J Hus is ready for you
J Hus is rubbing his temples as he recalls one of the most seismic music moments of the year. “That moment… was the moment I’ve been waiting for. Everyday I’d been saying to myself, ‘I can’t wait to be home,’ and then I’m home and I get to shake the world like that.”
He has a wide grin and he’s back there, earlier this April when Drake, as part of his show at London’s O2 Arena, invited J Hus onstage for his first public appearance since he’d been released from prison. He found out about it before his release. “I just kept it to myself,” he says. “I prepared myself mentally. Before I went onstage, my manager was like, ‘That stage is… kinda big.’ I was nervous, but as soon as I went on, I was like, ‘Yes, this stage is for me.’”
Hus is sprawled out in a studio chair, shaking his head. “The reaction was crazy. People crying, the ‘Welcome Home’ sign! [the message was lit up onstage] I didn’t know I was this supported. I didn’t know people loved me like that.”
People do love him like that, and it’s with excitement (and relief) that today, Hus is in a recording studio, situated at the end of a meandering, single-lane countryside road by the River Medway in Kent. It’s respite, miles away from the small, two-bedroom house on a Stratford estate in east London where he grew up with his mum, younger brother and sister. Growing up Muslim meant that Hus didn’t have the usual musical education of church like many of his rap peers. Instead, the second generation British Gambian says his distinct ear was honed through his mum and stepdad playing African music, Whitney Houston and Beenie Man in the house.
The result is a playful and intoxicating mix of UK rap. In recent years he’s been championed for bringing sounds of the diaspora together through Afrobeat and bashment-inspired hybrids. So much influence has he had that he’s almost single-handedly spawned the (slightly hackneyed) genre classification ‘Afro Swing’.
“People don’t know how powerful they are, especially black men”
The last time I met Hus – real name Mamodou Jallow – was in 2017, around the release of Common Sense. He was stuffing socks into smoke alarms so that he could smoke weed in the backstage green room of a show. His underground ratings were bubbling on low heat for longer before that though, with his 2014 SoundCloud upload, Vacation, and freestyles that featured on the now-defunct Newham YouTube channel FLI5STAR. The hype led to 2015’s anthemic Dem Boy Paigon, a record deal with Black Butter, and the genre-defying Brit, Mercury and MOBO-nominated Common Sense. His debut album, it cemented the universal party appeal of tracks like Friendly and the contagion of his ‘hustler baby, hustler baby’ adlibs, and clocked up more than 10 million streams and counting.
Then, last year, time stopped for a brief moment. Hus was caught in Stratford Westfield shopping centre carrying a knife and sentenced to eight months (serving four) in Pentonville prison. Today, a Wednesday afternoon, he’s comfortable in an all-black Adidas tracksuit and white socks and sliders, shuffling around the place he’s made his makeshift home for the last seven weeks. “Studio is home for me now,” he grins. He’s visibly different: contemplative, deeper voiced, and physically bulked up. He is, of course, as likeable as always, bragging about his maddeningly simple (but effective) skincare regime: “it’s just olive oil, seriously!”
As moisture collects on the leaves outside of the tall windows, I ask whether London feels like a place to escape from now, all things considered. “You know what it is? Here’s just quiet, peaceful. I don’t have a phone. Right now, I’m low-key, not trying to be seen. Well, until the album comes out and then I’m—” he claps his hands enthusiastically, as if he just did a magic trick.
I ask what else is new and he cracks a wide smile. “I’m a vegan now!” he declares, describing his recipe sourcing. “I go on YouTube and I just type in ‘vegan food’ and follow directions from some next people… but I’m still a West African boy. The last thing I made was dumplings, okra chips, plantain, wild rice and Portobello mushrooms, but I made it into nuggets,” he says proudly.
The cooking is, partly, a welcome dietary shift from prison food which he describes as “not good”, but also a nod to being in what he calls a “good place”. He is definitely focused on music as therapy. If last time he was incarcerated (in Feltham in 2015 for a litany of convictions, including knife possession) he recalls listening to Gangnam Style on TV, this time, it was strictly work, listening to instrumentals sourced from shared CDs and writing to them.
He namechecks Shakespeare poems, fashion magazines and books on “atoms and science and that” as part of his Pentonville reading list. Also a part of his lust for information gathering was finding the thrill in details of rumoured cannibalistic dictators. One of the first lyrics he wrote after his release was a verse on What Do You Mean, from Skepta’s recently-released album Ignorance Is Bliss, that references tyrannical Ugandan despot Idi Amin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “I’ve known about [Idi Amin] since I was young,” he explains. “I heard rumours he used to eat people!”
The psychological impact of being confined for four months then re-entering the music world in front of 20,000 people was, as Hus acknowledges, more than a homecoming. It was a slightly nerve-wracking coming-of-age. Part of that was getting right back to work. He welcomes me from the front door over plush rugs and settles down to play new music. He’s smiling, between shyness and pride, but the songs aren’t finished yet due to a brief Ramadan enforced break. “I didn’t want to be recording while I was fasting, you get me?” Not that taking a breath has diminished his fan base. The night before we meet, J Hus is trending on Twitter after the tracklist for Ed Sheeran’s new album shows him on a track with Young Thug. The tweets are jubilant – people love to love Hus, and the tweets implore him to make more music so that their summer can officially start.
