Grime, fame and paranoia - Skepta battles his demons

Diddy loves him, his mum loves him and soon your mum might love him, but before Skepta can make it as a mainstream mogul, he might need a Nando's. And some sleep.

There are three things that help relax Joseph Junior Adenuga, aka Skepta or, as he would have it on one track, The King Of Grime. They are Nando's, clubbing and EastEnders. He arrived back in London from New York three hours ago and is chatting sleepily about how he winds down after being away. For a while his hooded, jetlaggy eyes only widen under the bill of his cap when he's talking about the "shitty" Ronnie baby-swap saga. "EastEnders is my thing, man, it's what I come home for."

Skepta's third studio album, Doin' It Again, is about to come out. It has everything grime fans would expect, but it's his first major label release and has a more robust, radio-friendly production. It has already spawned three top 40 singles. And then there's Diddy. He announced on Twitter towards the end of last year that he wanted fans to vote in a grime artist to remix his track Hello, Good Morning. Skepta won by a landslide, and the result was a maniacal monster of a track that made Diddy sound relevant again and opened a whole world of new ears to Skepta's sound. "It was a mad time. My mum knows who Diddy is, man, and she'd sit on the sofa like this [sits forward with mouth wide open] when it came on the radio." But Diddy or no Diddy, Doin' It Again is a big record, and Skepta's tipping point into the mainstream.

Grime by its very nature is deliberately amateur-sounding, the original signature just an eight-bar loop with someone MCing over the top of it. With an album that's clearly set on catapulting Skepta into the big time, is he conscious of watering down the raw power of his genre? He sits back and puffs his cheeks out. "I can't make hard street music for the rest of my life. Your references change."

Does he want to take grime, in its undiluted, non-Bonkers form, on a journey like the one hip-hop has taken in the last two decades? He cuts in enthusiastically. "I hear all the big department stores like Macy's and Bloomingdale's in the US playing hard hip-hop records to the shoppers, like Rick Ross at his gnarliest. That's amazing. It makes me think grime can do a similar thing." How so? "Because hip-hop started on the streets, just like grime did. It took a long time for hip-hop to become commercial. Now there's all these big black icons that came from nowhere to somewhere. Look at Jay-Z! People stopped being threatened by the music and just started to appreciate that it's good. I want that to happen with grime. I get that it's quite an ignorant sound, but if you mix it with music that won't be attacking on the virgin ear, you create an entrance point." So they can go back and discover the harder stuff at their own pace? "Exactly. I'm the first generation of this music so I've got to make decisions; I want to progress, but at the same time not stray too far off the blueprint."

And some blueprint that is. The Boy Better Know label that Skepta founded with his brother, JME, is one of the most influential collectives in the grime scene. The two MCs became entrepreneurs; bringing out, among other things, a lucrative T-shirt range that became a uniform of sorts for youths across the country. They also started the label, releasing music by unsigned grime artists like Tinchy Stryder. Wiley – such is his own octopus-like reach across grime – was involved for a time too and both Skepta and JME cross-pollinate with the all-conquering Roll Deep crew too. As Skepta suggests, directly, "There are scarce few things that have happened in grime that haven't involved me in some way or another."

Skepta is brilliantly quick; his way of plaiting all kinds of imagery with observational humour seems to come as naturally to him as breathing. Even when talking. He's dry too, to the point where you wonder whether he's being serious, before a knowing smirk appears on his lips. Like when he starts talking, out of nowhere, about the Queen's "vibe": "She's got a lot to answer for, man." It takes a while to get past an initial wariness. Not that he isn't warm – he is, and keeps eye contact – but you get the feeling that, although he talks a lot about avoiding confrontation, he's perhaps not had the best of time with strangers.

In the middle of a big chat about Nando's ("I can't get enough"), I suggest that we might go to the same east London branch of the restaurant. His face drops. "Naah man, I need to be careful where I go." Why? "I'm paranoid of people hating on me." Paranoid? "Yeah." He looks around at the two silent chaps in puffa jackets he has with him for no discernible reason. "I gear myself up for abuse because I've had a lot of shit." What kind of shit? "People end up saying stupid things so I remember them." Now he really goes off on one, like a bottle of Sarson's has been spilt on a graze. "I'm not rude; I always want to chat to my supporters. But I end up going through fire exits into venues now, whereas before I'd just mix with the crowd before I went on stage. I get overwhelmed." He takes a few sips of Coke and gulps extraordinarily loudly. "I'm more chilled out now than I was, but there's always that one person that says something bad. But I hate confrontation." You're inclined to believe this; although his musical delivery is thrillingly rottweiler-like, he is relaxed and measured in conversation. If anything, he seems genuinely scarred. And indeed paranoid. How does he sleep? "I don't. I'm in music and lyrics all the time. When I lie in bed my mind never clocks out. That's why I like going to clubs - loud music and drinks weirdly help cancel out the noise."

Like in rap records passim, a recurring theme in Skepta's lyrics is not forgetting where he's from. On Cross My Heart he says he's "still the same guy that I was this morning," and on Rescue Me he says he "don't want more respect than I deserve." This is a man who really doesn't want people to think he's too big for his boots. It's refreshing, and doesn't make his music any less powerful – the opposite, in fact. So what does he do to stop his ego becoming overgrown? "My friends, man," he says. "I just keep them involved in everything. The way I think about things might change, but they still think the same." Talking about his friends makes him jump in his chair. "I might say to myself one day, 'I want to get a huge tattoo coming up the side of my face, and a huge piercing in the middle of my cheek,' and my friends will be like, 'naaaah cuz, you can't do that, idiot', and I have to stop and think: 'Would I have thought that was an idiot ting back in the day?'" And if the answer's yes? "Well there you go. That'd be it. I ain't no idiot."

Doin' It Again is out on All Around The World/Universal on Monday


Eleanor Morgan

The GuardianTramp

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