Yellow tape is everywhere. We’re in the bowels of an industrial estate in South East London, a “black site” where around 100 people have gathered for the launch of Casisdead’s debut album Famous Last Words. By day, this space hosts paintball battles and laser tag. The floor is wet for no obvious reason and it smells a bit like a farm.
You’re here because you either know Cas personally, work in music, or were lucky enough to receive an email disclosing the event details after pre-ordering Famous Last Words. Coaches picked us up in a car park outside The O2. In keeping with the seedy sci-fi concept around the album, officials gave us lanyards bearing “DeadCorp chips” and, on board, a robotic female voice informed us that “the penalty for not wearing your chip is death”.
It’s an odd bunch. Reddit lurkers, industry types, Jordan from Rizzle Kicks, a mysterious figure in a parka with a black visor over his face, and loads of music journalists sniffing around for a close encounter with the UK’s most elusive rap star.
But Casisdead doesn’t usually talk to the press. Since releasing his first music nearly 20 years ago, he’s never publicly revealed his identity and has hidden behind a range of masks: first a balaclava, then a plastic skeletal number, then something gruesome resembling Freddy Krueger, before a bald stretchy thing with a moustache and, more recently, an eerie rubber mask that you might mistake for a real face the first time you see it.
I’ve been trying to get an interview with Cas for five years. His people finally said yes in the run up to Famous Last Words, which arrives nearly a decade after his only other full-length project, 2014’s mixtape The Number 23. He followed that with 2015’s four-song Commercial 2, sold exclusively on cassette, initially for 1p, now for over £300 on Discogs (no Commercial 1 was ever released). Before that, in the 2000s, he was a grime MC, known as Castro Saint and beloved by sections of the GrimeForum cognoscenti. Around 2007, he stopped releasing music and didn’t return until 2012, first as Cas, then Casisdead. Where he was in the interim is a mystery.
At the Famous Last Words launch party, the 23-track album plays in its entirety into the arid dank of this ersatz nightclub. There’s no sign of Cas, but the creepy bloke with the visor prowls the floor throughout. The crowd sways approvingly at the new tracks and cheers the singles, seven of which were released in some form before the album release. Among them is Pat Earrings, included on Famous Last Words despite coming out nearly six years ago. It’s Cas’s biggest tune to date, an affecting lament about dating a sex worker that soundtracked the final scene of People Just Do Nothing.
Once the album’s played out, Cas makes a brief appearance onstage, hitting his head on the ceiling and complaining that the place is filthy. He does two songs from Famous Last Words, and his 2015 single 6PM, then he’s off.
A week and a half later I’m at his label XL Recordings’ office, an urban cottage hidden on a backstreet near Ladbroke Grove. “He’ll be here any minute,” I’m told when I arrive, but I won’t believe it until I see him. In fact, even when I do see him, I’m not sure if I’ll totally believe it’s him. It’s explained that, when Cas arrives, I’ll have to go upstairs while he sorts himself out.
I sit and wait. Classics cover the walls of the offices: Overmono, King Krule, The xx, Arca, MIA, Radiohead, The Prodigy. A car flies across the window. “Did you see how fast he was driving?!” cries an XL employee, and I’m taken upstairs. I’ve been told several times not to ask Cas about his childhood, his private life, where he was between 2007 and 2012, or anything remotely personal. Of course, I’ll try anyway.
“Just don’t Martin Bashir me, bruv,” says Cas as we finally come face-to-face. Or face-to-balaclava, which he wears with a Maharishi tracksuit and a pair of latex gloves.
I tell him I’ve been looking forward to this. “I haven’t,” he says in his gravelly, throaty drawl. I’m already sure this is the real him.
“This is the first interview I’ve ever done,” he claims, although there is record of an encounter with SBTV around 2013, as well as email exchanges with i‑D and Loud & Quiet, plus a wordless “interview” with Charlie Sloth for which Giggs acted as Cas’s mouthpiece. While we talk, he gets to work signing about 300 prints, to be included with purchases of the record. He claims he doesn’t have a signature, so he writes bespoke messages instead. On some, he writes lyrics. On others he just writes “FUCK OFF” or “CUNT”.
Famous Last Words is a work of vivid storytelling and dense world-building, filled with ’80s synth lines and twilit ambiance. Collaborators include the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant, singers Kamio, Connie Constance, Megan Louise (from Desire) and Linn Carin Dirdal (from Later), plus production from Kyle Dixon (of Stranger Things OST fame), Johnny Jewel (boss of the label Italians Do It Better), The Purist (boss of Daupe!) and Cas’s in-house knob-twiddler Cyrus, all supplying the sorts of arpeggiated beats and soul choruses you might hear on Miami Vice. His deep, devoted love for music shines in references to Bowie, Prince, Queen, Kate Bush, Rush, Naked Eyes and Erasure.
