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Meet the MC: Bawo

Since making his debut six years ago, West London artist Bawo has been making waves in the capital and beyond. He speaks to James Keith about the influence of home on his sound, working with Oscar #Worldpeace, and his forthcoming project, ‘Legitimate Cause’

Over the years, West London has given us some titans in the rap scene, from C Biz and K Koke to Nines and Knucks. Although some in that list are more active than others these days, there’s an exciting new generation of talent who are pushing rap into new territories, finding new connections between the different strains and sub-genres.

One of the latest in this new tidal wave is Bawo, a rising artist who’s been connecting the dots between grime, garage, rap and soul (plus a few other influences) in a way that feels both new and yet fundamentally West London. “I think there’s an appreciation of sound that unites us,” he explains, trying to pin down the ‘sound’ of West. “I think it’s a bit different, I don’t know if it’s a thread that the average listener would clock, but if you’re from West, you can hear it.”

He describes his own sound as “homely” and there’s certainly a warmth to it — this is music for the home, best enjoyed without the distraction of the outside world — but that’s not really what he means. What he’s actually referring to are the cues he takes from the artists he grew up with, the mercurial, intangible feeling he got from listening to 50 Cent, Michael Jackson or Akon in the family home. “They just have this sort of familiar tone about them, whether it’s the backing vocals or the chords that are used,” he says. It’s the high production value of those blockbuster records, but it’s also the intimate familial connection from a record shared between loved ones. “And I think that comes through,” he adds.

Away from his parents’ stereo, however, was the much-closer-to-home influence of Channel U. “Jme, Scorcher, and Chipmunk were huge influences," he says. "[Chip] had an album out when we were teenagers [‘I Am Chipmunk’] — that was like, ‘Wow, this guy’s living the dream!’ That was pretty big for me as well.” 

Six years ago, Bawo uploaded his first track to SoundCloud, an ultra-‘90s, ultra-New York boom-bap tune called ‘It Don’t Stop’. Even though his sound has evolved immeasurably since that first drop, a nostalgic edge has been one of the few constants in his music. In the years that followed, he would play around with instrumentals from a mixture of unknown producers, alongside bigger names like Wiley, The Streets and Preditah. As he jumped between grime, garage and back to rap again, his punchy, commanding delivery remained. Though each track was wildly different, gradually, a pattern was beginning to emerge.

At some point during this period, a message hit his SoundCloud inbox from Oscar #Worldpeace. He’s still not entirely sure how Oscar heard him or what made him reach out, but he’s not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. “I’ve been listening to him for years, before I ever had anything on streaming platforms in that way,” he explains. “He just literally shot me a message out of the blue. It was a cold moment for me, having listened to him for so long. 

“To be honest, he’s one of the only people I could consider a friend in the whole game," he adds. "So it’s been a pleasure knowing him, and working with him so far has been really easy."

Bawo

"The new project is the closest thing so far, sound-wise and message-wise, to what I want to be doing"

By 2019, Bawo had started to settle on the kind of rap that’s since become his calling card. A fluid, ever-shifting sound that draws, in varying combinations, from basically all the sounds that have led him to this point. The SoundCloud-only ‘Things’ EP, dropped just a few months before ‘Bag To Get’ (which for all intents and purposes was a breakout track for him), is perhaps the best distillation of this. The original ‘Things’ was grime through and through, but he followed it with a ‘2.0’ version which was much harder to pin down; it really felt like a watershed moment for Bawo. Before that, he was playing around with different sounds, but only ever one at a time. With ‘2.0’ it really felt like he’d hit his stride and cracked the formula for combining grime, garage and hip-hop into something he could call his own.

And that brings us neatly back to his “homely” comment. Because what he’s doing now is more than just grimey-garagey-hip-hop; you can hear the warmth of those records that played in his parents’ house, memories being made in real time. Just look at ‘Starts With A Text’, another landmark release for him and by far his most popular yet. The verses give probably the best example of his understated rhyming style and on the hook we get an even more understated singing performance — a talent honed in church choirs in his youth.

Another prime example is ‘Headtop Buss From Luss’ / ‘Mazzalean’, the double-drop release he gave us in 2022. The first half is a booming rap joint that takes more than a few cues from the sound system culture that’s been embedded in West London for the better part of a century, but the second veers away dramatically into more beautifully understated singing. There’s no polish, no theatrics, just a subtle vocal performance backed only by clicking fingers and a few guitar licks.

He recently announced the upcoming release of his latest project, the ‘Legitimate Cause’ EP, with a UK tour dubbed The Conference set to follow early this year. It’s not quite a concept EP, but there is something of a theme in there you’ll notice. “I had a much clearer vision going into this one,” he says of its creation. Unlike 2021's ‘Live & Let Thrive’, this new EP was more or less conceived as a complete piece. “I think only one song on the last one was made with the tape in mind, whereas every track on this one, except for one, was deliberately made to be part of a whole project.”

We’ve already had a sense of that, even before release. ‘The grind’, the ever-present hustle to get ahead, seems to be namechecked in just about every single track and video — so much so you almost don’t notice it anymore. With the new EP, set for release in this month, it looks like Bawo’s going to be having a bit of fun with the idea. ‘Same Team’, the recent single which features Oscar #Worldpeace on production, came with a music video that shows Bawo in his own personal office space, beaten down by the drudgery of a monotonous 9-5 — a far cry from the get-money bravado you’d normally hear.

His pride, even down a phone line, is palpable. “I can tell you it is my favourite project so far,” he tells DJ Mag. “It’s tough to give it a name in terms of whether it’s an EP or mixtape. It’s not an album, so I guess project is the best word for it. It’s also the closest thing so far, sound-wise and message-wise, to what I want to be doing, ultimately. It’s definitely the most on-point representation as a body of work of who I am as a person. I’m very proud of it — the release date can’t come sooner!”

James Keith is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @JamesMBKeith