Nine Songs: Che Lingo
A talented lyricist with a razor-sharp delivery, it’s not surprising that Che Lingo’s first song choice comes from fellow wordsmith Kendrick Lamar.
“Why did I choose these songs? They all played pivotal parts in the decision-making process of what kinda artist I wanted to be.” Che Lingo pauses, before offering a metaphor, “So if these songs combined had a baby, I’m that baby, that’s how I look at it. It’s almost like a timeline, I discovered these tracks in the order they’re listed.”
Since signing to Idris Elba’s record label 7Wallace at the start of 2020, Che has dropped two singles, “My Block” and “Black Ones”, from his upcoming album The Worst Generation. Grime MC Ghetts joined Che on “Black Ones”, which he describes as “a look at the day-to-day mental state of the guys I grew up with, who went down the wrong paths”. As he prepares to release his debut album, it’s clear 7Wallace is the perfect home for it. “We’ve spoken, we’ve had loads of little points of connection” he says, “Idris and the label super believe in what I’m doing.”
Following his stint on Ghetts’ recent UK tour, Che reflects on the experience. “It was an honour, especially because Ghetts personally rang me for that. I grew up on his music.” The last year has also provided the artist with a series of landmarks, seeing him play festivals including Glastonbury, securing a sync for both a Cartier campaign and Netflix’s Top Boy - the single “Same Energy” featured in Season 3 - as well as becoming the UK face of Timberland.
Che has long used his platform to call for justice, most recently with “My Block”. “It’s focused around Julian Cole and the tragedy he went through during the incident with the police in 2013,” he explains. “Six policemen made contact with Julian during an arrest and used excessive force, to the point where they broke his neck and gave him brain damage. His family haven’t seen any compensation or criminal charges and three of those policemen intentionally lied on their statements during the investigation.”
Involved with the campaign since 2015, Che is adamant that justice must be served for Julian, who was 19 years old at the time. “His life has been changed forever. He will never walk again, and he has to have 24-hour care in a nursing home in Harrow, his Mum is his primary carer.” Keen to give his support, Che created a GoFundMe campaign to coincide with the release of “My Block”, which has raisied nearly £2,000 for Julian’s family.
He stresses that this kind of injustice is not limited to a single incident, but is replicated throughout the lives of black men and women.
“My Block” is a message. It’s me saying ‘If I can’t feel safe in the city I grew up in and he can’t feel safe living his life as a young, black and law-abiding citizen, if you can do everything within your right and still get your neck broken by the people who are meant to protect you… where can I feel safe, except in my postcode or in the estate that I grew up on?’ Because in my heart I don’t believe that that’s what justice looks like, or that it would happen to a little white youth from Cambridge.”
While another musician might shy away from discussing these issues, it’s obvious Che is aware of his power as a songwriter and a voice for his community. “There’s only a small percentage that’s represented when those kinda things happen, and only a small percentage that can speak out from the rawest point in their heart.”
Throughout our conversation Che reflects on his own journey and artistic development, tracing the reverberations of the pivotal songs in his life right through to his latest single “Black Ones”. “It’s when a little nerdy youth from South London grows up and speaks up… speaks up about his generation, how it looks to him and how it looks to other people.”
As we discuss the beginnings of his career, it’s notable just how many of today’s artists came out of South London. “Me, Ms Banks, Big Tobz, Nadia Rose, Flohio, Avelino, we all came out of the same open mics. There’s always been a lot of talent here, but there’s so many different forms and everybody’s got their own paths to follow.” Speaking to Che Lingo, you soon realise the perspicacity of his thinking; as we explore his Nine Songs, he offers a beautiful take on the unpredictability of these musical influences.
“Sometimes the songs you wanna see happen from your favourite artists might not happen, because they’re in different places in their lives. And sometimes the songs you didn’t know you needed, happen.” Contemplating his song choices, Che summarises. “If you’re collecting pieces of yourself in songs, then I found maybe half of myself in just the first five songs we’ll speak about. The rest were an amplification of that in some way.”
“It was a catalyst point for me as an artist. I heard it the same year the album came out, in 2011. I’m 28 now, so I would’ve been about 19. I don’t actually remember where I was when I first heard it - I was probably at my best friend’s house - but what I can say is, definitely, how I felt when I first heard it. Somebody with that kinda cadence, that kinda delivery, I’d never heard anything like that in my life.
