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Meeting Manchester’s new wave of neo-noir trap artists

From IAMDDB’s ‘urban jazz’ to Just Banco’s gothic rap, artists from the northern city are building a new scene that’s gaining national recognition – and it owes little to its past glories

It’s Friday night at Northern Quarter pizza spot Crazy Pedro’s, and local DJ Robb Rocks is reflecting on the recent international success of Manchester’s new wave: IAMDDB, GAIKA, and Bipolar Sunshine, among others. But Rocks is voicing disappointment – not at the artists, but at the city. In 2015, Bipolar Sunshine collaborated with DJ Snake on “Middle”, which despite becoming a double-platinum selling record, didn’t raise Bipolar Sunshine’s profile much higher than the success he enjoyed with his 2013 debut EP Drowning Butterflies. “He’s had to move to fucking California to be treated as the rock star he is,” the South African DJ sighs.

Tony Wilson, founder of Manchester’s iconic Factory Records, wanted to turn the city into a cultural epicentre separate from London’s industry. His vision and its resulting sound remain at the core of the city’s collective consciousness today – but it’s come with its own problems. Both an appetite for nostalgia and the financial might of the upper echelons of the city’s nightlife economy (superclubs like The Warehouse Project and, until its closure, Sankeys, as well as smaller student-focused institutions like Factory, Fifth, and 42s) uphold an infrastructure that’s sometimes seen as reluctant to support more recent homegrown talent. But perhaps influenced by what’s going on nationally, that’s now changing. “Warehouse (Project) have never fucked with us,” says south Manchester rapper Sleazy F. “I feel like they just didn’t like urban music, but now with Giggs and London music taking over so much, they have no choice.”

What Manchester’s unique heritage has created is a new, self-sufficient, yet outwardly facing urban music scene, and one that takes its cues from everything but the city’s Madchester era. Paradoxically, it’s doing precisely what Wilson set out to do. Manchester’s new wave ambitiously and deliberately sidesteps the capital (the city always ignored Manchester talent, and today opportunities are presenting themselves elsewhere), but rather than look to Europe, the musicians take inspiration from American genres like trap, hip hop, and R&B. Their videos, meanwhile, deploy sharp colour palettes akin to filmmakers like Wong Kar-wai and the pacing of Hollywood action cinema. The slickly produced output is gaining traction – IAMDDB is stacking millions of views on tracks such as “Leaned Out” and “Shade”, while Just Banco bagged a cosign from Stormzy with only his third release, “Soo Yung”.

And while Robb Rocks’ frustration about Bipolar Sunshine is understandable, the singer’s situation proved a turning point, inspiring local DJs to push homegrown talent much harder. Raves like Version’s Tektu or the Northern Quarter’s 2022 are now playing artists like IAMDDB and Sleazy F day in and day out, a marked difference from the homogenised playlists found at student nights and hipster bars across the rest of the UK. It’s resulted in the city becoming an exhilarating place for urban artists and music fans.

“The beauty of this right now is the best reaction you get in the club is from when you play a track from a Manchester-based artist,” says DJ Omar Guedar, whose Mvson collective have become leading Manchester tastemakers with sold-out events at Ancoats’ Mantra Warehouse and sets across student hotspots like Tektu. “I must have wheeled up ‘Can’t Stay’, ‘Shade’, ‘Let It Go’, and ‘ASAOY’ a zillion times this year at either Tektu or Mvson.”

“The beauty of this right now is the best reaction you get in the club is from when you play a track from a Manchester-based artist” – Omar Guedar

Why couldn’t they do it before? Rusholme-hailing Stef Smith, who started out as part of the grime crew Mayhem before a prison sentence imposed a break on his music career, ascribes it to Moss Side’s 1990s gang warfare, which on the one hand inspired the all-black tracksuit aesthetic later adopted by Skepta, but on the other created situations that diverted musicians’ attention and imposed a strict coda which meant that urban artists could only express themselves in a certain way. “Back in the day you couldn’t even wear an orange jacket, you’d get turfed,” he remembers. “You couldn’t wear Giuseppes with gold buckles, you’d get laughed at, you’d get robbed.”

