NME Radar: Breakout

A1 x J1: TikTok-dominating duo crafting an addictive brand of throwback pop-rap

The pals and collaborators – who met via social media during lockdown – are climbing the charts with their slick, sample-heavy hits

Each week in Breakout, we talk to the emerging stars blowing up right now – whether it be a huge viral moment, killer new track or an eye-popping video – these are the rising artists certain to dominate the near future

Thanks to platforms like TikTok, UK rap has underscored numerous viral moments over the past few years. West London rapper Central Cee’s ‘Commitment Issues’ hit the Top 20 in February 2021; drill star SR’s ‘Welcome to Brixton’, meanwhile, recently surpassed 100 million Spotify streams. But despite the app ushering in a new breed of content creators, few have amassed the reach and star-power of Coventry-via-Kent duo, A1 x J1.

The pair, made up of 16-year-old A1 (born Phineas Waweru) and the 18-year-old J1 (born Joshua Somerkun), encountered one another during the first coronavirus-enforced lockdown in early 2020 on video calling app, Houseparty. They soon developed musical synergy, and began posting regular freestyles online, carving out their fanbase one video at a time. A1 x J1’s bold freestyles captivated many, harkening back to the days of melody-driven rap from American duos such as Kriss Kross and Das EFX.

Released in February 2021, the Platinum-selling ‘Latest Trends’ is an upbeat dose of party rap, rattling with sharp hi-hats and soft guitar riffs. The track offered us the first taste of A1’s playful, bouncy vocal incisions and J1’s crisp flows. The track then spawned a remix from Manchester rapper Aitch, which bolstered the duo’s profile further. A1 x J1 found themselves on the cusp of virality again after featuring on rapper SwitchOTR‘s single ‘Coming For You’; currently sitting at 82 million streams on Spotify, the track interpolates Avicii‘s 2014 hit ‘The Nights’. Using Avicii’s track as a mould, A1 x J1 help reimagine the track as a breezy, drill-inspired anthem.

Applying the same sample-based melodies heard on ‘Coming For You’, A1 x J1’s Tion Wayne-assisted new single ‘Night Away (Dance)’ pulls from Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull’s 2011 chart-topping track ‘On The Floor’. With their sound sitting adjacent to the popular music of their childhood, A1 x J1’s pop sensibilities are baked into their rap portfolio, making ‘Night Away (Dance)’ a fresh, yet familiar listen.

NME spoke to A1 x J1 about their formative years, how they’ve grappled with their rapid ascent to fame, and their musical ambitions for the future.

NME: What music inspired you both to become artists?

A1: “I’d say ‘7 Nights’ by Krept and Konan, I love that album. I also love the second J Hus album ‘Big Conspiracy’, too. A track I remember loving as a kid was WSTRN’s ‘In2’, that song was big, I remember hearing that all the time. But when I was young, I didn’t listen to too much music; I was an outdoors kid. The only music I’d listen to was on the radio, so that’s probably why I gravitate towards certain sounds.”

J1: “Some music that inspired me was probably Stormzy’s album, ‘Heavy Is the Head’ – that’s one of my favourite albums of all time. I love Dave’s ‘Psychodrama’ too. But you know what? I was big on X Factor as a kid. I used to watch that show with my family. When I was really young, I remember loving JLS.

“A big reason why we sample tracks like ’On The Floor’, is because they’re nostalgic for us. Listening to a lot of the pop tunes from [big artists] back in the day would motivate me to check out their stuff. I would spend time listening to like four or five songs from people on shows like X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, and then find myself inspired.”

When did you realise you wanted to become a duo?

A1: “Connecting with J1 in the first lockdown, I knew we had crazy chemistry. We posted a lot of freestyles online, we thought it was cool and all, but when labels started to hit us up, we knew we had something special.”

You got to know each other via social media. What were your first impressions of one another when you met IRL?

J1: “I remember meeting A1 and thinking, ‘Man, why is he wearing Nike with Adidas?’ Seriously though, we got on right away, both in and out the studio. At first, our freestyles were on separate pages; I did my thing, A1 did his. But after A1 sent me the demo of ‘Latest Trends’, we’ve been a duo ever since.”

Your single ‘Night Away (Dance)’ is making the rounds online. How have you dealt with the attention?

J1: “The reaction to that track has been crazy. Despite all the love it’s been getting, I try to stay as humble as possible. I try to treat it the same as normal life to keep myself grounded. I don’t act any different compared to how I used to act, but if someone recognizes me and wants a photo, I’ll do that and keep it moving.”

“We’ll do something different on our actual project. It’ll be like a defender showing off his skills in the middle of the pitch” – J1

How did that huge Tion Wayne feature come about, then?

A1: “When we made ‘Night Away’, I thought to myself that I could hear Tion on the song. Our manager is pretty close to his team, so we hit each other up on Instagram. Eventually, I sent him the track and told him he needed to hop on it because I thought he’d sound sick. Later on, me and J1 hit the studio when he dropped his verse, and the rest was history.”

What did you learn from working with Tion? 

J1: “One of the things I picked up from Tion is his humming, you know? When he’s in the booth, he’ll hum out his flow before writing bars. Yesterday when I went to the studio, I literally found myself doing just that, it’s nuts.”

What’s your creative process like?

J1: “In terms of production, we go about things in lots of different ways. Sometimes we might start off with a YouTube instrumental, other times we might use a beat pack or get one crafted in a studio session. To be honest, when we hear a beat, we can tell if it’s going to be a good song or not.”

Do you guys ever bump heads artistically?

A1: “Not gonna lie, we bump heads in the studio sometimes. J1 might not like a beat or vice versa, but we work around it. I think the great thing about us bumping heads is it properly makes that creative process unique.”

J1: “I think being in the studio with A1 makes me appreciate what each of us is good at. I think I can rap quite fast, I can change up my flow – I’m like a midfielder. With A1, though, he comes through with that melody, so it makes for a good balance.”

Credit: Press

Is there a secret new project or mixtape in the works?

A1: “Of course. The fans won’t even expect how different our project will sound. I feel like we’re still in the early stages of everything right now. I feel like a full project from us will help people see the full extent of our talent.”

J1: “I know I’m known for my bars, and A1 does his thing with the melody, but you will definitely see us do something different on our actual project. It’ll be like a defender showing off his skills in the middle of the pitch. You don’t know what we’ll do.”

Where do you see yourselves as a duo five years from now?

J1: “Five years from now, I will have hopefully cemented myself in music. I want to use music as a vehicle to help my family, buy some houses and buy my mum a car.”

A1: “My music career has blessed me so much already. Since starting, I’m lucky enough to say I’ve already bought mumsy a house. I hope five years from now that I’m a millionaire, but also still doing my thing in music on a massive scale.”

So, with the world at your feet, have you got your eyes on international stardom?

J1: “Crazy you ask that, our support from Germany is wild. Looking at the stats, people in Germany are streaming our music heavily right now. I just hope going forward we can keep up that momentum.”

A1: “We gotta fly over to Germany and show them some love. This is just the beginning.”