The number 52 bus route starts off at London’s Victoria Station. It weaves through the glossy SW1 neighbourhood of Knightsbridge, through to the affluent and exclusive playground of Hyde Park, before reaching the heart of its journey: the W10 heartlands of Ladbroke Grove, Notting Hill Gate and Kensal Rise, and ending in Willesden. The beginning and end of this route could not be more worlds apart—in demography, wealth, and life chances. One end has the empty homes of multi-millionaires, while the other holds the 14th highest rate of child poverty in Britain.
It was taking the 52 bus—having been born in Ladbroke Grove and raised in Shepherd’s Bush—that Central Cee, aka Cench, realised that the world could be his oyster (no pun intended). No matter how far he’s set his sights, West London will always hold a special place in his heart—the ends that moulded, tested, and now champions him. The rising rapper’s latest project, the aptly-titled Wild West, is an ode to his strip. In subject matter, he touches on it all: from the crabs-in-a-barrel mentality of peers that befall so many up-and-coming rappers that choose to remain in the ends (“Dun Deal”), to the qualms of get-rich-quick schemes of foolish youth (“Fraud”). Sonically, Cench flits between the ‘melodic drill’ that initially caught everybody’s attention on tracks like “Loading”, and the reggae, hip-hop and dancehall influences he grew up with. Either way, he refuses to be boxed into one category and his project is all the better for it.
In June 2020, Central Cee seemingly burst out on the scene with the melodic “Day In The Life”, followed by “Molly”, “Pinging (Six Figures)”, jazzy Wizkid favourite “Loading” (his first Top 40) and more recently, “Commitment Issues”. The 22-year-old has been steady waiting for his rightful slice of the pie as far back as 2016, dropping freestyles for Link Up TV as well as an EP in 2017 entitled 17, biding his time and truly honing his craft with experimental sounds from trap to jazz-infused drill.
Today, Cench is an independent artist, popular for his catchy one-liners and suave demeanour, while sitting on tens of millions of views and streams. With all eyes on him and the numbers to prove it, the rapper is hungry and determined to claim what he believes to be rightfully his—the top spot. Complex caught up with Central Cee over Zoom to discuss his past, his present, and what his future could potentially hold.
“The fact that I’m an independent artist and have no features on the tape is a statement in itself, I think.”
COMPLEX: Technically, Wild West isn’t your debut project, but it’s your first full introduction to the people who only met you during your successful run last year. What statement do you intend to make with this project?
Central Cee: The fact that I’m an independent artist and have no features on the tape is a statement in itself, I think. It says what I want it to say. Knowing that I’ve put my best foot forward and put together the best body of music that I can, I’m not too fussed about how it does commercially, as long as it’s appreciated by the people that have been listening and supporting up to this point.
Was it intentional to have no features on the tape, or did it just happen to end up like that?
It’s all about energies. I’m not a fan of the preferred way of doing features, where somebody that would be a good look just sends a verse over email. There has to be organic chemistry and energy, and the reality is that I’m so early on in my career that I don’t know any rappers like that to have songs with them. I don’t really mess with a lot of people.
Why did you feel like now was the best time for this particular project?
To put it simply, I know that everybody’s listening right now. All of the momentum of my singles last year meant that all eyes were on me and I felt it was the right opportunity.
Are there any producers you work closely with on Wild West to achieve your unique sound?
It’s really exciting because I’m still so early on in my career that I haven’t really gotten accustomed to anything. I haven’t even found a studio that I feel 100% comfortable in yet, or even sat down and properly built relationships with producers. I’m still feeling my way around things, literally not in my bag yet—I’m loading! Including the kind of sound I feel ‘at home in’. On the tape, only one producer’s on there twice: Young Chencs.
You are West London through and through—what about your ends inspires you?
Growing up in West, income inequality was so much clearer—the contrast was really in your face. Seeing all the big yards in Holland Park every day on my way to school actually made me realise that it was attainable from a young age. I feel like people who don’t see these displays of wealth would find it more unattainable. So it’s definitely been motivational to be from West and see that.
You wear West London clothing brand Trapstar in all your videos, have used their typeface in your cover artwork, and have a limited collection coming out with them based on the project. What’s the relationship there?
It’s a West London ting! From my first music video, I’ve been wearing Trapstar. The first bit of money I made, I remember going to the store. I’ve been rocking with them for a minute and I respect them a lot; Lee is from a couple roads down from me. They’re the only people from my area that I can look at as having come from where I’m from and really made it out the hood and give back. We’ve had some serious conversations and they’ve put me onto game even before the music, and dropped some real gems. They’re inspirational, for real, and I respect them highly.
“This isn’t even half of what I’m capable of, so I want listeners to finish the tape and be excited for what I’m gonna bring to the table next.”
What about musically? West has such a rich culture with the history of soundsystems and Notting Hill Carnival.
