Making History Has Become Skepta’s Default Setting

Words: Yemi Abiade
Photography: Stephane Feugere

It’s been a good few weeks to be Joseph Junior Adenuga. The man known to the world as Skepta, who celebrated his 40th birthday this week, is riding on the crest of eternal, cultural relevance on a regular day, but has strived to outdo even his own lofty standards recently with a two-pronged approach. Act one: after exhibiting his debut painting, Mama Goes to Market, at London institution Sotheby’s, it would later sell for £81,900, more than 100% of its expected sale price. Act two: his creative agency, Big Smoke Corp, would strike a partnership with sportswear OG Puma on a number of future projects. Keeping his foot firmly on the neck of the culture from which he came—while busting down the door to milieus unforeseen by his generation and before—his endearing vision continues to bear fruit in unprecedented power moves. Mogul Skep is fully on the roads.

Of course, every success story must be placed in its rightful context, within the confines of the subject’s journey rather than an isolated instance of glory among many. One could point at many a moment that captures the essence of Skepta’s unwavering grind, from his days as DJ Moschino Joe to artiste at large. But, for one that marries his refusal to compromise whether his endless creative drive, look no further than April 30th, 2015, a day steeped in infamy for the Tottenham legend. For on this day, on little notice, Skepta gathered hundreds of revellers in a car park in Shoreditch, East London, for an impromptu Shutdown show, an experience so kinetic that it was heard and felt not just in London, but nationwide. “Man’s been putting in a good two years’ work into making this vision happen,” he told the crowd that day, revelling in the authority, akin to a war general addressing his subjects at the crack of dawn before battle.

He wasn’t wrong either. Leading up to the car park invasion, Skepta was on a path of rediscovery. The vision he spoke to, blurred for years by the lure of mainstream success, had dealt such a blow to his identity that he was forced to hit a hard reset. To reassess his purpose in a world he created, wiping his eyes on 2012 mixtape Blacklisted, Meridian’s finest went back to basics musically, blessing the scene with immortal anthem “That's Not Me” in 2014, an important UK-US link up on the Young Lord-assisted “It Ain’t Safe” and, a week prior to the swarm on Shoreditch, the indomitable “Shutdown”. A track that captured the enduring power of grime music and the rediscovered zeal that its leading lights now brought to the genre, “Shutdown” was a classic on arrival, seamlessly uniting grime’s day-one fans and would-be supporters.

Both sides of the fence would converge on East London on that spring day, many of them scaling actual fences to witness the king of grime in the flesh—all off the strength of a tweet just hours before announcing the show. But Skepta had planted the seeds of this moment years before, tweeting as early as 2010: “One day I’m gonna have a party in a car park and you can all come for free.” Perpetually thinking miles outside of the box, his desire to bring fans into his every move has long fostered a deep emotional connection that became clear as they descended. And they gave their all to him. With doors open at 7pm, the car park was packed to the brim for Skepta’s arrival at 8pm, delivering a half-hour set of his then-recent drops and a brief spray of classical bars to the tune of Rebound X’s “Rhythm N Gash” riddim as each track’s unrelenting bass reverberated off the pebbly ground, nearby buildings and the concrete bridge above, with the crowd screaming every bar back at the man from Boy Better Know.

Though the impending shadow of the authorities loomed over the set—a few riot vans were present while Skepta even joked, “Someone had a bet that we wouldn’t get past the second song”—Shutdown Shoreditch was an act of defiance in itself. Against convention, against rules, against a perceived notion of order and compliance to the political and social establishment. Taking place in the midst of the socio-economic transformation of Shoreditch in recent years (hold tight gentrification!), the image of young kids of all races—middle fingers in the air screaming “fuck the police” at the behest of Skepta himself, moshing in the middle of a newer, cleaner portion of London—marked a link between that white-hot energy only grime could conjure, and the new reality vast parts of the UK capital have faced since even before the event.

Skepta fed off of these vibrations, surrounded by his BBK brothers in arms as he was witnessing history. But making history is Skepta’s default setting. By the time he played (and reloaded) “Shutdown”, a collective catharsis engulfed the partygoers, placing an exclamation not just on the excursion, but on the new-age impact Skepta had assumed. With everyone shuffling back to their ends in a sweaty daze, they knew they had seen something special, something unheard of, something grime. Whether you call 2013-15 the genre’s ‘resurgence’ era or not, this spoke to its pull and its trajectory as a world-conquering sound.

It is perhaps easy to reduce Shutdown Shoreditch to a simple moment in time, when one of the UK’s biggest artists capitalised on his growing stardom. But we’re not going to do that, because that isn’t the whole story. The whole story highlights a dream achieved, a legacy take shape, a moment the streets will have a hard time forgetting. It would set Skepta up perfectly for what would follow, from his Mercury Prize-winning album, Konnichiwa, to being in rooms with art houses and global sports brands in the present day. We’ve been fortunate enough to trace every step of his ladder to the position of an almost mythical figure. And when the scene needed him to represent as UK music’s tectonic plates were shifting, he took the scenic route via the car park, bringing us all with him. Never to be replicated or duplicated, Shutdown Shoreditch is a triumph of imagination and not giving a fuck.

Posted on September 23, 2022