An Honest Conversation with Footsie

“…but music is deeper than just linking up; it has to manifest from a place.”

Following the success of supporting Kano on his Hoodies All Summer tour, and lead single ‘Pepper Stew’ with Jme doing the rounds, Footsie had a unique dilemma when the rest of the world grinded to a halt; to hit pause and ride out the storm, or capitalise on the impetus he’d gathered and drop the long-awaited debut album. And amidst all the relenting self-doubt, he’s glad to have chosen the latter. A debut release for any artist is a daunting task, let alone one for someone who has already gained his stripes amongst both fans and peers alike. Beginning his career in N.A.S.T.Y. Crew alongside the likes of Kano and Jammer, and then most recognisably in the iconic duo Newham Generals with D Double E, Footsie tells me how it felt like the time to drop his debut project. “I felt like I could make a good album now, I might not have felt like that before. I didn’t know what I needed to know or experience what I needed to experience, I hadn’t done what I needed to do in terms of Newham Generals, so I don’t think my album would’ve sounded like this if I did it before.”

Footsie has a unique standing in Grime; someone who has been around as long as Dizzee or Kano – 16 years officially as a producer and MC – but had never released a solo project until now. As any self-professed Grime fan would know, he has undoubtedly earned his credibility playing batting partner to one of the most iconic voices in the game, and producing some of your favourite MC’s hardest tracks during his tenure. Honing in a little on his reservations of releasing solo he explains, “‘Album’ was a word I was against, I was scared of. It’s a big weight, for me what an album means; there’s a lot of expectation. I think some artists are better off just doing mixtapes or just releasing, just don’t call it an album ‘cos the minute you do – it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s his album yeah?’ People’s eyes go wide. Automatically, the album word straight away equals expectation.”

No doubt, wide-eyed Grime fans were waiting to hear more of a man who had been part of one of, if not the greatest Grime duo in history, so naturally he was a little reticent to explore what he could accomplish on his own. “I’ve just come out the cold, I haven’t dropped anything. The last thing I dropped was in Gens; Newham Generals is about, Footsie isn’t. I’ve come out of a crew that was massive, but there was nothing to say I was gonna be massive,” he admits. “There were no definite, no insurance, nothing was sure. There were a lot of question marks for me.” I cite the likes of Ghetts and Kano who have been releasing relatively consistently over the past two decades and as MCs who people would naturally associate as being the figureheads of the scene. Curious about how he handles his perception and positioning he explains, “I knew that was a task, but I knew it could work in my favour. That gave me a bit of an advantage because you don’t have that long weight of expectation on my name. So if you hear it and rate it, I’ve won already. For those who don’t know me, this music stands up.”

“Even half a million streams, I know it’s not the maddest number but to me that’s a crazy number. I’ve just come out the cold; I haven’t dropped anything for time,” he acknowledges. 500k is a landmark milestone for any artist in an ever-saturated market, yet Footsie humbly surpassed that number in the first week or so. Updating me on the current numbers he tells me he’s well over a modest 700,000 – however stresses the importance of YouTube views too which aren’t included yet included in today’s streaming metrics. An all too familiar hunting ground for music fans, whether it’s an obscure radio set from 2003 or an exclusive Sony Ericsson Riddim, YouTube is an absolute haven for Grime. The power of this very community is a thing Footsie wanted to pay homage to on the record. “If you want something old, it won’t be on Spotify. You get the fans who know that they’re not the only ones in this fan club or this community, who upload these songs – it’s that feeling that ‘I’ll upload this and give this back to the community.’”

That communal feel is highlighted the special moment in the transition from ‘FWD Skit’ into ‘Pattern & Program.’ Talking me through the process he shares, “It feels like a give back moment that skit, it’s like ‘Was I there? What is this?’” For those unfamiliar, ‘FWD Skit’ was birthed from an old loose Skream production called ‘Orchestral Keas,’ which had been circulating on low quality YouTube rips and had been peppered by the likes of Wiley and Newham Generals themselves over the years, but had never been brought to life fully until this album.

