The one man army making UK hip-hop flourish.
As a kid growing up in East London, Kojey Radical would wake up every Saturday to the bustling sound of the market setting up on the street where he lived. The scraping of poles on the ground, the slamming of van doors, the screaming of offers, and the gently growing cacophony that is people of all sorts of languages striking up all sorts of conversations. It was a typical London market in the late 90s/early 2000s; the type where you could find Playstation games, fish, and washing up liquid in the same ten yard stretch. “I’ve lived in this house my whole life, and now it’s hard to compare London to anywhere else,” he tells me. “It just gives you this certain edge, do you know what I mean?”
It’s hard to put that London edge into words; it’s more of a vibe, an aura, a rough around the edges goodness than a concept that can be explained. But you can feel it reverberating through Kojey’s music. On his 2016 EP, 23Winters, he has a searing and ruthless honesty about his bars, but then he puts them over beats that aren’t afraid to have fun and groove in their own industrial way. Now, having just released his politically charged new EP, In Gods Body (featuring Ghetts, Obangjayar and more), in September, his tracks feel more urgent and important than ever. It’s a refreshing distortion of UK hip-hop that pierces through at a time when London is dominated by grime and grime only.
“I think hip-hop is one of the only musical genres that allows you to never reach a boundary,” he tells me over the phone. “The whole point of hip-hop is to challenge it to grow and get better, and become something new. If you don’t, it becomes static. The reason why hip-hop is still as important now as it was back in the 80s is because it is constantly being challenged. It’s constantly being asked to develop.”
This mental thrust to always push forward comes from his creative origins: the worlds of art and poetry. A shy kid at school, he saw the poetry he would write as more of a laugh than a serious thing. Then one day, local poet Suli Breaks came to his college and performed for the kids. “Everyone was going crazy for it and I remember turning to my boy and going, ‘I could do that’.” The next day, Kojey came to the canteen area with some poems and started performing them. “People were loving it.”
He then studied fine art and illustration at university, and it taught him how to articulate his imagination and turn thoughts into substance. “Art influenced so many parts of my creative process” he explains. “I think there’s a barrier a lot of people have between themselves and their imagination; like a dialogue that they don’t really engage in.” During his final year at university, his motivation to draw began to wane so he tried to bring his project – a book packed with short stories and diverse characters – to life as music instead. “I remember linking up with an artist called Jay Prince, going to the studio and showing him this book that I had made,” explains Kojey, “and him just looking at them and being like... ‘Yeah, I get it.’”
““I think hip-hop is one of the only musical genres that allows you to never reach a boundary. The whole point of hip-hop is to challenge it to grow and get better, and become something new. If you don’t, it becomes static. The reason why hip-hop is still as important now as it was back in the 80s is because it is constantly being challenged. It’s constantly being asked to develop.”
Earlier this year, a documentary came out called LDN. It focused on how the contemporary London scene has created an ecosystem whereby more and more young black artists are thriving and setting the pace for UK culture. It featured Elf Kid, 67, J Hus, Belly Squad, Youngs Teflon, and many more, plus a very defiant Kojey Radical talking about the powers of independence. It’s something that is important to him, but, as he tells me, “I am not being independent just to be a fucking hard arse. Music is a very up and down thing. Emotionally and mentally. And I don’t want to be able to point a finger at somebody if something goes wrong. I would rather accept that blame for myself, whether than means the process is a longer more drawn out one, so be it. But, that’s up to me to decide.”
After the success of the politically charged “Open Hand” in 2015, and then “Gallons” in October last year – a poignant track with a candid perspective on class and race – Kojey picked up a reputation for having the answers, and it’s something he feels became a burden. “I got this political token after that,” he explains. “But I am not a political person. I am just a person, do you know what I mean? I am another person in this rat race moving forward, I just so happen to have a microphone that’s turned on. So now when I speak my thoughts, people look at me like I am supposed to give them keys to a perfect future. But I don’t have the answers. We are all lost, do you what I mean like?”
The first big single to drop from his new EP, In Gods Body, was “After Winter”, a clear intentional division between this project and his last. It’s a sub-bass boomer that wrestles with existential themes of a young man slowly realising the world around him is not utopia. He doesn’t like to go to deep into musical influences on his own music, but he does admit he’s going through a heavy French hip-hop phase. “I don’t know how to describe it,” he laughs, recommending an artist called Ichon from Paris. “I listen to it and I don’t care that I don’t understand. One of his videos is the best thing I have ever seen in my life.”
For my final question, I ask him what his favourite thing about his life is right now, and he takes a long pause: “Hmm…” he says, “the fluidity of it. I like having phases where I don’t have shit to do. I enjoy life now for all the freedom that I wish I had when I was growing up. And what I imagined it would be like.”
Kojey Radical’s In Gods Body is out now.