The Big Interview: J Hus

The Big Interview: J Hus

"What’s the craic, what’s the story?”

Seven tracks into J Hus’ debut album, on the loose, danceable Like Your Style, he repeats that question in his best attempt at an Irish accent. It’s funny, and matches playful production from his long-time collaborator JAE5. Why say it? Hus heard the phrase on a trip to Dublin and it tickled him, so he nicked it. It comes to mind when Music Week meets Momodou Jallow, whose stage name abbreviates hustle (owing to his days peddling supermarket doughnuts in the school playground) in the plush confines of the Langham Hotel in central London. He’s just navigated a series of red carpet interviews at the Hyundai Mercury Prize launch event. Common Sense, released in May, joins records by Stormzy, Ed Sheeran and Alt-J as one of 12 shortlisted titles, representing the latest in a series of landmark achievements for the 21-year-old.

So, J Hus, what’s the craic?

“I’ve been feeling like a real pop star,” he says, flashing a big smile and fiddling with the zip on his velour tracksuit top. “I’m just getting bigger and bigger, it’s an amazing feeling, this is what I’ve always wanted. I’m happy, the music is just doing its job, taking me where I want to go.”

Common Sense - which has sold 72,946 copies to date, according to the Official Charts Company and was one of eight 2017 UK debuts in the Top 200 for the first half of the year - is full of Hus’ idiosyncratic touches. It casts him as both magpie and inventor, pinching and restyling sounds from around the world to create a diaspora of the grime he grew up on, rap, his Gambian heritage, bashment, dancehall, hip-hop and more. It’s connecting, too: lead single Did You See has soundtracked the summer, from Snapchat videos, to traffic jams, house parties, clubs and festivals. It currently sits on 623,692 sales. Artists such as Skepta - who Hus idolised in his teens and played with in Lagos last year - and Stormzy have stolen more headlines so far, but no one sounds like this. Bunda, bouff, clartin’ and bunsah are just some of the words in the record’s vernacular, while it’s jammed with candid stories of his Stratford neighbourhood, relationships and sometimes troubled past.

How does it feel to gain recognition for an album that’s pure, unadulterated J Hus?

“I always want to be me,” he says. “I’d rather be recognised for being me than being something that’s not me. It means way more that I’ve been able to be myself on my album and maybe have a chance to pick up a Mercury Prize, so yeah, I’m really excited.” Of the record’s genre-blending character, he adds: “It’s very mixed. That’s how I identify, that’s how I feel myself because I’m always mixing sounds. That’s what people know J Hus for, always being so diverse.”

I always want to be me. I’d rather be recognised for being me than being something that’s not me

J Hus

It’s true - Hus has been mashing genres since his first SoundCloud freestyles in 2014, through to videos for Link Up TV and SBTV, 2015 debut mixtape The 15th Day, signing to Sony imprint Black Butter for breakout Lean & Bop (140,969 sales to date) and now Common Sense. Another key constant has been his obvious talent, which lies both in the ability to identify and ram home a killer verse or hook, and to move nimbly between hard rapping, softer intonation and singing. Hus’ team have built a no-frills campaign around keeping his talent and personality front and centre. The first serious analysis of his gifts took place in a car with Moe Bah, Hus’ old friend from primary school. Together with his brother Kilo Jalloh, Bah now manages the rapper.

“We were sitting there talking about what we were going to do in life,” says Bah. “I knew he was talented so I just said, You need to do music and take it seriously.” None of the three knew the first thing about the music business, Bah says, and initially it was a case of “helping a friend who wanted to change his life - he’d just come out of jail”. While the brothers set about contacting platforms like GRM Daily and SBTV, Hus moved down to their Portsmouth University digs to stay away from “trouble” in Stratford. They used their student loans to pay for £20-a-pop sessions with West London-based producer JAE5, who was seduced by Hus’ talent and willingness to work.

Meanwhile, under the name 2K Management, the brothers met up with “everyone - labels, publishers, booking agents, lawyers… It was learning on the go, gauging things on character”. Jalloh remembers “a lot of nice people in the game” and credits Black Butter president Joe Gossa, SBTV’s Isaac Densu, Polydor A&R consultant and Renowned Management founder Zeon Richards and XL A&R Caroline Simionescu-Marin with “really helping us out”. Primary Talent Internation’s Craig D’Souza, now Hus’ agent, was key too, helping set up his mailing list and in turn building the fanbase that still forms a foundation for his success. “It was a big selling point when it came to talking to labels,” remembers Jalloh.

