Earlier in 2018, the justly self-proclaimed ‘voice of the streets’, Kenny Allstar was 15 tracks deep into the creation of his upcoming debut studio album. Having requested the presence of well-entrenched producer Nastylgia in the studio, Kenny leaned on his long-standing relationship with Headie One and what emerged has already proven to be a triumphant lead single, ‘Tracksuit Love’.
The culturally fitting single precedes an album 25 years in the making – ‘Block Diaries’. Set for release in October 2018, it is a sonically clenching ensemble, fashioned out of grime, trap, afro-swing and drill, with each component weaving you in and out of 17 chapters, embroidered with 25 of the UK’s most lyrically and rhythmically potent talent. Kenny Allstar has reached a climactic point of his eventful yet short journey, and with the announcement of a BBC 1xtra residency and the imminent arrival of his much-anticipated project, it’s time for Kenny to take the stage.
“I think around the time of 9 or 10 years old, I was infatuated with a lot of radio…” Kenny begin, tapping his spoon on his teacup, as he reflects on his humble journey up to today. Though only 25, his contemplation and recollection of his childhood experiences paint a picture of a somewhat serendipitous yet laboured rise to the top of his game. “As opposed to doing like what a lot of other kids my age were doing, trading Yu-gi-ho cards, Pokemon cards like, watching TV programmes and dissecting it in school the next day…’cus I come from a family that didn’t really have much, I couldn’t afford to indulge in them kind of things. So I spent a lot of my time listening to radio. We didn’t have TV but we had radio. Kenny continues…”There were certain personalities I would hear on the radio, especially on a Saturday night. I would always just remember like, some of the best frequencies were like Radio 1. So I would hear, Tim Westwood into Chris Goldfinger, then Pete Tong, Judge Jules, and that was like, always the weekend thing for me.”
However, it wasn’t until a small while after his initial infatuation with radio that Kenny began to be influenced by an array of genres to explore his own potential to be in radio, a choice that would see his rise to the spotlight of a culture. “When I started learning about those FM frequencies I started getting into pirate radio, so then it extended to like listening to Deja or Rinse, or ‘cus I’m from South, OnTop FM was like the station. Then I would start getting into and learning about more UK music. Before that I was listening to bare US stuff. I remember one of the first albums that my mom got me was an Obi Trice CD…and she herself was really into Reggae and Dancehall. There was a lot of Beres Hammond, Barrington Levy, The Wailers, Bob Marley, Kevin Lyttle… So in the mixture of all of that, and music was such a big part of everything, ‘cus remember we couldn’t watch things, so we always had music around the house.”
“I was always trying to learn certain things in secondary school,” Kenny candidly responds when I quizz him about how he took the step from simply a consumer of music to producer. “When it got to like year 10, and I was going through those crucial stages, like teenage, puberty all of that yeah…when all of those things started to happen and I was getting a bit more independent growing up, that’s when I wanted to get into trying to not just listen to it but dabble in it.”
Then begins the grind. Whilst his, along with many other’s humble beginnings from arguably desolate inner-London neighbourhoods ironically prove burdensome, there is undoubtedly a propellant for the destined. Such was the case for Kenny, as what follows was the establishing of his ‘voice of the streets’ persona in the UK black music scene. The building of several platforms including the infamous Mad About Bars, not to mention the huge amounts of content curated and provided for influential platforms including BBC, all became part of his earliest steps into the industry. “There was like a youth club around the Ladywell area, which was in like a shed behind…a woman that actually ran a studio. So, everyone would go to her studio, like P Money, you know, big guys in Lewisham, MC culture. They would go there, but the studio was at her house. Behind it she had the shed and weren’t doing nothing with it. My bredrin Rick hit her up and was like yeah we wanna do this radio thing. Then she set up this Grime online station, and that’s when I started DJing, playing for a lot of the MCs around the area. Bare man would just come there on a Friday night. At that stage, I think I was in like year 10. I was just mixing up the styles, it was just fun, it was a vibe. It was just a hobby, at that stage, like, I knew I wanted to get in it, but at that stage it was just early doors. I had a good friend who was doing the producing side of things. I used to help him a bit, ‘cus I didn’t really have the patience to be behind the keys. I knew what sounded right in my mind, but didn’t have the capacity or patience to you know…programme the beat. So I’d just be like, ‘yo like why don’t you just change the drum pattern on this beat or why don’t you just turn up the 808 on that beat.”
