This Modern Life: KwolleM & Joe James.

Photographer: Ade Lipede / Styling: Koby Ohene / Words: Cosmo Teare

Talking Grime, Telepathy, Success & New Steps in the Shadow of Upton Park

By the time you read this, KwolleM and Joe James may no longer be the U.K. scene’s best kept secret.

KwolleM’s new EP, which Joe features heavily on, is a love letter to East London and its surrounding areas. Each track on the project is named after a stop on the c2c train line which runs from Essex through to East London and unites the two artists. Beginning in Basildon, the EP takes you on a journey through Barking, West Ham, Stratford, and Woolwich Arsenal before ending up in The City in Fenchurch Street. It’s a testament to the shared culture and history that links the two artists from East London and Essex respectively.

You get the feeling that this collab has been a long time in the making, that the two artists have long been on a collision path set to culminate and explode in the c2c EP.

It’s a journey that first needs to be traced back to 2015, when KwolleM released his cult classic ‘Mellow EP’. The first of its kind, it was a genuine innovation in the grime genre. Ushering in what would go on to become known as ‘mellow grime’, the project represented a halfway house between grime at its most unapologetic, uptempo and bawdy, set alongside smoother and more mellow beats. The epitome of which can be seen on KwolleM’s remix of AJ Tracey’s ‘Hood Antics’ in which Tracey’s uptempo delivery is set against a rasping sax section which wouldn’t be amiss on the smoke-filled dance floor of an old New York jazz club. Crucially though, the sloping beat of the tune keeps things uptempo and true to grime’s roots. It’s unmistakably grime but not quite as we know it. An alchemy KwolleM perfected all from his first-year university bedroom.

That project, and its standout track basked in its own glory for five long years. KwolleM, meanwhile, focused on other endeavours, dicing up his time between working with fashion brand A Cold Wall and modelling. Occasionally he’d drop a mix for Places + Faces or a remix of a drill tune here and there. But that second EP remained elusive. That was until Joe James came along.

“I feel like when I make a beat, I’ll just have a certain vision in mind. But I never spit on my own songs.” Says KwolleM

“But with Joe, I can send him a beat and he’ll send back some vocals and it will be exactly what I had envisioned. He’s Essex to London and I’m London to Essex, it fits well to the point where I don’t have to tell him what to talk about. He’ll hear things in the riddims and express things that fit with what I was thinking anyway. I’ll listen to his tunes and think “yeah, he’s talking like he’s me””

It’s the sort of telepathic connection that producers dream about. KwolleM, the more laid back of the two, says that he can work on a piece and send it to Joe and within 30 minutes Joe will send something back off the top of his head that just works. What started as a little bout of post-lockdown creativity in July soon became one track, then two. Before the pair knew it, the c2c EP was born.

Joe laughs as he thinks back to what he was doing when KwolleM first sent over the beats for what would become c2c. Characteristically for Joe, his phone pinged when he was doing something else entirely. He’s one of those artists that never sits still. Constantly active. Constantly doing something. Throughout the whole of the interview and photoshoot his mind is continually racing, cracking jokes. Focused on the environment around him, he has a quip about anything and everything. Ranging from making a crack about the dilapidated garages that form the backdrop to our shoot, all the way to the baby that shrieks so loudly on the street next to us that we are basically forced to halt our interview and regain our thoughts. ‘Rah, sounds like trauma’ he muses. It’s typical of the dark humour exhibited throughout his songs.

Anyway, back to what Joe was doing when KwolleM first sent over those beats.

“I was actually pushing a bike up a hill.” He muses, flicking back through his mind’s eye.

“I had this puncture and was looking at an hour-long walk home. Then my phone pinged with the beat that became “West Ham”. I had no earphones on me so was listening to it out my phone, trying to take it in. I had it on wheel for the entire walk. Got home, laid down some bars and sent them back to KwolleM”

“We were already sitting on a track when he sent that back. Then Joe laid down some more bars and very soon I was thinking rah, I think we’ve got a three track EP now.” Says KwolleM

Part of what makes the two’s connection so natural is that Joe James is almost the living epitome of mellow grime. Like KwolleM’s first EP, you could use the term “Cult classic” to describe Joe’s entire discography. For years he’s been bubbling under the surface like a diamond in the rough and it has just felt like a matter of time before that talent gets unearthed for the world to see. 

His baritone flows are renowned for their sharp and witty lyrics and he has an uncanny ability to have you laughing with a reference to a grouchy Roy Keane one minute before ominously talking about peppering a yard with a CS canister the next. The result is a sort of nightmarish lullaby, if you were to just sit back and just enjoy the smooth delivery and beat, some of Joe’s more ominous musings might just fly over your head unnoticed.

So we joined the two for a tour of what inspired the EP, East London. The plan was to begin in KwolleM’s old ends in Newham before making the short walk towards Upton Park. A sort of trip down memory lane for the two artists who both hold West Ham football club deeply close to their hearts. As we begin our journey from KwolleM’s old home near the stadium, KwolleM shares what first sparked his love for the club.

“In my first few years I was supporting who the people around me were following. So I think I was following Liverpool until like year 5? Then I spoke to an elder from my area and he said how can you not support our local team? Me, being a logical 10 year old was then like yeah, that makes sense. My world view was pretty small back then. I realised I could never go and see Liverpool play. I realised I couldn’t even go and see someone like Tottenham play, I didn’t even know where Tottenham was! My world back then was Newham, so that’s when I became a West Ham boy.”

It’s a similar metamorphosis to what saw him go on to produce mellow grime, rather than focusing on something more generic or American. Everything was born out of a sort of patriotism and connection that KwolleM feels for Newham.

