© Buzz White
This year, one clear voice cut through in British rap. It was a statement of intent, taking on politics, violent youth crime and mental health, a whole life’s work distilled into one outstanding debut. And at age 21, this is only the beginning...
I couldn’t tell you ’bout a light offence, quiet in year nine and ten
With a flick shank in English like this life is Of Mice And Men
I could feel myself changing, as I started ageing, my mind started fading, and my back started aching
Year eleven fought depression popping pills inside my lessons
Yes, I smile but I was stressing, music’s such a blessing
‘Warm Up Session’ (2015)
Anyone who’s met Dave has probably met Bane, the handsome Dutch shepherd that swims forebodingly through strangers’ legs like a reef shark might hunt seal pups in deep coral. The 21-year-old South London-born rapper rescued the dog over a year ago. Dave caught sight of him on Instagram, realised its owner was struggling – for whatever reason – and decided to, as the rapper explains, “swoop in and save the day”.
As you can imagine, such heroism on Dave’s part makes this dog a loyal servant. (I can confirm the dog is named after Batman’s foe and, yes, just like the super villain, at times he wears a muzzle; Dave, as he’ll explain later, is a big fan of director Christopher Nolan.) The truth is, that dog’s energy, his tail-up, eyes-fixed sense of devotion, makes Lassie’s waggy altruism look lethargic and dilatory. So protective is Bane, in fact, that before meeting the rapper warnings are issued: “Do not look directly into his eyes.” As I wait to meet Dave in a stuffy music studio in Parsons Green, I decide today is not the day to test anyone’s patience, least of all Dave the rapper’s dog called Bane.
The two-storey studio space with a green Astroturf courtyard and beige metal garden furniture is where Dave came almost every day for a year between January 2018 and February 2019 to record his debut album, Psychodrama, which has been hailed as one of the most significant and accomplished hip hop albums – never mind debuts – of recent times. It was largely produced by Fraser T Smith, a Grammy Award winner who’s worked with everyone from Stormzy to Adele via Sam Smith.
Fraser, Dave, even Bane: they can all be proud. Psychodrama is without doubt a masterpiece, the album of 2019 by quite some distance. Powerful, bold, ambitious, complex and at times desperately bleak, it’s less of a record to flex good vibes at a Saturday-night house party and more music to lose your thoughts to. Dave calls it a concept album and the title is taken from a form of therapy used in prisons that sees offenders role-play events from their past in order to help with rehabilitation.
‘Psychodrama was the album I needed it to be, the album that was expected of me’
Throughout the record the listener hears the voice of an actor playing Dave’s therapist. We hear the therapist introduce the premise and Dave’s first track: “Tuesday 23 January 2018. I’m here with David. This is our first session. We’re just going to talk about your background, where you’re from, any issues you’ve been dealing with… So where should we start?”
There are occasional chinks of light – a track named “Location” (feat Burna Boy) being about the closest Dave ever gets to a summer banger – but the issues wrestled with include identity, race, mental health, domestic violence, societal injustice, industry posturing, the prison system, cultural appropriation and the pressures of growing up with a family split apart by youth violence and the pressure of making ends meet in a city that is divided.
Unlike other rap artists, Dave is also fearless about pointing out the failings of his own community and his own industry. “Environment” begins with the therapist asking, “What do you think people see when they look at you?” And as an answer Dave responds, “You see our gold chains and our flashy cars / I see a lack of self-worth and I see battle scars / He has to be with 20 man when he wears jewellery / And you see it as gangster, I see it as insecurity.”
© Buzz White
An imaginative, socially conscious and self-aware lyricist, comparisons have been made to US rappers Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, Nas and even Eminem. If Stormzy paved the way from the streets (via grime’s new lease of life around five years ago) to the charts (peaking with a headline slot at Glastonbury this year), then Dave is the crème de la crème of the next generation of British rap stars (alongside J Hus, AJ Tracey, Skepta, MoStack, Slowthai and Loyle Carner) to come through and feel the heat of some significant commercial success.
