While names like Dizzee Rascal, Craig David and Mike Skinner often paint the picture for British urban radio, a name that deserves at least equal attention is Tottenham-born rapper Skepta, a man that’s long waved the flag for U.K.’s grime scene. A by-product of London’s early “noughties” pirate radio culture, Skepta honed his skills in production and on the mic as a member of early grime collectives Meridian Crew and Roll Deep before teaming up with brother JME to start the Boy Better Know label in 2006.
Having partaken in the evolution of the genre, from its influence on dubstep, to its mutation onto more dancefloor-driven sounds, Skepta and BBK continue to represent the London-bred genre at its most honest form, garnering a loyal following in their hometown while also captivating the U.S. market, collaborating with the likes of Virgil Abloh, P.Diddy and A$AP Bari. After taking the title as winners of 2012’s Red Bull Culture Clash, Boy Better Know are back this month to go head-to-head against A$AP Mob, Rebel Sound, David Rodigan and Stone Love. Prior to the competition, Skepta and BBK ventured to Jamaica to learn about sound clash culture first hand. In this conversation, Skepta lets us in on his Jamaica trip, grime’s growing connection with the States, his forthcoming clash with A$AP Mob, and finally the production of his latest anthem “That’s Not Me” — a track that’s heavily inspired by a meeting with Virgil Abloh at this year’s Paris Fashion Week. Enjoy the interview below and watch this year’s Red Bull Culture Clash unfold on October 30 6.30pm GMT at Red Bull Culture Clash.
What were your initial thoughts on Jamaica upon touch down?
You have to understand, with grime music, how we emcee, how we approach the music, how we rewind the track, the whole style comes from Jamaican dance culture. So we’ve grown up listening to all those kind of artists anyway. This trip was extra special for us because we were like “wow, we’re going to meet people that we’ve watched on YouTube for years.” Also, much of British youth culture, our slang and demeanor is inspired by Jamaican culture. It was an incredible experience going with Boy Better Know.
Was there anything in particular that caught you by surprise?
I was fascinated at how much music is integrated into one’s lifestyle. Everywhere else I’ve been, music is secondary. Grime is a lifestyle, but even with grime there’s pop strands that’s left the culture. In Jamaica, music comes first and foremost. People live it, you hear all these tracks playing loudly out of cars, see girls dressed up in the daytime looking like how they would in the videos. It’s mad!
What impact does music have on the public in Jamaica?
Music is authoritative in Jamaica. People look up to artists like they’re part of the government. It made me reflect and think about how I really need to embrace my genre. I need to live it a bit more man. When I’m driving down the road in the morning, I shouldn’t feel scared to play my music really loud. Over there, artists are representing the public, speaking on behalf of them. Why would the public want to shut them up? Dancehall icon Vybz Kartel went to jail for murder but the public’s still saying “free the boss,” “ free the teacher” because they know the MC stands behind the neighborhood, speaking against the corrupt government. The relationship between the artist and the people run deep. If you’re making good music, it’s an accolade, whereas in the U.K. underground music is often associated with negativity.
Were people in Jamaica aware of grime? What’s their perception of the genre?
When we got to the airport, kids were outside welcoming us screaming “Boy Better Know.” The internet has made everything so small. They understand of the grime beats because it’s similar to dancehall while other instrumentals are a bit too fast. Overall I think they like the lyrics more because we rap like dancehall artists in the way we formulate our lyrics to build the crowd. We work it to get that rewind, that encore. American rappers don’t really want that. They just want people to dance, they don’t want the interruption, the reload. In grime and dancehall, the rewind is everything!
Did you guys get involved with any of the clashes?
We went down to a local night called Clash Wednesday and watched ten clashes. We didn’t take part. Instead we looked for talent we could collaborate with. One guy stood out, his name is Newbaan. We contacted him the next day and got him to come meet us at Popcaan’s studio where we made a track together.
Grime is gaining popularity worldwide, where do you think its trajectory is heading?
Grime comes from London, a very multi-cultural city, yet it absorbs cultures from all over the world, from rudeboy slang to incorporating dance elements. There are constantly new ideas contributing to this fusional sound. For example, Rude Kid is a British grime producer with Asian heritage. His production melds sensibilities from his parents background and his environment. He could wake up one day and produce a Middle Eastern folk-inspired grime track and it’ll make total sense. Grime is another strand of dance music, another strand of hip-hop but grew from the inner city hustles of London’s council estates.
For a lot of British artists, “success” is determined by their popularity with the U.S. market? What do you think of this connotation?
