Devlin’s Grime Flame Is Burning Brighter Than Ever

Words: Tomas Fraser
Photography: Hyperfrank

“If the reception’s bad, here’s another number for ya,” reads Devlin’s text. It’s a Wednesday night and I’m trying to get through to him from a busy, noisy pub, perched over a bar stool reading my notes and reflecting on how his music impacted on me when I was younger.

As he’s grown older, Devlin has grown into his outsider persona—a grime MC with more than enough fire to hold it down with the best whenever required, but also enough wisdom not to let himself become consumed by the game. “It’s been a brilliant year for me so far,” he says, as I ask him about how his 2019 has started. “I’ve had singles out and videos and everything else. I’m enjoying cracking on at the moment and seeing what happens.”

His new album, The Outcast, released in March, is perhaps a testament to an understanding of this new role he has to play; no longer does he need to compete with anyone but himself, and he’s completely at ease with it. “I’ve always been in the scene, I suppose, but even when I’m out of it, I’m always gonna be me at the end of the day,” says Dev. “I’m a normal bloke and I enjoy everyday things, but music is always gonna be a big part of me, of course.”

While modern-day artists are often judged by output alone—and within grime especially, a frequently misplaced emphasis on #workrate—Devlin’s career so far has been defined as much by his time away from the booth as it has in it. His early mixtapes Tales From The Crypt (2006) and The Art Of Rolling (2008)—vital windows into the everyday struggles of young people in inner-city London—captured Devlin at his most active. He was a key member of iconic crew The Movement alongside Ghetts, Wretch 32 and Scorcher, was beefing Wiley every other week, and was widely considered one of the best second-gen grime spitters of the time. His underground buzz caught the attention of the majors and soon he’d inked a deal with Island, who released his debut album proper, 2010’s Bud, Sweat & Beers. It’d be a further three years before he released a follow-up—A Moving Picture featured collaborations with Ed Sheeran and Etta Bond—and another four years until he released 2017’s The Devil In via his own independent label, Devlin Music.

“Through being in the game, I’ve learnt a lot,” Dev concedes. “My music has matured and over time, I’ve tried to perfect the craft with each project and that takes a while, you know?” I asked if leaving Island had ever forced him to take time out or rethink his career. “You know what? I had a great time with Island Records,” he points out affirmatively. “A lot of people could point fingers and I know what you’re getting at, but I had two top 10 records, a gold album. The people there were very good to me and it’s all part of life, you know? That experience helped me as much as going independent has done.”

“I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself in the past, probably too much at times, whereas now I know that I need to relax and just enjoy the journey.”

Although often lasting years at a time, Devlin’s periods of relative inactivity allowed him the space to ‘live out his life normally’ and with it, collect experiences that would later inform new material. “Music is like therapy to me. I reflect on what’s around me, what I’m seeing, and a lot of the time, I’ll take that into the booth when I’m ready to start writing.”

As a lyricist, Devlin has always ranked as one of grime’s best and most illuminated. On mic, he’s ferocious, but zoom out for a second and you’ll find that in between the lines, there’s entrenched social commentary, reflections on politics, globalisation, the economy. First mixtape Tales From The Crypt is a goldmine for those wanting a deeper insight into this psyche, but aside from his major label excursions at Island, both The Devil In and The Outcast see him returning to the style and lyricism of his early material. It’s compounded by one of the LP’s lead tracks, “Fun For Me”—a triumphant, chest-beating anthem that says it all about his state of mind.

“Grime’s all I’ve ever known,” he says, nonchalantly, “so I guess I’ve always set the bar high for myself in that respect. I never watched anyone else—I’ve always just done me! I’m frontline in the scene now too, whereas when I was younger, I was more of a fan of everything, and I think over time, I’ve grown and matured and bettered myself.”

The Outcast is also littered with throwback names and OG reference points, too. Lewi White, one of his oldest collaborators and producers of choice, is a prominent feature, as are collaborations with the likes of Scratchy and Syer B. “I wanted to take it back to the raw elements and write like I used to,” Dev explains. “It’s probably less conceptual than before but I just wanted to get in the studio, hear beats that I liked, and then write to them how I wanted to—like I used to back in the day, really. That process obviously involves bringing people like Lewi back in.” And what about the process of writing an album and piecing tracks together? “Don’t get me wrong, I’ll have concepts and ideas in mind, but I don’t believe you can make an ‘album song’, if you know what I mean? Every song is different, but once I’ve got three or four down, it all starts to flow quite naturally.”

Devlin’s ambitions for the new album are modest, but nod to a humble enthusiasm that makes the record feel all the more endearing. You get the sense that more than anything, The Outcast has made Devlin feel everything but—he’s struck a balance and crucially, found his peace. “Obviously, I’m about, and I want the album to do sick, but I’m just enjoying being busy again,” he says. “Expect nothing and take what comes—it’s the best way. I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself in the past, probably too much at times, whereas now I know that I need to relax and just enjoy the journey.”

“When you see people shouting lyrics back at you, especially to stuff you wrote years ago, it’s an amazing feeling.”

For all his artistry and the achievements that have come with it, what strikes me the most as we draw our conversation to a close is how humble and refreshingly down-to-earth Dev has remained. As he approaches 15 years in the game over the next 18 months, it’s difficult to imagine another grime MC who’s weathered the industry—the highs, the lows, the extremes—like he has. From clashing Wiley as a 17-year-old, to performing at The Brits in 2010, to then working with the likes of Ed Sheeran and Labrinth, Devlin’s time in the spotlight has rarely threatened to change the person he’s always been. “I’m just me, to be honest, and the releases and everything I’ve put out over the years, they represent my life’s journey.”

As he prepares to embark on a UK tour in support of The Outcast, which takes in dates across Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, Nottingham, Dublin and London, I ask one final question about performing all these years later—does he still have the hunger? Does he still enjoy it? “I still get that buzz, definitely,” he says with purpose. “When you see people shouting lyrics back at you, especially to stuff you wrote years ago, it’s an amazing feeling bruv. It’s why I do it.”

Posted on April 01, 2019