“I don’t like hearing my own voice back. It’s just weird to me. I don’t even like watching my own videos”. For a genre still technically in its infancy, UK drill hasn’t really left the limelight since it’s inception. Evolving from being just a nihilistic offshoot of Chicago drill, to becoming a critically recognised sound in its’ own right. The genre’s forward momentum has established key players and so-called “drill dynasties”, including South London’s Harlem Spartans. For all the hype and infamy that accompany the musical members, there’s something to be said for key player Blanco, who since breaking out with the rap group, has found his place and ironically, his voice, in the UK music scene.
On paper his lyrics are delivered by the punchline – weaving together complex metaphors and cheeky references – but for an artist that’s amassed millions of streams and YouTube views, Blanco is earnestly unassuming. Initially the photoshoot seems foreign to him; multiple outfit changes, flashing lights, photography direction. Our photographer Jordan then produces, out of what seems to be by magic, a Nintendo Switch, and instantly the ice is broken. In that moment, watching Blanco connect with Jordan over Mario Kart and anime discussions, I’m reminded that, beyond the streams and the jewellery, the photoshoots and the punchlines, there is a person who, although innately aware of his talent, is adjusting to the caveats that come with it.
When we sit down later after the photoshoot, there’s an ease about Blanco, as I ask him how he felt about photoshoots. “It was great you know – I like to take photos, can’t you tell?” The satire and cheekiness that often comes through in his lyrics has audibly entered the conversation, and we quickly acknowledge his real feelings about photoshoots, whilst also moving on to other things he’s found hard adjusting to. “Let me start coz there’s more than three – I don’t like getting recognised in public all that much like when I’m just in the shop and that… Errrm. Yeah, I don’t like being restricted from certain places. It’s annoying. I don’t really like saying ‘hi’ to people. I’m not anti so I say it – but I’ve never really liked that still. And I don’t like when people play me my songs”.
But it’s not all negative. “I like getting acknowledged and I like when people just like my music for, for liking my music not just… cos it’s cool to, you know?” There’s a glint in his eye as he racks his brain for other things he loves about being in the music industry, and then a smile appears. “I like getting free stuff. And I like getting paid”. It’s a sentiment that irrespective of industry, he and I can both agree on.
It’s easy to overlook the fact that Blanco is only 21 – it feels as if he’s a name we’ve been hearing about for a while, so talking about what school was brings us back to the reality that he’s still just a young man from south London; figuring out what’s going on around him, albeit status rising and popularity flourishing. “I hated school, and I decided that I’m not really gonna go [to school] when I was in like, year nine – so school saw me less and less. Yeah, um. I hated English. Loved Geography obviously. And History. And Art. That was it”. The comment on Geography and History were an unofficial nod to his lyrics, that often references different places and periods far beyond the borders of South East London. On his single ‘Memphis’, the opening lines are “not in Memphis, I’m in Tennessee” – playing off the reference of a popular chicken and chips shop in Kennington, against the name of the American city.
Throughout tracks like ‘Anakin’ and ‘Shippuden’, the latter of which is a reference to Japanese anime series Naruto, there are constant mentions of things that indicate Blanco is someone that despite his disdain for formal education, is someone who takes knowledge seriously, inputting it into his craft subconsciously. “I like learning about stuff and how things work so, yeah. It affects the way I write… I dunno. I almost feel like the hardest thing to write is the simplistic lyrics for me. Like, the catchy stuff, the hooks. I feel like that’s very hard for me to do. I’m not really that type of person. I feel like I almost can’t explain the way I write. It’s complex”.
The complexity doesn’t stop at writing style. “I write best when I’m under pressure. When I’m tired or when I’m behind on stuff. I feel like more risky stuff comes out when I’m tired – when I play it safe, it doesn’t sound as good. Like when I made Shippuden it was risky, I was tired, it was 4am. Earlier in the day I wrote a song and it was trash. It was trash. It was absolutely trash. I missed; like the bucket was there and I missed completely. It didn’t even hit the rim, so I was like ‘yeah I can’t go studio with this, I will embarrass myself’. So, obviously I fell asleep, I woke up at like 4am, it was mad early, I was like let me just write this. I wrote it quickly, in about an hour and a half. And then yeah – it (Shippuden) became a song.”
It’s evident for any frequent listener of Blanco that there’s a certain meticulousness that comes with his music. It’s a mindset that seeps into what he pours into the music, just as much as what he puts out. But with meticulousness often comes an overwhelming level of self-scrutiny, and this appears to be the case for Blanco. “I don’t wanna take over this interview but um I feel like it’s hard to like, I dunno – like as an artist, sometimes like I don’t feel like I’m necessarily getting anywhere… in music. I’m trying to reach farther. I don’t know if I can do that. I feel like I can. But I feel like it’s really hard. Sometimes I might not be in the mood coz I feel like… I should be further than this… I feel like I’m always gonna feel like that”. Of all of the buzzwords that trigger conversations between millennials on Twitter, imposter syndrome is one that hits home.
It’s defined as the inability or struggle to believe that one’s abilities merit one’s achievements, or the constant presence of doubt regarding one’s talents. In an industry that forces you into some level of limelight by default – one that’s constantly changing and constantly pressured, it’s no surprise that Blanco feels this way. But does it ever cross his mind to adapt or change himself? “People have even been around and have said “why don’t you do this coz this is popping right now?”. But I’m not really that type of person. I’m not really on that. I’d rather just stick with me. The music that I’m putting out now is more musical. I’ll stick with that.”
Given his carefulness when it comes to his craft, it’s no surprise that he’s pretty well-versed when it comes to music, not just within his genre, but across others too. We go through his Spotify playlists and amongst the likes of Central Cee, NBA YoungBoy and Potter Payper, artists that one could potentially guess would feature, there’s a few that stand out as evidence of Blanco’s love for music as an art. “Let me give you some shockers. Ray Lamontagne – he’s like a country singer. Kehlani… Ryan Trey, Bryson. I love a lot of R&B, the old school stuff too, like Boyz II Men”. He continues to list his R&B favourites, including Teyana Taylor and PARTYNEXTDOOR, and crosses back over the Atlantic to reveal a particular love for homegrown artist Ama Lou. “I just like music man,” he quips. With drill inspired lyrics – paying homage to the estate and area he grew up in, fused with Brazilian funk beats – paying homage to his native Angola, the diversity of his Spotify library makes more than enough sense. “The hood, like where I’m from, that plays most of the part. Um. Yeah. Coz obviously when, when I’m sometimes writing, I’m writing about obviously, cos it’s there. It’s just life as I know it. With a little bit of wordplay and punchlines on top. So yeah, it’s normally about like where I’m from. From all aspects, I guess.”
If he wasn’t already, it’s fair to say that Blanco is an artist that’s worthy of being on your radar. Pushing the boundaries of a genre that many were trying to write off, in a scene often clouded by negative publicity and assumptions, it makes Blanco’s desire for greatness even more exciting. Early 2021 should be seeing the release of a new solo project from him, following an appearance (‘Anglo Saxon’) on fellow Harlem Spartan Loski’s debut album Music, Trial and Trauma: A Drill Story, released in November. The same wry smile we started the interview with reappears when asked what listeners should be expecting from him next year. “Erm. Expect the unexpected.”