Nostalgia As Told By KwolleM

“I just want to make a great album, regardless of genre.”

You wouldn’t normally associate ‘mellow’ with ‘Grime’, let alone put those words in a sentence. Yet the oxymoron and emerging sub-genre is a sealed stamp of Plaistow-born producer KwolleM’s sound. The humble pioneer has engineered a sound that is a portmanteau of soulful lo-fi samples, nostalgic grime tempos with a sprinkle of vocals that cut through the atmospheric instrumentals like a knife. This style of ‘mellow grime’ was conceived on his 2017 self-released debut ‘Mellow’ EP; a collection of sounds that was punctuated by cult favourite ‘Hood Antics’ featuring a then-bubbling AJ Tracey.

Present day, his contribution to a year that was shrouded in uncertainty is undeniably captivating as his ‘c2c’ project that dropped in September is still very much in my rotation. A focused offering that depicts an everyday diverging on a train journey, with mesmeric flows provided by Essex MC Joe James on five out of eight of the EP’s tracks. Back in October when the raindrops hit like the ‘SSS’ intro, we spoke with KwolleM at the PLACES+FACES HQ to chop it up about all things relating to his latest project, his start in music and more as we travel c2c style in this Cover Story.

Before the interview took place, I was on my bike taking in the sounds of KwolleM’s latest project. The rain beating down on my clothes was unforgiving; the East Londoner’s production however was sweet respite from my drenching. Even though I was not on public transport making my way to this shoot, ‘c2c’ does a good job of placing you on his journey right off the bat. Lyrics such as “Cluny Square where the fiends reside, I ain’t had beef in weeks but I still got a shank for this piece of mind, never mind, I had to leak a guy just then though, I’m advance like the old Nintendo” really let you in on a slice of life from Essex to East London. For now, I pull into our location in Stoke Newington and find myself greeted by the man of the hour and his PR. Once I gather my bearings and dry off, I take a seat with the producer as he fills me in on his 2020 at that point. “I was working here [P+F] for maybe two months before the COVID thing came. Then I was just at home for like three months, playing COD, playing PlayStation *laughs*. Not doing anything music related, just working from home.”

It was while he was recanting his year to me when I realised how the concept of this project was initially birthed. “I was going through my laptop when I found a track that I done with Joe, which was the first version of ‘West Ham’ called ‘Plaistow’. I didn’t want it to go to waste so I was like to Joe ‘let’s release this.’ But if we’re gonna release this, this is gonna be called ‘Plaistow’ where I’m from, so we have to do something from your sides which is Basildon. He was taking long so I sent him another instrumental just in case he wasn’t feeling the first one.”

“So now I had ‘Basildon’ and ‘SSS’, then ended up with 3-4 tracks and was like we might as well do an outro. And so we literally went from one song to a full-fledged project.”

He spoke about taking a three month break from music during the first lockdown in which he admits that it was not his main focus. “With the way I’ve dropped music [as of late], I’ve just been focusing on work. Work has to be first so I’ve just been focusing on that. Then I got into DJ’ing so my focus kind of leant on that. Last year [2019], I only released ‘Da Mellow’ remix, with A$AP Rocky and Skepta, which did well. I put out the [HighSnobiety] mix as well but people are always on me, they won’t stop until I have more stuff on streaming! But then COVID came and it just kind of took me off track. Like, people are dying.”  That sentiment has been echoed by many over the last year, as we’ve had to work in spite of all the loss and disruption in the air.

Musically, ‘Da Mellow’ is a gorgeous portmanteau of A$AP Rocky and Skepta’s ‘Praise the Lord (Da Shine) and British synth-jazz composer Paul Hardcastle’s ‘Heaven’, displaying the imaginative use of samples that is a staple of mellow grime. Conceptually however, it wouldn’t have made sense on c2c as the 21 minute project succinctly pieces together a narrative that is bound by the adept storytelling of Joe James. Even down to the artwork being shot on a c2c platform and tracklist being displayed like a map’s index, I ask how he was able to map out and execute this concept on wax.

“Initially, I was only going to release two songs; ‘Plaistow’ which became ‘West Ham’ and an unreleased song with Mumblez (808INK). But life just happened so things had to get pushed to the side. When I rehashed c2c, it was based just purely on ‘West Ham’ because it had that grimy sound and that mellow vibe. So I was like THIS is mellow grime! It started off with ‘West Ham’, then ‘Basildon’, then ‘SSS’ which was originally ‘Seasiders’. We were already on track to do the c2c line because it just fit. Those three songs I named are all places on the c2c line.” Sticking to this theme did not come without challenges as KwolleM explains how even features were carefully considered. “Getting DC involved, for example, was a dilemma because am I gonna get these man involved knowing they’re not on the c2c line? But then I’m like doing a diversion on the train journey makes a lot of sense.”

