Octa­vian: Boy Meets World

He once was broke, now he’s a star. With spontaneous bursts of creativity inspiring his new album, The Face finds the rapper on a wild ride in Los Angeles.

Octavian’s bun­ga­low door swings open. He grips a handrail and stum­bles down a stair­case shad­ed by exot­ic veg­e­ta­tion, mak­ing his way towards the turquoise swim­ming pool. Since 1929 the Chateau Mar­mont has been the site for count­less tales of Hol­ly­wood glam­our and debauch­ery. Sure, the Los Ange­les hotel is an irre­sistible cliché, but as a rock’n’roll rite of pas­sage, it still feels good to see Octa­vian liv­ing it out. His sun­glass­es mask his expres­sion, but today the 23-year-old Anglo-French musician’s raspy voice is a lit­tle coars­er than usu­al. In homage to the Chateau’s rep­u­ta­tion, he chose to enjoy all 24 hours in an LA day.

You can’t blame him if he got car­ried away. Only a cou­ple of years ago Octa­vian was broke and home­less. His mum had told him: You’re either going to be in prison or you’re going to be big.” With those words swirling around in his head, he embraced his tal­ent and craft­ed a unique sound, a melod­i­cal­ly rich, left­field take on con­tem­po­rary rap. 

I first met Octa­vian just over a year ago while he was mas­ter­ing his Space­man mix­tape in Lon­don. The hype was build­ing, but he was still bare­ly step­ping towards the spot­light. That week he was elat­ed to be play­ing Peckham’s Bussey Build­ing and told the crowd with a sense of gid­dy dis­be­lief about how he’d gone from sleep­ing on the tube to head­lin­ing his own gig. A mas­sive group of his mates squeezed onstage behind him as he sprayed the audi­ence with bot­tles of water, stage-dived and demand­ed con­stant re-winds. Con­fet­ti can­nons and bal­loons only ampli­fied the sense of cel­e­bra­to­ry occasion. 

Now Octa­vian is in LA and on a mis­sion to record the fol­low up to Space­man. So although last night clear­ly got out of hand, the good news is that he fin­ished a new song – one fea­tur­ing him play­ing a gui­tar he’d impul­sive­ly pur­chased on Sun­set Boule­vard. Fol­low­ing The Face’s pho­to­shoot, Octa­vian is hop­ing to get a sec­ond wind for a record­ing ses­sion with Travis Scott, with Insta­gram sto­ries reveal­ing a rotat­ing cast of par­ty-seek­ers and col­lab­o­ra­tors, includ­ing Atlanta synth pop artist Abra, Kanye col­lab­o­ra­tor Theophilus Lon­don and Michael Phan­tom, a mem­ber of Octavian’s Essie Gang, who has the crew’s name tat­tooed in mas­sive let­ters under his chin. Already in the pipeline is a track that once fea­tured AJ Tracey, but is appar­ent­ly now a col­lab­o­ra­tion with A$AP Ferg.

Prod­ding at plates of eggs and avo­ca­do by the pool, Octa­vian tells me about his new alter ego, Rocko Smiles, He’s more of a rock­star, the dark side of Octa­vian.” Along­side claim­ing that this is his new name on Insta­gram, he’s also announced the album on the plat­form with a com­plex math­e­mat­i­cal sum, which indi­cates 26th April as the release date. But he doesn’t seem sure it’ll arrive so soon. As one of the most hyped new acts in the UK, the stakes for this project are high, yet his move­ments so far have been, to say the least, a lit­tle errat­ic. But for the time being Octa­vian is styling it out.

