Bonkaz had a phenomenal 2015. With a number of standout tracks cementing him as a serious player in the current rap and grime landscape, the Croydon native has honed a wholly distinctive style, indicative of his varied influences which have been cited as everyone from Kano to James Morrison, Dizzee Rascal to The Kooks. His breakout Heavytrackerz produced ‘We Run The Block’ single was signed to DJ Target & Danny Weed’s Sony imprint, Pitched Up, and he returned to the label with ‘You Don’t Know’ a few months later, showing off a more upbeat side to his sound. Deftly exploring varying themes and sonic palettes as he sees fits, he dropped the gritty #MixtapeOfTheYear in January that featured Stormzy, Blade Brown and fellow New Gen artist Yxng Bane.
Now with his eyes firmly set on the coming months, we caught Bonkaz over the phone in the midst of a hectic video recording and touring schedule (he’ll be appearing alongside Rude Kid and Chase & Status at Chibuku in Liverpool this weekend). Read on as he discusses shining light on the new generation of UK artists, how Croydon has influenced him and why his corner of south London is such a hotbed for rap talent.
Although you can pin point grime’s origins to east London, right now, for me, nowhere is more popping than south London – yourself, Stormzy, Krept & Konan, Section Boyz, 150 and 67. The UK scene feels centred there, why do you think that is?
There’s a lot happening in south – stuff has always happened in south. South is more UK rap than grime, for example Section Boyz and Krept & Konan very rarely do grime, 67 and 150 don’t do grime – it’s rap as well, it’s just now everything is kind of falling under the same umbrella so it looks as though south is running grime. If you ask an original grime MC like Wiley if Section Boyz are doing grime, he would say no. East London has still got its grime origins, like the majority of actual grime, 140BPM spitters are based in east London. It’s just now with this new wave I feel like, on a bigger scale, everything is falling under one umbrella. So maybe in a few years it’ll all just be reflected as grime. The vibe in south London is really motivational right now, all of us kind of know each other. Me, Krept & Konan, Stormzy and Section Boyz grew up in one small area, went to the same schools and stuff. So we kind of just motivate each other… Nobody wants to break the mould now, if you know what I mean?
Croydon has always been a breeding ground for musical talent, whether rap, grime or the birth of dubstep. How has the area influenced you as an artist?
Croydon has influenced me just in the experience of actually growing up there. It has a balance, it’s always been quite a tough place but everybody’s always been really ambitious. So you’ve got boxers, MMA fighters, actors and singers. You’ve got the BRIT School in Croydon that people like Adele and Amy Winehouse and all these other people went to. It’s always been a place where everyone is ambitious and really wants to go for it. The balance, it can give you the toughness and also the drive. I think that’s what I got from Croydon, same with a lot of other guys. So the balance is the toughness – learning to be fairly streetwise, to an extent – and also being really driven and aiming to go higher places.
I used to listen to a lot of UK rap back in mid ‘00s – artists like MashTown and Joe Black, it was kind of under the radar compared to grime at the time. Do you think UK rap, or “road rap”, can grow bigger than grime or do you think it’ll stay as a smaller genre?
I guess it’s what you do with it. You could do a video on your block and get a million views, but it’s really about the next step. You would refer to someone like J Hus as a road rapper but then he’s gone and done singles, done shows, performances and loads of other stuff. You might have a road rapper who’d just only do the video on the block and not really take it past that stage, so that can never be bigger than someone who’s gonna build the buzz and actually grow with it. Stormzy for example, his content isn’t overly street, but the beginning of Stormzy was him on the block, in the ends, with the mandem doing freestyles. Even the ‘Shut Up’ video he done – which went to the charts around Christmas time – that was a freestyle on the block with the mandem. You don’t have to change from being street if you’re street, it’s about what you do with it. Like, Jay Z is a road rapper essentially.
Your first project was called Quality Control. I feel a lot of MCs don’t have quality control in terms of the whole product – album art, visuals etc. You seem to have that in abundance. What advice would you give to upcoming MCs on that side of things?
