You can tell that MNEK has a one-track mind by just looking at his tattoos. A pair of headphones snake around his right forearm. On the other, there are “Play” and “Record” symbols and the logo for the classic hip-hop label Delicious Vinyl. Around the back, on his neck, you’ll find a cassette. It’s this dedication to music that earned the Catford native a major label songwriting deal in his mid-teens; by 19 it had also earned him his current status as one of the most in-demand producers in British urban pop.
“I was someone who knew what they wanted to do for so long,” he tells me over breakfast near his Shoreditch studio. “I was always fascinated by music, always a student of pop.” Now, having already been involved in three number one singles for other people (Little Mix, Duke Dumont and Oliver Heldens) as well as songs by Kylie, The Saturdays and Rudimental, he’s launching himself as a dance/soul solo artist with serious hit potential. Think of him as London’s Pharrell Williams — popping up everywhere, writing and producing smashes for other people while keeping the best ones for himself.
This quietly spoken prodigy was born Uzoechi Emenike to Nigerian parents in 1994. His stage name is a simplification of his surname but his band calls him “Emms” and his friends know him as “Uzo”. At nine, his Scotland Yard detective father wanted to get him a piano but MNEK bought some computer software called Dance eJay and started making beats instead. He began putting his songs on MySpace and emailing industry movers. By 14, he had a publishing deal with EMI, which he says was some compensation for being hopeless at school.
“There’s a stereotype that Nigerian parents love their kids to be academic and be doctors and lawyers,” he says. “In reality, my parents knew that I was a vegetable outside of music. They have fears, they know how tough and competitive it is, but they’re happy that there are a lot of people backing me.”
Those people include the Xenomania production team, famed for writing most of Girls Aloud’s material. At 16, he was at their Westerham studios co-writing the 2011 Saturdays hit All Fired Up. He was responsible for the bit that goes: “Keep me on your radar”, which became their album title. “I’d sent a Facebook message to [co-founder] Miranda Cooper basically just fan-girling: ‘Hey girl, I love your stuff, I’m such a big fan, you’re geniuses, I’d love to work with you one day’. A year later they invited me down. It was intimidating as I looked up to them, but I learned a lot.”
His other mentor is Amir Amor of Rudimental, who he knew before Amor joined the Brit-winning dance crew. “He’s one of my biggest inspirations. His attention to detail is something I will always look up to. A lot of dance producers aren’t really musical, they don’t care much about detail. Rudimental care so much.”
Now he works next door to them in the studio Amor co-owns, Major Tom’s. Their room is big and shiny with all the best gear. His is small and grubby. “It’s very basic — carpet, shitty leather sofa. I wanted something that was very simple.”
The location puts him at ground zero in the current dance-pop scene, while the Rudimental family tree spreads its branches ever further. Their number one album, Home, has already acted as a platform for its featured singers John Newman, Foxes and Ella Eyre to become solo stars. Another wave of contributors — Becky Hill, Sinead Hartnett and MNEK — are jostling at the starting gates now.
You can hear MNEK on the Rudimental songs Spoons and Baby. He toured as one of their singers before they became the headline act they are today. If you recognise his strong, smooth voice it may also be from dance duo Gorgon City’s February hit, Ready for Your Love. And you can tell his knack for turning a clubby track into a pop radio favourite from his writing work on two number ones: Oliver Heldens and Becky Hill’s Gecko (Overdrive) and Duke Dumont’s Need U (100%), which earned him a trip to the Grammys earlier this year. That was fun, even though they didn’t win Best Dance Recording. R&B star 2 Chainz told MNEK he liked his hat.
The kufi hat and hi-top fade haircut beneath are part of a conscious attempt to shift from backroom knob-twiddler to spotlight occupier. “Everyone knew I sang before but I just wasn’t ready. I wasn’t in a space where I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” he says. Now he has a stylist designing clothes for him who used to work on MIA’s lurid look. Looking the part was the missing piece of the pop puzzle for him. He’s still stocky but not to the extent he was as a younger teen, and with his brightly patterned clothes and trainers and a cool key necklace (“It opens my heart, and bottles.”) he appears every inch the hipster star.
“I lost a lot of weight. No carbs for a good six or seven months. It was tough but I looked hot,” he laughs. “This was about a year ago. I’ve gained some weight back but I’ve maintained it.”
So he’s looking good, operating from the epicentre of the scene that currently dominates UK pop. Yet he still doesn’t seem entirely at ease. “I’m still the freak, still the weirdo, still the baby.” He clams up when I ask about his brothers, one older, one younger. “That’s a whole different conversation. I’ll save the deep talk for the second album,” he says, ominously.
But he couldn’t sound more confident on his own material. Every Little Word set out his stall in April with its rubbery synth sounds and weighty beats, but was too sweary for the charts. The next one, Wrote a Song About You, is coming at the end of the month, and is intended to be his first solo hit. It’s funky and soulful, with a dance beat and retro electronics. You can hear the influence of his idols, production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who made their names working with Janet and Michael Jackson.
A headline show in Hackney follows soon afterwards, with the debut album due next year. “You can’t rush these things,” he says. Perhaps surprisingly, it won’t feature his famous friends. It’s all him apart from one duet with his fellow south London newcomer, Moko. Though he’s an old hand with so many notable experiences behind him, he feels like the real work starts now. “The writing and production side is actually one career in itself. Me as an artist, as a singer, I’m still so new. No one knows who MNEK is. And I do want people to know.” Consider yourselves notified. A major new star is rising.
MNEK plays Oslo, E8 (020 3553 4831, oslohackney.com) on September 11. The single Wrote a Song About You (Virgin EMI) is released on August 31.