Dave’s Got a Plan
Dave’s perched on a handrail with his head bowed down, facing the ground. His eyes are closed.
It’s a hot July day in London and the Streatham Vale rapper is about to play one of the biggest solo shows of his career at Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park. He gets up, shadow-boxes for a couple of seconds then darts on stage – prompting roars of excitement from the young crowd. “My name’s Dave,” he tells the crowd, “I’m 19 and I’m from South London.”
A lot has happened for Dave in a short time. As the world’s gaze has shifted onto British MCs over the last three years, Dave has proved himself as a prodigiously skilled rapper. He barely misses a bar when he performs live, which is especially impressive given the breadth of his small but staggering catalogue. Drifting between tempos with ease, he delivers energising grime flows on songs like the AJ Tracey collaboration Thiago Silva (which uses the classic Ruff Sqwad Pied Piper instrumental) and 100Ms, then switches lanes into poignant rap-soliloquies on songs like Panic Attack – an arrestingly personal account of trauma, anxiety and determination.
At every turn, Dave has hinted at the same level of potential as the UK scene’s brightest stars. He’s as eloquent a storyteller as Kano and his words fall on record with the same sculpted, crystal-clear intonation as Stormzy. But Dave’s on a mission to do something a little different. Inspired by Hans Zimmer movie soundtracks and anime, Dave talks a lot about vision.
Eyes started turning in Dave’s direction back in 2015 when he uploaded a freestyle to YouTube, aged 16, on the same day he started college. With his two brothers in prison, Dave’s bars were delivered with an urgency that can’t be feigned. “Sometimes I cry, my mum makes that face and bruv I see it in her eyes and I break down/ But you ain’t ever had a breakdown. Driving to Cookham Wood in a whip and it breaks down.” The emotional stress of these visits to male juveniles’ prisons and the reality of having family members behind bars encouraged Dave to put a pen to paper.
“Writing lyrics is what got me through it all. I’m not really in that place anymore which is why I’m able to make different types of music,” Dave tells me over FaceTime, reflecting on that breakthrough freestyle. “I still feel it heavily but I’ve really managed to calm myself down and go from raw, pure rage to being able to use it and focus. I’m able to use in different ways now, it’s targeted anger. Not just raw pain.”
At Wireless, he dedicated Panic Attack to anybody in the crowd who’d lost somebody to the prison system. “To my brother, if you’re listening, I love you so much.” During the performance he broke down and knelt on one knee, breathless and on the verge of tears for a second before picking the bars back up. When he finished the track he apologised to his audience but explained that his brother’s serving a life sentence for a stabbing. “If you know anyone in that world then talk them out of it while you still can,” he told the crowd, “it’s not worth it.” It was a moving moment, and a very real one. But Dave’s in no rush to become any kind of counsellor for his fans just yet. “Anything I’ve said is out of love but it’s not my responsibility,” he insists, “I’m not the voice of reason, I’ve just said a few reasonable things. I’ll just continue to try and express myself in a way that people can relate to.”
This gift for turning personal experiences into music that resonates with huge, diverse audiences came to the fore on Dave’s Six Paths EP, which he released in September 2016. Working with longtime producer Tyrell ‘169’ Paul and serial hit-maker Fraser T Smith, Dave was able to find a rich, epic sound which gave his impassioned bars and autobiographical narratives a fitting emotive backdrop. Dave describes Fraser – the Grammy Award-winning producer who worked on the triumphant sound of Stormzy’s Gang Signs & Prayer – as a crucial figure in his path, “I can’t express the amount of genius he’s imparted on me as a life coach and as a friend.” Dave’s also developing his technical skill set – he’s a trained pianist (having played live while rapping on a number of occasions) and Fraser’s been coaching him with guitar and production. It’s clear when talking to Dave that the structural specifics of writing and production are a major focus for him. Ask him about superstar co-signs and he’ll talk to you about chord progressions.
Through Fraser and 169’s idiosyncratic productions, Dave was able to tell detailed stories about life on road and – on Picture Me – describe the different paths and varying fortunes he saw in front of him and his peers with alarming lucidity. Earlier this year he made his TV debut, performing the track on Later… with Jools Holland. It felt like a breakthrough moment as the then 18-year-old rapped, “Are you playing in a stadium? Or are you sitting in a station? You get your picture, get to painting.”
A few weeks before Wireless, I meet with Dave for the first time at his Crack Magazine cover shoot in a Bethnal Green studio. He arrives with his two managers. They’d picked him up earlier that day from Streatham where he lives with his mum, who had supplied the three of them with Tupperware boxes of chicken and rice for lunch.