There are also lurid bars about late-night trysts, drugs on dashboards, botched vintage car deals, armed ambushes, overdoses, missing kids and infidelity. There are femmes fatales aplenty, most of them characterised by promiscuity, addiction and trauma.
Actors Ed Skrein (Deadpool, Game of Thrones) and Emma Rigby (Hollyoaks, Prisoners’ Wives) play out a narrative in a series of skits, reckoning with the fictional megacorporation DeadCorp, who are “manufacturing apathy” and administering it to the world via a synthetic drug called Aghast 6. It recalls nothing so much as the seedy, subterranean films of Paul Schrader and Nicolas Winding-Refn, or some next cyberpunk neo-noir, with DeadCorp resembling Blade Runner’s Tyrell Corporation or RoboCop’s OmniCorp.
With all the references to self-annihilation and suicide in mind, I see no way to begin our conversation other than by asking, quite simply, if he’s alright.
“Not really bro,” he replies. “But you know, we get on with it, innit. I don’t think, um… I’ve never been all right.”
The spectre of death has always hung heavy over Cas’s music. “Looking out on London Bridge, thinking about throwing myself off,” he rasped on 2014’s Drugs Don’t Work. Even in his grime days, before death was in his name, Castro spat lines like “I don’t sleep, sleep is the cousin of death /But I’m already dead…”. On Marilyn, from the new album, he’s like: “The Reaper got me in his clutch /Knew that he was on his way, but dunno why in such a rush.”
“Death is everywhere,” he says by way of explanation. “It’s coming for us all. It’s just a matter of time. And I guess I’ve been face to face with him”– presumably he means the Grim Reaper –“many times, from young, so… It’s not really a fascination. It’s more just an acknowledgement of what’s there.”
If you’re interested in Cas’s backstory, you have to dredge his catalogue for clues. On a 2007 track called Cook It Up he rapped: “I had to grow up so quickly, my dad was a no-show /So me and mumsy had no dough /Living off benefits strictly /Then one day it hit me /Like, fuck getting paper legit-ly /I linked up with Lucy; I started shotting that Bobby and Whitney.” Various other bars indicate that he grew up in Tottenham. I venture a question about his childhood.
“It was tough,” he says. “That’s all I can really say. But I mean, most people that grew up where I grew up have the same story, so it’s not really anything special. It was just rough living around there.” He grew up with his mum, who he still talks about lovingly, while his dad played a bit-part role in his upbringing. “Yeah, I met him,” Cas says. “But he was a bit of a cunt.”
Cas once claimed to have done alright in school: “Didn’t pay attention in classes, but I still passed it, sat in the back in my glasses /Bare A’s and B’s on my exam paper just like the ones in your girls’ bras…” (on Desert Storm). What was he like as a kid?
“I guess I was kind of like how I am as a rapper,” he says “Like, a nerd, but selling drugs. I went to a terrible school. I went there wanting to be Prime Minister and by the end of year seven I was selling Charlie.” He says he started dabbling with drugs while he was in school as well. “I was always on weird shit, man. I just always wanted to push the boundaries a bit. I was a foolish young man.”
Across Casisdead’s discography, intoxicants are both distributed and regularly consumed. Is he now addicted to drugs?
“Um… some,” he says. “But I’ve tried to curb it a bit. There’s not really a long future in it, is there? But the world is kind of hard to walk through sober. So much fuckery every day, bruv, it just doesn’t stop. And yeah, without the drugs, I don’t know… I don’t want to promote it to the young people, but I don’t know what I would do without a spliff, or… something else. I do enjoy a bit of Charlie sometimes. But Charlie is like a cigar in my opinion. It’s best enjoyed as some sort of celebration or something, off some pop star’s arse cheeks.”
Right. Cas’s relationship with the mainstream – pop stars, celebrities, other rappers – has always been complicated.“There’s a lot of famous people who have reached out and shown love,” Cas says. “People will say ‘I just listened to your new song’. And I’m like ‘I apologise. I’m sorry you had to go through that,’ because I don’t know what to say.”
Cas says he met Ed Skrein nearly a decade ago and the two have been friends ever since. In a recent Instagram story, Cas could be seen, mask on, at Newcastle United’s demolition of Paris Saint Germain in the Champions League, posing for photos with Sam Fender and Asim Chaudhry, aka Chabuddy G from People Just Do Nothing.
In his early years as an artist, while he was rapping with a grime outfit called Proppa Production, Cas rubbed shoulders with some of the genre’s greats. He occasionally guested on tracks by P Money’s crew In Da Hood. He also had a song (Chemist) on fellow Tottenham resident JME’s third Boy Better Know mixtape (2006’s Derkhead Edition). He once described JME, his brother Skepta and their sister, the former Rinse DJ Julie Adenuga, as “proper grime philanthropists”.
