Running A Marathon: Central Cee Interviewed

Running A Marathon: Central Cee Interviewed

“It just intrigued me. I feel like that was my way of communicating…”

For a moment there, it looked as though Central Cee was lost. Turns out, he was just biding his time.

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When Clash speaks to Central Cee, it comes a few days after the release of his breakout mixtape, 'Wild West'. Most artists would understandably be riding the high and getting caught up in the moment, savouring their time in the limelight. But for the Shepherd's Bush native there is a demeanour of calm, not yet allowing himself to think about the charts - at least not publicly - coupled with an underlying sense that after six years in the game this is still only just the beginning.

This past year has seen Central Cee become a force to be reckoned with in UK rap. The prolific run of singles ‘Day In The Life’, ‘Molly’ and ‘Loading’ as well as well received freestyles - including his ‘Mad About Bars’ - have seen him propelled to the forefront of the scene. Amassing over 70 million streams between them, the releases earned the West Londoner a spot on the coveted BBC 1Xtra Hot For… 2021 list and saw him become Spotify’s first UK Radar artist of the year.

Coming into 2021 all eyes were firmly on Central Cee, waiting eagerly like wasps to a flame, in anticipation for what he would do next. And much like the inevitability of such a scenario, he delivered again, kicking off the year with ‘Pinging (6 Figures)’. While his ascension may have been a surprise to the rest of us, for the man himself, “it wasn’t a shock because I knew it was going to happen,” he tells me before admitting: “Millions of views though? I didn’t expect that”. This was no fluke or a product of luck. But the result of years of hard-work and dedication to his craft. Something that becomes evident over the course of our conversation.

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His musical genesis came courtesy of his father who played a broad spectrum of genres from house and garage through to reggae and dancehall, but as he got older, he began to figure out his own path. The gritty sonics of grime and UK rap, compounded with the thought-provoking lyricism of American exports such as Joey Bada$$ and Kendrick Lamar also played their parts in shaping his musical identity, but ultimately he’s grown to “appreciate all music”.

At the tender age of seven is when he first started rapping: “I think maybe it was just me being observant to my surroundings and stuff. It just intrigued me. I feel like that was my way of communicating almost”, using his written words as an outlet for his innermost thoughts. It was at 14 when he uploaded his first songs to YouTube and just two years later he appeared in Charlie Sloth’s Fire In The Streets series. Two years after that he was a feature on AJ Tracey’s ‘Spirit Bomb’ remix in 2016.

Despite these perceived accomplishments, Cench would soon go on to take an extended break from music. "I wouldn't really say that I quit quit. I just kind of took a step back,” he says. “I feel like I always knew that I would make music. I feel like I hit a brick wall. I did as much as I could do [and] I felt like I couldn't really do much more". Looking back, he recalls the fact that he did the same capacity headline show three times, completely self-funded without seeing progression. Knowing he was destined for bigger things he also realised that he “couldn't do it without an income and I didn't really have one. I was focusing so much on music that I couldn't really get a job. I couldn't do anything. So I said, let me just take a step back from the music and work for a bit and get my money up".

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Releasing ‘Wild West’ independently and with two Top 20 singles already under his belt, Clash puts forward the idea that the mixtape serves as something of a statement. “Everything I do I want it to be a statement. The project is bigger than me too. It’s not primarily about me, it’s about my area. I want everyone in my area to be proud of it. The whole of the UK to be fair”. A few days following our interview his campaign began to pick up speed as his chances of charting at number one became very real. From buying fried chicken for fans, to putting on an impromptu show in the ends, he clearly wasn’t capping when he told me his intentions for the mixtape.

As if the moves the rapper had made up to this point hadn’t been bold enough, we question his decision to not include a single feature on the tracklist - something that goes against what has become an industry norm. “It weren’t really a decision at first. I was just in the studio by myself because I don’t know any other people that rap like that,” he explains. “When I came up with the blueprint before I put ‘Day In The Life’ out, features weren’t part of the plan. I wasn’t relying on any big features to build my buzz. So when it did well and certain people were hitting me up, I was just turning them down for the time being because I don’t see the need in these forced features”.  

The nonchalant manner with which he describes his thought process surprises me. Resisting the urge to work with artists that the average fan may consider bigger than himself is a testament to his character - refusing the short-term gain in order to stick to his own long-term plan. “I have to place a bet on myself and trust in the process,” he says, likening it to the decision he made to turn down the six figure deals, as he famously revealed on ‘Pinging’. “From when the labels are offering you that kind of money, you can make it yourself. Otherwise they wouldn’t be offering it to you”, highlighting the grounded nature of himself and his team who he says are “willing to go the extra mile”.

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Another aspect of his mixtape campaign saw him collaborate with the streetwear brand Trapstar something he assures me was not a one-time thing. West London rappers are renowned for their sense of style and Central Cee is no different: “I’ve always had this confidence, I don’t know why bro…You see in school, it was still bootcut era but I’m there wearing my skinny jeans. I was on a different ting but I didn’t really care. I was just confident in myself. I believed in myself from then,” the same assertiveness he carries in his bars applicable to his drip.  

‘Wild West’ was a culmination of the hype and buzz Central Cee had generated during the peak of the pandemic, its conclusion resulting in him narrowly missing out on top spot in the charts. An incredible accomplishment nonetheless. However, the possibilities of what he can achieve as the world begins to open are endless. But Central Cee will be proud I’m sure. If I learned anything over the course of our conversation, it’s that he is playing the long game. And to him, his journey is a marathon not a sprint.

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Words: Aaron Bishop
Photography: Amy Lidgett
Stylist: Harry Clements

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