Rapman’s Rapid Rise 📈

Words: Aaron Bishop

As soon as Rapman stepped on the scene in 2013, he was working with UK rap legends such Joe Black and Margs, and later new-school royalty like J Hus. But it was only after the release of Shiro’s Story in 2018—the innovative music video series that took storytelling to a whole new level—that the spotlight was placed firmly on him and his unique ability to create authentic worlds and characters through his chosen medium of rap.

Growing up in Deptford, South East London, Rapman has always remained true to his Lewisham roots, telling stories inspired by real-life experiences from in and around the place known to many as the Blue Borough. Following the success of the Shiro’s Story trilogy, Rapman has since become a member of the iconic Roc Nation family in a deal that includes management, film, television and his own record label. He also partnered up with the BBC and Paramount Pictures UK to produce his debut movie, Blue Story, of which he serves as the lead writer and director. From living in the blocks of Blue Borough to chopping it up with one of the greatest figures in modern rap, Jay-Z, to bringing the Blue Story to the big screen with a Hollywood-funded movie, he has truly come full circle.

Rapman is currently living his own movie and we’re all watching, popcorn-ready with front row seats. TRENCH spoke with the artist before news broke that Vue and Showcase cinemas would no longer be screening Blue Story due to an isolated brawl that took place in Birmingham on Nov. 23. Rapman’s response can be found here, but we are celebrating below.

“I feel like I can either take what happened to me and be traumatised by it, or I can use it and tell my story.”

Congratulations on the new movie, man! But before we get into that, I want to start off with Shiro’s Story—did you expect the YouTube series to take off like it did?

Nah, not even. All I know is that I put the song on a project at the end of 2017; I wrote and recorded it in 2016 and just had it sitting there for a year. I decided I needed to release a project the following year and, instead of writing a whole new story, I just decided I’d put this one out. I thought it was okay... I didn’t think it was life-changing. I just put it on there to save me having to write a whole other song. Then I noticed a lot of the feedback from the project was about that song, and a lot of people that didn’t normally listen to me were messaging me saying, “I heard that song” and “I thought that song was crazy”, so I thought I’d just make a visual for it seeing as people were taking to it.

When I started budgeting up the visual, it was looking like it was gonna cost a lot more than what I normally spend on a video, which I wasn’t really feeling considering that them times there—what, four, five years in the game—I hadn’t even gone past a quarter of a million views. But I thought if I’m gonna do it, then I gotta do it right. So I just decided to do it and I remember saying, “Yeah, here’s my new video guys! If it gets to a million views then you’ll get a Part 2.” But I hadn’t banged a million views before so I had no Part 2 in mind. Then, four days later, it’s on a million views and everyone’s talking about it, so after Part 1, obviously I realised the anticipation was crazy so I did Part 2. I said to my bredrin, “If I do Part 3 and Part 2 and 3 bang more than Part 1 did, then I’ll know everything’s going to change for me.” And it did! It happened, man.

Was there a specific point that you remember where you knew you had something big?

I remember getting a phone call from an industry person telling me the views had to have been bought. I asked him why, and his friend in the background was saying, “Nah, they’re not even bought you know!” They did whatever check they did because, how could the views go up so quickly in such a short space of time? And I knew they weren’t bought because I don’t buy views—I don’t even know how to do that. But I realised then that the video was special. And then Part 2 came out and it was the same type of reaction, even quicker. I just knew from then that people loved it, and that it was fire. Then, for the first time in my whole career, I got contacted by a record label. I remember late night I got a message from them saying, “Can you come in for a meeting?” I just remember thinking, “Rah!” When a label’s showing interest, that’s how you know the buzz is real.

Obviously, like you said, you’ve been doing your thing for a while, but how has it been for you adjusting to this new level of fame?

Ah, the fame! I don’t really care for the fame. That don’t really make no difference to me. Like, even when you’re getting a quarter or half a million views on YouTube, you get fame anyway because everyone watches YouTube like it’s TV now. But the fame ain’t really no big deal. Obviously, I’m known more now than I was then, but it is what it is. You go places, they recognise you. But with me, I’m not really in front of the camera that much but I still get seen. It’s cool, though, man. It is what it is. There’s good and bad with it. I get recognised when I go on holiday with my family. Dubai, Portugal, Spain—they recognise me, but like I said, there’s good and bad sides to it.

Have you felt pressure at all along your journey?

