SKIT01 (OF GODS AND MEN)
HEARTACHE & CHEST PAINS
“Pressure brings out good shit in me.” Read BERWYN breaking down his debut mixtape, track by track.
On New Year’s Eve 2019, BERWYN and two friends made a bet: Anyone who gets a Drake feature, appears on a Jorja Smith track, or tours America before 2020’s end has to get a tattoo. “We laughed ridiculously,” the Trinidad-born singer-songwriter tells Apple Music. Nine months later, as he prepared to drop this debut mixtape, none of those ideas seemed so ridiculous. BERWYN had since signed to Sony and received enthusiastic shout-outs from both Smith and Drizzy, alongside taking a starring role on FRIDAY FOREVER, the second album from Richard Russell’s Everything Is Recorded project. DEMOTAPE/VEGA underlines why he landed on so many radars. In songs that fuse rap, soul, and R&B, his emotional honesty and poetic lyrics expose the humanity within the everyday grind. The tape was originally made during an intense two-week stretch in 2017, with BERWYN working in isolation in a bedsit, equipped with an old laptop and broken headphones. “I enjoy living my music,” he says. “That whole truth and honesty—you really have to be in the headspace of writing songs. You’re not conscious of anything else.” Making DEMOTAPE/VEGA was his “last-ditch” attempt to use music to forge a path beyond the struggles he’d experienced growing up on an East London housing estate. “Pressure brings out good shit in me,” he says. Here, he takes us through those results, track by track.
“I felt this was like a natural way to begin a journey—and during that phase of my life, it was probably how I would start my day, before I go out, doing what I’m doing. I would do a little bit of singing, just randomly, walking around the house. It’s a form of my prayers. I pray a word in the night, but song in the morning. It’s strange, I’ve only noticed that now, actually. If VEGA is like a micro experience of a day of mine, then that was a good way to kick it off.”
“After starting the day, ‘ASHTRAY’ is about painting the scene. You know in a movie or a TV show, when it starts, they do a slow pan around the room to show details of the room? ‘ASHTRAY’ has the ‘broken, broken telescope,’ ‘mirror, mirror,’ or ‘the scales are on my dresser’—physically bringing the geography of the space into it. ‘Ninety-nine problems in my ashtray’ is like, I’m here grafting, I’m running away, I’ve got issues, I’m stressed, I’m trying to smoke them away. Welcome to the tip of the iceberg. And also, I really just wanted a bad-boy intro.”
SKIT01 (OF GODS AND MEN)
“‘SKIT01’ was a random blur I got into at the end of my bed. It doesn’t really sound like a song song, it just sounds like a mental blur. The idea behind it initially was that trap, hip-hop, and popular music was growing in a phase where it was using the semitone form a lot. We’d gone less major into these minor pentatonic scales that sound like horror films. So I wanted to see if I could implement that into a ballad. The lyrics came from inside, off the top of my head. You can hear me trying to write another line at the end, ‘The way I like it.’ I couldn’t think of anything to go with ‘The way I like it,’ so I thought, ‘Fuck it.’”
“It’s about the day I went to go see my boy, we’re sitting in his garden, and he told me that one of my other boys had been stabbed maybe a few days prior. When I first made ‘TRAP PHONE,’ actually, I had a meeting with [record label] Young Turks, and on the train back, I saw my friend’s mum, and he was in court on this day now. And his mum just looked so upset. Whenever I used to go see my mum in prison, she used to work in the front office, so we’d chat and all of that. I told her, ‘Auntie, none of this is your fault. Please fix your face and smile. You've done what you needed to do. A lot of people haven't, but you’ve done what you needed to do.’ So ‘TRAP PHONE’ just brought all this out of me. Recording a song while you’re singing requires a lot of takes. Because I was staying in that bedsit, I couldn’t really. So when I was singing, I’m more or less whispering on the mic. Such a soft tone. ‘TRAP PHONE,’ I’m literally talking while I’m singing.”
“‘Glory’ was inspired by Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack. [sings] ‘You just call out my name… And I’ll be there.’ I was singing and playing that [‘You’ve Got a Friend’] a lot. I don’t know if anyone’s caught on to that. But it was just a mental blur and just a rant, really.”
“We had a few versions, actually. The last one that came out was a slightly more polished version. It was just a bit more of a song-y song, rather than a rappy song. It's just a banger that came out of a banging season.”
HEARTACHE & CHEST PAINS
“It’s about past stuff. The story kind of speaks for itself. I’ll let the mystery do its job. ‘Lipstick still stains the whiskey glasses’: That’s just painting the image. I’m never going to stop the storytelling. I became serious [about music] when we got an emergency teacher in year 11. She just exploded a bomb inside of me for music. I used to spend a lot of time there, working on the computer. The computer was the thing. Like the fish that grabs onto the hook, that was probably the hook that took me. She used to take me to a folk club as well, to just keep me out of trouble. It was just loads and loads of old people, the wealthiest old people ever. But those people treated me really, really well. It was a whole universe I had no idea existed. Folk is literally rap but with really cool melodies and cool accents.”
“It’s a smiley, nostalgic song. When you’re in your feelings, but you’re not upset. It was actually part of a poem I’d written as well. I didn’t know about putting the poem on, I wasn’t sure about the energy, so I used the verses on that instead.”
“The rantiest of the rants. [Final line ‘My whole life they try to tell me big boys don’t cry/How about we give them oceans and tides?’], that’s a Frank Ocean bar. Boys Don’t Cry is Frank Ocean’s magazine. Oceans and tides. Yeah, it’s all about that masculinity factor. Just, fuck it, I’ll just give you emotions, you know? You do have to have your strength [when visiting emotional places as a songwriter]. Especially when you do it all yourself. I wouldn’t say it’s hard, but I definitely wouldn’t say it’s easy either. And at some point, you get paid well enough for the shit.”
“‘FAREWELL’ was my last track, so, like, ‘Fuck it, let’s just smash it up!’ I’m using that register in my voice I use in brief moments in the shower, or walking around the house. I think I’d noticed the quality of music would probably do something. So it was just ending it on that note: that if this does happen, maybe say my piece now. It’s written in the exact same melody as ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ One of the most beautiful melodies to hit the soul. It was only once I got to ‘FAREWELL’ I thought, ‘This is the coolest story ever.’ I called the tape VEGA the whole time I was making it because I’d written a book called VEGA, and it was a love story. So I wanted the album to be very rap/street, but to have the implementation of romance, so that once the book comes out, they could work like like a universe. The book reading that’s at the end of ‘FAREWELL,’ I ended up stumbling upon that on the very last day of recording. I listened to this reading about children born from this planet, Vega, and I’d never heard anything describe myself—at least what I would like to think of myself—so, so clearly, and so to a tee. That was a trip moment, to know that there was a mad feeling behind it the whole time.”