In person Dave is polite, focused and – as his music shows – an articulate storyteller. He’s able to divert the attention of the whole room with stories about driving lessons and five-a-side leagues – standard 19-year-old stuff, but painted vividly. Later down the line, I ask Dave about this particular skill, and he credits it, in some part at least, to his education. “I was always decent at English, it was a subject I enjoyed,” he explains. “I never found it too difficult to put words with words.” Dave dropped out of college a while ago to pursue music full-time, but he tells me about a specific English teacher he had in school who he’s stayed in contact with. “She got in touch recently saying she’d seen me on the cover of Facebook… I think she meant Spotify.”
She did mean Spotify. The day before the shoot Dave dropped 100Ms and the streaming giant placed billboards across London promoting the track. Our conversation is briefly interrupted when Dave gets a phonecall from his mum – she’s just finished work and she wants to know where to drive to in order to see one. “She’s proud of me,” Dave says shyly. “She’s got a lot going on. The music thing makes it easier but there’s still a lot happening.” The billboard campaign was a milestone, but 100Ms is hardly the first major breakthrough.
Dave’s profile skyrocketed in October of last year, when Drake debuted a remix of Dave’s serene, melodic track Wanna Know on his Beats 1 OVO Sound Radio show. As we’ve come to expect from the Toronto superstar’s Midas touch, things escalated quickly for Dave as tens of millions of people were turned on to his sound. At the start of 2017, Dave joined Drake on stage for two of his shows at London’s O2 Arena to perform the remix. Then when Drake dropped his chart-topping More Life playlist in March, Dave’s voice could be heard at the end of the track Teenage Fever. “Very much 6am, slightly been awake for 24 hours, so please forgive me,” says the sampled voice note, “More ideas and stuff coming. Yeah, yeah fam, I’m waffling… I am tired fam, Jesus Christ.”
Did Dave see that coming? “No. Not exactly,” he laughs. “I sent a voice note to Ollie [Oliver El-Khatib, founder of OVO and Drake’s manager] about ideas for production. It was at 6am but I was super excited to get the call so that meant staying up late, trying to get back to them and let them know that I was definitely still trying.” Some commentators have questioned the integrity of the leg-ups Drake’s offered London artists, suggesting his cosigns are cultural tourism or a kind of condescending talent scouting. But Dave is keen to reiterate just how unquestionably positive the cosign has been for him. In February he tweeted, “I’m not even gonna get into this debate but anyone who doesn’t see this all as positive has no idea about music.” It’s a sentiment he stands by when we talk about it, “It’s exactly what I tweeted. It’s all positive. It’s all good looking forward – Drake is helping to shine a lot on everything.”
Despite now being in the orbit of superstardom, Dave remains modest and level-headed. Still unsigned, he explains he’s remained independent so that he’s got two people focusing on him 100 percent of the time rather than 15 people focusing on him 10 percent of the time. He’s sticking with the same social circle too. “I got ten people that I love, look I don’t want a hundred friends,” he raps on 100Ms, and he’s loyal to his word. The same crew that stand behind him in some of his earliest videos are gathered into a huddled circle backstage before showtime at Wireless. “It’s crucial for all of us,” Dave says of his close friends. “We’re all going down different avenues and we’re all here to support each other. A lot of my friends are going to university and that’s super tough. It’s the same for my friends who are working and it’s the same thing for me… We have to stick together because we remember when things were different, filming music videos in parks outside my house and getting 400 views in 400 days.”
"It’s all good looking forward – Drake is helping to shine a lot on everything.”
Unassuming, as the stage name suggests, there’s a quiet confidence to Dave when he talks about what’s on the horizon. Now that music’s gotten him to a better place he seems excited about the future. The industry is more geared than ever before towards supporting UK talent and a voice like Dave’s – ambitious and astute – looks perfectly positioned to be reaching big audiences as soon as he’s ready. There’s definitely potential for longevity here, and so before we sign off, I ask him how he wants young people to feel when they listen to his music in years to come.
“I want people to feel happy. I want people to be able to relate. I want people to hear that voice they have in their head but can’t put it into words. That’s what I’ve always tried to–” His flow gets interrupted, it’s mum again. Dave’s at home and he’s just seen that she’s had her hair done. He tells her it looks good then jumps back on to FaceTime. “Sorry, that took a turn,” he says, before remembering that his best method of communication is clarity: “But yeah – I just want people to feel like I’m speaking for them.”