That trilogy for Shiro’s Story was the most pressurised work ever because you’ve got a load of people demanding it—now! Remember, I didn’t write Part 1 with the intention of doing a Part 2 and 3 because I didn’t think it would ever get big. So that was the most pressure ever until Part 3. I was meant to have a good three months to write that one, but then Joivan [Wade], who played Shiro, landed a job with DC as Cyborg and had to leave for LA six weeks earlier than we expected to lose him. So I had like six weeks to do it in; I literally cancelled everything just to finish this thing. By then, we had a label involved, so now the label’s pressuring me, like, “Are we going to have it by this date?” So I had Joivan having to leave, I’ve the label on my case—it was a lot of pressure.

I remember losing my voice in the studio and listening back to it, and it just wasn’t good, so I had to go back to the studio the next day and re-do it. Because, remember, the actual song—minus the video—if you listen to it on Spotify, Apple Music or whatever, it’s about twelve and a half minutes long. Twelve and a half minutes of rapping—no hook, just bars—the whole way through. The longest rap song I’ve ever heard is a song by Joe Budden, where he rapped about his father on his first album, and that was ten minutes long. So yeah, that was so much work, and then you’re rapping a story and you have to tell it in a way that people find more entertaining than the last two. The pressure was insane! But I put my head down and got to it.

It’s been well documented that you signed to Roc Nation and have a relationship with Jay-Z. How did that come about, and what’s the best piece of advice he’s given you?

Well, it came about because I got a random email one day from Jamal Edwards saying Jeymes Samuel and Jay-Z were trying to reach me. I didn’t know who Jeymes Samuel was at the time; obviously, I knew who Jay-Z was. I thought it was all gas, to be honest, but I sent Jamal my number and told him to tell them to holla at me. Then I got a Facetime call from Jeymes Samuel and he basically just told me that he’d seen Shiro’s Story and that they love it. I said to him, “Who’s they?” He replied, “Me and Jay-Z.” I said: “So, Jay Z’s seen Shiro’s Story?” He said: “Jay-Z has seen Shiro’s Story. I’m calling you because he told me to call you. He’s getting onto me to make sure we get you! He keeps on checking up on me asking if we’ve got you yet.” He was telling me everything that sounded good, but where man comes from and the disappointment I’ve had in my journey, I can’t hear words—I need action! So he said he was gonna Facetime me in five days and I didn’t hear from him for over a week, and then when he called he was with Jay-Z in LA and Jay-Z came on the phone and said, “We need to talk business.” A month later, I’m in his house just chilling with him. I get asked this question quite a lot, but he dropped so many gems and we were there for so many hours, it was all so surreal.

I remember I was having some issues with the film where someone wanted something changed in the script, something like that, and I didn’t want to change something and Jay was like: “If you don’t want to change it, don’t change it. I wouldn’t change it if it was me.” And I’m like, “But bro, you’re Jay-Z! It’s a bit different, innit? I don’t have them credentials where I can just be making them demands.” He then said to me, “That’s where people get mixed up. They think you have to be of a certain status to command your power when the power is in you. People want to work with you because of you, so the fact that they want you means you can tell them whatever you want and they have to get with it or someone else will get with it.” We spoke about so many other things, but that was the main thing that stuck with me.

How easy, or difficult, did you find writing for a full-length feature film compared to a short one?

I wrote Blue Story way before I did Shiro’s Story. Shiro’s Story was just a song that I made because Link Up TV wanted a story song on their compilation CD, but that fell through, and the song I recorded just sat there. Then when Shiro’s Story did start popping off, my whole plan was that all the money I made from it was gonna go into making my movie. So writing the film, it was a task, but it was a task I did with no pressure because, remember, no one’s really checking for me at these times. So I wrote the story and the script in my own time. There was no one asking me how long it’s gonna take, no one telling me I have six weeks and this person’s leaving—it was just me writing over the course of six months. Then when I started getting to the halfway mark, I would start scheduling my time like I was at a job; I’d wake up at 9am and write on my lunch break, then go back to it after. I started my own schedule for it just to get disciplined to make sure I do it. I remember I’d be driving and then a scene would pop into my head, and I’d quickly voice note the scene on my phone. Then when I got home to my laptop, I’d write out what I said. I enjoyed the process a lot, but then it just sat on my laptop for two years because, obviously, it’s not easy to finance a feature film. Even if the BBC and Paramount didn’t back it, eventually, I would’ve done it myself. That’s how important it was for me to tell this story. It’s my childhood.

I’m a Lewisham boy myself and, apart from maybe Novelist and more recently DigDat, I can’t really think of anyone that reps the borough as hard as you do. What does your borough mean to you?

