CAPO LEE IN LONDON, MAY 2016. PHOTOS: MATT HOLYOAK/KAYTE ELLIS AGENCY. STYLING: NIC JOTTKANDT. GROOMING: BEN JONES USING BUMBLE AND BUMBLE AND MAC COSMETICS. PHOTO ASSISTANT: LUKE WELLER. RETOUCHING: THE SHOEMAKER’S ELVES.
Nobody spits quite like Capo Lee. While most musicians craft their verses around the beat, to the beat, Capo Lee lets his lyrics lead. It feels a bit off-kilter, a little out of step, but it works. It is this distinctive flow that keeps the North London MC at the top of every “Best New Grime Artists” list and attracts collaborators like P-Money, President T, and D Double E. “I know exactly what I’m doing,” he explains over the phone from London. “I’ll hear a certain tune and I’ll know how to hit the tune; I try to bring me on every tune that I do, to keep it me.”
Lee grew up surrounded by music. His uncle was a ragga artist for whom his mother would pen lyrics and, as a teenager, Lee would spin records in his room. It is in the last year, however, that Lee’s career has really taken off: he’s quit his day job, signed with a booking agent, played international shows, and coordinated Why Not, a 10-track mixtape created and filmed over the course 10 hours featuring other emerging grime MCs like Mic Ty and Nico Lindsay, and producers such as Sir Spyro and Wardot. “Sometimes it’s all about timing,” he says. “When it’s right for you.”
HOMETOWN: North London
CHILDHOOD GOAL: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a paramedic.
FIRST RECORD: A Skepta record called “DTI.”
A BAND I WOULD LIKE TO SEE LIVE: U2, definitely. You didn’t expect that, did you? [laughs] You know the tune “Beautiful Day”? That’s my happy song.
MUSICAL EDUCATION: I saved up and bought turntables when I was younger. I used to just buy records and my friends used to come around and spit lyrics. I’ve always been doing music throughout the years as a hobby, just doing bits here and there, but it was more last year [that it became serious] to be honest. I made a tune and I got thrown into the music scene by accident. It’s better that way because it was more natural. I knew a lot of people that did music, but I didn’t know many established people. I know more established people now.
RAP VS. GRIME: Growing up, I used to listen to a lot of Nas. I still listen to him now, but he was one of my favorites growing up. I’ll make a rap song now and again, definitely. I think there’s nothing wrong with trying out new things and other things. It’s definitely good to experiment. There are things that you can express in writing a rap lyric that you might not do with a grime track, maybe because it’s a bit faster. If I write a rap lyric, I feel like I can get more detail across.
BREAKOUT SONG: I had another tune that I wanted to take more seriously. I put out a tune called “Liff” just to keep my name bubbling, and that tune did way better than I expected. I ended up scrapping the other one that I originally wanted to put out.
COLLABORATIONS: All of my favorite MCs, I know them all now. Those were the people that, when I was younger, when I told you I used to buy records in the shops, I was buying all of their tunes. Now I have tunes with some of them. It’s kind of mad. A lot of them don’t do things with many people, or maybe some of the newer artists, but if I ask them they seem to be cool with it. That’s always a good thing.
THE PROCESS: There’s a spot that I go to in my area [to write]. I’ll have the tune in my email on my phone, and I’ll drive there and park up. It’s got a view of the city—it’s kind of on a hill—and I write all my stuff there. Nighttime works best, because I’m usually busy during the day. But I’ve been doing a lot of studio sessions with producers [recently], so I write while I’m there. I couldn’t really do that before; I always had problems doing that. I feel like it works better for me at the moment.
ADVICE FROM FRIENDS: When I have a new tune, I play it to my friends who don’t do music, because I like them to listen from a normal person’s point of view. Sometimes if you play it to a musician, they might appreciate it that extra bit more. I would rather play it to somebody who’s just here to listen to a good song, rather than overthinking listening. Do they give honest feedback? Yeah. I had a tune that I did the other day. I played it to some friends and they were like, “No…that’s not the next one.” But I made another tune and played it to them a couple of days ago and they were like, “Yep, that’s the one.”
“CAKE & CUSTARD FLOW”: I’m a big fan of cake and custard. [laughs] Do you not eat that? You don’t, do you? Cake and custard is a thing that goes together, like a burger and fries—two things that are associated with each other. I’ve got cake and custard in my house right now. “Cake & Custard Flow,” my lyrics and my flow go together. That there was just a mess around tune that kind of caught on.
WRITER’S BLOCK: I do [get it]. I had it a couple of months ago, everything I was writing wasn’t up to standards, man. You just have to come away and live life for a bit, and you always come back with stuff. Obviously it’s life that inspires you.
PERFECTIONISM: I’m the kind of person where I still figure I could’ve done more. That’s just how I am; I aim too high. I’m a perfectionist, big time.
THE FUTURE: At the moment, I’m just having fun. This year, I’m watching how things go and seeing what direction I want to go towards around the end of year. I’m just going to do the summer, put out some more tracks, and just see how it goes. I would like to do a mixtape and then maybe get a tour going and stuff like that.
For more from up “Up from the Underground” portfolio, click here.