I’m not sure I really need to question Dave, the plain-named 19-year-old set to be the next big star of UK rap. The answers are all there on his new EP, Game Over.
Three of the collection’s seven tracks – Question Time, How I Met My Ex and My 19th Birthday, the first two lasting around seven minutes, the latter close to nine – each have word counts longer than this article and cover lost love, family trauma, mental stresses and world politics. I’ve rarely heard a rapper being so open, whether admitting to rearranging his jeans to avoid embarrassing himself the first time he met his ex-girlfriend, or trying not to cry when he went to help at Grenfell Tower two days after its fire.
“It’s important to give the most accurate picture. If you leave things out it doesn’t feel as real,” he tells me. “If I tell you something you know must have been uncomfortable for me to say, it’s going to make everything else I say sound so much more honest too.”
He’s unusual in other ways too, as a rapper who plays the piano to a high standard. He mostly taught himself from the age of 14, when he asked for a keyboard for Christmas, having been inspired by the film scores of Hans Zimmer and Steve Jablonsky and computer game soundtracks such as the Kingdom Hearts series. Seek out the clip of him performing his song Picture Me on Later… with Jools Holland in May, sitting at a grand piano in front of a cellist and a violinist. It’s dramatic and beautiful and a long way from the frenetic grime of which he is also capable – for example on Thiago Silva, last year’s popular collaboration with his fellow rapper AJ Tracey.
He has also spoken in song about being the last son at home with his mother, who works in nursing and social care, in Streatham Vale. Both of his older brothers are in prison, the eldest due to be released fairly soon, the middle one with years to go. He doesn’t go into the details today, but rapped in a freestyle video in 2016: “They gave my brother 18 for a fucking murder/A knife crime, the lifetime, the whole sentence he serving.”
“My brother is one of the most talented people I know,” he says today, speaking about the sibling with the longest sentence. “He could have been a footballer. His beats are better than most producers. He was the reason I started rapping – he was rapping before me and he was better. And drawing is his main thing – I’ll show you some pictures on my phone. He’s going to spend his time learning and changing the lives of people around him.”
Talking in a meeting room in his management’s Soho offices, sticking his hands in and out of the rips in his black jeans as if they’re pockets, Dave takes a while to warm up but his passion for his craft is obvious from the off. He explains to me at length how the rhymes work in his longer songs, with lines running on for so long that his words sound casual and conversational and any rhymes almost sound accidental. He talks about working with Fraser T Smith, the producer and co-writer who has also had a hand in hit albums by Stormzy and Kano, to make his songs sound “clean”. And while being honest includes allowing himself to sound vulnerable in song, it also means refusing to play down his ambitions.
“Trying to be the best rapper is my overall goal. If you have a conversation about music in the UK and you speak about any side of it, I want to be the first name that comes up,” he says. Then he goes further. “The UK is too small. I want to go out and be renowned as a rapper. Because I’m younger than a lot of people that are in competition with me, it can feel like I’m only an academy player, but I want to be up there being compared to the names that everyone sees are the greatest.”
That’s big talk, but he’s going the right way about justifying it. Last year Canadian superstar Drake got in touch to remix and appear on Dave’s mellow song Wanna Know, a version which has now been heard 45 million times on Spotify. Last month he played piano in a Radio 1 session for New York rapper Joey Bada$$. His second most popular song is Samantha, another soulful piano tune made with Mercury nominee J Hus. “I feel like I’m still on my own, in my own sphere,” he says, despite those stellar connections. “I know anyone would say that, that they’re doing their own thing, but I believe I actually am.”
He has translated that online success into speedy ticket sales for two sold out gigs at Camden’s Koko next month, and could also turn it into two MOBO Awards next week, where he’s up for Best Male and Best Newcomer. He doesn’t think he’ll win though, because he’ll be on tour in Norwich that night. “I’m sure they’ll give them to someone that’s there, so best of luck to everyone who shows up. I’d always rather be having that face to face contact with people at shows. I’m not really an awards show person.”
If he ever does get an trophy, I’d like to hear his speech. His song Question Time is an articulate demolition of politicians including Theresa May, Donald Trump, David Cameron and, despite the rise of the movement Grime4Corbyn, the Labour leader too. “Honestly, I wanna put my trust in you/But you can understand why if I’ve got trust issues,” he raps of Jeremy Corbyn. The current Prime Minister gets it worse, being told: “At Grenfell Tower, your response was ridiculous/You hid like a coward behind your £5 million/Dodged responsibility and acted like you’re innocent.”
The rest of the long song doesn’t offer solutions, but as an expression of deep frustration and anger from a young Londoner, it’s powerful. “I’m not that politically inclined. I’m just like everyone else. But all the stuff that’s been going on in the last few months… I just wanted to get across how I was feeling. I definitely felt disillusioned.”
He’s also lyrically fascinating when he shifts from the big picture to something much more intimate. His song How I Met My Ex, seven-and-a-half minutes of storytelling over a stark piano backing, could have been bitter and self-aggrandising about his break-up with a photographer five years older than him. Instead the song slowly turns into an unflinching exploration of his anxiety and paranoia. “When I think about it now, I’m ashamed to the core/I mean how many men stop their women from achieving what they can because in secret they’ve been feeling insecure?” he admits in the lyrics.
“I set out not to have her be to blame for anything and make sure that she’s regarded highly,” he tells me. She has heard the song and is fine about it, he says. “I wanted it to be pretty empowering.”
The challenge now will be to remain this open and reflective with more and more eyes and ears turning his way. His year, which began with a place on the BBC’s influential Sound of 2017 poll and is ending with hometown shows in front of around 3,000 fans, has been a good one, but next year, when he says he’ll release a debut album, he should really take off.
“An EP is one thing but with an album, everybody is watching,” he says. “It’s such a mad scary thought.” I think he can handle it.
Dave’s Game Over EP is out now. Dec 3-5, Koko, NW1 (0870 432 5527, koko.uk.com)