I put it to Kenny that even then, he was picking up A&R skills that would prove so fundamental to the curation of ‘Block Diaries’ years later and he expressively places down his cup, and concurs. “Yeah! ‘Cus remember when you don’t have nothing visually to look at a young age, you rely on these more than you rely on these,” gesturing to his ears then eyes. “It was more like, I was poor. I couldn’t afford a telly, so sound was everything at that age. And that’s quite a delicate age. You’re going into school and everyone’s got a whole different culture, you know, learning about so much, but you’re not the cool kid, and it’s embarrassing to say ‘I can’t really get involved in this conversation because I don’t have a telly.’ Little things like that, like that’s embarrassing.” It’s those formative moments without, that shaped Kenny’s vision within, “I remember those kind of moments. Getting bullied because…you know little moments like that. They definitely did fuel me. That’s why I get this work ethic of, not sleeping and not slowing down, being last one to go bed and first one up…that mentality is in me because of little things like that.”
Before long, Kenny who had still not reached 18, was talking his way into presenting on De Ja without having to pay subs, one of the pioneering pirate stations of it’s time in the Grime scene. “So this is where the gift of the gab comes in…” he proudly states laughingly, “…mans a good talker innit. I remember talking to the programmer at the time and I was like, yeah can I do the shifts that no-one else wants to do, just to get on. The first time I went to the station meeting, I met all these bigger DJs that were like all mad older than me and I think I even lied about my age. I was definitely not 18. They were trying to get into a wider time frame in terms of broadcasting. So there was a Friday, Saturday , Sunday, and there was a 7-2, it was mad long, but I was like yeah I’ll do it. There was one show on Friday and I was meant to go college, but I didn’t turn up to college, I bumped it to go and do that first shift. Obviously the station didn’t know that, ‘cus man lied about my age. So I went and done the shift anyway. Then on the Saturday I would go back and do it. Then my mom found out that I was leaving the house in the morning and she was just not feeling that. She stopped me from doing it. But I’ll never forget, De Ja 92.3, it was sick. I had that breakfast show, it was a moment, and I just wanted to say that I’d been on De Ja. Cus you know like, especially ‘cus grime was such an important genre. I felt like, to be part of that grime legacy as a DJ, you’ve gotta have been on either Rinse or De Ja. You gotta say you’ve been on either of those two stations. I know I can. Now looking back on it, I just wanted that moment. So that was when I first like, got into radio.
I always tell people like, put all the music aside, I am a DJ and I wanna’ make it on radio. 1xtra is the station I’ve always wanted to make it on.
Kenny has taken it from De Ja, to now taking over the coveted 9-11pm Friday night slot on BBC 1xtra, replacing Dj Semtex. After honing his craft for 9 years, and working with the UK’s most formidable talent from Ghetts, to M Huncho, Mike Skinner and more. Without doubt his hard working attitude and inherently championing personality has brought him here. “I think the 1xtra journey has been a bit of a bitter sweet, because erm…remember being 9, listening to Tim Westwood, Pete Tong, Chris Goldfinger, Judge Jules, Annie Mac…all these important names in our culture. It was beautiful. That would’ve been the pinnacle of my career full stop. I always tell people like, put all the music aside, I am a DJ and I wanna’ make it on radio. 1xtra is the station I’ve always wanted to make it on. So when I was 18 I first went to the network and I was doing Xtra Talent, again, I was influenced a lot by dancehall music. My mom is a big advocate of reggae and dancehall music, so I started off on the network playing that. I was doing Xtra Talent, doing mixes for Seani B…any opportunity I could take to get on the network I would try that. 18 to 25, like it’s been such a journey. I’ve been trying to get onto that network for the last 6 or 7 years it’s been…crazy. And because I wanna be on the network so bad, I’ve not given up, even up to now, people say to me, rah 7 years trying to get on one station, that’s a bit mad. But I just wanted to know that one day, you know when you just go on the website and you just see your face…and you just see your own show, that was like the goal. So even now, it’s amazing because I’ve got so much content on their channels, and the residency every month. But the goal was getting my own show. It’s such a ground-breaking moment for someone who’s pushing music that they wouldn’t put on BBC.” Deservedly congratulations are due on his recent milestone.
