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 Château 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 Château’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 Château 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.”