Aniefiok “Neef” Ekpoudom on the Seemingly-Meteoric Rise of UK Rap and Grime – Chicago Review of Books


The Chicago Review of Books is proud to partner with The Chills at Will Podcast to share new audio interviews with today’s brightest literary stars, including Jonathan Escoffery, Morgan Talty, Deesha Philyaw, Luis Alberto Urrea, and more. Hosted by Peter Riehl, The Chills at Will Podcast is a celebration of the visceral beauty of literature and the passages that thrills us as readers.

Fresh off years of reporting for outlets like GQ and The Guardian, on everything from Black football culture in South London to a new generation of UK rap stars to a portrait of actor John Boyega, Aniefiok “Neef” Ekpoudom has published Where We Come From: Rap, Home and Hope in Modern Britain.  

While it is clear that Ekpoudom is a fan of the genres, he adroitly removes himself from the action, and he serves as scribe for tragic, refreshing, disheartening, and inspirational stories of the artists and scenes who have challenged and inspired each other to create the now-towering successes that are UK grime and rap.

The book is an essential read for hip hop and grime fans, and also full of exceedingly interesting histories like that of the diverse immigrants of South Wales and that of Cecil Morris and “Pirate Radio” and DIY scenes that have combined to produce popular and substantial art.

I spoke with Neef about, among other topics, his love of creative nonfiction and writers like Wright Thompson, Hanif Abdurraqib, David Finkel, and Jacqueline Woodson,  his love of hip hop and grime, the ways in which he learned more about class and immigration and early pioneers of radio and creativity through his research, the emergence of more vulnerability amongst artists in recent years, and the evolution of more inclusive practices and views in the rap and grime scenes.

From the episode:

Pete Riehl

I’m sure this probably evolved as the process went on, or but did you have a goal with this book? Where We Come From is definitely about the Midlands, it’s about South London, it’s about South Wales. It gives us an up-close view of where these rappers and artists come from. Would you say you had a goal in mind or like I said, did it evolve as you went on? 

Aniefiok “Neef” Ekpoudom

Yeah, it definitely evolved as I went on, but I knew that I wanted to [emulate] all of those narrative nonfiction pieces I was [influenced by]. I knew that I wanted to bring that serious study of people’s lives and these communities to this genre of music and to the places that birthed the music. So that was always something I had in mind. When I’d read all of these pieces, essentially they were all American and so you’d never really see it focused on Britain, and then you would rarely see it focused on rappers or people who make rap or have been associated with rap in that way. I wanted to bring that real examination of people’s lives and the conditions of places to these communities across the UK-that was always the intention. And then, as you say, it kind of evolved as time went on. I started to develop, I guess, the kind of ideals and morals that went into the shaping of the book. 

I think there were three things I settled on in the end: on the human level, I wanted to capture life transpiring in these places. Then I wanted to capture the movement of the music, because in that time period, British rap had really blown up in the UK. I wanted to show not just that transition of it blowing up, but wanted to also really show that it wasn’t an accident, that there’s a long, deep history here of people and movements and music that has led to some of the bigger artists today, like Dave and Stormzy and Central Cee. They come from a real culture and a community. And then the third thing, which was the prevailing thing-I really wanted to try and capture the social and human condition in modern Britain today, which is why so much of the book does go to these different places to, of course, South London, but then to Wales, to the West Midlands as well. I really wanted to show that because in the UK, which I’m sure is the same in America, you can kind of get trapped in a London bubble almost, because London’s a capital. So it’d be easy to talk about This is Britain and then just look at London. But I really wanted to see the span of the country, and I felt like I’d been able to see that through some of my journalism as well. I wanted to pull all of those, all of these different places in as well and treat them as equal.

Pete Riehl

I love, love, love books that start in the middle. You start in 2016 with Giggs. It’s just a really cool introduction to the book because it’s not the end of the road, but it’s like here we are kind of in the middle, kind of during the golden hour. You referenced “golden hour” a few times or being on the way there right where the awards were starting to be won by UK rappers and grime artists, with rap getting more mainstream.

I wonder why you chose to start the book with this 2016 moment in time, with Giggs and UK rap on its way up and rappers winning the mainstream awards. 

Aniefiok “Neef” Ekpoudom

It was so hard to know where to start a book. That was probably one of the hardest of the writing processes-where to actually start, especially with nonfiction, because it needs to set the tone for what’s to follow. The intro was the last thing I wrote, as I was really searching for what matches the mood of the book. The book takes us through that history, from the rise to the boom and then the legacy of the music. But I asked myself What captures that kind of movement most cleanly and most precisely? 

