Grime is the latest British import to take North America by storm -- just ask Drake, who's been singing the praises of London rapper Skepta, or Nick Jonas, who worked with Stormzy on a remix of his single "Chains." Informed by American hip-hop as well as the frenetic pulse of drum n' bass, the iciness of UK garage and the guttural bass of Jamaican-rooted dubstep, grime assailed the UK mainstream in 2003 with Dizzee Rascal's Mercury Prize-winning album, Boy In Da Corner.
Now 18-year-old Kojo Kankam, who performs as Novelist, is leading a second wave of young talent that's been taking over London's pirate radio stations -- traditionally a breeding ground for new grime artists. He's already shared the stage with Kanye (who brought several other grime crews onstage for his Brit Awards performance this year) and collaborated with Jamie xx -- but the way he sees it, grime is "not a genre of music at all"; it's a way of life he's been immersed in since age 6.
"We're fashionable to people now," he says, "but it's just what we do." Read our extended Q&A with the prodigy from our September issue below.
Grime is obviously so new to American audiences, why do you think it's having this revival in the UK while simultaneously infiltrating America?
Because of us young'uns. We brought back pirate radio culture, and that is the biggest thing in grime, like on the whole. So we've generated quite a big buzz and got blogs and different magazines in the UK to start paying more attention by doing stuff with people who're not really in my genre, for example [producer] Mumdance. Mumdance, he's got a whole demographic, he's more like middle class white people. And so they all started paying attention to grime -- that was really good for the whole genre. And then, it's like me and Skepta, we'd done radio, we'd done a [radio] show on NTS, and then Skepta just started getting crazy with it. He started dressing sick, his whole energy was just sick. So Skepta started making a lot more music. Us younger ones, we've got control of the whole thing in the UK underground, innit. It's been really influential, man. And because people like Skepta, he's got friends in the US, he's got fans out there. Like he's got the A$AP lot, he's got some other Atlanta people, he's got Drake, obviously he got us a lot of grand coverage. Like when me and Skepta, JME and Meridian Dan did a show with Kanye West at [London's] KOKO.
Did you just fly over to New York for [underground club night] Lit City Rave, or were you recording out here?
Yeah, I flew over for Lit City and to just make tunes wherever I could get studio time. That's why I flew out and linked up with my boy [Lit City boss and Future Brown member] J-Cush, because he's a good friend of mine, and he really cares about grime. He's been a big part of grime being in the U.S. on the whole. Now obviously you've got the crazy stuff, like you've got Drake fucking with Skepta and all that, but I'm saying that the international link was originally J-Cush. Obviously in the past have gone back and forth from the U.S., but J-Cush, he's over here DJing. And then he's over [in London] DJing. He's really powerful with it.
Well, you kind of answered my question before about pirate radio and everything, but how did you particularly get into grime? You didn't battle or anything, you did pirates, right?
Grime in the UK is not like a genre of music at all. You don't look at it like it's a genre. If you're born in certain areas, it's just what everyone does. You've always done it; it's always been like that. We're fashionable to people now, but it's just what we do. Like when we were growing up in primary school, secondary school, we was writing four bars, eight bars, and sixteen bars everyday. Everyone had some lyrics, even the rappers, everyone just had a grime lyric. Grime is just so engraved in the underground in the UK; it's like punk culture. At first the world fully didn't understand it; they thought these people were crazy with their piercings, their tattoos, their mad hairstyles, and then what happened was people just had to accept it like, "Yo, do you know what, there's loads of people like this, and they're on that." That's what grime's like, but for street n****s in the UK, you get me? I got into it literally just from being around home. It was normal.
And you're from Lewisham [in Southeast London], right? Which is, frankly speaking, known for being not the best of areas of London. Does that inform your work in any way?
Yeah well, Lewisham's been a mad place from day one. So I'm cool in my end because I've really been respected for the work I've done, so I can walk around and no one is really going to bother me, because that wouldn't be wise.
I meant that it's been kind of a big year with the general election and everything. Has that influenced your music at all?
It definitely fucked up London. It made it worse, one-hundred percent. The teenagers like myself are pissed off. We're not happy. We're not happy. London is on the brink of something crazy happening -- and that's not because I'm saying it, it's because that's what it is. I'm just another person who's experiencing it. So I mean, I'm not stirring nothing up, but I'm just telling you we're on the brink of something mad happening, because the [British Members of Parliament], they don't get it.
You've been called a prodigy and grime's new poster boy. Has it kind of taken you by surprise? How long have you really been doing this, seeing as you're just 18?
I've been doing grime since I was about six. When I first got real interested in music on the whole. When people say I'm like the poster boy and all of that stuff, I love it. It's warming. I love it because initially that was my goal, just to come in the game and just not really care. There's no rules for me, none, man. Everyone's on some funny stuff, so it's like for me I'm just gonna go do radio, do everything the old-school MCs did and it works. So it doesn't take me by surprise because I've dedicated my life to making this music, you know? And I know every day I get up I make a plan; I stick to the plan; I never lapse. I'm kind of describing it like it's a heist and there's certain procedures you need to go through to get to a certain stage. I taught myself how to do that from young. I listened to all kinds of music, and I'm really technical with how I release music. So now the mass public is agreeing and picking me up. I feel privileged and I like it, and I'm not really going to stop. I'm set up to dedicate my life to this.
Photography by Brendan Freeman
Photo Assistant: Kristos Giourgas