Fully Licensed: M1llionz Interviewed

“It’s still a learning thing…”
One of the hottest rappers in the country right now, there’s more to M1llionz than just a magnet for hype. Telling his own story in a way that relates intimately to his fans, his artistic fusion is born from personal struggle and a commitment to the reality that surrounds him.

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“It’s still a learning thing. I dunno, people might have it naturally but I need a bit more time,” says Birmingham’s M1llionz, “especially when there’s like a million people behind the camera.”

When we speak on the phone, he’s just wrapped shooting for Clash in East London and is on the road back to Brum. The Ten Percent Music rapper is gradually adjusting to the realities of being one of the UK scene’s young kings. His debut mixtape ‘Provisional License’ – a concept project which imagines him transporting a suspicious package up the motorway – entered the album charts at number 10. It’s light on features and heavy on atmosphere. Over productions from the likes of Honeywoodsix, Jevon, and Ghosty, his immersive storytelling places us in the backseat of the ride as he cruises on towards his destination.

M1llionz’s rise has been rapid. Starting with August 2019 debut ‘North West’, a clutch of gritty drill cuts introduced listeners to his conversational, quickfire flow – he describes trapping and the violence it necessitates in a hurry, hustling extra syllables into bars, as if to evade detection from the prying ears of CID and business rivals. He’s got a novelist’s eye for fine detail too – “Told bro ‘go shut the window’ / Cah the breeze blowin’ the food off the scales” he raps on early single ‘HDC’.

Then last spring, he emptied a bottle of Wray & Nephew into cyberspace, put a flame to it and set social media alight with ‘Y Pree’. His patois-laced verses unfold over a production that switches up in it’s final minute from drill to something more raucous and dancehall-inspired. This was new territory for the genre, and the response to the track convinced M1llionz to take music seriously. He charted soon after with garage-leaning bubbler ‘B1llionz’ and the ferocious ‘Lagga’ confirmed him as one of the UK’s most exciting MCs.

“The feedback from ‘Y Pree’ was mad. That’s when I thought, ‘yeah, I could do something with this.’ People liked the video too,” he adds. “Obviously it was a drill-ish song, but the video was filmed in Jamaica. There was a bit more to it than just being on the block, like a standard drill video.”

He’s gone on to film visuals for the gun-finger-inducing ‘Badnis’ and breezy ‘How Many Times’ – which both feature on ‘Provisional License’ – there, but the Caribbean island’s influence on his work extends further than that; the culture, language and music of Jamaica is central to his music, and to U.K rap more generally too. – “It’s imperative, init. The sound, the lingo [of Jamaica] is mixed in. That’s why my ting is different,” he continues. “In Canada and the U.K especially, the language and the vocab we all speak, so much of the street slang comes from Jamaica. So if you do start rapping, naturally you’re gonna add those particular words and lines to your raps.”

M1llionz was born and raised by his mum in Handsworth, North West Birmingham. The area is synonymous with the second city’s Caribbean community, who first arrived during WW2 to work in munitions factories. It’s where Benjamin Zephaniah and reggae artist Pato Banton grew up, and the Birmingham International Carnival began as a street procession there in 1984. It was also the scene of uprisings against racist policing in 1981 and 1985, has a considerably lower employment rate than most of the city and ranks as one of the nation’s most deprived wards. He describes his upbringing as “calm” but there’s a little more to it than that.

“When you’re growing up, you’re not really gonna understand. You could be in the maddest place but because that’s where you’re from, you still played outside. It didn’t matter what was going on around you, you might’ve thought it was fireworks,” he says, laughing wryly. “It’s only when you get older that you realise why your mum was telling you not to go to this place, or do that thing.”

M1llionz describes the bleak outcomes of growing up in a neighbourhood bloodied by institutional racism and violence on mixtape curtain-raiser ‘Intro’ – “Growing up, nothing good in the city / Just different murders in the Birmingham Mail / So how on earth do you expect me to show / remorse or be any different / I come from poverty / I needed money instead of helping mе, they / sent me to prison” he raps. He had ambitions of being a footballer “like everyone else” but the roads got hold of him and he spent time in prison on a drugs charge. He says he learnt nothing from his stretch, other than the precious value of time lost.

“There was no rehabilitation at all. You just go there, do your time and come out. They try and act like they are trying to help with little courses and stuff like that, but that’s not really rehabilitating,” he explains. “What’s a certificate in maths or a forklift license gonna do if you’ve done a long term? You need to be able to rehabilitate back into society.”

It’s hard to think of another artist who captures the brutal, often banal minutiae of life on the wing as vividly as M1llionz. On the mixtape’s Brandy & Monica-sampling titular track he raps about wrapping his head in a towel to protect against boiling water thrown by other inmates, while on ‘Jail Brain’ he describes spots on his back from filthy jailhouse mattresses and sleeping with his SIM card hidden in his foreskin. The images of inner-city drug dealing he conjures up on ‘Bando Spot’ – which slickly interpolates 50 Cent’s ‘Candy Shop’ – and the frantic ‘AirBnB’ are just as intricate: Bajan rock; failed bitcoin transactions; blue plastic bags filled with snacks for the night shift; and one-legged customers spending their disability allowance. It’s this unwavering attention to detail, coupled with expansive beat choices that arguably pushes his work on ‘Provisional License’ beyond the boundaries of drill.

“I don’t class myself as a drill artist at all. I’ve just jumped on a few drill beats. More often, the beat choices that I make ain’t drill. The tempo is probably drill pushing to grime, pushing faster,” he continues. “But with the content, I’m painting more of a picture. I’m not just saying this and that for the sake of it. I’m describing and explaining exactly how this and that happened.”  

Had he been dealt another hand in life, M1llionz might’ve found an alternative discipline to showcase his flair for language and narrative. He says he was good at English in school, and enjoyed it too. But he was expelled in his final year. So he uses music to depict the world he escaped from in its fullness, from the mundane aspects to the most ruthless. The systems that come into contact with young people trapped in that world – and society more generally – are glaringly lacking in empathy towards them. Artists like him are important because the clarity and precision of their work might ultimately be an antidote for that.

“I think because I can describe things and give you the full picture, I could probably be a good speaker,” he says. “I could probably speak on matters and subjects because I feel like when I describe something, you understand it a bit more.”

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Words: Robert Kazandjian
Photography: William Spooner
Fashion: Carlotta Constant

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