It all started sometime before Coco hit puberty. The Sheffield MC, now 26, remembers how he went from being "a bit more shy" in his school days to spitting bars that went on to pick up recognition from his classmates, producers in the area and then – well, then Toddla T. "When I was in secondary school – year 9 times, I think – I had a group of friends," Coco says now, "but our main focus then wasn't music. Someone in my group had a connection with older guys who told my friends and a couple others to 'come by studio'."
Before long, 13-year-old Coco was learning how to write a 16, how to rap and how to take grime beyond its London roots. "I just liked football and stuff and thought, 'nah, I can't be a rapper'," he laughs. "Obviously, I thought, 'I'm not gonna tell my mum' because I was easily distracted then. If she knew that I was doing that in early stages, she'd know I'd have tunnel vision about it – and it did become a problem for a bit, with my schoolwork and that."
But clearly, if you've been paying attention to grime's latest wave in the UK, he's not done too badly for himself at all. A 1Xtra Toddla T Show freestyle, making the DJ dance like his bones were made of fizzing sherbet, led to Coco's rapid-fire delivery getting a Boxing Day Fire in the Booth Radio 1 airing in 2015. Since then, he's collaborated with everyone from Shola Ama (!) to AJ Tracey and Nadia Rose. He's building up to the muddy, sweaty stretch of festival season, and put out a video for his track "Ingredients" last Friday 12 May (we've got some behind-the-scenes pics from that shoot below). Before he plays our Great Escape Festival party this Friday, we rang him up to talk about taking a chance on leaving Sheffield, staying original and just how his mum's feeling about that teenage career choice now.
Noisey: Hi Coco, let's go back for a minute. Can you remember your first 16?
Coco: Do you remember "Touch It", that Busta Rhymes tune? Well, here's what happened. The group my friends had formed was called Youth Camp, and I was just a friend of the group. They brought the "Touch It" instrumental to the studio, and it was one of those things where even though it was predominantly a hip-hop group – the older guys especially – I loved grime, so I used to spit fast on hip-hop beats. I just went mad on it, I started spitting fast beat and that was my entrance. That track got circulated, and it went from then, really.
How old were you then?
I must have been 12, 13, something like that, haha.
Well, damn. After that stage, when did it become something you could bring up with mum?
Well, we used to go studio, and take instrumentals home that the producer had done with us. So I'd run home and slam it on my hi-fi, turning it up. When my mum started hearing it blasting, then she'd see my reports coming back from school, my parents were thinking, 'what the hell is going on? Why's he not concentrating?' They had to step in, to the point where I was kicked out of the house and had to live with my sister and my nana. I was just so focused on this thing, on music. They were probably thinking it came out of nowhere, and that I should focus on my schoolwork, that the rapping wouldn't go anywhere. I didn't want to hear what they were saying – and luckily, it's paid off, haha.
They must be pretty happy about it now.
Oh yeah, my mum rings me all the time: "you're on the radio!" and that. It's a big difference, but they've always wanted the best for me, really.
If you started so young, how'd you then link up with Toddla T?
I used to hear this guy's name all the time, but I didn't know he produced or was connected to grime or anything. I just thought he DJ'd. I knew he was a household name from my city but never had a chance to meet him. It wasn't until 2015 when I just had this wake-up call. I was working in call centres, and I just thought, 'I've not been put on this earth with this talent for no reason. I need to get out there.'
And so I went for a job interview in London and got it – and it wasn't even the best job – and was doing it all on a secret level because I didn't want to tell my mum. But my dad was like, "if you don't do it, you'll never know. You've got to." One of the friends I spoke to for advice on making the move from Sheffield to London knew Toddla. It was never planned, like 'move to London. Meet Toddla.' I just moved to London and before I moved into my flat, I went to see Toddla DJ at XOYO in east London, and was with my friends that he knew. The next day, I was in the studio with him and Danny Weed. I'm thinking, 'wait a minute … I move from Sheffield to London, and two days later I'm in studio with a legend like Danny Weed and with Toddla T.' And it seemed like I had known Toddla for ages and … from there, straight.
I'm not a religious person, but that story does sound like a perfect sequence of events slotting into each other.
That's right. I'm not a religious person either, but I believe everything does happen for a reason.
How much do you keep up with what other people are doing in music now?
I mean … some people will say, 'I don't even listen to many artists' and that but I think it's important for artists to listen to others. For one, I want to make sure I'm not doing what they're doing, and secondly who knows, one of them might inspire me. But without copying, you know. They're like my colleagues – I've got to see wha gwan. As soon as I hear someone that's different, it catches my ear. The UK's in a strong place right now with MCs, there are a lot of us.
Grime and black music in general seems to blowing up on another level.
Back in the day, it was always there but it wasn't really surfacing. I think Birmingham, Manchester – even Sheffield – they've been doing their thing for ages, for as long as the London people. It was just a case of working a bit harder, and now there isn't that north-south "segregation" as much. We're all just musicians, no matter where we've come from.
I get a sense there's a positivity to what you do, that you frame yourself as someone propelled by it.
If I'm honest, there's a cliche and a stigma where a lot of rappers come from disenfranchised backgrounds because that's what this world is associated with. But, being honest, yes, I had a lot of friends and have known people who've come from that and seen certain things but at the same time, it's not me. It's not my life. I'd be a liar to portray that 'I've been through hard times' in that way because – guess what – it's about being real to yourself before you're real to anyone else.
I just try and incorporate the question of 'why would I want to push something negative, or force that, rather than something positive?' You have to understand that words matter. MCs, we are influential people. So what if a certain age group are listening to my music? I don't want to pigeonhole myself, talk about the wrong things, then before long realise I've effed myself. It's about being real to myself.
How does being seen as a role model feel for you, then?
I think it's part and parcel – it comes with it. But if I've come into music for the wrong reasons, ie: to get famous or … stuff that's not really as natural, then I think I'd be a different kind of person. Music's not changed me. I'm still the same Coco I was before. I… I'm just me haha. It's hard to explain, because some people may not understand what I mean; I'm a human being, at the end of the day. Some people might be fans of my music or what I do, and some people when they meet me may seem overwhelmed, like 'I can't believe you've replied to me or are talking to me' and I just think, 'bruh, I'm just a normal person. And without you guys, there would be no me.'
I could see that in the SBTV doc where you were in Jamaica. How have you been processing that, and looking back on that trip to meet some of your extended family?
I was pretty nervous you know, because as well as it being the first time people would see that moment, it was the first time I experienced it too. It's straight what you see in the documentary – that's how it was. It was a bit mad because I didn't know what to expect. It was my first time in Jamaica, my first time meeting family I'd never even seen before, as you said. I didn't know how they were going to take to me, but they seemed to be cool and to see that I was trying to do something positive. It was an eye-opener to see how they live, you know?
So, now "Ingredients".
You know, every time I release a new tune I think: this is my best. But "Ingredients"? This is a real head rocker. It went down when I performed in recently in Sheffield, so I'm excited to see what it's going to do at the festivals.
At this stage, how do you prep for the next steps?
If I were a narrow-minded person, maybe I'd be a bit apprehensive. Because I'm around the right sorts of people, and I've got the right sorts of knowledge, I'm not scared. This is what I've wanted and it's happening now, so I can't complain, you know?
You can find Tshepo on Twitter.
(All images by Oliver Brian via PR)