EYEZ 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.
Eyez’s interest in music began at an early age. Born Isaac Elijah Branford, the grime MC started rapping when he was just 11. At 14, he performed at a Lethal Bizzle gig in front of thousands of people. Now 23, he has an increasingly strong following, with tracks like “Fuck the Grime Scene,” in which he boldly calls out every established artist in the genre, racking up over a million views on YouTube. In his lyrics, Eyez antagonizes rivals with playful twists on rap clichés. On his first “Spitfire” for the U.K.-based online channel JDZMedia, for example, he spits, “Honestly lad, your mum is a slag/ You got seven potential fathers…Why is your mum always getting with farmers?” wrapping up the verse with a comment about “stinking clothes and smelly pajamas.” He is not opposed to experimenting with different sounds, and releases what he deems to be his “more mature” tracks as Elijah Eyez.
Beyond his inventive lyricism, however, Eyez is something of a pioneer. While grime is still heavily associated with London, the city in which it was born, Eyez is based in Darby. It’s a conscious choice; as a child, he moved between Derby, London, and Brighton with his two brothers, and it is in Darby that he feels most at home. Last month, he released a mixtape he organized with Red Bull. Titled Mind the Gap, the 11 tracks feature MCs and producers from north of London, with a final track billed as a “London versus the Midlands clash.”
“It’s a time now where London’s say, ‘It doesn’t matter where you’re from, we just want to know if you’re sick. Are you good? Are you hard? Are you dope?'” he explains over the phone. “I brought some of the people that I think are on the level of Londoners, but they’re just known in their city or just about in London,” he continues. “I’ve got Mez representing Nottingham, Dialect repping Leeds, Kannan repping Sheffield, Kamakaze repping Leceister, a guy called R.I.O. repping Manchester, and a guy called Dubzy repping Derby.”
HOMETOWN: Derby, England
I moved loads and loads of times, [but] I tell everyone I’m from Derby. My accent kind of sways off, but other than that, I shout it out. I love it. It’s where I see myself as at home. When I’m in London, I get all the throwbacks from being a kid there, so it does feel homely, but I’m at ease when I’m in Derby. I know everybody—every four doors, I’m going to know someone. I’m loved. It’s a nice community. It’s a bit boring, but I’ll always say it’s my city because it’s where I made myself, it’s where my fans originally came from, it’s where I recorded my first tune, it’s where I first started my first rap bars and had my first battle. Everything. Every city I go to, I still mention Derby.
MUSICAL HISTORY: My dad was a selecta. He used to be a DJ and just talk over the tunes—I don’t know if you know about reggae culture. My mum’s a church person so she sings and took me to the choir when I was a youth. I was probably about 11 [when I started rapping]. I grew up with my older brother and my younger brother. My little sister came when I was 12 or 13. My older brother was rapping when he was 14, and he’s three years older than me, so I got into it a couple of months after him. He was sick. My little brother started rapping before me [as well]; he must’ve started at five or six. That’s why I think we got so good, because it was a competitive thing, innit. My little brother was better at rapping than me and my older brother was better at rapping than me, so I was like, “What!?!” I had to get good.
HIP-HOP VERSUS GRIME: I listened to U.K. hip-hop, but my first lyrics were grime. I find it easier to write on grime, but I like listening to hip-hop. I think that’s where my lyricism came from—all the American hip-hop I listened to when I was a kid. I used to switch a lot, and if you listen to my music now, you can tell that it’s still there. I do a lot of hip-hop and a lot of grime, and they’re completely different. It’s like two different artists.
CHILDHOOD DREAMS AND PARENTAL ADVICE: I always wanted to be a footballer, like most kids in the U.K. When I got to be about 14, I started being a bit of a rude boy and stuff, so I just stopped the football. My dad wanted me to play football; he didn’t really like rapping, he thought it was a joke, he didn’t think I could make a living out of it. Now everybody stops him and just talks about me, so I think he’s figured out that it’s going to do something well. [laughs] My mum is definitely been supportive, but both of them have told me to get a job, so they’re not 100 percent. They’re not fully happy. But no one’s going to have as much faith in you as yourself anyway.