“I’ve always felt like I’ve got to be patriotic, I’ve got to be British but I also loved the American stuff, how could I not? I wanted to find a balance between stuff that inspires me or the stuff that I listen to in America, but making it British. So when I started, originally I was making mellow remixes of Chief Keef and Waka Flocka. Then I thought if I can do it for them man, why can’t I do it for British artists? It became about if someone wanted to listen to a Skepta or Dizzee song from years ago, how can I spin it in a whole new way so someone can listen with a new perspective.”

Joe’s introduction to West Ham meanwhile was a little more typical. In fact, he never really had much choice in the matter. Being a West Ham fan was an early wisdom imparted upon him by his nan.

“I’m from Essex so everyone there is either Spurs or West Ham. Obviously you have some people supporting Barcelona or some stupid shit. But most people from Essex were originally from East London. I started by going to games with my Nan. After that we’d head to this banging pie and mash shop round the corner. When I was a bit older I’d head to the pub with my step-Dad. That was all part of the experience.”

It’s this “experience” that we explore in more depth once we’ve made the short trip to the Boleyn, or more accurately, what used to be the Boleyn. Truth be told, it’s hard to tell that there was ever a football club here. The shadow that the stadium once cast over the pubs and pie and mash shops below is now replaced by a mammoth build of unaffordable luxury flats.

The only clues that West Ham’s stadium once stood here is the defiant scrawl of blue graffiti on a claret wall reading “Long Live the Boleyn”. That and the old West Ham supporters club that once stood proudly opposite the stadium. It’s derelict now, and the sign for it looks like it could drop onto one of our heads at any moment. We decide to relocate to the iconic Bobby Moore statue to continue the interview, but even that has seen better days. After removing a few discarded cans of super brews that are littered at Sir Bobby’s feet, we talk about the stadium move and what it’s meant for the club and the area in general.

It’s a topic that Joe has never shied away from in his bars. In fact, it has served as a point of inspiration. You can really hear his regret at West Ham moving away from their roots in the track “Fenchurch Sreet” on c2c – where he talks about “watching old Bobby Moore tapes grieving Upton Park”. So four years on from their move to the former Olympic Stadium, was it all worth it?

“I could never go because I’m disgusted with it” Joe says, almost shuddering at the thought of entering a stadium that’s nearest watering hole is located in the corporate multiplex that is Westfield Stratford.

“It’s full of what we call “popcorn eaters”, people that just come for a day out watching a football match, they’re not West Ham fans. It could be some American team like Atlanta or LA Galaxy and they’d still go for a day out. It lacks that authenticity. You know how Selhurst Park is now, four stands close together so when the away team comes they have fans closing in on them screaming at them. That creates a pressure that we just don’t have now”

KwolleM, perhaps true to his ‘logical’ choice of supporting West Ham outlined earlier is more diplomatic about the whole move. For him it’s all about giving the new place some time.

“I respect what it could become. It’s a statement that paints West Ham in a new light. It’s hard for people to look at that massive stadium and call West Ham a small club. And at the end of the day, it’s still in Newham”

The point isn’t lost on Joe, but you can tell he still needs to be sold on the whole idea: “Maybe, but I just don’t like it. But that might be because I’m overly sentimental”

Turning to music, the focus is on Newham and local pride once more. KwolleM and Joe take turns to contemplate what makes the area so special, and why they and artists such as Kano, Ghetts and D Double E find themselves constantly returning to it again and again as a source of inspiration.

“For me it’s because it’s home. It has moulded me and it’s prepared me for anything. There’s nothing that life can throw at me that Newham hasn’t prepared me for. It’s toughened man up and gave man an edge. To even think to do mellow grime takes an edge. Newham gives you the ability to think fuck the rules. And grime being born here as well, that’s a significant part of it, I want to take that grimy element into everything that I do”

The area has been inspirational for Joe in a different way. More so from afar. Being from Southend and growing up listening to the likes of Kano, he developed the sense that it was important to take pride in where you’re from. A feeling that he describes as being ‘patriotic’ for your hometown.

“I think as KwolleM said Newham’s a bit mad. It’s shaped people and that develops a sense of pride. But for me that’s Southend. There’s nowhere else like it and I’m happy to be where I’m from”

It’s this shared sense of pride that allowed c2c to develop. Named after the c2c rail line that connects East London with Essex, once the first couple of tracks were laid down between the two, naming each track after a stop on the line seemed the obvious concept for an EP that celebrates grime and local pride. So what are their hopes for the new project?

“For me, I don’t need the instant gratification.” KwolleM says, spoken like a man that already has one cult classic in his locker.

“What’s more important is that it marinates and then resonates with people. That and I’d like to get a vinyl press. Something that I can hold in my hands and say “yeah I made this”.”

It’s that emphasis on authenticity and realness, all the way to wanting to hold a vinyl press in his hand that really comes across with KwolleM. For him, it’s never been about playing the industry game of streams and hype, but making something of quality. Something that stands the test of time.

“Who knows? It might be another 5 years before I drop again” he adds with a laugh.

For Joe, there’s a feeling that the c2c EP is a platform to switch gears. Like KwolleM, he’d previously balanced his music with the fashion industry and modelling. And to be fair, it’s not everyday that you meet a rapper that’s signed to one of London’s most prestigious modelling agencies.

But now the focus is on music. It’s a feeling that fans of Joe James would have clocked for a while.  While many of us found ourselves in lockdown engaging in more trivial matters, Zoom quizzes et al. Joe upped his work rate. With releases like August’s track ‘Namaste’, and June’s ‘Gotham freestyle’ he’s proved himself as one of the most versatile artists in U.K. rap and grime.

In c2c, with the aid of KwolleM’s production talent that level has risen once again; and it’s fascinating to ponder where both artists could take things from here.

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