[Words & Photos by Sam Conley]
“People need to understand – we’re really brothers. It’s not this guy does music and that guy does music. We’re really brothers.” I’m speaking to Floss, member of Peckham-based rap trio ALQAE. Accompanied by fellow members Jiggy Jim and Jonno, Floss is passionately explaining the bond the group has developed over the years – not only within their music but on a personal level, too. In fact, it’s their natural sense of camaraderie that first leaps out to at me and Quann (photographer for the day) when we first meet them at their local boozer. Throughout the next few hours, they are constantly smiling, laughing and joking; it’s clear this is bond goes deeper music. On a bright, Autumnal Sunday afternoon, over pints of lager and chicken wings, we discuss the crew’s debut mixtape, the changing face of Peckham and their future plans for creative expression.
Having met in school, where they used to casually rap between classes, ALQAE’s first online release was the hard-hitting ‘DIFF SIDEZ’, which they dropped via their SoundCloud page in 2015. They’ve been active consistently since then, with a number of releases both as a group and as individual artists – with notable individual tracks ‘Suspect’ and ‘IDC’ popping off.
Keeping up the impressive work rate, ALQAE dropped their debut mixtape The Surface at the beginning of September 2017. The 11-track tape lies somewhere between the UK’s current drill movement and the sounds of classic UK rap, though it isn’t definitively either. Whether it’s the laidback bounce of ‘IDC’, or the trap bravado of ‘Forbes List‘, The Surface is instantly memorable for its catchy, left-field swagger. While the release of their debut tape was may be the crew’s biggest endeavour to date, you get the sense that it’s really only the tip of the ALQAE iceberg. Something that Jonno agrees with, “The Surface was a reference for people to get our sound and what we’re about when we come together,” going on to elaborate, “in 2018 there will be a lot of solo stuff and collabs as well. All together – you’re going to get our identities.” The group mention that they have two video drops from the project – ‘4AM’ and ‘Wheeling Da Wave’ – en route. Their plans are measured and controlled; Jonno describes the concept behind their work ethic by saying, “Sometimes you have to put the game into your own hands and slow it down.”
“Certain things we say, only a man from Peckham would say” – Jonno
Being from Peckham, and considering we’re drinking from jam jars instead of pint glasses, we get onto the topic of gentrification. “It’s something we see live and active, our generation got to see how it was before and how it is now,” Jimmy tells me. It’s a change the rapper seems to enjoy. “Recently, it’s more friendly. It’s turning into more of a Shoreditch. We’ve got places like this (Prince of Peckham) – we have burger stores, pizza stores. I never thought that would happen.” The trio is in agreement, however, that Peckham will always be Peckham. As Floss explains “the new Peckham that they are building – it’s all good and that. But to me, it’s a disguise from what’s actually happening underneath the surface.” The block where their friend was shot two years ago, and the estate where another young friend was murdered, both still stand not far from here. And neither has felt the benefits of the new money pouring into the area. Musically, Jimmy tells me that he thinks the social change in the neighbourhood has created a more diverse and successful local music scene. Having been given the opportunity “to be real to themselves,” ALQAE enjoy the fact that artists like Cosmo Pyke are now affiliated with the area. “Back in ’08 that would never come from Peckham,” Jimmy says. “It was really gang oriented before.”
The overarching message of ALQAE’s music seems to be about transcending the ills of their current surroundings, with chants of “I was destined for the Forbes List,” arriving from the first track. Beyond the pub walls lie the surrounding area of SE15, a postcode historically associated with gang culture and youth violence and growing up here is key to the group’s sound. Jiggy recalls how, “When I was in school, Peckham was mad! If you went Peckham after school – it’s chaos. A lot of dangerous things happening; a lot of trouble. It’s got that reputation of being a bad place.” Jonno explains how the music very much reflects their surroundings. It’s “The mentality – the way we think,” he says. “Certain things we will say that only a man from Peckham would say.” This hard sense of otherness and identity is something that comes through in their raps. On ‘Suspect’, for example, they proclaim: “Fuck officers and fuck the law, they can’t understand what we hustle for…”.
“The money comes after. This is just a stepping stone” – Jimmy
As the interview continues, the sense of community is touching. After a few staff members come over to ask the boys how they’ve been, I ask what their connection to our meeting place is. “This is like the heart of us right now,” Floss explains with particular reference to the Prince of Peckham. “The guy who owns this place, Clement, is like the most genuine guy you can meet. He went to our school as well, not in our generation, but way ahead of us.” It’s this intergenerational link of going to the same school that has spurred Clement into taking the boys under his wing. He’s allowed them to host their mixtape launch party here and also film their new visuals for ‘4AM’ around the bar. It’s also the spot where they conduct all their interviews, as it’s the setting they feel most comfortable in: “It’s Peckham, it’s mad authentic, it’s a place we feel to call home.”
As we speak about the music and begin referencing other artists, the question of the group’s own motivations for staying as dedicated to music as they are arises. In the transitory era of streaming, where releases seem to be used as freely as disposable cutlery at times, how do they feel about their relationship with music? Their passion is clear on this subject: “We all started music for the love we had for it. We wasn’t thinking about the money. The money comes after. This is just a stepping stone,” Jimmy declares. But a stepping stone to what? “Once we’re in there, we’re going to be branching out doing different things. It may not be related to music. We want it to be a global takeover. You might see me come out with my own sweets just off the music. You never know,” he concludes. While it’s unclear whether he actually means he’s going to drop a range of ALQAE gummies, Jimmy’s sentiment is clear: the group have bigger aspirations than simply releasing music. They’re developing their brand. I notice that Floss is wearing a hat he created himself – a clear indicator that ALQAE might start moving into the fashion scene in 2018.
“I feel like a lot of rappers want to do what’s popping right now, instead of doing what they really want to do” – Jimmy
Another hint at the group’s future aspirations lies in the ‘ALQAE RECORDS’ imprint that The Surface was released under on Spotify. Is there a record label on the cards for the guys? Looking pensive, Floss informs me: “That’s actually what we want it to be. We’re speaking it into existence.” In the near future, he continues, ALQAE want to be releasing each other’s records as solo artists and possibly even records from others. On staying independent, Jimmy is the most outspoken: “Getting help from a label is always good, but we want it to be more of a partnership. If you don’t want to do a partnership, then you can really fuck off. We put everything, our own bread, into it.”
The group’s brazen sound links hand in hand with their interest in remaining independent – head to their SoundCloud bio and you’ll find it reads “Bringing back real rap with flair and style.” Naturally, I ask what they mean by “real rap”. Again, Jimmy takes the reins: “It’s being authentic. Just being you [and] speaking the realness about yourself,” before citing Nas’ seminal 1993 debut Illmatic as an influence, as well as Jay Z, who he describes as having “the flyness.” Closer to home Giggs and Headie One’s names are raised as London artists whose artistry deserves respect. Referencing the current wave of drill and Afro swing tracks, Jimmy continues, “I feel like a lot of rappers want to do what’s popping right now, instead of doing what they really want to do.” Jonno is quick to add his two cents, “Even if it’s a tune that’s just a vibe, it’s still got lyrical elements to it [or] some sort of substance.” It’s clear that the ALQAE team is keen to stay true to their creative expression.
That word – substance – is key to both their demeanour and future aspirations. The triumvirate’s commitment to the art of rap coupled with lofty ambitions and a grounded appreciation of where they’ve come from will no doubt combine to form something meaningful and expressive. As we collectively take the last sups from our pristine jam jars in an area once considered rough around the edges, the duality of the situation seems fitting for a group trying to marry the ethos of old with the vigour of new. There’s a meticulous blueprint to their movements. Simply put, they aren’t “firing away,” or “chatting shit”. Music is their outlet: “We take it very seriously.”