Dutchavelli Noisey Cover 2020
Culture

This Is the Year of Dutchavelli

The UK rap heavyweight and Noisey 2020 cover star came up as the world shut down. Here, he tells us about his rise, *that* voice and his ambition.
02 July 2020, 8:30am

I'm chatting with Dutchavelli, the UK’s newest rap superstar, when the phone line goes dead. I've just asked whether he'd been mentored toward releasing two of this year's biggest singles so far, or if he's just been backing himself and his globetrotting vision from day one.

"Everyone tries to speak to me different because they've got [indecipherable] 'yna mean... [indecipherable] advice [*static phone crackle*]."

Then, boom: the line clicks back in.

"Listen, if you want to be groundbreaking…"

The name Dutchavelli has been on people's lips since he went by Dutch, dropping his first videos on UK YouTube channel Link Up TV and delivering a Rinse FM freestyle about trapping and stacking in 2016. But it was two singles released a few months apart at the beginning of 2020 that blasted him skyward, whipping comment sections and timelines into mad, memeable frenzy.

“This is the type of guy to tell his barber he didn't like his haircut” (2.2k likes); “dutchavelli got pulled over for speeding and he let the fed go with a warning” (5.6k likes); “if i caught him shagging my mrs, id ask if he needed anything before i left” (368 likes) – these are three of many standout comments on January, 2020's fast paced drill tune "Only If You Knew", which sent Dutch hurtling into the collective consciousness of UK rap fans. He's handsome too, which helps.

The video has racked up over 11 million views since it dropped on GRM's YouTube channel, with rap fans quick to point out Dutch's distinguishable, hard voice. Soot-ridden and diesel-like, it sounds like it has a carbon footprint ("This guy sounds like he eats cigarettes for breakfast," reads another comment). There have been comparisons to the late US rapper Pop Smoke, something Dutch puts down to their voices and the fact they both spit over drill beats.

Like Pop's huge breakout hit "Welcome To The Party", "Only If You Knew" carries heavily loaded bars over infectious production that will lick your head off and make you want to get licked on Courvoisier straight from the bottle. It’s drill, it's party music, it’s one loooong verse packed with bars – all rolled into one. Follow-up single "Surely" doubled down on that last point, featuring two verses about what might be described as "business logistics", bookended by an earworm hook. Dutch, it seems, is a born rap heavyweight.

"I try not to take the easy route with the bars. If I’m not happy with it, I’m not gonna put it out. When I go to the studio I try and challenge myself every time," he says from an apartment in an undisclosed location, which he moved into somewhere near the beginning of lockdown. Since then, he’s been there, taking everything in and hanging out with a new baby pitbull. It's named ‘Velli – after himself – and it's really cute. "It’s a good time to bond," says Dutch with a laugh.

Though he was born in Birmingham, Dutch’s earliest years were spent in Europe. His family moved to Rotterdam in the Netherlands when he was a baby – hence the nickname; his real name is Stephan Allen – then back to the UK and into a house in Upper Clapton, east London, around the time he hit double figures. The place they lived, near the now-closed Swan Tavern pub, was busy. Now 26, Dutch is the fifth born in a family of seven – and, like him, his brothers, sisters and parents were all music obsessives.

"I don't think there’s nothing more we love," he says. “It’s literally a family thing. You know how some families sit around the table and have dinner? We never had that. We would sit around and play each other music.”

At home, he soaked in the sounds of his parents Jamaican and Trinidadian heritage; icons like Buju Banton and Bob Marley were blasted regularly, as well as Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye – all "the classics".

"We grew up with a love for music," he says. "Every day, when my mum was cleaning or my dad was cooking, we had a big sound system we’d play music on. It wasn’t my type of music, but you’d grow up to like certain songs, ‘yna mean. From there it kept going."

Oldest brother Tion was “what you would call a music connoisseur” and had tunes playing “24/7”. Dutch’s other older siblings – Peter, Precious and Steff – would sing and rap too, often putting on beats and freestyling together. Coincidentally, Steff went on to become Stefflon Don, the UK rap act and singer responsible for “Hurtin’ Me” – a behemothic 2017 collab with US rapper French Montana, about the pain of seeing your ex with someone else. Its addictive hook – “heard you got a new giiiiiiiiiirlfriend, and it’s hurtin’ me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me” – still bangs today, whirling out of car windows every summer.

