It’s been a good couple of weeks for Peckham born-and-raised MC, Tiny Boost. He’s just released one of the most hotly anticipated mixtapes of the decade, Strictly For The Streets – an impressively ambitious road rap tape that has an album’s scope, stuffed with high class bangers and unflinching snapshots of life at the harshest end of south-east London’s roads.
It’s been a long time coming: eight-and-a-half years, to be precise. That’s how long the 27-year-old served under an IPP sentence (a highly controversial scheme where offenders are sentenced to a minimum time in jail, but no maximum), at 10 different prisons across the country, for firearm offences, before his release earlier in 2018.
Old school UK rap heads might remember the name from pre-jail buzz, generated what feels like a lifetime ago. See, Boost is from a different era. He grew up when grime was in its first wave prime – a time dominated by a small cluster of East End postcodes and artists like Crazy Titch and Ghetto (before he was Ghetts). But then again, south London was always a law unto itself.
Here was a whole swathe of the city that did things differently, with possibly even more grit. Brixton’s Roadside G’s and South Soldiers premiered ‘gangster grime’ in the early 2000s, while the first pangs of UK road rap are usually associated with PDC, another Brixton collective and a constellation of Peckham rappers like Colors, Slumz and – most famously – Giggs. It wasn’t that grime didn’t exist in south, or that rap didn’t exist anywhere else; but there’s a reason that an aspiring southside MC of Boost’s generation would choose the latter over the former.
He’d been in Peckham Young Gunners, PYG for short, the younger crew to Giggs SN1. Back then, on tunes like “Who U Talking To” and “Coming Up”, they rapped about hood violence and road life realities – arguably, PYG were some of the first angry and young drillers, with perhaps “Gunshot Riddim” standing as the most infamous example. Pretty soon Giggs, even then one of the elder statesmen of the scene, asked Boost to feature on Welcome 2 Boomzville – a collaborative tape released by SN1 in 2007. Then came a joint project, Who Said Dat, in 2009. Everything seemed to be going well and then, boom: Boost was arrested, out in the country in Aylsebury, and his music career put on pause.
But we’re not here to talk about the past, at least not exclusively. I meet Boost at his mates sleek new build flat in Croydon, a couple of days after the uncompromising Strictly For The Streets drops. He’s good company as he waits for his barber to arrive, relaxed and ready to chat over a range of topics that we dip and dive into throughout the course of just over an hour – such as the health of the British scene, music and moral panic, and exactly what he means by labelling the tape as a sound strictly for the streets, and the streets alone.
First though, before anything, it must just feel good to be putting out tunes after all this time. “It's mad”, he tells me slightly disbelievingly. “I'm not used to anything like this. I've been away for so long, it's hard to get excited about things. But I feel good, you know what I mean? I'm just calm with it.”
One of the frequent accusations thrown at ‘road rappers’ is a lack of workrate. Sure, there’s the obvious talent, but where’s the output? For every Skrapz releasing an average of a tune per year, there’s a Krept and Konan with major label backing, putting out a track per quarter. That’s not a criticism, just the way it is. It’s something touched on in a conversation I had with Skrapz himself in November 2017. With all the other realities of life to deal with, the rap side can take a back seat, or become a stress relieving hobby. Boost says that was the case before he went away in 2009. “Initially, back then, I wasn't taking it seriously. I just liked rapping.”
But a lack of consistency isn’t something you can lob at Boost since his release back in the first half of the year. Firstly there was “2 Days”, released in March (and named after the famous jailhouse philosophy of Avon Barksdale on The Wire), accompanied by his first solo music video, and the first glimpse many will of had of Boost this decade. Still, the distinctive gravelly delivery remained unchanged. The track opens with a statement: ‘never saw my 19th, 20th or 21st, I ain’t get a 22nd, never saw my 23rd, never got my 24th, 25th or 26th, cah I was riding hella bird’, and drives onward from there.
