Exclusive Interview: Eyez, Kannan & Dubzy talk #MindTheGap
Meet the artists who are Hungry For This (pun intended)...
Though there is talent across the country, the grime scene is still predominantly London-centric in terms of perception, key platforms and shows. There is an appreciation within the grime scene for Birmingham’s pivotal contribution, not least since the turn of the decade, but there remains a lack of mind paid to grime acts from other towns and cities, despite those places possessing the very same ingredients with which the sound can flourish.
Times are changing, however. Take Eskimo Dance, which this year toured the UK with local MCs on the lineups in their respective cities. Lord of The Mics famously pitted Brum legend Devilman against Skepta a decade ago, but the series has also featured a wealth of MCs from outside the M25 since its relaunch, some of which made a name for themselves clashing outside London on Prizefighter and Words Are Weapons. Now, showing their support for grime beyond the familiar names and places is Red Bull Studios, with their new mixtape Mind The Gap.
Derby MC Eyez curated the project, assembling talent from The Midlands and the North of England at Red Bull Studios London in April. MCs from Nottingham, Leicester, Derby, Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester (invited Brum and Liverpool acts were unable to make it down in time) visited Eyez at the studio over five days to record ten tracks, which are available to stream at the foot of this page. RWD visited on the final day of recording, when Kannan of Sheffield group Scumfam and Derby-based Dubzy were in town to meet Eyez and producer Mistakay – from Doncaster, now living in Sussex – to finish up the project.
We arrived just as Eyez has popped out to help teach grime and rap – writing and producing – in an Essex after-school programme, so spoke to him separately from Kannan and Dubzy, but as you will see they didn’t need to be together to convey the same message of belief, hard work and determination.
How did Mind The Gap start?
EYEZ: The Red Bull people that got in contact with me look after the Midlands & North region, so I was telling them I know the best people from every city, and I want to do something that involves all of them. They were fully on it, so that’s where it started. I could only have about six to ten artists, so I missed quite a few cities but I picked the main ones.
Bugzy Malone and Lady Leshurr have already opened the doors now, so the mixtape is not one of those ones where we’re saying we can’t get seen, it’s saying ‘Alright, you’re letting us in. Safe. We’re the ones to be seen’. I brought all the people I think should be in the scene, because the whole scene is in London unfortunately but that’s what it is init so you have to just stick up with that. All the people on this mixtape are as big as everybody that’s in London, so it’s calm. We’re ready, and we’re gonna bang.
Every person individually, whether they were on the mixtape or not, I believe going to be sick and that’s why I think they’re going to be doing really good in the whole of the UK scene in the next year or two. I reckon Mez is gonna be insane, Kamakaze from Leicester is an underdog at the moment but he’s incredible. Most of the people on it are very close to doing crazy stuff.
The mixtape’s release campaign has included some big radio premieres…
DUBZY: I think it’s a good time for up north grime. It’s never been this accessible. Probably two or three years ago it would have been very hard to get those kind of radio links but it’s just worked out differently. We didn’t see it as that at the time, but it was back then.
What remains a big barrier for MCs outside of London?
EYEZ: If I say I’m from Derby, a lot of people are not gonna take that seriously, and that’s hard. To beat that barrier is very hard. I have to keep it real, I can’t talk too crud, because ‘ah, he’s from Derby’. Derby has got its gang ways and that but it’s not like these big cities. People hear Derby and think countryside. Some cities don’t have that – Birmingham, Notts, Leeds. People know it’s a big city.
Nothing’s wrong with my city, I’ll say it in every song, but it sounds like somewhere in the countryside which makes urban music think ‘why are we letting a rural place come into urban?’. They don’t understand that if you come to Derby there’s guys going mad there. There’s raves there, there’s graffiti there, there’s cool people, there’s council estates, there’s a lot of multicultural places. It’s a city, but people don’t take the name of my city serious.
DUBZY: It’s just skepticism. I’m originally from London, and moved to Derby. While growing up there I’ve been going back to London so I still know the London mindset. With a lot of MCs or people in grime, I noticed they’re skeptical to what they don’t really know or understand. If you say he’s from Leeds or from Derby or wherever they’re like ‘ah, swear…?’ and before you’ve even heard it I’m seeing man [judge] and I’m thinking you haven’t heard them yet!
I don’t know, it’s just people. If they don’t understand it they won’t bother trying to get into it. More and more people are having to accept it. Remember when Skepta started working with the Birmingham lot? That period kind of started to get a lot more people to think ‘let’s look up north’. It started with Birmingham, then it’s worked with everyone else.
KANNAN: I think another barrier is people up north’s mind, stopping themselves. I hear a lot of man crying about it like ‘man are trying to block me!’ and really and truly it’s not even that, you just have to go for it. Even though some London people’s mindset is like what Dubzy said, our mindsets are like this and that’s why lately I’ve just tried to free myself from that mind, because I used to think like that back in the day. Now I don’t give a shit. If people like Skepta can do it to America, why can’t we do it to anywhere else? Anybody can do it but it’s just about your mind and how you think about stuff. I think a lot of people up north are still backwards in that they don’t think that they can do it because they think it’s too far.
I had to free my mind, because I was on that last year. I thought it was long, but at the end of the day I’ve had to step back and take a risk. Right now I’m not making half as much money as I was last year. If you want to become something and do what you love, you’ve got to take a risk. Your family moaning that you haven’t got a job or your girl moaning, you’ve got to take that risk. I just tell people it will pay off if you keep your mindset. After you’ve gone through a bit of it, it’s like you’ve gone so far now why are you gonna turn back? A lot of people are stuck, on the road ting or even jobs. I know a lot of people who’ve got jobs and they don’t want to go away from £250 a week and take a risk.
