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Lava La Rue
Lava La Rue

Meet Lava La Rue, the west London rapper doing things DIY-or-die

We meet the founder of the ultra-inventive NINE8 collective at her flat in Ladbroke Grove

Lava La Rue’s flat is a creative space. Paintings, torn-out magazine pages, a photo of Grace Jones, and a couple of spray-painted skateboard decks hang from the wall, while some friends hang out on the sofa. The flat is in Ladbroke Grove, an area of west London whose ultra-wealthy residents often obscure the fact that the borough has one of the starkest equality gaps in the UK. It’s a council flat, a rare bit of social housing remaining in a city that’s sold most of its stock to private landlords, and it’s somewhere the 20-year-old artist can express herself and create her art on her own terms. Lava has been here for the past two years, when she left the foster care system that she’d been in since she was 14.

“I was hopping around, in and out of foster care, until I was 18,” says Lava La Rue – an anagram of her own name, Ava Laurel – while sitting outside her window on a blisteringly hot summer’s day. “I had my dreams set: ‘I wanna do this, I wanna be doing music, I want my own place.’”

Laurel grew up locally, raised by her grandmother. When she was 16 years old and still in foster care, she started making music, initially being in a band before getting involved in the spoken word scene. At college, she met a group of like-minded individuals, who not only helped shape the music she was making herself – a lo-fi style of hip hop/neo-soul defined by her hushed raps, diary entry lyrics, and dusty boom-bap beats – but also led to the formation of NINE8, a 15-strong collective of musicians, producers, artists, and designers doing things less do-it-yourself, more do-it-together.

Last year, Laurel released LAVALAND, a handful of short tapes introducing her mellow sound to the world. Thosse releases were a collection of beats and vignettes, but her newly released debut EP, LETRA, takes a more structured, songwriters’ approach. There’s something distinctly London about it, not just in her accent, but in the sound too, as if the deep, dubby basslines of the city’s Jamaican sound systems and pirate radio stations have unconsciously seeped into the music.

Following the EP’s release, we sat down with Lava to talk about growing up in west London, her independent spirit, and why her lyrics are her weapon. Watch her new video for “Letra” and read on below.

What was it like growing up around west London?

Lava La Rue: It’s inner city, so you have huge affluence and then severe poverty across the road. It’s different to certain areas, where it’s just poverty. Growing up, I’d go to school and there’d be the kid of this (important and wealthy) person, and then kids I knew from the block, all in one classroom. But that’s London, ain’t it?

Did you mix with loads of people from different backgrounds?

Lava La Rue: When you’re kids, it doesn’t really matter. You don’t notice Oscar from Jamal. You’re all the same age. But when I started hitting my teen years, I really felt the divide. Class plays into it, race definitely plays into it. I was getting to the age where kids were going on group holidays: ‘Mum’s gonna take us to Spain!’ Or house parties – I didn’t have a yard for house parties, and no one wanted to come to St. Raph’s, the block over there. When I was approaching my 20s, I noticed how, socially and financially, that divide plays.

At the same time, a lot of the middle class kids are mad inspired (by the) blocks in their area. There will be man who lives in Notting Hill, but because AJ Tracey is repping west, they’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s my ends G!’ And I’m like, ‘Broskiiii, you went to Latymer Upper Boys School!’ But you know, I fuck with it. West London pride, let’s do it, you know what I mean? (laughs)

Can you tell me what foster care was like for you?

Lava La Rue: I was quite lucky. I didn’t go into care until I was in my mid-teens, which is a totally, totally different thing to being in and out of care from the age of five or six. Your experience of identity and attachment is totally different. As a teenager, I really learned a lot about self-preservation, being my own person, and not having dependencies. People learn self-love and self-care at different ages, but I really had to have my own back from a young age.

I grew up with my grandma – she was actually a carer as well, so I had loads of foster brothers growing up. A lot of people aren’t educated about the system at all, but I knew all the ins and outs. I had my dreams set: ‘I wanna do this, I wanna be doing music, I want my own place.’ That was a different experience to someone who doesn’t know. My grandmother was one of the first wave of Jamaicans to come over here, so even though I’m third generation, I have the experience of being raised by the first generation and the whole culture around that.

“As a teenager, I really learned a lot about self-preservation, being my own person, and not having dependencies” – Lava La Rue

You started making music when you were 16. That was while you were in foster care, right?

Lava La Rue: I was actually in a band. It got more and more neo-soul and rappy, and then it was just straight hip hop. The logistics of having a band when you haven’t got a lot of money and you’re always moving around (meant that) it just got so much easier working with producers. I started getting into spoken word and combined the music to make this jazzy, slurred hip hop/R&B type of shit. I was in with a lot of hip hop heads and skaters. The funny thing with skaters is you can bust Biggie and Tupac, and then Slayer will be up next on the playlist. My main producer, Mac Wetha, he’s in a thrash metal band.

Were these just friends from college?

Lava La Rue: Yeah. I don’t know how, but RUTC (Richmond-upon-Thames College) was so social. My music class had some weird alumni. Me, Jess (Big Piig), Lloyd (Mac Wetha). Dave, as in Santan Dave, was in my class, which is fucking hilarious. The drummer from Goat Girl was in our music block. The bassist from the band King Nun was also in that class. Which is funny, because it was so not a Brit School thing. Because I was in and out of foster care, I didn’t get good grades at all, so they were the only school that let me in.

I’d have sessions at the house where I was placed . We’d just start cyphering. We were swapping clothes too, making shit like, ‘Oh do you want this jacket? You can wear it at your show. You model for me, I produce for you.’ (We were) swapping creative currency, (and) I was just like ‘Shit, we should just coin this under a name. I was born in 98, shall we call it NINE8?’ We needed to create these spaces for ourselves. You see the divide between the kids who have, like, a dad in the industry. We were like, ‘We don’t have that. Let’s make that for ourselves.’

We didn’t do DIY nights because it was like ‘Yeah, DIY nights are totally in right now, it’s such a look.’ There was no other option for us. If I can’t get booked, or there’s no night that’s a queer-friendly space with a great mixture of people who are from everywhere and there are audio-visual projections up on the wall, then let me just put that night on!

What do you take your inspiration from?

Lava La Rue: Where I live and the people around me. They all live really interesting lives. As cliché as it is, I’m definitely a Londoner. The shit I feel, literally walking on roads every day, that’s the stuff I generally write about. I take huge inspiration from incredible women – I love Erykah Badu, I love Neneh Cherry, women who exist and say their perspective and are unapologetic of who they are. That stuff is what keeps me going, you know what I mean?

And my collective, man! Mac Wetha is literally one to watch, because I think there’s always an appreciation for producers, but he, in himself, is a star. And obviously Biig Piig is incredible.

Tell me about your tattoo – there’s a word on there, and a knife. 

Lava La Rue: This is letra, which is actually the name of my EP. Have you heard of Basque? It’s a region in Spain. Basque isn’t connected to any other language – it’s not Latin-based, it’s not Arabic-based. People think the language comes from aliens, because it’s so random. And ‘letra’ means, like, words and lyrics.

It’s kind of a ‘lyrics are my weapon, the pen is my sword’ type thing. This was the first tattoo I got and I was... I don’t know. Leaving a certain life behind, I guess. The boys I grew up with were all in prison for knife-affiliated shit, and I was just sort of like, ‘Do you know what? I want my lyrics and my message to be my weapon and what I use to protect myself. My defence and my attack.’