Photo credit: Joe Magowan

Fredo: “I’ve Spent More Helping My Friends in Prison Than in Harrods”

Set aside the flexing: UK rapper Fredo is a man of his people as well as a spiritual successor to one of road rap’s many thrones.

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01 February 2019, 11:21am

Photo credit: Joe Magowan

After returning from a holiday in Dubai at the start of 2016, Fredo opened Snapchat on his phone. He’d recently become wary of the visibility his local rivals were starting to gain on social media through their music, and felt that nobody from his own clique was achieving the same. He wanted to tell his own story. “Back then you could hear about my n*****, but you couldn’t see them. I saw some other yutes my age on Snap and I couldn’t believe people were taking them seriously,” the 23-year-old tells me now, looking up to hold my gaze. “I thought fuck that. They ain’t even one-hundred.”

When we meet – to talk about his debut album Third Avenue (released today) – Fredo and I are sat in a windowless room at Sony Music HQ, off Kensington High Street. We’re metres from the office of Sony label imprint Since ‘93, which launched last year. As well as Fredo, their roster includes drill breakout star Loski, and playful Manchester wordsmith Aitch. “They understand, you know?” Fredo replies, when I ask how the label support young talent with complex pasts (Loski was in prison when first mentored by Since ‘93 co-founder Riki Bleau). “Just because man’s lived a kind of way doesn’t mean I won’t change for the right thing if I can. Since I’ve started rapping I’ve been to jail twice, but I think Rik had his eye on me. He let me go through patches in my life and learn from them.”

Fredo grew up on the Mozart Estate, or “Zart”, in west London’s Queen’s Park: an infamous, zipped pocket of social housing in the outer-reaches of Westminster, the capital’s third-wealthiest borough. Though he’d appeared in music videos before – notably under the tutelage of Harrow Road Boyz elders Ratlin and Rugrat – he’d never tried rapping. But faced with what he saw as bullshit spouted by his rivals in their music, he decided to signal his own claim over absolute authenticity, as well as put his ends on the map, by recording his own song and accompanying video.

“A lot of rappers wanna put a bally on and talk shit, but they’re not really the killers,” he tells me bluntly. In January 2016 he searched for a beat on YouTube, and by the end of month he’d recorded and shot the video for his first tune, “They Ain’t 100”, whose haunting keys and window-shattering bass lie under a breed of scorching lyricism that remains arguably unmatched by any British MC since. In it, Fredo unapologetically lays out his dominant place among his disaffected young male peers, all trying to survive and compete; a cohort for whom one-upmanship, violence and gains in the illicit drug economy override all other concerns.

And yet within weeks of the song’s release, Fredo tells me – for a charge he doesn’t mention but for a case he would later beat – he was sent to HMP Wandsworth: a filthy, understaffed prison in which known gang members from warring parts of London are segregated into different wings to minimise conflict. Here, he would watch his views on YouTube whizz upwards (at the time of writing, “They Ain’t 100” has been watched more than 17 million times). As a result his name was hailed as the latest noteworthy descendant in London’s prestigious road-rap lineage: a genre for which concise, brutal truisms about subsistent urban living are the currency of musical value, and whose stars include Giggs, Skrapz and Nines. “But it didn’t mean anything until I got home,” he says, of his new-found fame. “I went to fill up my car outside London, in Hertfordshire, and this young guy at the service station knew who I was. I couldn’t believe it.”

As he says all this, Fredo reclines on the sofa next to me. His Givenchy T-shirt sports a snarling Rottweiler print, and his pristine white Air Force Ones rest flat on the carpet. He is shy, stoic, and seems relieved – and for good reason. Since stepping into the studio three years ago, he has paved an impressive ascent: from the bare-knuckle arena of underground rap into the upper echelons of the UK music industry. His debut mixtape Get Rich Or Get Recalled came out in 2017 – a nod to 50 Cent’s 2003 album and, by extension, a reflection of the American make-money-fast influences on Fredo’s personal branding: the jewellery, designer garms, plush dining spots and fearless braggadocio. The tape featured “Pattern Gang” and “TrapSpot,” which each helped sustain the hungry rapper’s growing reputation as an audacious young commentator of street realism. For “Pulling Up” he joined forces with veteran Blade Brown, who he names as a source of inspiration alongside the most obvious spiritual forefather of his sound, Giggs. “I used to like that Peckham shit. Back when I was 14, 15, 16,” he says, “when Giggs and SN1 and Blade came through with that G shit that was slowed down. I don’t know about grime though… Wiley and that. How you gonna tell a real life story spitting that fast?” he asks quizzically.

