Devlin is one of the few original grime MCs to have been through the rise and fall and rise of the genre without losing his credibility, liberty or sanity. If they gave out grime badges like it was the roadman version of Scouts, Devlin would have collected the lot. He’s done the early years essentials; spat bars on pirate radio as a teenager, formed and collapsed a number of East London MC collectives, jumped on Slimzee sets at Sidewinder, and shared space on wax with golden age Wiley. In the mid-noughties he released street level mixtapes that cemented his core fanbase, teamed up with some of grime’s recognised greatest (most notably forming The Movement alongside Ghetts, Wretch 32 and Scorcher) then – same as every other grime act with a lick of talent – he signed a major label deal in the late 00s and released highly polished dubstep and radio friendly rap. Fast forward a few years and – same as every other grime act with a lick of talent – he jumped ship from that major label, self-released an album, and scored his highest chart placement doing so. And all of this has been done before he’s turned 30. It’s fair to say that the Devlin story has a long way to go yet.
The Dagenham boy first started spitting around 2001, aged just 12 and obsessed with OT Crew, the Dagenham collective of MCs and producers who were regularly appearing on Rinse FM. “I met [OT Crew mainstay] Dogzilla” Devlin remembers, “through a friend of a friend and we just clicked- we started making music and the rest is history..!” As with the rest of the early grime scene, Devlin’s early work was spent finding ways to bridge the gap between rave MCing and American rap; a chaotic, exciting time which was big on energy if nothing else.
“I guess I was 15 when I started making the music properly. I wasn’t really writing songs, none of us was. I was just writing for the radio every week, and when you’d do the shows, it’d just be a set of decks and a load of MCs fighting over the mic. It was a rush when DJs are just slinging on tunes and you’re just jumping in, but it’s changed, it’s not like those days anymore.”
Devlin’s a humble, matter of fact interviewee. Unusually for an MC, he’s not too given to self-mythologising. Whilst other grime veterans are prone to misty eyed reminisces about the golden age, for Devlin the past is the past. Even if he fondly remembers that anarchic period of 2005 – 2008, he’s happier with where he is now, relishing performing his decade deep catalogue of songs, as he is quick to point out.
“Since those days I’ve had albums out and released songs that have charted and that people know. It’s nice to go and do songs and hear people sing them back. I throw in some grime bars, some freestyles, the F64 bars from SB:TV – and I prefer doing the songs live to be honest, it’s more of a show.”
This emphasis on ‘proper’ songs isn’t some new facet of Devlin’s music. As far back as 2006 he was dropping tunes like Community Outcast, a mournful lament for London’s dispossessed people that added an introspective depth to his sound. Whilst he was happy spitting rewind bars for pirate, he was equally comfortable drawing on the pain of the streets to paint lyrical, downbeat portraits of his city. Its grime taking on social realism long before Stormzy was calling Theresa May a paigon at award ceremonies… But when asked about the supposed rise of politics in grime – and his own place in that rise- Devlin is somewhat nonplussed.
“To be fair I don’t see that many MCs talking about anything that political. All I hear is ‘I’m in the trap and Im weighing up crack…’ – ha - I’ve had a few bars that touch on political, but I don’t see the need to be overtly political. I’m just in my own bubble.”
He explains that rather than over think what he’s doing, he’s more interested in trying on as many different styles as he can, all in to fight off any chance of being trapped in one place.
“I’ve always said that since I started making music that everyone’s called it grime or whatever, I’ve always written to beats that are 140 bpm and to rap beats at around 90 bpm with different sounds and influences. I’ve done that since my first CD really, there were thoughtful sounding songs as well as aggressive lyrics. You can’t just box it in and call it grime, you can’t be that creative if you just pigeon holed it. I never know what I’m going to write about until the song plays – it’s like the song choses you. You hear some instrumentals and like them but can’t write to them, and other songs just seem to bring some out of ya. You can only ever really write about what you going through in life, and you’re coming out with the Devil In…”
The Devil In was the title he chose for his third album, a self-released collection that moved away from the commercial production and big name features of his previous major label album, to return to a more grass roots approach. This manifested itself in a couple of well-chosen guest spots, an emphasis on Devlin’s intricate realist lyrics, and at least one authentic new school grime banger in the form of 50 Grand, his link up with Skepta that has racked up over 6 million views on Youtube. Is that his favourite track from The Devil In? “It’s very hard to judge when you’ve heard these songs thousands of times,” he responds, before picking out Blue Skies – which has just received a video treatment and is currently lighting up radio. But he’s more interested in what he’s got coming next than thinking about The Devil In– particularly because he’s finally working with one of the MCs who first inspired him.
“I’ve got an EP I’m working on with my pal Syer - he used to be part of OT Crew before I got involved. I’m happy to be doing something with Syer; when I joined OT back in the day Syer had already left, and I always thought a lot of him on the mic. He’s a Dagenham boy and he knows friends of mine, so when we bumped into each other and got talking a couple of years ago, we realised it was about time we did something - he inspired me when I was really young, so we’re doing this for us as much as for anyone else.”
And what does the music he’s making with Syer sound like?
“The new music is same as it always has been; there’ll be deep, emotional songs and offensive songs just for the sake of it,” he laughs “I’ll just do me, same as I always have done, I can’t even tell what will come out, I’ll let other people, judge it.”
There may be one difference though – after years of keeping solidly focused on lyricism, Devlin is finally trying to branch out into writing music – even if he’s finding it torturous going.
“I’ve been picking up the guitar and trying to learn how to play. Learning any songs on it would be a start! It’s very hard to learn, I wish I’d picked it up years ago. I can play a couple of bits and bobs, it’s quite infectious. I’ve learnt bits of old Nirvana and Oasis songs, anything that I can learn the riff of, so I’ve got a new chord and I can play a bit more.”
For an artist who’s collaborated with Ed Sheeran on a number of occasions, we have to wonder if this means there’s a Sheeran style acoustic album on the cards. The answer (if you can forgive the crap Oasis pun) is a definite maybe.
“It’s not very likely you’re gonna get an Ed Sheeran style album cos I’m Devlin not Ed Sheeran! In the future though, maybe… Why not put some acoustic work on there? Like I say I wish I’d picked it up when I was a child so I could write the songs I want to. It’s a new challenge, I mean I’m never gonna be able to play the guitar, but if I can play enough that I can write simple songs and put that down in the studio then I’ll just keep cracking on. . In the past I was always so focused on my lyrics and trying to get them right – maybe now I’m picking up the guitar it’s time for me to get into production…”
So you heard it here first – Devlin is ready for the next phase of his career – after years controlling the mic, he’s taking his first steps into controlling the music as well. As we said at the start – the Devlin story has a long way to go yet…