I went with Giggs because Giggs is an artist from South London. He’s held up as one of the greats-I would say kind of like the godfather of UK rap in that sense. He didn’t start [the genre], but he’s so well established and his music means so much to so many people that he is held up as a legend of the genre. I knew his story from myself growing up listening to him. I’ve been listening to him since I was around 15, so I’ve seen his rise from some of these DVDs to then making music videos and from there to actually starting to make a little bit of money from his career, then actually exploding into a full-fledged musician. I knew his story was emblematic of the rise of the genres in that sense. 

When I was thinking about what moments were impactful in the music culture and in British rap culture and in Black British culture that came to mind because before then he hadn’t been allowed. So I set the scene a little with that intro, starting backstage at his first headline show in London, and there are loads of musicians backstage who are Giggs’ friends also. His manager, Buck, is saying a prayer to bless them before they step on the stage. He says in the prayer that there are many who started this journey that can’t be there that day-some of them are dead, some of them are in jail. It’s a powerful message and a quiet moment before they step out onto stage, and I was in the crowd that day, knowing that Giggs had been blackballed a lot. There were a lot of issues with the Metropolitan Police who wouldn’t let him perform in London, and he had to go to all of these extremes to even perform shows outside of London. So I thought when he actually got to perform, it felt like such a special moment to see some of these songs that we’d lived with for so long actually live in the flesh for the first time, and I judged this to be probably the best and most powerful place to start, a good way to start by saying This isn’t going to be a traditional history of UK rap, just a chronology of events. I’m really trying to show [the reader] the inner lives of the individuals who have paved the way in these genres.

Pete Riehl

I wonder about your interview style for this book in particular. A lot of the book’s conversations were in a kebab house or in a chicken shop or another restaurant, based around food, which makes sense. The reader feels that he is a part of the action, a part of these intimate and often emotional conversations. How did you invite trust for this book, and in general, how do you engender trust in your subjects? 

Aniefiok “Neef” Ekpoudom

Before the book I’d done and I still do a lot of journalism-culture and music journalism-but within that a lot of profiles as well. With profiles, there’s usually a time constraint on, and you have deadlines, so those tend to be especially for [bigger publications] like The Guardian and British GQ.. It means you often have less time with the people that you’re speaking to. 

So I really wanted to break out of this a bit. Part of why I wanted to write Where We Come From was to break from that and really get to sink under the skin with people and spend time with them in that way. When it came to reporting, it was kind of the exact opposite of what I’d been doing in journalism. We would just hang out for seven hours, eight hours, 12 hours, and I would just follow people throughout their days and do that repeatedly. I did that for about five years essentially, and would just go and say, “Hey, are you free today? I’m coming down to Cardiff,” or “I’m coming up to Birmingham,” and then we would just hang out for a day, and then I’d often come back and see them the next day, or I’d go and see someone else the next day after that. A lot of the reporting process was just trying to spend as much time with people as possible to really get to a place where they feel comfortable with me and then feel comfortable enough to open up about some of the things that have happened in their life. 

The person I actually got that [mindset] from is [The New York Times’] Eli Saslow, who does a lot of reporting in that way. He would say that it’s just the art of hanging out, hanging around, essentially, as long as you can, and really just getting to know them on a human level. The real process of reporting was just turning up with people. I remember seeing someone from my first reporting, from a place called Birmingham, in the West Midlands, a guy called Despot, and I think the first time we hung out, his son was a baby. The last time I saw his son, his son could walk and could talk. We’d been talking for such a long time that I’d seen these people through so many different phases.

Pete Riehl

You go back to South London, and you talk about (the now-deceased UK rap star) Cadet and about how grime and rap fuse and the interesting ways in which they have come together and also separated and then evolved. 

You write about Krept and Konan, a big time duo. One of the things I was struck by in the book is how much vulnerability so many of these artists show. Konan had that horrible shooting in his family where his stepdad was killed. Krept and Konan inspired Stormzy, who quit his job, deciding he was going to do music full time. And eventually, Cadet starts his successful run, and more people are inspired by the Astro Boys and their “South Wales Anthem,” and other people are like, “Hey, we can put our place on the map, whether it’s South Wales or South London.” 

You also write about Despa [Robinson, British entertainment mogul], where he at first feels that he has to stop rapping and “grow up” and so he gets a job at Apple, the consummate corporate desk job.He’s not loving it, but he’s making some money, and he feels like, Oh I’m, more grown up. So Despa goes into the interview space as he starts “Meet the Artists” on YouTube. This is where we see a lot of that vulnerability. You describe how you got to meet Jaykae and Dabs, like in the aforementioned “golden hour.” I wonder about “Meet the Artists” and how their vulnerability showed and the importance of you and the whole country being able to more easily see these rappers in that way. 