But even then, Cas seemed a step removed from the rest of the UK scene. He always insisted on hiding his mush, a whole generation before half the rappers in Britain were doing it. Then, in 2007, he appeared to drop off the face of the earth. Where was he?
“Just knocking about, brav,” he says.
Some people think he was in prison, faking his own death, or actually dead. On his 2012 tune 3.6 he addressed God, rapping “You killed me on Shelbourne Road, made the helmet smash and the bike explode.” Some say he was in a motorbike accident.
“Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t.”
Others think that he was diagnosed with a serious illness. In a 2016 interview, British DJ Oneman told Clash: “He was Castro from North London, but then he got cancer, and now he’s changed his name to Casisdead.” Cas makes numerous references to poor health in his bars. “Such a shame that this all had to coincide with the news that it’s eating up my insides,” he rapped on Commercial 2 track Phonecall.
“Listen to the album, and it’ll become clear,” is all he says.
Casisdead’s mystique feeds dozens of online theories. But he balks at the idea that he’d ever read his own Reddit page. “Are you really asking me that question?” he scoffs. “No, bruv. I do not read that. It would get in my head.” His reason for concealing his identity, he claims, is very simple. “I can’t be famous, man. Like, people are so desperate to find out what I look like. It’s not no big secret, bruv. I just don’t want to be going into Waitrose and you’re harassing me. I just want to live my life.”
After his hiatus, Casisdead returned to music in 2012, posting five songs on Soundcloud under the name Cas and declaring “Yeah, I’m total scum; I sell drugs to pregnant mums” on the track Coke Dope Crack Smack. He compounded his outsider status through his aversion to the production styles of the era. While UK artists like Tinie Tempah and Example were crashing the charts by mixing rap with pop and radio-friendly dance music, Cas chose to spit over Lalo Schifrin’s jazz score from the 1968 action thriller Bullitt. He seemed further from the rap scene than ever. But he found an unlikely friend in Giggs, which led to their 2015 collaboration What’s My Name and Cas featuring on two songs from the road rap legend’s 2016 album Landlord.
“He’s one of the only rappers in this country that actually was confident to just…” Cas is animated on this. “You can’t question Giggs. He’s gonna do what the fuck he wants. I think maybe that’s why we connected. But I’m a weird guy, outwardly, and he didn’t give a fuck.” Their relationship is still good. “We speak all the time. I love that man. He never felt no way about standing next to me, where certain man had actively tried to block me from progressing.”
Casisdead’s lyrics often paint a picture of a lone wolf. On Pat Earrings he raps “She was never accepted by my friends, but it’s cool cos I never liked them,” then on Skydive – the album’s dramatic final track – he’s like “Friends know I’m fucked, but they don’t know how much.” It often feels like Cas isolates himself, even from the people closest to him.
“I mean, I guess so…” he ponders. “I like my space, man. And a lot of the time, um, the problems that I have… None of you can help me with. I’ve dealt with a lot of fuckery in the last decade, and my friends don’t even know. That’s not an attack on them. I’ve made it so they don’t need to know. Because what are they gonna do? Sometimes the best thing to do is just to rap.”
Skydive features a brutal, heart-wrenching chorus sung by Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant, the realest embodiment yet of Cas’s love affair with the ‘80s. “When Neil agreed to even listen to the song I was already like, welling up,” Cas says. “I know when my mum hears that, she’s gonna cry her eyes out.”
The song feels like a climax – not just to Famous Last Words, but to something altogether bigger. “Sat on the second step, the sun setting, seconds left,” Cas begins. The bars get increasingly fatalistic from there. “I knew the end was due,” Cas intones. The end of what? Is this the end of Casisdead?
“Only time will tell, bro,” he says. “I think especially now, in this world we live in, it’s really hard to look forward. It’s like one day it’s a bombing, the next day it’s some legend’s died, the next day fucking World War 3 is imminent. I don’t even bother thinking forward to next week anymore man. You just gotta try and enjoy what you can now. Get busy living or get busy dying. Because it’s coming. Fucking aliens are meant to be coming soon. I wonder what them cunts are gonna have to say.”
So how does he want to be remembered? “I don’t even know if I want to be remembered,” he says, and I feel like jumping across the table and shaking him by the tassels of his hoodie. Instead I merely stammer that a few of us will be in no hurry to forget the impact his music has had on our lives.
He pauses. “Well, I hope people can read between the lines enough to understand the message we’re trying to send,” he adds. “It’s not even so much about death. It’s more about life. It’s more about the fact that death is one of the only things we’re guaranteed. So stop wasting your fucking life, man. If I can be remembered as the guy that made you realise that, that’s enough for me.”
Famous Last Words is released 27th October via XL Recordings