“Shall I put his muzzle on?” The rapper formerly known as David Orobosa Omoregie, the youngest of three brothers – his parents are Nigerian – has emerged from the studio and we’ve found a large boardroom with glass walls to sit in and talk. Also in attendance are one of his two managers, Jack Foster, best friend Justin, Dave’s publicist and Bane, who seems less menacing than just a little needy.
“I gave him two injections yesterday,” remarks the rapper, today wearing a kaleidoscopic blue, red and yellow T-shirt from A Bathing Ape and Nike tracksuit bottoms the colour of a rain cloud. “He’s had a bout of gastro… gastro… gastroenteritis? Is that how you say it?” Around Dave’s neck are a pair of dog tags. I notice the silver caps he usually wears on his canine teeth – grills that make his wide grin seem even more wolfish – are absent.
I had assumed Dave was in the studio doing something specific. “I can’t even remember why I am here today,” he tells me, shaking his head like someone trying to wake up. “How I work changes. I might have a particular line or lyric I want to build everything around or an idea I want to work towards. What’s important is the flow; how words fit together with the tempo. Trying to make my words not sound weird when I say them out loud is a priority.”
‘School made me realise I was going to have to pull off something special’
As an interviewee, Dave takes a while to warm up; before the meeting several acquaintances talk of a reserved, polite young man who keeps himself to himself. Much like meeting a stand-up comedian who doesn’t crack one-liners in the pub after a gig, Dave couldn’t be further from a Moët-popping, name-dropping rap star, someone like current US trap hit maker (and Kanye affiliate) Lil Pump, whose Instagram feed shows him showering strippers with stacks of dollar bills, revving Lamborghinis and rooms fugged up by lit blunts. Dave, by comparison, runs on a darker, quieter energy.
“Psychodrama allowed me to get a lot off my chest,” he explains when I ask about the message and desired impact of his debut, the favourite to win the much-coveted Mercury Prize. “It allowed me to become the person that I wanted to live up to being. It allowed me to fulfil my potential, changing the way people see me and the way I see myself. It was the album that I needed it to be, the album that was expected of me.”
I ain’t got a memory of when Dad was around
Still a child when I turned man of the house
Tell me what you know about a bag full of bills
And your mum crying out, saying, “Son, I can’t take it”
And then staring in the mirror for an hour
With a tear in your eye like, “I gotta go make it”
‘Screwface Capital’ (2019)
“Bland.” That’s how Dave describes himself when I ask what he was like as a child. “Yeah. A very bland eleven-year-old, playing computer games. I went to a local primary school but I wasn’t anything special or anything insanely interesting. I didn’t have a crazy personality. I was somewhat book smart, but I wasn’t hanging off the teacher, nor was I messing up in class. I wasn’t doing much to disrupt anything. I was just there, existing.”
What was he reading? “An Inspector Calls, To Kill A Mockingbird… That one was painful. I’d read a lot in class. The Tempest… I liked that one called Artemis Fowl, but I wouldn’t read at home. I remember my mum’s friend Bernard used to write books, some sort of dark fantasy erotica. I never understood why.” Did he like school? “I learnt what I am not good at: listening, staying focused, turning up on time, following orders… I realised that I was going to have to pull off something special, something different.”
‘There was no social media… Rap stars, artists, were like aliens. Untouchable’
Dave describes himself as a “dilettante”, a rummager, a cultural meanderer, someone who will pick up and play with pretty much any cultural marble but only stick with the things that truly take his brain somewhere else. Anime was one of these things: “Dragon Ball Z and Naruto, that kind of drawing.” Rap was something too. “My older brother used to rap, although he drew as well. It was always there. None of us knew we had any sort of talent.
