Mikill Pane’s Homecoming

Words + Photography: Jesse Bernard

Summer has arrived, beer gardens full to the brim, and London Fields has temporarily become a resort for locals to pitch up their disposable barbeques. I meet up with Mikill Pane at the heart of Hackney, down at his local pub where we play a couple of rounds of pool. This time, I took the bragging rights but he promises a rematch at some point in the near future.

Mikill Pane is Hackney born and raised. He tells me stories of growing up in Stoke Newington and times where walking through London Fields would mean you’d leave with less than what you entered with. But the rapper still calls it home, and it’s the changing environment that has provided the landscape to his work over the years. The characters he creates aren’t one-dimensional: they’re complex and layered, representing the fringes of society who are often forgotten. In 2011, Pane rose to heightened popularity through his work with his Ed Sheeran on the hit, “Little Lady”. Considering how well the song blew up, some still believe that Sheeran should’ve left Mikill’s verses on the updated version, “A Team”, which went onto become the first single from the singer’s debut album, +. It was a long time ago and Pane has no regrets; he understands that British rap was in a peculiar place at the time, at least commercially.

Let MC It, Mikill Pane’s last project, was released three years ago but he’s kept himself busy since with music firmly on his mind. Late last month, he released his second album, The Night Elm on Mare Street, Pt. 1, in a landscape that has changed dramatically since his 2013 debut, Blame Miss Barclay. The British rap space is in a much better one with Pane around, and while he cites Dave as a current favourite, it’s clear to see now (after the release of Psychodrama) how much of an influence the former has had—even if the majority don’t see it. This time around, here’s hoping the Hackney-based MC receives his flowers.

“The journey is always so painful, but when you get there you realise it wasn’t that bad.”

I think when we last spoke, Let MC It was the most recent project at the time. But you’ve been away for a few years doing other work?

I was managing for a bit. I had an artist called Allana Verde and I was co-writing a lot; we got Mercston on her last EP, but that didn’t end on a high note. I do think it helped improve my songwriting ability, but other than that, I was doing voiceover work. I spent a lot of time writing this album before I decided to put it out. I never stopped making tunes, but I stopped putting them out. I’d been toying with the idea of putting an album out for years! Blame Miss Barclay is six years old now, so I felt it was time for me to put out another one.

Has your process changed in any way?

Nah, to be honest, it’s the most basic process. I just sit there for a bit and I’ll put pen to paper. I don’t throw lyrics away, there is no waste, so if I’ve written something and it’s not worked, I’m most likely going to use them for another song. I don’t write for no reason—I would rather craft something very specific. In the early days of my career, everything had to be super conceptual, to a nerdy degree. Even on Blame Miss Barclay, the other day someone DM’d me and asked me about one of the metaphors and I told them, “Nah, this is actually about a mouse on the tube. If you want, you can take it as a metaphor about the industry but, I swear to God, I wrote a tune about a mouse on the District line!” I am very nerdy about how, why, and what I write.

You are born and bred Hackney, and it’s changed a lot since you first came on the scene. How has that impacted you on a creative level?

Greatly. Blame Miss Barclay had all types of characters and I’ve got this song called “I’ve Realised”, which is from the perspective of Lucky, who is basically a roadman. He’s a lengman, shotta, or whatever you want to call it, but the song’s about people coming into a community where there’s poverty and expecting change immediately. That’s the aspect that pisses me off about gentrification; I’ve developed a lot of friendships because of it, but I’ve had more altercations as a result of it than I have with youts from road. The same people my youts serving white to are complaining about the violence in the area and it shows the level of entitlement and how much they’re contributing. My life does massively impact what I write about but I use my imagination to tell the story.

You could say the same with “Little Lady” too.

I get a lot of people asking me if that was a relative I was talking about and, thankfully, no it wasn’t. But it’s not a mad story, in the sense it’s unbelievable—that shit happens all the time. Especially on ends, there was always a little lady.

That’s the one most people know you for, but do you feel like there was a missed moment with that?