“The only kind of multi-syllabic, lyrical spitters that I remember from my generation were Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliot, but there was nothing that spoke to the jazz and neo-soul that I used to listen to as a kid, like in and around my house.
“I couldn’t tell you the names of any the songs, but I grew up on reggae, jazz, neo-soul and R&B, and when I got older I made grime and rap. I hadn’t heard anything from those genres [grime, rap] that resonated with me in the way that “Rigamortus” had, and that made Kendrick stand out in my mind so much.
“Even then, he was at a point that I wanted to be at, d’you know what I mean? Like where we respectively were in life - the fact that that freestyle itself had reached me, all the way in the UK, was beyond me… and I wasn't seeing it on television. It was just so impressive.
“The thing is, I knew when I watched it - the same way when I watched Chip’s first appearance on Tim Westwood or Ice Kid or Ghetts or anyone from the UK that was pioneering grime at that time - when I heard it, it was like ‘This is a whole ‘nother thing’, a whole different level and emotional intelligence that rap could potentially be.”
“As I got older, I started listening to J Cole and that was one of the first songs I heard from The Warm Up mixtape that he put out. It was another side of music, especially hip-hop, that I hadn’t really discovered yet. It’s another example of emotional intelligence - and wittiness and cleverness - in a song that wasn’t coming from a grime artist and wasn’t about all of the things rap was about in the ‘90s, you get me?
“It was me looking at rap and saying ‘There’s so much more emotional intelligence in this and so much more consideration for nuance in the lyrics’. Grime impacted me massively, but when I discovered the J Coles and the Kendricks, their earlier stuff, it was an eye-opener about what my potential could be as a rapper in its entirety.
“As much as I grew up in the era of grime and I’m obviously from a South London council estate, I didn’t “do road”, you know? And grime was very much about what you could do to somebody else at that point in time. I never had the heart to do any of that and that’s not where my head was.
"I didn’t know it at the time, but there was a lot more I was seeking from music and the music that I was listening to. As much as I was impressed by lyrics - and that’s what gave me the love for it in the first place, just the love of music and the love of implementation and rhythm and delivery in grime - when I found J Cole it opened my eyes to the kind of artist I could be.
“I think rap, and black music in its entirety, is becoming a lot more like that. You can use everything that has naturally found its way to hip-hop and has kinda slowly amalgamated itself into the genre, like rock. A lot of these were black music to begin with, you know? Hip hop was its own thing, it’s the answer to grime, the answer to reggae – which are both rebellious forms of music. It’s also the answer to jazz, which broke a lot of classical music down. All of those rebellious styles of music are some of the most influential styles, respective to their territories and beyond.
“When you introduce the Internet into that, introduce more opinions, more conversations happen about sexuality, gender roles, politics - all this stuff that was more controllable in terms of conversations back in the ‘90s and before.
“When you start to talk about those things and people start to experiment - not just with their opinions - it trickles down into their creative community and they all decide to start to do more pioneering things. That’s when you get people like Kendrick and people like Ghetts. All of those genres managed to find their way naturally into hip-hop and black music in all its forms, just based on the fact that you can share more music now, and more people can have access to it.
[This amalgamation can then happen] “rather than just doing rigid crossovers for the sake of two artists crossing fans. When all these things are put together, I think it leaves a lot more room for artists to showcase different sides of themselves over a project, rather than it just being all about singles, or struggles and hard stories or whatever. It can be about love or pain or loads of different things; it can be your way of outlining what values you’re having trouble with.
“I think as artists you kinda have to have whatever you’re running with at that point in time figured out and put it in a box so you can put it into your music, but “Lights Please” and “Rigamortus” opened my eyes to the idea of not having everything so ready and shiny, and looking perfect.”
“That was the point I realised that things can change for an artist, ‘cause that’s not even really a song. I realised you can lose an artist, because I’d lost touch with Ghetts’ music for a little while after “Freedom of Speech” and a few other things. But when I re-latched into it again, after the clashes and whatever, it was via “One Take”.
“At that point we were just walking into streaming and music was changing a lot, but he was still releasing music like that. I was like ‘Yeah, you’re one of the greatest for me - not just from the UK, you’re just one of the greatest lyricists I’ve ever heard. That was the point I realised you changed your pocket, you changed your flow, but you still sound like Ghetts.’