“I remember loving artists such as Kano and Devlin, but as there was no social media it was much harder to access them. You could download tracks through Limewire [a torrent app] or if you were lucky you’d catch them on Channel U [a pioneering urban music satellite channel that stopped broadcasting last year] in the morning before you went to school. Rap stars, artists, whatever you want to call them, were like aliens. Untouchable. Unimaginable really.”
It was 2009 and Dave was eleven when he wrote his first bar. “I don’t remember feeling shy or worried. I remember feeling pretty confident about it. It was 2009, I think, as I know it was about Newcastle FC just getting relegated. ‘Relegation, segregation…’ Something like that. I was just passing the time really. There was never any strategy or goal.” Aged 13 he put out his first track: “Everybody hated it,” he says, chuckling. “I kind of thought I’d blown it really. I retired.”
Music didn’t become meaningful for Dave until, aged 14, he realised it was a universe that could absorb his thoughts, something that he could shape and create rather than just words or notes he had to mine and mimic. “The moment I started learning to play the piano it changed my whole dynamic with music and with school. Suddenly I had a reason to be there, or at least at my music lessons; it just took hold of me.” Seeing the impact music was having on her son, and keen for him to find something to push his energy into, Dave’s mother bought him an electric keyboard.
“It wasn’t immediate,” he explains. “Getting good took time.” Dave had a friend called Kyle and they decided to learn piano together, getting competitive over who could learn compositions first. They pored over soundtracks, in particular music from Christopher Nolan’s films, such as Inception and Interstellar. “Hans Zimmer is a hero, for sure. ‘Like A Dog Chasing Cars’ [from The Dark Knight soundtrack] is one of my all-time favourite tracks.”
Each week Dave and Kyle would choose a song – another was Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” – track down the sheet music online, practise and then play it back to one another. His music teachers at school also encouraged him; later, he mentions he’s still close to at least one of them. Kyle is credited on Psychodrama as a producer, helping out on keys and composition on certain tracks. Eventually, Dave attained piano grade seven, the second highest given.
“I was just replying to other people’s music at first and then something changed. I wanted to put my own twist on things, make my songs and my melodies. It took years, though, and I don’t pretend it’s something I clicked into right away. After three years of learning piano, pretty much self-taught, I started improvising. But, again, it wasn’t in the bloodline or anything anyone in my school had done. It was just a really random thing I picked up.”
In the background to all this, Dave’s home life was in turmoil. His father had always been absent – “I have no memories of him” – but just as Dave was turning from child to young teenager, around eleven, both his older brothers, Ben and Chris, were sent to prison, Ben for robbery and Chris for his conviction under joint enterprise for gang-related violent crime.
The eldest, Ben, came out in 2018 after serving four years, but Chris, five years older than Dave, received a minimum life sentence of 18 years. Although Dave wasn’t particularly close to his brothers socially, he still looked up to them hugely and their convictions tore through his family; the blast radius affected everything and everyone, not least their mother. Although Dave prefers to let his music fill in the blanks around this subject, rightly worried about media misrepresentation, the influence these events have had on him and his work is deeply significant.
Dave’s mental health was also affected. After his brothers went to jail his mother became, unsurprisingly, overprotective of her youngest. In agreement with her other sons she banned Dave from going out after school. This meant less time on the streets, in the crosshairs of trouble, and more time at the piano and more time honing his lyrics and flow. Of course, it also meant more time in his room alone – at an important juncture of development – staring at the constellation of his own thoughts and concerns. Yet, as his mind went inwards, he found it helped to channel those emotions outwards and into his music. Aged 13, he tried and he stumbled. But he got much better. And quickly.
One of the first times anyone got to see and hear the progress Dave had made as a rapper was on 10 May 2015, not only the day he started college in Richmond (aged 16, studying philosophy, ethics, law and sound design), but also when he released a freestyle on Blackbox, a Youtube channel dedicated to promoting “the up & coming”. The name comes from the room in which the artist is videoed.
