When I meet Casyo “Krept” Johnson and Karl “Konan” Wilson, things are looking good for the Croydon rap duo. We’re in the meeting room at Apple’s Beats studio in King’s Cross, where they’re about present the 33rd edition of their show Play Dirty Radio. They’ve just finished filming their role as judges on The Rap Game, a talent show for rappers on BBC Three, their second album is ready to be released, and a gig at the O2 Arena – their biggest show ever – is on sale for December.
Four days later, Krept is attacked and robbed of his jewellery backstage at the BBC Radio 1Xtra Live event in Birmingham – slashed with a knife in three places. He was there with Konan to introduce the finalists of The Rap Game, who were performing. The show was abandoned straight after the incident, before headline sets by Wizkid and French Montana. No one seems to know how his attackers got into the venue.
The 29-year-old was treated by paramedics on site, and his injuries weren’t life-threatening, but when we speak again a few days later, he sounds understandably less upbeat: “It’s going okay,” he says. “The injuries to my hand and neck are getting there, but my leg is still in a bad way.”
Nevertheless, he’s hoping to continue with his musical comeback as planned: “It won’t affect the album release. I hope it won’t affect the tour either. I’m hoping to recover as soon as possible.”
It’s a horrible setback for musicians who are doing as much as anyone to change perceptions about the UK rap scene. At the start of this year, drill rappers Skengdo and AM were sentenced to nine months in prison, suspended for two years, because the Metropolitan police said that their performance of their song Attempted 1.0 at a Camden concert breached a gang injunction. The Crown Prosecution Service was using the Serious Crime Act to prosecute rappers in the same way as terrorists inciting attacks in online videos. “Drill music is associated with lyrics which are about glamourising serious violence: murder, stabbings,” said the Met’s police commissioner, Cressida Dick, in 2018.
Krept and Konan’s response was to release a song and accompanying 12-minute film in July, titled Ban Drill, in which two contrasting visions show a young rapper’s bright future if he’s allowed to continue making music, and the grim alternative if he isn’t. They also started a change.org petition titled “Stop silencing musicians” and were invited to the House of Commons by Diane Abbott to air their perspective.
“To compare someone performing a song with terrorists and traffickers – we just thought it was getting out of hand,” says Krept when we first meet. “You don’t realise the effect it has on people when they can’t play a show. You’re stopping them from making money and forcing them to be how they was before. But if you change someone’s environment, you’ll change their content. They won’t be talking about the same stuff. They’ll be having new experiences, bettering their lives and bettering their friends’ lives. That’s more people off the streets.”
I remind Konan that he has said previously that if it wasn’t for music, he would be in prison today as a best case scenario. “Yeah, facts,” he says. “We’ve come from that background of the streets and this has been our way of escaping it. So how can we watch them stop someone else escaping the streets through music? It wouldn’t be fair for us to sit back and not say anything.”
He continues: “Drill music is really new – wasn’t there a problem before drill? You make music about whatever you’re doing in your life. But no one thinks, ‘I’m gonna start doing crime so I can become a rapper.’ Adele didn’t think, ‘I’m gonna go through heartache so I can make a sick album.’ It just happened and then she did it.”
Maybe divorce rates would go down if we banned Adele? “That’s literally how ridiculous it is to us.”
The duo’s content was more disturbing in their early days. Listen to My Story, from their 2013 mixtape Young Kingz, to hear Konan detailing the night in 2011 when two men, trying to kill him, broke into his family home, shot his mother and shot and killed his stepfather. They moved on to simpler things, bragging about their cars and watches on Told You, from one of two mixtapes in 2017 that hit the top 10 simultaneously. Now, at the back end of their new album, it’s sadness at the loss of close friends and sympathy for those enduring mental health problems.
They wrote the new ballad Broski about their friend Nash Chagonda, who died from suicide in May 2018, a few days before he was due to become the manager of the restaurant they have opened in Croydon, called Crepes & Cones. Chagonda was a member of a Whatsapp group they call Corn City, in which they share new material with 10 or so close friends. Blaine Johnson, Krept’s cousin better known by his rap name Cadet, was one of those to hear Broski and offer feedback. But after he died in a car accident in February this year, the song became about him as well.
They say they’ll be playing the song live, despite its personal content. “It’s about losing somebody close, so I’m talking to everyone,” says Krept. “It’s not just about our specific situation. It’s gonna be a moment everyone can relate to.”
The album is called Revenge is Sweet, in reference to the Frank Sinatra quote: “The best revenge is massive success.” But despite the confrontational tone of the first single, I Spy, overall it doesn’t feel aggressive. There’s another song called Forgiveness, and the most surprising track is Before It’s Too Late, which is simply the rapper Ramz talking directly to the listener about feeling suicidal and seeking help. The musician, real name Ramone Rochester, who was nominated for a Brit award this year for his hit single Barking, posted the single word “suicide” on his social media channels in July. He talks about making “the right choice” on the record.
“People look at someone in the public eye and think, ‘They’ve got a hit record so they’re fine.’ They identify having money as being happy and it’s not always like that. Being in the spotlight just highlights everything. All your insecurities are magnified because you’re still the same person after you become successful. The best person to speak on that was Ramz – someone who’s actually been there,” says Konan.
“We felt it could help someone to hear how he overcame his situation. Even if it helps one person, that’s our job done,” says Krept.
This pair are trying to do something more in addition to having hit records, and coming up against an extraordinary number of difficulties as they go along. If Krept really can get back to full health in time for their O2 show, it will be a triumphant end to a very difficult year.
Revenge is Sweet is released on Nov 1 on Virgin EMI.