The current climate of British rap acts winning awards and accolades should be celebrated, but this was not always the case. Acts such as Giggs, Young Spray, Dubz and more can be credited with being the early pioneers of “road rap” a term for a style of rap that poetically depicted the perilous reality of street life. One name that is synonymous with the genre is Roadside G’z legend and spiritual predecessor of UK Drill, RA. On a chilly day in his hometown, we chop it up about the past (his hiatus), the present (his new ‘Jim Brown’ mixtape) and everything in between.
“Returning to music felt good, because it’s been a long time. I’ve been away for ten years, so the return has been long awaited, you get what I’m tryna say? As soon as I came out, I said to myself, “let’s get this music on the roll”. From Roadside G’s days, my music was stamped, and a lot of artists popping now, came up off my music. I paved the way, so it’s only right I come out and take back the throne…”
Sitting in Mezza Me, a Lebanese cafe on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton, RA takes a sip of his mint tea. His demeanour is relaxed even though he leans forward in a purposeful manner. His responses so far have been thought out, but don’t meander. Like his raps, he cuts through with his speech, unwavering and incisive. An assuredness of an artist that believes he is one of the best to step into the competitive coliseum of the rap game. A pioneer who may not get the recognition he deserves given his ten year hiatus, but still understands that he is the bar and benchmark for any serious lyricist threatening to challenge the elite.
“From Roadside G’s days, my music was stamped, and a lot of artists popping now, came up off my music. I paved the way, so it’s only right I come out and take back the throne…”
It could have been a different story entirely if the platforms and structures that exist in UK Rap and Grime today, were present back then. Prosperity in this domain was rare and the gang culture that spawned from the poverty and lack of opportunity, was unavoidable for many from deprived areas. Whilst music was a creative outlet and even release therapy for some, it could not replace the non-traditional streams of income, the by-product being a higher likelihood of prison or death. RA had to face the former, a ten year jail sentence preventing him from fulfilling his potential as an artist at the time.
The idea of this interview happening would have been improbable a few years ago. However a week after the release of his ‘Jim Brown’ mixtape, a blistering effort that shows the multiplicity of RA’s being, we are able to have an engaging conversation around the long awaited project. The setting is colourful, a trendy interior with orange seating, and nostalgic artwork adorning the walls. It is a far cry from the Brixton that we conducted the photoshoot in only an hour ago, just five minutes down the road from where we were currently seated.
Our photographer, Kobby, was keen to shoot RA in places with meaning to him, and in doing so highlighted that London is still a tale of two cities. We began at “five block”, on his estate where he grew up and then headed over to a memorial of close friend, Adrian Marriott, who was murdered in 2004. The surroundings of both were eerily quiet, and aesthetically seemed neglected. As we drive to each location, RA grumbles about how Brixton has changed, bemoaning the loss of the ‘Sega Zone’ on Electric Avenue in particular. His complaints about the effects of gentrification are comical, yet also sad in what they revealed. To those on the outside the effect may seem more glacial. For RA, a 10 year absence made the change more abrupt. His choice therefore to advertise his ‘Jim Brown’ mixtape on a billboard on Atlantic Road, was twofold. Promotion for himself, and a reminder that the real residents still remain.
After the final shots were taken of RA posing under his billboard, we return to Coldharbour Lane for the interview. On the back of RA’s sentiments, I have trepidation over speaking to him at an establishment that is definitely not what represents Brixton to him. However once he enters and takes a seat, he seems cool with the choice of location and proceeds to tell me about his early life.
“Brix was like… every other hood. There was a lot going on… life, streets, crime… we came from poverty but we made it work. We went through a couple mad situations, but we’re still here…” The situations that RA references, unimaginable and distant empathically for many, would be his source of material for his initial raps. “The life I was living, I’d see whatever I used to see, and I would spit bars about that. I’d spit about whatever was going on in my life at the time.” The difficult experiences he had growing up would lead to a complicated relationship with Brixton. “It’s bittersweet but you can never forget where you came from. It’s got its ups and downs but Brixton is Brixton. That’s man’s home, that’s man’s ground,” he growls. “That’s where it all started. It’s bittersweet but life is like that. It had to be like that to make RA…”
A name befitting of his piercing style, Real Artillery’s dexterous wordplay and puncturing delivery would catch the attention of fellow Brixton MCs Smiley and Elmz, who would go on to form Roadside G’s, alongside Den Den, Dan Diggerz and Alan B. The trailblazing collective, coined their style as “Gangsta Grime”, an offshoot of the already nascent genre. They would collaborate with the likes of Wretch 32 and Frisco, and form relationships with Wiley and Crazy Titch. Unfortunately, the “Roadside” moniker was not a spurious title and the lifestyle portrayed in their music caught up with many members of the group, including RA.
I was curious as to how such a long time behind bars would have affected his mindset, especially in creating music. “There was no hesitation. When I came out, l was like “yo let’s do this”. Man’s a warrior, in all aspects. When it comes to music, man’s a titan. Obviously there were certain tracks where I thought it would be too hard for the streets, but that’s how I started, so I can’t go back on myself. I put out my music, and made it work.”
