To honour his nomination for Best Album at this year's AIM Awards, Avelino discusses GOD SAVE THE STREETS, how dreams save lives and why rap is the new punk.
GOD SAVE THE STREETS is bigger than me, it’s bigger than all of us,” declares Avelino defiantly, gesturing with his hands to emphasise the point being made. In a stripy Charles Jeffrey cardigan, the north London rapper sits across a table while rain crashes down outside. It’s less than a week until the fate of his debut album is decided at this year’s AIM awards and he’s hoping the outcome shines brighter than the bleak autumnal backdrop behind him.
Over 11 tracks, Avelino relays street-born stories with brutal honesty. Imparting wisdom on the circumstances of others, he articulates his own journey, “from the gutter to glory”, to help people see the bigger picture. Nowhere is this more prevalent than on stand-out single ‘VICIOUS CYCLE / A WORD FROM WRETCH 32’. Here, the 30-year-old depicts the criminal life that’s led to members of his community either dead or incarcerated; this gut-wrenching realism is a fixture that rarely leaves the record throughout.
It’s why GOD SAVE THE STREETS has been nominated by the Association of Independent Music for Best Independent Album at this year’s AIM awards. Facing fierce competition, from Little Simz, Shygirl and Raye, the wordsmith knows winning tonight will propel him to new heights, but he remains pragmatic about the outcome during our conversation. Nevertheless, he’s quietly confident that the project could write his name into the history books.
After dabbling in the unforgiving world of being a signed artist, Avelino took the difficult but rewarding decision to start releasing music independently. GOD SAVE THE STREETS is the uncompromising bi-product of this. Alongside executive producer Wretch 32, the Tottenham-hailing rhymer pieces together atmospheric 808s, abrasive basslines and matter-of-fact flows: narrated with a punk angst the record’s title and artwork insinuates. As a result, real name, Achi Avelino sounds more confident in his art than ever.
To honour this landmark moment, Avelino discusses GOD SAVE THE STREETS, how dreams save lives and why rap is the new punk.
It’s easy to forget that GOD SAVE THE STREETS is your debut album, because you’ve been in the game for so long. Why did now feel like the right time to release it?
A rapper’s job is always to reflect the times. But in terms of me doing my album, it was more about where I was in life. To do a title like GOD SAVE THE STREETS justice, I had to have the right life experiences. I couldn’t do this album at 22 years old, ignorant, naive and drunk every day. It’s about coming to terms with being in the public eye. GOD SAVE THE STREETS is bigger than me, it’s bigger than all of us.
You’ve talked in a previous interview about the impact of sobriety when making this album. Could you explain how it felt when you had this epiphany?
My challenge with alcohol was a creative battle for the best part of a decade. No alcohol meant no music; it’s what I associated with my creativity. Creatively, I’m still not too sure what the difference is, it’s more knowing that it’s not needed. Knowing that I don’t need alcohol to make an album as good as this one is powerful. The next thing you know, we’ve got an album that’s up for Best Independent Album at the AIM awards.
What does GOD SAVE THE STREETS mean to you? Both in terms of its narrative and in the context of your career thus far?
It’s more about what it means to us. GOD SAVE THE STREETS is made out of the terrible reality that I’m from a society where people die and it takes deaths for me to be able to convert these experiences to make a body of work.
I always say I’m lucky to have the gift to be able to do so but I’m unlucky that these lives will never come back. I’m from a place where we go to multiple funerals a year, not knowing if you’re going to be the next one.
I’ve always had a relationship with struggle, but everything changed when I realised, maybe I’m lucky to have experienced pain. Struggle arouses enthusiasm and resourcefulness. It can make you dream; I may have never had the will to rap if it hadn’t been for my pain. GOD SAVE THE STREETS is me using my experience to present a new mentality to people who suffer from the same environment I’m from. It’s about going from thinking you’re a product of your environment to believing the environment is a product of you.
My personal favourite single is ‘VICIOUS CYCLE / A WORD FROM WRETCH 32’. Can you tell us a bit about how this one came about?
I just wanted to make a song that put reality into perspective. Like I said, I’m used to seeing the same thing over and over again, the same outcomes of my friends going to jail, the same story for all of them, the same happenings. I find that cycle fascinating.
