The Big Read – Headie One: “If you make a mistake, you’ve got to move quickly”

Headie One is the highest-charting drill rapper ever, thanks to ‘18Hunna’, his collaboration with Dave, and he's a story of success in a fractured society. Yet The Daily Mail demonises drill and police shut down its artists’ shows. “They think it’s not natural for someone from a council estate to have a high income,” he tells Jordan Bassett. “They want you to be on the other end of society”.

There are actually two time zones in the UK: there’s Greenwich Mean Time, and there’s Headie One time. Just weeks after the success of ’18Hunna’, the 24-year-old’s icy collaboration with fellow London rapper Dave, which perhaps unexpectedly smashed the Top 10 – and has been streamed almost eight million times on YouTube – he turns up a couple of hours late for his NME Big Read, flanked by an entourage that conveys his emergent fame.

When he does bowl up to the pristine Sony offices in posh west London, in which we’re shepherded into a bright strip-lit meeting room, Headie speaks slowly and quietly, his answers as unhurried as the flow coursing through his coldly compelling, prolific (six mixtapes in five years) take on UK drill. He chomps through an enormous bag of watermelon-shaped sweets during our genial hour together, but experiences no visible sugar-rush.

headie one
Photo Credit: Danny North

Irving Adjei spent much of his teenage years in and out of trouble; he was, as he puts it, “sent away” three times in total, and was last incarcerated back in 2014. “I was released for a short period of time,” he explains, “and when I came out, I saw that drill was coming through,” the genre – minimalist beats, disaffected dispatches – having come to London from Chicago.

American drill was less lyric-led than other forms of US rap music, but UK acts such as Brixton Hill’s 67 interpreted the genre as a force for social observation and hardboiled narrative. UK drill seemed destined to be outsider music. Like much worthwhile art, it documents lives that may otherwise be overlooked: in this case, London in an age of austerity and rising UK knife crime, artists recounting the drugs and violence they’ve encountered.

Recently, though, drill’s experienced a commercial boom that, just a year or two ago, seemed unlikely.

Hackney’s Unknown T had a massive radio hit with his anthem ‘Homerton B’, while ’18Hunna’ made Headie the highest-charting drill artist ever, reaching Number Six back in January. For him, the secret lay in combining the lyrical density of UK drill with the catchiness of another American concoction, trap, sprinkling his social commentary with hooks to match Gucci Mane’s; a pick’n’mix approach today enacted on his watermelon sweets.

“I realised you could use the drill form on these trap beats,” he says. “I’d never seen someone doing trap melodies on a drill beat. When I was in jail, I spent a lot of time writing trap beats and doing melodies. I was kind of new to the drill sounds, so I just tried to put a little bit of that over there – and vice-versa. That’s what a lot of the songs I do now sound like.”

headie one
Photo Credit: Danny North

A couple of months after our interview, Headie releases his sixth mixtape, ‘Drillers X Trappers II’, a collaboration with RV, another rapper who grew up in Tottenham, north London. With features from Unknown T and LD – the often masked member of 67 – it sounds like a victory lap for the underground years of Headie’s career, the single ‘Match Day’ wrapped around a delicious pun that revels in successes over their enemies (“All of these points I scored, they should play my vids on Match of the Day) with trademark sly humour.

He’ll release a highly anticipated solo mixtape (there was no stream available at the time of writing; Headie works right up to the wire) this summer and will perform at Glastonbury, Reading & Leeds and Wireless festivals. It’s a long way from the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, where Headie One spent his formative years, and which was once described as “Britain’s most notorious housing estate” thanks to a sadly chequered history.

The estate’s reputation never really recovered after an infamous 1985 riot that resulted in the death of a police officer; in a four-month period that same year, there were 875 burglaries, 50 assaults and 50 robberies. 20 years later, after a concerted regeneration effort, its specialised police force disbanded because the crime rate had dropped so dramatically. These days, gentrification is the biggest challenge that some of its residents face.

Although Headie doesn’t speak badly of Broadwater Farm, he explains there was an insularity to life there, which meant he barely engaged with the music scene on his doorstep. He was approaching early adolescence when the first wave of grime was beginning to make stars of Dizzee Rascal and Wiley in east London, but it seemed like another world. He was vaguely aware Skepta was finding fame on the other side of Tottenham.

“Up until a particular age, you don’t really see past the estate,” he says. “When I was growing up, I had my group of friends, we’d come out, get into trouble. We wouldn’t even be thinking about nothing else. Growing up, we didn’t go to shows – nothing, really. It was just the estate, go to school and playing on the park in the estate. The Skeptas and all that, we’d see them on the internet and hear through word-of-mouth that a Skepta song was doing well.”

Did then-buzzy grime artists Skepta and JME, just 20 minutes down the road, seem far away?

“They did seem far away,” Headie replies, quietly.