In an attempt to recreate that energy from the FWD>> (pronounced: forward) raves in the early days, Footsie says, “I’ve got a box filled with various sets, some live, some radio. And I knew that moment had happened in FWD more than once. Before ‘Pattern and Program’, I wanted a tune that made me feel like I was in FWD and I was like, ‘Hold on, I’ve got a clip of this somewhere.’ So the first CD I pulled out had FWD ‘06 on it. I skipped it along twice and it landed right on that skit. That moment is so nang where the crowd were shouting – you might find us playing the same beat, but this one in particular? I don’t think you’ll find a better moment. It could’ve been a sticky thing where I would’ve had to fish through bare sets, I’ve got loads of them, but to find this moment I was looking for, it was like this was meant to be.” The Skream contribution sits alongside stellar co-productions from the likes of Chase and Status, Sukh Knight and Kwes Darko, and as a producer first and foremost Footsie was very selective in what made the record.“Anything that struck that emotion in me, that’s what made the cut,” he shares.

“Man’s blessed to know these people and be able to work with them, we just did the tunes to do music, it wasn’t even for the album, I was just attacking those vibes.”

Vibe selection was an important factor with his approach to No Favours, even with the all-star feature list, he shares, “For instance, I’ve never done a tune with someone like President T. You know people for years, and I’m not one that just because I know you, we need to do music. We don’t have to do music together. A lot of artists force the link, but music is deeper than just linking up; it has to manifest from a place.” Speaking on the P Money and President T-assisted ‘G Set,’ “If I have a beat and I can hear your voice and you’re decent – like I could hear President T on that, and that was it,” he says. “Some man just want a name for their list, for the look. Every collaboration on my album is the most organic, natural feature you can get. I didn’t force anything.”

No Favours marks the return of the enigmatic CASISDEAD, who features on a grime song for the first time in a number of years. “CAS has been one of the most innovative people to work with – and inspirational as well, because he goes about his process a bit differently; he’s very OCD about his thing,” he says. “The transformations and the boldness in the ability to fuck off everything that’s happening and just do what is in your mind and what you believe in is sick, that’s just amazing in itself. As an artist, to go against the grain is a very scary thing and what most of us will never dare to do for the risk of not being accepted, but CAS just Eric Cantona’d the whole thing, ‘cos he don’t give a shit. And in not giving a shit, it makes him so much nanger than most, so working with him has been a sick eye opener. And we haven’t performed together yet so when we do ‘Restless Jack’, when man touches the stage to do ‘Restless Jack’. Wow. Just wait.”

Anecdotally, Footsie tells me about the motivation behind the CAS collaboration which is also his own favourite song from the album. “The inspiration behind the tune is my son, his name’s Jack and that boy just doesn’t sit still,” he laughs. “My studio is at the bottom of the garden and I can see into my kitchen and living room, and It was about 1 in the morning one night and he was still up. I could see him causing trouble, so I made the beat and I called it ‘Restless Jack’.”  The album reception overall has been positive, garnering rave reviews from the likes of Clash, Complex and NME – who he kept a special eye on. “You throw it to the people, and the people are part of the album. People have an opinion and you are subject to that opinion whether you like it or not,” he says. “One of the main reviews I was worried about was NME, they’re notorious for slaughtering stuff. I’ve been on the end of that before with Newham Generals, so it’s meaning a lot to me seeing the work being received ‘cos it’s a little bit of a weight off because I did pour it all in. But it also would’ve been middle fingers up if nobody liked it too.”

Widening his sights to audiences outside of his core was an important drive for this album, something that may have held back his reach previously. We talk on how streaming has opened his music up to a much wider market, and how touring alongside Kano gave him a new set of ears to go after. “It was the best promo run I could possibly hope for before the album. I connected to a whole new set of fans ‘cos Kano’s fans are a different ting!” he shares. “Kano is outside of grime now, he’s fully in the world of music. And they shouted me out the blue – I got a message, then that was it; I was on tour with Kano. I said to him, I don’t know how I got into contention but praise Jah and I’m here.” Looking back, the performance and production value of that show earlier this year concretises the impression that Kano is a studied, meticulous, dedicated curator who takes his craft incredibly seriously. Speaking on what he took from the Hoodies All Summer Tour experience, Footsie reveals, “He’s a workaholic, he’s an animal with it. I was always learning; and that was a big inspirational thing just before the record dropped. I’ve had people cop the album from seeing me on his tour. I’ve had messages saying, ‘I saw you at Cardiff,’ ‘I saw you here – I knew the album would be good cos I saw you smash it at Kano.’”

