Billie Ray Martin’s haunting, soulful voice soothed many a chill…
Devlin joined Dagenham grime crew Outakers (O.T) in 2004, when he was 15. The release of Tales from The Crypt; a dark, smart inaugural mixtape found Devlin spitting gritty lyrics over 19 tracks. It’s a howl of adolescent angst at its darkest, with a harsh brew of drugs, sex and violence.
The Dagenham rapper dropped his third album ‘The Devil In’ in February 2017 and saw it become his highest-charting yet.
Tell me three things you love about Dagenham…
All my friends are there. All the memories. It’s inspired me. All the bad times I’ve had there have inspired me to do good things.
What was it about the Grime scene that appealed to you?
I liked old skool garage, but this was sinister. The beats were more banging. Everything had a lot more energy about it. I liked English in school, so when I heard the grime, naturally I thought I could have a go.
Was it unusual for your age group?
I just think it’s boys- that’s where the action was. Garage was more an old skool ladies vibe. All my mates used to listen to the old skool crews like Rolldeep and O.T.
Rinse FM (based in Dagenham) was the biggest underground station and this was the time when grime was really evolving. Wiley, Dizzee and everyone wanted to be on that station, so there was a lot of talk in the area between us. That drove me really.
When Kanye called you a ‘gangster rapper’ what was your initial reaction?
Er, I dunno. I thought he was slightly taking the mick- you know, two white boys in the park (a reference to Eminem). BUT it got me a lot of attention, so thank you, Kanye.
In the track 1989, you say, ‘I’m not a gangster rapper’, so how would you describe yourself?
I do some social commentary. I talk about the thoughts in my mind. I ain’t a gangster. A rapper, maybe.
Your lyrics are socially conscious, do you see yourself as political?
Not political. Politics annoys me. It might play a part in a certain thought I have for a song, or something, but…
Why does politics annoy you?
Just how corrupt it is. I’m not a politician, I’m a music artist, but obviously I look at what’s going on in the world and that may come into play.
Do you worry that with success, you’ll lose your socially conscious roots?
No, that’s what I’m trying to do, stick to my guns. A lot of people went the other way, I’m just trying to stick to MY guns. It’s going well for me. I’m selling records. I got fans behind me. I ain’t switched nothing majorly since I made my first CD. I’m very happy with the position I’m in.
Do you think shows like the X-factor are good or bad for music?
I think they’re bad. I don’t really watch that programme, but I seen a few episodes where people with amazing voices have been put out. You have people on there who can’t even sing. Cheryl Cole goes on there, can’t even sing her song live and it goes to Number One?
Would you consider taking part in a reality show?
Never. Not in a million years.
‘Cause it’s the last desperate attempt at stardom. What’s the jungle one?
I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here?
All the washed up people, innit? I’d rather fade away peacefully.
Some people see it as widening their audience
I’d see it as compromising my morals..
Some venue owners are wary of booking grime nights. How do you feel about this?
I been in what people call grime for seven years now. Every single rave I’ve been to, I’ve never seen violence. It’s got a negative stereotype around it, but obviously, it’s music from the streets, so there’s gonna be slight tensions, but I can honestly say, I ain’t seen no trouble.
Do you get bored of being compared to Eminem?
Yeah. (much laughter). It’s a compliment. That geezer’s a genius, but as you say, it’s lazy. I’m my own person. There again, there’s only ever been two good white MCs. Who else they gonna compare me to? They can’t compare me to Vanilla Ice, cause that would insult the pair of us.
Would you consider changing your style, to transition from grime to pop?
No, I don’t make pop music. I like to think I make popular music. You go back and listen to my first CD, I’m spitting hip hop bars, I’m spitting grime bars. Fast forward seven years, that’s what I’m still doing. I don’t feel no pressure.
But as you get a wider audience, there’s temptationto go for bigger hooks, something more commercial….
That’s just playing to your strengths. I wouldn’t feel bad about that. Obviously, you need a nice hook. I need to still be comfortable and be sure that I ain’t watered myself down. But at the same time, it’s gotta be a record that everyone can listen to. A big hook helps. You just gotta be clever with what you do, but I ain’t compromising.