Stand today on the Lordship Recreation Ground, the lush, reedy park overlooked by Broadwater Farm Estate, and there’s a quietude that makes it hard to believe the area’s past. But with those rolling skies, punctured by the estate’s central tower block, it’s also hard to believe you’re in London at all, as though you’re on the outskirts of a much more provincial locale. So it’s perhaps no surprise Headie felt unconnected to the rest of the capital.

headie one
Photo Credit: Danny North

He was “lucky”, he explains, to have attended secondary school in Islington, north-west London. A new postcode broadened his prospects. Here he made friends who introduced him to American hip-hop stars such as Gucci Mane and Jadakiss, as well as their UK counterparts, such as Giggs, to whose unflashy style Headie’s work is perhaps most comparable. “When I was 15, 16,” he says, “I knew everyone. I listened to a bit of everything.”

A time of creative discovery, these were heady years for Headie and friends: “I started making music when I was about 14, 15, which is when I was getting in trouble. We’d go to the studio – nothing serious – we’d just play around and make music for leisure. A few people went, ‘You’re kind of good, and that – you lot are sick.’ In 2011 I got in some trouble and went away for a while. I came back, carried on with the music, and saw that the music scene was progressing – more people were coming through and doing better videos. So I tried it a little bit again, done a few videos, got a better reception – and then I went away again.”

They recorded in a local studio, which cost £20 an hour regardless of how many rappers were in the booth. Although he’d become more aware of grime, which was then “in its prime”, Headie wasn’t inclined to adopt its sounds in a bid for commercial success: “The speed of the beat the lyrics – I used to like some of it, but it wasn’t my favourite. I’m more laidback,” he says.

headie one
Photo Credit: Danny North

So he wound up the king of drill, the most-maligned genre in recent memory, a style of music blamed by The Daily Mail for a knife crime problem – one fuelled by austerity and inner-city poverty – that it simply reflects, as rap music has always reflected the world around it. Writing for The Fader last year, 67’s Dimzy explained that the outlet has been a lifeline to him.

“[It’s] positively changed my life in so many ways,” he wrote. “I can now pay bills & set up direct debits which builds my credit score so I can go on to have a mortgage and be self-sufficient. I can contribute financially to help my family. I’ve explored different cities & towns, indulged in different cultures, tasted different food and met different types of people… with different beliefs and these things have made me be a much more mature and patient person.”

Still, though, the establishment mistakes drill as the cause of, rather than a reaction to, violent crime in the capital. The same day NME meets Headie One, there’s widespread dismay at news of 21-year-old rappers AM and Skengdo having been sentenced to nine months in prison – it’s suspended for two years – for performing their popular track ‘Attempted 1.0’ at London club Koko. It’s classed as the breaking of a gang injunction, and a first in this country.

Headie hasn’t heard the news when we meet; perhaps it’s yet to be published in his time zone.

“This happens a lot,” he says. “It’s a bit sad because obviously [AM and Skengdo are] doing well – they’re doing a show, which not everyone can just wake up and do. People are going out and buying their tickets – it’s a decent venue – and it’s like, you lot are trying to drag them down. If they’re in a position where they’re doing that, you don’t need to trouble them. So just leave them and focus on the actual first-hand stuff that you need to deal with.”

It wasn’t the only time police have interrupted a drill show for fear of violence; it’s a common occurrence across the genre. 67 have had shows closed down, while Headie’s performance at the Barbican Centre in London was cut off by the Metropolitan Police in March last year. Drill videos have been removed from YouTube and – this is also unprecedented – west London’s 1011 were banned from making music without police permission.

Headie explains: “It’s almost like they’re trying to put people in a position where they have to take a step back and do things that they don’t want to have to do, which I think is sad. I feel like [the authorities] are not happy to see people who have probably been in a lot of trouble doing something so positive. It burdens them, so they’ll do anything to bring it down.”

The irony, he says, is police are showing their presence where it’s least needed: “Everybody’s happy [at shows]; there’s positive energy and that. So it’s unnecessary, and they’re doing it with a lot of drill artists – and most of these drill artists, they have no reason to commit any crime or anything. They’re selling out their shows. They’re just trying to do it to better themselves. So you’re banning or claiming the song, which is making them money – what type of message is that to send out? They’re stopping musicians from working, basically.”

Is the problem simply racism?

“I wouldn’t say it’s racism, but I think it’s just trying to keep a rope on [people’s] success.”

Why would anyone want to do that?

“I think because of the background that everyone’s coming from. For example, it’s not natural for someone coming from a council estate – most likely with a rough upbringing – to be having such a high income and doing big shows. They want them to be on the other end of the thing – in the prison system, struggling, then coming out to do more crime and then going back.”

So authorities can’t believe certain people, who have been in trouble, could change their lives?

“Yeah – they don’t really expect you to. It’s, like, so much of a trap. And when you slide through it, they’re thinking, ‘How the fuck did you do that?’ Because in the prison system, you’ve lost so much time. You have catching up to do, so even if you know you made a mistake, you’re more likely to go back to doing the same stuff. And they’re aware of this. It’s not a problem until you start to do too well. And then it starts to get on some people’s nerves.”

The other problem, he believes, is the typical one of authorities believing that drill glamorises crime: “[These artists] have turned over a new leaf for the better, and the music is telling the story of how they used to live. But people get the wrong end of the stick, thinking they’re encouraging people to live that life, which they’re not. I’m sure if you sat down with any drill artist, they wouldn’t advise you or any young guy to go and commit a crime. I’m more likely to advise them to do something to try and get in a better position, similar to mine.”

