Skepta reclaims grime’s history for its true authors
“Mistakes?” Skepta pauses. Fully decked in Nasir Mazhar, he lounges against the studio wall, shifting weight from one heel to the other. Kush vapours wheel around his low slung cap. He stares fiercely at everything and nothing. “I’ve made bare mistakes. But some of us who have been at the bottom aren’t afraid of being there. It never scares me when I’m down there.”
Skepta, aka Joseph ‘Junior’ Adenuga, maintains a lionised philosophy that seems infinitely honest. He’s effortlessly assertive and has a particularly brazen way of fielding answers. Earlier in the day, we found the UK’s most revered MC at the front of a picket line outside of London’s High Commission of Nigeria, peacefully campaigning and raising awareness over the thousands of lives taken by Boko Haram. A few hours later, Skepta’s mood is meditative, passively basking in the glacial Sunday afternoon air.
It’s an interesting mindset to find him in. 2014 witnessed the Boy Better Know co-founder cause a gaping rupture in the cultural zeitgeist. Countless heads fell under the spell of That’s Not Me, and still haven’t truly escaped it. Now, the overhanging drop of his forthcoming album Konnichiwa is expected to meet the towering expectations that Skepta set himself early last year. “I’m not going to lie, I feel pressure,” he admits with a perceptive smirk. “It’s the album of the world. It’s now. It’s today. But my intention is to spin the globe in another direction. While everyone will think I’ll be going one way, I’ll make it go the other. That’s my kind of chaos. I never plan for shit.
“And that’s what That’s Not Me personifies. It was a freestyle at first. I just wanted to put out a video that made people feel like it was made back in the day. That’s why we shot on VHS with UZI. But the reaction to it was mad. I couldn’t believe it.” The video featured a green screened Skepta and brother JME bawl into a pair of headphones as crumbly archival BBK footage crudely hovers behind a mixer. Directed by grime’s go-to creatives, Tim and Barry, each grainy cut-rate clip is in line with the lo-fi aesthetic of the duo’s long-standing Just Jam nights. It cost £80 to produce and KO’d the competition for Best Video at the 2014 MOBOs, lambasting big budget entries from the likes of FKA twigs and Rudimental.
The vintage prevalence of the track and its video resonated instantly, sparking puffy industry types to play their ‘resurgence’ cards. International ears pricked up, galvanising a certain Canadian to crib Skepta’s bars in a verse featured on Lil Wayne’s recent mixtape. “Drake reached out to me and let me know what he was going to do. To me, that was like lyrically sending me a bottle of champagne in a restaurant. But then people started asking me what I was going to do as a response.
“It’s funny, because now I’m standing here thinking there would’ve been a day where I would’ve been stupid enough to respond in a verse. But I’m in a place where I don’t need to think about that. Whoever doesn’t know my lyric is going to think it’s his, I understand that. I’m just focused on what I’m doing.” Today, he seems wholly amicable and earnest; comfortable with the ladder he’s chosen to climb. Early in his career, Skepta resisted the financial allure of major labels, opting to pave BBK’s own self-governing path.
After accidentally burning his house down in Old Street by setting a teddy bear alight at the age of three, his family moved to Tottenham. There, he and his brother would begin to work on a craft that later made them forbearers of UK grime. As pirate stations such as Rinse FM and Freeze 92.7 crested on the merging sounds of garage, dancehall and hip-hop, Skepta began his career by formulating instrumentals for the Tottenham-based Meridian Crew. Slapdash VHS recordings and impromptu MC clashes in contrasting tower blocks formed the basis of grime’s now-legendary early years.
Following the group’s disbandment in 2005 and their brief involvement with Bow’s Roll Deep Crew, Skepta and JME founded their own branded allegiances in 2006 with Boy Better Know. Here, along with crew members Jammer, Frisco, DJ Maximum and Shorty, they began releasing a slew of quintessential mixtapes. From Risky Roadz to Lord of the Mics to the Jump-Off, BBK’s battles are cherished as lyrical time-capsules, spitting furiously over fruity-looped edits and dubplates. Skepta charted his success with dignity over capital.
Skepta’s prominence seemed to accelerate without interruption, thanks to the noted success of his 2007 debut Greatest Hitsand critically applauded mixtapes Been There Done That (2010) and Community Play (2011). Yet, succeeding the release of his Blacklisted mixtape in 2012, North London’s microphone champion seemed oddly muted in output. “I like to let myself live,” Skepta cranks the brass of his lighter. “I don’t like to force music.
