New London Sound: J Hus interviewed
Pulsing through Addison Lee aux cables, wheeled up at Carnival, blasting out of phones on the top decks of Routemasters; if there’s a sound that captures the energy of London right now, it’s the music of J Hus
The Stratford 20-year-old’s blend of UK afrobeats, road rap and West African lilt has earned him a following that counts Popcaan and Premier League footballers as fans. The fact that J Hus has carved out a fresh British sound is impressive on its own; even more so when you consider he achieved this with barely any flex of a commercial muscle. Now with his debut album — arguably one of 2017’s most hotly-awaited UK albums —packaged up and primed for release, more eyes are on J Hus than ever.
We meet in a Formica-clad caff in Hoxton, where the MC has his silver puffer hood strung tight around his face, with his back to door. It’s clear he likes to keep a low profile. “To be honest with you, yeah, it’s hard – I’m not really an open person in real life,” he admits, before imitating the more aggressive persona that his harder lyricism projects. “But in real life I’m a bit shy, a bit closed. The spotlight is a bit mad…”
J Hus, born Momodou Jallow, started rapping before his tenth birthday. Nicknamed ‘50 Pence’ at school for his love of spitting, his musical education ranged from bashment to garage, Outkast to Fela Kuti. “I’ve had lyrics forever,” he nods, before dropping the first, Muhammad Ali-referencing, bar he ever wrote to prove his point.
It wasn’t some A&R who recognised J Hus’s talents but a couple of his mates, who offered to manage him, and he first got noticed via a Link Up TV #StreetHeat freestyle. His 2015 15th Day mixtape was his debut statement of intent. Polished off in just over two weeks (hence the name), it packed catchy ad-libs, a rudeboy flex and touches of his Gambian heritage into a neat package that promptly exploded online — marshalled by breakthrough hit Dem Boy Paigon, with its club-heating bounce and TLC hooks.
It’s not all about those earworm melodies and ‘aaaahhaa’s. The East Londoner’s lyrics range from the light-hearted (the hook of Bangers & Mash is an ode to dating white girls) to the hard-hitting – Guns & Butter provides a devastating take on the contradictory way we perceive crime, yet still manages to name-check the Chuckle Brothers in the same breath.
Having inked a deal with Sony-associated Black Butter in 2015, E15’s (self-described) ugliest MC came out with the more radio-friendly Lean & Bop. But the major label affiliation wasn’t behind Lean & Bop’s sonic switch-up — in fact, Hus’s mum had asked him to make something more “clean, fun and dancey” for his four-year-old brother. “Just a fun tune for him, something that he could enjoy.” Interestingly, that track went on to receive props from the whole scene, with Westwood and Krept and Konan making cameos in the video.
“The album's more grown up J Hus. But I'm still quite immature, I'm not gonna lie!” – J Hus
Lean & Bop was accompanied by a fun and simple dance move, and so far the video has gathered over eight million views on YouTube. Hus recognises how important the social media hype has been to his ascent. “Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was working out to one of my tunes one time,” he recalls. “Then there was a little boy in Pakistan singing Lean and Bop – that was sick!” Hus’s quirky lyricism has spawned handfuls of memes: there are videos of toddlers chanting his lyrics, as well as a McDonalds employee singing Friendly through the drive-thru intercom when a customer requests a ‘Fanta with no ice’.
But the spotlight hasn’t always been kind to Hus. In August 2015 authorities branded a mass singalong of Dem Boy Paigon at a Stamford Hill party as a ‘large scale disorder’. ‘Stabbed London rapper J Hus sparks fury after making ‘gang signs’ from his hospital bed’, The Mirror wrote that same year, failing to mention any of his accolades. Of which there are now many – a MOBO nomination, a support slot for Young Thug where he nearly eclipsed the headliner, Mixpak bringing him out at last year’s Culture Clash, and so on.
The latter was a performance to remember: the day before the Red Bull event Hus was finishing a four-month sentence at Her Majesty’s pleasure. He beams from ear to ear when I mention it. “I could not sleep! I was just waiting by the door. The day I came out… The fact they let me on Culture Clash was just mad. Best feeling ever.” Shelling in front of tens of thousands at the O2 Arena, he helped clinch the victory for Mixpak over Taylor Gang and Eskimo Dance.
Having released the well-received Playing Sports EP last September, Black Butter will be the vehicle for J Hus’s imminent LP too, and he insists he didn’t have to tailor his sound to suit the label. “The only thing we compromised on was the amount of tracks — I would’ve put so many tracks on there. People ain’t heard me in so long!” he stresses. “I feel like I’ve evolved so much from before, innit.” He’s kept his team the same though, working with his musical partner Jae5 (a member of his favoured production crew JOAT) on every single track, along with No Disclaimer duo Valentino and Tobi ShyBoy.
Confirming feature slots from MoStack and Birmingham rapper Mist, J Hus explains there’s no title for the album just yet, later posting a thought bubble emoji on Twitter for inspiration. From the snippets I’ve heard, Bouff Daddy is Hus at his most joyous — half-sung, half-spat, with memorable hooks (‘ya dun know ya dun know’), while Common Sense has a slick G-funk strut. “The album’s a little bit more of a grown up J Hus,” he says. “I grew up a bit, a little bit. I’m still quite immature, I’m not gonna lie!”
Though he might be reserved in person, J Hus’s confidence as a performer continues to grow. “You might see me in the village, you might see me in Dubai,” he crooned on 15th Day cut Dubai, and sure enough he flew out there recently for a live PA. “When I retire I’ll buy a big house there,” he grins. “11-year-olds there, they got tigers, ligers, zoos…” Though he bemoans the fact he couldn’t take his top off there to perform: “There was a 20 grand fine! At the soundcheck they said, ‘Make sure you don’t do that tonight – you’ll be in big trouble’.” Two days before Christmas, instead of panic-buying gifts, he was out in Lagos, performing with Skepta and Burna Boy. And a J Hus show could be coming to a place near you, as he’ll announce his touring plans right after the album drops.
Underground in every sense of the word, J Hus has set himself apart from the current crop of MCs while highlighting the multicultural vibe that makes the UK capital so great. As he puts it, neatly, his sound is like everything you’ve heard before, but like nothing you’ve ever heard before. “The music is on a different level now,” he finishes with quiet confidence. “You’re gonna love it.”
Want a snapshot into the crowd-pleasing wave J Hus is riding right now? J Hus’ tour DJ and a crucial player in Hus and co’s Young Boss Entertainment collective, DJ Skrillz is at the controls of the latest Crack Mix. Hit play on the player above and lock in.
J Hus appears at Wildlife Festival, June 9-10