Rapper J Hus: ‘I was a doughnut hustler!’

The young east-London star went from selling marked-up snacks in the playground to two stints in prison. But with his hothead days behind him, his first studio album is a euphoric triumph

J Hus is standing in the middle of a cold aircraft hangar on the outskirts of Bedford. The recent breakthrough star of the UK rap scene is shooting the video for his next single, Common Sense, and the 21-year-old – real name Momodou Jallow – is watching two girls being filmed as they scramble for £50 notes being whizzed through the air by an electric fan. The scene conjures up Crystal Maze-cum-rap-video excess and Hus is unable to stop himself getting caught up in the fun.

“Shall we get them to play fight?” he asks excitedly. Before he finishes his sentence, one of the girls topples over and crashes into a polystyrene board. Hus’s braggadocio evaporates, replaced with concerned panic. “Is she OK? Are you OK? Shit, tell her to take her heels off! Shall we stop?”

Clearly, there are two sides to J Hus. He spent time in prison, in 2014 and again in 2015, yet he is unfailingly polite and is embarrassed whenever I bring up his raunchier material. The same duality exists in his music, which takes in the hard-edged sound of road rap but mixes it with some of grime’s cheeky humour (“I’m an ugly man making sexy money”) and dance music’s party atmosphere.

“I’m a Gemini,” he says, “so my mood always changes – one minute I’m dance-dancey, the next I’m in the corner minding my own business. People are always surprised when they meet me. I was in Nigeria and I went to one of the radio stations and they were like, ‘Aww you look cute!’ They were expecting me to look more rough, and I was like: ‘Yeah, I’m polite!”

Watch the video for J Hus’s single Common Sense

Common Sense is the follow-up to the top 10 hit Did You See, which spread via raves, Instagram and open car windows last year (“I would be in the car and in the next lane next to me they’d be playing it,” he says). But Hus’s underground appeal has been bubbling for some time, breaking through in 2015 with the anthemic Dem Boy Paigon and Lean and Bop, which earned him a Mobo nomination, a record deal with Black Butter, and now a further deal with US label Epic Records. He has released his debut studio album, also called Common Sense, a playful and intoxicating brand of euphoric UK rap that brings various sounds of the diaspora together via Afrobeats and bashment.

Growing up Muslim on an estate in Stratford, Hus didn’t share the musical education many of his rap peers had at church. Instead, the second-generation British Gambian came to music via his mum and stepdad playing “African music and Beenie Man” at home. Grime clash culture featured in the school playground – “You’d have to go home, write your bars and come and clash the next day” – and it’s there that he developed his rap moniker. “In my area, people call me by my surname because my first name is a bit hard to pronounce,” he says. “I had to change it because I remember thinking, Jallow is a shit name for a rapper.”

“Hus” came from his ability to pull off impressive playground deals. “In year 10 or 11, I used to buy packs of doughnuts for 50p from Morrisons, and sell them for 50p each. I made loads of money,” he recalls. “So I was a doughnut hustler!” His mum, however, still calls him “baba”: “I think it means baby or something in my language, Wolof,” he says, with hands-over-face shyness.

A week later, I meet J Hus in the green room of the O2 Academy Oxford . He is searching for something to stand on so he can put two socks over the smoke alarm. “I think I’m going to be a bit of a rebel,” he grins as he pushes a sofa underneath the device and balances his 6ft frame on the arm, before sitting back down and lighting up a joint. An hour before he is supposed to be on, he is calm, pensive and surrounded by pre-performance essentials: buckets of KFC, tubs of cocoa butter and packets of Berocca. Earlier, the atmosphere was less tranquil: riotous debate with his school friends, who are now his DJs and manager, covered topics including condiments (“ketchup is a dead sauce!”), jollof (“Nigerian jollof is the worst thing I’ve ever had in my life”) and the cost of the taxi they took from Ealing to Bedford (“It must have been £100 minimum”).

The official line on Hus’s tour is that there is no London ban, but unofficially, the feeling is that a live show might get shut down, or be privy to heavy-handed security, as seen at recent hip-hop gigs in the city. Either way, Hus emphasises that he is planning “something big” in London.

He is keen to put distance between now and the past, and uses his mum’s family phone calls to illustrate how much his life has changed. “In our community, you get people gossiping and stuff, so she’d have family calling her and talking about me being bad. That’s just how it is. When I was young I was always in trouble, so she likes the calls now.

“I was a bit of a hothead,” he admits. “But I’ve changed my ways now. My bad years were probably from 2009 to 2014.”

J Hus performing in Glasgow in May 2017
J Hus performing in Glasgow in May 2017. Photograph: Ross Gilmore/Getty Images

Then, in 2015, Hus was stabbed five times. Soon after, he uploaded an Instagram picture of himself making gang signs from his hospital bed. The images made headlines and, at the time, you couldn’t hear about J Hus without wading through tabloid demonisation. “That’s how the police would say it, but I wouldn’t call it a gang,” he says. “We were just a group of friends that used to get in trouble. But you know, me on a bed doing gang signs isn’t me on a normal day. That’s me going through a big mental thing. I wasn’t in the right state of mind, that’s not me on a regular Tuesday. I’d just got stabbed!”

While in prison, Hus watched a lot of Afrobeats pioneer D’Banj on TV – “I was like ‘Oh rah Africans are doing it out there.’” He was also exposed to a more unlikely influence: “Before I got a radio, I watched loads of Gangnam Style, ’cos that song was on TV all the time,” he grins. “You had to get someone to bring you a radio on a visit, so my mum brought me one and because I was under 18, all the CDs had to be clean. In Feltham prison, there’s an A-side and a B-side, and the B is 18-21, so some people from A would go to church and mosque and get music from the older ones. Every Saturday was Westwood on Radio 1, so I’d listen to that too.”

Now Hus is featured on the slots he used to listen to. A week before we meet, he appears on the 1Xtra Breakfast show and freestyles a rap reading Ikea flat pack instructions over a beat. On air, he sounds cheeky, giggly and hugely likable. It would be easy to caricature him as a gritty London rapper, but that would miss the nuance of Common Sense, which is packed with garage-tinged influences and party tracks. He even duets with Stormzy on Bad Boys, an MC who thanks God at his live shows and invites kids to join him on stage. “I’m not gonna pretend,” Hus says, discussing the grime heavyweight. “I don’t want to be like him, but I respect him a lot, he’s opened so many doors for people like me.”

Hus can’t help poking fun at the stereotype of his image. As I leave, he catches me looking at the deep scar on his head. “You probably think that’s from fighting, innit?” he smiles. “Nah, I hit my head on the edge of a coffee table!”


Kieran Yates

The GuardianTramp

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