FIRST TUNE: Was with my older brother and my little brother. I was 12. We didn’t have a name, but we used to say blood related. We never pushed it to be honest, which is sad, because we would’ve been killing it, three sick brothers. I had my two cousins making beats for us as well.
FIRST GIG: My little brother took me. [laughs] I was about 14 and my little brother said, “Oh Eyez, I’ve got a show.” It was supporting Lethal Bizzle. It was pretty sick. It was called “U.K. hip-hop festival;” they don’t do it anymore but it was in Brighton. It was mad. There were about 10,000 people there. This was when “Pow” was about six months old, so it must’ve been 2004. I don’t know if you know “Pow,” but it’s basically Lethal B’s most famous song, and for grime, it was a real big tune that changed everything. It kind of made grime get out there. I was over the moon. I was like, “Brah, you’ve made it” [to my brother]. We were only kids, but since then, Lethal B’s my boy. He’s well cool. He asked me to go on his tour and brought me out in Nottingham and tweeted my stuff. I saw him two or three years later and he remembered who I was. After that performance, he did a workshop with the whole of our crew, so he remembered that crew name. He started spitting my old bar—just one bar of it—and was like, “You’re the one that spat that bar innit.”
BROTHERLY LOVE: I’m obviously the one that kept it continued. My little brother is going to carry on, but my older brother stopped. [My little brother] was real forward. He’s in jail at the moment, but he was out for a bit and he did some music, and everybody from Derby was fully backing him: “Yo, Eyez, he’s the next guy.” Lots of people liked him better than they like me, but it wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t as competitive as it used to be. As a kid, it probably would’ve made me a bit upset, but now, it’s happy. I want to see my brother do better than being in jail. So there’s no competition at all. It’s more like a team. If I do well, I’ll bring him in and it changes back and forth. When he comes back out, I’m definitely, definitely going to be taking him to as many things as I can. He’s got a different kind of audience to me; mine’s more bouncy, happy people. This is more like the hood part of the U.K.
CAREER MILESTONES: The one I thought was the biggest was probably Fire in the Booth, [but] the one that has actually meant the most to me would probably be my JDZ[media] Spitfire. It’s not even the biggest thing you can do, but that’s the thing that made me. It’s got a million views. It’s big in the Midlands. Getting on SB:TV as well, because I was the first guy from my city to get on it.
“FUCK THE GRIME SCENE“: I didn’t expect it to blow like that. It just happened. A lot of people were sending for me at the time. In the U.K., sometimes we just go at it—people start sending for everybody. It was Lord of the Mics time, which is a platform for rap battling but over grime beats. It’s basically where grime first started. Quite a lot of people responded with a lot of anger. I just took it as a joke; there was no actual beef or violence on it. It’s all cool. Some people came up to me that I sent for and spat the bar, took it as a joke, and then some people just didn’t talk to me anymore. But that’s how it goes.
“IF THIS GUY WAS STILL LIVING IN LONDON, HE WOULD HAVE MORE VIEWS AND HIS CAREER WOULD BE POPPING”: In America, every state, it’s cool, everyone makes it, but in England, it’s only London. No one else is taken serious. London is just about taken serious now by people in America, and people from London don’t take places like Derby serious. Recently, I’ve been places like Birmingham and Manchester, and they’ve got their rappers that are getting a million views as well now, and I’ve got a million views, so that time of being from London paving the way, it’s more open to anyone now. But the scene is in London. If I want to do something, I’ve got to get on the train to go to London, which I’ve not got a problem with, I travel, but it does make everything two times harder. You can’t complain can you, just play the game.
COLLABORATING WITH KANNAN: I started it just before Christmas. Kannan had just moved from Sheffield to my city. He was big in his city, so I wanted to work with him anyway. He’s one of my favorites. We made a couple of tunes and we just came to the idea, “This is an EP.” We put it out there for free, but it’s had a lot of feedback, a lot of people loved it.