From Castro Saint To CASISDEAD: A Brief History Of Grime’s Masked Villain ⚔️

Words: Son Raw

In case the music didn’t make it obvious, CASISDEAD has seen some shit. Over the course of 15-plus years, the man originally known to grime superfans as Castro Saint went from pirate radio to mixtapes to XL Recordings, but even tracing that circuitous path from street kid to artist on a prestige label means skipping entire years off the radar.

As unfiltered as he is on the mic, CAS plays his cards close to the chest, wearing a mask, fiercely guarding his privacy, but still dropping a trail of clues for dedicated listeners to piece together. From alleged narcotics sales and drug abuse to rumours of illness and famous friends, separating fact from fiction is fruitless, and when facts are this sparse, plenty of people have been happy to print the legend. Nevertheless, with the critical success of his years-in-the-making official debut, Famous Last Words, it’s worth getting familiar with just how deep CAS’ rhyming roots go.

Repping Tottenham from day one, evidence of Castro Saint’s earliest days as a grime MC are few and far between, with his few radio sets having long vanished into the digital either at the whims of YouTube’s deletion policies and expiring domain names. Unless you’ve got a degree in online archeology, the best a quick search will reveal is a radio clip taken from a later mixtape, itself seemingly an online bootleg. This early performance is the closest CAS has ever been to a traditional grime barrer, and while the talent is obvious, he’s still clearly finding his artistic voice as he tries out the kind of skippy flow best-suited to artists like D Double E.

More notable is his actual voice, which is already nearly fully formed: a North London gangland cheekiness blended with what sounds like gravel and rock salt to form a truly ominous tone. And though his live performances were few and far between, Castro would soon figure out the right flow for his unique inflections in the studio, recording a plethora of songs as grime transitioned to its mixtape era, though again: few were properly released. Thankfully, though, SoundCloud still provides a full playlist of material.

Castro is in pure grime mode here, but you can already hear him straining against the genre’s constraints, most notably on “Chemist”—one of the few songs that made their way to the wider world, courtesy of Jme’s Boy Better Know Vol. 3. Here, the tempo still hovers around 140BPM and the drug dealer talk feels par for course, but the featherweight synth pads have a hint of ‘80s glamour to them, in what would be a sign of things to come. But before listeners got a chance to get familiar, Castro Saint was gone.

A grime don vanishing from public view in the late 2000s wasn’t exactly newsworthy: as the genre matured from a teenage pastime to a cottage industry to the format that would kick open the door to mainstream acceptance for UK MCs, plenty of talented kids aged out of rhyming as a hobby, with only a fortunate few growing their talent into sustainable careers. In this light, it’s CAS’ mid 2010s re-emergence that’s truly surprising. Rebooting as CASISDEAD, he released The Number 23 in 2014, a mixtape cementing him as a generational talent. Now permanently masked up (talk about being ahead of the curve), CAS solidified his approach to song-writing, combining Eminem-like shock value to harrowing tales of drug-use and abuse worthy of The Wire and Top Boy.

There was plenty of grime in the mix, courtesy of names like Jme, Tre Mission and Faze Miyake, but CAS also found time to explore boom-bap from The Purist and Danny Brown DJ Skywlkr. Then there was “Drugs Don’t Work”—produced by then-red hot experimental bass producer MssingNo, the Verve-sampling track was an immediate showstopper: a full-born addiction confessional so convincing, it had listeners wondering if other CAS lines dismissed as character-work were actually true to life.

The stage was set for a CASISDEAD takeover but, apart from guest spots for names like Giggs and Footsie, as well as a few loosies (“Pat Earrings”, “Boys Will Be Boys”, “Park Assist” with La Roux)… nothing. Rumours of an LP for XL abounded but, once again, he vanished from the spotlight, only to re-emerge just under a decade later for his debut album, Famous Last Words. Which brings us to CAS 3.0. Smartly updating the formula for an era where UK rhyming isn’t beholden to genre conventions, Famous Last Words mostly does away with grime flows and 140BPM beats in favour of a love letter to boogie and synthpop, styles forged in the heart of the cocaine ‘80s.

Combined with a series of sci-fi-inspired skits tying together the album’s loose narrative, the result is a slick, occasionally euphoric street rap album that pivots from darkness to light on a dime. This was a gamble; it’s not everyday that The Petshop Boys’ Neil Tennant features on a rap album, or that Stranger Things composer Kyle Dixon and Italians Do It Better label founder Johnny Jewel produce one—but the move not only works, it highlights the heretofore little explored connective tissue between grime and ‘80s synth music: the glassy textures, the staccato drum machines and, of course, the obsession with charlie.

Rhyme-wise, CAS’ pen is sharper than ever, and though the vibes may feel a tad bit removed from the livewire urgency of The Number 23, he more than makes up for it through vivid storytelling, expanding his drug-dealing tales to cover a surprising amount of relationship woes. Of course, CAS being CAS, these aren’t your traditional “gyal tunes”, and the entire record should come with a giant trigger warning, but for listeners invested in the type of sordid details found in gangster memoirs or true crime podcasts, the album is a home run.

Above all, Famous Last Words is the triumph of a man who beat the odds—health issues, violence, drug abuse and more. It’s also a brilliant work of musical curation that somehow manages to collide the sounds of 1985, 2005, 2015 and 2095 together without anything seeming out of place. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another decade for a sequel.

Posted on November 06, 2023