Exclusives Interviews 30 September 2020

GRM Exclusive: Headie One talks humble beginnings, experimenting with different sounds & more

30 September 2020
Headie One Bricklayers

The resonance of UK drill has truly shaken up the world of music, quite possibly more than any other British-born rap denomination ever has. The global influence of foreign culture, refreshing perspective and unwonted interpretation have brought about an upheaval of sorts, introducing new, far-reaching dimensions and sonic textures to the genre.

But unfortunately for artists in the UK, the sound has been far more limiting. The self-appointed drill-gatekeepers and purists of the genre can be erroneously unforgiving when an artist extends their hand to a sound beyond the purview of what’s current. What’s more, the few artists that are actually able to free themselves from those shackles and create something that’s sonically ambiguous have their songs lazily labelled “drill-experiments”, when this isn’t always the case.

It’s that commitment to experimentalism though, in the face of every harsh criticism thrown their way, that ultimately defines one’s career in music. That tendency to move against the current – and prevail – is what separates good artists from the great ones, and it’s already patently clear how Headie One intends on being defined.

Irving Adjei, better addressed under the moniker of Headie One, is the undisputed king of UK drill, but a musical polymath by his very nature. Although largely indebted to drill, Headie possesses the remarkable ability to morph his sound around any sonic obstacle placed in front of him. Quirky garage-inspired instrumentals (“Traces”); Plucky Afrobeats (“Shed No Light”); solemn, downcast pianos (“SOLDIERS”) and contemporary iterations of classic anthems (“Oneder”/ “The Light”/ “Home”/ “Everything Nice”) stand out in his discography as soundscapes that really ought to have – on paper – presented a bigger challenge for him. He owes it all to the diverse nature of sounds he grew up listening to.

“My childhood was mostly made up of R&B, ‘cos my older sister used to listen to it, dancehall and that. Then as I grew older and I could decide what I wanted to listen to; I would listen to way more rap. You know, Styles P, French Montana and Max B and then UK rap like Giggs, Joe Black, Gunna Dee. A bit of everything really, but I was mostly influenced by French Montana and Max B”.

Broadwater Farm Estate, a council-housing allotment planted in the London Borough of Haringey, was the infamous backdrop of 1985’s Broadwater Farm riots. Riots sparked by the public’s outrage against the mysterious death of Cynthia Jarret who ‘died of heart failure’ after four policemen burst into her home during a raid on October 5th of that same year.

Headie described the estate as home to me, but even he – and the same stark reality that many others face – is not exempt from the pattern of racially-motivated injustices perpetuated by a broken system. Headie’s political insight or social commentary has never been much of a talking point but “Breathing”, a standout cut from Edna, offers a deeply saddening account of his “relationship” with the prison system.

“Obviously, you know how it goes, there are so many laws in these things and I feel like they’re just made to suit certain people in certain situations. Like in the environment I come from, it’s almost like you’re being set up to fail. You get all of these licenses and they last for years. Plus, we’re getting older so there’s things you can’t do anymore. It’s just a trap, a big trap. That’s why I always advise people who are coming up to know exactly what they’re getting themselves into. I was lucky not to get a nasty sentence, where I’d be still locked up now, I’ve been lucky to wriggle out of these traps. But that song is just the reality of these things”.

Now, we revere Headie as being one of the UK’s most distinctively unique artists and a vital thread in the fabric of UK rap. But it hasn’t always been that way. He began honing his rap skills back in 2013, when he was known as Headz, laying gritty street-tales over old rap and drill instrumentals under Starish Entertainment. He chuckles to himself as he harks back to one experience with an old business partner. “Actually I remember I played one of my CD’s for someone I used to do business with – Headz or Tailz – and he just threw it out the window. He told me it was sh*t. But we still laugh about that today”. Still, this is testament to Headie’s ability to bounce back and general attitude towards harsh criticisms and bad news.

Being Headie One certainly hasn’t absolved his affiliation with the Broadwater Farm Estate and subsequently any implications of his past life. In January 2018, shortly after The One had been released, Headie went viral after an encounter with a group of attackers at Hertfordshire University that swept social media. He reflects on the ordeal as more of a learning experience, rather than a setback.

“That situation helped me to understand social media. It’s got two sides to it. It shows people have a real short attention span, and a lot of people are just following the crowd really. But I feel like everything happens for a reason, and even though there was a lot of stuff going on in real life, a lot of people ain’t exposed to that and are just making a comment. That’s why a lot of the things people say on social media can’t really bother me. I’m passed that, social media doesn’t get to me.

“A lot of the stuff people say is rubbish, because in those kinds of situations I’m too experienced. I’m too experienced in the streets to allow what people think about me to affect my decision making. I’ve done that before when I was a youth, I’ve learnt from it. There’s no one that’s going to make me feel like I’m not tough because in one situation I decided to walk away. That was the tactically correct thing to do. Like who wants to be the guy that was a bad man for the day but is wasteman for many more years to come? That was my tunnel vision amongst all of the social media hype and stuff. And as I sit here today, I’m happy with my decision.”

And has the story has it, these events would inspire “Know Better”, perhaps his most viral hit ever. A track as dark and menacing as it was clever and punchy, most memorable for his innovative use of the “Shh” adlib. It racked up millions of views and birthed a myriad of memes, placing him back at the centre of a much more positive social media frenzy. But surprisingly, it – as is often the case when art is pure – was the result of serendipity.

“I wasn’t even meant to do that song. That week was a crazy week, there was so much going on behind the scenes, before that whole scenario I just signed my deal. At the end of that week, I was supposed to have a show, I cancelled the show, there was a lot going on. So at the end of that week, my manager phoned me and told me “even though there’s a lot going on, you’ve been trending for three days. You’re a musician, there’s no music.” So he dragged me to the studio – I wasn’t even on it – and just told me to speak about it. “Whatever your thoughts are, get them down.” And that’s how the song came about.”

Fast forward to 2020, and Headie once again, was on the receiving end of another social media storm. Earlier this year, Headie released his GANG EP with Brit Award-winning producer, Fred again. Spread across eight tracks, it was an honest, inward-facing piece of work that explored themes centred around his introspection. But Headie’s core base of listeners – those of whom are mostly drill fans – couldn’t get to grips with FredAgain’s ambient, electronic production. In their eyes, Headie had compromised himself. But actually, this was arguably his most impressive display of artistic integrity thus far.

“It was what I expected actually, because we were fully open creatively. We had no style, no aim, no reference. I gave Fred full leeway to be as whacky and experimental as he wanted. And I knew it wasn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I was okay with that. So no, I wasn’t surprised with the reaction. I enjoyed it”

Still, Headie is resolute. And although it wasn’t able to connect with many of his fans, he still holds the EP in very high regard. “Musically, some of the songs on there are up there with some of the best songs I’ve ever made. Like “Soldiers” and the interlude with FKA Twigs, those are some of the best songs I’ve made” he says. He doubles down, “I’m open to different stuff. I almost get a thrill out of people expecting to me to like something or take to something and then I don’t. Obviously when I do drill songs and that, it’s a bit too easy for me. I could make a 20-song drill album with my eyes closed, I like to test myself and push my abilities as far as they can go”.

“Edna is a motivator. She is my motivation, in so many situations” Headie imparts. Honouring his late mother, the album presents a truly masterful display of his artistry, with flashes of vivid storytelling, moments of both vulnerability and braggadocio backed up by utterly flawless production from start to finish. His evolution, both personally and sonically, shows real growth, but you wonder what ramifications his drastically different [life] circumstances could have on his music. “It’s tough because a lot of my best songs have been written from the perspective of someone in a negative situation and obviously now, it’s hard to have that same grit. Darkness is more interesting sometimes” Headie tells me.

But with a star-studded list of features including Drake, Future, Skepta and Kaash Paige, a stateside breakthrough peeks over the horizon. But breaking America – a feat that has eluded many of the UK’s great rappers – has never been a target of his, per se.

“I’ve never sat down and thought yeah I want to break America, I just go with the flow. I think my flow, the way I rap and the production I lean towards could be understood anywhere, all over the world.  Music is a universal language. I’ve never looked at it as a problem, or something I need to conquer I just think it’s a matter of time”.

It’s hard to believe the doubts that he had. Though Headie remains calm and assured throughout our conversation, he admits “I didn’t think I would be able to beat Music x Road… but I think I beat it”. One thing is for sure though, we are in the presence of greatness. And if Edna is anything to go by, the future is promising.

If you missed the last instalment of our Bricklayers series, check out our in depth conversation with East London legend Klashnekoff right here.