No One Is Like J Hus
Bouff Daddy created a diasporic rap sound. Now he’s pushing it forward, elevating himself in the process.
J Hus has received a phone call. On the end of the line: someone from his promotions team. "Jheez!" Hus says, visibly gassed to the teeth. "Did You See", the lead single from his new album Common Sense, has entered the top 20 and Radio 1's A-list. Pride ripples across his cheekbones, revealing the kind of pure joy that's part and parcel of hard work having paid off. Two weeks after we meet the album will be released, on Friday 12 May. His excitement is strikingly palpable.
"We're up against some fucking bastards, you know," says producer and longtime collaborator Jae5 once Hus is off the phone, citing both Gorillaz and Harry Styles as their competition in the album chart. It's a little past noon and we're sat in the pair's studio space in the nether regions of west London. Hus stayed here last night, sleeping on an undernourished and undressed single mattress on the floor. A box of KP chocolate dip and two different flavours of Ribena sit next to the mixing desk. The spot has a warm and secluded feel, as mood lighting threads its way across the room. "When I was working on the album I was literally sleeping here everyday," remembers Hus.
Though it may seem a stretch for the 21-year-old rapper to wrestle chart positions away from some of music's biggest hitters, you can see that the potential is there. In the last year, the steady evolution of British urban music has finally been mirrored across the country's top 10 album chart. Stormzy's Gang Signs and Prayer went number 1. Albums from Giggs and Skepta each hit number 2. Wiley and Kano caught the highest chart positions of their career so far. On the basis of "Lean and Bop", "Friendly" and "Dem Boy Paigon" – three tracks that define the multicultural sound of young London, and arguably the United Kingdom – J Hus is destined for similar, widespread success.
But there's more to Hus than potential record-breaking statistics. As much as it's exciting to see artists get the recognition they deserve for their work, to talk about Hus in terms of chart positions is, frankly, a little boring. If we are to see music as an art and form of cultural discourse, J Hus is navigating his way toward being a modern day icon. A pioneer of a new sound, a totem of contemporary Britain, a vessel of sharp charisma – all signs point to him being the next in a lineage of artists who seep into the foundation of music, stamping their tone across its fabric, irreversibly pushing it toward the future. Before we get to that though, there's his story.
Born Momodou Jallow, Hus grew up in Stratford, east London. As a child he didn't care too much for school, though he was good at English language and Drama. When he wasn't glued to music television he would watch Trouble, a now-defunct channel that featured programmes like Fresh Prince of Bel Air and My Wife and Kids. "I wanted to be an actor," he says, "but then around Year 10 or Year 11, it was whatever really." Though Hus was allowed back to take his exams, he was kicked out of school. Like most kids his age in his area, he "started getting into a bit of trouble". There were good times, there were tough times. Or as Hus puts it: "I came across a lot of money, then I was broke again. I was stressed out." One day an old friend came to Hus with a solution: if Hus quit the road and took music seriously, then he would become his manager.
Hus liked the sound of this plan, so he set aside two weeks to map out his career – which is where his visionary talent comes in. The first step: his name. Jallow, Hus considered, was going to be too difficult for people to pronounce. "I used to like this 'Hus' thing," he remembers, "it's short for hustler, innit. I liked the way it sounds and I would always say it." He exhales the name in a sharp, quick whisper, elongating the S sound at the end, mimicking the way he used to repeat the name, by way of an example. "Hus, Hus. It's short, simple, easy to remember and it's still unique. I don't think I've heard anyone with a name like that." After that, it was time to nail the music.
There were two predominant sounds in Hus' neighbourhood at the time. The UK afrobeats scene, made up of acts like Mista Silva, Kwamz, Fuse ODG – and British rap and grime. Hus envisioned a space where he would merge the sounds to "create something brand new". "Even though I had no experience of singing, no nothing – I always used to rap, rap – I thought I would start adding melodies and that. A lot of rappers have a road image and that: They don't want to sing, they're scared it'll mess with their image. I thought, 'I don't give a shit'. I didn't care what anyone thought." And so the signature J Hus sound was born, sitting somewhere between the smooth melodics of afrobeat and the sharp lyrical poignancy of grime. But things didn't run as smoothly as expected.