It’s about how much you care, really. How much you care about the way it looks, the way it sounds and the way it comes across and what you’re representing. Some people don’t care… But that could turn out to be your brand, that everything’s really simple and focused on the lyrics. But I’m someone who cares about the whole aesthetic of everything, that’s why I have a team around me, because lyrically, I’m that guy. Lyrically, I can put that together and be over the moon with it. I don’t need anyone to get involved in that part of it. But when it comes to taking it to different places; organising things, anything outside of actually making the music, you’ve gotta have good people around. Unless you’re a super self-sufficient person and you can take care of everything, or you just don’t care about it. Taking the next step is acknowledging what you’re good at and acknowledging what you need. That’s really all I can say.
You listen to a lot of different styles of music – indie and rock for instance. There could be a comparison to Dizzee who is known for really fucking with Nirvana, among others. Do you think it gives you a creative edge and different perspective on music? People can often pigeonhole themselves by listening to one genre.
I think people that only listen to one genre of music are lying, I don’t think it’s actually possible to just like one genre. It might seem cooler to like a certain genre of music – if you only like rap you might come across as tougher, or harder.
So it’s more of an image thing.
Yeah, it’s about knowing yourself at the end of the day. I’ve grown up listening to all these different genres of music, different bands, artists, singers and rappers. It just allows me to tell my own story in my own way as opposed to telling it the way I think is gonna make me sound the toughest. I’m not really interested in sounding tough, that’s not really why I do it. Obviously some of my songs and lyrics might come across as street or tough or aggressive – that’s definitely one aspect of me, I’m not gonna hide that one – but at the same time I’m not gonna hide all the other sides to me. If you want to be able to listen back to your music in 10 years and feel like it’s you, and feel like you’re being honest, then you have to put every aspect of yourself in there. So yeah, it definitely gives me an edge and allows me to be free.
I was at the Boiler Room hosted by BK the other night, it was probably one of the closest things to pirate radio I’ve experienced in the digital age – the grittiness and the vibe. MCs from every ends coming together; you had Skepta, Frisco and Shorty from north, Fuda Guy from east, AJ Tracey from west, yourself and the Neverland Clan from south. That environment was really productive in terms of bringing people together and it had that pirate feel. What do you think the equivalent platform of pirate radio is now?
It’s a bit different because everything is so digital now, the listener has that moment to decide whether or not they’re gonna check out your stuff. Where as if you were on pirate radio back in the day, if D Double gets the mic and hands it to a completely unknown MC, nobody’s gonna turn off the radio, we’re still gonna listen. We might not like that MC, but Wiley might come on next and you don’t actually know that. So everyone’s got a chance to shine and that MC might take the mic and completely kill it and then he puts himself on the map.
Where as now, it’s like, if your name isn’t recognised not everyone’s gonna click on your video. I feel like there needs to be another kind of platform or outlet that can even things out a little bit. I see a lot of people doing stuff. Like, New Gen is my crew. There’s a New Gen radio thing on Radar Radio – we had a meeting yesterday, there was a lot of talk happening and we’re gonna do a lot to bring new people through and shine light on them. I think the responsibility is really on the artists as well as the platforms now. If you like a new MC or artist, it’s easy to just tweet out and be like “this guy’s sick, check this out”.
It seems to me New Gen have a lot of creative people that you’re putting on. Which New Gen people should we be looking out for?
There’s Santan Dave, Yxng Bane, Jordan Smith, Neverland Clan… There’s loads, man, so many new artists. There’s an alternative rock singer called Rocky NTI, he’s super sick, I’m gonna get in studio with him soon. As far as producers – Jay Jay Musika… I can go on all day, there’s so many.
What have you got coming out in terms of music and what shows can people see you at?
I’ve got shows all over; Bristol, Liverpool, Cardiff all this week. Festival season is coming up, I’m doing a few festivals as well. At the moment I’m just working on the visuals for the mixtape, so I’m gonna be releasing four or five videos off that. I started the video with Stormzy yesterday, I’m gonna do a few more of those, one with Blade I’m currently shooting as well. And I’ve got two new projects in the works, so loads of stuff from me.
Who won, Chip or Yungen?
Lastly, why do you support West Ham? You’re from Croydon, but why the Irons?
I just always loved the club. I was really into the vibe around the club, like how everyone’s so together, the fans and everything. The first game I went to there was such multicultural support, it was the first situation I was in where it was just like… Everybody was together. Literally thousands of people all wanting the same thing.
Words: Tasim Chowdhury