M Huncho and Nafe Smallz are longtime collaborators with complementary sounds, but with the release of their new mixtape ‘DNA’, the pair tell Notion how their sonic similarities have deeper roots.
“We think the same in terms of the creative direction and where we want to take our music”, M Huncho says of Nafe Smallz, “both of us are linked together somehow in this world, it’s definitely through our DNA”.
The North London rapper, famous for concealing his identity with a full face mask is surprisingly forthcoming when discussing everything from his music to his life story. The same, of course, can be said for Luton-born rapper slash singer Nafe Smallz – it should come as no surprise, then, that their fantastic joint mixtape is called (you guessed it) ‘DNA’.
“We believe that, sonically, we’re from the same DNA”, says Nafe, “we understand music the same way and we just get it – it’s rare that you link up with someone and you’re both on exactly the same frequency”.
But, there’s another layer to the mixtape’s name – it also stands for “Da New Age”, something that, for most of us in 2020, is hardly a new sentiment.
“Everybody is noticing the wave and the sound in our music”, says Nafe, “and we just wanted to stamp it. Obviously, we’re in 2020, so it is a new decade, and it feels like with all this shit going on, it feels like the start of a new time. And we just had to let the people know that we feel like this is the sound going forward”.
- Shirt Amiri
- Frames Vintz Sunglasses
- Watch and jewellery Nafe's own
- M Huncho's whole look Maharishi
You might be a touch surprised to learn, then, that most of the mixtape was actually recorded last year.
“We made about 30 songs when we were in Barcelona last year”, says Huncho, “and we made about six more when we came back. But I feel like the vibe we created in Barcelona, we recreated in Metropolis [Studios in London] as well”.
But, what exactly is that vibe they created in Barcelona? And what about the vibe made M Huncho and Nafe Smallz think that their musical DNA was inextricably linked?
“We’re both melodic musicians”, says Huncho, “so we’re obviously going to incorporate that in our music. The concepts and the content we talk about in the songs is varied but I feel like the type of vibe is like a nostalgic, wavy vibe”.
But while nostalgic and wavy, the mixtape, according to Huncho “sounds like a different world”.
This is clearly reflected in the mixtape’s visual style. The mixtape’s artwork features the two artists stuck in a laboratory, stored in cryogenic-like chambers in suspended animation. In the visuals to accompany the singles “PMW” and “5AM”, something goes awry in the lab and the rappers start to emerge from their slumber.
- Hoody Amiri
- Hat Isabel Marant
- Ring Nafe's own
- Whole look Maharishi
- Ring M Huncho's own
- Mask MAHARISHI
This, of course, could be M Huncho and Nafe Smallz emerging onto the world stage. But, if ‘DNA’ is the two rappers’ coming-out party, where did their musical journeys begin?
“I’ve been around people that used to go to the studios all the time”, says Huncho, “and I’d never seen the studio, so when I walked in and I tried something and it sounded like I could get somewhere, I put some work into it”.
For Nafe, however, the journey started closer to home. “My Dad’s a DJ growing up and he ran a studio, like a couple youth project studios in Luton and a proper studio as well. It was like reggae, soul, kind of 90s music. Yeah, he was a DJ from long time so when I was growing up in my house it was always hella speakers and loads of different music. And then, when he introduced me to the studio, I was like eight or nine. He would go there to work and I would just have to make my own fun in there”.
But, with even the most cursory of listens to the rappers’ joint mixtape, you’ll soon find out that M Huncho and Nafe Smallz could, quite easily, have taken different paths.
“I was out here selling weight”, raps Nafe on “PMW”, “Now I’m in a better place”.
“For me growing up in Luton”, says Nafe, “there weren’t a lot of successful musicians or even successful people”.
“There was no one that we could look up to”, says Huncho. “I can’t tell you any person in my younger years or in my upcoming years before music that I could say I would look at them and feel inspired… We come from these areas that are very popular when it comes to crime, selling drugs, and whatnot”.
- Jumper Acne Studios
- White coat ALYX
- Frames Vintz Sunglasses
- Jeans amiri
So what changed? Why are M Huncho and Nafe Smallz putting out excellent joint mixtapes and solo albums and not struggling in the estates they grew up in?
“Just going to the booth and expressing became almost addictive”, says Nafe of his early studio sessions with his father. “I was pretty much living in there, so whatever I was doing, I was doing from the studio. The melodies came with time, so I started rapping and I would just be talking about my story, telling bare stories”.
“Realistically, we had to look up to the people in our family”, says Huncho. “I looked up to my parents because of their struggles when they came into the country, they had no money, we had no house, we had nothing. And that was my motivation – I didn’t need no motivation or acceptance from an older generation that’s selling drugs in my area. I just had to look at the struggles my parents went through and to make sure these lot don’t have to struggle again”.
Of course, such parity of experience might be expected if both rappers were from the same city but their journeys speak to problems throughout the country for disadvantaged groups.
“All over the UK, there’s a lot of deprived areas”, says Hunco, “there’s a lot of single-parent families and people that have to do the most just to put food on the table”.
- Watch and jewellery M Huncho's own
- Mask MAHARISHI
- Shoes Off White
- Whole outfit and mask Maharishi
“The experiences we both share growing up”, says Nafe, “I think it’s everywhere and it’s not just UK problem, either. When we and Huncho linked up in 2018, we realised he’s facing similar issues to the one’s man was facing as well”.
“I think with the position me and Huncho are in”, continues Nafe, “it’s important that we continue to uplift our people because when we were in it, back there a few years ago, certain days it didn’t seem like there was no way to progress”.
“There’s another M Huncho, there’s another Nafe Smallz somewhere”, says Huncho. “The main thing for me, as a person, I would like to see someone take it further than where I took it because that’s what the game is really about, you take it as far as you can just so the younger generation can pick up the baton – that’s how you win the race. Look, if we can do it, and we are delinquents, then so can others”.
With that being said, the pair – and Huncho in particular – enjoy a complex relationship with fame. While they like to see their work gain recognition (and, of course, the material wealth that can bring), they crave the privacy of a normal life.
“For me, sometimes the fame is long”, says Nafe. “It’s a gift and a curse because there are some things you want to do in life that you can’t because of the fame. For example, me doing little things with my son, I still do them, nothing’s going to stop me from doing that but certain times I’ll be put in a situation that I just think “rah” and it’s long because I’m well-known so it can never be the same”.
Huncho, of course, doesn’t have the same problems as Nafe – he religiously wears a mask, after all – but they still prey on his mind.
“When I put on this mask, I’m famous”, he says. “It’s kind of the opposite of what a normal person would do. A normal person will put on a mask to make sure that no one sees them but with me, everyone can see me in this state but you can’t see me in my private life because it’s far too precious to me”.
- Coat Acne Studios
- Mask MAHARISHI
- Nafe's hoodie Amiri
- Rings Artists' own
- Nafe's hat Isabel Marant
- Huncho's vest Rick Owens
- Huncho's t-shirt fear of god x zegna
At the same time, however, they’re relishing the newfound popularity of UK rap.
“The global interest is as high as it’s ever been”, says Nafe. “Our music, our sound, our genre, all these young UK sounds are becoming the most popular music. When you check the charts, it’s like there’s pop and there’s the mandem”.
“UK music is heading in a lovely direction”, says Huncho, “no matter if someone thinks someone’s mixtape is not good, or someone’s song is not good or whatever. Overall, the reason why you can say this guy’s not good is because all these guys have decided to do music”.
Of course, however, Huncho is quick to dismiss any notion that he has his eyes on the top of the charts.
“Music in the UK is getting a lot of radio plays, not that I fucking care about it”, he retorts, “but it is good they’re showing us love”.
“There’s a very thin line on being too commercialized”, says Nafe, “because really, that’s the goal to get your music from street level, where your friends and friends’ friends and some boys up the road like it, to having it on TV or radio”.
- Mask MAHARISHI
- Coat Acne Studios
- Watch and ring Nafe's own
- Coat ALYX
“It depends what you’re in this for”, he continues, “that’s where the money is, that’s where you can really progres. When you’re in the streets and you’re making music and you’re not really taking it that serious, there’s only a certain level you can get to”.
With ‘DNA’, however, there’s every chance that M Huncho and Nafe Smallz will have to contend with chart success. “5AM”, the first single from the mixtape, has racked up 2.4 million views on YouTube and almost twice that on Spotify – don’t be surprised if you happen to see “Royalty”, “Changed”, or “Louis Vuitton/Lost Hope” released as singles and appearing near the top of the charts.
So what happens now? Where do the two rappers go next?
“We’re both going to be working on our independent selves”, says Huncho. “But Nafe’s my people so he’s gonna be involved in there”.
After all, they do share musical DNA.