Noisey

Trap Wave Pioneers M Huncho and Nafe Smallz Have Made A Future Classic

The year's slickest UK rap album is a sci-fi tinged journey through gritty luxury rap and smooth hooks. Here's how they made it happen.
Ryan Bassil
London, United Kingdom
October 30, 2020, 9:00am
M Huncho and Nafe Smallz
Photo: Eva Pentel; Styling: Nayaab Tania and Ruby Diamond; Grooming: Flo Riff

The teaser visual for a new mixtape from trap wave pioneers M Huncho and Nafe Smallz begins in the year 3000, with their bodies locked in cryogenic chambers, sci-fi movie style. Since the mid-2010s, the duo have individually heralded a slick new lane for UK rap by delivering polished, streamlined, melodic verses, but still with a little bit of grit – think the luxurious feel of the Louis Vuitton store, combined with street smart storytelling. Now, in this future place, it’s been decided that their characteristically hyper-smooth sound should be preserved for future generations.

The project is called DNA, after the idea that Huncho and Nafe share similar artistic traits. It’s also an acronym for Da New Age, which is probably the best name for a psychedelic leaning rap group since Souls of Mischief. Huncho and Nafe aim to mark the beginning of the new decade with the ultimate trap wave record, hoping to influence the next decade’s musicians just like how they were inspired by the big acts of the 2010s.

One afternoon in October, Nafe Smallz told me how they landed on Da New Age concept. “When we were younger we were looking up to artists in the UK – Giggs, Skepta – and they had an influence on us and our come up. But now it’s like ‘Rah: it’s a new age. 2020 is the start of a new decade,’” he said. “So we thought we’d stamp it in and let people know that going forward you lot can expect more of this ‘wavy shit.” Then Huncho, who was also on the call, jumped in to define further. “It’s not just the [trap wave] sound – because there are a lot of people coming out of the woodwork [trying to emulate it] – but it’s also about the chemistry we bring to the table.”

Ahead of DNA’s release today, VICE brought both M Huncho and Nafe Smallz together (on one Zoom call) to explain DNA’s DNA. In the process, we spoke about the UK trap wave scene, one mid-00s superstar, and the DNA of exactly how much weed they smoked in Barcelona while cooking up this idea.

The friendly competition

Huncho and Nafe are stars in their own right. When Huncho released his album Huncholini The 1st earlier this year, he cemented himself as one of the UK’s current rap front-runners. Same goes for Nafe Smallz who released his GOAT World tape back in April. Both acts have also begun peaking this year as two of the leading guys to hit up for a hook or guest verse, appearing on tracks for UK rap scene superstars Headie One (“Bumpy Ride), Dutchavelli (“Burning”), SL (“Super High”). It makes sense they’re collaborating, because they’re both at a similar point in their career. Making a record together has only helped the duo push one another.

“If I’m going into the booth and dropping a fire verse or a fire hook, I know Nafe is either going to match it or do better,” explains Huncho. “That push is something a lot of people lack when it comes down to the studio. A lot of stuff is repetitive. But with us we’re giving each other that little push, which means we come out with better records.”

The holiday that never was

DNA was half recorded in Barcelona in 2019, hence the reference to Barcelona in the beginning bars of “5am”. Huncho and Nafe had been called out there to record a track for Jack The Plug, who owns The Plug coffee shop in Amsterdam and Barcelona and was releasing a compilation record of rap tracks. The result was “Broken Homes”, but the pair got on so well that they decided to stay out in Barcelona and work on a collaborative project. They worked and smoked hard.

M Huncho: “See Barcelona… I can’t remember anything [laughs]. I can’t remember anything. At all. All I remember is landing there and jumping on an electric scooter. Apart from that we went to Vapianos and the studio. No beaches. No bitches. None of this shit. It was literally studio. It was graveyard shifts. We were hitting dabs, hitting bongs. There’s a video of Nafe lying down on the pool table with a spliff in his hand, just knocked out, and you can hear ‘5am’ playing in the background.”

Nafe: “Anyone going out to Barcelona needs to try that shatter (a cannabis concentrate with very high THC content).”

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The potent weed

Though it’s a clean and polished listen, you can feel the remnants of weed fumes in DNA’s smoked out production and trippy vocal hooks. It’s not surprising. It got to the point where people working on the DNA project were regularly faded beyond natural comprehension. “I was in the booth recording, and [QuincyTellEm] is recording me and I can see him from the studio booth,” says Huncho. “He sits down and he looks lost, and then he goes ‘I don’t know who this is, but he’s hard’ – and he’s talking about me bro [laughs]. And he’s my bredrin! [laughs laughs laughs]”

The Lil Wayne reference

Da New Age blinked into action on September 17, with the Dalia Dias directed video for “5am” (MIST, Hardy Caprio, City Girls) where Huncho and Nafe are seen locked up in those cryogenic chambers. Next came “PMW”, which is a slight nod to Lil Wayne via its “Pussy, money, weed” hook (Wayne has a song called “Pussy Money Weed”) and lightly chopped and screwed production.

Nafe Smallz: It makes sense that Da New Age has something nodding to one of the old greats, you know what I mean?

The trap wave

You know the Travis Scott sound, where it feels like you’re ascending to heaven with a grin while high as fuck? To me that feeds into British trap wave, but relaxed and less manic. Same goes for the swirling production put out by Drake producer Noah ‘40’ Shebib in the Take Care and Nothing Was The Same era. British trap wave is bouncy and stratospheric, but mellow and low key too. It makes me think of sitting on a steamed up double decker bus looking outside toward the rain, feeling warm among fog. It’s colourful too. You can hear all these components in Da New Age’s neon lit production, so you might assume that Huncho and Nafe spend their days listening to trap wave adjacent stuff. They don’t. Instead this project is born from diverse tastes and ravenous listening habits.

“I listen to R&B as much as I listen to rap,” says Huncho. “Sometimes I’ll drive and I’ll listen to old school jazz, just so I can hear something different and refresh my eardrums. Even as an example, if I give you the last 30 days of what I’ve been listening to I’ve been listening to The Weeknd Trilogy, Erykah Badu Baduizm and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” As for literal inspiration, he says “I also like to incorporate Middle Eastern melodies with what I do.”

Nafe, meanwhile, cites the influence of conscious music like the reggae he grew up around. “It made you see music with more depth than something you might hear on the radio. Our music has been inspired by stuff like that. We want everyone to take something from the music.”

The takeaway

Huncho and Nafe hope the project lives on for years. “It’s timeless,” says Huncho. “That’s the aim anyway. Nowadays no one really listens to a new album after three months. What’s important for us is releasing classic music and classic records that can be revisited in the future.”

They’re hoping people take their sound and run with it, pushing trap wave into the future. Nafe tells it like this: When you look back to 2010/2012, there are artists who stand out for their music. I feel people will look back on these releases from me and Huncho and say ‘Rah, that changed the direction of music in the UK scene.” Then Huncho joins in again. “Man’s an inspiration to upcoming people and artists. So is Nafe as well. This project is to inspire people to follow what man’s trying to do. For us, it’s mainly about opening that door because realistically – when, and if – I retire, I’d like to have someone underneath me that can take it further than I took it. That’s facts.”

@ryanbassil