Still in his teens, 19 year-old north Londoner PW is on a bit of a roll. He’s just supported N-Dubz’ Dappy on a national tour, his new single ‘On My Way’ is rapidly making its way up the BBC 1xtra playlist and has been championed by MTV Base amongst other TV channels, while his new mixtape New Kid on the Block is notching up thousands of downloads.
It’s been a busy few years for the Edmonton rapper. This time last year he was in the middle of a Law and Criminology degree and only considering music as a side line. Today, he’s put the degree on the backburner, taken a gap year out, and is now devoting himself to being as good an artist as he can possibly be. Which from a listen to the New Kid on the Block should confirm is very, very soon. The young rapper grew up listening to the likes of Jay-Z, Kanye and 50 Cent, but it was the MCs closer to home like Roll Deep and Kano who made him realise that there might be a future in making rhyme pay. He memorised every verse on Roll Deep’s underground burner When I’m ‘Ere (“I was a big Trim fan”) but when he saw them hit Top of the Pops with The Avenue, he realised that there could be a new breed of British MC, one who could balance street-credibility with the not inconsiderable task of crafting great modern pop at the same time. When local talents Wretch 32 and Chipmunk, who he also went to college with and would often bump into at studios around town started to get heard beyond the underground, making the move from grime kids to fully fledged pop stars, he started to realise that there might be a brighter future than he first imagined; that his own brand of radio-ready rap could be taken to a wider audience. “It was inspiring to be honest. For someone like me, I’m only 19 years old and they’re a couple years older than me but when I was younger, I’d see them on TV and hear them on radio, or just hear them freestyling so seeing them doing their thing inspired me to do what I’m doing now.”
Born to a Grenadian mother and Jamaican father with three brothers and four sisters, Akhiem Allen didn’t grow up in a musical family but he was surrounded in north London by aspiring MCs from an early age at school and outside the home. He had a brother in New York trying to carve out his own hip-hop niche who went by the name Tragic, a moniker PW wanted for himself, but his sibling had other ideas, and christened him Pee Wee due to his height, a name he would later abbreviate to PW. Though more interested in football and his studies, he was still susceptible to the MC culture around him and when friends started rhyming at lunchtime in the playgrounds or after school, he soon found it impossible to resist. Where as a youngster, he would wait for his parents to leave for work on Saturday mornings so he could blast classics like The Blueprint by Jay-Z at full volume while supposedly babysitting his younger brother, now he wanted to use all he had absorbed and make it his own. Soon he found himself accompanying school friends to local pirate radio station Axe FM, well known for playing host to grime kings SLK and The Movement, who included Wretch 32, Scorcher, Ghetto and Devlin amongst its numbers, filling its cramped studio with short lyrical bursts over the latest grime beats, before quickly passing the mic to someone else. “We’d leave school at 3.30, sneak out my house and go to the station which was across the road from my house. I used to go there all the time. Scorcher used to go there too. And from there, I used to rap with my friends from 5pm to 9pm. Sometimes we’d rap just to the ringer from my phone. It was a lot of energy. It was just a sweatbox, with a carpet on the wall and eight people in a tiny room. Imagine me, just small, about 13-14 years old while everyone else was big, around 19-20. But I still held my own.”
When PW noticed that the pirates were no longer the only way to get noticed, he started uploading freestyles he made over the latest instrumentals of hits by Drake, Kanye West and Jay-Z in the hope that it might lead to more exposure. It started off slowly – freestyles over Run This Town and Light Up got him a fair number of hits. But when he rapped over Jay-Z’s DOA (Death of Autotune) and renamed it Death Of Alter Egos, it was a turning point. 1xtra’s Semtex got hold of it and posted it on his website, sending the number of views soaring. “I used to listen to Semtex every Friday night, and if I couldn’t, I used to go back to the 1xtra website and listen the next day. That was my first mention from someone in the industry. Before, I would do freestyles and get maybe 2,500 views in a few months and be so happy about it. But through that, I started to get 40,000 views.”
Since then, the momentum hasn’t stopped building. Videos like the bittersweet Not Thinking About You, Sensible and the anthemic Winner have marked PW as one to watch amongst urban tastemakers, most recently leading to a supporting slot for Dappy on the N-Dubz’ frontman’s first solo tour, an experience that gained PW thousands of new fans. “I would come out and perform my song Winner first and the response I got was phenomenal. Even when I got sick, we still rocked it out and I learnt a lot. Dappy welcomed me with open arms and he told me things about breathing on stage, just tips for what I should do on tour. I’ve sat down and looked at images and videos of my performance and have been critiquing it ‘til it’s got better and we’re going to keep on doing that until it gets great. He also told me that when you go in the studio, you can make so many tracks, but when you’re making an album, whether you’re making two tracks or ten tracks, you have to make them all as good as possible. He was very humble and cool.”
With an upcoming tour at the end of April, an EP to follow in the summer and a much anticipated album in the works, PW has plenty to be positive about. “It’s all about ability and what you can achieve” he says. “I’m still young so I know I’ve got a long way to go. You’ve got to strive to be bigger and better than what’s already out there. Ever since my song Winner, I’ve tried not to do anything negative. I’ve been trying to make more uplifting tracks like On My Way, which is about me seeing people say I can’t do it, but look, here I am, still doing my thing. People can see me doing that track and be like, if h=e can do it, I can do it.” That solicitor’s desk might have to wait.
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