The issue with “road rap” as a concept isn’t that it’s useless or unhelpful. It’s just difficult to apply precisely, without condescension or laziness. The term is meant to denote music from and of the roads, detailing the fabric of street life lived outside the supposed mainstream of middle class experience. If it’s uncomfortable or expresses difficult realities, well, that’s the entire point.
For Skrapz, it’s pretty simple. The music you make should reflect your life and the patchwork of your actual experiences. And the northwest London-born rapper is no novice. You might well know the name through close association with long-term friend and creative foil Nines and the Ice City Boyz collective. Or perhaps you’ve come across a number of explosive Skrapz singles, many of which have reached viewing counts on YouTube in the millions. He’s spent the last three years building up an impressive portfolio: from the unpolished intensity of 2011’s Skrapz is Back tape, to 2014’s darkly glossy singles “Mission Impossible” and “Iron Mike”, through to Giggs collaboration “Round Here” and 2015’s album The End of a Beginning, it’s been an interesting time for the 31 year-old from Harlesden.
Of course, the term “interesting” has many different tones. As much as Skrapz’s flow of releases might hint at smooth and unbroken progression, culminating in last month’s new album Different Cloth, the underlying story is much more complex, punctuated by setbacks and false starts. It’s encompassed jail time, a loss of focus and the unavoidable fact that the sheer grind of life can barge in to trump talent and artistic ambition. Sometimes, things just get in the way. As he spits on his 2014 Fire in The Booth freestyle, “you want to rap like Skrapz you’re looking at ten years’ training”.
It’s one of the topics we alight on over the course of a conversation on an early afternoon in Finsbury Park. We’re here ostensibly to discuss the achievements of the new album, but our chat unfurls to touch on a variety of different themes: the history of UK rap, the dying embers of first-wave grime, the struggles of live performance and police pressure. Back at the very beginning, it wasn’t a matter of jumping into a fully formed, or even nascent rap scene. As Skrapz says, there weren’t “a lot of rappers around then, apart from that older generation like Roots Manuva and man like that. Everyone was on grime. And this was from a young age, teenage years.” The first thing you notice in the company of Skrapz is that his speaking voice perfectly matches his flow, in that every point is methodically unwound and uncoiled for maximum precision.
We start on those early grime days. Still known as Skrapsta, he was part of the collective SLK with human soundboard Flirta D and the likes of Van Damage and Lady Envy. He looks back on that time with fondness, having come at it “straight out of school”. But as someone who “was always money-motivated from a young age”, the DIY realities of those early years didn’t compare to the opportunities presented on the streets. As the rest of the collective went out to play shows in Ayia Napa, taking advantage of the Dizzee-propelled buzz of that first wave era, Skrapz was at home in London. It wasn’t that he couldn’t have gone, it was simply a matter of priorities. Jumping over fences to get into pirate radio sessions or splitting 300 quid between several other MCs didn’t seem as appealing as the other temptations and hustles of street life. And after the birth of his first daughter in 2007, he lost his passion. “Anyway the whole scene was dying out about the same time”, he says now.
SLK ended in 2007 and so he started the transition into rap. Having previously dabbled with slower beats for practice and experimentation , he soon found a lower tempo was more suited to the music he wanted to make. “The grime ting is fast, bare energy,” he tells me. “With the rap, you can keep it realer.” During a 2009 session on the now-defunct Beats 2 Beats Youtube channel – which acted as a sort of nascent sessions-focused SBTV for aspiring MCs – Skrapz made a random announcement about a mixtape. The problem? He hadn’t even started making one. But having basically spoken it into existence, he says he felt duty-bound to make the tape. “It wasn’t the plan, I just said ‘ Skrapz Is Backcoming soon’. That’s where the whole journey started.” The resulting release in 2011 might have seemed like a new dawn, but the realities of his other life were about to impinge. After the warm street reception of Skrapz Is Back he set about making his second tape Shutdown Season. But events were to take a different path as 2011 saw Skrapz sentenced to a two-and-a-half year stretch for gun and drug charges.
And herein lies the crux of the dilemma. Fans and outside observers can’t understand why ‘hood rappers’ don’t have the consistency or focus of output of their mainstream counterparts, but will then chastise any perceived inauthenticity in the same acts. Skrapz reminds me that “what you hear about in the music is stuff that’s actually going on, that’s the reality of it”. While it’s not an irreconcilable bind – as shown by the trailblazing success of Giggs and the following almost-mainstream emergence of Nines and 67 – the simple reality is that music doesn’t initially pay enough to leave the street life behind. Not with the heavy responsibilities of family and kids to consider.