I wouldn’t be able to give you any figures or an estimate, but I can tell you that a lot of people think that the song is all Ed Sheeran—they don’t even know that there’s another person on that song. That’s partly ignorance but it’s also because Ed raps and, back then, they’d be forgiven for thinking that. Even though it’s my biggest song, it’s a tough one; reason being, the song’s subject matter shouldn’t be something you want to profit off. It’s a bit of a catch 22 because I’d be profiting off collective misery. I sometimes feel like I should never have written the song but I’m happy that the song raised awareness. My feelings towards it are quite complicated.

And then “A-Team” came out, which felt like a more sanitised version of it.

Interesting fact: “A-Team” came out before, as it got re-released. It was on one of Ed’s early EPs. I heard this song and told him that I’d written some rap lyrics years ago. I met Ed when I was 28 and I wrote the lyrics when I was 20, and the lyrics were originally written to “Road To Zion” by Damian Marley and Nas. I told Ed about it and he suggested we merge the lyrics and make a remix of “A-Team”. When he was putting out +, the label got him to take down all his old stuff because they knew how big he was going to be marketed. So everyone thought that chronologically, “Little Lady” came first.

Should things have gone differently for you?

Nah. I think things went the way they were supposed to go. That song outsold every tune on the EP. That EP featured Wiley, Devlin, Jme, Ghetts and Sway, and these are man who are all bigger than me.

“I am very nerdy about how, why, and what I write.”

That’s the one song I go back to—plus a lot of people can relate to it, even though they haven’t experienced the story itself. I think because you told such a complex, layered human story, people grew attached to it.

It’s the detail. I have such a fastidious need to pay attention to detail and when it comes to storytelling, that is the most important aspect. Anyone can tell a story with a sad concept, but it is the details that evoke emotion. You never know what detail someone’s gonna relate to—it’s like you were saying where people can relate to it without never being in that situation, but it’s because you can visualise it. That’s what I love about Dave.


Dave is my favourite MC. I see so much of myself in Dave and that’s why I relate to his writing so much.

There’s something about the way that he writes where you don’t have to experience what he’s talking about to feel it, and there’s the way that he enunciates his word. You have to take in every word and syllable.

I think it’s a West African ting, you know. I’ve got this song on the new album called “What Have We Become”, and it’s got a guy called Joshua Idehen on it and he’s from a collective called Benin Citizen. He delivers this spoken word outro and he’s got the sickest and thickest Nigerian accent and it’s the best for public speaking.

It’s very melodic, innit?

I think that’s why Nigerians love to talk. They can talk for hours!

With the new album, The Night Elm on Mare Street, Pt. 1, how would you describe it?

It’s a two-part album, with eight tracks either side. The elm represents myself, roots in Hackney but branching out to other places. The intro explains why I went away in the first place, then there’s tracks that talk about my formative years and there’s one called “I Wanna Have A Conversation” which is about the MSN days. It really does become an autobiography in a sense. Part two explores the places I’ve travelled to and why I wanted to get out of the UK in the first place, and it ends with my return.

Where would you say it fits within your body of work?

I’d almost say I released Blame Miss Barclay prematurely and I should’ve released The Night Elm on Mare Street much earlier. I predicted this album on the Return of Mister Pane, which was my first ever tune, so ten years later, I got two of my friends who are ‘90s babies to produce it because they’re deep into those ‘80s synths you used to hear. We immersed ourselves in ‘80s cinemas and pop culture, Stranger Things included, but obviously I had my memories as well.

How did you know when this album was complete?

I’m a neat freak when it comes to organising so I already had an idea of what the album was gonna sound like before I’d even finished it. It was the same with Miss Barclay: rather than just record a bunch of songs, I’d had them all in mind. Like I said, I’m basic bruv.

Some people approach writing very differently, and I always try and get a sense of how artists delve into the process. Even when I’m writing, I’ll often have one line which forms the whole piece and that’s usually somewhere in the middle, but it always comes to me when I’m not thinking about it.

When it comes to writing, I’m very similar. I’ll have a punchline written in my notes, or two words written, but I’ll try not to force it. Listening to music in the session helps a lot but with the formation of lyrics, there’s no method.

It sounds like the album you could only make now, at 35. You couldn’t make it at 20 or 25.

You’re right, and it’s almost cyclical in nature because it all comes back around.

There’s a lesson in patience there as well, especially as an artist.

Absolutely! And you only ever realise it at the time. The journey is always so painful, but when you get there you realise it wasn’t that bad.

Posted on September 10, 2019