But back when the Allen siblings were just kids tearing around the house, rather than stars in their own right, Dutch was finding his way around his taste much like anyone does when they’re figuring themselves out in their teens. Coming from Europe, he initially knew little about the British music scene and focused instead on the United States. “When we lived in Holland, we didn’t look up to no Dutch rappers or nothing like that. We looked up to the 50 Cents and the Tupacs – American rappers," he says.

Everything changed when he landed in the UK and popped on Channel U, the primordial UK rap channel that helped boost the careers of early UK rap icons like Dizzee Rascal, Skepta and Giggs, back when they couldn’t catch a break on mainstream music video TV. Dutch loves bars (his favourite rapper is Eminem), and seeing British rappers who spoke in the slang he was beginning to use at school turned his attention inward. Music became about the UK’s then up-and-coming lyricists.

“I’m younger than Chipmunk, innit, so I remember when Chipmunk was 16 he done that freestyle in Tim Westwood’s Crib Sessions with Ice Kid. Them times you had the 3210 Nokias – you couldn’t have a lot of songs on them because they were old and that freestyle was ten minutes long. I had to delete all the songs on my phone [to get it on there]." Dutch laughs, and I get the sense he's grinning from behind the phone. "I still know all the words to it today, listen."

His first studio session was at a spot on Mare Street, in Hackney, when he was 13. “I remember I made a song with these next guys from my estate, but these guys were known locally to the mandem on the estate. Like: these man rap, they go studio, ‘yna mean. I was like, 'Can I come?'" He went along and freestyled, but because he was so young the elders thought Dutch was lying about spitting his bars from off top.

"I was like, 'Why they saying this?' Then I realised they was saying it because it was so cold," he laughs. Pretty soon, the mandem on the estate were telling Dutch he should do music properly – which he would have done, but at the age of 17 he was handed a six-year prison sentence.

Dutch doesn’t tell me what he was arrested for, but he does say the five years he served were spent gearing up for the music he would put out when he was released. He practiced every day, storing bars in his head alongside those Eminem and Chipmunk verses. Having the “hardest bars” when he came out was important. “I didn’t have no back-up plan,” he says. “The back-up plan was to be the best rapper. I really had to do it. That was my mindset. I had to put 100 percent in.”

Like a Red Arrows fighter jet breaking through the sound barrier, Dutch arrived in 2020 with a bang. The maroon coat he wore in the “Only If You Knew” video was distinctive, the mark of a boss. Rather than the Nike Tech Fleece preferred by some other UK drill artists, his attire had splashes of colour and sophistication. Obviously the music played a part too, but the video drop felt like the arrival of a new kind of Royal, Dutch giving off the energy of an elder statesman – which makes sense, given the fact he's been playing the long game.

"New Jack City", Dutch’s first tune, dropped soon after his release from jail in 2016, with several more songs and videos released the following year. Beginning with a sample taken from a speech titled “Secrets to Success” by the American motivational speaker Eric Thomas, “Speeding” outlines Dutch’s ambition, centring on the idea of moving past pain to become successful. In the same song, Dutch touches on providing for his family in spite of situational trauma (“Convo with mum said she needed money / I was only 14 but I made it happen / Yeah, I made it happen").

Singles kept flowing – "Let It Breathe" was a 2017 anthem about making it out the ends – but just as things were looking up, Dutch's dream was shattered. He was arrested in March of 2018 on a firearm and robbery charge. Though he was eventually acquitted in November of 2019, after a jury found him not guilty, Dutch served time in remand, effectively shutting his career down for almost two years. It was during this second stint when he wrote “Only If You Knew” and its distinctive head-bopping verse. “I had that one written in my head,” he says. “It was about coming out and then finding the right beat, and then: boom.”

Packed with lavish detail that draws from Dutch’s time on road (“Mum said, ‘Son don't ruin your life’”) and jail (“Left on the wing, like Sonia”), with references to friends popping up north and others returning from rehab, “Only If You Knew” occupies a unique space in UK drill. Dutch’s sharp delivery and producer Rymez' jumpy production place the song firmly in your synapses, but dig deeper and you’ll land on the kind of minutiae-level bars that show Dutch is a rapper ready to flesh out his story. Someone with a voice and a genuine thirst to exceed beyond expectation.