The aesthetic translated to music too. “Grime was a big thing,” rapper Black Josh elaborates, “Shifty was a big thing growing up, all that wave, even the gang rap was big, like massive.” At the same time, pushing music out to wider audiences was always problematic. Josh, who’s now a member of LEVELZ as well as a versatile artist in his own right, recalls, “Things were getting locked down, niche raves were getting locked down, so there’s a lot of reasons why our scene didn’t capitalise on the buzz that it had at the time.” But according to Stef Smith, it’s different now. “Because all the gang shit has kind of like – it’s not died out, but gone to a different style – now everyone can just be themselves,” he says. “It’s all colourful, it’s like the flowers have started blossoming.”

With arts funding mostly going to the south and a music press faced with dwindling resources, there’s been less opportunity or enthusiasm to investigate and champion scenes outside the capital. This lack of support, coupled with Manchester’s long history as a gloomy Northern town with sparse opportunities, is reflected in the mood of much of these artists’ work, giving a unifying quality to the otherwise divergent sounds of HMD’s pop-referencing melodies, Just Banco’s Auto-Tuned lyrics, and IAMDDB’s self-coined ‘urban jazz’. “I always say to guys that send me beats, ‘I want to hear depressing trap, it needs to be dark and spooky,’” Just Banco says. It continues a legacy that spans musical eras and genres, immortalised in the hardened resilience of post-punkers The Fall, the lyricism of the Smiths and gothic-tinged synthpop of Hurts. As Bugzy Malone put it in his first Fire In The Booth, Manchester’s a town where “nobody’s impressed and don’t wanna see nobody progress”.

Beyond the the city’s socio-economic conditions, this group of artists work with the same small circle of local producers, including Two4Kay, Deiago, and /Aart, among others. 21-year-old Deiago started taking music seriously at 16, landing his first major placement with Young Dro in 2014 as part of production duo AudioKlique and going on to produce for the likes of T.I, Travis Scott, Young Thug, and Rich Homie Quan. “Myself and Romayne (AudioKlique) were probably the only UK producers actively working in the trap scene, taking regular trips to Atlanta and LA each year,” Deiago says. Noticing a new generation of Manchester musicians’ interest in trap, the duo began to foster relationships before parting ways in late 2016. Deiago continued alone, going on to work with IAMDDB, Sleazy, Black Josh, Bipolar Sunshine, and Just Banco. “Through my journey of starting in America and ending up home, I brought a sound back at a perfect time where the artists from Manchester craved for the Atlanta sauce,” he adds.

 “I’m trying to capture a new Manchester (in my music videos) that people from outside of Manchester have never seen and the old shit that probably won’t even be here for much longer” – Just Banco

KC Locke and Luis Cross, videographers who, much like many of the musicians, were just starting out and hungry for recognition at precisely the same time, have also been instrumental in creating the high quality unified aesthetic. “Working with the same artists will definitely bring the most out of the artist,” says Cross. “You already know where their head’s at with the direction of their sound, so bringing visuals that align with that becomes a much easier and progressive process.” Explaining how this transpired in HMD (a Somali musician who moved to Moss Side via Denmark)’s “Good Yute” video, Cross says, “The track was quite a personal, about his upbringing, and I put some quite unorthodox ideas out there, but he was like, ‘Yeah, let's roll with it.’”

KC Locke’s fierce sense of ambition derives both from his own personal circumstances, where after three years of working at an agency he decided to go freelance, and his love for the local scene. “When I left the agency I had no camera, no laptop – nothing,” he says. “But I had a musician (Sleazy F) who’d just brought out All Blahk Tracksuit, an album that was doing really well, and I could see a snowball effect about to happen so I thought, I need to do it.” His visual style, inspired by time spent assisting on big production American music videos, was a perfect match for the aesthetic Sleazy wanted to create, which paid homage to his childhood heroes Diddy, Jay-Z, and Nas. “The way I am as a person and as a music artist as well, it comes from watching artists in America, so like, the way they sign their friends and down to live performance, the way they bring their people out,” Sleazy explains. “But being from here, not to say it limits your creativity, but when you think everything’s just football, pubs, and TV, you’re not gonna really be able to call up on things when you need them.”

The reality of growing up in a place like Moss Side is another reason why the trap sound resonated with so many of the artists, giving them confidence they could make their own version. “When it got to trap, I’d already been living this since I was a kid,” Black Josh, whose October album Brexit is emblematic of the new Manchester sound, asserts. “I was like, this is hip hop, but this is like our form of hip hop, which is bare satire. Sleazy proper educated me on that whole wave. I knew about it but he was like ‘Yo, this is how you actually spit on it.’”

