Devlin’s Pen On ‘Tales From The Crypt’ Should Be Celebrated More

Words: Tomas Fraser

Behind the languid, geezer-ish persona, striking silver hair and unorthodox, piercing flow, Devlin stands as one of grime’s most gifted and powerful story-tellers. Although perhaps better known for releasing three studio albums proper—two for Island Records and his latest, The Devil In, released independently in 2017—and collaborations with names like Ed Sheeran and Labrinth, Tales From The Crypt is a lesser known record that still shines brightest. Written and released in 2006 when he was just seventeen years old, it painted a bleak but hopeful picture of Devlin’s life in Dagenham, East London, where he grew up.

Seen by many at the time as the focal point of local Dagenham crew Out-Takers (often referred to as OT) alongside his mentor Dogzilla and fellow MCs like Shotz and Deeperman, Devlin had also become a close affiliate of The Movement—the era-defining crew that included Ghetts, Wretch 32, Scorcher and Mercston—who regularly exchanged blows with Wiley in one of grime’s iconic, early day power struggles. Despite his young age, Devlin was lyrically streets ahead of the majority of the competition, so much so that Wiley—some ten years his senior—saw him as a direct rival, prompting send-after-send that Devlin did well to ignore, until finally firing back on “Extra Extra”, a standout cut on Tales From The Crypt.

For all the war talk though, Tales From The Crypt excelled for its simple, heartfelt narrative and emotionally-charged content. While Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner is often seen as the go-to album for understanding grime within a wider socio-political context, Tales From The Crypt formed its own snapshot—the beats may not be as fractious or rhythmically complex, but his bars are an open book, a diary of of-the-time thoughts and feelings. From the grand, horror-score intro, in which Devlin references watching Tales From The Crypt as a kid—the ‘90s US horror anthology series he named the record after—it’s clear that much of the inspiration behind his music was rooted in his childhood and day-to-day experiences in Dagenham. Second track “Bad Day” was an attest to this, as he spoke of “no weed, no cash in the drawers” over the opening 16 bars, before launching into a frustrated tirade that detailed his struggles with diabetes, worries for his mother and a longing to move away (“Had enough of this same city skyline, dirty old roads and derelict high rise”).

This theme is continued a little further along the tracklist on the heartbreakingly sad “Take Me Away”, which commented on the violence and suffering you sense he felt entrapped by, a symptom of the broken society he saw all around him. “Every time I open a paper or watch the news, someone’s been stabbed or killed,” he spits glumly. “All I wanna do is stack high, I don’t wanna be a bad guy, I just want a part of the franchise,” he continues, before breaking into the hook—“Somebody take me away, ‘cos something don’t feel right.” These are simple dreams of escaping the roads, but told with innocent, candid and personal detail. Discussing emotions and feelings can be difficult for young men to navigate at the best of times, but Devlin’s best work across Tales... was seemingly driven by his own vulnerabilities.

These introspective moments were countered by spiky moments too, however, which built Devlin up as a young man who could do more than just handle himself on mic. Taking on Wiley on “Xtra Xtra”, which listens like a freestyle send over Rapids “Xtra” beat, he went for the neck from the off, taking shots at Wiley’s age (“You used to say 38 38, nowadays you’re about 38, 38”), album failures, drug use and so on, while on “Dealers”—a track featuring Ghetts, Wretch 32 and Scorcher—he delved into the chaotic, violent world of shotting. His flow on these tracks, still piercing and hyper, was noticeably tighter and amped up, a testament to the raw emotion he managed to work into his music, regardless of subject matter.

Although only 17 at the time of writing, Devlin also seemed fraught with anxiety about the prospect of his own death throughout Tales…. Touching on it on tracks like “Bad Day”, he addressed his concerns at full tilt on “Final Curtain”, which listens like a humble, self-penned obituary. “When the curtain comes, I wanna know that I lived life,” he spits on the hook, “And I wanna have no regrets, and earned respect from my family and people around me.” Desperate to do good in a bad world, he also enlisted Wretch 32 to echo his sentiments, who spoke of his son and the challenges of balancing life on the roads with fatherhood.

These anxieties bread contempt on the record too, but rather than take aim at contemporaries, Devlin honed in on ‘the system’ on tracks like “Reality Is Sinister”, which spotlighted his issues with politicians. “Visible for all to see, the MPs are stealing money off of you and me, professional criminals,” he rhymes, “wonder why we turn to gun and knife crime? ‘Coz of all the hard earned cash they deprive us of in a lifetime.” Where Dizzee Rascal’s social commentary on Boy In Da Corner was more inferred, Devlin said it with his chest—and it’s certainly an interesting viewpoint given the negative dialogue around the culture of drill music in 2018. It seems as though 12 years on, not much has changed.

At 18 tracks long, Tales… was certainly at the heavier end of the mixtape/album scale but, aside from a number of freestyle skits, it felt glued together surprisingly well. The beats were punchy and melody-rich, the majority produced by OT producers-of-choice Rachet and Deverlish, and through his tight grip on subject matter, helped Devlin present an honest, time-capsule perspective on the choices still facing lots of young and disenfranchised young kids in the UK. The roads promise short-term wealth, but escaping them promises long-term peace of mind—a dilemma that he clearly wrestled with across the tracklist. Rather than glamourise the struggles he was surrounded by however, Devlin chose to battle his demons and lay himself bare on Tales From The Crypt, a forgotten gem of a record that has stood the test of time to rank as one of grime’s true understated classics.

Collage images by Danny Walker, Ewen Spencer and BNTL.

Posted on August 06, 2018