“There was no hesitation. When I came out, l was like “yo let’s do this”
Consistent output uncompromising in its content, rhythmically unpacified, the intensity that RA’s music was known for did not abate, with tracks like ‘Felony’, ‘Addams Family’, ‘Pistol’ (the latter songs feature Fredo and Giggs respectively), and his ferocious verses on Krept and Konan’s ‘Khalas’, all serving as a reminder to what the scene had been missing. A long break could have sowed the seeds of hesitation in many artists, but RA’s undoubtable self-belief remained throughout his time away. “That comes from just being RA. Real Artillery. That comes from me, before the music. A barbarian on the streets. My confidence has always been up, in every aspect. If it’s going on a lurk, fighting, music, in the gym, whatever, man’s confidence has always been high up. So when it comes to music, it’s a walk in the park.”
The confidence that RA exudes, is on aggressive display across the ‘Jim Brown’ mixtape. ‘Last Chance’ and ‘Opp Boy’, are high octane, intense and grisly, depicting that RA wasn’t someone to be crossed in his earlier days. ‘Woi Yoi’, is braggadocious, and ‘Country’ with Ard Adz, is an example of garish exploits, exemplified by the Aston Martin and Porsche the artists cruise in for the visual. Further collaborations with Giggs on ‘Grateful’, who he fondly describes as, “good peoples who wants man to win”, and Ghetts on the drill-tinged, ‘Blend N Mix’, proves that despite his time away, he isn’t intimidated in the slightest by working with MC’s considered to be in the upper echelon of their craft. “You know what it is my guy? I don’t feel pressure from anyone. I just go and do my ting and I’m happy with my verse. Once I lay my verse it’s a done deal, I’m comfortable with it. I’ve never felt pressure from doing a tune with someone. Even if they’re good, and they might have bars, I never feel pressure. The confidence is real.”
Despite the bravado, the tape is all but restrictive in its expression, exploring the complexities in RA’s own character. On the opening track, ‘Brix’, his lyrics are vulnerable, a characteristic not commonly associated with the rapper, but something he needed to convey. “That’s what man’s life’s been about,” he tells me poignantly. “Pain. I’ve just come out of a situation, which people know about, and that was pain in itself. The whole tape has pain, smoke and righteousness in there. Everything to do with man’s situation is pain, so I have to start with pain.”
It is a theme omnipresent throughout the project, most evidently on ‘Feedback’, where he alludes to a violent altercation in prison, losing money and even heartbreak. His reflection on the consequences of that life, is graphically delineated in the acoustic strings laden, ‘So Did I’, where a friend commits suicide as he couldn’t handle the strain of incarceration. RA’s choice to reveal such a personal story, was almost a plea to the younger generation to think hard about the path they choose.
“Everything to do with man’s situation is pain, so I have to start with pain.”
“If you’ve got someone that’s a thoroughbred, coming from it all, and telling you, ‘raa, man’s been through it, and man’s got dargs that struck out, dargs that are doing twenty years’, and telling you that it doesn’t make sense, then you need to listen to a degree. I talk smoke on my tracks, because I’ve experienced it in my past, and it’s what I’ve been through, so I’m allowed to. I’m allowed to tell you, this is my struggle. When some people hear ‘So Did I’, they think it’s contradictory. I’m not contradicting myself, I’m just telling you about my life and what I’ve been through.”
A man that has been there and done it, I question whether there is any temptation to return to his old life. “Back then, it was just all about the road. Man was fully involved and music was just a small percentage of it. I was making p’s, so doing all that then was calm. Now I’m grown and I’ve just come out of pen, I can’t risk it again for that. All I’m trying to do now is build my empire in music, and get all my dargs off the road.”
His ideals are that of a leader, creating his own empire, and helping his people to ascend to a better way for themselves. His peremptory nature is ubiquitous throughout his art, but amongst his peers, he is more collaborative, exemplified by his decision to recruit old friends Den Den and Frass to feature on the project. Despite a chequered past, he is focused on the straight and narrow, creating authentic music that will provide him an alternative path to the one he had trodden previously. As we round off the interview, I focus on another one of his introspective songs on the tape, ‘Be You’. RA also stands for ‘Real Authentic’, so what is authenticity for RA?
“Being yourself. Be you, be what you stand for! Don’t try and be no one else, because that’s how you end up in jail or dead, you get me? You tried to be something you’re not, and then it went wrong, because you didn’t know how to do it. You don’t have to be on the roads, and be bussing your gun, to be real. If you work nine to five, be real to that. If a banker came in here now in a full suit, and a tie, sat down at a table, and told you, “I’m a banker”, then he’s real. He’ll tell you, ‘I’m real to what I do, I work in a bank, I like it, it’s why I’m doing it’. You can’t tell him he’s not real because he’s not on the roads. So just be real to yourself, and to what you do.”