Joseph Junior Adenuga, aka Skepta, has always managed to balance being part of a scene with following his own path. Like so many others, the 27-year-old North London MC and producer is parlaying a youth spent cutting his teeth on pirate radio and in grime raves into a mainstream career with seemingly unstoppable momentum, but along every step of the way he has done things his own way - and he has no intention of changing this to please anyone.
It's certainly stood him in good stead so far - and this year, Skepta pulled off one of the biggest coups yet among his peers in attracting the eye of none other than P. Diddy, the hip-hop titan who took to Twitter in search of an artist to give his new Diddy Dirty Money project's lead single a grime twist. The response was overwhelming from Diddy's UK fans, and one name popped up again and again: Skepta. Charismatic and distinctive as an MC, he had also produced some of the decade's most seminal grime beats; he was the ideal choice to represent the UK on the world stage. And he came through with shining colours, reworking Diddy's sleek hip-hop beats into something dirtier, grimier, unmistakeably British - and smashing a confident, witty guest verse: "Wow, I blow my own trumpet/And if you don't like it, lump it/I'm a UK bad boy - and just for the record, I like tea but I don't like crumpets." Appropriately enough, Skepta was in the queue at the bank when he first received Diddy's message - though he laughs when he remembers his initial reaction, "I thought Diddy's phone had been hacked!"
It's fitting that Skepta's biggest break to date came not as the result of marketing meetings or record label focus groups, but due to a spontaneous, organic and unorchestrated fan movement. Street-level support has been the driving force behind Skepta's rise; unlike his fellow grime crossovers, he has not been snapped up by a major label, and has never had the benefit of a massive marketing budget. His two albums to date - 2007's wittily titled ‘Greatest Hits’ and 2008's ‘Microphone Champion’ - were both released on his own crew's independent Boy Better Know label, as will this year's ‘Doin' It Again’ be, and he has put the hard yards in when it comes to live performance. A recent stint supporting Chipmunk was instrumental to the expansion of his fan base - even if many of his original fans felt that, by rights, it should have been the other way round.
"We've always felt like we don't rely on the radio so much - we rely on our direct contact with our fans," Skepta says. "Signing stuff for them, giving them stuff, interacting with them - making them feel like they're part of the team. We're all doing it together." This is so important to Skepta that he will even Ustream interviews such as this, live online, regularly breaking off to address watching fans, play them exclusive snippets of beats for forthcoming tracks and answer questions.
Hard work means little without talent, though, but Skepta has plenty of that. He's nothing if not versatile: he can do menacing, he can do witty; he can do thoughtful, he can do feel-good party tracks. He can make you laugh and get you hyped up, and he's never less than a thrill to listen to.
As word has spread, Skepta's entry to the mainstream has been slow but steady, with each single to date doing better than the one before. 2009 saw the club anthem ‘Too Many Man’ become a minor hit; despite mainstream radio failing to pick up on it, it garnered over 2.5 million YouTube views. The versatile Skeptas’ expansion of his range this year saw the electro-tinged ‘Bad Boy’ become his first top 30 hit - again, without radio support until it actually became a hit - and the dub step beats of ‘Rescue Me’ crash the top 20 for the first time.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, though, Skepta is adamant that he will not abandon grime in favour of transient commercial trends, and to this end, his next single, ‘Cross My Heart’, signals a return to a grimier sound in a bid to prove that he doesn't need to water himself down to gain success. "I'm never going to run away from it, it's my home," Skepta states. "No matter what I make or MC on, when you look at me, you have to see grime - I've contributed to the inner history of the scene. Beats that I've made, clashes I've had that are legendary; I've made proper marks in grime, and no matter what I do I'll always touch base with it."
He doesn't lie: when the annals of grime are written, Skepta will be considered as crucial to its development as the more celebrated Wiley and Dizzee Rascal. He stood out from the beginning. The amateurish energy of grime was part of its thrill, but an artist as focused and charismatic as Skepta, immediately caught the ear. Remarkably, his initial vocation was not as an MC, but rather as a DJ on the Déjà Vu pirate station as part of the Meridian Crew, which also included his little brother, JME - a talent-in-waiting in his own right. Skepta would pull together beats and join the dots between some of the best grime crews of the time - Pay As U Go Cartel, Ruff Sqwad, Roll Deep - all of which have nurtured some of the UK's most talented MCs. But it was only when Skepta's records were lost one day that he was forced to step up to the mic himself - and as he puts it, "I turned the whole room into the devil's house!" Looking back, he cites the camaraderie and competition of pirate radio as vital to his development as an artist - and the ease with which he performs now.
He's come a long way since then, and even further from his early years, growing up with little money to spare. Back then, a youthful Skepta would shut himself in his room for hours on end playing beats - much to the disapproval of his mother. "She was always, like, turn the bass down! She never thought it would come to nothing - 12 men coming to the house back in the day, everyone smoking and stinking out the house. She was thinking, when is this going to stop, when are you going to grow out of this, are you going to get a proper job? That's all I used to hear: When are you going to get a real job, Junior? And now whenever I see her, it's just bare kisses and hugs." Between Skepta and JME, the Adenuga brothers' mother has much to be proud of - and Skepta himself is proud of the path he's forged, and is continuing to forge. "People are now realising that there's success to be had in music," he says. "Back in the day, the only path out was football. It's good to show the youth that there's another path."