When it comes to underground British rap, Joe Black’s name holds serious weight.
Loved and revered by the streets and backpack-rap stans alike, the North Londoner earned his reputation in music during the early 2010s with a swarve flow, laid-back delivery and a preference for unpolished hip-hop production. At the time, Joe was in an unofficial duo with Benny Banks — another road rap star of the time — and together they delivered countless classic freestyles on YouTube and, before that, Spiff TV.
Having first interviewed Joe in 2012 and sat in on a few studio sessions since, it was always clear to me that his love for the pen was honest and true. He was less about “the floss” and fame in the hood, more concerned that his pain hit home to anyone who heard it.
But life can sometimes take unexpected turns.
Since 2015, Joe Black has been a senior staff member at one of football’s biggest clubs.
“I don’t know if a lot of people know, but I was at Chelsea for the last five years on the youth coaching team,” he explains. The sport was always in him. “I was into football way before music. The reason I got into music was because, at the age of 14, 15 — where other things come into play — I kinda lost interest in football and got into other things that led me into music.”
In 2009, Black – who at the time worked as a youth worker – was imprisoned on a robbery charge. He spent nine months inside before being acquitted. Today, he tells me that the time spent in the bin was beneficial.
“While I was there, I did a sports course, a coaching course. I came out from that, went through probation, and met up with one of my mates who started a grassroots football team. Ever since then, I’ve been taking football seriously.” He’s also been running AC United, a community-based club in Islington, where he grew up, since 2012.
Making the move from Chelsea in 2020, Black is now a North London U12-U14 recruitment co-ordinator for Arsenal – the team he’s loved since childhood.
“[The club] brought in some new people and they came and headhunted me,” says the 35-year-old. “I’ve got a little team of staff that I manage. A lot of my role there is coordinating the staff and making sure they stay on top of things, so that I stay on top of things.”
Of the bumpy transition from road rap vet to football professional, Black admits it was difficult at first.
“And there are still some things I’m trying to adjust to. It’s a different lifestyle. But I think with time, age and maturity, life, having kids, settling down… It’s more of a routine now. Music, as you know, it’s very unpredictable. One minute you’re on the block, the next you’re overseas doing a show. You don’t know where it’s going to take you. But with football, there’s more of a routine. I like that about it.”
Age ain’t nothing but a number, but rap is traditionally known as a young man’s sport. But Black sees football as a way to pass on the wisdom he gained as a youth worker to the next generations.
“‘Reach one, teach one’ is my philosophy,” he says, with a sense of determination in his voice. “When I look at some of these kids, you see yourself in them so you try to fill in the gaps that you never really had. I wouldn’t say I’m the best coach in the world. But I feel like my skill-set, because of my experiences in life, they’re vital because a lot of the kids, it’s about getting them to listen to you before you try and teach them.
“A lot of them are so frustrated, they feel like it’s them against the world. So it’s about making them feel that you’re on their side and making them know that you’re doing this for them.”
Does he have the Premier League’s next star player under his wings?
“There’s lots of different parameters,” he replies, “but I think it’s about having that X factor. There’s times when you’ll watch a kid and just know. You can see it. You can’t put your finger on exactly what it is, but you can see it. With what we’re doing, a lot of it’s calculated gambles because a lot of it’s trying to predict the future and trying to see where they’ll be in four or five years. You get some wrong, you get some right.”
From Dave acting in Top Boy and J Hus launching his fashion line, to Stormzy’s ongoing philanthropy work, British rappers are adept at excelling outside of music. But when you have an artist like Joe Black — who has blessed the scene with classics like Realionaire 1 & 2 and a plethora of memorable freestyles — you never stop wanting to hear from them on wax. Black’s occasionally dipped back into in the UK rap game in recent years, and as he reels off the names of the artists he’s currently rating (Headie One, Nines and Potter Payper chief among them), it’s evident that the fire’s still burning.
So then, on behalf of the fans, I have to ask: could a new Joe Black project be on the cards soon?
“I’d never say never!“ he says. “My music’s always been a reflection of reality, so it’s more challenging for me to make music at this current stage in life.
“Put it this way: I’m still in the studio and it’s more a matter of when, not if. It’s all about getting the sound right, getting the concepts right and the content. I’m trying to make it as authentic as the old music. But life is different now. The message might be different, but I don’t want to come across too preachy. Just know that I’m working on it.”
The stadium roars.