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Kwengface: new horizons

Having risen as a prominent member of seminal Peckham drill collective, Zone 2, Kwengface is now a certified veteran of the scene. Pairing his sharp lyricism with a velvet-smooth flow, which erupts into an explosive energy when he turns up the dial, Kweng has voiced some of UK drill’s canonical anthems. On the eve of his debut mixtape, ‘YPB: Tha Come Up’, the London MC catches up with DJ Mag to talk censorship, scapegoating, wordplay, and having his horizons broadened

It’s late June, and Kwengface is up in the mix of meetings, promo and press around his highly anticipated solo tape,‘YPB: Tha Come Up’. But there’s a more pressing issue on his mind — it’s a couple of days before his birthday, and he’s just changed his mind about how he wants to celebrate.

“Do you know what? I’ve never had a party before. So I wanted to have a party,” he explains over the phone. “But I didn’t know it was that much stress to organise. What!” He laughs. “I just cancelled the whole thing. That money I was gonna go and blow on a party, I’m going shopping, man. I’m hitting up the stores.”

 

Despite only being in his early twenties, Kwengface is a certified veteran of the UK drill scene. Active since 2015 as a prominent member of seminal Peckham collective Zone 2, he’s featured on canonical anthems like the infamous ‘Zone 2 Step’ (2016) and rumbling ‘No Hook’ (2017). He’s evolved with the genre too; as drill productions became more and more expansive, Kweng showcased his range and technical skill as a rapper on solo cuts like ‘Tour De Opp Block’ (2018), ‘Sonic 2’ (2019) and ‘Auntie’ (2020).

Then, in January, he dropped what is comfortably one of this year’s best UK drill cuts, ‘Petrol Station’. It had crossover appeal, with a pair of gun-finger inducing verses from Kwengface and PS, crisp production courtesy of Zimmz, and a chantable chorus, perfect for shouting from the chaos of a crowded dancefloor. On ‘Petrol Station’, he attacks the beat with the explosive energy that’s become his trademark; the track is a symbol of the direction Kweng is taking his music — “an elevation”, as he describes it.

A month later, he upped the levels again with an unforgettable Plugged In freestyle that has since been viewed over 7.5 million times on YouTube.

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“Drill was most reflective of my life at the time, definitely. And also, I feel like that was just what my generation was into in terms of rap. Drill — thatʼs my generationʼs sound, innit”

RAWNESS

Kwengface’s career in music began at a time when grime was in the midst of a Skepta-led renaissance, while road rap was as popular and revered in 2015 as it is now. Both were viable options for a budding young MC. It was the authenticity and rawness of drill that spoke to him and his friends, though.

“I didn’t start off doing drill music,” he explains. “I started with rap and grime. But drill was most reflective of my life at the time, definitely. And also, I feel like that was just what my generation was into in terms of rap. Drill — that’s my generation’s sound, innit.”

Just as jungle was Black British youth’s response to more than a decade of Thatcherism, and grime to the failings of New Labour, UK drill emerged out of austerity. Kwengface’s generation grew up at the sharp end of those policies. Austerity’s impact on young people was especially brutal, with child poverty in the UK rising to its highest level since before the Second World War and youth services being bled dry. Simply put, for working-class communities in areas like Peckham, life got harder. It was a tough place to grow up in.

“It was eat or get eaten out there, still,” Kweng says. “Where man’s grown up, you had to have a hard shell. Situations happen that kind of make you or break you, innit. Especially as a young man, it just makes you tough about a lot of things. It allowed me to deal with certain life situations a lot better, but then again it made me lack in others. Things like reading people’s intentions and energies, all that shit — growing up in Peckham taught me that. But being able to socialise with people and be in other scenarios, I was lacking in that.”

UK drill gave Kweng and his Zone 2 brethren a medium for documenting the harsh realities of their lives; a claustrophobic cycle of territorial violence and retaliation, drug dealing and the constant threat of arrest. Making music also offered a way out of all that. Being from Peckham meant they were in close proximity to the Landlord, Giggs, and SN1, who’d used music to free themselves from the trap of the streets. 

