once the podcasts were archived on Soundcloud. “It’d feel like no one was listening when I was on the radio, broadcasting each week. There’d be no interaction live, but over the following days the shows would hit thousands of plays on Soundcloud and it dawned on me that I was missing that live interaction a lot.”

“For musicians that are trying to get into this, the whole touring thing and being an artist, they’ll realise when they look back that some of the best things about everything they were doing was just hanging out with people.”

And so Unreality Journeys was born, a platform that paired live radio with live visuals that responded to the music being played, portraying each listener as their own avi on a virtual dance floor, complete with a chat room to boost interaction. It was short-lived — the technology never quite caught up with his vision — but it was further evidence of Plastician’s willingness to explore new avenues and spend hours of his own time trying to build new community spaces, purely for the benefit of others.

It’s here I find myself back in his virtual pub the night after interviewing him, can of Heineken in hand, waiting for another quiz to start alongside 156 other players this time. While the COVID-19 pandemic has plunged modern life into darkness, Plastician has flipped the gloom on its head and used his time at home to get stuck into Twitch — a live-streaming platform that marries live broadcast and live interaction in one, simple-to-use app. “I could use it to bang out mixes every night of the week and feel like I’d have done it well”, he explains, “but I feel like that wouldn’t be really offering much. I know I can do it but what is the aim? Who am I benefitting?”

Interactive quizzes felt like a natural next port of call; not only has he themed the first half a dozen, including entire 25-question strong quizzes on Garage, Grime and Dubstep, but even built his own Mastermind-themed intro visuals, just for a laugh. Each one may take hours to prepare, but his Stishcast channel has already started to grow a dedicated following and for people like me living alone through this crisis, have added much-needed structure to days that bleed into the next. “There’s a lot of common ground in those quiz chat rooms each night”, he reflects. “It might be a joke about 90s footballers or some niche UK Garage tune and there’ll be another 20 people who can relate. With what we’re all going through now, it feels like that’s what people need. Even from some of the reactions to the questions, you can tell that everyone playing the quiz is there just to hang out. Don’t get me wrong there are people who want to win too, but most people enjoy just having a laugh and cracking jokes in the chat.”

Such is his standing, news of the quizzes has even encouraged some big hitters along, with Scratcha DVA, Joker, DJ Oblig, Loefah and even comedian Mo Gilligan appearing at certain points over the last few weeks, as well as producers on his Terrorythm imprint like Klasey Jones. Even his mum popped in to say she was watching on her birthday, much to the delight of everyone playing along. “We’ll be having a laugh about a Joker tune playing in the background and then Joker appears in the chat. These people are literally hanging out with the artists we’re listening to or artists they’re big fans of, as the quiz goes on. It’s quite unique really.”

In and amongst this desire to connect with people and keep busy — “I get bored very easily”, Plastician concedes — there comes family. He still lives in South London with his wife and two children and like us all, the COVID-19 crisis has meant a lot of adjustment. “The fact that I’m always around and a lot of the work I do is from home is a bonus. Even if I’m not always totally present, I’m often in and out of the house. These last couple of weeks have been tough though, especially with the Twitch streaming, but the evenings are quite a good time. I’m involved with bedtime to a point, but the kids don’t really settle for me, so I find myself being able to work on the streams or admin or whatever it is that needs doing. That said, me and my wife don’t have the same routine now, the whole thing hasn’t afforded us that, but we’re navigating it as best we can.”

“..nowadays and I don’t know if it’s getting old or what, but I’m more interested in being interesting.”

It was a family death a couple of years ago that fostered a sense of perspective which has helped him cope with the current situation, and also help reassess his own value system and what he wants out of his career. “My brother in law was 29 and he suddenly passed away a few years back, which put everything into perspective”, he says softly. “Losing someone who was healthy, larger than life, with a new-born child and loads going for him, it just made me realise there are things way more important than how many bookings I’m getting or what people think about me on social media. All that matters in this current situation is that all of my immediate family are healthy and well and to be honest, as long as they are, I don’t feel stressed out at all. I probably should because I’ve lost all of my bookings and consultancy hours, but because of everything that’s happened, I know that we’ll get through this. I just need to keep busy.”

As we finish up after just over an hour, Plastician still drawing up a list of questions for a much-requested Channel U quiz, it feels like after a difficult few years — and amidst a global crisis — he’s finally found peace of mind. Dad jokes have become a new part of his Twitter persona, his desire to help has been properly harnessed and validated by his work at Pirate Studios and his relationship with new technology and new ideas continues to breathe new life into people’s every day realities. “Don’t get me wrong”, he concludes, “being involved in emerging genres is something that I hope I’ll be able to do forever, but nowadays and I don’t know if it’s getting old or what, I’m more interested in being interesting. I don’t necessarily want to be midway down a flyer somewhere because I’m being paid well for it, I’d rather champion something. I’d rather stand for something.”

Plastician’s Twitch quizzes run every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday at 7pm: https://www.twitch.tv/stishcast