On free-styling, belt-drive decks, using his lunch money to buy records, working with Chelsea FC and always trying to help people.
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.
“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.”
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!”
Capo Lee, Big Zuu, Eyez and Kamakaze’s ‘Royal Rumble’ EP is out now: