Eight miles out of Glasgow, Paisley strikes me as the kind of small town that teenagers daydream about escaping. The sky is brimming with drizzle, the shop fronts are adorned with ornaments and doilies, and there's a silence in the air that makes you want to scream just to feel like something is happening. Nobody would hear you, because there is nobody on the streets. In a way, it's probably a perfect place to get lost in music – nevertheless, it's an unexpected home for the UK's newest break-out MC.
Nineteen-year-old rapper Joe Heron (aka Shogun) lives with his mum in "a wee tin roofed semi detached gaff". A sign hangs on the door as I walk in, which reads: Welcome to the Nuthouse. "My mum doesn't like my music," he grumbles, sounding like most teenage humans who have walked this earth. "She doesn't understand the culture and the intricacies of the writing; everything that's happening, that I'm getting gigs and going to be soon earning enough to live on. She just wants me to go to college, but why?" His eyes illuminate, like he's just struck upon the exact right way to illustrate his point: "Glasgow's rife with these university cunts. They don't know how to express themselves so they become caricatures. 'I'm gonna be the most goth cunt or I'm gonna be the most emo cunt, because I don't know who I am, and now I'm in this clique so I can't do this or that.' Fuck that."
Over the summer, Shogun uploaded a freestyle video called "Vulcan" onto YouTube, in which he flip-flops between infuriated and languorous; rapping about drug addiction, self-hate, depression and, importantly, hope. In the months that followed, it swiftly racked up over half a million views. Newer freestyles have similarly impressed, and this month he'll support legendary UK rapper Akala on tour. Shogun's lyrics are dark and personal, a window into the mind of a teenager living a stones throw from the most deprived area in Scotland (Ferguslie Park). Read his bars on Genius and you might think you've stumbled across some forgotten introspective emo classic, not a Scottish rap track. "I'm not talented or gifted or up and coming," he spits, "I'm just obsessed with stressing, fucking running / From a lifestyle that I've hated for a while". Later on, he says: "My hatred was created in the crucible of loneliness".
Over the last six months, he has been dubbed the "face of Scottish grime", though much of his material doesn't necessarily fit that definition. His beats aren't cold or choppy, and his bars are delivered with a distinct, pitter-patter Scottish flow. But, if the past year has taught us anything, grime has evolved since its original incarnation. The genre has become a worldwide phenomenon, reinterpreted by producers in Shanghai and reappropriated by white kids in Blackpool. So, as far as spitting bars like you're packing punches in the boxing ring goes, Shogun is proving to be lethal.
Still, I can see why his mum wants him to get an education, especially given how poetic and linguistic he is. Edinburgh's Young Fathers may have enjoyed a significant amount of recognition following their 2014 Mercury Prize win, and Fife's Soul may have become the 2015 Don't Flop battle rap champion, but Scotland isn't exactly a hotbed of career rappers. In fact, the Scottish grime scene Shogun's been pigeonholed into has so far been mostly approached with the kind of morbid YouTuber curiosity the likes of Blackpool's Sophie Aspin and Little T attract. Sure, some videos get a lot of views, but judging from the comments sections full of people begging for subtitles, it's hard to tell how many of those are honest fans.
His hometown of Paisley plays a huge presence in Shogun's music. Walking through a park, we're soon accosted by three middle-aged drunks asking for money and he swiftly tells them to "Fuck off!" "How safe is it around here?" I enquire. "Someone got raped on this path about three months ago," he answers calmly. The 77,000 cap Scottish town has a strange dichotomy about it. On the one hand, it is proud and tenacious: blessed with beautiful architecture, and a decorated social and industrial history. It's politician, Mhairi Black, is one of the most exciting and determined young voices in British politics, and the town is currently bidding to become the UK's 'City of Culture' in 2021. But this is also an area where crime is high, and the aforementioned Ferguslie Park is classified as the most deprived area of Scotland. Renfrewshire, the county which contains Paisley, has the third busiest food banks in the country.