"We made about three, four tunes and put them on Soundcloud", Hus recalls. "I already noticed every time I released a tune the views were decreasing. I was like 'What's going on?' I was saying to my manager if this don't work at the end of the year, I promise you, I'm quitting this shit and going back on the road. I don't give a shit. I need to make money and this isn't making me any money." By his own admission, Hus is an impatient guy. Instead of going through the laborious, archetypal route of doing freestyles through the UK's rap channels, he wanted to make the big tunes – the sort of songs he would later release on his 15th Day mixtape and this new album. People weren't tuning in though, so he went back to square one. Appearances were made on everything from Link Up TV and Black Box to GRM Daily and SBTV. And here's where shit began popping off.
Hus' melodic yet rap-heavy vision bleeds through each of these freestyle videos, staring the viewer straight in the face. A GRM Daily #Rated session from 2014 begins with his now trademark ad-lib ("ooooooooh my") and effortlessly moves between harmonics and a cold, harsh flow. It's direct and goes hard, like a steam train. A year later Hus released one of his biggest songs to date, the interminably addictive "Lean and Bop". The video itself is a reflection of the track's name, replete with cheek splitting grins. Softer in terms of subject matter than some of his previous work, the track marked Hus out as a star – one capable of straddling the line between a huge, summertime anthem and sharp street-level rap. His debut mixtape 15th Day quickly followed, then came a deal with UK label Black Butter Records. Despite his accelerating career however, trouble seemed to follow J Hus around. In September 2015 he was stabbed five times, reportedly by a rival gang. Several months later, in early 2016, he was sentenced to five months in prison.
When Hus was released in June of last year, he returned with renewed vigour, ready to put everything into his music. He quickly began work on Common Sense, which was completed in a few short months. In the interim when Hus didn't release any music, other artists had started to come through using a similar melodic-rap format. The album, Hus says, was designed to send a message: he owns this diasporic sound and is pushing it forward. "I wanted to present a more grown up J Hus, while also dabbling with a few other sounds to make it different," he explains, referring to the way Common Sense extends his palette to include elements of UK garage ("Plottin'"), G-funk ("Common Sense"), and solemn yet flourishing jazz ("Closed Doors").
As has always been the way with Hus, his approach to language on Common Sense sets the record apart from the crowd. Like Lil Wayne in his Dedication mixtape era or Barter 6 Young Thug, Hus deploys his voice as an instrument, rolling his 'R's', bringing in new phrases. "I have this one friend, Grumpy, who will just sit at home making up lingo. He'll think up different things, he'll say it the next day, I'll be laughing, then I'll use it in my songs," he says, referring to the track "Bouff Daddy", how 'bouff' is slang for money, and how – after earning some money – his friends had started to call him "bouff daddy". The vernacular goes beyond piff-scented street-talk, too. Inspired by a trip to Dublin, Hus remembers asking a group of Irish lads how to approach a girl. Their response, "what's the craic, what's the story", forms the hook on "Like Your Style" – which Hus sings in something closely resembling an imitable Irish accent.
Like "Bouff Daddy" and "Like Your Style", Common Sense is – for the most part – inspired by real-life situations. That line "came in a black Benz, left in a white one" from "Did You See"? That's from a party Hus went to recently. Penultimate closer "Who You Are" sees Hus contemplating the company he keeps and how he would bring girls back, only to have them obtrusively Snapchat their way through his bedroom. Perhaps the biggest of these revelations is the track "Plottin'", Hus' favourite song on the record, and the line "Don't think I'm shy cause I'm quiet, I'm plottin' I'm plottin'". Although Hus is bold on camera – a trait that goes back to his love of acting – in person he can come across as reserved.
"People always say I'm shy!" he says, leaning forward on his chair and softly boiling over with an excitement that suggests otherwise. "But I'm not even shy! Like, if you knew what I'm saying in my brain. I'm in my own mind a lot. Even though I'm quiet I'm thinking about a lot of things." So, he's a deep thinker? "Yeah. I overthink too much. So that bar means the most to me, the shy one." Hus puts this quiet element of his persona down to his father. "When he was around, he never used to show any emotion. He was a stiff guy," he recalls, laughing. "But I'm also not really into small talk. I don't like forcing it. If there's something to say, then I would say it. I don't force chat."
