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Skepta: ‘I’ve always had dad swag. Nappies – everything’

 (ES Magazine)
(ES Magazine)

Last summer, Skepta was feeling uncertain about his future. The Tottenham-born rapper, winner of the 2016 Mercury Prize and the figure who has done more than anyone to put grime music on the world stage had begun wondering whether he would ever MC on another grime record again. He had written on Instagram that rapping was a ‘waste of talent’ and that his 2021 EP, All In, would be his last. He had also become a father for the second time — he now has a one-year-old son as well as his four-year-old daughter, River — and was having a hard time reconciling the focused aggression required for rap with the ‘dad swag’ required to be a decent father.

He flew to Ibiza ‘just to party’ ahead of his 40th birthday — and it was here that he had a vision. It took the form of house legend Carl Cox. The pair were introduced by a mutual friend and Skepta couldn’t help noticing that Cox — pioneer of the three-deck mix, Ibiza summer resident since 1985 — was still absolutely loving it in his seventh decade. ‘He was talking to me and I was thinking: “Wow, you’re like in your 60s and your show is sold out tonight,”’ says Skepta. ‘He had a drink in his hand, he was introducing me to his family, he was talking and I couldn’t even hear him any more — I was just staring at him. It was inspirational. I turned to [my tour manager] Paddy and I was like: we need to get back to the essence. I want to speak to the guys and see what happens.’

One week later, Skepta was spinning house to ecstatic crowds at the Circoloco night at the Ibiza superclub, DC-10. Jump cut to summer 2023 and he is a man reinvented — a man who has spent most of the summer in a massive villa, swimming with his kids, FaceTiming his friends, making ‘big plans’ for the future. He is on a flying visit to London, midway through a residency at DC-10 that is going better than anyone expected. ‘You know, we started off DJing house and garage, so it feels like I’m full circle back to where I belong,’ he says. He has spent most of the afternoon on set for our cover shoot performing handstands, passing a bottle of Clase Azul Tequila Reposado bought at Selfridges around his sizable entourage and modelling various outfits from his resurrected fashion label, Mains, another creative outlet that he has brought full circle. Just now he is in loose black trousers and a boiled wool sweater in a colour he calls ‘tennis ball green’. ‘I feel like I’ve just bought myself 25 more years of career,’ he laughs.

Skepta photographed by Renell Medrano for ES Magazine (ES Magazine)
Skepta photographed by Renell Medrano for ES Magazine (ES Magazine)

Skepta was born Joseph Adenuga Junior, the eldest of four children, to Joseph and Ify Adenuga, who moved to London from Nigeria in the 1980s. The Adenugas have been called ‘Britain’s most creative family’ and, well, you can see why. His siblings are fellow rapper Jamie (aka JME), radio presenter sister Julie and graphic designer brother Jason. Joseph Senior, a computer scientist and part-time DJ, made all of the family’s furniture by hand. Ify, a charity worker, has published a widely acclaimed memoir-cum-parenting manual, Endless Fortune. Sample advice: tell your children that you love them often. But I am mindful from Skepta’s lyrics that those who use his ‘real name’ are liable to kill the conversation (‘Only my parents call me Junior’). In fact I’m mindful that there are many ways to kill the conversation with Skepta. He is fiercely protective of his private life — he keeps the mother of his children well out of the spotlight — and has what you might call a what-the-f***-you-looking-at resting face. When the interview begins (three hours behind schedule…), four or five members of his entourage pull up chairs, too, and Skepta makes it clear that their presence is non-negotiable. ‘No one’s making noise. Let’s go.’

Still, surrounding himself with others is a core part of his philosophy. ‘I understand I have the power to open the door and I have to hold the door open for other people, you know?’ And maybe it’s the Balearic influence, maybe it’s the tequila, but he proves open, engaged and pretty damn cheerful — at least until the conversation turns to politics.

How’s being a father? ‘I had my daughter first. It was a bit of a shock but I always vowed that I would be a good dad, innit? Whatever I was doing, I always just wanted to be a good dad.’ And in fact, it came naturally to him, he says. ‘You know, I’m the oldest of four siblings, so I’ve always been the carer for the other ones. I’ve always had dad swag, innit?’ Is he hands on? ‘Yeah for sure.’ Nappies? ‘Nappies — everything. I do everything and I want them to see me do everything as well.’

Skepta photographed by Renell Medrano for ES Magazine (ES Magazine)
Skepta photographed by Renell Medrano for ES Magazine (ES Magazine)

There is a part of parenthood that prompts you to revisit who you were as a child — where you came from, how you were raised — and it’s a process that Skepta has welcomed. In fact, he worries how his own children, growing up without the material struggles that he faced, will adjust to the world — whether they will ‘recognise the spiritual’. Just this morning he wrote on Threads: ‘How is it possible to be an introvert and the class clown at the same time?’ And he feels this duality of character emerged when he was a child. Back in the 1990s, when he attended Winchmore School, it was not cool to be African, he stresses. ‘There was always racism in the school. You feel a bit separate — so I definitely had an element of dissociation growing up. But then, my mum is outspoken, doesn’t give a f*** about anything. And my dad was really creative — every cabinet, drawer and table in my house was made by my dad. So I have the creative element from my dad. I have the outspoken element from my mum. And I have the dissociation as well. So then I grew into me. I was always on this path but it’s just taken age and wisdom to tighten up.’

So, almost everything he is doing now, he sees as a return to this essence — including the Mains collection, co-created with head designer Mikey Pearce. ‘I’ve been waiting all my life for this,’ says Skepta of the collection. How would he describe it? ‘It’s Skepta style. It’s a flamboyant African who knows about the rest of the world. He knows about Europe, he knows about Asia, he knows about America, but he’s still got his African flamboyance, you know?’

Skepta photographed by Renell Medrano for ES Magazine (ES Magazine)
Skepta photographed by Renell Medrano for ES Magazine (ES Magazine)

Joseph Senior had a saying — ‘Clothes don’t make the man, the man makes the clothes’ — and it seems that Joseph Junior took this literally. He tells me he used to parade around the Meridian estate in Tottenham as a youth in his own home-made clothes. ‘If you don’t know me, you see me and I’ve got this hard face and I come across as I’ve lived a street life, innit?’ he says. ‘But I used to make my own trousers.’ What, with a sewing machine? ‘I used to knit. I used to sew with a needle and thread. Cut the trousers out and come out on to the estate. People would laugh and that. When I speak to people they say: “Oh, what’s this new spark of DJing? What’s this new spark of fashion?” But I was creative ever since I was a kid, innit.’

Clothes have certainly always played a big part in Skepta’s lyrics (and let’s not forget, he did used to date Naomi Campbell, too). Remember the key line in ‘That’s Not Me’, the song that booted grime into the centre of the culture back in 2014: ‘Used to wear Gucci / I put it all in the bin / Cos that’s not me.’ One of his proudest achievements is appearing on the front of magazines dressed top to toe in Sports Direct, which is, after all, where most of London actually shops as opposed to aspires to shop.

Still, the success of his breakthrough album, Konnichiwa, only came after he had learnt hard lessons about compromise. After earning his bona fides in grime’s mid-Noughties pirate radio days, Skepta was signed by Universal during that brief, heady period when the major labels were desperate to find the next Dizzee Rascal. But playing the pop game didn’t sit easy with him. Skepta’s third album, Doin’ It Again, was described as ‘the sound of grime destroying itself’ by NME. The recognition — the Mercury award, the calls from Kanye West and Drake, the millions of YouTube views — only arrived when he started doing everything himself. It’s a lesson he has learnt repeatedly in different forms, including in fashion (only for major label read: Nike).

Mains is Skepta style. It’s a flamboyant African

Skepta designed his first trainer collaboration with the sportswear behemoth in 2017 and at first, the ‘synergy’ worked well, he says. ‘I think we were the only people that were allowed to use our tracksuits and apparel in editorials with the shoes that we were making. It was all working cohesively.’ After a while, however, he wanted to be more independent. It took him two years to part ways with Nike, by which time he had resolved to do everything on his own terms, even if it is, financially, much more of a risk. ‘I’m not going to start shouting about it. But it happened to me, I had to fix it. I got it fixed, it took a couple of years but now it’s back.’ He is, in fact, grateful that he had the chance to learn more about the fashion world in the interim, becoming friends with the late Virgil Abloh and the designer Matthew Williams.

Skepta photographed by Renell Medrano for ES Magazine (ES Magazine)
Skepta photographed by Renell Medrano for ES Magazine (ES Magazine)

He has also taken on board some choice advice from Kanye who — whatever else is going on with him — did successfully transition from hip hop to fashion. ‘He saw me outside a Burberry show when I was about to sign a contract with Puma. He was telling me: “Make sure I see your contract.” I was looking at him, thinking: “Man, you’re kind of a cool guy, asking to see people’s contracts, not asking for weed or Rizla or anything like that.”’ He laughs. ‘I’m actually intrigued to know what he thinks about our collection when it comes out. He opened so many doors.’