It would be impossibly not to touch on a highly pertinent topic hitting mainstream media as of late. The same media-houses and establishments that are supposedly beginning to embrace black music and culture, have been slandering and condemning it, in particular, drill music, and it’s supposed societal impacts with regards to violence and crime. I propose to Kenny that as people of a culture, there’s utmost certainty that rising crime and violence rates are a result of the social and economical environments those affected are in, as opposed to their intrinsic behaviours and influence of aggressive music. His take is of a similar discourse, “I think at this point, we’ve become a scapegoat. I mean…I watch Netflix everyday. There’s a section on Netflix called ‘Violent Dramas’. You can check it out. Check out all the categories. You get the dropdown menu, under Dramas, there’s ‘Violent Dramas’. Let’s look at some of the most popular video games in this country and stateside, whatever. Call of Duty, GTA, Halo. These are all…these are all video games that insight…War. Forget even just violence, war” he exclaims vigorously, as the emotion in his speech and demeanour became prevalent.
“You get billion pound corporations using violence as a way of selling things, now you wanna go into music, rap music, a form of expression. From the beginning of rap music, or Hip Hop in general, this genre is meant to be a genre that was built on being expressive. So therefore, even when US music was just selling off the HMV shelves in this country, and 50 Cent and the bullet holes on his fucking album cover, all of that shit was flying off the shelves. The news was nowhere to be found then. There might have been some news stations that might have said ‘yea ok well, blah blah blah’ so the companies just put a little parental advisor sticker on the CDs or 18+ on the video games.”
Now what is so sad for me…is that when it comes to our own…these are young people coming from deprived areas, finding opportunities to make legitimate money! … I don’t understand why that is now a problem.”
His tone is controlled with emphasis and eloquence.
“Why the media are gonna scrutinise some of these young people. You know, I’m not a politician so I can’t tell you about unemployment rates or all of these things, but one thing I can tell you is that a lot of these young people…they don’t get taught certain things in school. They don’t even get taught about how to pay taxes. They don’t get taught about certain business or how to be an entrepreneur. So a lot of these young people look at rappers and think ok cool, this is a nice way of you know, being able to just pick up a pen and paper, write, go into a studio and boom. Some of these guys sell millions of records and are starting to make millions of pounds.
So we’re at a stage where it’s sickening to know that our media are starting to scrutinise these young people and say that the content’s negative…when I’ve just named two mediums that everybody…ok let’s not push it and say 80% of people that I know, especially young people, you know 15-28 or 5-30 whatever, they use Netflix and play video games. The authorities don’t go HAM on them but they go HAM on young people trying to better themselves.”
I put it to him that such reason could be race or class and he responds with omniscience, “I don’t see colour too much on it, because the lines are starting to get blurred. Even if you wanna focus on race like…lets say, drill music yeah. Ok. Lets say 80% of drill musicians are black, but 80% of the consumers are not black. So its one of these things where, they fear what they don’t understand. From the government to the police force to the people that just want to have opinions on drill music being negative. These people in higher up positions, labelling are young men as criminals, it’s kind of sickening, because we don’t know what some of these people do on their own time. But us, over here, on the streets of London, we’re not going over to parliament and saying “well, look at some of you lot, what you lot into.” Cus if we knew some of their whatever, we’d probably be like wow, alright then.”
I go into some of these youth centres and initiatives and they’re telling me in a years time we’re not gonna be open Kenny
“I’ve held back on talking about this because it does get under my skin, because, you see when I’m on the BBC or Boiler Room, Mad About Bars, whatever, whatever platform I have. I bring these youths from out of the blocks to express themselves on a microphone. They get millions of views and then they tour the country. That’s me doing something positive for some of these guys. Some of these guys have no opportunity. I go into some of these youth centres and initiatives and they’re telling me in a years time we’re not gonna be open Kenny. But again, why? Why don’t these major news outlets, Sky or daily mail or whatever, why don’t they go and speak on the positive aspects of what these people from the streets do? Stormzy just done the scholarship for Cambridge, why are we not documenting that, and giving my man a pat of the back. Krept and Konan, who came form the streets of Thornton Heath, yeah, where the crime rate is high, these man have opened a restaurant in their own community. They come from the same genre, rap music, trap music, yeah, that these lot are trying to break down. Lethal Bizzle, Dizzie Rascal, Wiley, all millionaires. They all come from hoods. They come from communities that these lot are trying to deprive.”