Throughout ‘c2c’, one thing that is consistently evident is the synergy between producer and leading artist – in this instance KwolleM and Joe James. I ask him how Joe’s influence helped shape the project. “I’ve known Joe since the very first song that I made. We both started making music around the same time, but he was doing his own thing. The fact that he was on my first EP coupled with the fact that ‘A Song For You’ was one of the biggest songs on that EP just shows that us making more music together was inevitable. Joe is a big artist. He’s not as big as other artists but I couldn’t have done c2c with someone else because he just gets it [the East London/Essex experience] and the work rate is there with Joe.”

“It was like a vice-versa ting. I can’t rap but Joe was my voice. He was able to say what I was thinking on those songs.”

Joe’s input meant that there was more original vocals on c2c than on KwolleM’s previous work. We explore whether the original content is important to the narrative on his new work. “When I listen back to Mellow EP, I know why people like that EP in 2020. You listen to it and it just reminds you of 2015 – that was its core value. I look back at it as my first project, the one where I had just started to understand and learn how to produce so I look back and think this could have been done better. With c2c now, that’s me showcasing my ability and if I make a project now, let it be unified, let it be coherent, let everything apply to everything. This time around, I wanted elements of Newham on the project. Every feature had to make sense – Devlin is from Essex, Roachee’s East London and Roll Deep – so it had to make sense.”

‘c2c’ was made entirely during the first wave of COVID, I imagine that creating any kind of work in that time would have been tricky for any creative given the uncertainty in the air and the requirement of adaptation. He outlines the creative process during this time and explains why studio was only a setting for them at the end. “In terms of making it, Joe was recording stuff while he was in Cyprus. He was going back and forth because his fiancé is from there. So he was literally in Cyprus creating some of the songs. I would text him an instrumental, the low quality version, he would send back the low quality version. And we would just build from there and add whatever needed adding later on. It was literally laptops, headphones and mic.” I ask if it felt gratifying to link Joe in the studio and hear the final version. “Definitely, definitely. Going to the studio is the best way to show that work is being done. But the work had already been done at this point, so it was purely for the sake of promoting. But to hear it on the speakers, posting it and getting hundreds of comments. I don’t even think the tape was fully finished but we knew people were anticipating it a month before we’d released it. So that was good for me.”

In an age where the consumption of music has drastically changed, attention spans have dwarfed and the ‘fast food music’ conversations are being had, it is still common to go on social media and see fans hound their favourite artists for new work. Chattanooga rapper Isaiah Rashad hasn’t dropped a project since 2016’s brilliant ‘The Sun’s Tirade’. Frank Ocean hasn’t dropped a full length since ‘Blonde’ from the same year. Croydon based artist A2 hasn’t dropped since 2019’s ‘All Spill’ and every day he can expect harassment from his fan base on social media until he serves up the incoming ‘Just So You Know’ LP. A variety of reasons can be offered up to justify making the fans wait; one that sticks out to me is anxiety around fan reception.

With this in mind and knowing how sporadic KwolleM can be, I question if this played in his mind at all and if he was happy with the feedback at the time. “It’s been good. When I released c2c I said cool, I’d be happy with 100,000 plays by the end of the month. So the fact that in just over three weeks, we’re on half a million, it’s crazy given the year we’ve had.” He is humble in his response yet still sees the bigger picture in this thing that we call life, “I found out about that around the same time as the SARS stuff in Nigeria came about so it bittersweet. I want to talk about it but I can only be a certain amount of happy because I know of stuff happening elsewhere.”

Moving on, we bring the focus back to the project and ‘SSS’ in particular, as I describe that intro as the perfect display of ‘mellow grime’. “That song started out with no Crazy Titch and no outro, it was literally just the rhythm and Joe’s first verse. It starts with ‘sea, sea, seasiders’ and I asked Joe why seasiders. He said that’s what they chant at Southend matches. So I found the chant version, which you hear flowed into the grime bit, so I was like cool we need a switch up. I’ve been to Southend, you go to the beach and see kids having a joke, go Adventure Island, you’d go and get shrimp from the seafood truck. Once it hits dark, it switches, and Southend becomes very different. That’s what sparked the beat switch. One time I went there to see my ex and missed the last train home *laughs* but it was cool because I accomplished life! I’d be on the first train back half asleep and people would say you might want to lay low. I shrugged it off until I would hear the drunk white guys coming back from watching the match. So I wanted Joe to come with that energy, narrating a day in the seaside from the morning into the evening. Also, I wanted ‘SSS’ to transition well into the next song.”

