Unknown T wants us to see the whole picture
Within less than a year of making music, Unknown T caught the kind of buzz that every UK MC dreams of. Then, at the peak of his career, he lost his freedom. In this exclusive interview, he talks continuing his comeback – with new material that tells his side of the story.
With just one track released, in 2017 Unknown T made UK rap history when he was passed the mic during a Tim Westwood Crib Session (as has become fairly common with UK drill content, the video has since been pulled from YouTube). If he was aiming for anonymity by hiding his face with shades and a balaclava, then he failed. In a room crammed with MCs from Homerton, Unknown T immediately stood out with his low, booming voice and intricate lyrics that carried phonetic impact. (“Samurais in batches/Whack, whack, pull up, skrrt, reverse /Bang, the ting goes back in the jacket”.)
The rest of the crew got rowdy with approval. Kenny Allstar, the self-proclaimed “voice of the streets”, invited Unknown T to do a Mad About Bars freestyle, which quickly surpassed 1 million views. It appeared the Cribs Session hype wasn’t just a fluke.
When Unknown T, real name Daniel Lena, self-released Homerton B – the full version of the song he’d teased on the Cribs Session – in the summer of 2018, it instantly reached beyond the core UK drill audience, peaking at 48 the UK charts and leading to a deal with Universal Music Group.
With a tempo of 142BPM, it’s slightly faster than the standard drill track. While most aim for a morose mood, Homerton B’s aural assault of screeching car tires, double-time snares, frantic percussion and Lena’s fast rapping created an adrenaline-fuelled UK drill song with the potential to go off in the clubs, and a flirty refrain of “baby bend your back and then dig it” was a consistent crowd pleaser. Chart-busting UK rapper Krept tweeted his high praise: “Oi naaa a man made a drill tune that gyal can twerk too lool. Unknown t is a hero.” Sure enough, at Notting Hill Carnival a few days later, Homerton B was everywhere.
By 2018, UK drill had emerged from the underground. The British press had developed an obsession with the movement and the Metropolitan Police wanted to censor it. Liberal-minded fans of the music saw the often nihilistic lyricism as a symptom of austerity and structural poverty, while others blamed it for the rising violent crime rates.
It’s worth noting Lena never categorised himself as just a drill artist. He experimented with his sound, following Homerton B with the wholesome single Throwback (which samples Wifey Riddim – a UK garage-tinged beat used by Tinie Tempah in 2007); jumped on a remix of Headie One’s similarly lighthearted track Tracksuit Love remix with cheeky rising star Aitch; sang on WTSTRN’s Afrobeats jam Medusa; and made another dent in the charts with his AJ Tracey collab Leave Dat Trap. Lena seemed poised to become one of the biggest breakthrough stars of the UK drill scene. He stole the show when he came out as a guest at Nines’ sold-out Kentish Town Forum gig. When he performed Homerton B at one of Drake’s shows at The O2, he sounded slightly offbeat as he strolled down the platform towards the massive stage. But it was understandable if he wasn’t quite ready for arenas. After all – it had happened so fast.
Following performances at Stormzy’s Merky Festival in Ibiza and Wireless in July 2019, the press revealed that Lena had been charged with murder and violent disorder, after initially being arrested on 1st January 2018. The incident in question took place at a New Year’s Eve party, where police arrived in the early hours of the morning to find that 20-year-old Steven Narvaez-Jara had died from stabbing injuries following a brawl. On 18th July 2019, Lena appeared in the Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court along with Ramani Boreland and Mohammed Musse (charged with murder and violent disorder, respecitvely). Along with Boreland, Lena was refused bail. During later trial dates at the Old Bailey, the court raised concerns about referring to Lena specifically by using the word “drill” (a genre they described as having a lyrical “emphasis on violence and weapons”) due to the “substantial prejudice” the genre name attracts. On 18th February 2020, after he had spent seven months behind bars, the jury found Lena not guilty. Boreland was convicted of manslaughter and Mousse of violent disorder.
Once cleared, Lena wasted no time. “News reporters try slander my name /Shame, I still buss open my case /I thank God so I sing with grace /Lord blessed me so I stepped out the gates,” he rapped on Fresh Home, which dropped along with a video just over a week after his release. UK rap fans had missed his distinctive presence in the scene, and he’s returned to music – still only 20 years old – as with the drill sound garnering global attention thanks to the explosion of the Brooklyn movement, and NYC artists such as Sheff G, 22Gz and the late Pop Smoke tapping up UK producers for that gritty, bass-heavy sound.
There are massive challenges ahead for the music industry during the Covid-19 crisis, but when I spoke to Lena via FaceTime, he was in a strong, positive frame of mind. Alongside new single Squeeze & Buss, he’s also talking about his first full-length project.
“My journey has only just begun,” he said. “It will take time for you to understand my story and to understand the meaning of Unknown T. People know me only by a perception, negative media and obviously the drill persona that people would expect. But once I release my tape, artists will be able to see the versatility, they’ll be able to understand the depth behind me.”
So, firstly, how are you feeling in this strange period?
I’m doing very well, thank you, staying clean during quarantine. How have you been?
I’m good thanks, keeping myself busy. What’s it like releasing music during this time?