“Ghetts is a perfect example of an artist that has managed to break themselves down into different spaces because of all the different sides of them; he’s an artist with multitudes. He knows exactly how to control all of them and how to utilise them to invoke the right emotions and reactions from his music. “One Take” was the point that I realised that, which then reflected on what my potential could be.”
“This was the point where Meek Mill had just dropped Dreamchasers 2 and it was the first music I’d heard from him. I think that was the first time a lot of people in the UK were discovering him and his story and looking into his music more after he signed with MMG [Maybach Music Group].
“Tony Story” inspired “Letter to a Dealer”, a freestyle that I wrote in 2011 and I’ve been performing it the exact same way ever since. It’s a timeless kinda story of different situations I’ve either seen firsthand or been told about by the people who experienced them. From having children with someone you don’t want to have children with, all the way through to ‘You’re only selling drugs because your part-time job doesn’t pay you enough. You need another source of income quickly, because you’ve just had a child with someone and she needs to move into your place.’
“Things like that - how the starting point for a lot of people isn’t the drugs or the violence, or anything like that. It could just simply be you started smoking too early. It could simply be having an argument with your parents one day and you never got to resolve that, so you started lashing out and then got stuck in the lifestyle you lashed out into.
“I remember exactly where I was when I first listened to “Tony Story”. I was walking back from a youth club across the road from the estate I grew up on, so it was very much an ‘Am I the storyteller and the protagonist?’ kind of moment. It was like that moment after listening to J Cole, where I thought ‘Wow, you can do more than just writing freestyles about how sick you are and instead write songs about whatever you want. It doesn’t have to have a chorus. It could simply be an amazing piece of music.’
“It obviously had very little vocal arrangement or anything like that in it - it was just him speaking about something that had happened, something he’d seen happen, something that he believed happened or whatever the case may be. It was a journey and that was one of the first points where I realised I can take people on a journey without having to give them a hook or a chorus, and really, really say something important.
“It made it easier for me to understand what my capabilities were. If someone’s rapping about that context but you’re not really putting your emotions into it, your monotone sound does well on the beat, but it doesn’t amplify the emotion. But if the music is beautiful and you’re putting your emotions into it, you’re gonna amplify the emotions of the listener.
“There’s a specific type of artist, especially in rap and grime, that’s able to do this in all forms. I think Meek Mill was good at throwing his pain inside his music - easily - because a lot of it came from the pain, especially in the earlier days. So yeah, “Tony Story” was a big one for me.”
“This isn’t specifically one song, it’s an arrangement of covers that Shakka did back in the early 2010s. Listening to those Shakkapellas was the first point I realised I could start using my voice more. He inspired me to use my voice less for rap, and more to try and sing and write songs and melodies. In terms of the UK, without Shakka and Ghetts I probably wouldn’t be who I am, especially not in music.
“The Shakkapella series - any of the songs - was so inspiring; watching him build a beat without any of the instruments, that was fantastic to me. It was such a flagrant display of how somebody can use part of their vocal box and chords to take music that was already amazing and make it even more amazing - and then add your own twist to that. He just rebuilt beats, beatboxing different sounds into a mic, layering it up in the studio and then putting original cover lyrics over those beats; songs by Beyoncé, Frank Ocean and whoever else.
“Again, he gave me the motivation, the inspiration and the courage to start using my voice to sing more. ‘Cause he had such a unique kind of vocal as well, and most of what I’d heard was American R&B, because nobody in the UK was really singing in a way that resonated with me. When I heard Shakkapella, I was like ‘Yeah that’s something I wanna try and I wanna make sure I hone this side of me so I can write better songs.’
“It’s just about what balance I think a song might need. I think I always had the ability to sing, in whatever capacity, that was always something I had, but I didn’t know how to do it. You always try and sing like people you like, but those people might not have the same vocal range or strength in their voice as you. Your tone might naturally be completely different and a lot more unique in some ways, but you don’t know that until you see or hear somebody else who’s unique, that’s unprecedented to you. Shakka inspired me not just to start to sing, but to try and sing in my way.
“Without Shakkapella I don’t think I would’ve been able to write or sing “Black Girl Magic”. I think I’m finding better ways to naturally create my own sound, with all of the skills that I’ve acquired listening to and being inspired by these artists.”