He sums up his extremely cogent monologue with a sensible proposition to the current issues the scene is facing.
“So here’s my answer to anyone who’s gonna ridicule drill music. Always look at two sides of the story. Instead of backing these youths up against the wall and stopping them from being expressive, and making money legitimately, you need to look at yourselves in the mirror. Cool, some of the contents harsh, we’ll just look at it, we’re not gonna stop what they’re doing, but if there’s certain things that are being said, that are so raw and unacceptable, then you can strike that. Like on YouTube, you get strikes for certain things, you strike that. You give a reason why you’re striking it, then maybe, cool. But don’t stop them. ‘Cus when you’re start doing that, what else is left for them? A lot of these guys that have made certain mistakes can’t go and get a job anyway, because they’ve got a record, for the smallest things too!”
“A lot of artists have said some raw things on my platforms, and I have no regrets. I know what I came in the game for. And if I’m the last one left, I don’t care. If every DJ takes their bags and runs because they’re getting pressured by police or whatever, I know where I come from and I’m proud of what I’ve done for a lot of these youths.”
I came in the game to showcase the voice of the voiceless.
Despite still being so young, his demeanour and voice on this issue strikes a nerve, and mirrors that which a political figurehead would be proud.
Wrapping up our conversation to talk about ‘Block Diaries’ the album, consisting of a line-up riddled with talent from 67, to Not3s, to SNE, Abra Cadabra, Belly Squad, M Huncho (who was the lead for the second single, ‘Solo’) it is a journey in itself. The opening tracks set the fresh, clean cut, primed scene for the ‘Block Diaries’. Che Lingo, SNE, TE Dness and Suspect with Nafe Smallz then respectively bring about a stint of emotion and despair with their tracks, ‘All You Need’ and extremely fitting entitled ‘Cocoon’, before an aggressive, drilly, dark prequel to a resolutive ending. The sounds and content harmonise with the track-list structure, down to the BPMs. It is an amazingly, coherent yet versatile body of work, expertly curated.
The reason it’s called ‘Block Diaries’ is because a lot of the most significant moments of my life happened in the estates that I came from.
“Curating has been a goal of mine since 2011…” Kenny begins telling me “…When I was trying to come up and an up and coming DJ, and trying to find ways of showcasing rappers. I used to come across all these great rappers on my journey and I always used to think to myself, why don’t I just build a project with all my favourite MCs. ‘Mad About Bars’ for example, that started because I wanted to crate a playlist of all my favourite MCs. That’s why you can’t submit to be on there, it’s like one of the only platforms where you actually can’t pay to get on it. If I like you, that’s it. I rate these guys, I just wanna’ hear them. The reason it’s called ‘Block Diaries’ is because a lot of the most significant moments of my life happened in the estates that I came from. I was always around high rises. I always remember waking up, stepping out, and just seeing communities of people, loads of windows, tower blocks. That’s where the inspiration came from. The Diaries part, because when I grew up, I always used to write what I was going through in a diary. You can’t speak to everyone about your personal life. I felt it was healthier to release it than keep it bottled in so I used to write in a diary.”
“See the way you just described it, that’s exactly how I want everyone to listen to it. I come from the days where, when you brought an album out, there was always a story. With compilation projects its very hard, ‘cus everyone’s got different rhyming styles, not everyone can on cue get the concept, so I was like, I’m a voice, so if an artist cant really capture the concept then maybe I can speak my way to guide the listener. That’s why it is like that. And the way I consume music is in genres, I listen to my playlist and everything has to be like in an organised way. That’s my musical OCD. It has to go slow, and then fast. Same with my DJ sets. It’s cohesive. I miss that. UK rap, I think we’ve lost that, sonically.”
‘Block Diaries’ is out 5th October, you can pre-order it here.