The level of fanfare currently surrounding Dutchavelli isn’t a norm in UK rap. The last time the scene was quick on an artist’s every move, like this, was when West London’s Fredo stepped out in 2016, blessing the blocks with “They Ain’t 100”, and whose every turn continues to be a major talking point. While there are many pros and cons to being the hotboy of rap, Dutchavelli, 26, is taking it in his stride. The people love Dutch, and Dutch loves the people—search his name on any social media site and you will see for yourself.

The Birmingham-born, Rotterdam- and Hackney-raised rhymer of Jamaican and Trinidadian descent also knows what it means to persevere. “Bro, get on this Dutch guy! He’s gonna do it,” his manager, JamJam, said to me in a DM back in 2016. This was the same year Dutchavelli made his musical debut with the single “New Jack City”—a trap-infused offering inspired by the ‘90s hood flick of the same name. But trying to fit into a music industry that saw Dave’s “Wanna Know” get remixed by Drake and Skepta spearhead grime’s revival, was no easy feat. Not to mention his own sister, Stefflon Don, had signed a seven-figure record deal off the back of her debut EP, Real Ting.

The pressure was on. Dutch continued to put the work in, collaborating with the likes of grime veteran Footsie and pop-rap star Professor Green along the way. But two years later, in 2018, he would find himself in prison for the second time round (his first at the age of 17) remanded in a case involving possession of firearms and a robbery. Acquitted after twenty-two months inside, it was game time for the man born Stephan Allen: he returned home with a new sound, a new fire, a new hunger to succeed. And that, he did, with the drop of comeback single “Only If You Knew” at the top of 2020—which saw him lace Rymez’s haunting drill production with a more forceful flow than before, amplifying his memeified gravelly tone that can be heard in freestyles as far back as 2011. 

Following the hype of “Only If You Knew”, which is currently sitting on tens of millions of spins across Apple Music and Spotify (not to mention the music video at over 20 million), the major labels came knocking, with Parlophone—home to the likes of Lily Allen and Kano—meeting the requirements of Dutch and his team. The intervening months saw him mark his territory with tracks like “Surely” and “Bando Diaries”, with his first Top 10 coming in the form of “I Dunno”, a collaborative drop with Tion Wayne and Stormzy, and two Top 20s in “Burning” with M Huncho and “808” with Da Beatfreakz, DigDat and B Young. Which brings us to his debut project, Dutch From The 5th. The newly-released 16-tracker is led by Dutchavelli’s punchy flow as he gives us stories about everything from life on the wing (“Segregation”) to—unexpectedly—relationship woes (“Never Really Mine”), showing that he can take it there, too, if he wants to.

In between his hectic schedule, shooting a new music video almost every week, we managed to get on the phone with Dutchavelli to discuss his journey so far.

“Day by day, the pressure feels easier—but you know what they say: pressure makes diamonds.”

COMPLEX: What a year it’s been for you, Dutch. This time last year, you were in the jailhouse and now you’re one of the hottest names in UK rap. How have you found the transition?

Dutchavelli: It’s mad because I’ve gone from one extreme to the other... But it’s like, every time I reach new heights or new achievements, it takes time for it to soak in. It’s going good, though. No complaints. I’m enjoying everything that’s happening right now. The only pressure I feel is to never go back to square one, you know what I’m saying? That’s the only pressure I feel. Day by day, the pressure feels easier—but you know what they say: pressure makes diamonds.

Before you got locked up, you were quite active with the music. I think I first came across you when you hooked up with Footsie on “Stick” in 2017, and you also collaborated with Professor Green early on. How did those connections come about, and how do you think your music was hitting back then compared to now?

With the music I came out with this time, the raw elements were just a lot more polished than before and easier to digest. That’s what I feel like anyway. I feel like the people can take it in more because the rawness is more polished and easy to listen to, if that makes sense? Professor Green, with him being from East London—we’re of the same borough almost—the link with him wasn’t hard to get. When I made the song with him, like you said, I didn’t really have a name in music like that, but he felt my energy and whatever and respected me for reaching out. For me, it wasn’t a big song, but it introduced me to a different audience. With Footsie now, he’s from East London as well and like most people who grew up in East, we were all grime heads at one point. Everyone that I know in my age group that raps now, well all started spitting grime. That was the thing: you go to school, you’re on the playground and you make sure you’ve got your bars ready to spit over “Nutty Violins” [laughs].

The good ol’ days. 

Some of the best!

Fast forward to January 2020: you’re fresh home and you release “Only If You Knew”, your comeback, breakout single. The combination of your gravelly flow, the eerie drill beat and the conviction in your storytelling shook the scene in a way I hadn’t seen in a while. As you were gaining momentum, how did it make you feel?

I would say the timing of that track, and the climate of the industry, was just different. But most importantly, I’d say it’s just the content of it and the beat selection. It’s like I’m documenting the hood, and people love that—they love the insight. My life’s literally gone from one extreme to the other and I’m mad grateful for where I’m at.

After that song blew up the ‘net—and it’s still racking up the numbers—you got signed to Parlophone. How are you finding that experience, being a major label artist?

I’m enjoying the creative control they’re giving me. I like the direction of where we go, how we go with it. At the moment, it’s all up to me; not to say that they don’t have input. Like, with “Black”, that was down to the label to release. I just said, “Cool. Let’s do it.” So we come together on things; we’ve got that type of relationship. It’s a partnership, never a dictatorship.