I mean, this time’s really allowed me to connect with myself musically. So even though it is a strange period of lockdown, it is a good time for us musicians, because we get to utilise our own space and focus on our craft even more.
You’ve experimented with your sound for songs like Throwback and Leave Dat Trap. But the two tunes you’ve dropped recently have a classic UK drill sound – is that the vibe you’re going for at the minute?
Yes, yes, right now that’s the vibe. That’s what the fans have always been asking me for.
The new track Buss & Squeeze is co-produced by Ghosty, a UK producer who’s just made an album with [New York rapper] 22Gz. Do you listen to the Brooklyn drill stuff?
Yeah I actually do. Recently I’ve been engaging with a lot of these American drill artists, like 22Gz, Fivio Foreign, Smoove L. And of course Pop Smoke as well.
How does it feel to see the UK sound influencing the US scene?
I feel like our culture is getting a lot of recognition right now. And for me it’s a beautiful feeling because it actually helps me flourish in this industry, because right now this is what people are attracted to listening to.
Both Fresh Home and Buss & Squeeze reference your recent experience with jail. How did it feel when you were cleared of those charges?
I mean, I was very grateful to get back to my life and back to working hard again. And I was actually [relieved] that the situation was dealt with correctly.
What have been priorities since you’ve been home?
Focusing on helping me grow within myself. Like, it’s actually deeper than music. Although I’ve been working on growing and longevity in my music career, I’ve also been working on bettering myself.
What kind of emotions were you going through when you were inside?
I feel like a lot of youths [of] my generation find it difficult to speak upon what they go through inside. And like, I was going through a difficult time. But it’s like… without the people around, I wouldn’t have coped from what I’ve gone through. Mentally, I did go through a lot of pain through the situation. But it’s all about how you overcome that pain. If that makes sense?
Will the trial and that whole experience affect what you write lyrics about now? Or do you feel that artists should have the freedom to rap about anything they like?
Unfortunately, I’ve gone through a lot in my life and it does affect what I write today. Everything I go through as an artist and as a person, I express in my music. And that way people can open their eyes to what is going on with the youth in the run-down areas. Do you understand me? The criminal activity is increasing, it’s deeper than just the music.
At the end of the day, I am a normal human being as well. We have emotions, and we express that through words. And I feel like, as an artist, I need to be the voice to show that music and being a drill artist provides alternative ways out. And it’s also a way of relieving that mental stress. I’m a symbol of change – that’s how I see it. I want to inspire people.
Which other musicians in the UK scene have supported you?
There have definitely been artists who’ve supported me, like AJ Tracey, Dave, Not3s. Big up Giggs and his management, his brother. J Hus and his management. Like, there’s good positive energy in the scene, and a lot of people would check up on me when I was in prison. It really meant a lot to me as well.
What was the moment you realised that you could be a full time musician?
After I released Homerton B. In fact, that was [supposed to be] my warm up, I didn’t realise it was going to do those numbers.
Homerton B was a massive hit, and it seemed to reach people who otherwise weren’t really into drill. Why do you think that is?
The energy of that tune, at that time, was unprecedented. I made a change in the era of drill. Because at that point, no one really thought of [embracing] a female, bubbly side to drill music. It was actually influenced by dancehall, [from listening to] Vybz Kartel. I feel like Homerton B is an important part of drill history, because it made an evolutionary step forward. From the deepness of my voice, to the rhythmic flow… it all just added up to make it a timeless banger.
Your lyrics seem very skillful put together. Do you write your lyrics down, or do you just go straight into the booth?
I’m a person who actually structures my lyrics, I write them down. It’s weird because it’s actually pretty similar to English Literature back when I was in secondary college. Like, I actually focus on what I’m going to create, as if it’s an essay, I structure what I’m going to write for my audience. I feel like artists should take [pride] in their craft.
Where do you think the UK music scene is headed next?
It’s going in the right direction. There’s going to be longevity for a lot of artists now. And I feel like we’re getting more recognition worldwide. Not just European countries, from the otherside of the world now. Australia, Canada. I feel like in the next few years, the UK may take over. Right now, we’re at a stage where the UK and the USA are interlinking cultures. Have you noticed how many UK artists are influenced by US artists? Now the US is influenced by us. That’s progression, elevation. From 2018 onwards, it was like a wakeup call for US artists. We made so much noise over here that it really opened their eyes internationally. These things are happening slowly but I feel like in the next few years the UK will get the respect we deserve.
What are your ambitions as an artist?
I want to make a stamp within music – not just drill. I want to be established as an artist who’s influenced people to come out of their comfort zone and do what they want to do. My journey has only just begun. It will take time for you to understand my story and to understand the meaning of Unknown T. People know me only by a perception, negative media and obviously the drill persona that people would expect. But once I release my tape, artists will be able to see the versatility, they’ll begin to understand the depth behind me. I don’t need to be that guy who just sings drilly songs [about] gang culture. And that’s what I’d like to influence other younger people, especially coming from the area I’m from. There’s a lot of people who hold back their talent.
What part of being a musician makes you happiest?
That’s actually a good question. Music is a way of me speaking upon pain. Mental health is a serious issue. A lot of black youths today struggle to speak [about it]. I’m trying to take that step out. It brings joy that people feel my music, and that people understand my emotions.