“I think every story has been told a million times,” he says. “There are minor details and differences, but at the end of the day every story has been told. So it’s all about how you put it. It’s your individual story and how that has affected you.”

That approach has bled over into Dutchavelli’s upcoming collabs. He’s got a tune on the way with Birmingham spitter M1llionz, which he describes as “a whole new type of drill – like storytelling on drill”. He’s released a track with masked trap-wave man M Huncho as part of UK rap platform GRM’s tenth anniversary album, featuring legends (D Double E, Ghetts, Chip) as well as hot up-and-comers (Aitch, Unknown T). However, the biggest harbinger of Dutch’s arrival as one of rap’s next leaders is probably “I Dunno” with Tion Wayne and UK Number One artist Stormzy. It’s the kind of tune that’s bound to go off and ruin your white AF 1s when it hits the club, if only clubs were open when it dropped on the 29th of May.

That’s been one difficult thing for Dutch: he arrived in January of 2020 with a big tune and a game plan, then the world shut down: "Everything is going so well for me – like, when I speak to people they’re like, ‘Yooooooo, bro! What you’re doing is crazy.' But it doesn’t really feel like it [to me] at the moment."

A few weeks after our conversation, Dutchavelli joined the London Black Lives Matter protests in early June. He was supportive vocally and on the ground, posting pictures and Instagram Stories from the protest, as well as delivering motivational speeches on Instagram Live. But on the 15th of June, Stefflon Don tweeted that Dutch was wanted by the Met Police. According to her tweet, the police weren’t happy that he’d been planning to head to another Black Lives Matter protest and, because he was on license, they were going to recall him to prison.

"Systematic oppression is real, and this is totally unfair,” Steff said in her statement. Dutch wasn’t the only British musician singled out by the Met, either. Drill artist Digga D said he’d been threatened with prison recall after he posted a photo of himself holding a Black Lives Matter placard. “I can't speak about BLM because apparently it's promoting violence,” he posted on Twitter. UK rap newcomer Lavida Loca also said she had been threatened by the police for going to the Black Lives Matter protest.

Meanwhile, there was photo evidence of Paul Golding, leader of far-right group Britain First, among crowds of mainly white men who pelted the police with bottles at a June 13 protest. Golding was convicted of an offence under the Terrorism Act in May of 2020, and seemingly has no issue bowling around in public. Racism is alive in the UK. Whether it’s Form 696 or shows being shut down for fear of “inciting violence”, it is relentlessly peak for Black artists trying to make a career for themselves, especially after serving time. That’s just one of the many reasons so many people came out to protest at the beginning of June.

On that same weekend, "Fox" – a member of Dutch’s management team – was killed in a drive-by shooting. Dutch has described Fox as a "father figure". He’s the guy speaking at the beginning of the “Only If You Knew” music video, and also features in the “Surely” and “I Dunno” visuals.

On the 18th of June, Dutch released a statement regarding the Black Lives Matter protest and Fox’s passing. "I recently found myself in a situation that put my career and my freedom at risk,” he wrote. “It was important to me that I go and support the Black Lives Matter movement and stand with my people and my community and it was important to me to be in the studio making music and remaining focused on the journey that I am on to turn my life around, having regretfully spent a lot of it in prison. Thankfully after appointing a legal team to fight this for me, I am no longer an interest to the police."

Since we spoke, Dutch has had life’s weight thrown toward him once again. But it’s in his nature to overcome and keep rising. One thing after another. Step by step. Working harder than ever.

I don’t ever quite catch what Dutch says after telling me he wanted to be groundbreaking – the line was patchy, the voice [indecipherable]. It’s a lockdown interview over the phone, after all, but he does tell me he wants his music to reach people. “Michael Jackson. That kind of level. Or Justin Bieber, ‘yna mean.”

With live music and festivals likely not happening for a while, it’s now a case of hanging on, once again, until Dutchavelli can get his plan for superstardom back on track. To keep on arriving, again and again.

“Ahhhhh, mate,” he groans. “You know what it is? Good things come to those who wait – and I really can’t wait. I really can’t wait.”

@ryanbassil