“I want nearly everyone in Leeds to know about me”: In conversation with Graft

With multiple major performances and a MOBO already under his belt, Graft is fast becoming one of the hottest new talents in the UK rap scene. His focused and defined approach throughout BBC Three’s The Rap Game UK 2020 resulted in him coming away with a strong victory, meaning he is not only champ but also now working on a single with Play Dirty Records, Krept and Konan’s very only label. This is a man with a plan and it’s clear that, when it comes to music, Graft means business. Despite the victory, however, he remains incredibly humble and friendly, with a personality that is infectious beyond belief, and at only 21, there’s no doubt that there’s so much more to come. Esme McGowan caught up with the Leeds-based artist over Zoom about life after Rap Game, working with his heroes and making his family proud.

How are you? How’s life been treating you?

I’m quite good, thank you. Since the Rap Game, life’s been amazing. Loads of new opportunities, like brand partnerships, building a team around me, in and out of London a lot with producers, building a network and, of course, working on the single with Play Dirty so it’s been an amazing time. I’m very grateful and blessed.

The response within Leeds has been amazing since you’ve been on the show. Seeing that you were from Leeds was a really exciting thing because obviously Manchester’s become quite developed as a music hub and Leeds deserves to be up there, and you’re one of the leading figures. How does it feel to be representing Leeds, your city?

For me, I’m very proud to represent Leeds because, like you said, a lot of the surrounding areas, they’re getting the recognition for the musicians and the creative scene, whereas Leeds has had such a good, strong foundation of artists for years and they’ve never had that recognition. So I’ve kind of got that drive and motivation from those that have not got that recognition and I use that to really represent for myself, my people and the city. And I just want to put the city on the map as much as I can, as an individual. I feel like it’s something that I take pride in.

You say you’ve been to London a few times, do you feel that pressure when you’re in London? Do you feel like “I’m representing Leeds right now” when you’re in the capital or is it a bit more personal than that?

I feel like if I walk around thinking that I’ve got the whole city on my back, it’s an ego thing, but at the same time, I’d be putting too much pressure on myself as well. So, I just walk around representing who I am. But at the same time, when I’m in London, a lot more people are aware of me now from the Rap Game. The city I’m from, the music I’m making, within that, that’s a great feeling as well.

Pre-Rap Game, you had your MOBO, you’d released ‘Fire in the Streets’, you were already building quite a name. What was it about the game show that you wanted to get involved with?

So, the reason I got involved in the Rap Game was for the exposure. I watched Season One and I had seen the amount of people that were tapped in… the audience. For me, I want to establish myself as an artist and get my music across to the masses, so any opportunity that I can have to expose myself to more of a broad audience, I’m all in, I’m jumping right in! So that was the main thing I wanted to get out of it, the exposure, the experience and, of course, I went on there to win – and that’s what I did.

You stepped in as a winner, came out as a winner.

Exactly, exactly. For real, for real.

What was it like just being with Krept and Konan and DJ Target? On the regular, that’s amazing, what was that like?

Yeah, so for me, right, when I first met them episode one, I can’t lie, I was starstruck! I was starstruck, you know, I’ll keep it real with you. Obviously, I’ve watched these guys from a young age, from literally like 8 years old, and to then be in the same vicinity as them, and speaking to them and then actually performing in front of them, it was like rah, life changed quick, you know, from watching them, to now performing in front of them. So, I felt nervous at first and then as the series went on, I just became more myself, more comfortable, more confident and Krept, Konan and DJ Target, they’re amazing guys. They’ve got a lot of knowledge to share, they’re very supportive, and of course, very experienced. So, I just wanted to learn as much as I could from them.

As you’re watching it, you can see that the more time you spend with them the closer you get. But, obviously, Konan’s comment in the first episode, [“You’re still on the side-lines, in the changing room”] is something that stuck with you as an ex-footballer- is that something that still motivates you – to prove that you’re “on the pitch”, you “want to make your mark”?

I feel like that comment was pivotal for me. Obviously, episode one I was forgetting my bars and letting the nerves get the better of me. I’m a human being. And then once he said that it was like raah, you don’t even know me! Like, I know who I am, I know what I stand for, I know how great I am. So that was a comment that just helped me to motivate myself even more, and from that point on I just took it up a notch every single challenge. I don’t think about that comment any more. As a person, I’m very driven and motivated and goal-orientated anyway, so yeah, I just know where I’m headed.

It tapped into that.

Yeah, yeah, it tapped into that!

As a viewer, it’s clear that you’re very serious- like a really fun person, but when you’re rapping, when you’re writing, it’s business, it’s no messing about. Would you say that’s one of your best traits for this field, or is it just who you are?

I feel like what I love I take seriously. Whether it’s my career, a relationship, a friendship, a business venture, I take things seriously when I have passion involved. I feel like that helps me in music, because I know when to turn it on and turn it off. I’m not always serious, not always fun and jokey, like I know to adapt to different situations. I feel like that is just a skill I’ve learnt over time and it does help me within my career.

