When Loyle Carner was 10, he and his primary school mates would have rap battles wherever they could, whenever they could. Classroom. Playground. Before maths, after English. Two kids squaring up to each other – sometimes over a basic beat, sometimes not – to try and outwit each other. “We used to go for the year above,” he says, fidgeting about on a sofa in a café. “The year sixes, the 11-year-olds. But I was shit, veeery shit.”
It was grime, rather than US hip-hop, that caught the kids’ attention, especially artists like Skepta, Ghetts, Kano and Lethal Bizzle. The genre that emerged in east London in the early ’00s appealed to Carner, he says, because “it was so accessible”. He adds: “I grew up on it. It was my life for a long time, and it changed my life. I could just go to school and be like, ‘Yeah, this is me.’ It gave me a voice. It’s the one thing we all latched on to, because it’s just so fun. Before, I was
just running around being loud. Then I was like, ‘If I rap, I’ve got 16 bars, and space for someone to at least listen.’ It’s sick!”
Eleven years on, Carner is a sensitive and eloquent rapper, responsible for last year’s heartbreaking six-track EP ‘A Little Late’. In the next year there’ll be an album, as well as “an interesting project, some kind of video with a score”. But for now he’s reflecting on 2014 being one of the best and worst times of his life. In many ways he’s a normal 20-year-old from south London: likes football (supports Liverpool and Crystal Palace), digs cooking, watches Soccer AM and Saturday Kitchen at the weekend, loves his mum and little brother. But in February, his stepdad – whom he adored – died. Two weeks later he wrote the track ‘Cantona’ with his producer friend (and fellow up’n’comer) Alex Burey. It’s super-chilled in a sad way, as are the lyrics: “We’d sit for hours/ Sun thunderstorms or showers/ In the same living room watching the flowers bloom”. It’s named after the footballer Eric Cantona because “he was my dad’s hero, and the way he looked up to him was the way I looked up to my dad. It made sense to pay homage like that. Cantona’s a king at being sick. He’s the biggest G.”
A couple of weeks later came ‘BFG’, written with a different producer, Rebel Kleff. The lyrics hit harder than those of ‘Cantona’, because Carner just tells it like it is: “Everyone says I’m fucking sad/ Course I’m fucking sad/I miss my fucking dad”. Unsurprisingly, ‘BFG’ was hard to write. “I showed the lyrics to Chris [Rebel Kleff] and was like, ‘Do you think it’s too much?’ He was like, ‘No, it’s true and honest,’ and I was hoping for that. But it was difficult to do justice to. I wrote the first bars then left it for a couple of minutes, then had to make sure I reflected what it was like. It was difficult, because in all stories you can twist the truth a little bit, but in that one I couldn’t say anything that wasn’t… I had to be very, very honest.”
The heat of those rap battles, and the honesty of grime, taught Carner how to express himself. But the production sounds he and Kleff create are inspired by the legendary J Dilla’s work with mid-’90s hip-hop groups Slum Village and A Tribe Called Quest. “Slum Village is the goal,” he says. “I watched the Stones Throw documentary [Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton] recently; Kanye West was interviewed in it and he said whenever he was making a beat, if it didn’t sound like A Tribe Called Quest beat he would scrap it. If you’re making beats, you make 10 – and when you listen back, if one sounds like A Tribe Called Quest or Slum Village, you’re like, ‘That’s the one.’”
The first gig Carner played was at The Button Factory in Dublin on October 11, 2012 supporting MF Doom, one of hip-hop’s most mysterious and admired figures. In a roundabout way he got the gig via his friend Archy Marshall, known to most as King Krule, who was in the year above him at Brit School, which he had got a scholarship to attend.
“I was at his house once and [Irish rapper] Rejjie Snow was there. We got talking, got on, so when he was back in Dublin he was all, ‘I’ve been asked to support MF Doom.’ He hadn’t done many live shows so he wanted some support and was like ‘come down’, so my nan hooked me up and flew me out there.”
He studied theatre, not music, at school, and at the time hip-hop was just something he did on the side. Supporting Doom was when things started to change. After Brit School he went to Drama Centre in north London, but dropped out one year into a three-year course when his stepdad died. These pre-rap interests are all in his music. In ‘Eleven’, for example, he raps about taking his girlfriend to the theatre: “It’s autumn and he didn’t want to lose her so he bought them two tickets to the National Waterloo”. And last year he wrote the fluid and weird ‘Baby Grey’ after being asked by the Tate to write a musical response to the stream-of-consciousness spoken-word Turner Prize entry by Tris Vonna Michell.
This broad creative spectrum is something Carner shares with another of UK hip-hop’s new stars, fellow south Londoner Kate Tempest. She writes poems and novels, and is one of Carner’s heroes (“lyrically, I’m just really inspired by her”), so he was psyched when the opportunity arose for the two of them to record together as part of London producer Dan Carey’s Speedy Wunderground project, where people cut an entire track within 24 hours. The result was ‘Guts’, an absolute stomper in which Carner and Tempest exchange bars like they’ve been performing together for years. It’s great, and currently doing big business on the radio.
This breakthrough came after Carner’s biggest ever tour, with American rapper Joey Bada$$, in autumn 2014. “A year ago I was sat in my bedroom listening to his music,” Carner says. “Watching his videos and thinking, ‘Look at him, he’s so famous.’ And then I was backstage with him, talking random stuff.” And it was at these shows that Carner realised just how hard his words hit. “What moves me the most is people coming up to me going ‘I lost my dad’ or ‘my mum’s got cancer’, and they come and say ‘thank you, your music helped me’. The amount of hugs I’ve had from people who’ve heard ‘BFG’ is touching. It means more than they can imagine.”