This is his sec­ond trip to LA. Dur­ing last year’s first vis­it, Louis Vuit­ton menswear artis­tic direc­tor Vir­gil Abloh brought him on to per­form at Tyler, The Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw fes­ti­val. This time he’s enjoy­ing cruis­ing around in Phantom’s rent­ed open-top Mer­cedes. Octa­vian is clear­ly lap­ping up the La La Land atmos­phere. What does he love so much about the place? He grins. The weed, the weath­er, every­thing. The oppor­tu­ni­ty you get here, it’s dif­fer­ent from Lon­don. The man­sions and shit are just right there,” he says, ges­tur­ing towards the mul­ti-mil­lion-dol­lar homes nes­tled in the Hol­ly­wood Hills. So you’re con­stant­ly inspired, you can make mon­ey here, you can be the most suc­cess­ful in the world – you can blow up like this,” he says, slap­ping his hands together. 

[But] it’s fake, it’s not real,” he switch­es, chuck­ling. You’ll get sucked into this not-real dream. You have to go back to Lon­don. Lon­don is like…” Michael Phan­tom inter­jects: Real­i­ty, fam.” Octa­vian nods. Real­i­ty!

Real­i­ty for Octa­vian used to be harsh. Born Octa­vian Oliv­er God­ji in Lille, France, he moved with his mum to Cam­ber­well, South Lon­don, aged three after his dad passed away. He was a self-described bad kid”, but he tells me he devel­oped his rebel­lious instinct so that he was able to nav­i­gate through pover­ty”. Exas­per­at­ed, his mum sent him back to France in his ear­ly teens, where he spent a dis­as­trous two years attend­ing a pri­vate school and liv­ing with a vio­lent, alco­holic uncle. As Octa­vian rapped on Space­man: I tell my uncle fuck him­self, I’mma glow / he said I’d nev­er grow…

Return­ing to Eng­land, he tried work­ing a few jobs, but each time he got fired after a few weeks. He was no longer on speak­ing terms with his mum, and with­out a legal guardian to sign the forms, the coun­cil couldn’t do much for him. He was total­ly skint, and for a num­ber of years resort­ed to sleep­ing on friends’ sofas and on pub­lic transport. 

Things start­ed to look up for Octa­vian when he got into rav­ing. He went to club nights like BPM (Bass Per Minute) in Vic­to­ria to sell drugs, and fell in love with house and drum’n’bass when he was there. Pur­su­ing his pas­sion for music, he was accept­ed on the Com­mu­ni­ty Arts Prac­tice course at The BRIT School in Croy­don – which boasts alum­ni as diverse as Adele, Katy B and King Krule. Like any­thing involv­ing dis­ci­pline, though, it wasn’t quite right for Octa­vian, and he dropped out.

But his time at The BRIT School wasn’t fruit­less: he met Jor­dan Christie, now a key Essie Gang mem­ber known as J Rick. Fol­low­ing the 2016 release of the mix­tape 22 and 2017’s Essie World EP, in the autumn of that year Octa­vian dropped Par­ty Here, arguably one of the great­est UK rap tracks of all time. Co-pro­duced by Octa­vian and J Rick, the beat blends club music influ­ences with emo­tive elec­tron­i­ca tex­tures – a nod, per­haps, to Octavian’s pas­sion for James Blake. Par­ty Here is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly melan­cholic and cel­e­bra­to­ry (“kin­da sad dad­dy died but look at your boy rise”), with ten­der emo­tion flow­ing from Octavian’s grav­el­ly voice. In Jan­u­ary 2018 footage emerged of a suit­ed Drake singing the track at a Gold­en Globes afterparty. 

And then things changed.

Octa­vian fol­lowed Par­ty Here with a win­ning streak of sin­gles: 100 Degrees, Hands and Lit­tle. Abloh invit­ed him to per­form at a par­ty dur­ing Paris Fash­ion Week, and Octa­vian walked for him in the French cap­i­tal for his first run­way show. He was, already, art­ful­ly but nat­u­ral­ly strad­dling both music and fash­ion. Many hip-hop artists have com­bined rock star aes­thet­ics with streetwear in recent years. But with every out­fit Octa­vian has bold­ly advanced his style, peak­ing with slick PVC trousers and black croc coat at London’s Ken­tish Town Forum in Feb­ru­ary this year. In his short career he’s also quick­ly devel­oped a unique stage pres­ence, strip­ping off his T-shirts and crouch­ing down to bust out wiry dance moves between his bars. Octa­vian knows the pow­er of fan con­nec­tion, and of brand­ing. At the Space­man launch par­ty in Hack­ney, a tat­too artist was onsite to ink atten­dees with the crossed swords emo­ji he’d claimed as his logo. 

