The beauty and excitement of discovering a hidden talent is something fans rarely get to be a part of. More often than not, when we hear the music from the artists we love, they’ve already put in the 10,000 hours of practise required to become masters of their craft. But if we’re with them in the trenches, as they’re unlocking their full potential, it draws us closer to the music as well as the artist.
The rise in popularity of shows like Britain’s Got Talent and X factor, have partly been because they have allowed audiences to feel like they’re a part of this discovery process. Everyone remembers the iconic Sue Bo moment, when an unassuming recluse with an extraordinary voice revealed herself to the world. Contrived or not, for those few minutes we were as captivated by the singing, as we were with the feeling that we were amongst the first to witness such a rare talent. These same feelings were echoed when we first heard the smooth melodic baritone of Abra Cadabra.
At the time, Abz was just a fresh faced teenager from Tottenham, who wasn’t even taking music seriously, and by his own admission only began rapping as a pastime. The no frills approach of the Blackbox platform was transformed into a smorgasbord of different musical flavours by Abra, as he gave us melodies, gritty lyricism, and what would become one of the catchiest hooks of 2016. The nine minute freestyle showed real depth, and pretty soon afterwards Abz was fielding calls and DMs from the who’s who of the music industry.
The “Blackbox freestyle” was a watershed moment for Abz. Before this, he had never thought music was a viable career path. But the speed at which things started happening was a double edged sword for him, as he explains:
“People were suddenly telling me how I have to move now, and how I’ve gotta carry myself and what not. It’ was a good and bad thing init, I was happy knowing that people were excited to see me because of my music and that, but at the same time coming from where we come from being out there ain’t always too good you know what I’m saying?”
Teething problems aside, Abz was now armed with the belief that music could be so much more than a pastime. After Blackbox, Abra appeared on Kenny Allstar’s Mad About Bars, but it would be his July 2016 release that would emphatically mark his arrival in the music scene. The moment you hear the frenetic keys, booming drums and Abra bellowing the now infamous lines “MAN DON’T TALK, MAN ROB” you know you’re in for a white knuckle ride. “Robbery Remix” would rightfully scoop awards for best song at both The Rated Awards and The MOBOs that year.
Fans knew there was more to Abra than anthemic drill bangers, and he was keen to showcase this broad musical palette. Although not born into a musical family, Abz possesses a remarkable ability to harmonise and call upon his melodic prowess when exploring realms outside of drill, he attributes this to his faith:
“Growing up reading the Quran, there’s a way you read it where’s its like melodic. So I already knew how to do melodies before I was actually recording music, because of the way I used to read the Quran. So that’s what helped me in terms of being able to harmonise and what not.”
These explorations have proved fruitful, giving us tracks like “Valentines”, “Fuck Valentines”, “Sherry Coco” and more recently “On & On” featuring Odeal.
Interestingly, despite having the world at his feet, there was a two year gap between the EPs that the last two tracks featured on; Feature Boy EP and LOL: Love or Lust?. Such lengthy hiatuses could cause irreparable damage to any burgeoning musicians career, especially when trying to survive in a climate where artists like DBE are releasing three full mixtapes in a year. Abra revealed he had fallen foul to one of the many perils associated with rapid success: complacency.
“I lost the hunger for the music, I didn’t rate the music the way I did when I first started. Now you got money and that, so all of that stuff makes you lazy. So it’s like mans just basically focusing on other things that I shouldn’t be focusing on, when I should have been focusing on the music. My head just wasn’t there, and I didn’t have a plan. I don’t wanna be releasing music when I ain’t got no plan, I don’t wanna just be dropping music for the sake of it.”
Vicissitudes are inevitable in all walks of life. We take for granted the toll that this might have on artists’ psyches as we carelessly pass our judgement in Instagram or Youtube comments, not for a moment sparing a thought for what the artist might be going through. Artists’ mental health is not spoken about enough, but Abz is not afraid to cite stress as another reason behind his time away from the spotlight:
“There was obviously a time when I went proper quiet in the industry, at the time I was basically stressed but I didn’t know that was what it was. Subconsciously I was always bothered about my position in the music industry, what helped me with me mental state was I realised there isn’t an artist that keeps up a buzz forever. You just have to know how to resurrect your buzz when you need to, when you need to keep things flowing. Me having faith in my musical ability is what helped me overcome the stress, but not everyone can rely on that.
“So thats what made me realise like ‘rah if this was my way of dealing with it, maybe a next person’s way of dealing with it is going shop and buying like five bottles and drinking them off in the yard, or a next person’s way is cutting themselves you get what I’m saying? That’s when I really looked into mental health and what not, cause I wouldn’t say I was going mad, but I know for a fact I was not happy and everyone around me could see I wasn’t happy.”
Time out helped Abra recalibrate, and although music had been the root of his problems, like most cures, that’s precisely where he found the remedy. While 2020 has been a lacklustre year for most of us, Abz has returned reinvigorated, and probably had his best year musically. We were gifted with his debut mixtape Product of my Environment, and the lead single, “On Deck”, became Abz’s first top 40, despite the video being the latest victim of online censorship. Abra speaks on his frustrations of having the video taken down:
“They said I was cyber-bulling a certain individual, some bullshit ting. You see what it is, I didn’t see them taking it down until it started making noise you get it? When people really started tuning in thats when they took it down. They do them things and its like thats just kicking a yout in the face, saying like don’t even try do nothing positive bro, just stick to what you know basically.”
Abra has not been deterred, which should come as no surprise hailing from somewhere with a rich history of protest and resistance like Broadwater Farm. Since the 80s, the area has had a fraught relationship with police, due to the death of Cynthia Jarrett which sparked riots where a police officer was killed. More recently of course, Mark Duggan (who grew up in Broadwater Farm), was killed by police and set off riots across the capital in 2011. With such important events forming the backdrop, the decision to name his debut mixtape Product of my Environment is hugely significant. Although as an individual, Abz has no doubt been shaped by his experiences growing up on this estate, him and his OFB cohorts have redefined what it means to come from Broadwater Farm through their exploits in the music industry.
“If you listen to my music you will see how my environment has shaped the way I talk, how I see things, and how I get my opinions across. In the streets everyone has a choice. But like growing up where we grew up, the way you choose your choices is moulded, just based on the fact of where you’ve grown up.”
Abra and his compatriots have escaped the self fulfilling prophecies that have been imposed on them by creating legacies entirely separate from all those that have gone before them.
“For a person like me, coming from where I’m coming from, this music ting is one in a million. Obviously we’ve made it a trend on my block to come up in the music industry and do something big, but before that man didn’t have no hope.”
With this tape, Abz has really become the artist everyone thought he would become after his “BlackBox Freestyle” set the internet alight almost five years ago. The tape sees Abra expand on the brilliance that we got glimpses of on the freestyle; the melodies are better, the hooks are catchier, and Abra is at his introspective best.
Abz muses that one of the reasons for the tape’s success thus far is that he’s “got that old 2016 feeling again, like the exact same things are happening, I got my single banger there, I got bangers with Kush you get what I’m saying?”. He’s also reunited with Krept and Konan, got Dappy on drill, and understands exactly where he’s going this time round: “I got this feeling like I’m fully in tune with the music. I wanna learn more, both musically and business wise. Before I didn’t wanna know none of that, I just wanted to make music.”
On the cover art we see a giant Abra Cadabra sitting atop the Broadwater Farm blocks, a visual representation of his ascendency, and a reminder that the whole is most definitely greater than the sum of its parts.