Following the grime resurgence in the middle of this decade, the UK rap scene’s been enjoying a boom period. Singles charts and festival line-ups are permanently packed with homegrown artists, streaming numbers are staggering and the radio is constantly broadcasting music made by the British working-class.
The rise of flirtatious, summery and radio-friendly Afroswing has coincided with the phenomenon of UK drill – a menacing, underground scene that’s soundtracked a crime wave and stirred up the biggest moral panic around a music genre in ages. There’s been an influx of new artists from both sides of the spectrum, and the industry doesn’t always reward originality. But Headie One sounds distinctive, and in this crowded field, he’s always stood out.
Headie was raised on the Broadwater Farm Estate in Tottenham. The area gained notoriety after intense riots in 1985, and to this day Broadwater Farm rarely makes headlines for the right reasons. But Headie One speaks with pride about where he’s from.
Having rapped under the moniker Headz as part of Star Gang in his teens, in 2016 he released his first project under his current moniker, Sticks & Stones, a collaborative mixtape with his close friend RV. Together they have a creative chemistry which generates a seemingly endless stream of jaw-dropping punchlines. Headie and RV have also helped kickstart local group OFB (Original Farm Boys), who are currently rising stars in the UK drill scene, and include Bandokay, the son of Mark Duggan, among their members.
In November 2017, Headie One had an online hit with Golden Boot, and two months later he and RV dropped Know Better – allegedly responding to footage that appeared on social media of an altercation involving Headie at Bedfordshire University a few days earlier. Famously, Headie self-censored potentially incriminating lyrics with shh! sounds – a darkly humorous, but perhaps practical necessity in a time when the Metropolitan Police have erased hundreds of UK rap videos from YouTube without warning. Know Better is arguably one of the biggest UK drill anthems to date. Testament to how far its helped the genre travel, the ghostly melody of its beat could be heard as the likes of Gigi Hadid walked Burberry’s AW19 runway at London Fashion Week.
A lot of people still think of Headie One as a drill artist, but these days he’s rapping over versatile beat selections. There are layers to Headie’s storytelling, offering something slightly more nuanced than the more nihilistic drill message which has piqued the newspapers’ interest. “I wouldn’t call myself a drill rapper,” he tells me, hood up, sipping a can of San Pellegrino on a picnic bench in East London. He points out that he’s good at singing melodies too. “Everyone’s entitled to their opinions, but I wouldn’t label myself just a rapper.”
Headie One’s recent mixtape Music x Road peaked at No.5 in the UK Albums chart. Many of the tracks break away from the morose drill sound. The floaty ambience of hit single 18HUNNA with Dave inspired Four Tet to nerd-out for a beatless remix, while Rubbery Bands is a beaches-and-bikinis summer single done the Headie One way, with references to car searches and interviews down the police station.
Our interview took place a couple of days before the mixtape drop at the Vevo studios in London, where Headie had just filmed a live session and joked around with the Mancunian rapper Aitch. Despite the aggressive nature of some of Headie One’s lyrics, in person he’s friendly, down-to-earth, maybe even a little bit shy. And although he tries to be humble, he’s clearly elated to be making a living from his art.
Was there a point where you realised that making music could be your job?
Nah. This all happened one step at a time. I’m just keeping the ball rolling. Appreciating the moment.
You’ve been doing music for a long time right? I saw a video on Twitter of you and RV rapping in 2010.
Literally, it goes even further back than that.
You must have been 15 in 2010?
Yeah. 15 or 16.
How long have you known RV?
I’ve known him for a long time. A lot of my guys that I [work with] I’ve known them for years because we grew up in the same area, same neighbourhood. We’ve known each other from when we were kids running around. The estate was a close environment, even if you didn’t have the closest relationship to people, everybody grew up together, so everybody’s parents know each other. Everyone speaks to each other. It’s like one big community.
It must be nice to see people coming up if you’ve known them since you were kids.
Definitely. 100% man. It’s mad to see, when you look back at old pictures. Going back to like 2008, 2007, primary school and that. And seeing how everyone’s grown. Everyone together. It’s come together nicely. It’s good still.
