Culture

Octavian Has No Time for Fear

The rapper, Noisey UK's first digital cover star, opens up about the reality behind his much-hyped backstory so far.

by Ryan Bassil; photos by Jake Turney
23 August 2019, 11:00am

Photography by Jake Turney

Some stories don't bear repeating. But consider the opposite: the legends, real life fables, hard-to-believe narratives. The sorts of things that don’t happen to many people but when they do, they’re repeated time and time again. File 23-year-old French-British rapper Octavian’s story in that box.

His cinematic bio is as hard to believe as it is true. Perhaps you know about his time spent sofa-surfing around London, after leaving home at 16 (referenced in early 2016 Soundcloud track “Grow Some Dreads”). Or how he was born in Lille, France, before settling in Camberwell, south London, aged three, then returned to France again as punishment for acting out as a teen. Maybe you heard the one about him attending Brit School? The Drake co-sign for breakout 2017 single "Party Here", the BBC Sound of 2019 win?

So let’s not retread well-worn ground: not now. Because right now, at this moment, sat next to him at his record label’s west London office, Octavian is Tired As Fuck. In fact you’ve probably never seen someone as tired as Octavian is here, on this sofa, because when people are that tired they’re usually asleep. Granted, he is dressed for bed, wearing some frankly beautiful pyjamas – grey-ish marl jogging bottoms paired with a furry Supreme zip up. This is a man who walked the runway for Virgil Abloh's Louis Vuitton debut (there's even a statue of him outside their Rodeo Drive store). Of course he makes sleepwear look this good, in a half-corporate interview environment. Octavian does what he wants.

Octavian Noisey cover summer 2019

He tells me this – about the pyjamas, not his independence – around five minutes after I’ve entered a private room in the office, he’s finished his phone call and his publicist has left us alone. Still: “They’re my pyjamas. I just got out of bed,” he says, speaking in a laconic drawl (it’s 3PM). We’re in a low-lit, soundproofed and windowless room, with a bowl of snacks in the middle of the table. He mumbles in approval about the Ralph Lauren pyjamas we both happen to own (in different colour-ways). Ostensibly, we’re here to talk about Endorphins, the mixtape he tossed into the world, almost without warning, in mid-June. But yeah – though he perks up later when we speak about London and some time he spent in LA earlier this year, working on the mixtape – he’s exhausted.

So, OK, then: what happened last night – did you go out or something? It'd be safe to assume as much, given the lack of sleep, but no. It's personal – “I had to deal with some stuff at home. A long ting.” I don’t prod – personal shit is personal shit, and that's fair. It's just good he's turned up, regardless. When feeling this faded out, most artists would say ‘fuck promo and sitting with journalists’, citing exhaustion. But that’s what separates the average man or woman on the street from Octavian – currently two records deep with the British label Black Butter (also home to fellow boundary breaker J Hus) – who relentlessly pursues his goals and his art and everything between, sleep or no sleep, all or nothing.

Octavian for Noisey in 2019

See, Octavian has always been known for partying – that’s what you get when you release a debut track called “Party Here”; when a single from your first record label mixtape Spaceman is re-upped with a “Lightning” remix by Ross From Friends, so lit it induces a placebo MDMA drip; when your recent cover feature for resurrected magazine The Face references having been out all night long, in LA, ending up poolside at the Chateau Marmont. It’s no bad thing. That’s how Octavian and his crew Essie Gang get down, fading the night away together. Crucially, for him and for us, partying is also how the music gets made.

"Me and Octavian were cracking on for a while," says J-Rick of Essie Gang (as in southeast London, SE postcode, ess-ee), the mastermind producer behind Octavian's "Party Here" and “Hands”, and solo artist in his own right. He’s speaking to me over the phone, remembering earlier this year when Essie Gang spent five days in a ten-bed house in Kent, partying and producing (Rex Kudo, who produced Octavian’s A$AP Ferg-featuring “Lit”, dropped by too). Over those five days, they worked on Endorphins, as well as Octavian’s upcoming debut album and other tracks.

"I was personally up for the whole four days, innit,” J-Rick continues. “Bare drugs and that. I was producing. I saw everyone else do their cycle – wake up, go back to sleep and I was banging it out, still," he says. Of those sessions, which he says were fuelled by MDMA – "it keeps you up, then once you get past that second day in, you’re not getting come-ups and come-downs" – he came back with two tracks that’ve been slapped on Endorphins. The first, “Walking Alone”, interpolates Jessie Ware and SBTRKT’s 2011 track “Right Thing To Do”, adding in extra sweaty, club energy. Then “World” features Midwestern-American enigma Corbin, just about audibly – but you won’t spot him in the mixtape credits.

When we meet the next day at a Brixton photo studio, Octavian asks to hear “sad music”, landing on Corbin after an awkward moment when the photographer interprets his request as time for a Cinematic Orchestra playlist. Soon Corbin fills the studio, drowning out the odd train rumbling by.

Octavian sings throughout the shoot. First to Corbin’s “Ice Boy”, then Corbin's collaboration with Bobby Raps, “Welcome To Hell Zone”, then “Revenge Song”. He's vibing in his sunglasses (Louis, ofc), he knows the words, yet I can't help comparing what's happening in this damp Brixton studio to the surely brighter time Octavian spent in LA earlier this year, including a stint at the Chateau Marmont. "It’s basically this fucking hotel, this legendary hotel,” he tells me, at the label office the day before. “It’s where bare actresses and actors and musicians used to stay and that. So it’s got the history” – and he perks up, remembering the hotel and the city that houses it. “It’s very silent as well so you can do what you want. No one really complains, you know what I’m saying?"