Simionescu-Marin, who was editing GRM Daily at the time, was the very first person the pair met in the industry. “J Hus is one of the most important artists to come out of the UK this decade,” she says. “I remember seeing the first draft of his GRM Daily #Rated freestyle and I knew he was special and completely different to anyone I had ever heard. The way his melodies and lyrics connect with people is like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

Richards, whose management clients include Wretch 32, says Hus’ “unique personality” puts him “at the forefront of a new generation”, while he calls Bah and Jalloh “two of the smartest people in the business”. They certainly seem two of the most driven. “We always had belief in Hus and were willing to learn, to be the best,” says Jalloh. “People said, You might have to get a co-manager, but it was like, No, we’ll prove we can do it.”

He’s taking it somewhere no one’s ever taken it before. I think he’s got the opportunity to take it worldwide. He’s a very, very special artist, I don’t think there’s anyone near or like him

DJ Semtex

DJ Semtex, director of artist development at Sony, certainly believes they have. “It’s been great to see them rise,” he says. “They’re the next generation of management companies, they’re the future.” He adds, excitedly, that rappers such as J Hus, Skepta, Stormzy and Giggs - who took to Instagram to praise Hus - have built “a new industry with new models. There are better alternatives now”.

Scene legend Semtex, who has worked closely with Dizzee Rascal, discovered Hus through former Reprezent Radio head of music Gavin Douglas and recalls a eureka moment after seeing the video for Lean & Bop. “It was like, He’s got it - he can rap, he’s got humour, he knows how to make club records, party records, music that appeals to everybody. You could see from one video that he was going to be a great artist.” After meeting Bah and Jalloh at Wireless Festival and initiating Hus’ signing to Black Butter, Semtex’s belief only grew stronger. As the campaign unfolded, he realised something massive. “I feel he’s the most significant MC since Dizzee Rascal,” he says. “I worked in the studio with Dizzee and saw what he did. There are degrees of talent that set people apart, and I think Hus’ approach to writing, singing, lyricism, and his ability to create his own slang, his effect on popular culture... It’s like it’s déjà vu sometimes, but it’s also his way of doing things. He’s taking it somewhere no one’s ever taken it before. I think he’s got the opportunity to take it worldwide. He’s a very, very special artist, I don’t think there’s anyone near or like him.”

Gossa backs him up emphatically. “We’re all in the music business and there are all levels of artists,” he says. “But this is one where you have someone special, who’s completely relevant and innovative. If you’ve got all that and you’re having hits too… Well, that’s game over.” The president can barely conceal his excitement, and that passion has driven the campaign from the outset. “We just wanted Hus,” he explains. “We wanted his vision at its best and the managers and Hus felt they could trust us because Semtex and I come from the same indie vibe. It’s important when you get something from a certain place that it reaches its pinnacle while staying true to what it is.”

Jalloh describes Gossa as “like a mentor, friend or big brother”, while Bah notes the importance of presenting Hus exactly as he is. “We all want Hus to win, he needs an organic fanbase, people need to love him as a person first. We haven’t once changed Hus or his music.” The closeness between label and management is palpable, and Bah and Jalloh warmly recount Gossa’s support after Hus recovered from five stab wounds in September 2015 and served five months in prison last year. “He’s the first person I’d pick up the phone to if I needed anything,” says Jalloh.

Hus puts just as much value on the closeness of his team, although he points out, with another smile, that “artists have the power now.” “It’s about speaking, connecting, bonding and being honest, innit,” he continues. “They know what I like and don’t like, what I’m about. They push me in the right direction and let me steer it how I want. I wouldn’t be in a situation if I didn’t have creative control.”

Once he’d signed, Hus’ team wanted one thing: to ensure he reached as many people as possible in a natural way. “It’s been about being respectful of the culture and his origins, what he contributes to what happens at street level. The artist community he’s from can smell a fraud,” says Semtex. “Every decision has been about that, never doing something for the sake of it or because it might sell more records.”

