At just 13-years-old, an MC going by the name of sbk sent an email to Lewisham artist and XL Recordings affiliate, Kwadwo Quentin Kankam, better known by his stage name Novelist, with a link to a freestyle he had done. “He gave me feedback on it, and we swapped numbers,” sbk remembers. “Then he invited me onto Rinse FM, and the rest is history.”
Stevenage-born sbk is now 20, and has achieved more than most since taking that opportunity to email his now-frequent collaborator (the two appeared on BBC Radio 1Xtra in Studio 82 with Jeremiah Asiamah back in 2019). He’s released a slew of EPs over the last six years, including tracks with Boy Better Know’s JME and Shorty, and worked with producers Mac’N’Pz, East Midlands singer/ songwriter Queen Millz, and MC Miles Dare. He’s also made appearances with Skepta, Big Zuu and Wiley, and after seven years bubbling in the UK’s grime scene, he’s ready to push his own boundaries to the limits, and explore new avenues of sound.
When DJ Mag speaks with the London-based artist, he’s 3,500 miles away from home, taking an extended trip to New York. Exploring the city and meeting some family for the first time, the trip also marks sbk’s first performances on stage stateside, but he still feels some familiarity with NYC. “It’s sick, man,” he says, speaking about the gigs in the city. “It feels like the first shows I would do back home when I was, like, 14. New territory, and people don’t know what to expect. I think there’s a way to make people relate to any vibe though, even if they don’t understand it.”
In May this year, he released his debut mixtape, ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’. It’s refreshing, honest and vulnerable, moving away from the grime sound that sbk had previously become synonymous with, and instead blending an amalgamation of genres, influences and styles. Taking in nine tracks, it’s the artist’s biggest release to date — and arguably his most daring. A series of music video drops prior to the tape’s release hinted at the intimate threads weaving ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ into a cohesive project: the title track’s visuals tap into sbk’s mind and explore the dark side of his psyche, while ‘141414’ is a grainy, vintage-feeling montage of sbk and his friends. They all feel highly personal, like a literal window into the light and dark of sbk’s mind, and a far cry from the grime visuals in which he has previously featured.
Although the influence from his time spent with the grime scene’s elite is evident on the mixtape, specifically on tracks like the sinister and unrelenting ‘SNITCH’, and the warped, raspy delivery of ‘Nephilim’, elsewhere, ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ splinters off into tracks quietly influenced by hiphop, bass and electro, and exploring trap-leaning melodies and chest-rattling basslines among spots of softer production.
It’s sbk’s most personal project — largely self-produced, bar guest production from US producers Whyzoo, Steve Thats It and BlackMayo — and the deviation and diversity in sound is part of his growing process. “In the beginning, I related to grime because I was angry, broke and wanted to prove myself,” he says, “but now that I’m more grown and I feel like I have proved myself, I don’t have the hunger anymore. I want to make deeper, wavier music that has less of a focus on trying to be the best MC. I just want to be me, not ‘The Best’.”
"I want to make deeper, wavier music that has less of a focus on trying to be the best MC. I just want to be me, not ‘The Best’.”
In terms of delivery, the transparent, concise lyricism and raw flow on the album is inspired by artists like Northampton MC slowthai and ASAP Mob’s Playboi Carti. “I am a huge Carti fan, and the way he does his shows directly impacted the way I do mine,” sbk explains. “There are songs on my mixtape that may not even make sense or be understood when you’re just listening, but when performed, you find out that’s how it’s supposed to be experienced.” It’s tracks like ‘Moshpit LOVE’ and ‘SPIRITS’ that capture that supercharged, sweat-dripping energy of his live performances best.
Another standout from the tape is ‘Space Station’, and again, it’s intimate and personal: he discusses intrusive thoughts and insecurities, and it was a cathartic writing process, too. “I made the whole track in half an hour in the most natural way,” he remembers. “The song was influenced by a very special woman who was present when I was recording it too… just a very natural song.”
The importance of being real, open and honest in his songwriting — which sbk considers a “unique selling point” — is something that comes from his life experiences. The artist suffers from a rare disorder called HPPD: a condition that you can get if you’ve taken hallucinogenic drugs, which can cause disturbing visual effects, like light trails, hallucinations and peripheral afterimages. “By the time I was 15, I was taking all kinds of drugs, then I got HPPD when I was 17,” he shares candidly. “You could say that it was a blessing and a curse, because it stopped me from taking drugs, and after that, all I had left was music. So that’s what I poured my energy into. “It’s not a problem for me anymore, but when I was younger, it was very scary. It has made me look at life in a much more objective way — just like psychedelic drugs do — and that in turn makes my music more interesting, because it’s just a reflection of what’s in my head. I see things differently to everyone else on the planet, quite literally.”
With ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ providing sbk with a new-found penchant for realness and a whole new creative direction, he has few intentions of shifting back to that old grime-focused sound, and even if he does, it’s with a fresh outlook. “Working with Wiley and performing with Skepta and JME, those moments are untouchable, and I treasure them memories,” he reflects. “And I will always make grime, but I think I’ll attack it in a different way. I’ve been through certain things in the scene, and with people in the scene, that have made me want to step away. But the truth is, I do love the music. I can’t pretend I don’t.”
As for what’s next, sbk has a number of performances lined up for 2022, and after selling out two London headline performances earlier this year, alongside his New York debut, sbk is ready to focus on his goals and branch out to other cities — in his words, “conquer this country”. He’s also started work on a new project with a number of collaborators, but in terms of the next steps in his journey, he’s doing it solo. “I have no team, manager or label, so I’m doing what I’ve always done, and that is try,” he affirms. “You will see me trying to blow up, trying to show the world who I am... because I honestly feel like if the world knew who I really was and my true nature, I would be one of the biggest artists in the world.”