A2: Easy Does It
A2 used to be a mystery, but he’s stepping out from the shadows. The Croydon singer-rapper first started releasing self-produced material under the A2 alias in 2012, gradually gathering a fanbase online while giving few interviews and keeping the social media activity minimal. The demure presence was befitting of a lot of the music, with intimate lyrics about swerving beef and relationship drama which felt like diary entries tapped out on a phone in a steamy night bus, and nocturnal-sounding beats built of deep, warping synths and warm blankets of bass.
It might not have looked like A2 was trying too hard, but he’s always been quietly confident. On his 2014 track O B V S, he rapped: “And it’s bless though/ Still give it out free, underground like the Metro/ dropping EPs like the price of the petrol/ do this for my niece, she ain’t even got to stress bro”. Recent years have seen the mechanisms of the music industry shift in order to be more supportive of UK rappers and MCs, and A2 has seemingly found himself in a strong position.
“It’s definitely looking better man,” he nods. We’ve met up on A2’s first trip to Atlanta and we’re sat outside 787 Windsor, a warehouse regenerated into an arts space where lanyard-wearing staff rush round to prepare it for tonight’s event. “Before there was certain criteria you had to reach to succeed in the UK. But now, you almost just have to have good energy. There’s a lot more acceptance now. And that’s because of social media, the youth. They’re truly the tastemakers.”
Although a lot of the media is still ignorant and misinformed when it comes to reporting UK music – regularly mislabelling anything MC-based as grime – in recent years it seems like the industry has been opening more doors, with artists who create afrobeats-influenced music, drill and difficult-to-categorise hip-hop like A2’s making serious waves. At the beginning of the year, A2 appeared on XL Recordings’ New Gen compilation – a confident showcase of UK talent – and he’s signed a 360 deal with Disturbing London, a “boutique cultural consultancy” set up by Tinie Tempah and Dumi Oburota.
Alongside functioning as a record label for the artists like UK rapper Yungen and Nigerian megastar Wiz Kid, Disturbing London runs a streetwear label, offers brand consultancy and, remarkably, has teamed up with German company Brabus to design a limited edition smart car. The purpose of the Atlanta trip is the Red Bull Culture Clash, where A2 is performing tonight with the team assembled by Disturbing London.
On recent track Tell Me Freestyle, once again A2 brushed off beef as pettiness (“Less friends more enemies/ grown men spreading jealousy/ low-key, keep my energy”). So I wonder how such a laidback artist felt when he got drafted to perform at the Culture Clash – where disses and trash-talking are notoriously integral to the competitive spirit of the event. “You know what’s mad? I was feeling like ‘shit!’” he laughs. “As soon as you’re out there on that stage and they’re coming for you, you’re in the firing line. But after I got through that motion I was like ‘this shit’s going to be dope, we’re in Atlanta, we got some real Atlanta Gs.’”
For those who haven’t attended a Red Bull Culture Clash, the brand’s take on Jamaican soundclashes are fast-paced onslaughts of adrenaline, ego, legendary guests and great music. At the Atlanta Clash, Disturbing London are up against EarDrummers – led by ATL super-producer Mike WiLL Made-It – Canadian producer Wondagurl’s Enjoy Life team and Unruly Mob – who, as true disciples of Jamaican soundclash culture, win the Clash despite their leader Popcaan being denied entry into the US and having to cancel on the night. Disturbing London find themselves in hot water after Charlie Sloth picks a fight with local hero Mike WiLL – who brings Rae Sremmurd, Pusha T and Ludacris on stage – but they snag some respect from the crowd in the final round by bringing out pole dancers, a nod to Atlanta’s famous strip club culture, as well as Georgia veteran Pastor Troy and ATL crunk legends The Ying Yang twins.
"Before there was certain criteria you had to reach to succeed in the UK. But now, you just have to have good energy. There's a lot more acceptance."
To be fair, despite his chill, A2’s well-versed in competitive energy, having initially come up as a grime artist before developing the A2 project. “Growing up on an estate, I feel like it was just custom, you had to have lyrics,” he tells me of his time in the grime scene. “From about 14 until 19, 20 I was heavily into grime man. Spitting, making instrumentals – I used to make tapes with like ten instrumentals and give them out for free.” While he’s mellowed his sound, A2 still occasionally revs up his flow to double time, and he credits his agility to grime. “I feel like it’s such an uptempo way to rhyme and spit and keep rhythm. When you slow it down and do rap it’s so much easier. Grime teaches you a lot, I think it’s healthy.”
So what was with the change in direction? “I like hype music, energy music and I can give it sometimes, but I don’t think there’s anything better than someone sitting down and taking a song with them, like, ‘yo this is personal,’” A2 explains. “I feel like I got older and with the music I was doing at the time, it was hard to express myself,” he continues, going on to express disdain for the current overkill of moshpits at rap and grime gigs, arguing that the physical aggression can alienate female fans.
There’s a sensitivity to A2’s music – from tales of lust, love and Hennessy-fuelled fallouts, a particular theme is recurrent. “Most of the time, it’s to do with love man,” he tells me. “I feel like love is an everyday thing. You wake up everyday and you’re loving someone, you’re going through situations with someone. So that’s where my writing was leading me to. I used to listen to so much RnB, my mum used to listen to RnB, my sister used to play RnB. That was it – RnB, slow-jams, reggae… It was all to do with love man.”
A2’s new EP BLUE is out this month via Disturbing London
You can find more information about Red Bull Music Academy here.