Warrior Mode: Jammz is the Unstoppable Force Lighting Up Grime
He spits fire, produces beats, runs his own label, sends for the Tories, and performs more often than a West End actor. It's time to become acquainted with Jammz.
It's Friday afternoon, and Jammz is finishing a full english breakfast at a deserted greasy spoon in Hackney Wick. There's still half a rasher of bacon left on his plate when I walk in, and something about the expression on his face tells me he was really looking forward to finishing it before I arrived. The remaining slither of pork is literally his breakfast - he didn't go to bed until 6am this morning.
The 25-year-old MC played a rave in Leeds last night and the 'performer' sticker is still resolutely hanging off his black hoody. Now he's got to spend the whole afternoon with me, then he has a cypher with eight other MCs at Boiler Room, and then he's back into the studio to record more music. His phone vibrates off the hook while we're together, and when it finally dies, he simply whips out a second one. He looks tired – not bags under the eyes yawning tired; more like the breed of exhaustion where you move and talk like you're underwater.
Since first coming to wider attention in 2015 with his Hit Then Run EP, Jammz has become one of the most gutsy and energetic MCs in what is dubbed grime's 'new wave' (alongside the likes of AJ Tracey, Novelist, Elf Kid and more). He runs his own record label, has released four EPs, produces all of his songs, performs more often than a West End actor, and writes bars that make you wonder if you've ever heard clever sound so angry.
Last year, his tenacious drive saw him (and a few other MCs) basically drag pirate-style radio back off the dusty shelf and return it to relevance. In a good week, he would play six times at stations across London; sometimes defying space and time, like the day he popped up on Flex FM, Rinse FM and Mode FM all in one afternoon. Basically, if he was a basketball player, he'd be the type to get home from training and then spend all night on the road perfecting free throws into a wheelie bin under streetlight. "I was there so much," he laughs, "some of the DJs would trust me with the keys to the station. They would literally ask me to lock up."
Heard man say that I ain't on nuttin'
You was getting jumped, throwing grass in the bucket
I was in the studio, going HAM like fuck it
Tuesday I went there, bars by the dozen
Swear down, Friday I came out rugged
Don said he's working harder than I am
I had to tell my man: blud, don't mug it
It's hard to talk about grime MCs without talking about where they're from. Since the early days of postcode wars, grime has always been inextricably linked with the idea of location and repping. Obviously, it started out the sound of Bow, and eventually became the sound of London. In recent years, it has surfaced in other parts of the country, like Birmingham, Glasgow, and even Blackpool, and that proud obsession with locale and region is still evident in the style and bars of new MCs. With a track on his new EP titled "It's A London Thing" – a fiery and bittersweet portrait of the city, littered with gunshots and arctic synths – it feels appropriate for Jammz to tour me round his ends.
As we wander, he tells me how his cousin got him into spitting, and how he grew up with a radio for a best friend (a healthy diet of Kano, So Solid and "all the bait instrumentals"). As a teenager, he used to get grime bootlegs from the local Sunday market, and assures me that his "collection of old school grime tunes is deep. Ask anyone – if you want something, I've got it". But his musical heritage goes even deeper. His father was a professional jazz musician, playing anything from Fleetwood Mac to A Tribe Called Quest around the house. At a young age, Jammz would kill time at home by messing around on Akai drum machines, and use floppy disks to load up samples he could experiment with. The family computer, a black Compaq, would stay on for days as his dad used Kazaa to download reams of music software.
Hackney Wick, though, is quite a weird place to spend your childhood. Jammz's family were the first to move into their empty new housing block, and he was also in the first year of kids at the new school he was sent to. Even today, it's still one of London's stranger areas. Locked in by the two huge A roads that encircle it – sending an endless stream of lorries and buses through its centre – it feels like a microcosm of the city's hope and misery. On the one hand you have the modernisation of the Olympic Park, and the unique atmosphere of more artists and studio spaces per square foot than anywhere else in the UK. On the other you have segregation, and aggressive property developers art washing the place by luring creative types to give it a more 'inviting' look and feel (read: less working class people) – bringing with them a wave of cold brewed coffee houses and artisan pizza places – so that it can then be upsold to the rich and price out the original local community.
Jammz points out a church he used to go to as a kid. Multi-million pound penthouse apartments have been built into the sides and rear of it, shrouding it like architectural tumours. The pamphlet inside tells me the church was established in 1880 as a means to carry out charitable work in the area. Now, as the website reads, it is a "desirable cultural hub" accommodating for "26 luxury new-build and loft style apartments."
These are stories that concern Jammz often in his music, illustrating them with a shrewd clarity that sets him apart from other MCs. "I never intended to write any bars [on "It's A London Thing"] about gentrification," he says, "but just look around you. Everything is nearly the opposite of what it seems around here. We're standing here, outside these luxury flats; some rich people live there. But two blocks down, we've got the hood. It's mad how these things coexist. But that song is also meant to be motivational… This city is a huge part of my cultural identity. It's given me my perspective on the world."
Corporations move poor people out their homes
And they claim that they're fixing the ends
And apart from pushing up all the rent prices
These Starbucks ain't doing shit for the ends
And they must know that we ain't rich
But there's still bare William Hills in the ends
So fuck these Conservative leaders cause
Not one of them cares for the kids in the ends
- "It's A London Thing"
This month he released his brand new Warrior EP – five hard and candid grime tracks – and to say it is politically charged is to say a Dominos double cheese margherita pizza contains cheese. Grime is always inherently political, but there's something about the way Jammz overtly confronts issues that gives his sound a bulkier punch. "Right Now" (featuring Shemzy), for instance, is an angry attack on the existential malaise that has shrouded 2016, and left the British political sphere not knowing it's arse from its elbow. Theresa May even gets a lashing, because you're not the prime minister of Britain until you've been savaged in a grime bar. But one particularly poignant lyric has stuck with me since first hearing it: "It's ironic, if you wanna keep hold of your sanity / Then you've gotta be numb right now".
"Living in a place like Hackney, you see so much shit all the time", Jammz says when I ask him about that lyric. "Politicians say shit on the TV, but it doesn't reflect what we're seeing in real life. I paid a lot of attention to how the whole Brexit thing played out. It wasn't so much the frustration that we left the EU, but the way people were conducting themselves." For a guy whose bars seemed fuelled by a sense of anger, he's been pretty chilled all day, but now he looks a little animated, and he tells me how he started to see racial abuse escalate over the summer while he was riding the trains. "Now, we live in a world where you have to desensitise yourself just to maintain. People don't want to even watch the news anymore. Ignorance is bliss innit. That's how people have come to survive these days."
We hop into an Uber and head down towards Wapping for tonight's Boiler Room. Jammz has arranged a cypher which will be livestreamed to celebrate the launch of his EP, and I'm told to expect a bunch of other young MCs and DJs including Mak10, Capo Lee, Coco, Mez, Blacks, Jack Dat, Slickman and Grandmixxer. Now, here's something I've noticed about MCs: they love to just walk off. One minute they are next to you, about to get out of the other side of the car, or walk through a door behind you, the next they have disappeared, marching up the street to find someone they know that might be sitting on a bench somewhere. Five minutes later I find them all sat together, overlooking the Thames, chatting, texting.
We head up to Boiler Room's attic to set up. Across the way, in an adjacent building, at the same level as us, a girl stirs a pan of food and peers into our window at the scenes: a bunch of young lads, lighting up, testing mics, pouring Hennessy, sharing out Polish beers, laughing hysterically, blasting instrumentals, and jumping around. I wonder what she thinks might be going on, but then I remember she's probably peered at something interesting happening in this window every Friday evening since Boiler Room first moved in. Maybe she even times her cooking for it.