At the begin­ning of this year Octa­vian won the BBC Music Sound Of 2019 poll, an acco­lade pre­vi­ous­ly award­ed to Ray BLK, Years & Years and Sam Smith. Then, in March, he dropped BET. Pos­si­bly his biggest track so far, BET was fur­ther boost­ed when Skep­ta jumped on a remix, and insti­gat­ed hys­te­ria when he came out to per­form it at Octavian’s tri­umph home­com­ing Forum show. Octa­vian describes BET as a dark song”. For all his charm and open-heart­ed­ness, there’s hos­til­i­ty in many of his lyrics, and a recur­ring boast about tak­ing an enemy’s girl out of spite. Last year, while fin­ish­ing Space­man, he told me: Every­thing I do now is for revenge, for the peo­ple who said I couldn’t do it.” So now that he’s large­ly got that off his chest, where is the anger com­ing from?

I think every­one has that inner anger,” he replies. In my music I like to express, I guess, my inner deep emo­tions – aggres­sion, what­ev­er. But that’s not real­ly me.” Does he feel a sense of cathar­sis when he’s writ­ing tunes like BET? Yeah, it’s like doing the laun­dry,” he laughs. You use music to kind of wash it out.”

We take a cab towards The Face shoot loca­tion on a hill over­look­ing Dodger Sta­di­um. Octa­vian takes the oppor­tu­ni­ty to have a quick snooze in the back­seat. The pow­er nap does the trick – when we arrive he’s in good spir­its, pos­ing play­ful­ly for the cam­era and laugh­ing off last night’s antics with Phan­tom and his cre­ative direc­tor Alex Sos­sah. At this stage of his career, he’s rel­ish­ing his time in the sun. Back at the Chateau he’d told me, with unwa­ver­ing con­fi­dence, that he’s aim­ing, to get to the very top, to see what it is to be at the top of the game. Top of the charts. That’s my ambition.”

That week­end, Octa­vian dri­ves the three hours into the desert to per­form at Coachel­la as spe­cial guest dur­ing Diplo’s set, play­ing their warm and mel­low col­lab­o­ra­tion New Shapes, released ear­li­er this year. The pair make plans to meet up the fol­low­ing week back in LA to record a new, more upbeat par­ty track. Dip­lo is typ­i­cal of the inter­na­tion­al heavy­weight artists whis­per­ing encour­age­ments in Octavian’s ear, all eager to be affil­i­at­ed with him. But even with those con­nec­tions, can Octa­vian achieve gen­uine crossover in Amer­i­ca? In recent years, a num­ber of UK rap­pers have tar­get­ed a US audi­ence and made lit­tle sig­nif­i­cant impact. Con­trived transna­tion­al col­lab­o­ra­tions can be heav­i­ly pro­mot­ed by UK acts but unac­knowl­edged by Amer­i­can guests, and the pur­suit of the dom­i­nant, more com­mer­cial trap sound might mean for­feit­ing a bit of British grit. 

Not that the first new Face cov­er star seems fazed by any­thing right now. I ask Octa­vian to define true suc­cess. His response reaf­firms his steely deter­mi­na­tion. For me, it’s real­ly about being at the peak, and being hap­py that I’m there, you know what I’m say­ing? And to build a foun­da­tion for oth­er artists to come through – and then do more than they thought they could. Break­ing through in Amer­i­ca allows for oth­er peo­ple from Lon­don to know that it’s pos­si­ble, to do what­ev­er the fuck you want, and to make it. I think that would show a lot of peo­ple. Espe­cial­ly some­one like me – com­ing from absolute­ly noth­ing, to the top.”

00:00 / 00:00