During the end of his jail stint in 2014, Skrapz benefitted from occasional day releases which he used to record the buzz-building SBTV Warm Up Sessionsand a Link Up TV Behind Barz freestyle. They showcased what people already knew. Here was an uncompromising MC delivering unvarnished tales of violence, stress and road life. But what came next demonstrated another strand to his talent. The release of Skrapz is Back 2 in March 2014 (laced with outstanding tracks like the plaintive “Letter to my Fans” and the Giggs collab “Well Connected”) was followed later in the year by tape 80s Baby, an idea which came about during his time in jail. Spitting over classic American hip-hop beats, it demonstrated a different side to Skrapz: one more melodic, contemplative. Putting out two tapes in a year could have backfired though.
“When I was talking to my friends in jail, a lot of them were in at this time, one friend in particular said ‘don’t drop it, too much too fast. Let one settle.'” But Skrapz was right to be confident. 80s Baby took off “and it brought a new kind of fan base with it as well. These beats made it easier listening. Girls that are my age. You hear certain beats and you interact straight away, they’re timeless.” By the time he put out The End of the Beginning (gliding back to his hard, street-facing sound) Skrapz tried out a new strategy. He didn’t put the album out for free. “I see the game through my street knowledge. If someone’s selling whatever they’re selling, they might give out bits for free and if people like what it is then when you’re ready to sell your product, they believe. You’ve looked after them and they’ll come to you when you’re ready to sell.”
Though the album nearly hit the top 40 Skrapz admits he “fucked up” by not running it on the streaming sites. “I didn’t get the concept, as I didn’t want people to listen for free.” He quickly learned from that mistake. Whatever the result, it showed that it could be done. There was a wider audience enthusiastic for the unvarnished sound he supplied. Yet it wasn’t long until the spectres of the past began to rear their head. This time, it was the machinations of London’s Metropolitan police force, familiar to many young black artists in the UK who seem like they’re about to climb clear of their beginnings. From Giggs to 67, it’s a familiar tale of punitive legislation and relentless obfuscation.
“The plan was always to tour the album. My own independent shows.” To cut a long story short, he says, they were cancelled. Firstly in London, then it spiralled. “The only time I got to perform was with Giggs, who brought me out. At Lovebox and Oxford Street. Big up to him for showing me love.” But he found himself in a perverse situation: promoting his own album in segments of someone else’s show. Skrapz offers a personal theory. “The police want me back in a place where I’m available to them. Where they could damage the whole thing. They don’t want me to transition and get to a place where I’m not available to them anymore. They might feel like ‘I’ve got away with it’.”
Playing live shows across the UK, releasing chart-bothering albums. All of these are catalysts for that transition from the road and into commercial viability and being able to live on your art alone. The cancelled tours and roadblocks ended up precipitating a 2016 that Skrapz acknowledges wasn’t particularly positive for his art. After a slight loss of focus, “I ended up getting stuck back into my old ways”, he says. “End of the year, I had to ask myself: ‘you still doing this or what?’ Everywhere I’d go people were asking for the music.”
So this time, it’s different. Skrapz has taken on a manager; he’s getting used to more structure, admin and others things that are “a little bit more corporate”. And truthfully, the new album is like little else he’s released. It sounds like an amalgamation between the rawness of the early Skrapz is Back-era with the production sheen and contemplative interludes of 80s Baby and The End of the Beginning. “Now it ain’t just me stepping forward,” he says. For one, the releases have been a disciplined attempt to leave some ammo left for the album launch. Though “Bosses” (with Harlesden singer “man from town” Richie Diamonds) and “Enemies” have been accompanied by lavish videos and social media buzz, I’m told that “it’s just a taste”.
There’s no reason to doubt it. Skrapz isn’t an artist who lacks justified confidence. And after all the setbacks and distractions, all the struggles to overcome, there’s a sense that this is the moment where the scales decisively tip away from the roads and on to rap. It might have been a longer journey than he or his fans would have liked, but real life rarely has the habit of giving up you what you want without a fight. You don’t need to tell that to Skrapz twice.