“This was one of the first songs I heard from the Malibu album and Malibu is gonna go down in history as a classic, 100 percent. That song made me realise that I could naturally implement a more soulful side of myself into my music, and I was inspired to try and add soul and funk to the music I make.
“Without Anderson .Paak’s “Come Down” I wouldn’t have made - and there’s a mad story behind this - “Feet Your Feelings”, which is on my second EP Sensitive. The mad thing is, when we were in South by Southwest in 2018, I played four shows there and then we spent a week in L.A. working with producers. One of the producers had produced another of my favourite songs from Malibu, “Room in Here” and also did Kendrick’s “Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst” on his 2012 album.
“That producer’s name is Like, and he produced “Feet Your Feelings” for me. He heard about me when he was in Berlin, which is where one of my managers is based, and he went to the office to ask about me. Then we ended up in L.A. together a few months later. That was a proper surreal moment for me, like ‘I’m working with the same guy that’s worked with two of the people that are very influential in my growth and breadth as an artist.’
“What was that like? I think trying to make a note of those moments when they happen isn’t really the point. The point is to live and feel as much as you can and be brave enough to be inspired by things. Those three things combined will later trigger your hindsight into going ‘That was a really big feeling, I was feeling it all, but that point there was crazy. It changed everything I started doing after that.’ But you can only do that when you’re looking back, I think it’s quite difficult to do at the time. It feels a lot more natural at the time; you think ‘Oh, this is something I could do too’ or ‘I didn’t know I could do this until this person…’ - which is a big feeling, because you discover something new about yourself.
“At that time you’re excited so you just go and do it, you start experimenting and doing different things and then you grow. At that moment you’re not even thinking about ‘Oh my God, this is like a pivotal moment!’ Then you’ll look back - you’ll listen to your music and you’ll have interviews - and you’ll realise that thing you thought you were just experimenting with is actually a part of you.
“You’ll keep looking back at different points in your life until they all sync up and you’re at one with yourself or whatever. If you knew all this in the moment it wouldn’t affect you the same way. You’d conceptualise it and mentally put it in a box too quickly, so you wouldn’t have been able to feel it in its fullest form.”
“Listening to that song and seeing the video for it was the first time I saw the image of a black woman as magical. I thought, ‘Wow, you are actually a magical being.’ I was able to conceptualise it later on - when I was writing songs like “Black Girl Magic” - what the potential of a black woman looks like in my mind, you get me. It’s this [magic], combined with my Mum. The actual, active love I have for my Mum and what she’s done for me and how she’s raised me - and my Grandma too, because I was raised by my Grandma first - combined with the objective view of somebody’s depiction of a black woman in this India Arie video.
“Those two things combined were the driving force behind writing “Black Girl Magic” and shooting the video in the way I did. Not to say that they’re similar, but “Brown Skin” definitely inspired the energy of it. It was also one of the first points I saw a black woman say ‘I love the way I look, I love the way you look and I love the way we look together. Everyone in this situation is exclusively darker of skin and that’s allowed.’ Bearing in mind, I had no understanding of what love between a black woman and a black man looked like, because my parents weren’t together when I was growing up. My Dad was abusive, so it was the opposite.
“The reason my music is the way it is, and the reason I speak the way I do about being black and being British is because we’re all still figuring it out in a lot of ways. I can’t speak for other people, but in terms of the people that I liked, that are similar to me I guess, we’re all figuring it out, because the foundations weren’t there.
“Whereas for someone like yourself, maybe, and for someone like you, potentially, you lot might know exactly what a nuclear family looks like and take that for granted. Whereas I haven’t seen my Dad in like, over ten years, and he has no interest in wanting to know me at all. He was abusive to my Mum and then left before I could even recognise who he was to me - then he came back for like a year and a half and left again. I haven’t seen him since.
“There’s been points where I’ve called him and he’s been “Yeah, just call me when you get the social services” and then didn’t pick up the phone. There’s a lot of people that don’t look like us but have situations like that, because they come from working class families that were broken to start with. That might’ve made them amazing people, but it doesn’t mean that their family dynamic is one they desired. Whereas there’s things that somebody who comes from a nuclear white family and a white space can understand and believe and have nuances of - and feel as though everything is the same for everyone else, until they get told a story and then they think it’s an exception. When really, it represents quite a large proportion of my community.