A lot of famous UK MCs have come from Tottenham: Skepta, JME, Chip, Wretch 32… Did you look up to those guys?
When I was growing up I was very aware of like Chip and Skepta and that. I knew they were doing big things in music. My concentration wasn’t on music like that, my mind was on other stuff. There was a lot of stuff going on.
But they were an inspiration, always in the back of my mind – like I need to do something like them cause they’re doing good, you know what I’m trying to say? But musically, probably not. My mind wasn’t really there like that.
So what were you listening to back in 2010?
It was more like road rap, or listening to my own stuff. And some American music. We used to rap over old US beats. Then 2010 is when, like, UK rap started coming through a lot more. A lot of the producers had more beats and more influence. That’s when it started to change.
Music x Road sounds to me like your most versatile project so far.
I’ll literally get on any vibe. Any beat. A lot of times when I link up with producers they think that I want to hear a particular sound, something that they think I will like. I always tell them, I like everything, anything that’s got a vibe to it. I’ll make something out of it.
Do you think it’s your best project so far?
Definitely. Musically, the concepts, the production… some of the production is outrageous.
Now that you’re so successful, what’s it been like for your family? Do you have any little brothers or sisters?
I’ve got a sister. She’s older.
Does she think it’s cool that her brother’s a famous rapper now?
Yeah. She’s heavily involved, been advising me quite a lot. She always wants to know what’s going on. I respect her opinion and I take advice from her. Me and my sister are close, been close all our lives innit. She’s my only sibling. She’s five years older than me.
What do you like to do to relax?
I don’t really chill. I’m always busy, always up to something. If I’m not recording or performing, I’m out doing something to do with work. If not, I just go abroad and clear my head.
Where’s your favourite place to go?
Paris is one of my favourite cities. I love Paris. I go shopping there. I like Dubai. Venice as well. Venice is relaxing. The water makes it all calm, nice food and that. But Paris is probably my favourite.
Are you into partying and going to clubs?
Naturally, I’m not a guy that likes going out. I don’t like being around a lot of people but I’ve kind of had to adapt to that now. Obviously when I’m going out and I’m performing, I’ve got to go to certain places… It’s different now.
Do you feel more comfortable getting stuff off your chest through music than conversations?
Yeah. definitely. I don’t really like to talk a lot. Obviously music is easier to get through a lot of things, there’s a creative freedom, innit.
Do you think when rappers get big they have a responsibility to be role models?
That’s a tough one. I wouldn’t really call it a responsibility. Everyone is their own individual and has their own mind. But obviously it’s something you would have to recognise, you’ve got a lot of people that look up to you and want to follow what you’re doing. But it’s each to their own, innit. If I’m speaking for myself, I do keep that in mind. I like to shed light on everything out there, trying to convince the younger ones to choose the right path and that. Whether negative message or a positive message, it’s about getting the message out there for them to actually know what’s going on. No sugarcoating, for them to hopefully learn from my mistakes.
When you first came up, some newspapers were pairing musicians with a lot of the problems in London. Your name got briefly dragged into that. Did that stress you out?
I’m really not stressed out but I’m not surprised as well. It didn’t really bother me because it’s an open message, innit? I just rap what’s on my mind, what I’ve seen. It hasn’t always been the best stuff, so I’m not always rapping positive stuff. Some of it has been negative. But I feel like it’s good to put both sides of the story out there, so people have a chance to understand why not to do certain things and have their own take.
You’ve got a big tour coming up. Do you enjoy performing, and is there anywhere you still haven’t played where you’d like to?
I have a lot of fun at my shows. I love connecting with the crowd, I love seeing the reactions to the songs. That’s one of my favourite things about making music. Seeing how it communicates with people.
I’ve never actually thought of somewhere I would like to play wherever I haven’t. I’ve played in quite a few weird places. I’ve been to Denmark, Ireland, Cyprus, Greece. I went Berlin last year as well, that was good.
I heard you were hanging out with Yoshi, the artist from Tokyo at The Face’s shoot with Juergen Teller. Do you like him?
He’s cool man! He’s young as well innit. He was showing me his music, and I liked his style. One day we might get a booth together innit. Japan to London linkup man.