Krept, one half of Krept and Konan, is staring lovingly at a copy of Music Week. The pair’s faces are in profile on the glossy cover wrap, advertising their debut album The Long Way Home, which reached No 2 in the UK album chart in July, making it the highest-charting UK rap album in history.
With lyrics about how “all that’s missing is a Brit” from the newcomers’ roster of awards (they have a Guinness World Record for the highest-charting UK album by an unsigned act, two Mobos and, from the US, a Best International Act award from the Black Entertainment Television network), you might not expect such an excitable response to what is essentially an advert.
“It’s surreal. I always used to look at Music Week and think I just want a little article in there, just a little mention about us, thinking ‘one day’,” says Krept. Konan has only just set off for this interview from his flat in east London, an hour’s drive away from the legendary Ealing Studios, where Krept and I now sit in a hot little box of a room, and he has joined us via speakerphone (“I’m there in spirit,” he quips).
In contrast to their lyrics, which border on arrogance, the boys seem modest, humble even. “People think we’re really flamboyant or out there or outrageously excited or gassed or in the clouds,” says Krept, whose real name is Casyo Johnson. “But we’re cool man, because we’ve also experienced when things just get taken away from you.”
When the 25-year-olds from south London say that they have been through some tough times, it is not an exaggeration. “We grew up in Gipsy Hill, by Red Brick and Central Hill estate,” says Krept. “Everyone around was involved in gangs. That’s just the way you grow up, and then one day you realise: this is not what we want.”
They are already trying to put something back into the community where they came from. Their clothing label is called Play Dirty and they are currently working on an initiative called the PD Foundation, which will stand for “Positive Direction”. It will be a place to help kids get off the streets and into music.
“We are trying to give people opportunities that we never had,” explains Krept. “We have a voice in our area, and I feel like we should use it. If there’s something you love doing, chase it and do it. If you want to be an artist, a lawyer, doctor, whatever you want to be, you can. That’s what we want people to take from what we’re doing.”
They’ve also used their influence in other areas. The song “Roses” featuring Emeli Sandé, was inspired by a friend who was dying of leukaemia. “He called me up when he had two weeks to live and said, ‘All I can ask from you is to just get the message out there’,” says Krept. “Specifically, black people don’t donate blood. It’s not that they don’t want to, it’s just that they are not aware, and so it’s harder for a black person to find a match. So I wrote about him in the song, and when Emeli heard it she wrote about her family members that she has lost and that became a very emotional song. She’s very nice. Her voice is crazy.”
On the album, they have also collaborated with Ed Sheeran, fellow grime artist Skepta and even Konan’s mum. “This could be our last album,” says Krept. “This might be our last opportunity to collab with so many artists, so I don’t think we’ll ever get complacent, man.”
Their journey hasn’t been without its setbacks, but each time something has gone wrong it has hardened their resolve. In 2008, Konan wound up in prison, for reasons he is unwilling to disclose. “That really rehabilitated me, to be locked away from parties and girls and life and freedom,” he says. “I remember writing to Krept and saying, ‘When I get out of jail we’re going to take over the rap scene’. I never had a plan B.”
On 1 July 2011, around the time when they both started to work seriously on their music, Konan was chased down the street by a gang member. Newspaper reports from the day tell the story in blunt paragraphs that belie the evening’s horrors. “Karl Wilson – who raps under the name Konan – was chased home to Langdale Road, Thornton Heath, by jealous rival Christopher Thomas, for dating his ex-girlfriend. However, it was his stepdad, Carlton Ned, who was shot dead when he tried to save Karl and his mother,” said the report in the Croydon Advertiser.
Today, Konan is more vague about the attackers’ motivations. “It was one of those things,” says Konan. “When I was coming in my house, two guys tried to run up behind me. I didn’t turn around to find out why, but when one of the men had gone, I ran into my mum’s room and they ended up shooting through the door, hitting my mum. They ended up killing my stepdad… I saw him at the bottom of the stairs, my neighbours trying to bring him back to life, trying to resuscitate him, and my mum screaming. After that, my house was a murder scene for six months.”
Konan had to leave home during that time, and slept on friends’ sofas. He managed to take a few possessions and some clothes with him, which he stored in the back of a van, but they were stolen, so he was left with only the clothes he was wearing. “I had to start from scratch. I had no money,” he recalls. “So we know what it’s like to have nothing. We’ve come from nothing, and we will always stay grounded.”
The stripped-down rap “My Story” recounts those events in unnervingly honest detail. But away from the more serious tracks, it is the bouncy, summertime single “Freak of the Week” that they are best known for. It made the Top 10 in the singles chart in July, featuring such tongue-in-cheek lyrics as: “Have you ever ate McDonald’s on a G4?” Their USP is mixing surprising metaphors with refreshing lyrics, but some lines seem designed for pure shock value rather than having any clever meaning. On the track “Do it for the Gang”, Krept raps: “White whip, red interiors/That’s a white chick on her period/ Said she into girls, I’mma turn her straight/ You gon’ learn today”.
When I quote it back to them, Konan giggles helplessly, while Krept attempts to justify it. The line about a white girl having her period is “basically the only way to describe a white car with red interiors”, says Krept.
“Yeah, it’s red,” says Konan, “like blood. It’s kind of a metaphor.”
And what about turning a white girl straight? Isn’t that slightly offensive to lesbians? Apparently not, they tell me, insisting that I’ve misunderstood the metaphor. “He is saying he’s the exception,” says Konan. “Like you might not like rap, but you might like Krept and Konan.”
While their tunes have a distinctly British flavour, they both admire the way urban music has taken off in the US. “In America, urban music is accepted. It’s more part of the culture and you get people like Jay-Z selling millions of records,” says Krept. “I don’t think anyone has done that here yet, but there are people coming through.”
At the start of this year, Krept and Konan, along with a crowd of rising UK grime acts, joined Kanye West on stage for his performance of “One Day” at the Brits, in a move that shone the spotlight on the sheer number of talented urban acts out there. “That was sick!” cries Krept, who grins widely at the memory. “Skepta called us up and [said], ‘Do you have a black outfit and can you come to the O2 in an hour?’”
The performance was criticised afterwards for appearing to reflect the riots of 2011 because it showed a group of guys in black hoodies, with most of the lyrics being bleeped out for the live broadcast. “Because there’s a group of guys in black, why does that mean it’s a gang?” asks Krept. “I get why people think it looks like a mob or a gang, but to the urban community, everyone was [saying] ‘This is sick’.”
Konan agrees, adding: “It was a moment I’ll always remember”.
Next week, in what feels like another breakthrough for urban music, they will perform at The Proms as part of Radio 1Extra’s “Grime Symphony”, which brings together Wretch 32, Lethal Bizzle, Stormzy and other urban music stars. “I feel [that] any time there’s something dedicated to urban music it helps,” says Krept, who had just examined the airplay charts and discovered that “Freak of the Week” received less airtime than the other singles in the Top Five.
“I don’t know why we don’t get that much airplay,” says Krept, dismissing it with a shrug, “But stuff like the Grime Symphony helps. Maybe the radio stations will look at it and think, ‘Maybe we can play a bit more of their stuff’. It’s only a matter of time before they [realise]: ‘Hmm, maybe the majority of people do like this music’. Just maybe…”
Prom 37: Late Night With… BBC Radio 1Xtra is on 12 August at the Royal Albert Hall, London. ‘The Long Way Home’ is out nowReuse content