Exclusives Interviews 22 December 2020
Author: Oli Knight

GRM Exclusive: 98s discuss debut album, being more than a drill group & plans for 2021

22 December 2020

Only insiders knew at the time, but the 4th of November, 2019, marked the birth of one of the most exciting collectives in the current UK rap scene. The now infamous Homerton Crib session was actually a combination of rappers from both Homerton (E9) and Holly Street (E8), rapping as one group. Comments voiced their excitement at this coming together of rappers, with one user writing “Homerton are coming like Man City, these man got some mad squad depth”, touching on the consistency of quality present throughout everyone rapping. Moreover, people were surprised at how close they appeared; despite being from two different postcodes, they knew all each other’s lyrics, and were actively supporting each other during their verses. 

This camaraderie illustrated the potential that they had to make music as a group, hinting of their future musical success. Despite this, it was unclear as to whether they would seize this opportunity or would slide into obscurity in an increasingly saturated music scene. We arranged a Zoom call with some of the members of the 98s to get the inside scoop on their journey over the last year; which has culminated in the release of the excellent Class of 98s. This is the story, so far of the 98s. 

Rappers often can get exposed on a Westwood Crib Session. Rappers have one chance to deliver their verse, regardless of their mistakes. Ultimately, it is very hard to consistently deliver polished verses throughout a 20 minute cypher; usually there will be glaring moments in which the quality drops, particularly when people are given the microphone who are not trained, professional rappers. This is not the case for Homerton; relatively unknown rappers such as DA, Hitman and Stally come across as seasoned pros, gliding over beats with a seemingly endless supply of lyrical content to draw from. This consistent standard of rapping, that was set and maintained throughout the session, illustrated clearly the unique ability that the ‘squad members’ of Homerton had. Whilst undoubtedly KO is the star of the session, he gives more than enough space for a proper exhibition of the multiple talents that would eventually make up the 98s. From Stally’s aggressive, direct delivery to the more laidback, melodic approach of Billy Billions, it became clear that this combination of rappers had the sonical variety and chemistry to create an engaging, extended project. 

The mere mention of the Crib session evokes an immediate reaction from DA, Billy Billions and Stally, all of whom assert their gratitude to KO for giving them the platform to showcase their ability. Speaking on if the Crib session was a turning point in their mindset as artists, DA says “It definitely was for me, shout out KO still”. This is a theme throughout the 98s’ journey; the desire from established artists such as KO and V9 to look past simply maximising their own individual success, and the demonstration of a clear awareness of their ability to uplift the career of less established, but extremely talented rappers from their area. 

The roles of KO, V9 and Unknown T in the success of the tape is important to analyse. In terms of promotion, there are clear benefits; KO,V9 and particularly Unknown T are three of the most established drill rappers in the current scene, meaning that anything they touch will be met with interest from a large portion of the drill listening community. It is worth thinking about why KO, V9 and Unknown T would have been motivated to help set up the 98s collective at this particular time. Whilst they are both established artists, they are still very early on in their careers.

Most artists, particularly in the current drill scene in which relevancy can disappear in a puff of smoke would be hesitant to take on such a big task. Fears over fans losing interest, or the collaborations not being as well received as hoped are completely understandable when an artist is considering diverting from their solo career to help bring up other people. In fact, the story of the 98s actually appears in many ways to be the inverse of Nines’ story of Crabs in a Bucket that he told on the album of the same name. Crabs in a Bucket deals with the pitfalls of achieving success, as people from within his community continuously attempt to leech off his newfound riches. However, instead of conveying this message, Class of 98s instead demonstrates how a couple of people’s success within a community can spark a process of elevation for others within that same community. 

KO particularly demonstrated a desire to take charge in this artistic process with a video on the 98s’ instagram, documenting him engineering a recording session for the album. This desire to learn and take on new responsibilities is not only a reflection of the dedication of KO to his craft, but also to his selfless attitude towards the other group members; if there is any way in which he can help the team, he will. Despite this, KO denies that he is the leader of the 98s, instead seeing it as a democracy of equal talent, as “everyone is so hard”. He recognises his position as a known drill rapper, but that is about it; “I think I’m a looked to character, but that’s about it”. This portrays clearly the level of respect that pervades the group, and sheds light on how their chemistry appears so effortless. They are just friends who all happen to be very gifted rappers, and this approach seems to suit them very well. Clearly, the 98s have real love for each other, which goes past just musical collaborations for the sake of making good music, and the importance of this dynamic cannot be understated. 

