Forgive Him When He's Famous: The Art of Being Bonkaz.
This article originally appeared on GRM Daily.
It’s late Saturday afternoon and the grounds surrounding the Tate Modern are seething with middle aged couples and tracksuit clad post-college teens. Twenty three year old Bonkaz is here to close Circuit; a youth programme intending to connect youngsters and art galleries. Audiences have been arriving since twelve, a few hours before Bonkaz sauntered in. There had been brief fears of a no show. The South Londoner has been off the grid as of late. He skipped sound check at eleven and snubbed phone calls till midday, yet shrugs it off with the type of calm that makes you embarrassed for even daring to doubt him.
It's mid-June, officially summer in London and yet the trees outside the Tate bluster with the bitterness of a stinging wintry wind and the temperature has stooped to a hoody and jacket chill. Hunched on an oak bench, Bonkaz sips from a cold Desperado and gently licks the lining of his cigarette papers.
He’s sitting with Caroline, her sister, a photographer named Rianna, a label rep and his two friends Rene and James, and though we’re here for him, he manoeuvres with a languid blasé that keeps him askew of central attention. It’s a trait that borders on shyness, further fortified by his tight lip. Speak if you have something to say. Never speak for the sake of speaking. When Bonkaz does talk it’s with a measured croaky drawl. “Some people say that I’m shy and awkward and stuff,” he says. “I mean, I can be like that too. But it’s different when it comes to who I am or what I want to present.”
Next week Bonkaz and team will fly to Paris for a show. It’s the early steps of an overarching aim to ‘shut down his vicinity.’ “England is like a state,” he says. “If you lock the whole continent, that’s like you locked the whole of America. You can literally be like Jay Z without Americans even knowing you.” He and Caroline are picking apart the itinerary for their three day trip. They have a string of French press lined up, which should begin laying the groundwork for his intended takeover and although it’s in line with his vision, Bonkaz can’t help but let out a soft sigh. The allure of Paris has left him eager to explore, even more so after his label rep lets him in on the alleged allure of the French women. Instead it’s a magazine interview here and a meeting there. “Ah well. I’m jumping straight on Tinder as soon as I touchdown anyway,” he laughs, “Then inviting all of the matches to my show.”
Before Parisian expeditions there is a show at the Tate to hurdle. Bonkaz is difficult to read but in a moment of frankness confesses that nerves have been bubbling since he peeped todays set up. It’s an unusual arrangement for a Grime set. There is no stage, rowdy backing entourage or tightly meshed crowd; just polished granite floor and clean shaven middle aged, middle class couples. With fifteen minutes till his set, Selwyn; the event coordinator, has come over to brief him. She spends a few minutes talking Bonkaz and team through the day and then glosses over some ground rules: No drinking. No smoking. No swearing. Bonkaz stuffs his hand rolled cigarette in his pocket and takes another swig from his now half empty Desperados. He agrees to omit any profanities but can do nothing about the backing CD. Besides, he can’t think of any tracks that he actually curses on anyway. Selwyn nods absentmindedly. She wants to say something else before leaving but seems a little nervous.
“Isn't there something about beating up police?” she says finally with a cautious grin.
Bonkaz hits back with typified measure. “It’s an analogy for people not taking advantage of your creative freedom.” The irony of the situation dawns on Selwyn and she agrees to let it go but Bonkaz, satisfied he has proved a point, agrees to change ‘cops’ in We Run The Block chorus to ‘what.’
“It’s about how much you value yourself or what you do,” he would tell me later. “It’s literally that. I carry through with my own personality and my own ideals in life.”
Minor divergences settled, the team make their way inside. Bonkaz grabs an empty coffee cup from the food kiosk and empties out the remainder of his beer. I hand him an orange lighter that was left on the bench, asking if it’s his. “It’s mine now,” he says with a smirk and saunters inside for a belated sound check.
Bonkaz grew up in Croydon, South London in an era where every teen had a sixteen bar on deck. In the early days Grime established itself as one of Europe’s last localised genres. Pioneers like Wiley, Jammer and D Double E became recognisable figures across the inner city and set a bullish example for the next generation of MC’s. Following the lead of crews like N.A.S.T.Y, Roll Deep and Fatal Assassins, Bonkaz and friends began crafting their own songs. As many as seven or eight of them would pile onto the same frenzied beat, channelling aggressive flows into a downpour of threats, brags and girls; often without a chorus to break things up. It signified a change in the tide for Grime. The evolution of mobile phones and the dawn of the internet era meant that kids had quicker ways to exchange music. Wireless technology like Bluetooth and Infrared and peer to peer platforms like iMesh and LimeWire reduced the dependence on Pirate Radio and youth clubs to uncover new MC’s. “We would literally go studio, go home, load up MSN and then send the tune to our whole msn list. A week later it’s all over South London.”
South of the Thames has remained fertile terrain for rap, Garage and its cultural offshoots. London Posse; Britain’s first instrumental Hip Hop collective, grew up in the council estates surrounding Battersea Park, as did founding members of pre-emptive Grime clique So Solid. In the late noughties the emergence of road rap; not initiated but at least spearheaded by Peckham’s Giggs and other rappers such as DVS and Sneakbo from Brixton was another turning point. Giggs; who himself fleeted with Garage and Jungle in his early years, altered the soundscape of the UK underground with gritty debut ‘Walk in Da Park.’ It meant that kids entering the scene with aspirations of being the next Wiley or Kano slowed things down and began trying their hands at conventional rap. The result was artists like Bonkaz and Stormzy. A new era of lyricist that sit just as comfortably on 140bpm as they do on trap infused instrumentals like 'Don’t Waste My Time'.
“The first hook I ever wrote was Grime and then I just started rapping as well,” he says. “Now it’s like I’ve got both in my locker. Even when I’m rapping I just say it’s Grime. It’s just our way of artistically expressing our self. If you make a clothing brand influenced by Grime then its Grime. That’s where it comes from.”
Bonkaz and Stormzy were friends before music. They both grew up in and around Thornton Heath and Gipsy Hill, a section of Croydon that has been nicknamed ‘The 7’ after its CR7 postal code. Krept and Konan were raised nearby as were anthemic rap collective Section Boyz. In their younger days Stormzy real name Michael Omari went by Lil Bonkaz and in turn Bonkaz adopted the handle Lil Krept. Last year the Play Dirty duo entered the Book of World Records when their third mixtape Young Kings became the highest charting independent album in UK history. At the same time Stormzy was being crowned Grime’s heir, having been named in the BBC’s Sound of 2015 and claiming a shock victory at the MOBO awards. Bonkaz has similar ambitions. “When you see Krept and Konan go and win MOBO’s and then the year after you see Stormzy do the same, it builds up a winning mentality,” Bonkaz says. “Nobody wants to be the one that didn’t do it. That’s what it has been for me, this year I have to be nominated.”
We are sitting on a bench outside the Turbine hall. Bonkaz has just closed his performance with the Pepper Riddim freestyle he unveiled on Radio 1 a few weeks back. The Rapid produced Grime Riddim has unleashed the animal in all who have manoeuvred around the hectic instrumental; Bonkaz included.
But now he is back to his reserved self. “It definitely was a bit weird,” he says reflecting on his set. “I felt like a bit of an exhibition.” At the time of writing Bonkaz is still relatively new to performing. He’s been making music for close to a decade but things only started to really pick up last year. Before that he balanced music with a string of day jobs he begrudgingly worked to stay afloat. “It just didn’t work for me,” he says bluntly. “It’s like I’m working towards something with no outcome. I was getting my wage but building something that I didn’t care about. I didn’t have any dedication or willingness to try and do more than the minimum that I could do in order to get paid.”
His last role involved scanning boxes and sorting through forms in a warehouse and lasted three days before he walked out, disenchanted with pulling his focus towards another man’s vision. He knew his passion was music but there was still the concern of making ends meet. “Up until last year I always kind of thought there was going to be a day where I’m going to have to stop all this and find something else to do.” Things started to change when he began previewing We Run the Block at shows. Sonically it’s a grime song and Bonkaz sees it as such, but it has inadvertently become the flag bearer for ‘New Generation;’ a term coined by Bonkaz and friends to signal the arrival of Britain’s new wave of creatives. The ‘Urban’ scene is having a moment and Bonkaz is one of a handful of artists to embody the shift. A UK MC with a defiant British swagger. A creative fiercely protective of his art in a scene that became comfortable with succumbing to the glitz of America or the cash stumped up by a label. It’s not a sound as such, more a way of life he explains, forged from Grime’s DIY aesthetics and the boundless scope of opportunity allowed by the internet.
