“I’ve got so much to say… ‘Where Should I Start’?” – UKHH sits down with Jimmy from the 98s

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“I’ve got so much to say… ‘Where Should I Start’?” – UKHH sits down with Jimmy from the 98s
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Street rap storyteller and member of the infamous 98s collective that also count Unknown T, Kay-O, V9 and Billy Billions among their ranks, Jimmy takes a turn towards the lo-fi and the fragile on this latest project, reflecting on the power of his voice and the man beneath the enigmatic mask. 

Jimmy joins the call in his signature balaclava. Pristine white and with eye and mouth holes cut wide, the mask appears almost frozen in a permanent state of shock. His eyes pierce from beneath, heavy and unflinching, betraying the harsh reality behind his lyrics. “This project is the inside of my life for the past few years”, he tells me, “that’s why I gave it this title. It’s like I’ve got so much to say… Where Should I Start?”.

The project, at least, seems to suggest that it all starts in East London, opening with title track ‘Welcome to E9’. “They’ve been putting up apartments and that, it’s actually turned into a proper nice area” Jimmy says of his home turf, “but obviously growing up with the things that I’ve seen, there’s a darker side as well”. It’s a complicated relationship with the post code so central to Jimmy’s identity, yet seemingly associated with so many negative experiences. “Welcome to East side, ain’t nothing nice on these sides, comes like everybody sees life”, he raps on the hook.

It’s the place where Jimmy was raised, where he went to school with fellow members of the 98s, and where he still plays Sunday League with these same friends in Madeley astro-turf and Hackney marshes to this day (his team are winning at the moment). It’s also where Jimmy first heard street rap artists like Giggs and resolved to follow in their footsteps. “I grew up listening to other rappers paint pictures of their lives. I knew I had a perspective too, so I thought let me paint pictures of my life”, he speaks of these early experiences. Watching as the bittersweet theatrics of gentrification played out before his eyes, the pressure to provide, and the perils that come with it, play a central role in Jimmy’s music. “If it started in E9, does it also end there?” I ask. “Surely not!”, he laughs, “the aim is to get out, but I’ll never forget it”.

Where Should I Start feels like an investment in this future. Having made his name in hard-hitting street portrayals over rap and drill instrumentals, this latest project takes a pronounced step into vulnerability. “Bad man have feelings too, actually”, he raps on the understated and intimate ‘Talk To Me’, elsewhere opening up about his exhaustion with work and desire to just ‘Fade Out’. Contributions from Chase & Status and vocalist Humble the Great go a long way in supporting this matured perspective, framing a narrative voice that is working through past traumas and underpinned by a resolve to stay on the straight and narrow. “Out of sight and out of mind, I keep my ting separate. Do you get it?” he asks on the outro to ‘Too Much’, the recipient unclear.

It took a while for Jimmy to find the right mask. In his first music videos, he can be seen wearing a scarf, half-heartedly obscuring his face. “Back then I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with rap, that’s why the bally is half up, half down”, he explains, “then in April 2019, I was on the ‘Sick & Tired’ video shoot. I was sat there with a white bally and a black bally in my hands. I tried the white one and on the camera it looked cold! So, I was thinking let me claim this. I ain’t seen no one wearing one since”. No longer unsure of his commitment to music, it was the birth of Jimmy that most would recognise today. “Of course, I know what I’m doing now! I’m trying to be the best, like everyone I else. I’m focussed with music now, let’s see what it brings init”.

It was a scene befitting a comic book, I told him. “So, are you a superhero, or a villain?”.Fuckin’ hell, that’s a mad question. That’s one for everyone else. I’ll leave that up to the listeners to decide”. I wasn’t sure if it was media training, experience with the legal system, or something deeper, but Jimmy had a remarkable way of checking his ego, constantly aware of how his actions, and words, had consequences. It was, however, an awareness not unfounded. Only December last year, fellow 98s members Kay-O and HitMan were found guilty of murder, with Kay-O’s lyrics being used as key evidence in securing the verdict. It’s experiences like these that have no doubt played a role in his resolve to stay out of sight, producing a hustlers’ mindset that bordered on restlessness.

I gotta make sure everyone’s good around me. There’s businesses, stuff back home, I can’t get on no nonsense. I got plans”, he tells me. “With great power comes great responsibility”, I joked back, drawing the superhero comparison once more. “That’s facts though. I try to make my music motivational for others. I’m basically giving a message that says don’t give up, sort of thing. Everyone’s going through it, going through struggles, no one cries”.

This project is my story, but obviously I put a little flavour in there, a little style into it. I didn’t just make it no crying story… it isn’t just dark”, he continued. Those ‘just’s’ were pulling a lot of weight. “It sounds like you’re saying your story is a sad story”, I said. “A lot of sad things have happened, but you can’t just stay sad,” he replied slowly and thoughtfully, “man’s actually a happy guy to be honest, I’m a bubbly guy. I can’t go out and say my life’s sad anymore. You got to bring joy to your life. Find a hobby or go gym or something. No one wants to be miserable, there’s so much you can do to take your mind off things. That’s a message to everyone”. It was a powerful way to close the conversation, delivered with the sort of conviction that comes from experience.

Back when I asked Jimmy whether he was a hero or a villain, he deflected the question. As the conversation progressed, however, I began to see elements of an unassuming hero, conscious of his voice and intent on spreading a genuine message. It was only later that a key difference dawned on me: villains wear masks to avoid responsibility, heroes wear masks to take it on.

Jimmy’s story starts now on all major streaming platforms.

Solomon PM

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