Nightclubs, music industry, raves; it can lead to chemical meltdowns. How do you keep it together?
How do you feel about file sharing?
It bothers me. I dunno about everyone else, but I get the hump when I turn on the TV and see Beyonce and Lady Gaga on every channel. If you ain’t gonna support new artists, then we’re stuck, we ain’t moving forward. If you really are that dirt poor, and you can’t afford to buy the material and you’re a fan, go and download it, if that’s the only way you’re gonna get it. But, if you can afford it, support it; we work hard.
If you had 20 minutes in a room with Nick Clegg and David Cameron, what would you say to them?
I’d say nothing, just beat the living daylights outta them. I dunno. What could I say? I’m not a politician. I don’t think they prioritise people. They should prioritise people over money. I wouldn’t say anything nice, put it that way.
Have you ever thought about therapy?
Music is my therapy. Young people have got a lot going on these days. I’m not lucky, I worked hard to get where I am, but if you ain’t signed to a record label, how’d ya buy a gaff? How d’ya buy a box of fags nowadays? It’s ridiculous. That’s my vent. I grew up in Dagenham, it’s not the best or the worst place in the world, but I see a lot round there. My music probably prevents me from needing therapy.
Do you think marijuana should be legalised?
You know what? I love it. I’m hanging out for a spliff right now, but I don’t think it should (be legalised). I started smoking weed when I was twelve. It’s too easily available. It’s not cheap nowadays, but kids can get a score or a tenner together. Your brain ain’t properly developed ‘til you’re twenty-one. So no, I don’t think it should be. I wish I hadn’t started, it’s been a long time now and I can’t seem to kick it. I been caning strong skunk since I was twelve, I’ll probably be a vegetable by the time I get to 30.
Well, I’m forty and I’ve pulled though
Fingers crossed then.
If you could have any female artist do guest vocals on a track, who would it be?
It would have to be Whitney or Celine Dion, man. They’re very similar, but their voices are outstanding. I couldn’t say one of them’s better.
That’s a surprising answer. I thought you’d go for someone a bit more, er, street?
I love music in general. I just think their voices are particularly outstanding
If you were mayor of Dagenham for a day, what would you do?
They got some thing in Barking and Dagenham, they spend a lot of money on silly art projects, and the kids ain’t got nothing. I woulda loved a football court over on my estate when I was young. Instead, they spend millions of pounds on art developments in subways and lights on roundabouts that ain’t benefiting nobody. I’d strip ’em down, sell the materials and buy the kids basketball courts or something.
Let it Go is about the temptation to be violent towards a woman, did you worry about how that might be interpreted?
No. Everything’s too clean cut. Everyone has rows with the missus. Things get fiery, so I just wanted to capture that emotion. Everyone knows that feeling when you’ve just about had enough and you have to hit a door, or your head’s gonna explode. I couldn’t have done a tune that’s all nice- that’s not me. I’m not a horrible geezer, but everyone knows about rows in a relationship, when things get on top. Just wanted to capture that. Before I buried her. (Much laughter, he was joking folks, I think)
If you were asked by a magazine to do a photo shoot with your top off, as a male pin up, would you?
I’m too skinny. Ain’t got no muscles mate.
In Brainwashed you talk about people remembering your name, how much recognition do you need?
That was my debut single, so it was all about familiarising people with me. Obviously, I wanted people to remember me. Slowly but surely, I been climbing up the ladder. At the moment, I’m happy with the progress. I’m not a diva, I’m not saying, ‘Look at me, look at me’.
You seem comfortable in front of the camera, thought about acting?
You know what? I don’t think I could do it. A few people have mentioned it to me, but I don’t think I’d be capable?
Come on, why not?
Believe it or not, I don’t really like the limelight, so that would be another venture in front of the camera and I quite enjoy my personal life. Who knows? Never say never.
You can download or order Devlin’s album Devil In on iTunes and Spotify now.