But it is Nigeria — not Tottenham, not Ibiza, not America — where Skepta seems to draw most inspiration. ‘I always had this introverted side but I realised when I brought certain parts of my life out — whether it was the humour of Nigeria or my swag or my flair or just me being an extrovert — I always thought: “Wow, people clearly like this, you know?”’ He goes ‘home’ as often as he can. ‘And if not Nigeria, I go Ghana. There’s something about when you’re just around your people, it feels like you’re around your uncles and your aunties and you understand yourself because it can be very confusing being here. Whether we like it or not, cultures are different. Going home to Nigeria is very liberating. There’s a flavour of Nigeria that if the world had it, it would just be a much more celebratory place,’ he says.

So will we hear him rap again? He swiftly dismisses the idea that he has retired from music — the music saved him, he stresses — but it is clear that his heart is currently in house music. ‘It’s the most free language of music that I’ve felt for a long time, you know? I’ve built a team of producers — Ossie, Jammer, J Kolo, Jammin — there’s a lot of us producing house now.’ And there are clearly aspects of rap that he finds hard to reconcile with the person he wants to be in 2023.

There’s something about when you’re around your people. Going home to Nigeria is very liberating

‘Rap is so political,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot of undertones, a lot of subliminal disses to other rappers and it’s just like — it’s very like coony. It’s coonery to me, lots of Black guys arguing over who’s going to get a record deal with a bank loan, you know what I mean? It doesn’t make any sense to me.’ The word ‘coonery’ — derived from a racial slur — is usually defined as behaviour that perpetuates negative stereotypes of Black people. What does Skepta mean by it? ‘It’s pandering to a record label exec, trying to please them, willing to shit on your own brother that you probably come up with,’ he elaborates. ‘Your family, your background, your culture, your heritage is the same as that person — but you’re willing to argue with them, just to be in a record label chair holding the champagne, smiling with a pen in your hand on a contract, you know?’

It is something that has been troubling him for some time but which he has only just been able to put into words. ‘Even with music videos, I remember I kept telling my guys: “This time we’re not rapping to camera. I don’t want to rap to camera looking into the lens saying this stuff to an imaginary hater. This is actually weird to me.”’ But aren’t bragging and battling and displays of aggression core elements of rap music? ‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘And we’re not doing that any more. We don’t have to be like that. Everybody can be respectfully earning money together with their own dignity. And not having to sell themselves, or give away rights to their music, or stunt on their own people.’

But the question that makes him truly touchy — and I can’t help noticing that it happens a few moments after someone passes him an enormous spliff — is when I ask about politics. Back in the misty days of 2017, his brother JME, Stormzy and Novelist were among the rappers putting their weight behind Jeremy Corbyn’s general election campaign. Skepta stayed well out of it. I’ve long wondered what he makes of that moment now?

Politicians are just like big OG bullies, you know? I got my own politics with my own people and I’m active in it

‘Politicians are just like big OG bullies, you know? One time I did an interview with Naomi and I put my fingers in my ears when they asked me about politics. People still to this day say: “I liked him until I saw that clip.” I’m like, that’s cool but I got my own politics. I got my own politics with my own people and I’m active in it.’ He warms to the theme. ‘I don’t f***ing care who all these f***ing politicians and prime ministers are — they’re all in a f***ing dick swinging contest. They’re just boys innit? They’re boys. They just do whatever they want and make up whatever excuse and we’re just going to have to live by it, do you know what I mean?’ He rants a little bit more before tailing off. ‘Yeah sorry, I got a bit emotional there.’

That’s alright, I say. But why does the subject make him emotional? ‘I wish I could google up quickly and find what the actual definition of politics is. But politics is not just Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin and all these bredders. Politics is people. We have our own politics, too. There’s things going on that need sorting. I got Stormzy, I got Chip, I got Bandokay, I got Tion Wayne, I got politics around me. I got Wizkid, I got Burna, I got Davido — politics is life now in front of me, real time. I’m alive. I’m alive. I’m alive… and it feels good.’

It seems to me to be a coherent political philosophy — and one that takes a lot more active effort than a bit of virtue signalling and five-yearly box-ticking. Control what you can control. Help where you can help. Bring up whoever else you can bring up. Skepta thinks so, anyway. ‘My proudest achievement is actually being successful and opening just a mental avenue of thought,’ he says. ‘Today actually could be different. We could be doing more than just sitting on a wall twiddling our thumbs. We never had that around us before.’

Select pieces from the Mains collection will be available to buy on 17 September at Dover Street Market (doverstreetmarket.com)

Photographer: Renell Medrano

Stylist: Jessica Skeete-Cross

Set Design: Samuel Overs at New School Represents

Barber: T Styles

Grooming: Karla Q. Léon at Saint Luke using Dior Beauty

Styling assistant: Benjamin Carnall

Photographer’s assistants: Dylan Massara and Jody Evans

Set Designer assistant: Felix Villiers

Production assistants: Soraya Gaied Chortane and Max Ayuli