With his new album Konnichiwa finally set to land, we look back on how the grime MC rose from major label cast-off to one of UK music’s most important voices
Ever since he named his debut album Greatest Hits back in September 2007, Skepta’s been destined for bigger and better things – but it’s not always been a case of rubbing shoulders with Drake or performing to frenzied, sell-out crowds. Born in Tottenham, where he lived in the modest surroundings of Meridian Walk (a place he immortalised on an instrumental of the same name with brother, JME, in 2003), Skepta’s journey has been defined by his ability to bounce back from disappointments and, conversely, capitalise on his successes.
A mercurial talent during his early years in music – a time when he was revered as much for his DJing and his beat-making (see: “Private Caller”, “Meridian Walk”, “UFO”, “Top Producer”) as his on-mic persona – it was his drive, matched by an unwavering self-assurance, that stood out the most. For example, when he clashed Birmingham’s Devilman on the second volume of Lord of the Mics in 2006, he walked into Jammer’s basement wearing a Russian ushanka before proceeding to dismantle his opponent’s reputation – as if battling in this format were as familiar as nipping out to the shop for bread and milk. He was completely unfazed, unflustered.
Fast-forward a year and he’d released Greatest Hits via Boy Better Know, a debut album that landed as a statement to the rest of the grime scene. ‘I’m here and I’m the best’ was the gist of it and, by most accounts, it was a resounding success. The album also birthed the first underground smash of his career in “Doin’ It Again”, which is still regularly played in clubs up and down the country nearly a decade on. All the more impressive, though, was the fact that all around him, grime artists were being snapped up by labels at a rate of knots. Skepta though, resisted that temptation.
That said, the chance of mainstream love eventually proved too great a carrot to ignore and in 2008, he released “Rolex Sweep” – complete with its own dance routine – via Ministry of Sound sublabel Data Records as a twist on Wiley’s single “Wearing My Rolex”, which had been released by Atlantic and reached #2 in the UK singles chart a few months earlier. It also proved the prequel to his second studio album, Microphone Champion, which was released in 2009, again via Boy Better Know.
Feeding into the same, self-imposed narrative of being the best, this time things felt more contrived. Although more complex in style lyrically, the overriding mood of the album was one at odds with the raw, un-calculated energy that made Greatest Hits such an enjoyable record. Alongside grime bangers like the Wiley-featuring “Are You Ready?” and memorable Boy Better Know single “Too Many Man” sat tracks like “Ed Hardy Party” an awkward, clunky nod to the luxuries and excesses that had obviously become a point of reference in Skepta’s day-to-day life. Although delivered with the same flow, the content was becoming shallow and meaningless.
It was this change in tack and mindset that would ultimately form the basis from which he launched 2011 album Doin’ It Again, a major label-backed release that the industry had hoped would place Skepta in the same bracket as Tinchy Stryder, Tinie Tempah, Wretch 32 and others who had made a similar leap from grime to the pop charts. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as planned. Despite the moderate chart success of dreary, watered-down pop singles like “Rescue Me” and “Cross My Heart”, the album struggled to make any real impact at either a popular or critical level, and Skepta was left to pick up the pieces of a career that clearly needed a timeout. There was one positive to be salvaged, though: an official grime remix of Diddy-Dirty Money’s “Hello Good Morning”, which featured Diddy himself, as well as cameos from Boy Better Know and Chipmunk. Was this the catalyst for Skepta’s transatlantic soul-searching?
Whatever the answer to that question might be, Doin’ It Again certainly gave Skepta a new sense of perspective, particularly with regards to what lay closest to him. Boy Better Know, the crew he had helped form alongside brother JME, Jammer, DJ Maximum, Frisco and Shorty back in 2005, had stuck together through thick and thin since their inception, and it was here he was able to find the support to mount a comeback.
Although his immediate output following the cancellation of his second major label album The Honeymoon was greeted with mixed reviews, it did see him change his flow, instead choosing to adopt more of a US-friendly rap sound for the first time in his career. This same transitional period also saw him release 12-track mixtape Blacklisted in late 2012, which, although a marked improvement on Doin’ It Again, still felt muddled and confused – perhaps an accurate reflection of where his head was at. On the surface, Skepta was still dressing like a west coast rapper (as evidenced by the blinging video to Blacklisted track “Ace Hood Flow”), but the fire was certainly back. Deep down, he was bound to be pissed off.
“‘Shutdown’ not only quantified what Skepta had achieved with ‘That’s Not Me’, but spoke to a generation of young people tired of adhering to the system”
Skip to 2014 and, after a period of relative inactivity and obvious self-reflection, Skepta’s watershed moment came in the form of “That’s Not Me”, also featuring his brother JME. From the title alone, Skepta’s intentions were clear: “That’s Not Me” was Skepta publicly cleansing himself of the industry, shedding his skin of the lifestyle that had clouded his mind and seen him almost end up on the grime scrapheap. “Yeah, I used to wear Gucci / I put it all in the bin because that’s not me / True, I used to look like you / But dressing like a mess, nah that’s not me”, he barks on the hook, which is layered over one of his own, rebooted eski instrumentals. Leaving all subtlety aside, he rid himself of his industry demons in one fell swoop. The best bit? The single charted at #21 in the UK singles chart completely independently, while its video, shot on a budget of £80, won a Mobo.
If “That’s Not Me” was proof that he could make maximum impact from a place of minimum influence within the industry, then Skepta’s next move would prove equally as defiant. Tapping into a political climate that was growing increasingly anti-establishment following a term of Tory austerity, and inspired by next-gen, politically minded MCs like Novelist, he released follow-up single “Shutdown” in April 2015. Now a certified youth anthem, “Shutdown” not only quantified what Skepta had achieved with “That’s Not Me”, but spoke to a generation of young people tired of adhering to the system. “Went to the show / Sitting in the front row / Wearing the black tracksuit / And it was shutdown” rings out the chorus, the message lending itself to Skepta’s own, hard-learned realisations about image, identity, and ambition. On the surface, it may seem like just another grime banger, but there’s a reason it had festival crowds forming mosh pits and tearing venues to shreds last summer.
Sandwiched between his two big comeback singles was “It Ain’t Safe”, a track recorded in the US alongside eminent rapper A$AP Bari, better known as Young Lord. Dealing in US slang (“block”, “cops”) and exhibiting a slurred, toned-down flow, Skepta’s positioning – and timing – couldn’t have been much better. Clearly at home in the States, as demonstrated by recent documentary Top Boy, he’s led the way for grime across the Atlantic, mixing with influential rappers and deal-breakers from a position of relative obscurity. During a period when US rap and hip hop had been accused of stagnating, what better time for a UK MC to point people in the direction of a blossoming and resurgent grime scene?
With Drake now the highest-profile name to declare his love for the genre and specifically Boy Better Know, with whom he recently announced he’d signed in a symbolic sense, Skepta’s role in grime’s transatlantic boom cannot be underestimated. It all seems a far cry from his cocky, self-assured beginnings back in Tottenham and even further from his failed major label years, but more than anything, Skepta has proved a master of regeneration. While the world now waits for fourth studio album Konnichiwa (an LP he’s teased for over three years), he can look back at where he is now with a great deal of satisfaction. Purists may lament him and the mainstream might not always get him, but Skepta embodies grime’s enduring spirit better than most.