K Koke and the perilous journey to rap superstardom
Rappers rarely have a linear route to success. In an industry that promises rags to riches transformations; it's not hard to believe that the road to this potential metamorphosis is littered with pitfalls. Even after this treacherous landscape has been traversed, and the summit has been reached; the fight to stay at the top is even more fierce than the climb. Few rappers on this side of the pond embody this better than K Koke.
The Stonebridge native rose to prominence over 12 years ago, when Koke released a now infamous video entitled “Are you Alone?”. The video was released in 2009, just a mere four years after Youtube’s inception, and was most definitely one of the scene’s early viral videos. In a world before we shared music we loved on the TL, we cupped our hands around Sony Ericssons and BlackBerry Curves in futile attempts to amplify the tinny sound of our phone speakers; as we vied for supremacy in the sound clashes that took place on the back of the bus. Any of these impromptu clashes that took place during 09 and the preceding four years, were a battleground that was overrun by K Koke and his legion of mixtapes and freestyles.
That sound, which was represented under the banner of Road Rap at the time, would remain confined to hyperlocal pockets across the capital. Often drawing comparison to West Coast gangster rap, Road Rap was faced with very similar obstructions to its success. The old guard (radio/TV) kept the burgeoning genre at arms length, the execs were presumably concerned about the lyrical content and its potential effect on malleable young minds (sound familiar?). The artists had to be resourceful, and thus they sought out new avenues that circumvented the need for a rubber stamp from the gatekeepers.
The hoops that Giggs had to jump through to put on a show are well documented. Giggs’ clandestine live performances, were a buccaneering attempt to stay one step ahead of the authorities who were determined to shut his operation down, thus cutting off his legitimate source of income.
So it’s important to note that K Koke’s entry into the game was really at a point when there were no perceivable gains to be made, monetary or otherwise. But similar to his South London counterpart, Koke possessed an arsenal of music capable of bending the right ears. “Are You Alone?” Along with Giggs’ “Talkin The Hardest”, are without a doubt two of the biggest tracks from that era, the tape that would follow, Pure Koke Vol 1, is amongst the most hallowed releases of the decade. Pure Koke Vol 1 went on to independently sell 10,000 physical copies, so even if the “industry” wasn’t listening, the people certainly were.
The release of Pure Koke Vol 1 accelerated K Koke’s journey to the top, and just a month after it dropped, Koke would take his first step on the bottom rung of the precarious ascent to the top. His Fire In The Booth apperance (which was his first time on radio), is the stuff of legend. Koke’s excitement, and almost disbelief at how he’s swapped the dark, labyrinthian blocks of Stonebridge for the plush 1Xtra studios, is written all over his face as he blissfully glides over the instrumental in ways that producer Robin Thicke could never have imagined. Unlike the countless other Fire In The Booths that would follow, Koke’s genuine happiness to be in the studio is palpable, and although he’s providing us with some gritty realisms, he’s having fun while doing it. 11 years later, its still widely regarded as one of the top five FITBs to date.
At the time, critical acclaim aside, Koke had little to show for the inroads that he’d made. The music business was still very much in its infancy, we hadn’t had any breakout stars that hadn’t, to some degree, had to compromise their sound in exchange for a spot at the head table. So in 2011, just a year after Pure Koke Vol 1 and his Fire In The Booth dropped, it seemed extraordinary to think that Jay Z’s Roc Nation would be interested in signing K Koke. Especially considering there was absolutely no corporate gleam about him, and on top of that, he had no radio singles to speak of. The eternal optimists amongst us were excited, if anyone knew how to market K Koke correctly, then surely it would be Roc Nation.
After penning the deal for £100,000 (a merge amount by today’s standards), it seemed that Koke’s fortunes were about to change, but not long after signing he was remanded in custody for seven and a half months for an attempted murder charge. Success began to seem like a mirage for K Koke, always distant, and as soon as he got closer to it, it would disappear.
The glass ceilings that we’re expected to break through as the working class are numerous, even more so for those who’ve dabbled in the illegalities of the cottage industries that serve as viable career options for the city’s misguided youth. Whether it’s Stonebridge, Broadwater Farm or Havelock; we’re all rushing towards the same exits, its either music or football for us. Those that are talented, and lucky enough to squeeze through still face plenty of difficulties on the other side, even if we haven't had any brushes with the law. The university fees are at a record high, the graduate schemes require an elitist amount of prior experience, and not to mention the toxic proclivities we’re left with. Escaping the shackles of the past require a Herculean effort even if we’re not in the limelight. For those that find themselves carving out careers in the public eye, it can be a Sisyphean undertaking.
Koke had just hauled the proverbial boulder to the top of the hill, when false accusations saw it crash back down into the ravine. After the forced hiatus, Koke struggled to regain the momentum he was building prior to his custodial sentence, even though his comeback single, “I’m Back”, easily rocketed into seven figure territory.
Pure Koke Vol 2 went by without a tremor, it failed to shake the scene in same way its predecessor had (presumably due to Koke’s incarceration), and bizarrely the label seemed intent on taking his career in a different direction.
Rather than tap into the core fanbase that Koke had built over the years, he released a trio of singles which saw him paired with singers in an attempt to soften his image, and make him more palatable to a wider audience. Although all the singles would chart in the top 100 (“Lay Down Your Weapons” with Rita Ora peaked at number 18), Koke really wasn’t able to capitalise on the success, as Police ensured that he was unable to perform.
Around this time, Koke was supposed to be releasing his debut album, I Ain’t Perfect, but the labels decision to have him focus on singles, as well as consistent Police pressure (he hasn't been able to perform in London for over ten years), left him and the label with few options. Things would come to a head when Koke was pulled from Wireless in 2013 (the year Jay Z would headline), after the organisers were contacted by the Police. Koke’s quest for rap superstardom began to unravel, and after another run in with the law, he was finally dropped by the label.
But despite everything, Koke has gotten back on the horse, and is living proof that not everything we inherited from childhoods misspent in pissy stairwells, and pebbledash blocks was negative. Koke’s tenacity and resilience was no doubt moulded on the same streets that led him astray.
Although the years since he parted ways with the label have been quieter, K Koke has been taking slow methodical steps towards the top spot thats eluded him for so long. He’s always been vocal about how far his fan base extends, and this is something he’s finally been capitalising on by working with artists from unexpected countries like Albanian and Poland.
When he’s not shelling tracks with artists from abroad, Koke is back on our shores doing what he does best, and his Daily Duppy which effortlessly exceeded the 4 million views mark, proves there’s still an appetite for K Koke’s brand of rap. So with I Ain’t Perfect finally out after a decade of waiting, there is still hope that K Koke can finally sit atop the scene he helped build.