Dave’s session is still online, but now has almost three million views; he stands with a Gucci cap on backwards and a black scarf around his neck. He also keeps his eyes down for almost the entirety of the track. The subjects he touches on are raw and that early style seems angry and aggressive when compared to Psychodrama. What there was already, however, is an innate ability to transmit authenticity, to peel back his own emotional layers to expose the hurt, rage and at times confusion. One can see his was an exceptional, dexterous talent on display, even at 16.
‘I’m still angry about Grenfell. We all are. It’s up to musicians to take note’
In the Blackbox session, Dave raps about the details surrounding his brother’s case, how he visits him in prison and how, “Them visits had me crying, had me whelping / Had me taking pills to help it / Looking, thinking who am I? / Trust, you never knew this guy / Grandma died, had my mother stricken, talking suicide.” It’s hard to listen to some of it; it’s genuine storytelling rather than the usual clichéd, chest-thumping folklore that fills so much airtime in a genre that’s often hemmed in by it’s own trad machismo. After the Blackbox session Dave’s rapping began to be noticed by various industry figures. Within months he was seen on Jamal Edwards’ influential SBTV and within a year, in 2016, Drake was calling him up wanting to remix Dave’s single “Wanna Know”. He released his first EP, Six Paths, on 30 September 2016 and two years later secured his first UK No1 with “Funky Friday”. Life, for Dave, hadn’t just moved fast; it had gone hypersonic.
Whether Dave did go on to medication to help him deal with the trauma of his home life is unclear; but his surroundings’ creative influence on Psychodrama is undeniable. The last track on the album, “Drama”, begins with his brother’s voice from prison, explaining how he didn’t know who would “Bring me out of this shit,” but that “Mans, I’m very proud. I’m very happy to see it’s one of my own.” Dave’s subsequent verses are delivered directly to his brother. It’s full of anticipation (“I’m excited, man, I pray you get to hear my craft / From our childhood, our mother didn’t hear me laugh”), regret at not being closer to his sibling (“My brothers never spoke to each other when I was growing up / I remember tryna build a bridge, I wasn’t old enough”) and an explanation, of sorts, about how all that turmoil resulted in his silent ambition and a roar for success (“I learn over time, separation issues I describe / Are probably the reasons that I struggle feeling anything / I ain’t got a vision of a marriage or a wedding ring / It’s world domination in music or it ain’t anything”).
“I think we internalise a great deal,” he says when I ask why his music connects with people who know nothing of the problems he himself talks about or has faced. “Music can draw that stuff out of even the hardest person.” And that’s his main appeal: using his own situation to talk about universal problems, his vulnerability his weapon, allowing for empathy and connection from a rapt audience.
© Buzz White
I’ve got a question for the new prime minister
At Grenfell Tower, your response was ridiculous
You hid like a coward behind your five million
Dodged responsibility and acted like you’re innocent
And I can see you’re terrified, you’re not good at telling lies
I’m getting why you stay away from everything that’s televised
You look like a robot and you don’t speak with any life
It feels to me like any guy in press could’ve said them lines
‘Question Time’ (2017)
In 2018, Dave won an Ivor Novello Award for his song “Question Time”, a track that took a direct aim at Theresa May and what the rapper saw as the UK political establishment’s failings concerning Grenfell, the war in Syria, Isis, terrorism, underpaid NHS workers (Dave’s own mother worked for 22 years as a cleaner in various London hospitals), Brexit and even the £350m pledged by Boris Johnson and the Vote Leave campaign. In the song he also points the finger at US politicians: “Speaking of America, state and the president / With all due respect, I’ve got something to say for them / I just find it funny you can’t give a hand to Palestine / But you can trade whole arms with Saudi Arabia.”
Dave speaks about each subject eloquently and with an unblinking conviction. The day we talk it is around two weeks away from Johnson becoming the UK’s new PM. I ask him why he feels the need to comment on politics? “Music, for me, is about being in the time, of the time, all the time. When I look back on it I hope one can say I was involved in the process.