The singles that followed, “Surely” and “Bando Diaries”, were also drill tunes, but I wouldn’t necessarily call you drill rapper. What type of rapper do you consider yourself?

To someone that calls me a drill artist, I would either tell them to look back on my catalogue, or just wait and see! I’m not really in a rush to prove a point. It’s a marathon, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not a race. You could think I’m a drill artist at the start of the race, but by the time we get to the end I can be the fuckin’ opposite [laughs]. I’m not racing... They’re gonna understand over time that I am here! You know when you’re young and you’re eating your food, and your mum’s like, “Your food’s not going to grow legs and run off,” it’s like that with me: I’m not going anywhere.

The comments about your voice in the comment sections are hilarious. One of the best I’ve seen has to be, “Dutchavelli definitely drinks diesel and eats his opps.” [Laughs] A lot of it is poking fun of how aggressively powerful the tone of your voice is. Do you find any of it funny, and do you feel like you have live up to any of the stereotypes people have placed on you?

I do find it funny. I love the banter. If you follow me on Instagram and watch man’s stories, you can see I’m a fun guy. I like having fun! I’m not here to keep up no facade, how the public are trying to portray me. I’m not gonna go and tell the next man what to do, but I’m a strong man in person. The public can never make me think I’m something I’m not, though. I know what I am and I know who I am. The thing with the public is they make jokes about how aggressive and violent I sound or whatever, but it’s like they don’t take into consideration that I’m bare fun.

I think you’ve definitely shown that. You’re real to yourself, and that comes across.

That’s all anyone should be: real to themselves!

“I’ve done it, and I’m still doing it. Even if I don’t do it again, I’m just happy for the fact that I got to do it.”

Photo by Eva Pentel

I’ve got a feeling that you were a big DMX fan at one point.  

Flippin’ hell, bro! DMX? One hundred percent! I was into all of that: the Biggies, the 2Pacs, the Eminems, the 50 Cents. All the big, cultural moments. On the UK side, it was the Kanos, Dizzee Rascals… If you lived through these generations then you’ll know the cultural moments I’m talking about.

So you were born in 0121, grew up in Rotterdam as a kid, and eventually settled in London. That’s a mad mix of locations—what was it like growing up in so many different places? And now that you’re representing Hackney, East London, which has produced a lot of top-quality, always-charting musical talent, do you feel any pressure to keep up? 

You know what? I’ll be so real with you: I charted so quick, back to back, before I even knew the pressure existed. I’ve already achieved a lot without that pressure. Some people might think, “Oh, he can do it 100 times now,” but me, my thing is this: I’ve done it, and I’m still doing it. Even if I don’t do it again, I’m just happy for the fact that I got to do it. But to answer your first question, growing up in all those places, has made me appreciate different types of people and different cultures. For some people, to adjust even a little bit can be so life-changing; it can be a traumatic experience. But with me, because I’ve moved around so much, even as a child—around Holland, around London—I’m used to adjusting. Even down to going to prison, it made it easier for me to take in and adjust.

Let’s talk about “I Dunno”, which is looking like a strong contender for my tune of the year. How was it connecting with Tion Wayne and Stormzy on that track?

With Tion Wayne and Stormzy, it was very easy. You know sometimes you go to the studio and you can be there for hours or whatever? But when the beat’s a banger, it makes it all the more easier. So literally, me and Tion went in there and recorded it at Tape London. We went in, he recorded his bit, I recorded my bit, Tion finished off his bit. We shot the video and Tion hit me up and said, “Yo! Stormzy’s jumping on the record. We need to shoot the video again.” I was like, “Fuckin’ hell.” That’s how it all happened, bro, like a whirlwind.

How did you feel when you got the news that it entered the Top 10?

My problem is I didn’t know how to take things like that. Like, yeah, I’ve got a Top 10, but it felt like everyone was getting Top 10s [laughs]. I hadn’t taken it in properly and it wasn’t sinking in, but I’m realising what it is now. Like, rah...

—it’s a big deal.

Yeah, it is a big deal. Definitely.

2020 has seen some groundbreaking projects from the UK rap scene, from the likes of Headie One, Nines, and Potter Payper. How does your debut mixtape, Dutch From The 5th, stand up to them?

I’m in my own lane, man. And not only that—all due respect to those guys, I’m a big fan of what they do—but this my debut year, my proper introduction. We already know you guys [laughs]. Just make sure you go cop that mixtape, swipe up, click it, share it with your mum, your friend, your aunty, your dad, your grandad. I’m giving the fans a lot of my life on there.

It’s a great first project, man. Congrats. You seem to have a solid support system around you, from your family to your manager to even the label execs. How important is it to have such a strong team backing your corner?

It’s family settings, man. One day I’m just gonna cop a mansion and we’re all gonna live there, like some Big Brother house [laughs]. It’s literally like a family, bro: the same arguments, the same fall-outs, the same love. It’s important to believe in your team’s capabilities as well.

The last six months for you have been a lot: Fox, who was part of your management team, passed away, and you had the feds on your case because you were supporting Black Lives Matter. And this is all between your career rapidly ascending. How did that all affect you?

R.I.P Fox, for real... Like we just talked about: I take it one day at a time. You’ve got to take the sour with the sweet because this is the real world, innit? This is real life. But at the same time, nothing surprises me anymore. If I woke up to £100m in my bank, I wouldn’t be that surprised. We’re all just living, and I’m grateful for where I’m at today.