Your close lyrical accomplice Wretch 32 gives some words of wisdom at the end of the track. Why did you want to incorporate him into the song in a spoken word sense, rather than straight rap?
I had a dream about doing an a capella; a lot of what’s on my album came from dreams. I thought, I need an a capella section on my album. At that moment, I didn’t have Wretch 32 on there, so I thought, Wretch should do it. I wanted to depict a vicious cycle in the most vivid way. How have I and a couple of my friends avoided that cycle? Initially it’s due to chance, but eventually it’s down to thought and decision making.
Do you have those conversations with people still in the vicious cycle?
I have the conversation all the time, with friends who’ve been incarcerated. We stay in touch. I remind them that there’s proof now that the vicious cycle doesn’t have to happen. I’m pushing people to dream and dreams saves lives. I was speaking with Dizzee Rascal the other day and I reminded him that Boy In Da Corner saved lives. Seeing him on TV, wearing an Avirex jacket and Wretch 32 up the road, smashing it, they made me believe it’s possible to break away from that cycle.
Across the album, you worked with Fraser T. Smith. How was that experience for you? The man’s a legend…
He’s just a brilliant guy, man. I didn’t spend so much time with Fraser working on the album but his input was so influential. He’s got, I don’t know, 20-30 number ones sitting on his window sill. We ended up reaching number one in the Independent Album Charts, so I gave him a trophy too. He doesn’t overstep the mark; he knows what he needs to contribute to raise the vibrations.
Punk iconography runs throughout the album’s creative direction, and you worked with Sex Pistols legend Glen Matlock on the track ‘VEX’. People have often compared punk to grime and UK rap, from your personal experience, where do you see the crossover of genres lying?
In the seventies, if you wanted to see a moshpit, you’d go to a punk gig. In 2023, where do you find mosh pits? You find them at a rap gig. When Sex Pistols were big, what was the music of the working class? It was punk. Nowadays, the music of the streets is grime, rap and drill.
Back in the day, you had Vivienne Westwood making all the clothes and reflecting punk culture through clothing. Now, the biggest brands, like Trapstar and Corteiz, are inspired by rap. Sex Pistols used to be the ones saying, “Fuck The government”. Now, it’s Stormzy at the Brits shouting, “Fuck Boris”.
You’ve talked in a previous interview about the importance of manifestation. So, when did you start manifesting becoming a rapper and musician?
The way I explain it is like this. I’m going to eat, I’m going to sleep, I’m going to drink water and I’m going to make music. I could try and stop making music, I could try and stop eating, but I’d die. It’s more of a necessity.
As an independent artist, is there anything you wish you told your younger self?
This is not to sound cliché, but I wouldn’t change anything because it’s all knowledge and experience. To the next generation, I’d say stay 100% true to yourself and keep developing as a person. Let the music be true to you.
And how about navigating being an independent artist. Are you someone who regrets having signied to a record label previously?
It was fine. I understand that there are some things that should change in terms of record deals. But I’ve never seen a label put a gun to someone’s head and tell them to sign it. I just had the feeling that my next step should be independent. And we’re here now, with a nomination for Best Independent Album at the AIM awards. You’ve got to just go with your feelings, and be true to your art and what you’re creating.
This year marks 50 years of hip-hop. What would you say has been the most influential rap project for you over the years?
That’s a difficult question, I’m going to have to give three or four. Illmatic, because I feel like I’m right there in New York. 50 Cent, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, because it was one of the most exciting phenomenons I’ve lived through. Lil Wayne, The Carter III, he’s an icon and embodies freedom of expression and originality. And I’m going to say Kano, Home Sweet Home. I remember thinking, at the time, it was way more advanced than anything I was listening to.
What’s next for Avelino? Beyond this album and the potential accolades, is there anything you’d like to achieve for the rest of this year?
I don’t know, make a million quid or something?
Just the other day you posted a photo with Youngs Teflon and Blanco. Can we expect a collaboration between you three in the future?
It’s going to be a bonus track on the album. It’s almost like a victory lap. The song’s called ‘Champion’ and it’s another experience of bringing the culture together and celebrating the evolution that can happen, going from the gutter to glory.