“I’m still angry about Grenfell. I think we all are. I worry about finding the right words, but we’re all upset and I don’t feel people have been treated correctly. I think it’s up to us, as musicians, to take note. For me music is always about making time capsules; ‘Question Time’ is one of those time capsules, although the problems raised will stand forever. That’s politics.”
Does he have faith in politicians? “I don’t think it’s easy to have faith in politicians; it’s an impossible job.” And how about Johnson? “Boris is definitely someone who knows more than he lets on. That impression we have of him…” at which point Dave suddenly breaks his calm demeanour and does what is actually not a terrible impression of the blond-haired Bojo, all blustery mumbling and head shaking “…is something of a disguise. He’s in a position to be prime minster for a reason; Boris is not a bumbling fool. But I’m not saying he’s someone with a clean heart either. Wasn’t he mayor for a while?” He was, yes. “Was he any different to what Sadiq Khan is doing now?” Well, I say, one has to wonder whether enough is being done around the spike in youth violence and knife crime presently.
‘If you speak to your friends correctly, all conversation should feel like therapy’
I pull out a copy of today’s Evening Standard. On the front page, yet again, is a report about knife violence in London, involving a male in his late teens who has died, with two others being rushed to hospital. I explain to Dave that, as a father with two young children growing up in the capital, this sort of thing, which seems to be escalating, worries me. “It is something that needs to be seriously looked at. It is something so complex; something that has 100 different faces that can’t be solved with any one thing.”
As someone whose family has been touched by inner-city violence, does Dave feel there is enough support given when such tragedy hits? “I think whole lives can change because of one event and I don’t feel people are sensitive enough to that. You get a lot of people that are willingly ignorant to problems that people face. Mental health is a real thing and it needs to be dealt with on a par with a physical illness. Something will happen to someone and they won’t be able to eat or move or anything…”
Is the industry changing with this next generation of artists? Has some of the traditional machismo been dropped? “Depends on the musician and depends on the type of friends you have around you. If you are open yourself it will encourage others to be open. But sometimes you don’t want to talk because you know talking won’t make it any better. Ranting works for me. If you’re speaking to your friends correctly then every conversation should feel like therapy.”
My time with Dave is almost up. The air in the studio is cooling, as is the weather system coming in from Northern Europe. Bane is getting hungry. Dave has a guest spot with J Hus at Lovebox, where he’s due on stage in around 45 minutes; he’s supposed to be halfway there already.
The Monday after we meet, Dave leaves for a tour of Australia, while his North American tour kicks off later in the autumn. September sees the transmission of his first acting part via Netflix: he plays a ruthless drug dealer with a wide smile in the Drake exec-produced third series of Top Boy, alongside original cast Ashley Walters and Kano. “Let’s just say I had to actually act,” Dave chuckles of his role, a scarred gangster intent on revenge. “My own character is very far from who I am. He’s… hyperbolic.”
Time’s up. Wheels up. Bane’s up and wagging. Dave and I shake hands. I thank him for his time; he responds as he does to every compliment, by earnestly bumping a closed fist to his heart. His jewellery rattles and he smiles. Despite his generosity – we’ve been talking for twice as long as we’d scheduled – it feels like our time is cut short; as with his music, even in conversation one feels you’ve only just scratched the surface of what Dave has to offer and impart. Repeat listening, and hearing, and ranting are strongly advised.
Don’t worry if you don’t get the chance to talk to him about it in person, however; Dave Orobosa Omoregie is all out there anyway. His entire story – thus far. More than he’d ever tell you face-to-face. One gets the impression, and one hopes, that Psychodrama won’t be Dave’s only therapy session. There’s so much more to talk to himself about. So, till next time. Are you sitting comfortably? Then he’ll begin.
© Tag Worldwide
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