I’ve only missed carnival twice in my life [laughs]. I feel like all the music we hear there has definitely influenced me, subconsciously. But in terms of direct influence… Slyly, West London was truly never popping when it came to our contemporary culture. I feel like, musically speaking, West is in its prime right now.
That side of London is definitely enjoying its time in the limelight right now, with the likes of AJ Tracey, Digga D and Fredo doing their thing. Is there anybody from your area that you really appreciate?
I like Fredo. I’m a fan of WSTRN—they make really good music. From my neck of the woods, people like BOX12 and A2Anti… I’m trying to make sure I haven’t forgotten anyone!
What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
I didn’t really listen to music with my mum, but with my dad, I really soaked it in. I didn’t see much of him so whenever I did get time with him, I took in everything I could, including all the music he played; reggae, dancehall, garage, house, hip-hop. There wasn’t a lot of UK stuff, though—that was introduced to me more by people my age. My friends introduced me to grime and I fell in love with it.
I knew I heard a “stop that, start that” line in homage to Dizzee! What freestyle or set made you fall in love with grime?
The Tim Westwood freestyles, definitely; that Skepta one, Jme’s Crib Session, Chip’s freestyle... I vividly remember watching Chip’s one when it came out—I must have been about 14—and he inspired me to start rapping because he was mad young.
Your music seems too experimental to box you in as just a drill artist. Some of your tracks are jazz-infused, while others are reggae-influenced or straight-up trap. Is that intentional?
I’m glad you appreciate that! I don’t want to be boxed in as a drill rapper… It sort of ties in to me doing my own thing. It’s not intentional, but I definitely don’t like labels or expectations and my work reflects my own diverse influences.
You seem to be pretty focused on doing your own thing, your own way. Is that hard for somebody just coming into the scene?
Not really, because I know who I am. I’m secure in myself. I’m not stubborn, but I’m very mindful of not following the crowd… If I have to do something, I’m gonna do it on my terms.
That ties into my next question: you famously told us on “Pinging (Six Figures)” that you turned down six figures to go independent. Why is that important to you?
What can I say, a numbers guy and the numbers just made sense. It’s definitely more hard work to do this independently, but I prefer it, and it’s worth it. Weighing things up with my manager and seeing how I was able to generate that buzz independently, it made sense to just keep going without a label.
How did you find out Wizkid was a fan of your music? That must have been such a crazy moment.
The Wizkid thing, I think my manager called me and saw it. At the time, “Loading” had been out maybe for a month and we needed something to keep it going, so that had us over the moon. It was perfect timing. I’m a big fan of Wizkid’s ting, but it’s always nice to open your phone and see your notifications going mad. I like seeing people messaging me with pride and stuff, and that was one of those moments where people were proud of me. I was proud of myself! That was a good day.
Having recently featured on Italian drill artist Rondo’s track, “Movie”, can you see yourself doing more international collabs in the future?
Definitely. I’ve always looked at music on an international scale, even growing up listening to it when I never heard much UK stuff with my dad. So it’s definitely part of the plan.
What inspired the initial move away from the Auto-Tune sound from five years ago?
I started writing bars when I was 12, probably even before that. I started recording when I was 13/14, and at the time I was just straight rap; no Auto-Tune or nothing. But as times changed, when I was probably about 18, I was influenced more by the trap wave, the American wave. That’s what we were making. Going back to basics, to straight rap, that was inspired by my little brother funnily enough. I value my younger brothers’ opinions a lot when it comes to music. I’m always playing them my music and listening to what they have to say. My little brother used to rap me his bars and it made me step up my game a bit, like: “Rah! He’s proper hard.”
Tell me about your now-famous motto, “Live your movie.”
Live your movie! We’re obviously saying “live yours” now, for short. I want everyone who listens to my music to know they don’t need to try and be like me—they should live their own movie. All of our lives are a movie! You’re the main character and every decision is up to you. No matter what position you’re at in life, you can say that you’re living your movie. When we came up with ‘Live your movie’, we weren’t in a great position at all; me and my cousin came up with the name, and we weren’t in a position to say it lavishly. It wasn’t like our life was a movie in the lavish way—it was more like we were down and out but just trusting the process. But I want everyone that listens to my music to know not to idolise me, but to live theirs and do their ting. Live your movie, not mine.
What do you hope people take away from Wild West—about you, and where you’re from?
It ties in with the title of the tape, paying homage to my area and representing it, and I want everybody from my area to celebrate it with me. One of my favourite things about doing music is being able to make the people close to me proud. The people that have vouched from me, I like to prove them right. In terms of me, although the tape’s sonically quite close to drill, I cover various topics and styles, so I want people to realise that I’m not some one-dimensional artist. This isn’t even half of what I’m capable of, so I want listeners to finish the tape and be excited for what I’m gonna bring to the table next.