Owing to their desire to rep Manchester so local fans could still relate but show the city as divorced from its past, these artists’ visuals posit the city in a light which shows it as metropolitan and bursting with possibility, reflective both of Manchester’s recent regeneration, but also its multi-ethnicity. There’s also a sense of taking the city back from its gentrifiers, reminiscent of GAIKA’s influential short film Security, while the noir cinematography aligns Manchester with American cinema’s made-up metropolises. “I like to think of Manchester as Gotham, its style is dark and gritty,” explains HMD, elaborating that for his KC Locke-directed “W16NTER” video, he specifically looked for locations to translate that aesthetic: “The new university campus in Hulme kinda had that Gotham vibe to it, so we filmed there.”

“The vibe in Manchester right now is irreplaceable” – IAMDDB

Just Banco, whose visuals so far have been created with Sheffield’s Oliver Brian Productions reveals that he’s “heavily influenced by underground American videos, artists like Father, J Stash, Ashley All Day, Princess Nokia.” But rather than just copy what American musicians are doing, the new wave of Manc artists are committed to creating their own aesthetic with their city at its centre. “I’m trying to capture a new Manchester that people from outside of Manchester have never seen and the old shit that probably won’t even be here for much longer,” he continues. Stef Smith is paying a similar homage in his November 2017 retro-styled “Got Ya Money” video: “We found some old flats in Hulme where anarchists, punks, got moved to, when the rest of Hulme got gentrified.”

The cohesion across the scene also stems from their time with pioneering local musical collectives: crews like Mayhem, groups like LEVELZ, and clubs like Murkage. For Black Josh and Stef Smith, working together seemed a more likely way to gain recognition back then. “I thought if I could get a group of MCs to write together, make some music or just perform together to try and edge our way into the music industry is better than doing it by yourself,” remembers Black Josh, who met Metrodome at college and formed Ape Cult, before going onto join LEVELZ, a supergroup of producers and MCs, where he found like minded artists not afraid to be leftfield. For others, it was a way to share skills and learn. “It was almost like a college,” Robb Rocks recalls about the Murkage Cartel, a divergent group of creatives which grew out of the Murkage club, a weekly Thursday night mashup of bass, grime, R&B and trap, founded by Mike Skinner collaborator Murkage Dave.

The Murkage club and its outsider perspective became a template for artistic collectivisation and the starting point for a number of emergent artists including the photographer Matthew Comer, DJ and label owner Madam X, the production duo Star One, as well as Murkage Dave and GAIKA (who has since left Manchester, but keeps close links with the city and continues to work with its producers) as artists themselves. “You go there together, you all learn there together and then you graduate,” remembers Rocks, who became a co-director of the Murkage club after joining the Cartel.

“We all went to Murkage,” reminisces Bipolar Sunshine over Skype from LA. “It was like a home for us, and from there we all spawned off and so many different things have happened.” He cites the aesthetic of local urban music reflecting clothing brands such as Gramm and Sampaix, as evolving from those in and around Murkage. Tony Bennett of the production duo /Aart adds, “The odd pervasiveness of trap music in Manchester nightlife can be traced directly to Cartel DJs getting sets to pay the rent and just playing Ace Hood and Chief Keef records in Northern Quarter wine bars without a care.”

“It’s happening now because we’re different. The energy’s different and no one can take it from us. It’s a new Manchester” – Sleazy F

These lessons are evident in the new generation’s moves, where there’s mutual support but everyone is on their own different path. “People used to give up when they saw someone else get put on,” says Black Josh. “Now, seeing someone else isn’t you not getting put on, it’s you needing to work hard now because you can get it.” Both Sleazy and HMD see the present moment as a formative time in Manchester’s musical history: “In London, people always go ‘Wiley, Skepta, Ghetts,’” says Sleazy. “You have the people that are championed, locked in as for ever, and I think our time is coming for ours to have ours.” HMD is confident that “we’re at a reset point where we can now build another chapter for the next ten years.”

IAMDDB, who’s found as loyal a fan base in the capital as she has in her home town agrees: “London is bigger and it has a lot more going on,” she says, “but I feel like the vibe in Manchester right now is irreplaceable.”

“It’s happening now because we’re different,” Sleazy says. “The energy’s different and no one can take it from us. It’s a new Manchester.”

Special thanks to Thirty Pound Gentleman