NME Radar: Breakout

Central Cee: Big Sean-endorsed west London rapper whose career finally thrived during lockdown

The rising star has just dropped his debut studio mixtape 'Wild West' following his long-awaited breakthrough success in 2020

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

The enigmatic Central Cee rose to fame last year despite the gruelling isolation of lockdown. Hailing from ‘Wild West’ London — Shepherd’s Bush, to be exact — Central Cee, aka Cench, seemingly became an overnight sensation last summer as people started taking notice of his artistic raps, which often play out over zippy, UK drill-style beats.

Central Cee’s breakthrough didn’t surprise many avid UK rap fans, however: this skilled rhymer has been pushing his pen for years, having survived and thrived beyond the experimental UK afro-wave rap era of 2015-18. With the 23-year-old now raising the bar for his fellow break-out drill stars – although Cench, it should be noted, doesn’t class himself as purely a drill artist – the Big Sean-endorsed rapper really does have all eyes on him right now.

NME caught up with Central Cee to talk about his breakthrough hit ‘Day In The Life’, assess his relationship with the drill scene and break down his freshly released debut studio mixtape, ‘Wild West’.

NME: Your music took off during the 2020 lockdown, didn’t it?

Central Cee: “Yeah, my shit started picking up during the lockdown. It’s weird [because] it’s good and bad. While it’s more good than bad, it’s bad because I’m locked down just like everybody else, so it can get a bit frustrating and boring. I think the fact that we haven’t been able to do any shows, haven’t been able to touch the fans and really feel the love in real life is a bit unfortunate as well.”

You’d think it’d be easier to interact with your fans from home…

“I’ve got more time for [my fans], for sure. But, for me, I don’t feel that that much has changed. Although a lot more people are listening to my music and I’ve got a lot more followers, I can’t really feel [the love]. It’s just all digital, so I haven’t actually taken it in. I’ve taken maybe like three pictures with fans that I remember. All of the encounters I’ve had with fans that I remember I can count them on one hand: it’s not a lot. I think feeling the love in real life is important. While it’s nice that Big Sean tweeted about me, again it’s all digital so [it hasn’t sunk in yet].”

Most people will either know you for your brand new drill sound or your old wave rap. Did you change your style on purpose, or were you just following trends?

“It’s the same concept and thought process that I’m going through when I’m writing. It’s coming from the same place it was coming from before. It’s just a different speed, different BPM, I guess. But, like even prior to that, when I first started making music, it was grime: the first bars I ever wrote were probably on grime. I think that’s why maybe I find [writing on drill] easy as well. It kind of comes to me naturally as they have similar tempos to what I started making music on. So ‘Pull Up’ and all that wavy stuff was like three years into [me making] music. I’ve made a couple of transitions in my short career.”

‘Wild West’ is all drill, though. What happened to that versatility?

“It is all drill. Well, actually, I don’t know if I do drill, or what it exactly is. I know man’s rapping on a beat that’s the same tempo as drill and uses the same instruments. But I’m not talking about drillings and you can hear that. Like ‘Commitment Issues’: I wouldn’t say that’s a drill song, that’s a love song. Even ‘Loading’ isn’t a drill song like that, it’s just me rapping over a drill beat. Take it how you want it. There’s uplifting songs like ‘Hate It Or Love It’, too. I don’t think people can call that drill, though… I think the people that made drill wouldn’t call [‘Wild West’] drill: it’s more than drill.”

Do you think wave rap is completely dead?

“I listen to wave rap: that’s the majority of what I listen to. I don’t think it’s dead: melodies will never die, [so] wave rap will never die. Like any genre, especially when it’s the popular thing at a time, you’re going to see a lot of people jump on the bandwagon and whatnot. Then there’ll be the ones that come and go. And then there’ll be a couple of people that really love this thing and will actually leave a mark.”

Central Cee
Central Cee (Picture: Press)

You’ve been in your own lane for a long time…

“Yeah. And I’m always going to be in my own lane.”

How do you feel about being a loner musically, always sticking out from the rap crowd?

“It’s what I’m most comfortable with, to be fair. [It might be] kind of how I grew up: I didn’t really grow up, it’s just how I am. I never really cared to be in the mix. It’s hard to differentiate my music because no matter what I’m on, it’s always me.”

You told your fans on Snapchat recently how you used to record with just a MacBook and a pair of iPhone headphones. What’s it been like upscaling to now be working in huge studios and meeting big-name UK rap producers?

“We started recording in the yards and that with the shittest of equipment, so yeah, it’s a blessing. You can hear on [‘Wild West’] how much work I have put in and how many of years of grinding I did. It all comes out in the music.”

Did you ever have a moment where you thought: ‘I’m never going to blow up’?

“No, I think I always knew it was a matter of timing. I would always analyse the music industry and the business side of things, [so] I can tell. I don’t mind [being called a new artist]: I’m newly discovered. I have a great audience.”

“I’m always going to be in my own lane” – Central Cee

What do you remember about writing your breakthrough song ‘Day In The Life’?

“I was writing in the car. I was driving around at the same time so it was kind of hard, but it was rolling off my tongue. I just remember listening to the beat, and when I write a good song it doesn’t take much time – so I probably wrote it in an hour. The studio session: that was about 15 man in a small studio. It was hot, it was summer: I think I remember just sweating up!

Have you already started working on your next mixtape?

“You know what? It just comes from the heart. It’s never from songwriters. It’s just me in the room all the time, so it’s feels the same. But there’ll be a different selection of beats on the next project, so there’s slower songs and you might hear me playing with melodies again. Stuff like that.”

Do you feel like you’re only doing music for yourself, or do you want to be part of the wider picture?

“I think when I started music it was mostly for my own reasons. Then it’s becoming a thing where so many people are listening to me. I’m seeing so many different types of people listening to me and it does make me think about the way they are touched by the music. It definitely makes me think more about what I’m saying and the messages that I’m putting in now. It’s probably for a deeper purpose than just for myself.”

Central Cee’s debut mixtape ‘Wild West’ is out now.