When The Smoke Clears: Section Boyz Reflect on Their Legacy

The legends of UK rap knocked down doors and birthed a new sound. As their reign ends, VICE spoke to the group and those closest to them.
October 1, 2020, 10:47am
Section Boyz / Smoke Boys
Photo: provided by PR

Last week, after six years of releasing music and touring together, UK rap crew Section Boyz – now known as Smoke Boys – announced they’d be calling it a day. Their forthcoming mixtape, titled All The Smoke and due for release on the 23rd of October, will be their last.

The UK music landscape the group leaves behind is one they’ve played a defining role in transforming. In 2010, when the members of Section Boyz first started dabbling in music together, Dizzee Rascal was shouting for England with James Corden while major labels continued to smother the grime scene’s upper crust with a sickly electro-pop sheen.

Street hits like “Delete My Number” and “No Rules” in 2014 had established the group in a bubbling south London rap and drill scene that already included acts like 67, 150, Krept & Konan, and early collaborator Stormzy. But with “Lock Arff”, Section delivered the anthem that galvanised the movement.

The track’s booming kicks and skittering hats rang out of clubs, cars, and block parties everywhere; and the group’s unapologetic, blunt-force approach made mainstream success for a UK rap scene operating on its own terms feel like a real possibility. Radio 1Xtra DJ Kenny Allstar compares Section Boyz’ arrival on the scene to So Solid Crew kicking in the music industry’s doors more than a decade earlier, and says the group “defined a sound that went on to be huge.” Section founder member Deepee says his mum still mistakes artists played on the radio today for him and his crew.

“Lock Arff” and the group’s debut album, Don’t Panic, landed the same year that Stormzy filmed “Shut Up’’ in the park, J Hus released “Lean & Bop” and The 15th Day, 67 dropped In Skengs We Trust and BL@CKBOX uploaded the Dave freestyle that’s still the most viewed video on the platform today. It was a good year for homegrown rap fans. Section Boyz, with their unique blend of trap, drill, and grime, distilled all the most exciting aspects of the UK’s sprawling MC landscape into something that was fresh and urgent.

Founder members Inch, Deepee and Littlez list their highlights from the group’s history in a flurry: MOBO gongs in 2015 and 2016, a headline show at Brixton’s O2 Academy, performances all over Europe, countless festival appearances. When Drake, Skepta, and Boy Better Know shunned glitzy Brits afterparties to join the group onstage at London’s Village Underground in 2016, the symbolism was clear: this was where the real excitement in UK music was. Section’s impact on the wider scene hasn’t escaped them.

“We were the first to do this ting,” Inch tells VICE, “we knocked down doors.” While acknowledging those who came before them, Inch, Littlez and Deepee describe their group, operating independently and outside of established industry structures, as pioneers of a movement that thrives today. “For this new wave, this new generation, man kicked it off,” says Deepee.

Stormzy agrees. “They birthed an entire generation and sound that many people don’t know originated from Section,” he says. “From the lingo to the production, to the flows and cadences. Legends of UK rap, undeniably.” So vivid are these memories that it’s hard to believe it’s been more than half a decade since those halcyon days. “It’s been a whirlwind,” says Deepee. “Before you could register something was happening, something else mad is happening already.”

Being lost in that whirlwind would arguably have as big an impact on Section Boyz’ career as those first breakthrough moments. While the boys and their burgeoning fanbase revelled in their ascendancy, behind the scenes the group had become entangled in a legal battle over the rights to their stage name. Someone the group described only as “close to them” had registered the intellectual property rights associated with Section Boyz (in the UK, intellectual property can include artistic and musical works), while the group had only claimed the trademark covering their name.

By then, sharing a house in south London, the crew were still playing shows and recording new music on a near-daily basis. To them, they were still busy and working, but the litigation was preventing them from releasing anything. “To us, it still seemed like we were doing a lot,” Deepee recalls, “but to the outside world, man may have been quiet.”

Slowly it dawned on the group that what had seemed a minor hurdle at first was going to be a lot bigger.

“It was a very bad time for it to happen,” says Littlez. “We had a lot of momentum, and it came to a halt.” The result was a name change, to Smoke Boys in 2018, but by then the damage had been done.

While the boys have shouldered the situation with an ‘it is what is is’ attitude (“shit happens,” says Inch), the impact it had on their trajectory is clearer now. There’s an audible frustration in Deepee’s voice: “I couldn’t tell you exactly the guy’s motives for [blocking us] ... I wish I could innit.”

The name change stunted the recognition the group would receive for the ground they’d broken. It’s a fact they state bluntly – “We definitely haven’t had the props we deserve,” Littlez offers – but one they’re ultimately unbothered by.

The Section members won’t say why they’re breaking up, or whether this was something they had planned for 2020 already. They get tetchy at the mention, waiting for their publicist to step in. Privately, I’m told that the split is the result of pressures that inevitably accompany living and working together over a long period of time – though Deepee, Littlez and Inch remain open about their plans to continue writing and collaborating together, just not under a collective banner.

For now, the group remain focused on what’s ahead – which, more practically, means solo projects and collabs – and are little worried about feeling left behind by an accelerating scene. “It’s not even a left behind thing,” says Deepee, “Man’s not even in the same race as everybody else.” In this sense, the steady chug that defines All The Smoke makes it a fitting note to close out on: all the consistency that fans expect from the group, with occasional moments of brilliance.

They remain confident that recognition will come in time. “It’s there,” says Inch, punctuating each point with his fist on the table, “it’s history, you can look it up. Go look at music before 2014, 2015, go back and look at [YouTube channels] LinkUpTV, GRM, go back and look at music from then and you’ll see the growth and everything.”

For Deepee, the legacy is about more than just music. “Man’s come from very dark times. I feel like we’re good examples of music giving an escape,” he says. “You see us, the impact we made, it gave a lot of groups motivation to do stuff. No matter what kind of music we’re making, we still had some kind of positive energy about us that we’ve pushed into the scene.” Inch and Littlez are nodding. “I’m happy that we was the guys to do that.”

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