"I guess it's sort of gentrified in parts," explains Shogun, "but there's still no jobs. Ferguslie Park is still the most run down area in Scotland, and there's still people dying from fake pills." When I ask if he sees a more prosperous future for the area post-Brexit, what with the possibility of another Scottish referendum in the air, he laughs. "Politics is like Christmas up here. You just pretend to care when it gets round to that time. People up here just want to go to work, come home, sit down, and shut the fuck up. There's no community outreach programmes or youth clubs or anything like that anymore. At least, if there are, they're not made accessible to the kids that need it."
In some ways, his story seems somewhat representative of one we see mentioned but never directly explored in various political think-pieces since Brexit: the disenfranchised youth of non-metropolitan Britain, at a loss with 'politics', but still inherently and vociferously political. He excelled in English at school, but he wasn't interested in other academic subjects, bunking off to hang in an abandoned mental institution called Dykebar Hospital, where he smoked with his mates, watched hip-hop videos on their phones, and rode around on dirt bikes. Later, he started getting into more trouble, and eventually got lumped with over 300 hours of community service for a range of misdemeanours including breaking and entering. "I've lived like a wee scumbag," he tells me. "I've taken stuff from people; sometimes out of necessity, sometimes because I could, out of greed, out of power. I was a fucking narcissist. I haven't stopped being a narcissist, but I'm aware of it now and I control it."
He shows me around his bedroom, and I notice a fist-shaped hole through one of the walls. He punched it a few years back in a state of fury. Now it acts as a reminder of the deep anger he's felt about various childhood experiences, from his father's absence to the death of his uncle caused by alcoholism and the stabbing of his nephew's dad, which took place when he was just eight. The hole remains because those feelings "just drive me to make something of myself," he tells me solemnly. "My uncle's memory will forever live on in 'Vulcan' now."
When we arrive in Glasgow that afternoon, we head straight for the studio where we're met by two MCs called Remark and I.D, both of which are members of Shogun's crew MFTM – an acronym for Mans From The Mainland. As we cruise around town, I.D and Remark begin organising a secret gig. Shogun himself is in a pensive mood, following an argument with his mum, which has left him temporarily kicked out of his house. "She's still pissed off I didn't go to college," he says.
Arriving at city centre club Indigo with only minutes to spare, we find the 100-capacity venue rammed, and there's a sense something special is about to take place. While I.D and Remark deliver a raucous support set, they seem to know who everyone is waiting for. "Are you ready for Shogun?" they shout into the crowd, seemingly made up of a mixture of fellow MCs, students and hipster-types. When Shogun gets on stage something weird happens. The angsty adolescent with fluffy facial hair I've spent 48 hours with is replaced by a focused performer able to command a crowd like it's his thousandth show. His potential is evident from the very first bar he spits with an urgency quite jarring given his usually calm demeanour.
There are aspects of Shogun that make him seem like a stereotypical poster boy for Scotland's zero-opportunities working class generation, with him appropriately declaring on "Element": "I hate Paisley, but, man, Paisley made me". But in an age of post-Internet rappers, he also seems like an unusual evolution of an older era of hip-hop and counterculture, and not just because of his idols – such as Wu-Tang Clan or references like Bill Hicks – but the way he doggedly appears committed to raising awareness of his environment, eschewing the escapism of Snapchat stories and Twitter feuds for an everyday frustration with a political class which not only fails to represent him, but actively makes life in towns like Paisley almost unbearable. "When this fucking country's fallin' apart" he raps on "Unrivalled", "it's time we take it back to the start, behead Tony Blair because he kept us in the dark."
The show finishes and the crowd disperses. Everyone around Shogun looks excited beyond belief, but he looks calm as ever. He walks past me with a McDonalds burger oozing in ketchup in one hand, a rolling joint in the other. I ask him if he's coming along with everyone to the post-gig turn up, but he shakes his head. "I'm off to write more bars," he says.
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(All photos by Robert Ormerod)
Shogun plays Kamio in London on Oct 28. Buy tickets here.