“Everyone was banging SN1 tunes in the hood. They were the artists who was making noise when man was growing up. Obviously, you see what they’re doing and you see what money can be made off of that. You’re thinking, ‘Rah, man could do the same thing. Man’s from the same place. If they can do it, why can’t we?’ And I feel like they did pave the way for a lot of people, including myself, to do music in Peckham.” 

Zone 2 released the ‘Known Zoo’ mixtape in December 2017. It’s a classic tape, capturing UK drill’s transition from Chicago-inspired sound into its own distinct animal, full of funereal keys and sliding 808s. It’s also when they began to feel confident in their music’s capacity to earn money, notably through streaming services like Spotify.

“We were just winging it, man. We thought, ‘Let’s try and do a mixtape and see what happens’. Then, after we dropped ‘Known Zoo’, that’s when we clocked we could actually make some funds from music.”

“The authorities interfered a lot, you know? Shows was getting locked off... We were kind of just stuck. We were blacklisted, basically"

In 2018, violence surged across London. A total of 135 people were murdered; 45 of them were young males aged between 15 and 24. In the midst of the bloodshed, a moral panic ensued and drill music became a scapegoat, labelled by politicians, police and the media as a cause, rather than a reflection or symptom of the violence. An authoritarian clampdown followed: countless drill videos were removed from YouTube; Skengdo & AM were served with a gang injunction that stopped them performing; and Digga D’s West London collective 1011 were subject to a CBO which greatly restricted their freedom to make music.

There’s a history of rappers from Peckham being targeted by the powers that be. The Met reportedly tried and failed to dissuade XL Recordings from signing Giggs, subsequently forcing cancellation of live shows via form 696, while PYG rapper Stigs was the recipient of the UK’s first gang injunction in 2011. With UK drill under an intense spotlight, Kwengface and Zone 2 found their careers interrupted too. “The authorities interfered a lot, you know? Shows was getting locked off. We were doing things with Adidas and then they stopped working with us. A lot of artists didn’t wanna work with us, labels wouldn’t work with us,” Kweng continues. “We were kind of just stuck. We were blacklisted, basically. I even took time out. I stopped releasing music for a while.”

That feeling of suddenly being stuck when on the verge of potentially life-changing success created a sense of resentment which, in part, was the motivation behind dropping the controversial ‘No Censor’ in December 2019. The track explicitly names dead rivals, rather than alluding to or obscuring them. The song’s video was quickly pulled from YouTube, and the story of ‘No Censor’ being banned by YouTube featured on the BBC News website. “A lot of us had been given rap injunctions. And we felt like we couldn’t express ourselves properly,” Kweng tells DJ Mag. “A few of those injunctions were lifted. As soon as that happened, we were like, ‘Now we can talk like how we wanna talk’. We didn’t think the reaction would be so nuts, though. And that’s why we’ve toned it down a bit. At the time it was like a middle finger to all the censorship, like ‘Fuck you, man’.”

UK drill has changed dramatically since Kwengface entered the game. What was once a hyper-localised, street-centred South London sound now tops album and singles charts and inspires drill scenes all over the world. So does the fact that it’s gone ‘mainstream’ mean it no longer needs to be authentic to be considered good? “A lot of people are capitalising off the genre now. You even hear Chip on drill, talking about ‘...slide, you’ve never been on a glide’. I feel like drill is just music now. I don’t take it too seriously. I just enjoy it and look at it as more of a business. It was authentic before, but people have fucked it up.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing, innit, if you’re making money from it and it’s changed your life,” he continues. “Why not? It’s allowing us to catch up with the US, too. Obviously I’m not talking about my ting, though... my ting’s different!”

As UK drill grew from an organic, youth-led sound disseminated by social media into something bigger and more business-driven, it became harder for Kweng to maintain his DIY approach to releasing music. It’s why the transition away from the streets for young artists is not as simple as we might like to believe.

“Doing music and living your day- to-day life, it all adds up. Especially when you’re shooting videos and releasing them every month. And that’s without label backing, distribution, all of that. I was holding a lot of my singles back because it didn’t feel like the right time to drop them.”

