In amongst the cracks of a tired debate regarding the boundaries between grime and UK rap, there has been an uprising. While journalists and radio personalities – both on home turf and across the pond – try to place music into the correct boxes, there are artists are hard at work, paying it no mind as they expand the sounds to even more ambivalent pastures. Creativity rules over a flagship club night, tempo or dress code. Grime’s DNA fused with contemporary R&B sounds, the pulsing bassline of club music matched with the narrative poetry of hip-hop. To a new generation of crea-tives, the old rules don’t exist.
At the centre of this, sits the Mini Kingz collective, formed by EPXCS and Ragz Originale. Both creatives themselves, the former is a rapper, producer, manager, promoter and pretty much any-thing else that he needs to adapt to in order to keep the movement going, while the latter is an artist best known these days for his production on Skepta’s ‘Konnichiwa’ album – particularly ‘Shutdown’ which was nominated for an Ivor Novello Award last year. Dig a little deeper though and you’ll find that Ragz has been in this game a minute. Trawling through the Internet you’ll dig up his old self-produced rap mixtapes, you’ll find placements on Detroit rapper DeJ Loaf’s before-she-was-famous ‘Just Do It’ mixtape, and more recently you’ll see him injecting his sound into tracks by anyone from masked MC CASISDEAD, to pink-haired pop star GIRLI.
Mini Kingz formed somewhere during a transition from making Funky House beats to throwing parties in Camden. EPXCS came up with the name and had a logo designed. The first night – called Hype On The End – saw the crew go straight into the deep end. It was late 2013 and EPXCS had come across the contact details for Boy Better Know’s manager Sam, and decided to give him a call out of the blue to see if Skepta would headline their first event the coming February. “It was the maddest struggle because I’d never really done and event before, and I’m deciding I'm going to organise this mad event with Skepta,” EPXCS laughs. “It weren't no Ally Pally show, but it was definitely a success.”
“That’s the first time I ever met Skep,” recalls Ragz. The casual exchange of words would be of monumental importance to both of their careers, although it didn’t feel like anything out of the ordinary at the time. “I spoke with him backstage there. I had a CD with some beats on it – USB’s weren’t how they are today!” Rags laughs. “Literally 20 minutes after the show was done I got a call from Skepta ‘I’m using this beat, and this beat, Number 304.’ He never used them in the end but that was the start of us working together.”
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The second Hype On The End boasted an appearance from a South London MC who didn’t even make it onto the flyer. On a bill headlined by Little Simz, the rising star known Stormzy only made the stage thanks to pressure from EPXCS’ cousin, who had been bugging him to make the booking. “I was like, alright we’ll throw him in as a guest thing,” he remembers. “We just posted a picture of him online, and as soon as we did we start hearing a load of notifications, like ‘What’s going on? This Stormzy guy’s got a following!’ He comes down to the show with like 30 people on stage and absolutely sets it off. You could see that the madness was about to kick off in terms of his career.”
ƒThat night also saw Oscar #Worldpeace, who had been working with Ragz for most of that year, officially stepping into the fold. “Even when I was by myself, I always thought it’s better to have a team of people because you look stronger. You look more believable,” Oscar explains, of his first movements towards his would-be family. “When you’re just doing this thing by yourself, people don’t take you serious. If you want to go to a party, you stand out more with a bunch of people rather than by yourself.”
As the collective began to focus on their own development as musicians, events took a backseat. Ragz was cooking up tracks with Skepta, and EPXCS, tired of being looked at by his peers as a manager or promoter, decided to focus on releasing a mixtape. “If I [tried to have any creative in-put] in a studio session, they’re all looking at me like I’m just some manager guy,” he explains. “It’s like ‘No I’m not. I just do this because I’m trying to push the label and stuff.’”
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Outside of rap and grime, Ragz was always expanding his horizons, taking influence from the eclectic mix of records that would spin in his parents house 24/7. “I’ve always loved melody and had the desire to create as broadly as possible,” he reflects now. “I feel that working across the board stretches my vision and keeps me refreshed.” With Hype On The End on the back-burner, Ragz and EPXCS wanted to put more of their time into vocalist Cartaé who they’d been working with since 2011, and had been proclaimed “the future” by Skepta via Twitter shortly after her their first show.
While the classically trained singer only made her first SoundCloud upload last year she’d been doing her rounds on the live circuit and honing her craft in the studio. “The songs were awful [back then],” Cartaé laughs. “But the performance is what really made them shine. I had a full band with sick musicians and we all just went for it. I was testing out sounds, so I had a bit of reggae, rock and some African influences going on.”
When she’d first met Ragz as a 17-year-old, through one of her best friends at school, Cartaé had moved on from singing to pursue rap. But Ragz urged her to refocus on the vocals abilities she’d developed through singing lessons as a child, and a stint in a gospel choir through her teens. “I encouraged it as a broader career move,” Ragz remembers. “Cartaé is so open to learn, but what drew me to her was her hunger for more. As time went on I saw her form her own world within her-self.” On reflection, she believes that her rap diversion was mostly concerned with a feeling of self-consciousness: “I didn’t have much confidence in my singing, so rapping was like a shelter,” she confesses. “It guided me through my teenage years and gave me that boisterous spirit now.”
Over a pulsing synth-lead New Wave instrumental crafted by Ragz, Cartaé’s debut single ‘All I Have’ sees her offering the sale of her heart to anyone that’s in the market, admitting: “It’s not worth very much but it’s all I have to give.” It’s vulnerable, nihilistic and somehow soothing all at the same time. “With my music I like to be very brutal,” she admits. “I say what I mean, and really speak from the heart.” Not quite like anything else out right now, it’s the culmination of years maturing her songwriting skills and being open to experiment as wildly as possible within the safety of Mini Kingz studio sessions.
