As he releases a new video for ‘Home’, we sit down with Tottenham MC to discuss the long road to success
“Didn’t I tell you I’ma ball, as soon as I get home?” The lyrics to Headie One’s latest single, “Home” aren’t just a slick boast of his finances – they also shed light on how tenacious and patient the rapper has had to be to reach the level of success he has over a career that started in the early 2010s and has led to him becoming one of the major focal points of London’s drill scene today.
Thanks to his shrewd and vivid lyrics, coupled with his willingness to experiment with his sound in a genre that can sometimes fall back on familiar hallmarks, Headie One – real name Irving Adjei – has set himself apart from the pack. It’s this that led to his success in the genre: sold-out dates across the UK, slots at festivals like Glastonbury, a nomination for Best New International Act at the 2019 BET Awards, and a mixtape that peaked at number five in the UK album charts. In January this year, his single, “18 Hunna”, which features Dave, became the highest charting drill song when it hit the number six slot.
“Home” first appeared on Adjei’s mixtape, Music x Road, an ambitious and multidimensional release that saw the rapper expand on the brooding, candid, and authentic rhymes that propelled him to the perch he currently sits at, narrating a pivotal moment in his music career and his life as a whole. The title track, “Music x Road”, sees him in a reflective mood: “Not long ago I was flat on my face on the floor, you know,” he raps, ruminating on his triumph and the tumultuous road to it. “Both” sees him narrate the juxtaposition his life has become, an idea that’s also expressed in the mixtape’s title: ‘music’, the world that Adjei occupies today, and the ‘road’, the world that he grew up in.
“I was trying to balance the two,” he says. “I was trying to come out on top of both.” Having first picked up the mic in secondary school, his journey would see him establish a loyal fanbase in the underground. Adjei’s first project, 2014’s Headz or Tails, captured his talent in its formative stages, introducing his nimble word-play, long-term ambition, and his gutsy attitude to success. He also worked as part of a collective, OFB, whose other members include longtime friend and collaborator RV, and youngsters Double Lz, Bandokay, and SJ.
2014 was also the last year that Adjei was sent to prison, having served two prior sentences for drug dealing before. He grew up in the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, which since the 1985 Broadwater Farm riots to today has been demonised by the media, portrayed unfairly as a no-go area and an emblem of urban decay, rather than a place that people still call home, despite issues arising from poverty. Still, Headie One doesn’t consider Tottenham the biggest influence on him musically. Instead, its impact is felt “more so in my day-to-day lifestyle”. From 2016, he released a series of mixtapes, many with RV, that demonstrated ability to make brilliant music that does not compromise in sound or dilute UK drill’s stylistic realism.
It was with “Know Better”, released in January 2018, that Headie One had his first crossover moment. The track originally sent a warning to his real-life enemies, but – in a moment that embodies the crossroad between music and road – ended up having an impact around the country, with fans following the rapper’s lead and telling critics to “shh”. Since then, Headie says, “everything going on around me has changed”.
“My life has changed a lot. I look at life a lot more positively,” he reflects today. “Now, I try not to allow any outside intervention to distract or sidetrack me. I understand that life isn’t always perfect, and things happen, but you’ve just got to keep the ball rolling and stay working.”
UK drill has ushered in a class of highly skilled and defiant rappers, with unfiltered stories of the streets – and commercial success to match. The popularity has also led to a saturated market, and expectancy from fans. Headie One is among the most skilled in this class, and has risen to the top. “Drill is a competitive genre,” he says. “I stay true to myself and my style. I think keeping it authentic and real pushed through.”
The genre’s success hasn’t stopped the media from blaming it for the UK’s gun and knife crime problems, though. Headie is no stranger to criticism for mainstream media as earlier this year he came under fire for he performed Glastonbury while on bail for a bladed article offence. Amidst the scrutiny, Headie One has managed to forge his own path. The duality of Music x Road illustrates the disparity between these two worlds, and how fine the line between them can be for artists who come from this background.
“I feel like it’s the same with a lot of artists, it’s not really spoken about a lot,” Headie ponders deeply. He tells me how this reflects in the mixtape. “There’s a strong theme of duality. I wanted to follow that theme throughout the mixtape. I feel like it’s a constant decision daily, and the decisions that you make day-to-day, and it’s tough to be able to continue to make the right decisions especially coming from the places that most of us come from.”
Before our conversation comes to an end, I ask Headie how he hopes to be remembered. He pauses for a moment, as if it’s a question he’s never thought about before. “I feel like when all is said and done…” he starts. “Hmm… Right now, the sky and above is the limit. That’s the aim. I plan to continue to move forward and grow without stopping.”
Headie One plays at Lost and Found Festival, taking place April 30 to May 3, 2020