“You try and make your whole life about music, you stop allowing yourself to experience life. If you wrote your first lyric at 14, which you average MC does, that’s 14 years of your life going in to that lyric. Bare thoughts that you put into your first 16. That’s hard. When you’re living it onstage all the time, your bars are inclined to be more self-indulgent. I’d end up with nothing to write about.
“So I waited,” he explains. “During that time, between 2012 and 2014, I felt myself become real. I focused on being Junior rather than Skepta. And that’s how I ended up with That’s Not Me. I didn’t have to think about who I was. It was an important period in time for me; making Blacklisted. Even when I release Konnichiwa, I think I’ll always love Blacklisted. That was my mid-life crisis album. I listen to it and realise that’s when I became a man. It’s all emotion.”
Skepta’s emotional strong-arming gives off an intensely thick-skinned impression. But having large chunks of his adult life uploaded online in the form of clashes and battles, you can track almost every one of his blows and missteps. “I grew up on YouTube. You can view my mistakes. You can see my whole life. Whether you like what I do or not, you can see someone who’s trying. The internet has made everything level. No more fucking mirage. You could spend a million pounds on a video and people won’t care. No one. The video is whack and it has no substance, but it cost a million pounds? So what? It doesn’t matter how much money anyone’s got in their bank account. People fuck with me. People fuck with Joseph Adenuga.
“To the mainstream, there’s a resurgence. But they just stopped listening to it in the first place. I’ve always had grime at the heart”
“One time, I uploaded this video called Underdog Psychosis,” he recalls. “That was the real turning point for me. It’s like 26 minutes of me just talking to my laptop screen about my life and how I felt. You see every artist in the industry have a breakdown. Britney cut off her hair. Wiley moved to Cyprus. Everyone goes through it in different ways. Underdog Psychosiswas mine. After it was released, I felt cleansed. From that point, I told myself that I’m not fucking with anyone that isn’t fucking with me. I don’t have time to try and please people whose platform isn’t made for me. Why was I trying to please Radio 1 for anyway?”
This virtual revelation from Skepta caused a potent reaction last year when That’s Not Me came at loggerheads with commercial audiences, heralding a so-called return to form for grime. But was this really the case? Were we really witnessing the genre’s recovery, or had new audiences only woken up to the its existence? It’s a contentious talking point, one which DJ and Butterz co-owner Elijah confronted with a recent blog post in which he dismantled misconceptions and stressed grime’s constant growth. “We, the music community, not just grime, need to ensure our stories are told properly, otherwise you will pay for it in other ways down the line,” he argued. “From 2014’s coverage of grime you would think there wasn’t any music since 2006.”
In line with Elijah, Skepta couldn’t be more against the idea of grime’s sudden rebirth. “To the mainstream, there’s a resurgence. But they just stopped listening to it in the first place. No matter what music I made over the years, I was always going to Sidewinders and Eskimo Dance and those shows. Getting mad reloads. I’ve always had grime at the heart.
“But everyone’s hypebeasting over it now. The masses are going to take it and rinse the fuck out of it. What goes up must come down, so everyone should just enjoy it while it’s here. This is a beautiful movie. A movie that only a few understand. So now it’s up to me to tell the true story and I get to tell it from first hand. I’m not a fucking reporter trying to talk about it. I was there and I will tell you about what I was doing. “If you were there, you’d know that it was sick. But missing it and wanting to go back? That’s what was holding us back. It happened and now this is happening. So we’ve got to keep writing this history. Thinking about the now and what we’re going to do now.”
Right now, with the impending release of Konnichiwa, Skepta is holding fast to the Eskibeat throne. Yet, racing beneath him are grime’s starving young spitters, tirelessly yanking upon Skepta’s robes. But what does the future hold for the Stormzys and Novelists of today and tomorrow? “I almost owe my life to the younger generation coming up underneath me,” Skepta abstains. “They’re like my children in a mad way. I looked to my dad as a youth for direction. Then I found this other legend that was like me. I gravitated towards Wiley. But it soon got to the stage where it was like ‘Rah, I’m the big man.’
“So now I’ve got to show Stormzy and Novelist the blueprint because they don’t have one yet. It’s almost like to become a big rapper in England is to sign to an American. At one stage I wanted to do that. I used to think that was the blueprint. I thought I would go on a support tour with an American, I’ll get signed and that means I’ve made it. I want to show those two that there’s a different way to do it. I want to share what I’ve found out so they can learn from my mistakes. When they’re on the up like I was with Wiley, I want them all to say ‘I want to do it like Skepta.’ And I think they will.”
Konnichiwa is scheduled for release in mid-2015.