You’re from the borough yourself, so you know. The borough isn’t perfect: I’ve had a lot of ups and downs there, but all my firsts came from Lewisham. The first time being in a club was in Yates. The first time I got my Avirex jacket was in Lewisham—I bought it in Lewisham. The first time… Just everything, man. My first son was born at Lewisham Hospital, I met my daughter’s mum in Lewisham. Everything that’s happened, good or bad, happened in Lewisham. Lewisham Borough is the area that made me; it’s the area that I learned my lessons. I’ve got scars underneath my eyes from fights. I’ve been chased and nearly flipping killed in that area, so it’s the area that made me. I survived it! I feel like I can either take what happened to me and be traumatised by it, or I can use it and tell my story. Everything I’ve witnessed coming up in that borough, it’s only right I got it all out and tell my story. It was vital, man, because it doesn’t happen to everyone.

The gang war between Peckham and Lewisham was very real, but in terms of the characters and the events that happen in the movie, how much of that was based on real life or people you know?

All of them scenes have come from a situation that’s happened on the roads. The shootouts between two different guys from different areas? That’s happened. A group of guys coming on the bus with two kids at the back of the bus? That’s happened. There’s even a similar case to the ending, that’s happened. This is why the authenticity of this film is not up for debate. I’m not hearing it. The whole chilling with your bredrins and then a group of Peckham boys come through and fire shots and everyone ducks out, that was just the norm. All of that there was based on true encounters and true events.

You didn’t shy away from showing the real-life consequences of gang culture, not just to those involved but also everyday people. Was there a particular message you hoped to send by including that in the film and not strictly making it just about the gang war itself?

That was the message. That gang culture doesn’t just affect those in the gangs. For example, if you watch another hood movie, they’re just bad boys. They just want to rob and shoot, whatever, but we don’t know why they’re like that. They’re just out there and they want to be gangsters. Blue Story was always about the headlines in the papers and how a kid becomes a headline. Like, what would the headline be after that big final scene in this movie? This guy shot this guy and this guy did this and this guy did this. It would just be so mad that all you would see is the headline and you would just write everybody off. But if you was to see the full journey and you saw how they got to that point… Don’t get it twisted, it doesn’t justify their actions, but there is an understanding. If there’s an education of how a kid can go from A to B, then maybe someone can intervene and stop that extreme from happening. Every character has an arc. Every character is battling something. Every character is fighting for something that they love. And I just wanted to show that we can make movies based in this world and it can still have meaning, it can still have depth. When people say it’s the best urban hood film to come out of the UK, I agree with that. But I think it’s so much more. It shouldn’t just be in the urban/hood film category—I think it’s one of the best British films to come out of the UK, period.

You even touch on mental health in a way that felt natural and not shoe-horned in. Was that a conscious decision or just a natural part of the story you were trying to tell?

It was all part of the story. Like, the story wasn’t just about the shooters. Mental health was really a part of it, too. A lot of these people, they lose someone and that’s how they feel. That’s how they’ll talk to you. You talk to someone who’s lost his friend, he’ll tell you they’re gonna ride for him, or they’ll put a tattoo on their body and they think about that person all the time. Especially when it happens in your arms. So it was important that everything got touched on; we needed it to be a reflection of reality.

I was intrigued to see how you balanced the drama with the rapping, and I thought you did a really good job of that. There were a few times where your flow switched up from what we’re used to from you—did you do that on purpose?

I didn’t really focus on it too much, it just depends on what I was rapping about in that scene. If I was talking about a scene that was about love, it couldn’t really sound the same as when I’m talking about someone who just died. Different emotions have different instrumentals, and with the instrumental, you have to adapt to that instrumental so it was just like, this is the instrumental we’re using for this scene so let me do what I can to the best of my ability to emphasise it the most. That’s really all it was. And I didn’t want to rap in it as much as I did in Shiro’s Story because it’s not a music video. It’s not a short. This is a feature film. Some people don’t like my voice, some people don’t like my rap style—some people don’t like rap in general. But everyone likes a good story. So it was more just to push the story forward and, you know, a lot of people like it. You kind of forget that I was rapping in this film.

Looking forward, have you got any plans for a follow-up to Blue Story, or are you looking to do something completely different next?

I’m always thinking about the future, bro. If I’m working on one project, then I’ve already got another project lined up. Like, literally, I’m going to New York for a while to work on a TV/film project and it’s completely different to Blue Story. It’s based in New York. It’s a fully American cast and it’s based on a couple that are in love and going through financial hardships. So I’ll be doing that for most of 2020, and then after that I’ve had a few offers. As for my next movie? I’m not sure yet, you know—we’ll see, we’ll see. I’ve been sent some great scripts. There’s a few things I want to write, but right now my schedule ain’t what it used to be so I’ll have to take some time off to really write something again. I’m blessed right now because I’ve got options, but just know that anything with my name on it is gonna be top end or else I wouldn’t do it.

Posted on November 26, 2019