And just as he says, ‘Basildon’ is a smooth follow up and leans heavily towards the mellow aspect of KwolleM’s production. A minute and fifty seconds of nostalgia laced with enchanting synths and a gorgeous vocal sample as Joe recalls a racially charged incident with some guys from around his way. However, the real story is in ‘Fenchurch St’, a clear standout on the tape where Joe is trying to vie for the attention of a girl on this journey. “It’s mad because I wanted to use this as the outro, the instrumental just has the feel to it. Initially I wasn’t gonna add ‘Never Invited’ so it was the outro at the time. My thinking for this song with Joe is that we need to give them a story about you and you’re going to be on a train moving to a girl.” A familiar scenario for many a man in our youth, long before any adult responsibilities or stresses came into play.

Growing up as a male adolescent in Inner London, it was crazy to think that we didn’t take guys from outside London seriously when it came to badness. But it was a real thing. And that adds further to the narrative that KwolleM wanted to fashion on ‘Fenchurch St’. “Joe is very braggadocious, so you can hear him getting cheeky, flirting with her before he gets into the violence because, you know, girls loved crud. And when you’re from Essex, London boys are the bad boys, so you want to build yourself up to be a bad boy. You can relate because you’ve either seen it happen or you’ve been that guy!”

This attention to detail had me feeling like there should have been a budget to shoot this concept but hearing KwolleM say that he initially only wanted to release a single shows that sometimes a small idea can have a mind of its own. In recent times we have seen two things happen with releases; projects having shorter run times off the back of the deluxe album trend that made some albums longer than necessary. At 8 tracks and just over 21 minutes long, I wondered if this was an intentional ploy from the humble pioneer. “Personally, I feel like shorter projects are always better, but ultimately, I never planned to put out a project. There are unreleased tracks left over so we could’ve had 10 songs but I opted for short and sweet. Headie just put out a 20-track project [Edna], DBE just put out a 20, sorry, 29 track project [The Blueprint]. I think it’s a bit excessive but Headie’s worked well because there were 10 features that all banged. But because of the 10 bangers, you don’t even think about the run time. My thing isn’t to make a great grime album, I just want to make a great album, regardless of genre.”

He gets into his three favourite tracks on the project and offers interesting reasons as to why. “’Basildon’ purely because of the beginning of it and the grime cadence that Joe used. Erm, ‘West Ham’ I like that a lot, it’s probably my favourite. I think my third choice or favourite is ‘Stratford (Interlude). I think that’s a very underrated one in terms of what makes sense if you give someone three songs from c2c to see what I’m about.” I express the shock at ‘SSS’ not being included because of how purposeful it is in bringing mellow grime to life. “I thought that set the tone for the project perfectly, I do agree.”

Given both KwolleM and Joe’s backgrounds in East London and Essex and numerous staples from the grime scene speaking on the changes they’ve seen in Newham and it’s surrounding areas, I ask how he feels these areas have evolved in recent times. “I live in Essex now but I had to do a shoot where I grew up [East Ham]. Cos I was there I thought ‘cool, let me check everyone’ but cos I know everyone it was never gonna be an in-and-out thing. The scary thing? Is how much has stayed the same for me. I saw one of my friends driving the ambulance van in the area cos that’s what he does now, and I bumped into another friend still living the same life he was 10 years ago.”

Kobby – the photographer for the day – chimes in to question if how his boys feel about his dress sense and the “fucking international model” perception that he talks about when people go on his Instagram page. “I remember when I went to college in Barking. I had to do a golfing course… and I’m seeing that the dress code was smart casual. I was like ‘what does that mean?’ so I’ve been given room so I’m like cool. I’ll pull up to ends in boat shoes and the mandem are like ‘boat shoes? What, shoes?’ *laughter* but I wanted to switch it up, and that was my introduction to Essex. Obviously, I got kicked out in like three months, but around that time it was the Odd Future era so it was chinos, blazers, Jordan 1’s, New Balance. Like hood yutes were understanding that you had to do up chinos to move to girls.”

As the rain finally dries off of my cycling gear, I’m ready to conclude this interesting conversation. KwolleM speaks very well and passionately about his music and craft. He is also very human as evidenced when we spoke about SARS and the havoc that COVID-19 has brought about. In regard to his sound, I put it to him that there is no one doing what he’s doing right now with Grime so I had to ask if he felt he was a pioneer in the genre. “No. Because I feel like Kano did it. Dotstar, [Flirta D] slyly did it… all I’ve been able to do is like, mature grime is another subgenre of grime, right? All I’ve done is just give it a name in a literal sense. Like ‘this is what I’m making’, it’s mellow… and it’s grime.” His response is modest, but his point is expressed in a way that pays homage to his grime forefathers in a way that more artists should take note of. “I can show you so many inspirations, Scruface, Flutes, they did make that sound. And then it was formulaic in a sense that it was still grime. Whereas me, my influences come from Soul, R&B and whatnot. Like sped up hip hop and then you have a grime element like with the Joe James stuff, like a mash up. Mellow EP was me trying to legitimise it. And then the c2c is me trying to further it and make it original and make it a genre. So, in that sense you could say that I’m a pioneer.”

‘c2c’ is out now on all digital streaming platforms.