No strangers to suffering, the rap duo from Croydon talk about bringing mental health into focus on their second album
Casyo “Krept” Johnson and Karl “Konan” Wilson are the UK’s biggest rap duo. Last year their second album, Revenge is Sweet, was released to widespread acclaim, they sold out London’s O2 arena and were booked to headline their first festival, SW4 in south London, taking place this summer. They were employing 50 local people at a restaurant in Croydon, and spearheaded a campaign to defend drill music which resulted in them speaking in Parliament. But, says Konan, “a lot of people think that once you’re successful all your troubles go. That once you achieve certain goals you don’t have no more worries or stresses, you can’t get depressed, you can’t get emotional sometimes and feel alone and feel bad.”
Those successes ran parallel to a period of great suffering. In May 2018, their friend and business partner, Nyasha “Nash” Chagonda, killed himself days before the restaurant they had set up together, Crepes & Cones, was due to open. In February 2019 Krept’s cousin, the rapper Cadet, died in a car accident when he was travelling to a show. And in October, Krept was stabbed and robbed at a BBC Radio 1Xtra event in Birmingham, which forced them to delay their tour.
Now, they want to talk about men’s mental health and the emotional and psychological impact of trauma. “No matter what situation you’re in, these things happen and you’ve got to keep pushing through and talking and getting it off your chest, rather than keeping it bottled up inside,” says Konan.
Krept, 29, grew up in Crystal Palace and Konan, 30, in Thornton Heath. They have been making music together since 2009, after they met through a mutual friend when they were moving around Gipsy Hill in south London. Their breakthrough came in 2013, when their debut mixtape Young Kingz became the highest-charting UK release by an unsigned act. Stormzy, a neighbourhood friend, left a steady job at an oil refinery when he saw them winning a Mobo award on TV.
Their wordy, organic rap, which in their last few releases extolled their expensive watches and fast cars, has earned them a reputation as the jokers of grime.
But Revenge is Sweet, addressed to all those who ever doubted them, delves into weightier themes which they say are rarely discussed in their community. “Being in this industry, you get frustrated. You feel like they’re not appreciating the work that you put in. You’re trying to make things happen in the midst of so many hurdles – politics on the scene or the label not being ready. [Revenge is Sweet] was a vent.”
It ranges wide, from the operatic “Goat Level”, filled with in-jokes and groan-inducing wordplay, to the smooth, late night Afrobeats of “G-love”, to the banging, speeded-up “I Spy”. Stormzy, WizKid and other big hitters make appearances. It closes with a monologue on mental health by rapper Ramz, a friend, and “Broski”, a soft, impassioned eulogy to Nash. “These are my most personal and important set of lyrics,” says Krept. “It’s a reminder of someone I loved and how great a person they were. It’s mad to hear those lyrics. They bring back those good memories.”
Last summer, Krept & Konan released the stand-alone track and short film Ban Drill in response to the Metropolitan Police’s move to prosecute artists of drill music – characterised by its nihilistic, often violent lyrics – under the Serious Crime Act. It’s the same legislation used to prevent sex trafficking and terrorism, and under the act, rappers Skengdo and AM were sentenced to nine months in prison, suspended for two years.
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Bans do not stop the music, says Konan. “It draws more attention to it. With the spread of news on DM [direct message] and the internet being in your face every minute, it sheds light on you. It’s PR.”
Krept & Konan argue fiercely that drill is a reflection of circumstance, its violent content describing what the rappers have left behind. In 2011, a gunman broke into Konan’s mother’s home, injuring her and fatally shooting his stepfather. He describes what he saw in 2013’s “My Story”. Krept has no feeling in the right side of his face because he was hit when he was young. “They had to basically rebuild the cheekbone and eye socket. All the nerves have gone.” Konan spent time in prison in 2008. Both men have said that they would be in prison, as a best-case scenario, today if it wasn’t for music.
Banning drill denies musicians the chance of a legitimate career and leaving old circumstances behind, says Krept. And the impact of surveillance and suppression on communities that have been wrecked by knife crime and gang violence will be detrimental. “They just want something to blame,” says Konan. “They’re not really trying to figure it out. ”
They never wanted to be political, adds Krept. “It was just us speaking about it, knowing what laws they were using and spreading awareness. We just saw an injustice and decided to do something. That the higher powers of this country are able to strip someone’s career away from them, just because they don’t like it or understand it, is just wrong. People are making a legitimate living and you are taking that away from them.”
Krept & Konan draw a link between drill music and investing in communities. Soon after releasing Ban Drill, Konan wrote an article in The Guardian, “Music saved my life. Banning drill takes hope away from black British kids like me”. It cast light on the after-school programme, Positive Direction Foundation, that they opened in 2017, as well as the Cambridge scholarships for young black people and #Merky Books, the publishing imprint for young Bame writers Stormzy has set up. “Growing up, we had youth clubs and activities after school which helped keep us off the street,” says Konan. “Then they closed it all down and we never had nothing to do, so we was roaming, getting in trouble. We wanted to create something that gives kids something to do after school. We teach them practical skills: how to sound engineer, songwrite, produce, record and graphic design.”
Their restaurant opened in 2018. It is one of several entrepreneurial ventures they hope will inspire young people. “It wasn’t even a plan to open a restaurant though,” laughs Krept. “We thought of the name, [Crepes & Cones], thought it was genius and followed through.”
This year, their focus is on more music, more money and going global. International audiences are starting to understand the culture behind their music, says Konan. “Before, in their view, the UK was Butlins and posh people. Now, with the internet, with Top Boy, with Drake and A$AP [Rocky] coming over and collaborating, they can see where the music stems from.”
Krept & Konan are touring from Tuesday