“That’s Not Me” really blew up, it’s getting rewinds without me even being at raves. I’m getting drunk in London and my song is getting played in New York. So I’m wondering, what do these people see in grime? After catching some buzz in the U.K., a lot of rappers will move to the U.S. and embody the so-called “rapper lifestyle,” but the money they make is never that much so they end up looking stupid. The move to the U.S. is initiated because we grew up on Biggie, Tupac and so on. This is where we get lost training our fantasies. I fully know who I am in this world. When I’m in the States, I’m fully kitted in Air Maxs, tracksuits and a curved peak. I come through with my Sports Direct and JD Sports swag. I’m looking like some ASBO kid and shocking people.
I want to spread my culture and have people accept grime as just another form of hip-hop. In the U.S., people who live in the West Coast might not be into the same music as those in the Midwest as they’re from two different places with different accents. The commonality is the hardship they’re both facing, and they have both found ways to express that. London is another place with a similar story. I used to think we’re a defect in hip-hop with our different accents, but now people try and figure out what I’m saying, it intrigues them.
Virgil Abloh recently made a remix of “That’s Not Me.” With his influence on Kanye, do you think there’s a possibility Kanye might be making grime next, or even look to collaborate with you?
People tell me Kanye’s bredrin Virgil is feeling grime, that’s a compliment. For me Kanye would be the ultimate collaboration. Kanye’s “New Slaves” is grime. A lot of artists make grime tunes but they just don’t know it. Ratking’s Wiki makes grime. Virgil told me Kanye’s heard “Ace Hood Flow,” a track where I call out American rappers in addition to “That’s Not Me.” If a collaboration happens, it’ll do so organically. I don’t ever want to be the guy that’s trying to push my music through his people.
How did you meet Virgil Abloh?
A while back, someone tweeted saying “Oh Virgil’s biggin’ you up. He’s trying to jump on the grime hype” then Virgil retweeted with a blog link saying “been supporting since 2003/2005” or something like that, so grime isn’t a new thing to him. I looked at the link and was like “Rah! This guys actually knew about grime from back in the day.”
I met Virgil in Paris during Fashion Week. It took me ages to get into the party and I thought this is bullsh*t. Then when I finally got in, I saw A$AP Rocky, the DONDA crew wildin’ out on stage, and that’s not my style. I just stood in the corner of the club for three hours with one drink just observing. I only had one drink because it took me half an hour to get a drink from the bar! Then Virgil started DJing and played “German Whip.” I couldn’t believe it! I could see all these fashion heads losing their shit over my friend Meridian Dan’s song. Me and Virgil got chatting, and he was telling me about how I can bridge the gap between America and England, since our music is both at the same tempo. At the level he’s on, it was so positive and refreshing to talk music with him. He really powered me up and I walked away inspired by his words. I have a lot of respect for Virgil, he cares about the culture and enjoys discovering new sounds.
Is it true that Virgil inspired you to make “That’s Not Me”?
“That’s Not Me” was inspired by the whole fashion event and how the various stereotypes that I’m not part of. My conversation with Virgil really powered me up. I went home, had a good think, and this tune came into my head.
While it’ll be a blessing to collaborate with U.S. heavyweights like Kanye, do you think this will dilute the original sound of grime? Similar to how dubstep has evolved into different strands?
Because of what grime is about, I don’t think it can ever be hindered. With dubstep, people never really lived it. It came from Croydon and people had their lives. Grime was around before dubstep, and us MCs dipped into certain tracks, bringing certain songs to our sets. We warmed people to dubstep slowly. Like dancehall, artists like Rihanna can make their own versions of dancehall but you can’t really replicate the music, because it’s part of a culture that can’t be overshadowed. Similarly, you can’t kill grime because as long as there are 12-year-old kids turning on their mum’s PC with a cracked version of Fruity Loops making his own DIY sound, there’s grime. As long as there’s little ASBO kids on estates chatting shit, there’s grime. Dubstep DJs have given up, they just want to say Skrillex fucked it up but grime heads aren’t like that. They will want to hear Kanye do his version of grime, sample it back off him and do it better. We’re just cheeky little sh*ts. Grime is just full of little shits.
We started making music on PlayStation 2 on Music 2000. It’s been nearly 15 years. I don’t plan to stop anytime soon. I dedicate my life to help bridge the gap between the world and London rap. That’s my mission. My mind is solely here to pursuit my craft. I’ve just released a single with A$AP Barri. I don’t want to collaborate with Rocky or Ferg or just follow the obvious hype route. Also I’m working on an album with Dev Hynes, also known as Blood Orange.
Having collaborated with A$AP Mob, you’re set to go against them in the the Red Bull Culture Clash at the end of the month. What will attendees be treated to?
I’m shitting it, getting butterflies, but I’m very confident of my crew. I can trust them. Everybody is on point and have a clashing embedded in their flow. As grime artist we MC to clash. If you chat sh*t, we will murk you. I feel like A$AP Mob and Chase & Status’ music is not for clashing, it’s targeted at more on-trend listeners. Whereas Boy Better Know, we don’t give a fu*k. We just want to murk and get rewinds.