“We’re just normal teenagers really,” explains DeeJillz, “We like to have fun, catch vibes, make sick music and try create memories.” I asked him how he’d try and describe exactly who and what The Square represent. The grime crew, based predominantly in Lewisham and a few surrounding areas in South London, have been the subject of countless think pieces, video posts, and general intrigue since the release of debut mixtape ‘The Formula’ last summer – all of course aided by the remarkable rise of immeasurably talented (and charismatic) MC, Novelist.
Although still all aged 18 or under, bar new DJ recruit General Courts and legendary DJ figure Grandmixxer (himself one of the original members of infamous London grime crew NAA), the 10 individual members who make up The Square have remained markedly in check and with feet firmly on the floor, despite their sharp rise. “We’re just a bunch of scumbags from Lewisham,” laughs young MC Syder cheekily as we sit overlooking the Thames with a pint alongside DeeJillz and manager DJ Magic (label head of No Hats No Hoods), “But when we come together as individuals, it’s kinda magic. We just bring that vibe.”
The majority of the crew is comprised of emcees – each with their own lyrical style and USP, so to speak – while Novelist (better known for his mic skills, although also a skilled producer) and Lolingo, alongside hitmakers-in-the-making Hilts and Streema, are tasked with providing the beats. Of course, not many are names you’ll be familiar with – Blakie, Dee Cee, and Hilts, for example – but together, they are considered vital to grime’s future. ‘The Formula’, more of a snapshot into what the future holds rather than a look at the finished article, has already bore witness to the brilliantly colloquial Pengaleng – itself becoming one of the crew’s most identifiable tracks – but it’s viral sensation Lewisham McDeez that seems to have really won the hearts and minds of 2015’s grime generation.
A tune about your local branch of McDonald’s could hardly have been forecast as a recipe for success by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s something about the tongue-in-cheek audacity of it that makes it all the more likeable. I ask Syder why he thinks it’s connected like it has. ”'Coz it’s Lewisham McDeez!”, he replies. It’s a simple answer but you couldn’t ask for a better one. “I just feel like MCs should feel like they can be 18,” continues DeeJillz. “You don’t need to spit like you’re 25 when you’re not, you know? Not every track has to be deep and meaningful and right now, we’re just having fun with music.”
For all the wider implications of it’s success – mainly kids up and down the country shouting ‘Wanna clash me? Lewisham McDeez’, without any real understanding of why – the origins of the track itself are as humble and real as it gets. Having first clashed Wiley’s younger brother Cadell on the streets of Lewisham back in the summer of 2013 – complete with an audience filming the whole thing on their phones – Novelist was again the subject of a potential mic clash at the back end of 2014. Northampton's Izzie Gibbs, another hungry, talented young spitter hailed as one of his region's best, had been calling out his name and insults had been exchanged via Twitter. “Wanna clash me?” asked Novelist. “Lewisham McDeez”.
What followed was a non-event – Izzie Gibbs didn’t show up at McDonalds but Novelist and The Square did, itself a small victory for locality and pride (the incident even made Lewisham’s local newspaper) but on a more general note, a fitting motif for what makes The Square tick. “The whole clash thing just turned real life events at a road level into a spectacle. It’s something different when you think about it – who else would do it? We could have recorded a hood video for the single too but again, we wanted to do something people would remember,” explains Syder.
And remember it people will. Shot, true to form, outside McDonald’s in Lewisham, the video is pure slapstick; fast food mascots – Ronald McDonald, The KFC Colonel and Burger King all feature – fight and lark about while the crew spray their bars dressed head-to-toe in The Square branded tracksuits, with occasional shots of various crew members in ‘I’m Murkin It’ tees. It’s a simple concept, but boy is it effective.
Away from the hype of Lewisham McDeez though, it’s worth remembering that the individual members are still finding their feet, both musically and, more generally, in terms of growing up. “My mum always used to sing when I was a kid,” says Syder hesitantly, “And I’ve always loved music, but I didn’t actually start emceeing until I was 16 and even then it was more rap stuff.” It’s then that Magic steps in to explain how Syder brings something different to the crew – a testament to just how much time he’s spent helping each MC develop and trust in their own abilities. “He writes in a different way to the rest of them, he brings a different energy to what they do as a group.”