It is clear that the 98s benefit from the atmosphere of working together in a group. Stally, speaking of how he always is trying to test himself, notes how “The mandem will push you as well”, with DA chiming in “Everything just makes sense…and if it doesn’t you’ll get told!”. This expresses how the dynamics of working in a collective have driven each person to individually challenge themselves, with an aura of friendly competition ensuring that no one wants to deliver a lacklustre verse. The group dynamic has benefits extending past just pushing each member to deliver their highest quality verse. The benefits of collaboration can also be seen in the advent of progressive ideas within their music, with the ability to draw from such an eclectic array of sonical sources granting the 98s a unique edge within the scene. 

An interesting comparison is the South London group House of Pharaohs, whose ultimate strength lies in their ability to bounce off each other, spitballing ideas and bouncing off each other until they create something which feels like a cohesive representation of them. The 98s also succeed through this approach, and it constitutes a big reason as to why they are so successful at blending sounds from throughout the wider UK rap scene to create something which feels distinct to Homerton and Holly Street. As Stally says, “Music’s an art at the end of the day. It’s always an experiment” and so it seems it becomes a lot easier to experiment effectively when you’re in a collective with the dynamics of the 98s. 

The 98’s have recognised the importance of the music video format, so as to maximise the promotional impact of the release of each single. All four singles released were initially presented in the form of a GRM Premiere with an accompanying music video. The decision to produce music videos for every single is very strategic; the best introduction to an artist or group that a listener has not heard before is in the form of a well executed music video. Prospective fans are treated with both a visual and sonical experience which absolutely encapsulates what the artist(s) are about. Such was the case with all four singles, with each sporting crisp, themed videos which clearly show a level of investment that was not present in the drill scene a couple of years ago. Speaking of my own love for the “Pay Attention” video evokes a passionate response from Billy and DA, with Billy exclaiming “Pay Attention is the hardest video out!”. DA adds that “I think Pay Attention changed the world as well…definitely seeing the impact, there’s bare school vids now”. This exchange highlights the passion with which the 98s’ approach their entire art from; it’s not just about making a good song and putting it on Spotify, but creating a cohesive media package for their fans to enjoy. 

“Music is an art at the end of the day. It’s always an experiment”

The 25th of September finally saw the release of Class of 98s, the culmination of nearly a year of promotion and collaboration. The tape itself is an exploration into the future of drill and UK rap music, utilising a range of beats, from the more aggressive, hostile production on tracks like “98 Degrees” to the laid back, melodic production behind “Wait a Minute”.

“Wait a Minute” particularly feels experimental, incorporating the singing of Billy Billions to create a memorable chorus whilst also having space for hard hitting verses from both KO and Alchubbino. Billy Billions channels his unique ability to craft sweet melodies which complement the more direct deliveries of both Alchubbino and KO perfectly. Numerous elements of different subgenres of rap are present throughout the song, combining to create a wave that feels truly unique to the current UK scene. Billy notes how “Wait A Minute” incorporates different musical elements at different points of the song, saying “It depends if we’re gonna talk about the beat, the hook, the verses…there’s a variety there, I can see about three genres in there”. Part of this penchant for experimentation may stem from the fact that the group do not actually view themselves as a drill collective.

Stally says “We’re not a drill group still”; an answer which is perhaps unsurprising to anyone who has listened to the album. As ProdByWalkz said in his recent reaction to “Wait A Minute”, “How is he (Billy Billions)  making murder sound so lovely?” and this sentiment summarises much of the reason to be excited about the 98s’ music. They are always ready to challenge the status quo of what a UK rap/drill song should be, and this desire really shows throughout the project. Songs like the opener “9:08AM” bear similarities to archetypal drill songs, mainly through the use of percussion and vocal delivery, yet at the same time demonstrate an evolution of the sound, primarily through the inventive production of M1onthebeat, who samples an oriental flute for the melody. 

In response to this, some may argue that the 98s themselves are not creative in their art, as they merely are blessed with incredible beats. However it is simply ignorant to suggest that beat selection is not a skill in itself; moreover it is one thing to choose the right beat and another to adapt your delivery and flow subtly so as to suit the beat whilst still retaining your essence as an artist. Throughout this project, the 98s tow this line gracefully, flexing their ability to step outside of the box many of their contemporaries have placed themselves in, whilst still delivering a sound which still feels grounded in the gritty streets of E9 and E8. 