Do you have a favourite moment from the Rap Game? I know what mine is, but I’m intrigued to find out what yours is.

Whats yours?

My favourite moment– I’m not trying to win brownie points here– but, for real, my favourite moment was the live orchestra with Wretch, and you turn around! Ahh man, I was gassed, I was there like “this is too good.”

Love, love. Yeah man, I think, for me, I can’t lie, I’m going to have to agree with you! The live orchestra, yeah. I feel like from episode one to that challenge, that was the icing on the cake, for me. You know, from my journey, starting not as well as I would have liked to and then progressing. The orchestra moment was pivotal for me and just in that moment, seeing the guys’ reactions, Wretch, even the camera men! Obviously as a viewer, you wouldn’t have seen it but people in there were going wild, like crazy! Even the artists as well, man! Yeah, that moment.

I think in that moment, it was clear who was going to win. Did you have an artist that was amazing for you to meet personally? Was there one week where you were like, the fact that I’m meeting this person right now is out of this world?

Yeah, I felt like that with a lot of the artists that came in, to an extent. Obviously, I’ve got respect for their journey and what they’re doing. But the main artists that I really was like “Rah this is sick” was D Double E, JME, and Wretch 32, and Aitch as well. And the reason that I say Aitch is because we’re more or less the same age, he’s from Manny so it’s what, about half an hour to an hour away, and he’s doing bits for himself. So, I feel like yeah, it was amazing to be around him because I respect him. as a peer, yeah. So those four I’d say.

In some of the performances, you delve into some deeper, more emotional topics, for example the performance with JME about racism, following last summer where these issues were strongly spotlighted, and again, with your final song – do you feel like being open, getting into those topics is something that is really important for you or do you just write about everything and those things are just part of who you are?

For me, I’m a very deep person as it is. I don’t look at things on the surface level, I don’t really find enjoyment in a lot of the same things people of a similar age to me find enjoyment in. So, I delve into things really deeply, I feel like as an artist and the person that I am, I know that I have a platform and I want to speak about things that are meaningful to me. And because of how deep I am, and so much is going on in the world, I want to incorporate that into my music because what I stand for is a message, what I stand for is purpose, I stand for legacy and I stand for meaning. So, in my music, I incorporate as much of that as I can into what I’m making so that people are getting that side of me and I can resonate with people on that same level. So, it’s important for me to speak on what I think is true to me. I’m just speaking my truth.

I feel like if you have that kind of platform, you want to use that voice for good, for something purposeful. We see that with the club banger task with Ms Banks, your interpretation of that was very different and actually it paid off. Is that something that you might be maybe including in your Play Dirty single?

For me, yeah, all I’m going to do is just make bangers and just make music that people can relate to so with the single that’s exactly what you’re going to get. I feel like as my career goes on, you’re going to see all different sides to me but for the single, I’ll just let you see what it is for now.

You’ve said in a past interview that Kendrick is the music icon you’d love to work with and then Dave, Chip and Potter Payper from the UK. Is there an album that’s come out recently that you’ve had on repeat? Any particular stand outs?

There’s a producer called EMIL from London, and he released an album last year I believe, and it’s kind of jazzy, hip hop, rap, very soulful. And I’ve been playing that since it come out, that’s a vibe. I’m someone that really likes all types of music, the different elements, the different sounds, instruments, I have a real love for music. So, I don’t just play things that are popping or current.

When restrictions change, is touring something you’re keen to do?

*Nods head vigorously* 1000% Soon as lockdown restrictions ease, I want to be everywhere man.

Is live performance something you enjoy more than the studio? Do you like being with the crowds or just a bit of both?

I think its 50/50 really because I can’t be with the crowds if I don’t have the recording process and I feel like there’s not much better feeling than when you’ve actually written a banger, when you just write it and you’re like “Yeah this is gonna go off” and then you record that, you piece it together and then it sounds amazing sonically. And then when you go and perform it, the audience are vibing with you, they’re sharing your energy, it’s amazing. So, I like both, I love them both.

Is there a place in Leeds that you’d want to perform when you can?

At one point, I’d love to perform at First Direct Arena, I’d love to perform there. A big stadium in my own city! Sell that out at one point in my career, just a sell-out show, that’s one of my goals.

What would you say is the coolest thing that has happened during or post-Rap Game?

I’d say the coolest thing… I’ve got two. I’d say the first thing that means the most to me is making my family and my loved ones and my friends proud. Seeing how proud they were, especially my mum – just making my mum proud. The second one I would say, getting recognition from my peers in the game that I’ve listened to as a young child. Them giving me recognition and respecting my thing is like yeah, big. So yeah, those two.

Graft’s latest single and winning track from the Rap Game UK 2020 ‘Hustle & Dream’ is out now on all major streaming platforms.

(All images via Graft’s management)