Then, the coming months have witnessed a steady slew of tracks and videos, with hard edged, high energy “Streets Back” followed by the more contemplative “Streets Calling”, before the arguable stand-out of “On The Corner" (watch above): a single release also included on the full mixtape. Filmed on Dog Kennel Hill estate on the East Dulwich/Peckham border, it’s nothing less than an exuberant, deliberately off-key anthem, accompanied by arresting visuals, of a block party in full effect. Much like another familiar late 2000s face, Brixton’s RA (another recipient of an IPP sentence in 2009), Boost has come back with a plan and a clear sense of the possibilities afforded by the UK’s new international cache and clout.
“When I got to jail, I could see the whole scene progressing. I was on road when Giggs first started [in the mid 2000s]. And from where it was then to where it is now, is mad”, he adds in a tone that sounds laced with bittersweet reflection. In another era, opportunities would have been scant after release. “The reality is that when you come out, it’s either a 9-to-5, like maybe you've studied a trade inside or something like that [or road]. But music has become another avenue, which I clocked quickly. I was like, this could work, you know what I'm saying?”
I ask about the tape. It’s such a statement name – Strictly For The Streets. One of the best bits of advice Boost credits Giggs with is telling him to “make the sort of music you want to listen to”. So that’s exactly what he did. From “Intro” and “Like Mike”, right through to the K-Trap featuring banger “Get It Gone” and “Frauds”, it’s a deliberately unsparing reflection of inner-city realities that many don’t want to acknowledge as reality at all. “I come from the trenches, shit was relentless, how can I ever forget?” runs the opening bar to “All of my Life”.
The tape couldn’t be called anything else, Boost tells me. “That's my way of thinking. Really and truly, I wanted to call it Strictly For The Narm – music for me and my people. But being around so many different people in jail made me realise that they relate too. They know that it's real. To make it just for Peckham would be disrespectful to my friends, you know?”
And for those who don’t get it, or find the relentlessly truthful and uncomfortable vision to there taste? Well, with respect, it probably wasn’t aimed at you anyway. “My core fanbase might just be 50 people – I know it's not, but even if it was – they're going to be street people. It's for them. Obviously if you fuck with it and you're not, then I'm thankful for that, I'm grateful. But there's no one from that lifestyle that isn't going to get it, it just doesn't make sense.”
He’d like to do live shows, he says, though you sense a dose of skepticism as to how soon. There are the obvious difficulties of police pressure and scrutiny. That’s nothing new, as Giggs, Skrapz, Nines and numerous other UK artists over the years can attest to. And it’s something Boost knows better than most, having been recalled to jail in 2015 after recording his Popping Freestyle on day release from an open prison, with the track deemed ‘too violent’ by both police and the probation services. It felt personal, he says. “They said the song heightened my risk, so I had to go back to 'normal jail'. I had to work my way back, and then get out from there”.
When it comes to the current debate on the causal link between road rap’s younger cousin, drill, and the current spike in youth violence and knife crime, it’s more complex than mainstream media treatment would allow. As with Boost’s own music, it’s a reflection of reality, not a kind of horror show make-believe. After all, the art you produce is going to draw from the life you lead. “People that are happy 24/7 are going to listen to happy music, he says. “If you go church, you're going to listen to gospel. We can't deny that music is affected by lifestyle. But it's not the reason people are stabbing each other”.
“If you look at the people beefing, music plays such a small percentage of that problem, when you're from the roads. There's not a lot of problems that are being caused by the songs – they were there before the music. That's what people need to focus on. It's the symptom, not the disease itself. To put all that focus and money in stopping the music – you're not doing your job properly. It’s a weak solution.”
In the time that Boost has been away, fads have come and gone, the UK scene has evolved and grown, even the makeup of Peckham itself has been transformed; from middle class spook story to the subject of endless, glowing Evening Standard editorials. Not that he minds, “even if I do miss the way it was – it’s changed yeah, but that shit wasn't good for people you know?”
But if there’s one constant, it’s the output of an artist who you sense will always keep things strictly for the streets. The new tape isn’t just a paean for past days and stresses, it’s also a reflection on them, too. All the way from the statement making “Intro”, right through to “Outro”, there’s an energy that sounds both like making up for lost time and setting the benchmark for a better future. Strictly For The Streets is a hard-nosed, unsparing mixtape of no little ambition. But then again, what did you expect from Tiny Boost?
You can find Francisco on Twitter.