“Is Drake the anti-christ in disguise?” 808Charmer spits at me, leaning back into a wheeled chair that’s one of two pieces of furniture inside his garage in South London. The thing is, I haven’t asked him a question. In fact, I haven’t even brought Canada’s hip-hop teddy bear into our discussion, let alone likened him to Satan.
For the past couple of hours I’ve been sat wrapped in the warmth of my coat, intently listening to 808INK parlay an extended missive to the current hip-hop scene that exists in the United Kingdom. Because if opinions are like the Sports Direct mug that sits in every British kitchen, then 808INK have enough to pour tea for a nation. They hate Britain, they hate America; at one point one of them tells me he hates “everything”.
Such a flagrant run of opinions from a young triumvirate of artists could easily be misconstrued as arrogance, but with 808INK it’s easier to understand. In the past two years, the South London three-piece have self-released two full-length albums, plenty of tracks, and countless videos that deserve to be popping as much as the artists who currently occupy the spaces they’re leaning towards. But they’re not: they work day jobs and record in their garage. So as other luminaries of the UK scene top the charts and jet away to the palatial backyards of New York and Toronto, it’s easy to see why 808INK are frustrated.
Their music is incredibly hard to pinpoint in its tonal quality – the closest comparison is Outkast or Odd Future, yet those two feel too far-flung from the group’s South London aesthetic. There’s simply no one like them in today’s British music scene. So, rightfully, 808INK want more than their day-job; they want to be going places. But with a British sound that isn’t grime, nor strictly hip-hop, they’re convinced the infrastructure isn’t there to accommodate them. As major labels snap up other groups with far less creativity and drive, I’m inclined to agree.
The group comprises the producer 808Charmer, rapper Mumblez Black Ink, and visual wizard Pure Anubis. Like every great hip-hop group or superhero power-team, there’s a different backstory for each member. Pure Anubis is an anime and manga fan (he’s watched over 200 films) and started directing to A) get girls and B) be successful. 808Charmer discovered the drums in church, learnt about producing through the short-lived CBBC show Kerching! and has been making beats ever since. When he was younger, Mumblez didn’t even think hip-hop artists were rapping – he thought they were mumbling and would mouth along to videos on the TV. But after his Mum told him to stop pissing her off and learn the lyrics, he studied 50 Cent and The Game’s “How We Do”, figured he could rap along, and started to spit “Candy Shop” outside school. “I even did the little, ‘Yeah’,” he says, mimicking one of 50 Cent’s ad-libs as his face cracks into a Cheshire cat grin.
Just like the Power Rangers or the Wu-Tang Clan, 808INK are all completely different characters, too. Perhaps that’s understandable, given that every person in the world is different, but each member of 808INK is a fully-fleshed out protagonist. When he fixes you with his stare, Charmer is like a wise Mr Miyagi type character, if the Karate King leader had production chops and a fiercely intense fire burning in his belly. Anubis, who is dressed in a suit for the duration of our interview (a costume he says “is part of a university project” where he’s playing Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega) has the most zen of the three, almost like he’s been imported from the manga films he adores. Mumblez is warm, and a joker. When he arrives an hour late to our interview, he apologises and says: “I was born on a Wednesday, so my mum says I’m a problem child.”
As such, the three members of 808INK agree and disagree on different topics with equal measure. So much so, that meeting with them is a prerequisite to getting into a heated debate. That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable – because it is. More so, it highlights the deep and long-running thoughts that have pervaded the group’s foundation. Yet if there is one thing they can agree on, it’s that no one is doing anything like them.
“It’s too hobby-ish out here,” Anubis explains, as I sink further into the sofa. “There are people out here who will lie to themselves and say [puts on mock voice] ‘I do it for the art, bro’, but…’” – he pauses, waiting a split second – “Bruv: you’re more concerned with Instagram likes and Soundcloud plays, rather than the art. Are you really in the studio trying to do something other people will never do?”
Mumblez continues: “You can’t really find the comparison to 808INK. How many artists on the forefront are you really going to say that about? And how many that are coming up are you going to say that about?”
Both Mumblez and Anubis make a fair point. Across the Sahara of Soundcloud, there are countless British artists aping another sound – the extra-terrestrial patchwork of Atlanta, the industrial wheezes from the Chicago drill scene, or indeed, the palette of grime – without adding anything new. That’s not to say there aren’t artists out there who are doing something different, because there are. Some of them – your FKA twigs or your King Krules – don’t do it for the Instagram likes, either. But it’s hard to deny that within their scene, 808INK are an anomaly. Their home-made videos have high-production value; their tracks – which they wrestle down in the garage as soon as their jobs or university finish (“I would come in from 4pm until 3am and not eat – we’d record hungry,” Mumblez says) – all strive to go beyond getting on Link Up TV or a premiere on The Fader. Where other artists serve up fast food, 808INK are marinating a banquet of a career in a slow-cooker.
The group’s mentality to do something different comes from two things: their disconnect from the British music scene at large, and a desire to portray London in a way that’s never been seen before. “We don’t love our city,” 808 Charmer says, “people are faking it now because there’s this resurgence of grime. You know when your parents talk to you and tell you, ‘We used to wear flares and dance to The Whispers’? I’m not going to be like, ‘We used to wear bomber jackets and dance to Skepta.’ I wasn’t part of that. I don’t have that connection.” As a final missive, he says fiercely, “You’re not going to catch me going from a Versace shirt back to a tracksuit at thirty.”
The group’s most recent LP, Billy’s Home, centers on a concept 808INK call “Lundun”. So what’s Lundun then? “It’s like a state within a city; it’s a province,” Mumblez explains. “We’re not trying to wear the London kit. We live in London, but we are Lundun.” The concept exemplifies how separate 808INK feel from the rest of the London scene, but it’s also a way of documenting their area. “Billy’s Home” is an aural portrait of the estates they live on in Deptford; the video for “Crooked. Bad” is shot in Mumblez’ corridor. “When I talk about the blocks, my blocks do have human faeces and piss on the staircases,” he says. They want people who listen to their music to be transported to London, but to recognise it with a tonal quality that’s separated from grime.
So what’s 808INK’s beef with Drake, America, and Britain? Again, it comes down to two things. The first is that Britain “basically sucks anything from what America drips. We suck their tap.” The second is that they feel the new fondness for grime in the United Kingdom has, largely, been down to Drake – a Canadian, not a British artist. As a group that doesn’t really appeal to the crowd who went berserk when Bryson Tiller announced his debut London show, and don’t fall into the same scene as Stormzy or Skepta, it’s been difficult for 808INK to find their place among it all. How do you make a noise? How do you punch through?
In the past few months though, things have started to pick up. Since the latter end of last year, the group has released their best work to date: the triple-threat videos of “Suede Jaw”, “Q’d Up”, and the aforementioned “Crooked Bad”. They’ve released one off tracks “Peach”, “Blah De Frog”, and “DSSY” – another triptych, all made with the intention of boosting the group’s live performance to a level where it’s impossible to see them as a cute support act. It seems the gears are finally grinding too: they’re being played on BBC 1Xtra, they’re being booked for festivals, more and more of London’s youth are taking notice. As someone who has been watching from the sidelines for the past year, it feels like 808INK are finally treading up to the precipice of something huge.
The question is: who the hell is going to sign them?
You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter: @RyanBassil