Meet the teenage New Yorker who’s backed by Kanye and Travis Scott, and is making hip-hop a more anarchic place
“Listen, I don’t need anybody’s help. If Kanye tells me something, I don’t really use it. If Travis tells me something, I am going to push the other way,” 19-year-old Sheck Wes says, confidence oozing out of every word. “I will always make my own path. I love them both for their support, but I am my own man. My energy probably inspires them (and not the other way around).”
To some, this might sound arrogant. A 19-year-old rapper signed to two of the biggest artists in the world is perhaps expected to behave more like a student, rather than the teacher. Yet there’s an unshakeable feeling when listening to Sheck Wes’s music that this confidence is merited.
Every song Sheck Wes drops sounds like an anthem. The Harlem-based rapper’s playful, ODB-esque delivery, and a natural inclination for atmospheric yet catchy, half-sung, half-rapped vocals (which owe more than a little to Man on the Moon-era Kid Cudi) means you’ll be humming “Mo Bamba” for weeks, maybe months. Other songs, like “Chippi Chippi” and “Live Sheck Wes, Die Sheck Wes”, are built around dark, lo-fi beats, with bass so deep it’ll make the water in your glass ripple. Put simply, this is music intended to make you lose your shit.
Wes, born Khadimou Rassoul Cheick Fall, is also a talented basketball player and close friends with Orlando Magic star Mohamed “Mo" Bamba, who inspired the woozy hook for the anarchic hit. Sheck Wes is convinced of his destiny. To use an NBA metaphor, he says: “I’m gonna be the rap game Kevin Durant! He is so skilled, and no matter his situation or where he go, he never misses. I’m the same.”
Sitting on a leather couch in a plush hotel in London's Soho, his sharp gaze transfixed by a poppy plant (“that’s where opium comes from”) on the glass table in front of us, Wes is far away from the projects where he was raised. The son of Senegalese immigrants, Sheck Wes had a disrupted childhood, splitting his time living with his dad in Harlem and being with his mother, who owned a hair salon in the mid-west, out in Milwaukee. He says he’s always been rooted in the ghetto, and that lyrics about being able to “hold cockroaches in the crib” are based on a humble day-to-day reality.
“I played drums and cello at my school,” he says. “I would get to like a month into my drumming lessons and my mum couldn’t pay the money for me to finish learning so they got cancelled!”
He adds: “When I was in Milwaukee, I would go into this sneaker shop near my mom’s salon and chop it up with the older heads about music. At school, I would make drum noises on the table so much that I would always get suspended. I guess I had to teach myself (about music).”
In his late teens, Wes briefly moved to Touba, Senegal, exploring his roots and living with family. He believes this happened because his mother could no longer handle his rebellious energy back in America: “Everything out in Africa was religious and rooted in family. It gave me a real purpose for this music shit as, ultimately, I want to be able to help the kids out there. Africa is where the real legends are, Tupac’s name and face is painted onto the walls. That’s what I want.”
“If someone doesn’t like you in modelling then you won’t get any work. If someone doesn’t like you in hip hop then you just make a song dissing them and become a legend” – Sheck Wes
Sheck Wes says “unpredictable artists” such as Kid Cudi, Lil B (“He created the internet fandom thing in rap right now, he’s crazy bro!”) and Wu Tang’s Ol Dirty Bastard, all of whom rarely spit conventional verses, are among his biggest influences. “These are real free artists, they are unfiltered and that’s what I am too. They are rebels, who don’t care about their appearance!” Yet, ironically, Wes’s entrance into the entertainment industry was completely rooted in exactly that.
With his piercing eyes and slender, lanky frame, Sheck Wes has a distinctive look, one that resulted in him being scouted by a modeling agent while riding New York’s subway a few years ago. This culminated in Wes walking on the catwalk for the Yeezy fashion line, some time before his music would turn Kanye West's head. Wes believes the fashion industry is a lot faker than the music business.
“I guess they share the same culture, but fashion has politics like crazy. You gotta know how to play the politics, as if someone doesn’t like you in modelling then you won’t get any work. If someone doesn’t like you in hip-hop then you just make a song dissing them and become a legend.”
But even if he has a wariness about the fashion industry, I sense his theatrical music videos – that see Wes do everything from playing a wheelchair-bound rapper to a stoned genie who’s raided Ali Baba’s wardrobe – wouldn’t be possible without that time on the runway and inheriting the confidence to rock so many different looks.
At a time when a brand of nihilism has crept into hip-hop culture, with new artists such as 6ix9ine, Trippie Redd and the late XXXTentacion all aiding their careers with buzz generated by making violent threats on Instagram, Sheck Wes feels like a welcome tonic. There’s a goofiness about his persona, with Sheck Wes inhabiting a bombastic personality in his videos that’s reminiscent of the larger-than-life characters Busta Rhymes used to play.
Wes says he’s more than happy to take hip-hop in a lighter direction with his upcoming debut album Mud Boy: “It will be super different because I sound like no one else! I have a lot of fun. I inspire people in my hood to step outside the box as you don’t always gotta be super tough! I used to fight and did so much crazy shit, but sometimes you gotta teach people that you don’t have to be like that, there’s another way.”
“What matters is that I am a diamond. Diamonds travel far as people go looking for them” – Sheck Wes
Perhaps the most valuable thing about Sheck Wes’s artistry is that just when things get too silly, he has the sobering ability to bring listeners crashing back to reality. The intoxicating hook of “Live Sheck Wes, Die Sheck Wes” is merely a smokescreen for the brutal, socially conscious lyrics that ride on top: “It gets tragic where I live, everything is negative / Hold the roaches in the crib, elevator full of piss / Everybody grew up tough, bunch of diamonds in the rough / Police ain't never give a fuck, they just want us in them cuffs.”
Today, Sheck Wes is a million miles away from the projects of Harlem, New York. But is Wes still a “diamond in the rough” or has he emerged? “What matters is that I am a diamond,” he authoritatively replies. “Diamonds travel far as people go looking for them.”
He concludes: “Look, only time will tell where I end up, but I pray that I live a long life and God allows me to become a great influence (in this game). I want to be way bigger than Kevin Durant and Michael Jackson!”