“It started in the corners of London, in pirate radio stations and record shops, and look where we are now,” says Steel Banglez, lounging on a sofa in the Kensington offices of one of the big three record labels, Warner Music.
The 31-year-old from Forest Gate was born Pahuldip Singh Sandhu, but everyone calls him Banglez after the bracelets he used to wear as part of the “Five Ks” of Sikhism. Today he’s got close-cropped hair and a black-and-white Adidas tracksuit. His ethnicity may set him apart from the rest of the UK’s rap scene, but as a producer and DJ he’s been in the thick of its growth at every stage.
At 11, his two older brothers were DJing garage music and sneaking him into raves at London clubs such as Bagley’s. In his teens he was hosting a live phone-in show on the pirate station Mystic FM, going to watch Pay As U Go Cartel and Heartless Crew – groups spearheading the evolution of garage into grime – and befriending his neighbour, pioneering rapper D Double E, who took him on tour with Dizzee Rascal. Recently he has been the producer behind a wide range of popular rap tracks, including J Hus’s Fisherman, No Words by Dave and Mist’s Game Changer, characterised by their relaxed pace and warm, melodic piano chords. Now his name is coming round to the front of the record, with two solo singles arriving in quick succession this summer featuring hot names Yxng Bane, MØ and Loski.
“I’ve seen pirate radio, seen the birth of grime, seen the prison system, been around the biggest and seen the whole game,” he tells me. “The conditioning I’ve had, there’s nobody close to me that has this real life experience and understands what’s happening.”
He’s got the big talk and immense ambition, getting his phone out to show me texts from Justin Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun and video clips taken on Drake’s tour bus. “I had this dream of the UK underground music scene going mainstream. I wanted to be one of the most important figures so one day I would be the Dr Dre or Pharrell Williams,” he says. “I’ve got a very big target to reach. If there’s 100 steps, I’m just on step 27, do you know what I mean?”
It’s already been a long road. Having been encouraged by his parents to play the Indian harmonium and the dhol drum, he moved onto piano and got an early A* in his Music GCSE in Year 9. But soon, he was getting into trouble instead. In 2005, aged 17, he was sentenced to six years in prison on a firearms charge, serving three.
“I don’t really like talking about what I did because that situation was not me,” he says. “That’s why I don’t smoke a lot of weed now. I used to smoke a lot and my thoughts were different. Also I never addressed some situations I had gone through personally as a child. Who I really am is not that guy. But it was a blessing for me, because I was really a wild child and things could have been way worse than a six year prison sentence.”
He was allowed a keyboard in prison, on which he made beats for rappers he met there including Fix Dot’M and Yung Meth. When he got out, his star began to rise and bigger names such as Ghetts, Krept & Konan and Chip started appearing on his songs. It wasn’t glamorous yet though. He built a studio in a storage room in an office block in Canning Town, where he slept on a mattress on the floor. He washed his clothes in the local launderette and showered in the gym at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. He ate Tesco meal deals and microwaved scrambled eggs. Grime kingpin Wiley came to visit and found a notice on the door threatening to change the locks if he didn’t hurry up with the rent.
In 2014 he was working on an album with Cashtastic when the 20-year-old rapper, who had lived in London from the age of five, was deported to his birthplace, Jamaica. It hit Banglez hard and he fell into depression. “I had exhausted myself, hadn’t taken care of myself in terms of my health and my addiction to my work – sleep there, wake up, laptop on. I never really used to see daylight. I just had a crash, man. I was done.”
Things picked up again in early 2016 when he began to work with two newer rappers: North Londoner MoStack and Mist. The latter is unusual, firstly because he’s from Birmingham, and secondly because although he’s of Caribbean descent, he uses Asian slang in his lyrics. “He says, ‘Apnars, Karlas, Goras’ which means, ‘Asians, blacks and whites’ in Punjabi. It’s a unity thing,” explains Banglez. “When I heard him say that I was like, ‘This guy’s cracked it.’ He’s opened the door to bring the Asian community into the UK rap thing. Finally they found someone relatable. Mist brought that through, and me being Asian kind of certified it.”
Today he has a year-old major label record deal and divides his time between a studio he built in his parents’ garden in Goodmayes, near Ilford (where he still lives) and the fancier Tape London Studio in Mayfair. The latter is where he experienced “one of the worst stories of my life” in 2016. He was woken by a 3am call saying that Justin Bieber had helicoptered into town from the V Festival and was ready to record something. Banglez hurried down to discover that, with no engineer contactable, he didn’t know how to switch the studio on. “Bieber was just sitting there with his girlfriend, watching Netflix and taking the piss out of me. It was the saddest drive home of my life.” They ended up doing a few days’ work together the following week.
Now Banglez has a Bieber collaborator on his own song. MØ, who sang with the US star on Major Lazer’s number one single Cold Water, appears on his moody dance track, Your Lovin’. She’s Danish, another step towards the international recognition he craves. He doesn’t see any reason why his brand of homegrown rap music shouldn’t appeal all over. “It’s something new and fresh and it’s already tipping over. If it’s happening on a commercial level in this country now, what makes you think it’s not going to go international any minute?”
Next up is Hot Steppa, a newly released single with teenage rapper Loski, and he says he’s talking to Clean Bandit about a song. If confidence was cash, he’s already a multi-millionaire. “I’m getting to that point where I’m gonna be accepted on a commercial level and my studios are gonna harbour the great superstars of the planet. People are gonna say, ‘See Steel Banglez for a hit.’”
Consider yourselves notified. A man with big plans is on the way up.
South West Four, Aug 25-26, Clapham Common, SW4 (southwestfour.com)
Hot Steppa feat. Loski and Your Lovin’ feat. MØ & Yxng Bane are out now on Gifted Music.