In the summer of 2017, Fredo dropped “Like That”: a triumphant celebration of his return from a second stint in prison after he was baselessly linked to a shooting. “I knew when we were putting the video together that I’m not just gonna be a one-hit wonder. Before then, I didn’t know if I’d run out of bars, you know? But I was vibesing when I came home. I bought a new watch. It was hot.” This sentiment, of being liberated from a darkened past – selling crack through the night in freezing weather, losing friends to retaliatory violence, evading the police – seemed to become fully crystallised at the end of the year with afro-swing-tinged “Change”. Its chorus oozes honest hope, as Fredo delivers the following lines with ease, as if in trusted conversation with his fans: “So I hide the pain through these designer frames / bro died so I put him on a diamond chain / Came out of jail to a mic and a stage / yeah it’s different to the trap, but I like the change.”

Now, off the back of his previous releases, Fredo is ready to put out his debut album, produced largely by talent JB. His catchy, futuristic instrumentals have been integral to shaping Fredo’s rock-hard yet accessible style since they worked on “Rappin & Trappin” in 2018, and the rest of his acclaimed mixtape Tables Turn. At a tight 13 tracks, Third Avenue contains only two features: Fredo’s mentee Lil Dotz and Dave, who he calls “a genius” after the pair rocketed to number 1 in the official UK charts with “Funky Friday” in October last year. “I thought number 1s were normal! I thought, like, Stormzy had one, Giggs had one… I didn’t understand that none of us lot had done something like that before. It took me a while to realise how big that was,” he says, smirking with a shrug.

The new album’s first two singles “BMT” and “Survival Of The Fittest” have seen Fredo continue to produce authentic yet commercially viable rap, while finding ways to communicate his experiences as someone transitioning from humble beginnings into a state of celebrity. For example, the video for “Survival of the Fittest” flicks between shots of him alone in a studio wearing a white Moncler turtleneck jumper, and him with his boys walking the streets in hooded puffa jackets.

“My friend’s mum asked me, ‘why do I still come to the block?’ / Cause my brothers are here, mummy, and I love 'em a lot” he spits. Indeed, despite all the bravado – showboating about drug sales, weapons and acquiring wealth – Fredo's emotional availability rises from his music like a rose growing from concrete. In “Love You For That” he thanks his mum – ”wrote me letters in the pen, I wanna hug you for that” – and apologises for the stress his behaviour caused her. In the title track, laid over a smooth, cooing vocal sample, reminiscent of Jay-Z’s 2001 classic “Song Cry”, Fredo reminisces sensitively on the struggle of his teenage years spent hustling in an environment that he loves yet knows is treacherous and fed by neglect. And most consistently throughout the album, he expresses regular checks on his stardom by recognising the importance of looking out for his friends, family and youngers.

I ask him about the sense of responsibility he clearly feels towards people around him. “It’s only right. If there is a family of a mum, a dad, six children, and they’re not really getting by, and the son wins the lottery, it’s only right that the son does certain things. I’m not talking about my whole block, but there’s a handful of n***** who I really grew up with. They’ve been there for me when it wasn’t all sweet, or when I didn’t have a place to stay. So now that it’s changed for me – I wouldn’t say I’ve won the lottery, but I’m legit – it’s only right I do certain things. Some of my friends are still in that cycle of jumping on one grind that don’t work, coming out of jail after three years, going back, in-and-out, not being able to settle down because life is so hectic. I can’t be around them flexing. It wouldn’t be right. A lot of other rappers can’t even go back to their block, you know what I’m saying? It’s not like that with me. Real shit. I do it out of love. The savages are my brothers. So yeah I’ve got responsibilities. That’s just how it goes.”

Much Twitter ink has been spilled by fans jovially discussing Fredo’s preoccupation with rapping about spending time at high-end eateries like Gaucho and Hakkasan, or shopping at Harrods. I mention this to him, and suggest that one of these could be a location for a future interview. “I’m bored of talking about that shit,” he replies. Bored of what? “Like, jewellery and clothes. There’s less of that on the new album. You know, I’ve mentioned Harrods two or three times and now people talk like that’s my house. It just proves it’s about what you can see. Because I always show Harrods, but I don’t show every time I link a man’s baby mum and give her money, or tell my accountant to transfer money to one of my brudda’s accounts.”

He pauses, looking down at his tattooed hands and fiddling with the huge silver ring wrapped around the knuckle of his left hand index finger. “I’ve spent more money on helping my friends in prison than in Harrods. People ain’t gonna see that. But that’s what’s really going on.”

You can find Ciaran on Twitter.