Undoubtedly inspired by that recent run, Footsie is itching to get on the road again and give fans the live experience of No Favours, however plans are on a major hold for now and looking more likely in 2021. “We need to give it time for people to take it in. They need to get back into life fully, then when you hear it again in the dance it’s gonna mean so much more to you,” he says. “At the minute it’s just the soundtrack of you being indoors, it’s not the soundtrack to normality so we still have that to come.” With the backdrop of the current climate we come to talk at length about recent events. A few days after the release of No Favours came the senseless, horrific killing of George Floyd and the following seismic #BlackLivesMatter movement which has sparked outcry for justice and equality from the black community across the world.

“Feathers need to be ruffled. It’s too calm and it’s too cool what happens to us,” he says reflecting on the news. “I’m gonna have to teach my kids the struggles that are facing them before anything else. I have to tool them up, I have to shield them and armour them with this knowledge. Having to teach you kids that your skin puts you at a disadvantage, having to teach them that someone might not like you just purely because of your skin. No one is born racist, racism is taught. And in teaching your kids to defend themselves, are you naturally teaching racism?” he questions. “You wanna tell your kids to love everyone, but everyone doesn’t love you, so what are you teaching them? What’s the opposite to love? It’s hate.” The injustice, inequality and police brutality seen across the pond are not exclusive to the United States and those same issues are certainly echoed here in the UK. Speaking from lived experience Footsie considers his own interactions with police profiling and racism; something that is all too familiar for young black men today. “It’s a scary time. The powers that be are killing people within their powers via racism. You can’t believe what’s happening. I’ve had police drive past me, then do the biggest U-turn to come and see me. What have I done? You were driving the other way,” he professes.

The issues are all too fresh in his mind as he opens up about his personal and familial ordeals with racism. “I was never taught hate. My Dad’s a Rasta and I was taught to love everybody. Even though he himself was run down by mods and rockers back in the day. These people who were using Ska, who love Reggae, but don’t love us,” he contemplates. “My uncle nearly got killed. I have people in my family who aren’t racist but don’t like white people because white people have oppressed them. What do you tell them? My Grandad, the Windrush generation who built this country and you’re telling his mates to go back home, ‘cos they don’t have the right papers? When they built this country? Or better yet, weren’t even told to get the right papers!? It’s so deep. I didn’t even know I was passionate about this until this happened.” Speaking on the influence of social media he says, “Video is catching it in its rawest, purest and most horrible form. In the case with George, it’s shows the comfortability the police had by doing that. They believed they could do that and it would be fine.”

Footsie is no stranger to highlighting these issues on his own platform, citing Dave’s BRITs performance, the recent Fred Perry campaign, and his own experiences, “I posted three things on my page addressing racial issues and the responses have been shocking,” he tells me. “These are people who think they’re my fans. You think I’m alright cos I made a tune you like, but outside of music you don’t like me as much now? They’ve learnt to smile with you a bit now, they’ll shake your hand but go home and disinfect it. It doesn’t mean its gone.” Both sceptical about the industry’s reaction to it and the quasi-performative nature of the Instagram square, he says, “I wasn’t sold on the black square thing. I didn’t post it. A black square. A black box. What’s a box? It’s a fucking coffin. That’s where they want us.”

Following the album, Footsie’s latest release is the self-explanatory ‘Black Boxes,’ which explores this sentiment in its entirety, referencing the daily struggles of being a black male; being followed unnecessarily by security, working harder for equal recognition, and the challenge of educating his children on racism. “Something has to be done, but it’s about what happens after this now. It’s about the unease and unrest that is created now. Hopefully they think before they put their knee on man’s neck, hopefully they think before they draw their guns and shoot the next unarmed brother. Hopefully. That’s all we can do is hope.”

No Favours is available on all streaming platforms now. All sales proceeds from ‘Black Boxes’ are being donated to the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust.