A lengthy conversation with the legendary UK rapper.
This interview originally appeared on an episode of NOISEY on VICELAND about the London rap scene and the history of grime. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The United Kingdom's strict approach to gun control has helped diminish crime in the capital, but street violence still exists and Giggs has been there to document it. His association with South London's Peckham Boys gang and his candid lyrics about the ins and outs of the drug trade helped make him the first legitimate gangster rapper to come out of the capital. After a prison stint for firearm possession, Giggs turned his attention to music and soon after released "Talkin' the Hardest." It was a street anthem rapped over a Dre beat but was unmistakably British, a combo that resonated across the country (a friend Liverpool told me he bought a pair of Dior jeans after hearing Giggs rap about them on the song). By the time he released his first album Walk in the Park, Giggs had cemented his place as a counter to grime and a force within UK music, but he couldn't shake his past. Operation Trident, London's gun crime task force, shut down his shows, tried to deter XL recordings from signing him, and even tried to put him away again in 2012 for unknowingly riding in a car with a gun in the trunk.
Unlike his counterparts in the grime scene, it's hard to tell how much reach Giggs has in America right now. Much of that really comes down to the fact that he can't travel to the states as a convicted felon. As someone who's seen him perform in the UK, that sucks. Despite his stateside ban and the ongoing game of cat and mouse at home, Giggs continues to plow forward with music that deftly operates in two worlds. Listening to his verse alongside JME on last year's "Man Don't Care," you might think he's toned down his approach with references Iron Man, Dragonball Z, and Batman, all while rocking a Star Wars beanie. But in the same breath, he's shouting out to Lil Reese and making threats about his MAC10, almost taunting Trident with nods to his former life.
Noisey: How'd you get the name Giggs?
Giggs: When I was a kid, when I was running around, my tag was Giggs. We say "tag."
Yeah, yeah. Them times we used to tag like a freeway and shit. So it was Giggler.
And that was where you grew up in Peckham, right?
Yeah. And then when I went to jail, everyone started saying "Gigsy," or "Giggs." Know what I mean. It's just short for Giggler.
And you grew up in Peckham, what was that like?
I always say this, when people ask a question like, what was that like? It's just what you grew up in. You don't know any different. You know what I mean? Yeah, Peckham's a mad place. Unpredictable. You don't know what's going to happen throughout the day or the night. Today in the morning everything's cool. In the afternoon you're in mad beef. It's just normal isn't it? It's cool for us. Grew up with my mom. My dad is around, kind of.
And where are your parents from?
Well, they're both born here. But their family is from Jamaica. Guayana, Grenada.
What was it like for them when they came here?
Ah, fuck knows man?
What did your mom do growing up? What did she do for work when you were growing up?
When I was growing up? She used to work with disabled people in, it's like a day center. Say like, you've got residential homes of disabled people and all that. It's like a day center. So they come there and they do activities for the day. Just so they don't sit in a residential home all day and do nothing, you know what I mean? My mom's always worked a lot. Always.
Was your mom around?
My mom is kind of strict still. She didn't really fuck about. Yeah, but when I got about to a certain age I was running around. But she didn't know that though.
And when was that and how did you get involved with that stuff?
Probably about 14-15. That's when I turned into a Peckham Boy.
What's a Peckham Boy?
It's like, it's just a gang. You have the "older" Peckham Boys and the "younger" Peckham Boys. We were the younger "younger" Peckham Boys. I was probably the only Peckham Boy with a curfew. I was in at 9:00, 8:30-ish.
You were? And so who were those guys that you first started hanging out with, and how did you get involved with them?
Well, my brethren Vess, he used to go to school with a lot of them. So he knew a lot of them anyway. It's like we used to. I'm from some estate in Peckham called Gloucester Grove. Now that was even like its own, that had its own flipping gang. It wasn't really a gang, but it was loads of niggas. It was still in Peckham, but it wasn't the main—well, it was the main bit of Peckham, but for Peckham men, they wouldn't say that's the… the main men would be on the Frontline. There's a bit in Peckham called Frontline. That's where all the dealers used to be.
And the dealers used to hang out there?
Yeah, like the Yardies and they used to show up.
What are the Yardies?
Yardies? Like yard men, isn't it? Jamaican. But it's not really like that anymore. Them days there used to be bare yard men shottin' out there. I remember we used to be some little broke kids. We used to get on the bus and go up to Central. There's some place in Central called Trocadero. And we just used to go there. Loads of girls used to go there, so we just used to go hang around and just get girls' numbers and that kind of shit. Window shop, cause it was Central, where all the big stores are. And I remember I used to see the younger Peckham Boys on the buses when I used to go back. I remember my brethren Inch. One time I see Inch on the bus and he had mad shit. Like Versace and fucking Moschino and that. Pulling out jeans. Like, oh what did you get? Jeans and Versace. He had P's. P's is paper. And I used to think, fuckin' hell, they's the same age as men, like the other ones are. I was thinking, bro, they're going hard bro. I need to be fucking with these men, bro. I remember that's when I was thinking, yeah I want to be fucking rolling like that.
So you saw guys who looked good, who were wearing Versace.
Yeah. They were doing their thing and I was thinking, I want to do my thing, like the other ones. And then that's really how I up and I thought, yeah man, I can get my own shit. I don't have to bother my mom. Them times I used to think I was helping my mom. And then I was, yeah I can fucking get my own shit and my own money and all that. That will help out my mom. But I kept getting arrested all the time cause I wasn't good at it.
What were you getting arrested for at that age?
Just like robberies and shoplifting and shit. I remember my mom used to be like, why are you doing this? I used to think, mom, I'm doing this for you! But I was just stressing her out.
When did you end up actually getting into music?
I've always been into music. I used to DJ. I used to mix reggae and that. I used to be into reggae hard. Well first it was rap, then reggae, then rap again, then rap and reggae. But I was always DJing out my window for the whole estate. Everyone used to sit outside and all and listen. And I used to be running rhythms in that. You'd see bare men outside my house just listening.
So you were DJing before you were even rapping?
Yeah, yeah. I was DJing before.
Which reggae artists did you play?
Which reggae? Them days it was like Bounty and Bugle, Beenie Man, them kind of days. You get me? That old school shit.
And then when did you start rapping and how did you get into that?
That was way later. Way later. Like 2002. Them days I talking about was like 90s. It's like 2002 I started spitting on garage and shit. Then I went to jail in 2003.
Why'd you go to jail in 2003?
Just some strap charge. And then, yeah then I started rapping. Cause I used to hear BUK rapping. Used to send in CDs of him rapping. And then I though, alright the rap shit's the hard thing. So then I started rapping. And then I come out 04. Middle of 04. And then I started taking rap seriously. I was still into trap and that.
Were you rapping when you were behind bars?
Yeah. I was rapping. But I was shit.
Did you ever have battles or anything behind bars? Or how'd you get into rap?
Nah man. Them days no one was really rapping, like UK. Men used to say, you're wasting your time bruv. Know what I mean? There wasn't like a scene of rap like that. Well gangster rap anyway. There was like old school men. London Posse, Rodney P, them kind of men. They used to do their thing and that. But it wasn't like gangster shit.
There wasn't really a UK hip-hop scene?
Nah. Well, that was hip-hop, isn't it? That was their hip-hop, but then… obviously there wasn't really, no one would be taking what was mine dead serious. Spitting about fucking straps and shoot outs and all that. But that was what we knew isn't it? So that's what I was rapping about. Even one of our brethrens said, "Ah bruv you're wasting your time, ain't no one going to listen to that shit." And I used to think, yeah that's cool man, don't worry.
So why'd you keep pursuing it in spite of that?
Cause I knew that this day would come where we are now.
What was it like for you when you got out?
When I got out I was on a thing like, yeah man, I'm done with the streets. Know what I mean? I ain't into certain things anymore. But then obviously the streets always get hold of you. And I was just back at it. Everyone was looking at me as some leader and shit. Just I got forced into some kind of situations. My younger brothers, they got older, and they were into shit. So it kind of forced me back into it.
Why is it so easy to fall back into it when you get out?
You got younger brothers and they're getting into certain things. For me it is either, you can leave them to do it themselves and just hope for the best. Or you can try and do something about it.
Were you able to get a job?
Nah man. Not with no fucking gun charge bro. I couldn't even get voluntary work. I remember. The game's just set up for you to fail. You know they want that. There was one dude, my son's mom, my baby momma, she used to work at the one youth club. And the dude there, he said, yeah I'll give you a chance to do some voluntary. Then I started doing some voluntary work in the youth club and that. But it just wasn't paying. I was just fooling myself. I said fuck this, man. Just got back on the streets.
So you get out, you can't get a job, and then when you make music, radios won't play your music and…
Nah, it wasn't even that deep yet with the music. Them times it was just making that street shit. Just to be the hardest. It was just rapping for the sake of it. Not for the sake of it, obviously... well at them times we just wanted people to hear if we was good. Even though it wasn't that good.
So, when did that change? Was it "Talking the Hardest" that picked up your career?
Back then I thought that. I thought it was "Talking the Hardest." But then I look back now, way before "Talking the Hardest," we had The Streets. So it was way before that. The Streets was fucking with us, like, yeah, them men are hard. Yeah and then [unknown] artists, obviously that's the next level. That's when the shows come into it. It was becoming more of a career, know what I mean? Then went into the album, then record deals.
So you did "Talking the Hardest," then you put out that mixtape and Walk in da Park sold like 100,000 copies right?
Nah man. That's what it says online.
It didn't sell that many?
Nah. I don't know why they wrote that.
And you ended up getting signed to XL. And Adele is signed to that label, how did that come to be?
I had Mike Skinner. Mike Skinner, The Streets. He did "Slow Songs." And then the hype started going mad and then the labels started hollering.
Were you surprised that XL was even interested in you?
I didn't even know what the fuck XL was bruv. I didn't even know. I remember EMI, was it EMI that came first? And they were like, yeah we want to do a deal. And then Mike Skinner was saying that he was good friends with the people at XL. Then we went to XL. Then in the end XL came with the most money, let them turn it into a money thing to get me. And then, well obviously we turned down the other labels, go into XL. Then that's when the police called up all the labels. Well they were some police, called Operation Trident, they deal with gang violence, Black on Black, guns and drugs. And they called up the label and they was like, I don't know what they fuck they said, but the label was spooked.
Operation Trident called your label and told them to beware of you?
I don't know, you would have to ask with the label. But when they were done, they were proper shook.
So Operation Trident was actively trying to interfere with your career?
Yeah. It's mad, cause when the label called me, I knew they were going to say that. It was weird. I was thinking, "you got a call from the police didn't you?" I swear to God, that's what I thought.
And how did that conversation go?
I was just telling it. I'm not really good with talking, I'm not really a talker. So I couldn't really explain myself well. But I was just telling them, I was saying, "Look man, I'm a good guy, I'm a musician. The police, they've always just tried to fuck me up." But they were just thinking, what the fuck are you talking about man? Why would the police want to fuck you up? They're the good guys. You know what I mean? These are normal, average dudes. Middle class, working. To them, the police are the good guys, you know what I mean?
And to you?
And they arrest the bad guys. And they're calling, so I must be the bad guy. So all they kept saying on the phone was, I don't understand why they would call. That's what he said over and over, I don't understand why they would call. And I was saying, "Yeah, this is what they do brother." Cause I was always in the streets and that, I didn't really have relationships with middle class, working, so I just thought everyone knows this about the police.
But ultimately XL was OK and they signed you?
Yeah, they did the deal.
Has Operation Trident continued to interfere with your career?
Yeah. They don't let us do shows in London and shit. That's why we did a secret show the other day. We didn't reveal the location or nothing. We just sold the tickets, secret location. We didn't give the location, we just gave the location to the coaches. Then they got into the coach, the coach brought them to the venue. We got to fucking move like that to do a show. But it was sick though. I like it. Cause I ain't got no fucking cunts turning up that want to shoot, you know.
What was the venue, and why did you choose that venue?
It was 100 Club on Oxford Street. I'd love to say, I know it's some historic place and I'd love to say, yeah it's because it was historic and all that. But I just went there once, I thought, I like this place man. And that's it really.
But that's just crazy. So you go to jail, you serve your time. And then you get out, you can't get a job, you can't get a regular job. And then when you try and make it in music, they won't let you play shows.
That's how it goes man. Once you're a criminal you're always a criminal, you know what I mean? To be honest, for me, that's just normal now. The way it is. When I talk to other people, they're like, ah that's fucked up. But it's been happening to me so long I don't really watch it man. I just watch how to get around it. Nothing's different anyway. When I used to fucking sell drugs and all that I was doing the same thing. Ducking the police. But now I'm just doing it, I'm ducking the police legally. Even though it doesn even fucking make sense. It's nothing new is it?
But it's harder for guys who don't have music I imagine who are getting out of prison and trying to go legit.
Yeah man. It's hard man. A lot of my men, they're still in the street. In jail and all that. But I try to motivate them. But it's easy to say that to men. Yeah man, you need to get off the street, there's loads of shit you can do. One of my brothers, he's got a jewelry shop. And he's always been into jewelry. Cause that's what I'm saying, you just got to do what you love. You got to figure you what you love and just run with it. But it's hard to tell people that.
It's easier said than done. So now that you're able to make a career out of music, and they're still going after you, why do you think the police still target just this scene? And hip-hop in general?
I don't even know man. And to be honest, I don't even think about it man. I know what it is, but it just sounds mad, me saying it, but they don't men to get off the street. They just want us behind bars. It's a game for them, isn't it? Even when I beat my trial the other day and I went to go and get my possessions, one of the Trident officers, he was like, yeah man, well done, you beat that one, we'll get you next time. Next time, isn't it, lad? But it was like a proper game for him. And I was thinking, fucking hell, we've been playing a game this whole time and I didn't even know I was playing. You know what I mean? I don't want to fucking play this game. And then obviously for them, it's coming out I'm the one that got away. So they're still playing. Cause they want to win. That's what it seems like it is for them. It's a game like who can get the most wins, I don't know. But it ain't playing man.
I know you're not a grime artist, but I know you work with a lot of grime artists. What is the difference between grime and what you do?
Don't know… to be honest, it's all the same thing isn't it? It's just music. They say grime doesn't come from hip-hop, but I think it does. Cause men are rapping in it. Spitting in it, on the beat. Know what I'm saying? But they say grime is that 140 BPM. Well there's 140 BPM rap playing. But obviously, I don't know, they just want to say that they do grime and keep it in that. But to me, obviously I'm a rapper, isn't it? But people say, yeah Giggs is a sick grime artist cause of his country. I don't know man. Cause of everyone else that's come up and made a name for themselves, they've all come from grime. Like I'm talking before I come, it's like they don't know anything else. It's like they don't even know that fucking American hip-hop's always been around. They call anyone that makes music in the UK is grime.
Maybe that's it, maybe it's a matter of ownership. So it's like, this is our UK thing.
Yeah, but I when I came and I started rapping, they said, "Oh he's so slow." I said,"What the fuck are you talking about? I'm rapping. Ain't you heard rap before?" Even now, people still tweet me, yeah mate, you rap so slow. I think, what the fuck are you talking about bro?
How'd the track with JME come about? "Man Don't Care" is huge.
Yeah he just sent it to me, man, and said he had a banger. This hard beat. And then I just fucked it up man. That's it. But the beat was so sick. I was like, I'm gonna fuck this up bro. Just fucked it up.
How are the shows different now from when you first started doing shows?
It's more ringing, isn't it? But it's different for me man, I don't really get to do shows like that. I had my chance to build my show game up. I do loads of shows out of London. But you can't really promote them so I never really get to see my full potential.
Can you do shows in the States?
I can't even get to the fucking States man.
Just cause of the gun charge.
So they won't let you travel…?
I used to go over there before. Back and forth.
Can you leave the UK? So you've toured the rest of Europe?
Yeah, yeah. I can leave the UK. It's only America I have hassle, so they sent me back to England.
Are you working with any American artists that come out here?
Yeah, I've worked with a few. It's a harder obviously, cause it's a bit harder to build relationships cause I can't go over there. And when they come over here, everyone's all over them. To be honest, I don't really want men bothering me, so I ain't going to bother them. So I just leave them alone. They got enough fucking men all over their case. But if they come over, a lot of them will want a link man anyway. Like you want to link up with Giggs, so I link them.
What does your son think of your music?
He's used to think it was wet, but now he's a bit older he gets it. He's on my new mixtape.
Your son's on your new mixtape? How old is he?
He's 14 now.
Is he a good rapper?
Yeah he goes hard. He's only got like two tracks.
What does he rap about?
He's rapping about school. Having a party.
14-year-old shit. So what do you see as the future of this music?
Sky's the limit isn't it? It's getting bigger every day. Me personally, I'm just happy I'm a man getting off the street and I'm making money and I'm not having to do certain things. For me, things are already good already. And it's still getting better. A lot of men are off the street now. A lot. And then their niggas are off the street. They're saying, I need to be like my niggas. Then they're thinking, I need to be thinking bigger. And they're doing other shit. Like my brother and them, jewelry store. You get me?
What do you say to younger guys in the streets?
I don't really, I'm not really into the preaching cause no one wants any of that shit. But I'll just drop little dimes, like, oh what are you up to? But some men really don't want to hear that shit. That you can't help them and they don't want to help themselves. So I don't really preach too much. I just try and show. I'm more like, I'll bring a man to an event or something. And just show him, this is how you can be living if you want. More than going down there wagging my fingers.
That speaks for itself.
Speaks for itself. Know what I mean?
Zach Goldbaum is the host of NOISEY on VICELAND. Follow him on Twitter.
NOISEY London airs on April 19 at 10 PM EST on VICELAND.