It’s not uncommon for a movement to peter out following early promise. Those that last usually rest on sturdy foundations, depending on a loyal chapter of fans to withdraw too when pop culture’s fleeting interest inevitably fizzles out. On first looks New Generation ticks these boxes but forecasting the future seems senseless to him. “If it was a book there would be two pages filled and then a hundred pages with nothing on it. It doesn’t make sense if I try and define the whole book, it’s limiting. Just bring whatever you bring to the table. We all have the confidence and the authority within this to say this is what I’m doing and this is New Generation. There’s no boss and leaders or hierarchy or whatever. If you’re with it you’re with it.”
It’s not a surprise that New Generation is catching outside attention. For Bonkaz he’s careful about weeding genuine support from sly opportunists. His record deal with DJ Target’s and Danny Weed’s Sony Music imprint Pitched Up was only signed because ‘the feeling was right’ and the label showed no desire in testing his character or bending his sound. But the vetting process isn’t always that simple, chiefly when potentially life altering sums of money are stacked on the table.
Last month he had to turn down an opportunity with a ‘global superstar’ who just wasn’t the right fit. He won’t divulge on identities but any collaboration would have gifted him the coverage many Grime MC’s don’t see in their entire careers. These are the decisions Bonkaz and team have to weigh up. Take what’s on the table or maintain an integrity that grants the type of permanence that can’t be measured in social media metrics and YouTube reach. “A lot of people would have went and done it,” he says. “People don’t know how long this will last for them so they take every opportunity they get before it runs out. But I’m thinking about longevity so you’ve got to turn down certain things, you’ve got to compromise on things. Just trust in yourself and believe that you’re going to be here for long enough to see those opportunities come back around. Know what I mean?”
New Generation began picking up traction after New Gen Live, a showcase put together by Bonkaz, Renz and Caroline. It was where Bonkaz first began performing We Run The Block and brought together those who proudly flaunt the New Generation title. The first was held in mid-February and a follow up pegged for late June. It’s the next time I see Bonkaz. The sequel; New Gen Live 2 is being held at a small club in Stoke Newington, a part of town not yet mopped up by the post-Olympic whitewashing of East London. It feels lived in, not temporarily rented. Chicken cottage and Kingsland Road as opposed to Cereal café’s and overpriced pop up stalls.
It’s eight in the evening, the air sticky and warm. We’ve reached a break in the evening. Rapper Avelino is not due on stage for another hour, meaning the crowd; numbering shy of two hundred, has spilled onto the street. There is a carnival buzz. I find Bonkaz in high spirits; loud and laughing with friends. He stops to speak with Caroline before posting by a wall with Avelino for a few minutes. Across the street Stormzy and co-d Flipz; both strikingly tall, lounge outside an off licence. A few feet away Kojey Radical and Etta Bond chatter by the clubs entrance and creative collective Asylum 33 (who shot the video for WRTB) are sprawled in seats outside a Turkish bar. It’s a gathering of ambitious envelope pushers from a horde of trades: rappers, photographers, writers, actors, creative directors. And yet nobody is swapping business cards or engaging in tiresome networking. Most if not all are here to soak in the vibes and if they’re lucky, catch an exclusive track.
Later, when Bonkaz hits the stage, the tiny basement room vibrates with the heavy thuds of stomping feet and the yells of a bewitched crowd howling back Pretty Brown Eyes and We Run the Block. In spite of this, it’s an unreleased song that stirs the loudest reaction. He mumbles through the first verse but a spirited chorus that sees him belt out ‘Run out the ends!’ on loop incites rapture. This is a Grime set. Only a handful of the crowd have heard the audio before tonight but mosh pits are raging in the front and a group of preened girls jump back to avoid the chaos. James and Rene; who I met at the Tate, are smashing into bodies in the middle, belting ‘Run out the Ends!’ whenever Bonkaz arrives at the chorus. When the set is finished Rene emerges, head glistening, sporting a hearty smile. “Pure energy,” he laughs and makes for the exit.
Afterwards, as I take in Bonkaz performance, I find myself reflecting on the New Generation. Over the course of a few months I brought it up with about a dozen individuals and most, like Bonkaz, would rather focus on the now. As I scan the basement I remember his response and suddenly understand why he was keen to avoid predictions. Ten, twenty years in the future is irrelevant. The New Generation is happening now.