Does working with like-minded people make a big difference?
DUBZY: Massively. It’s easy for us to work together – me, Kannan, Eyez, anyone else we usually work with – because we all have that same way of thinking when it comes to music and creativity.
KANNAN: We just think ‘F it, take the jump’. With Eyez and Dubzy, it’s just energy flowing. It’s sick, I’ve never even really felt chemistry like it.
It really shows, on both this mixtape and the recent [Kannan & Eyez] Highs & Lows EP. How long have you guys been working together?
EYEZ: About a year, I think. Kannan was big in Sheffield and I was watching him, rating him, then he randomly moved to my city so I made a tune for him called ‘Zilch‘ for his project. About six months later, I was going through a bit of a broke time so I had no studio init. I was asking who’s got one and Kannan said to come through to do a tune. We just connected, Dubzy as well. I don’t even know what it was, we just blended init. Kannan was the only guy sorting me out so I’ve got a love for Kannan for that, but even if he didn’t do that I would love him anyway ‘cos his bars are sick. He’s one of my favourite MCs.
KANNAN: We started working on ‘Fire Burning‘ and that was like the main song but it just never got done. We did it in a studio and it all got scrapped.
EYEZ: I had a studio and Kannan came down, but the quality wasn’t the best. We recorded it and were gonna get someone else to mix it down, but basically that studio on a Saturday night was a club, and some madness happened at this mad Yardie dance. The whole place got locked off so we couldn’t get it. That was my only studio, so I hollered some next guy and the setup was terrible. The mix down was rubbish and they wouldn’t give us the stems. That fizzed out and that was when I said ‘who’s got a studio? I’m so sick of being broke’, made a little donation page saying I needed some Ps for the studio. I said, ‘people think I’ve made it, but fuck it, truth is I’m broke now and I need that’.
That was when Kannan popped up and said we need to do this ‘Fire Burning’ tune. That’s when we went to the studio. Originally I was singing but it sounded way better when Kamar was on it. Then we did ‘Hungry For Dis‘ and that’s when we started talking about doing an EP. After the track ‘Highs & Lows’, that was when I said ‘yeah yeah this is an EP’. Mistakay kept on sending us banger after banger after banger, so of course we had an EP. What the fuck were we waiting for?! That’s how it came together.
That EP was well received. We certainly enjoyed it.
EYEZ: Highs and Lows has done a lot still, it’s pretty sick. We only did it just to kill a bit of time while we both did our own projects, but it ended up looking like a sick project so we kinda ran with it. I’m pushing my solo mixtape back, because people are still listening and downloading Highs & Lows.
Dubzy, you mentioned moving from London to Derby. How did you find your feet with music?
DUBZY: I used to go to Axe FM in Edmonton a lot. When I moved to Derby, there wasn’t radio every week, it was a big difference. I missed London because you couldn’t just go radio or studio every week, partially because I didn’t know anyone but then there wasn’t really many opportunities like that, so we’ve just created them ourselves. I don’t know what it is with music, but it just happens. I met one guy, his MC name was D-Rex, and I think that his mom and my mom had become friends. I spat to him he said I was sick then he’s told his friends. I’ve met all his mates, loads of them spit, they introduce me to a studio then to radio and the next minute you’re part of the scene. With music, it’s always love so it just spreads like that.
What’s the noticeable change for MCs like yourselves since the resurgent interest in grime?
EYEZ: I was banging at the time when London guys were saying grime was dead, that’s when I started getting my buzz, but now it’s a massive change. I’ve got way more followers, but there are so much more people now that you have to get so much [support] to look like you’re standing out. Like, I’m receiving way more support than I used to, but back then I was getting way more than most people. Now, even though there’s been way more of a change it seems like it’s just average.
The main thing about this new grime thing is my followers and getting stopped. In the last three years, getting stopped has been a myth. Since I’ve been doing this mixtape here, I’ve been getting stopped on the high road like ten times. A bus driver, a guy in his work van, one girl was just walking down and started screaming. Obviously it’s minor, as I get it in bare cities, but when it’s in London that’s when I start thinking it’s a serious thing. This is a big city.
What’s your outlook for ‘up north grime’, as you call it?
KANNAN: I look at America. Obviously they’re deep into hip-hop, years and years deep. If you listen to every single hit now from America it is not New York. It’s trap that’s come from the South, and that would have never got a look-in before. If you look at New York now, they’ve not really got many people. The two people that have made the biggest hits are Bobby Shmurda and Desiigner, and both sound like they would have never got the time before.
I feel like that’s what it’s like with grime because we see how London are getting a lot of acceptance from America, now we’re getting more acceptance from London. I think that’s how it is. I think as it evolves in time it needs fresh things, like America needs something fresh and grime is fresh for them, and up north grime is fresh for London. That’s just how it works, I think.
DUBZY: We ended up making hip-hop or another sound of music [in the UK] that’s not from here, so there’s nothing to say grime can’t do the same elsewhere. We think it’s old because we’ve been listening to it from the beginning, but we’re still alive and still all under 40, so God knows what it’s going to be!
KANNAN: I just wanna show people our way of life. We need to show people how it is up there and we’re all doing our own thing. There’s a big scene up here and it’s popping. I think London would respect that more than just someone trying to be like them.