SOLO

Kweng credits a change in management as being the key to allowing him to concentrate his energies on work in 2020, flooding the block with solo tracks like ‘Auntie’, ‘Hi Hats’ and ‘Swing It’, as well as jumpy collaborations with Berna, Fizzler and Hardy Caprio.

“As soon as I met my new management, I knew it was the time to release those tracks,” he says. “Other than SN1, in Peckham there’s not really anyone that has knowledge of the music industry, the infrastructure. As soon as I met the people that had the knowledge, who could help me fund what I was doing, all I had to do was focus on the music. It took a load off my shoulders.”

Focusing on music means Kweng’s debut tape as a solo artist is good to go. ‘YPB: Tha Come Up’ is loaded with plenty of heavy-hitting drill cuts that go off like shotgun blasts inside your speakers, but these are levelled by brighter productions that draw on trap and even UK garage. It features BGody and PS from Zone 2, East London rapper Berna and Harlesden’s Q2T. The project has a real one foot in, one foot out feel to it, with Kweng beginning to appreciate how music is changing his life for the better, but not quite able to leave the streets behind. “On this roadman ting, I ain’t no amateur / Man’s 10 years deep can’t lie I feel old / Can’t lie, man’s had enough” he raps on first single, ‘Tetley’.

He’s keen to stress ‘YPB: Tha Come Up’ doesn’t reflect his current mindset, but more captures a moment in time, and that a subsequent tape later this year will give listeners a better understanding of where he’s at and what he’s on now.

“These are tracks I’ve been sitting on since 2019, you know? It’s important that I mention that. That’s why I’m itching to get a next tape out by the end of the year, to show people that there’s been an elevation to what I’m doing. Like that music is old, but the reason why I want to release it is that it’s still quality music.”

At the tape’s core is Kweng’s ability as a rapper. Where drill artists are often renowned for their authenticity and personality, Kwengface is super- lyrical with it. He pairs that lyricism with a slick, velvet-smooth flow that erupts into something ferocious when he turns up the dial. Pound for pound, he’s one of the UK’s most gifted MCs. He honed his writing skills by thinking outside the box and listening to a broad range of music.

“I was taking in everything, no limits, even down to R&B artists like Alicia Keys,” he says. “I feel like road rap and all of that stuff, that didn’t teach me how to write and structure my music. It was all that other music, listening to R&B — those artists write differently. I think that’s why my ting’s different. I’m giving out secrets here... but yeah, I write like an R&B artist. I’ll start and write a bridge, and then come up with a chorus, and then come with something that will tone down the chorus with the first verse. I feel that’s because I’ve listened to a lot of different music. It’s something I’ve taught myself.”

The project’s most innovative track, produced by CZR, blends a subterranean bassline with champagne-sipping, two-stepping UK garage vibes. In his second verse Kweng touches on his changing lifestyle, from chilling in the bando with drug users to chilling with the Love Island cast. He was even recently photographed with “the man himself” Ed Sheeran. Sticking with music has given him financial freedom without the risks associated with his past life.

“Before, I was doing other things that I’m not proud of. There was much, much more stress. Right now I just kick back and I look at everything, I’m making Ps, I just look at my account. It’s cool, innit.”

But perhaps just as important is that Kweng has been able to experience things that once felt out of his reach. “Doing music meant I’ve been going around London, I’ve been going around Europe,” he says. “So I’m meeting bare different people, some of them don’t even speak English. It broadens your horizons. It just shows you how small the way of thinking you learn is, coming from where I’m from. It’s nuts. It’s kind of shallow, but man didn’t know no better. Before I started doing music, I didn’t really know nothing outside of Peckham. I didn’t even know how to get around fucking central London before I started doing music properly. That’s when I was like 18 or 19. You realise the world is actually much bigger than where you’re from.”

Want more? Read about the evolving sound of UK drill here, and about most exciting UK drill producers here

Robert Kazandijan is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter here

Photo credit: Josh Sisk