He continues: "I feel like I'm bipolar. I have my different moods and that. That's why my music exists in so many different worlds – this moment I'm feeling all raw, this moment I'm wanting to talk to a girl, the next moment I'm wanting to talk about spirit and be deep. Then I'm back to being angry." At this point I offer up an analogy related to Hus' birthday and star-sign. Geminis, I say, are famous for one thing: their versatile yet quickly changing personality. They also make the best artists; Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and Prince are three of the most prominent Gemini. "I don't like to believe in star signs and all of that stuff. But when I do look at it, I can see a lot of my characteristics there", he responds.
Clearly the astrology knowledge has an affect on him, however, as a few days after our interview – in a track-by-track guide with i-D – he brings up the Gemini reference when talking about his change in mood, and mentions it again on a radio interview after that. And whether it's related to the zodiac or simply a product of being a human being with his own personality traits, it is this ability to swerve through different sounds, scenarios, feelings that contributes to his star power. One moment he's raging off the hook, on a track like "Clartin'". The next he's sailing into a smooth bar about being "a big kid, Capri-sun and Wotsits". This is music with strong duality, capable of coexisting in two separate worlds, sometimes merging, sometimes being simply representative of the many facets of being a young man.
On a Saturday night in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, J Hus takes to the stage of a venue called The Forum. Draconian pieces of legislature like form 696 – the Metropolitan Police's risk assessment paperwork that's led to many rap shows being shut down – mean this is the closest Hus can get to a pre-planned show in the capital. Not that this matters for his fans, who seem to have travelled the 20-or-so miles from the city, colloquial slang intact. There's a lot of talk about subculture having died in recent years, lost to the internet and mass amalgamation. To anyone who has gone within an inch of a British rap show however, this is clearly bullshit. Shotter bags, Air Maxes and tight Huaraches, clipped tracksuits, dad hats, clean socks – these items adorn teenagers of all faces and races, who are here to pray at the altar of J Hus.
Besides an off-key joking introduction, which involves Hus' hypemen suggesting the police have also locked off tonight's date at the last minute and refunds will be issued, the show is a success. MoStack comes down to perform "Fisherman", their collaboration from Common Sense. Dave comes through to do "Samantha". Both also perform songs of their own. By the end of the show confetti rains from the ceiling and Hus stands defiant and shirtless at the front of the stage. Though it may seem stereotypical, redundant and ignorant, a parallel with one of Hus' earliest inspirations comes to mind – the rapper 50 Cent, after whom Hus was initially named "50 Pence", a result of the doughnuts Hus would buy from Morrisons and hawk at his school.
There's the shirt thing – which 50 was always famous for, having been without an item of cotton near his torso in both his debut album visuals and first video. There's the way Hus has frequently interpolated some of the New York rapper's lines into his own work: his Link Up TV freestyle features a line from "Wanksta", the opening track to 15th Day references "Window Shopper". At times, like on "Common Sense", he rides through audio stems with the same smooth yet confident flow that made 50 one of the hottest rap acts of the early 2000s. Even the pair's backgrounds – a teenage life spent on the road, a formative penchant for hustling – has some crossover. But where the two differ is their direction.
Despite the effortless atmosphere of a track like "Heat", 50 quickly fell into a pastiche of himself, untethered from reality when no longer propped up by Dr Dre's production. But as Hus grows he seems to become authentic, representing new shades of personality – from perceived shyness to a thirst to move beyond the archetypal tones of the rap sound he created. The day before Hus and I speak, he went to visit a young fan in a hospital ward. The video, posted on Twitter, is adorable. Above everything, it presents a many-sided artist – one who is shifting perceptions of what rap music in Britain can be, on and off the record.
Talent can be felt. As I go to leave the studio, having spent hours in the company of Hus, it can be seen too. "Good luck with the album," I say. He grins once more, warmly, a knowing smile he's on the right path.
J Hus' Common Sense is out now on Black Butter.