Octavian for Noisey in 2019

A mention of “fucking crazy parties” leaps to us talking about shrooms ("Yeah we take shrooms. It’s good innit? We don’t really do it at parties just when you want to open your mind a bit”). Whether it's intentional, instinctual, influenced by psilocybin or coincidence, a psychedelic presence hovers around Endorphins, too. Spaceman, with its black-backgrounded sword motif, presented an artist proving himself, to varying degrees of brashness. This new one feels lighter, though – just look at the artwork or his Instagram. Octavian plays guitar on it too (he says he learned while on shrooms) on the track “Rocko Smiles”.

You could easily slot this tape into the crop of mildly psychedelic rap that’s popped up in recent years, whether A$AP Rocky’s Testing, Travis Scott’s Astroworld and Kanye/Kid Cudi collab Kids See Ghosts. Does Octavian feel like he was pushing to get somewhere with Spaceman and now he’s there? Having risen from uploading tunes to Soundcloud, to becoming “one to watch”, to collaborating on viral-dance-challenge hit “Bet” with London veteran Skepta, one of his early heroes, maybe he reckons he can chill a bit. I liken both their approaches to making UK rap that sits in its own kaleidoscopic lane, just about adjacent to grime and just about adjacent to US rap, too. Octavian doesn’t agree.

Rapper Octavian photographed for Noisey in London 2019

He doesn’t see himself anywhere near Skepta’s level, and runs through names like Dave, Fredo and MoStack when it comes to “people who get higher numbers” – commercial appeal, basically. "The difference between last year and now is that I was trying to prove myself and now I’m more free to fuck about. I’m doing music however the fuck I want. I’m never going to be scared of doing anything. I’m going to play guitar. I’m going to fucking do anything I want. I’m never going to subside. Because no one is doing that, who is a rapper.”

It sounds as though he’s saying he’s not scared. Was he, before? "Nah, I just feel like everyone is scared to do what they want. Especially in London, everyone is so scared of being judged. They’re doing the same shit again and again and again because they’re so scared if they do something else they’re going to be judged. Shut up, man. It’s so dead. That’s why I don’t really like London. I like going to LA because no one is really scared of judgement out there. It’s different. That’s why their numbers are different."

At this point he's on a roll, so I let the idea LA people are less scared of judgement slide. However – and I say this off the back of his recent video for "Feel It", which was filmed out in Los Angeles, in the Chateau, at Coachella – I guess everyone he’s hanging out with over there is rich, so maybe they have less to prove.

"Yeaaaaaaaah," he says, elongating each London inflected vowel as if to suggest leveled agreement. "But everyone is rich there bro. It’s Hollywood. Anyone in the music game, it’s double – if you’re an interviewer in LA, you have double the pay. If you’re a rapper and you’re in LA, you’re double as rich. Triple maybe. Here, it’s whatever. People are satisfied. Whatever, that’s your choice, but for me there’s no point doing this thing and being halfway."

Really, Octavian says, he wants to be like 50 Cent, his favourite rapper growing up. He’s not alone within the current crop of UK-based rap acts. You hear 50 in how J Hus approaches a hook, for example (something Hus has spoken about on record, as well as covering “21 Questions” in a BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge session). Sure, 50’s sound may be less apparent in Octavian’s pilled-up, pinging music, but Octavian still looked at the US rapper and the career he’d built and said, ‘that’s the life.’

What does that life look like, then? "One: to make a song and to get a number 1 in the world, yeah? Everyone hearing it and being influenced by it. The wave of the world is you: imagine that. Kanye West, he can create a wave right now. Travis Scott, wave – he can create the Rodeo. His album is the wave. Drake – the wave. You know what I’m saying? There’s no way I’ve started this and I’m just going to be the wave in London. I don’t give a fuck about London. I give a fuck about my people in London but I don’t give a fuck about the people that like the people in London. It’s boring."

Rapper Octavian photographed for Noisey in London 2019

He's very passionate about this mission of extending beyond London. Read the expletives all you want – it's not that he doesn't care about the city he grew up in. He just wants to fly. That's why he's the spaceman, after all. And besides, "London is comfortable, isnt it? Even growing up here – London doesn’t like to fucking push boundaries. We don’t. From the UK, it’s only anomalies like The Beatles. Once in a blue moon someone goes: pffff and goes off."

And so back to Endorphins. Though also created partially in London and in Kent, it does feel spiritually aligned to LA. Whether conscious or not, removing himself from London’s postcodes fits into Octavian’s desire to transcend whatever box he’s currently been put in. He always wants to keep moving forward. Since we've spoken, he's released two more videos. The first, "No Weakness", sees him galavanting around in a helicopter – a metaphor perhaps for the sky-high feeling embedded in the otherwise relatively low-key relationship-focused song. "Take It Easy", meanwhile, is all gang gang gang – Octavian and his crew tearing it up on a night together.

This music thing is serious for Octavian. It's everything. Because otherwise, you're at the beginning of this piece where he's thrown out of his house, cruising around London before he’s old enough to legally drink. Imagine experiencing that. So, he feels it’s important to remain on the ball, not rest too easy.

“It’s like when people ask me ‘How did the BBC Sound poll feel?’", he says. "It’s like, if I sat there like ‘Yeah, it felt like… yeah’. It didn’t really feel like anything to be honest. It didn’t. Because I blocked it out. It’s like, what’s the point of being so gassed?" He pauses.. "Even going to the headline show, there’s 20,000 people. You’re going to sit there and be like ‘Woah, wow’? You can’t. Your job is to make them feel like you are Octavian, you are the star that you are. That’s what you sign up for – not to be gassed."

@ryanbassil / @jaketurneyphoto

Rapper Octavian for Noisey, London 2019

Photographed by Jake Turney at Simulacra Studio in London, in June 2019
All clothing: Octavian's own