Aniefiok “Neef” Ekpoudom

See Also

A key understanding that came out of reporting all of these stories is a reminder that much of the music didn’t make money for a very long time-until 2014 or 2015, the music wasn’t viable for a lot of people. That meant you had a lot of people doing it out of passion and out of the hope of what could be, which forms a lot of the early stories in the book. A lot of the stories in the book are fueled from that, people chasing a dream that doesn’t necessarily seem attainable. With this comes the human toll, the emotional toll, the social toll, and being able to speak to them about the toll, I think gave a lot of depth and was a commonality among them. Even before I started the book, some of my interviews came from the reporting that I do for journalism, and I started to notice those themes of the sacrifices people were making for something that may ultimately not pay off. You have people quitting their jobs and they have children to look after, but they have this [compulsion] to make music. That was the case with Despa. That was the case for Dapz on the Map and a similar situation with Jaykae, too. So hearing these stories was quite humbling in a lot of ways. You can’t disrespect them for taking that risk and gambling, and I think it also kind of reflects the gambles a lot of their parents and grandparents took in that same way. It’s an inherent DIY thing there.  

It was quite special and quite powerful to hear [these personal stories of struggle] because I think it shows the big aim for the book was to show what had gone into this moment of the music blowing up and people now being able to become millionaires and win award shows and be on GQ, front cover, Vogue, front cover, all of these different things. There was a lot of sacrifice and a lot of stories of people whom you may not hear about that actually helped build that ground for them.

Pete Riehl

In the book, there aren’t that many women referenced and I don’t think that’s your ignorance. I think that’s probably music in general, hip hop in general, the world in general, that women have been given short shrift, to put it lightly. I wonder about how you see the music evolving now that it’s becoming more and more popular. Does it necessarily have to sell out?”

Aniefiok “Neef” Ekpoudom

That’s interesting, because a lot of the conversation that we’d seen happen in the US came as hip hop became such a commercial force and entity. Then people started to worry about the legitimacy of the music. Like those initial elements that went into hip hop: are they still present? Does the music have substance anymore? Is it catering to the community anymore? 

You’re starting to see these conversations here as the music has become commercial in the UK and outside of the UK as well. British rap is huge now, in all of these different markets across the world, so you’re starting to see that conversation being had. I’m an optimistic person, so I’m always going to say that I see good coming from the expansion of the scene, because I think that a lot of these artists are now able to have careers as musicians, which I think has led to even better albums. It seems that there’s just more time to be able to create something, and if you have time, you can put the [concerted effort] into something in a way that you can’t when you’re time poor in that sense. 

I also think the sounds are starting to disperse and grow a bit more diverse, which is quite cool, and so I am optimistic for the future. There’s definitely going to be a commercial element to UK rap now-that’s not going anywhere. As long as it’s balanced with the substance, I think hopefully we should be fine. There are good signs of that because some of the biggest rappers in the UK now, like Stormzy, Dave, Little Simz, Potter Payper-these are people who all have massive substance in their music.

So a lot of those artists have real gravitas and real substance and real meaning in their music at the same time. As you say, I think hopefully it also opens the door for more women, because I think the barriers to entry are so much lower now, like how in the past, a lot of the music was coming out of youth clubs or coming out of pirate radio sets, which are very testosterone-heavy environments: teenagers, men in their early 20s in a room. These were and are places with a lot of aggression. You can see it in a lot of archive footage, and when you speak to a lot of the people that were there, they’d say, “Yeah, that wasn’t a place that I’d want my sister to go to.” 

Whereas now, you don’t need to be in those spaces to make music, which I think hopefully broadens and flattens the playing field for a lot of people too. But I think there’s also an attitude thing, like people have to be willing to be more accepting. I think a lot of men aren’t willing to listen to women rappers in the same way that they are to men. 

Pete Riehl

With this exciting and ever-evolving world of UK hip hop and grime, where do you see yourself? Do you see yourself exploring more familiar terrain, or looking to write about new scenes, new topics?

Aniefiok “Neef” Ekpoudom

I think I’m going to have to be a part of [the scenes discussed in the book] too. One thing I really enjoyed in doing the book was learning about myself as an artist. What do I like? As I said, a lot of my influences come from fiction, narrative, and nonfiction. So those are things I’m definitely going to look to explore as a writer. I feel quite fluid in what I’m going to do next. I feel like the love of writing will probably guide those things, and the love of storytelling will guide those things. I’ve started to explore telling stories in different avenues or different subject matter-for example, sport, like football. I’m going to probably continue to look to do that. The themes I’m looking to document, such as life in contemporary Britain, will always remain at the core, whether that’s a novel, whether that’s a book like this, whether that’s an essay, whether that’s a documentary or whatever “that” is. 


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