He says it’s unfair to single out drill when the history of popular music is built on transgression: “It’s like every genre – with rock music they talk about their upbringing and it’s just accepted. Drill can be violent – it is violent, but that’s the background a lot of drill artists are coming from. It’s the same as rock and pop music; you don’t blame rock music for drug use.”

headie one
Photo Credit: Danny North

‘18Hunna’ tells Headie’s story, the former career as a drug dealer, the experience of firearms, with crisp production and deadpan jokes like “man done more sales than Gumtree”. When he started to work with Dave, whose debut ‘Psychodrama’ reached Number One in the album charts, Headie had expected to adopt the other rapper’s widescreen social commentary (see ‘Question Time’, Dave’s 2017 state-of-the-nation address). Instead they produced an insular drill track, which makes its success more impressive still.

“Dave is a deep guy,” Headie says. “When I listen to some of his old stuff, I feel like he speaks about real-life situations. We knew it made sense [for us to collaborate] because I speak about real-life situations and use as much detail as possible, which is the same as him.”

The track, like much of his music, is uncompromising and grimly determined, turning up rocks to show what’s underneath. Yet there’s a playful side to Headie One’s lyrics and persona.

On ‘Blessings’, taken from the last year’s mixtape ‘The One Two’, he reveals his love of threesomes, claiming he has no problem finding participants who “don’t even care [his] head’s shaped like 50p”. The line has become a cult favourite, so on last year’s UK tour he sold 50-pence pieces stamped with his face; fans at Gorilla in Manchester showered the stage with the coins. (If his business credentials are in any doubt: those 50ps were a fiver each.)

In a fiercely independent genre, Headie has signed to Relentless Records, a subsidiary of Sony. Why not go it alone? “I mean, I just go with the flow,” he says. “If it’s right for the moment, then I just do it. At this moment in time, it’s what makes most sense. It’s timing, innit?”

In Headie One’s time zone, you make your own rules. Asked if he thinks he’s an intuitive person, he says: “I follow my own instinct a lot. And I just move quickly, so even if I have made a mistake or the wrong decision, I try to move on from that as quickly as going into it. And that’s it. Whether it’s big or little stuff, I try and get on with things and move quickly – it can never be a loss. Just take the positives out of things and think positive and move quickly.”

headie one
Photo Credit: Danny North

Headie’s mistakes are behind him. In 2014 he was sentenced to 30 months in prison for running heroin and cocaine worth nearly £40,000 into Aberdeen. What were his other convictions were for? “Everything, really. Drugs charges, violent charges. I’m lucky to be here today.”

Does it feel like a different person did those things?

“I just recognise that I’m lucky because it could have gone differently. There were a few things that I got out certain situations that could have gone completely the other way, and then I wouldn’t even be here. It wouldn’t be like this; I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you.”

I know we only met an hour ago, I say, but I actually can’t imagine you doing something violent.

“You come a long way innit? You just gotta stay positive, you know. Literally, it was crazy, the young teenage years. There’s no rules. My family lived on the estate as well; they see what’s going on. They probably see more than we see. I just grew up with my one parent, my Dad. They can try to guide us to make the right decisions, but it’s a bit mad. You can’t really tell someone from that environment what to do. For every parent on the estate it’s a worry because – real life – the first time everyone sees what’s going on, there’s no sugar-coating it.”

This, he says, is why it’s important drill documents the lives of the people that create it: “People look up to people in these positions. You gotta make these guys know and make them think – let them know what really goes on. It’s good that drill music is so raw and uncut; you show the kids what really happens. I don’t respect it when I see drills artists not making it clear.

“In certain times, [the music] gets a bit violent, but you gotta make them know that. It can come across like we glamorise certain things, but if you listen to the lyrics, there are things no human would want to get involved in. That’s what we’re saying. It’s good to make that clear. I talk about jail – it’s not all nice. Some people think it’s cool go to jail, but know it’s not cool.”

So there’s a morality to drill, because you’re telling disenfranchised people that they might feel separate from the society around them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve success?

“Of course. You gotta relate. You’re talking about ‘party every day’? Kids coming from the council estate don’t get to party every day. It’s not like that for them. They get to see the other stuff. Hopefully they see how negative it was and how positive it is to change the situation.”

Before he goes, having chomped through enough watermelon-shaped sweets to put Willy Wonka back in business, I ask what difference it would have made for him, 15 years ago, to see someone he knew from the estate achieve a top 10 single.

“It would have been, almost, my main motivation,” he says. “When you’re a kid or a teenager, you’re clever enough to analyse: ‘He’s coming from here and he’s doing this.’ See how good the music scene is now? To see that back then would have been crazy for me. I would have wanted to be over there with all of these guys. And done everything in my power and worked hard to get that.”

Like he said, you come a long way. And although it once seemed unlikely, right now it’s Headie One time.

headie one
Photo Credit: Danny North

Headie One’s next single, ‘All Day’, is released May 2; the mixtape will follow

More Stories: