South London has been a stomping ground for British rap since the 1980s, back when Rodney P and his London Posse came through and completely changed the game with their British-and-proud styles and flows. That, however, was during a time when if you weren't trying to make some kind of difference with your socially-charged rhymes, you simply wouldn't be received. But, times have changed: the "road rap" movement of the last decade has since become a scene all its own, and for many—whether doing a 9-5 or sitting in a dingy trap house—the fast lives these rappers portray in their music is nothing but money motivation.
At the top of the trap-rap tree sits South London-born MC Blade Brown. With a string of manager and PR-free, high-charting mixtapes (Financial Times, Bags & Boxes, Bags & Boxes 2), he's someone whose lifestyle thousands aspire to have. But please, whatever you do, don't call him a "role model." For Blade Brown, all he ever wanted to do is give it to you straight from his gates—no filter. And with his recently released project, Bags & Boxes 3, hitting No. 5 in the iTunes Hip-Hop Chart, the demand for his storytelling is that much more evident. Complex gets to know Mr. Brown.
Bags & Boxes 3 has been doing the rounds! Congratulations on that. Prior to this release, Bags & Boxes 2 was put out two years ago—why the wait?
When it comes to making music, I like to go away, take my time, live life, and take those experiences into the booth. When an artist is dropping lots of tapes I just think, "Come on, man! You're making this up now." My music is based around real, true life experiences.
Bags & Boxes 2 sold a good few copies, too, so did you expect this new tape to sell as well as the others in the series?
I never like to expect any of my projects to do well; I'd rather do everything I can to make sure it does. I have no manager, no PR team, no funding, no nothing—it's just me and my iPhone [laughs]. I understand the importance of promotion and there's people like yourself, GRM Daily and Link Up—as far as visuals are concerned—who have helped me, but it's me organising everything. Bags & Boxes 3 charted at No. 5 in the overall iTunes Chart, which is the highest any of my releases have been. We also entered it for the Official Charts, but entered it on the Friday instead of the Monday, so only had two days worth of sales to show. But that's just an indication of where it could've gone. I spoke to a couple people who know the charts and they felt, based on that, it could've gone in at around No. 20 if we entered it correctly.
With the Bags & Boxes trilogy and Financial Times, that's four retailed projects. But why mixtapes and not an album yet?
They're mixtapes because it's me saying what I want in a certain way. With an album, I'd approach things differently: different features, different types of productions, different concepts and subject matters. With an album, you would get to hear a whole different side to me that I'd never go into on a mixtape.
You once stated that "Don't Ever Go" from Financial Times is your all-time favourite cut—why's that?
I think what I like most about it is the way it happened so accidentally. The producer was skipping past beats and he didn't wanna show me this one beat; he didn't think I would like it. But I heard the beat and jumped on it! It was the beat that made me rap the way I did on it. A lot of the time, my songs are cocky and glorified but, for this track, I went a bit more reflective. It was out of the box for me to do it, and I like to surprise people.
In my humble opinion, the road rap scene isn't as booming as it was say two, three years ago; I can count on one hand the rappers who are keeping things relevant. Lyrically, it seems grime has picked up and is leading the way again—so with that being said, do you feel like there's more space for you to properly shine now?
I've got more space because I've never felt any pressure. I've always been in my own lane, watching what I'm doing, but it's a good thing if the not-so-good artists have dropped out and the heavyweights are still standing.
I thought Stormzy was a rapper who just messed with grime every now and then, but he recently won a MOBO Award for Best Grime Act. Following his win, people joked on Twitter that UK rappers will be quick to jump on grime. Is there any truth in that? Would you ever make grime music, yourself?
I used to do grime before a lot of people. It's not something I would turn down but, musically, it just has to be right. If I heard a grime beat that I liked, I would go for it. It's just a difference in tempo, really.
You've worked with the top selected artists in your scene, but are there any other artists from other genres that you'd like to work with?
Probably someone like Emeli Sandé—that would shock and surprise a lot of people. There's lots of features on my tapes from people in my scene, but then I've got a track with Tigga Da Author who's outside my scene but we respect each other. Collaborations like that can only help push things forward.
What would you say to your critics who feel you have a responsibility to young kids listening to your trap-happy music? I can't recall you ever claiming to be a role model [laughs].
[Laughs] I'm not telling people to try and recreate the acts of what we're talking about... I'm just telling my story, and what I go through. I get a lot of people tweeting me saying they're listening to my music doing their uni work; it's motivation music for a lot of people. I give out the message that you can do things, that it's in your hands, and that things are achievable—I don't tell anyone to take the path I've taken. Plus, you could say films glorify that way of life, too, and there are 20,000 other rappers who'll tell the same story.
In the UK, you're seen as the trap-rap kingpin; kudos to one side, don't you think you'll eventually run out of things to say about that trap life?
No, because it's all about new experiences. I'm rapping about my life, and if you listen to the first tape, it's a whole different mind state to my latest one. I was young then, and now I'm doing older-minded things; talking about owning businesses, making investments. All of my mixtapes show my journey, as a person. The subject matter gradually changes throughout the course of them.
Do you feel there will come a point when being a trap-rap don will box you in? Imagine you wanted to go up for a MOBO Award one day, don't you think this tag will hinder you in some way?
The label has boxed me in, in a way that people just hear that and overlook the wordplay or lyricism that comes along with it. They just hear "box", "strap" and swear words, but they don't hear the punchlines, the metaphors, the similes. It has got me overlooked as an MC but, at the same time, it's good to be king of something rather than nothing. If you listen to my music, you will hear me talk about other things. But, at the end of the day, I rap about life experiences. And unfortunately, that has just been the majority of my life.
Honesty is the best policy, as they say. So what's next for Blade Brown? Is this the end of the Bags & Boxes series?
When it comes to mixtapes, I go off what the people ask for. When I finished Bags & Boxes 2, my fans were quick to ask for Bags & Boxes 3... I'm not planning to make B&B 4, but if the request is overwhelming and the demand is there, I'll have to give the people what they ask for. As far as what's up next, I've got an EP coming out with Shin Beats soon—which is sounding crazy! I'm trying a lot of different sounds on there that I've never tried before. Then I've got a collaboration album with S-X; it's kinda like a S-X-meets-Blade type project so look out for that one. And I'm 100% gonna be doing a big show in London.
Now, you know what happens with most UK rap shows: the feds try and lock them off before they even start. Look at what happened with Giggs!
There has never, ever been any trouble at my shows. People are always respectful. It'll be mainly for the grown adults who are sensible and know what they're doing who'll turn up anyway, so I couldn't see it being a problem.