He presses play, and the studio is filled with a charismatic jolt that reminds you of his fun spirit and sheer electricity. Some of these songs he’s been sitting on since Common Sense, others are brand new. One is a pulsing, body-swaying blend of upbeat R&B which shouts out the aunties. Another is a gluttonous, icier foray into bashment, which namechecks fortune telling and er, Arnold Schwarzenegger. On one joyfully catchy Afrobeat track the hook is just an instrumental. “I’m saving that for someone like Wizkid or Burna Boy, not sure yet,” he says nonchalantly.
It sounds like the music to come will also be massive, and between excitement, I tell him about how conflicting it feels to challenge an artist you’re such a fan of. On the one hand, at 24, Hus is a young man who has undergone trauma from historical violence (in 2015 he was stabbed five times), suffered the loss of his father early last year, and found protection from his own fear the only way he knew how, caught in a moment. On the other, he is a global superstar, a role model who, some may say, has made the debate around knife crime and UK rap harder to defend.
He gets it. “You see, Common Sense times, all them times, I realised – being in jail – that I didn’t appreciate, or understand what I had,” he says. “The come-up was so fast, and I was so young… People are watching me grow from a boy into a man.”
The hindrance to being such a celebrated artist with a rapid ascension is that news of your misdemeanours becomes part of your story whether you like it or not. For Hus, an eight-month prison term in the middle of his story brought into focus what he didn’t see before.
“My plan wasn’t ‘I’m going to do this rap ting, and I’m going to be a role model, and all the kids are going to look up to me’. But now I understand that, being in this position, it comes with it.”
“When I was in jail, people would look at me like I’m crazy, asking ‘How have you had this opportunity and ended up in here?’” He pauses to think. “Being humble is good, yeah, but I feel like I didn’t know how big I was.”
“That’s what I’ve learned. People don’t know how powerful they are, especially black men. We always degrade ourselves. We don’t know ourselves. If you look at rap culture, it promotes boy-ism, it doesn’t promote men. So a lot of us, we’re 30, 40, and we’re still boys. Can I ask you a question? How many black men that are 30-plus, do you think other black men want to be like?”
The question is rhetorical, and isn’t really for me to answer. I’m just a sounding board for him to consider his learnings in real time. As he reflects on his journey into manhood, he mentions the recent loss of his father. “I wish I could speak to him because there’s certain things that I used to hate about him that I see in myself. He was closed off. He was strict. He was stiff. He should have been in the army, would have been perfect in the military, still.”
It must be strange to draw comparisons between his dad being “closed off” and his own inability to process his fear. How much does he think PTSD brought on from his earlier stabbing played a part in his decision to take a knife to Westfield? He sighs and leans back in his black leather studio chair. “I was a zombie,” he says. “You know what it is, all this knife crime stuff – I feel like people undermine it, they don’t understand the effects of it. You know like soldiers that go to war have PTSD, there was a point in my life, even to this day, if I walk in the street I have to look at every car that’s driving past…” he trails off.
© Crowns & Owls
“See, the life I lived before this music thing, it was hard innit,” he says quietly. “A lot of us youths, we take the wrong path, we make decisions when we’re young that we don’t know is gonna affect us later.”
I ask him how it feels to be so visible compared to his previous life of concealing his body and cautiously looking around corners. He takes a long, 30-second pause and we sit in silence for a moment, the question hanging in the air as he contemplates the differences between us before gently answering.
“See… for you, you walk into a room and you ain’t gotta worry about nothing, you’re calm. But me, I’m worrying, it’s a distraction, it’s a weakness. It’s weird when I say it, but it makes some of your senses more stronger than others. When you walk into a room you see certain things, but for me, my head is elsewhere. I’m thinking about other things like…”
“…This could be a dangerous situation?”
I tell him that 24 hours prior, drill rappers Skengdo and AM were in parliament with Diane Abbott discussing the censorship of drill music, the rap movement that is accused of contributing to the increasingly high numbers of knife murders in the UK. The result has been widespread censorship of the sound.
“If you feel like the things they’re rapping about are so shocking, why do you just want to put them in a cage?” he questions. “Give them some mental help! I feel like a lot of black people are suffering from mental illness. The argument shouldn’t be about drill, the argument should be about: what can we all do? Everyone’s saying ‘it’s drill, it’s the drill artists.’ But the person that’s saying that, what have they done for knife crime?”
Spending time with Hus, even in these reflective moments, is energising. He is wickedly funny, quietly confident and disarmingly sweet. His real story, away from the tabloid headlines, is one of artistic exceptionalism – someone who has shifted the musical landscape so much, that it’s difficult to think what the current charts, festival line-ups or radio would sound like without him. Contemporaries like MoStack, Dave and Stormzy all consider him inspirations, and Jae 5, his producer who re-joins him for this album, is hot property thanks to the magic of Common Sense.
His future plans will see him breaking out of this moment of quiet again, and include a trip to the Gambia later in the year, as well as festival appearances and a new album. This time, he’s drinking it all in. If he didn’t before, it seems like he finally gets it. He is a big deal. People are rooting for him. Before I leave the studio, I give him a hug and mention that he must be excited to go home. He gives a mock puzzled look in response: “…I’m home!”
Photography: Crowns & Owls
Styling & Direction: Ade & Michelle
J Hus appears at Lovebox, Gunnersbury Park, London, 12 July