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Their ability to bravely wander the outskirts of genre Oscar believes is due to the combined energy of the group – which provides a creative support system of sorts. “It’s weird that we share the same sort of [mentality] towards music,” he considers. “ I may take influence from this side of things, while Ragz takes from that side of things, but it all joins together and makes one big pot of stew. [Fusing genres] is nothing planned. I think it’s just because we all have the same mind-frame.”
Ragz, who’s current playlist is filled with Swedish indie pop (“There’s something in the water over there, most definitely.”) echoes that sentiment. “Everyone in the collective listens to different mu-sic,” he reveals. “[I’m most inspired by] people that might have 23 plays on their SoundCloud. They’re the most daring. They always push me because they make music as if they have a blank canvas. When you have no [point of reference] you just make exactly what comes to your head without any pressure.”
He takes a pause, then illustrates the concept further: “Like a five year old kid when they go to draw. You tell them to draw a house and they draw what they think a house looks like in their head. It may not be as clear as it could be, but that’s what a house looks like in his head. That’s how music feels to us.”
It’s this ground-level mentality that really drives the Mini Kingz. In ‘Bunk’, a prelude to his ‘No Change’ music video, Oscar questions: “Why is everyone scared to talk about the ground when you’re on the ground? But they want to talk about the top when they’re at the top?” Last year saw Oscar setting pace for the collective, with a string of singles that demonstrated the quality, uncompromising work that they can generate in-house.
Although their success can’t be quickly reeled off in industry metrics like YouTube views and chart positions, tracks like ‘No Change’, ’That’s Alright’ and ‘Tate Modern’ gave early adopters an insight into a post-‘Konnichiwa’ creative movement operating outside of traditional music industry confines. A generation inspired to embrace authenticity and uniqueness, rather than attempting to repackage existing trends.
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“Everyone thought that there’s rules, but there are no rules,” EPXCS declares. “Now everything that’s coming out of the UK is more organic. They’ve got a worldwide look on them right now. You can make some-thing as organic as you like.”
At the end of last year, Ragz took a leap of faith, releasing a solo single that completely turns it’s back on current trends. Entitled ‘En Route’, the track sounds unlike anything else; a prayer delivered over a thumping club bass-line, layered with distorted vocal chops. It’s a song he started two years ago but never got around to finishing until recently; drawn more from the pursuit of a particular feeling than any sound.
“When I was younger my favourite producers were Rapid and Low Deep,” he recalls. “I loved the way they had so much melody in their beats but it was still hard hitting. Listening to them, I used to feel like everything would be alright. I wanted to do the same with my music. As soon as you press play, you do not feel as if you exist within this time. It just takes you somewhere else.”
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Made more for himself than anyone else, Ragz expected that it might end up sitting on 23 views amongst the SoundCloud uploads that he draws his own inspiration from. “I didn’t even think people was going to like that song, to be honest,” he admits. “Because of how things sound at the moment within the UK music, it doesn't really fit in. But it [received] a warm welcome saying, ‘Oh, thank you for that.’”
He admits that it’s nerve-racking to release your work, unsure as to whether it will be accepted, but this vulnerability is one that Ragz is learning to embrace. “It's your insecurities, you work on some-thing like that for so long and you want it to be perfect,” he confesses. “It's yours, you always fall in love with [the potential of] it. Once it's out, now people can point at it and say, ‘Oh, I don't like that.’ It's like you're making trainers and no one's seen them yet so they're sick, because they're yours. As soon as you wear them outside someone can say what's bad about it or what they didn't like about it. That’s the hard-est about putting out music.”
Stepping out and being original, in an industry of chameleons carries its risks. By refusing to con-form, there is always the chance that the wave lands too early, that it’s doesn’t catch on. Oscar keeps the faith: “It’s naturally a slower pace for people to digest it,” he admits. “Because it’s not what they’re used to. But it also makes you able to move at your own pace, if you're in your own lane. You just need to focus on what's next for you because you're the leader of this ship. As long as we keep releasing our music how we want it to sound, there's nothing to worry about. We'll get there in the end.”
While they’ve never been ones to force things, this year finds the crew at their most optimistic. The pieces of the puzzle are finally coming together, and the Mini Kings – individually and collectively – are ready to strike as the industry lands on their playing field.
Aside from last year’s ‘Tekkers’, EPXCS has been keeping a low profile since getting in some legal trouble in 2015, with an impending court case that has been keeping his attention away from mu-sic. However, with that soon to be over, he has big plans for the coming months. “This year is going to be interesting,” he enthuses. “I plan to really do this artist thing and push it. You’ve got Cartaé coming into her own now, with singles and loads of new music ready, that’s a whole different side of music, more alternative R&B. Then we’ve got Ragz, who is doing his own stuff musically as well as production-wise, and Oscar.”
Oscar adds to the sentiment: “It sounds cliché really, we’re just going to come with new music. But it’s always going to be better than the cliché stuff. It’s always going to be a higher level.”
Ragz Originale, is still riding high from the success of 2016. He recently watched Skepta perform a song they made in a flat together in front of a sold out crowd at Alexandra Palace and is rightly feeling excited about what’s to come. “Seeing ten thousand people go crazy to it is definitely really overwhelming,” he reflects. “Mini Kings has always been in the plan, and now is definitely time [to break-through]. I can’t wait. We’re a small family, we all share the same vision and I can’t wait for people to see it. We’ve got a lot of crazy things in the pipeline and the most important part is to bring the best music possible out.”
“I believe in 2017 a lot,” EPXCS prophesies. “All the industry doors are open now, nothing’s in the way. We’re looking at the year that’s going to blow up everything.”
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Words: Grant Brydon