Whatever you want to call it—‘road rap’, ‘UK rap’, ‘UK drill’—British hip-hop’s dark side is currently having its moment in the light and it’s been a long time coming. Since the late nineties and early noughties, the sound’s forebears, JaJa Soze (and PDC) and Giggs (with SN1), have had to fight long and hard for their voices to be heard on top-tier platforms, respected and taken seriously, whilst also being a mouthpiece for millions across the country. The work of these legends has not gone unnoticed as the music industry, and fans alike, have seen a fraternity of drill rappers—acts such as 67, Loski, and Headie One—rise up in their respective parts of the city, adding a touch more menace to proceedings with their brazen tales of life on London’s streets.
Headie One, especially, has had a groundbreaking year. The Tottenham-hailing ad-lib king has pierced through the ears of old-time critics and backpack-rap heads, offering up a more lyrically dense take on the Chicago-inspired UK drill movement. Getting his first taste of the mic back in secondary school, trading bars with friends in the local studio—at first, it was all a bit of fun, and it wasn’t until after Headie went to prison for the third time that he looked at music seriously in the eye. But it was to be a collaboration with the rapper RV that would blast his career into rap’s top tier: “Know Better”, released in January 2018 as a real-life warning to Headie’s adversaries, flipped the game on its head like a 50p coin with seminal results.
It was sonically a refreshing and forward-thinking shot; the shh! ad-lib; the icy, ghoulish riddim; the punchy flow—it was a step up from what we’d heard previously from the UK drill scene. The rapper quickly followed the viral banger with a re-release of his mixtape, The One, literally a few days later. Across fifteen tracks, we got to witness an artist come into their own right in front of our eyes as he dropped one of the best tapes of 2018. With follow-up The One Two now out and doing its rounds, Complex caught up with Headie to discuss his life-changing year and career up to this point. (As seen in his memeified NFTR interview, it was clear from the start that he’s a man of few words, which is fine: Headie’s music does all the talking for him.)
“In this rap game, a lot of things are sugarcoated so I think people just appreciated the raw, street vibe that ‘Know Better’ brought.”
COMPLEX: Genre labels aside, how does it feel to be one of the most sought-after acts in the UK right now?
Headie One: It’s not too bad, you know. It’s calm... I’m just taking it all in at the moment and going with the flow. It’s all positive energy and good motivation around me right now.
Where does the Headie One story begin? Take me back to how it all started for you, musically.
Moretime, it was me and my friends from the estate; when we were growing up, we’d always go to the studio, chill and mess about. School as well, we used to do our little songs here and there. You know in school, where everyone raps and that? It was that kind of vibe. This was all during my early teenage years; I was about 13 or 14. It was a joke thing at first, but after going away [to prison] for a bit and coming back, I thought I’d try and take it a bit more seriously. So yeah, from there on, it’s been a music thing. The ball just kept on rolling.
To be honest with you, not really. It’s never really been a thing that’s been on my mind: to be a signed rapper. I’ve literally just gone with the flow.
The roads have obviously played a big part in your life, but what was it about music that made you look at life differently, and as a route out of that world?
The positive side of what it could bring to my life. I just felt like that was the aim: to turn my life into a positive. It’s been difficult making that transition. It’s always gonna be difficult but that’s just life, though, innit? It’s still a struggle, but you have to keep going.
Dead or alive, who would you say are your top five favourite rappers? And how did each one of them make a mark on you as a lyricist?
Nah, it’s all good—go for it.
Okay, so Biggie Smalls would have to be in there; I like his flow, his style, aura and energy on the mic. I like French Montana as well you know; he’s just versatile and similar to Biggie with how he puts his lyrics together. Erm... I would put Max B in there. Styles P is another one, and I also think that Drake, as a rapper, is very talented.
Have you heard Beloved, Styles P’s new project with Dave East?
Nah! What, is it a new one?
It came out, like, last month.
I didn’t even know! You bussed me, still [laughs].
Are there any British rappers that you grew up listening to?
I used to listen to everyone—a bit of everyone. I was into loads of different styles of rap at the time, so it was just whatever I was feeling at the time that I would listen to.
Okay. In terms of UK rap mixtapes or albums, then, what would be your top three?
Potter Payper’s Training Day, I listened to that a lot! Payper’s a cold rapper. Obviously, The One by Headie One [laughs]. I’m gonna say Nines’ mixtape as well, I think it’s Gone Till November—that’s up there for me.