As one of the only people in the room who isn't a performer, I pick a corner, keep out of the way, and just watch. Jammz starts discussing with everyone how the set will go down. Each MC acts differently. Some go into deep zen-like concentration, others are looking at notes on paper, others are making cocktails of Lucozade Orange and Henny and laughing their heads off, the rest are texting. If there are nerves in the room, they are displaying in a myriad of mysterious and intriguing ways. There's an intangible energy in the air. Even when nobody is talking or moving, the room still somehow feels intense.
Then someone shouts that the cameras are live and suddenly they all switch in the most literal visualisation of 'putting your game face on' I will ever see. In the zone, focused to the point it looks intimidating, so deep in flow that at times the roving cameraman needs to gently glide them back into shot with his right hand, reminding them there is a world watching, out there on the internet. The focus of the camera becomes a funnel for each of them to cathartically vent through, whether they are spitting with anger, humour, passion or just pure hectic energy. Each MC itches for it as it comes round the circle, like kids hoping the parcel will stop on them.
Jammz stands loose but poised; a runner at the beginning of a marathon. His head nods relentlessly and the water bottle in his hand doesn't miss a single beat for the entire 60 minutes. It's not to say he's restless, it's more like he's aflame. Flickering constantly to occasional inferno. In situations like these, it feels like grime has more in common with a hardcore discipline like classical music or ballet. There is no room for stage fright or uncertainty: it's do or die. A quiet guitarist can be cool, a DJ can barely lift his head during a set, an introspective rapper can be shy on stage and that's fine, an elusive lead singer can seem distracted between songs and still paint an air of mystery – but if a grime MC doesn't act like he owns the room from the moment he has the mic in his hand, then he's dead on his feet.
We see too much news and turn numb to the drama
And end up with lazy brains
And now we're scared to investigate
Prefer to live blind in the hope that it fades away
You can't blame no one for mentally living in a box
Like say their name's David Blaine
You can't ask kids why they don't expect shit
When the government lies at a daily rate
And we're working class around here
We don't fuck with Theresa May, so say something
- "Right Now"
Three days later, on a Monday night, I catch up with Jammz on the phone. I ask him to describe how it feels to perform like he did 3 nights earlier, but he struggles to put it accurately into words: "It's not easy to describe. Performing is just a different buzz. I always go into a zone, and go quiet. I don't know what I start thinking about in there, I just know everyone finds their thing in life and mine is performing."
He sounds tired again during our chat, but with an air of the Duracell bunny about him. That's grime, only the fittest survive. The scene is about hard graft. It isn't a one hit industry, and we've seen what happens when major labels try to make it so. It's an elbow grease industry. It's a suffer and succeed industry. Even now, as it reaches global popularity, there is still little room for fakers or part-timers. The entire philosophy of grime relies on said artist believing they are better than and work harder than anyone else in the game. Jammz has all the tools at hand, but he remains, for now, something of an under-appreciated talent. One of those artists who could either explode into critical acclaim, or slip undeservingly into one of those "your favourite MC's favourite MC" categories.
Throughout his lyrics, there are tiny slips of anxiety about this; little clues that he thinks more deeply about his career than most artists. "Everyone wants to progress," he says, and then pauses, "and there are certain things I don't ever want to do again… certain places or certain situations. These days, if I'm not moving forward, then I feel like something is wrong." We come to the end of our call, it's 9pm and I ask him what else he's doing tonight. He was working on his record label today, finished a photo shoot before our chat, now he's back into the studio to record a feature for another artist's track, then he's off to Phonox in Brixton, and then he'll be working on his own stuff. It's a matter of time until a wider audience locks into his vision, and something about him that tells me he won't stop until they do.
You can follow Joe Zadeh on Twitter.
Jammz headlines The Old Blue Last in London on Thursday (Dec 8) alongside Spooky, Big Zuu, Coco, Mic Ty, Tiatsim and Jack Dat. Get free entry here.
(All photos by Ashley Verse)