There are moments on this tape when you can’t help but question how some of the newcomers this tape highlights have gone under the radar for so long. Stally and Alchubbino particularly shine throughout the project, really going toe to toe with more established artists such as Unknown T, KO and V9. On the last track, “98%”, Stally is particularly compelling; his combination of his trademark direct, aggressive delivery with more emotional lyrics creates a melancholy atmosphere which feels perfect for a finale.

When Stally raps “Mummy like Son where you been/I threw her some change and said I was away/She knows that I was out serving/She kissed her teeth and told me be safe” it is heartbreaking, as he highlights the pain he puts his own mother through but also how she relies on him for financial support. “She kissed her teeth and told me be safe” illustrates Stally’s mum’s own awareness that there is little she can do to stop Stally from living this lifestyle other than voice her disapproval. This moment speaks volumes for the ability of Stally as a rapper, as he clearly has the ability to digress from stereotypical drill talk to say something unique and personal which really connects with the listener. 

However, this album is not noteworthy purely for its musical achievements. It is an exhibition of the hidden talents of Homerton and Holly Street, as rappers who previously may have not seen the point in pursuing a musical career were given a platform, aided by the stardom of KO, V9 and Unknown T, to ensure that their efforts would be worthwhile. When Billy Billions closed his final verse on the Crib session with the assertion “If I wasn’t trapping or drilling, I’d be charting”, you could be forgiven for at the time believing this to be hyperbole; but the quality of the Class of 98s undoubtedly indicates that further success is undoubtedly in the pipeline. A recurring theme throughout the interview is that the 98’s are still “loading”; they do not see their achievements so far as success, instead it is merely the tip of the iceberg in what they hope will be fruitful solo and group careers. 

For rappers such as DA, Stally, Billy and Alchubbino, who have not released much solo music at all, the next step appears to be releasing a solo project, to really stake their individual claim to the scene. DA in particular hints of a future project, laughing “you might see one or two!” when I ask him of their plans for releasing individual tapes. When I ask Stally and DA if the formation of the 98s was inevitable, Stally says “it was always in the pipeline, but I never knew we would actually get here”.

Clearly, the last year has been a whirlwind for artists like Stally, who have gone from relative obscurity to featuring on one of the best tapes in the scene this year and performing in music videos which seem set to clear a million views. Stally himself expresses his own incredulity over the success of the 98s’, laughing “we’re doing our likkle thing and it ain’t even little no more!”. This is part of what makes the story of the 98’s so compelling; it is not simply the story of a music group releasing an album, but of the coming together of two postcodes from East London to really let some of the most unheralded talents of the city shine as they deserve to. 

Throughout the interview, I gain a real appreciation for the individuality that the 98s are so proud of, and see as being so central to their art form. In trying to get an understanding as to what makes this collective so unique, Billy exclaims “It’s us! We’re just different!” illustrating how they believe they have a certain intrinsic flair for music and their overall art that others in the scene simply do not share. The overwhelming consensus within the group is that they exist within their own lane completely in the UK, with DA saying “No one’s touching us collectively at the moment”. Reasserting how they view themselves as being outside of the bracket of a “drill” group, Billy says how he believes their direct competition to be groups like NSG, who captivate the masses every time they drop a new single. Whilst the 98s are not yet at the level of fame that NSG hold, the abundance of distinct personalities and musical styles within the 98s gives them an edge over NSG in a sense; however only time will tell if they are able to back up their lofty aspirations.  

For all this bravado, the 98s are clearly also grounded despite their burgeoning success. Billy is quick to point out that they owe some of their success to the stellar work of the team around them, particularly shouting out the role of Groundworks in their role as a creative consultancy to the 98s as being instrumental in helping realise their artistic visions. This humble mindset bodes well for their future, as too many promising artists have fallen short of their aspirations due to their own ego and inability to work as a team. 

Looking to the future, KO says that  “obviously I think we’re gonna do the solo ting for a little bit, get some music out individually, and then get back to the group”. It will be fascinating to experience solo projects from artists such as Billy Billions, Alchubbino and Stally, all of whom shone throughout the project, but have released limited solo material, if any. 

When the time comes for the next 98’s project, I have no doubts they will manage to elevate their music even further from the heights they have already reached. As the interview winds down, I see that Billy and KO are setting up a studio session, which speaks volumes for their work ethic; despite releasing their tape a few months ago, they are keen not to rest on their laurels. 

All in all, the future undoubtedly looks bright for the Hackney collective, and they don’t plan on taking any prisoners within the scene. Billy’s message to the wider UK rap scene tells us this much: “Tell them watch out man. Beware. We ain’t playing no games. Man’s taking people’s fans, kidnapping them and that. We need all the fans!”.