“Know Better”, and its meme-worthy ad-libs, was the moment the UK music scene stopped in its tracks and really took note of you. What do you think it is about this one track that caused that to happen?
I think because of the controversy surrounding it when it dropped—plus, it was just some real shit, some real stuff. In this rap game, a lot things are sugarcoated so I think people just appreciated the raw, street vibe that “Know Better” brought.
“I’m doing this for the people who can relate to me and the things that have gone on in my life.”
Most people would label you a UK drill artist but, to me, your style, flow and lyrical content has a lot more substance to what drill is typically known for. What would you say to that?
Yeah, I agree with you. I’ve never wanted to put myself into one box and pigeonhole myself. I feel like I can honestly do just about everything, every style. I’m versatile with it and I think that’s important for every artist to be.
I don’t want to dwell on the whole media hate for UK drill, but what are your thoughts on how the movement was portrayed this year? What can be done to ensure that next year is better?
I don’t think anyone needs to change anything, to be honest—they need to keep on doing what they’re doing. Everyone’s always gonna have something to say, innit, so it’s just about staying true to yourself and keeping it as real as possible.
The One, the mixtape you dropped at the top of the year, is already a UK rap classic in my eyes. It showed how much of a versatile emcee you actually are. Did you expect it to cut through the scene like it did?
Not really, nah. I just thought I’d try it out and keep the ball rolling on the music side and see how it goes. After all the hard work and that, I was excited to see the feedback, and I think everything came together nicely. I didn’t really think it would get the reaction it did, though.
You recently dropped the follow-up to that in The One Two. Were you nervous about how that would be received after The One’s massive success?
I felt like it would make sense to follow up the first one with, like, a story that people can follow across both projects. The reception so far has been great, so I can’t complain...
—would you say that this year’s been a life-changing one for you? Are you still able to go to the shops and not get harassed for pictures? I want to know how life has changed, in that respect.
I’ve got a lot of love for the fans, man. I always make sure I take time out and appreciate them all when they see me and show me love. Because, obviously, if it wasn’t for them, it wouldn’t really be the way that it is right now, ya get me? Every so often I get a little reality check [laughs], but I still get to do my normal, everyday thing. I’m grounded like that; I like to do very normal things.
Recently, you tweeted saying: “You ain’t changed, they’ve changed.” Is this something you’re personally going through right now? Are people close to you saying you’ve switched up on them?
No matter what you do in life, that’s always gonna come up. When you level up in whatever field you’re in, people will find a way to say you’ve switched up on them when, really, they’re the ones who have changed. I’ve realised in music, it’s a ‘thing’. I’ve noticed that a lot of artists seem to go through this. People start to say they changed and they’re different, but it’s in their own heads. You have to be strong-minded to get through that.
Circling back to the music, a lot of the productions you lace aren’t typical for a UK drill rapper—some of them almost veer towards experimental electronic music. Which producers are your favourite to work with, and why?
I work with Sykes [Beats] the most. He’s like a big part of what I do. I bounce off his energy and he’s always showing me some next sounds. He’s the main guy though; everyone comes through with the drill beats, but Sykes has the styles that I like. I’m up for working with different people, though, just as long as it makes sense and it’s natural. Even American artists and producers, I’m down for collaborating with people but it has to make sense and it can’t be forced. I can’t force energies.
“I’ve got a lot of love for the fans. I always make sure I take time out and appreciate them all.”
If you could work with anyone this very second?
Future, Lil Baby; I think he’s on stuff right now. And UK-wise, I’d say probably Giggs.
You and Giggs on a track would light up the streets.
I know! I know. It needs to happen soon.
“Tracksuit Love” is up there when it comes to my most-played tracks of the year. What was it like working with Kenny Allstar on that, and how important do you think his role is in this new phase of UK rap?
Kenny has a big part to play, still. He’s my bro! When we was in the studio, we just came up with the concept of showing love to tracksuits and what we get up to when we're in our tracksuits. It was a random idea, but it definitely worked out.
Do you care about the charts? Is getting a Top 10 album or single at the top of your list of things to achieve, or is it really just a ‘if it happens, it happens’ kinda thing?
I don’t really think about all of that. That’s not what I came into the game thinking about; it’s like, yeah, if it happens it’s a great blessing. But I’m doing this for the people who can relate to me and the things that have gone on in my life.
After releasing two strong projects, are you ready for album mode next?
I can’t let the cat out the bag just yet, but just know that I’m cooking. We’re definitely working. I’m ready for next year, though—I’m always ready! Everyone just needs to keep their eyes open because I’ve got some good things coming for them.