“It just needed facilitating,” adds Gossa, who believes UK rap is experiencing a “golden age” in 2017. Hus agrees, revealing he’s discussed just how big it’s getting with Stormzy and Krept & Konan.

Hus is someone special, who’s completely relevant and innovative. If you’ve got all that and you’re having hits too… Well, that’s game over

Joe Gossa, Black Butter

Gossa picks up the campaign thread again. “We didn’t go at it in a traditional pop marketing way, we fed the scene. It was an anticipated album from an anticipated artist. Our job was just to make sure radio played the tracks, 1Xtra and Capital Xtra were already behind us, it was more the major stations, and [helping them] understand the fanbase and how much this music means to a lot of people in this country right now.”

A big part of that was Did You See, released in March, a track that the whole team knew would fly. Gossa calls it “Hus at his best”, emphasising that it captured the zeitgeist, while Semtex says it was “everywhere before it had even crossed over”. “It sounds international without even trying,” he says. “People outside the UK see it as region-less, which is a problem UK rap has had for years up to this point.”

Dotted around that single were four key features: a remix of MoStack’s Liar Liar with Krept & Konan, High Roller with Nines and Samantha with Dave. The fourth was Bad Boys, which featured Ghetts and was included on Stormzy’s No.1 album Gang Signs & Prayer. “As long as people heard those songs, we’d be cool,” says Bah. “We had to make sure people knew the debut was coming, that there was a lot more to come.”

The audience was ready: 17,973 week one sales (11,210 from streams) meant Common Sense entered and peaked at No.6 after its release on May 12. The same week, Did You See climbed the chart for the eighth consecutive week, reaching a peak of No.9 with 30,537 sales. Four more Common Sense cuts made the singles Top 75 that week: Fisherman (feat. Mo Stack and Mist) hitting No.47 (11,388 sales), Common Sense at No.55 (8,824 sales), Bouff Daddy at No.65 (7,733 sales) and Spirit at No.68 (7,373 sales).

Gossa highlights the impact of Fisherman especially: “It leaked ahead of the album and created hype that’s still going, with MoStack and Mist, it has three superstars of the scene.” Spirit has since been officially released and is now poised to go Top 40. Semtex stresses that going with this upbeat, positive track - written after Hus’ prison stint - represents “a very brave move, many labels wouldn’t have done it. It’s the opposite of everything else going on and is innovative and culturally significant because it takes on UK rap, hip-hop and African music”.

The campaign rolled on with a regional UK tour in May (various legal issues mean Hus will make his London headline debut at a long-sold out O2 Academy Brixton in November) and a series of festivals. He plays The O2 as part of Boy Better Know’s Takeover this weekend. Looking ahead, Hus simply says, “Everyone’s listening, like we always wanted”.

His team are more forthcoming: paying all due respect to his peers, they say Hus’ campaign is one of a kind. “We knew we had something very different and very special,” says Semtex. “He’s unique, we didn’t look at other campaigns, just focused on our music.” For Bah and Jalloh, “always thinking outside the box” paid dividends. “At no stage did we look at another campaign and think, We need something like this,” Jalloh explains. “Ours wasn’t the biggest, but it worked. All we had was Did You See, those features and some good looks with PR. Hus is not the most sociable, so putting him up for something like Soccer AM - which was offered - might have killed his image more than do something good for it. We worked with who he is. We know there will be more hits, so we haven’t done everything in one go. Hus is different.”

Standing opposite him in the Langham, it’s clear that J Hus is indeed different, a fresh proposition. Like Skepta and Stormzy, he’s changing the face of not just UK rap, but British music itself, uniting genres and cultures in ways never before seen. His is a new way of thinking, and is helping to push the UK scene further beyond the boundaries set by grime’s urgent, metallic sound.

In a few minutes, Hus will be whisked back onto London’s streets, but not before he’s made one final point. “Even though grime has been around for a long time, to a lot of people I’m something new, and people love new and fresh things,” he says, shoulders dipping so he’s practically swaggering on the spot. “It’s a new sound that people aren’t necessarily used to, but they really like it…”

With that, he pops the collar on his tracksuit top, and disappears.

PHOTO: Jeaniq Amihyia

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