These differing energies were not only reflected by the two emcees who sat before me either (DeeJillz visibly calmer, more willing to listen and engage, Syder less focused and a little agitated, although still keen to listen), but also in the numerous radio sets that The Square have been involved in over the past 12 months.
The best is arguably an 11-minute slot on Toddla T’s 1Xtra show that sees emcees Hilts, Faultsz, and Elf Kid go bar-for-bar in a relentless show of energy and character – note the smiles on their faces, too. Hilts, an MC with more of an ‘old school, garage type of flow’, according to Magic, is offset by the raw aggression and killer hooks of ‘Lewisham High Street Golden Boy’ Elf Kid and the understated, quick-paced, skippy flow of Faultsz. The results? Devastating. More importantly though, the smiles are a testament to how much The Square are enjoying their development – a sharp contrast to the years of emcees struggling to meet the gritty, hoods-up aesthetic with enough vigour to make any sort of lasting mark on the landscape.
As for Novelist, the crew’s driving force and undisputed focal point, he remains as dedicated to The Square as he does his own solo work. Having made his debut for XL Recordings alongside original sparring partner Mumdance earlier this year, made the prestigious BBC Sound Of 2015 shortlist, and appeared on-stage alongside Kanye West at The Brits with Skepta, Jammer et al, he’s an artist with the world clearly at his feet. “The Square are the best grime crew in the world,” he said to me when I interviewed him back in 2014, “Because we’re all just Lewisham kids with something to say and everyone around me, like, they’re all I know.” To be honest, if anyone embodies the true spirit of what The Square are about – guts, talent, hard work, and Lewisham – it’s him. “He has an acute understanding of the history of grime,” Mumdance said about him last year, “But more than anything, he’s got a great attitude.”
For all the plaudits coming their way though, The Square are still very much a work in progress – a fact evidenced by Magic’s tone at times during the interview. “I know you’ve got the music and the bars ready, but we need to actually get in the studio and record,” he stressed to DeeJillz at one point, before reminding Syder of the dangers of being too open in interview situations, “All it takes is one journalist to pick up on that one thing you’ve said in an interview, and that’s it.” Important lessons to be learned, you’d think.
Of course, gelling so many young, developing personalities must represent something of a delicate balancing act, but despite the potential for difficulties, the individual members seem bound, rather than divided, by their differences. “We’re not all close friends, necessarily,” explains DeeJillz, “But when we come together to record, everything just works – we’re definitely on the same page.” Take this and their fearless attitude to performing (DeeJillz described performing in front of 3000 people at legendary grime rave Eskimo Dance as a ‘massive learning experience’ but stressed he wasn’t nervous) and The Square are a pretty formidable outfit.
That said, from speaking to Syder, DeeJillz and fellow member Hilts during a previous meeting – where we discussed everything from emceeing to how major labels function, even briefly touching on racial prejudice in music – this is still a group of young people with realistic and carefully managed expectations. Hilts, one of the last current members to join the crew at the back end of last summer, carried himself with surprising authority (especially considering we’d all had a few pints) and was more than willing to speak up about his own opinions, genuinely intrigued by the answers myself and Magic gave of our own experiences. “The Square isn’t the end goal though, like no one thinks they’re a superstar,” continues DeeJillz, while sipping on some Disaronno. “It’s all good getting the love from the crowd at shows but once I get back to my house, it’s back to normal. And I think it’s like that for all of us.”
Perhaps it’s this overriding sense of normality, combined with their attachment to Lewisham and willingness to make the roads accessible to fans, that sets them apart. “I think we’re the first artists of our generation that communicate what it’s like for kids in our area and new emcees in Lewisham are starting to respond what we’re doing,” says Syder. He’s certainly right, but maybe more importantly, The Square might just be the first artists of their generation to actually take pride in being from the roads, rather than trying to escape from them. And for that, you can’t knock them.
The Square are:
The Square play Born and Bred Festival in Haggerston Park, London this Saturday, June 6th (tickets).