“I think those are the things that get overlooked. The little, subtle things where you think ‘We were the same to start with, we had the same opportunities to start with’. Which obviously isn’t the case, because for most people for the first 16-24 years of their life they answer to their parents and believe what their parents believe. But if your parents are inherently being told to not do this and to not be who they are, to not wear their hair a certain way because the way that they look is inappropriate, because they don’t look or act like people in the space. ‘The way you are is inappropriate because you’re not like us, not because what you do is actually inappropriate or because the way your hair’s naturally set up. This is just what our parents have taught us, and this is what their parents have taught them.’
“And because this is a white space, England itself, this is now the social quota for how things are. Not because it’s right but because that’s the way we know it to be. But the things you know and grew up knowing aren’t always the things that are always right. Then we just have to kind of live with that and be ‘Alright, cool, I have to wear weave - so let me just make the weave stylish seeing as I have to wear this everyday’. Or ’Alright, cool, I have to take my hood down when I’m around people that look vulnerable to the public, i.e. white women or children or whatever, even though I’m just coming back from football with my bredrins and I’ve done nothing wrong, I’ve never committed a crime in my life.’
“I just socially know that this woman is gonna see me and could potentially view me as an aggressor. I’ve got no interest in her life at all, but I have to consider her before I consider myself - that’s the level to which that goes. If I’m curvaceous as a black woman and I go on a night out, this isn’t a natural culture of what women in the UK would look like, but I’m so much more voluptuous than these women. When I go out, men (which is a whole other thing) feel like they’re more obliged to touch me or physically interact with me, just based on the fact that I’m a fetish to them.
“You have to wake up every single day and think that - you could just be going to work in your pencil skirt and think that and that could happen to you. It’s like at every point there’s a part of us that we have to pacify, whereas as a white woman, you don’t have those same situations - you have them as a woman, but not because of your skin colour.
“I think there’s a lot that people speak and have conversations about but they’re not even qualified, because no one black is in the room. That’s why representation is so important, you can’t have a conversation about something that your culture doesn’t dominate, in whatever respect - consumable, music, whatever. If you’re trying to tap a culture you can’t have a room full of people and no one - not even 10% of that room - is of that culture.
“It doesn’t make sense, but that’s inherently how it’s gonna be, because this is just the way it’s always been – ‘I’ve always hired all people... it doesn’t matter what they are’, but really it does, and you’re just not willing to accept that. White privilege is not ‘I’m hiring you because you’re white’, white privilege is ‘I’m hiring you because you remind me of somebody that I know, that I feel safe and comfortable around… which is my son, my daughter, my nephew, my niece, my neighbour’s son or daughter. You remind me of all the people that look like my family. That’s why you have a preference in my mind and that’s not even a preference that I’m willing to accept I’m giving you.’
“So that’s why it doesn’t exist to me, but it exists to you. Does that make sense? I think it depends on what kind of upbringing you have, but if you look at the general, white middle class upbringing, it doesn’t really involve the culture, ever. In that respect, there’s no limit to what you can understand, but there’s a limit to how far you can want to understand something. And that’s a process that you make as an individual, based on whatever you’ve learnt.
“If 100% of the people in the room are white, but 80% of the people who consume the ting are not white, how are you ever really gonna be able to tap and understand the little things that are gonna get that [missing] 20% to consume it? The other 20% are waiting for you to give them the little details that draw them in individually, one by one. And everyone else who is already involved is gonna feel it even more. But you’re not gonna get to that point of intensity with your audience if nobody in the room is from that culture or demographic.
“You can say ‘Oh, well we’ve done this in this year’, but it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in this year - you’ve already made millions off of it and have set up a whole life that contributes to exactly what we’re trying to fight. And you just look at that as business, but it affects our lives in a completely different way and that’s why you need 40% of that room to be of the culture, and not just 10. Because you wouldn’t even behave the way you’re behaving in your normal life if you had that understanding, that interaction, that respect.
“But you don’t - and you don’t wanna admit you don’t have that respect either - so where does the conversation even begin? It is what it is. Everyone’s just trying figure it out, man - and the only time I blame you is when you know better, but you choose not to do better.”
“At some point in my life I’ve revisited every single one of the songs on this list and I continue to listen to them in different ways - sporadically and amongst all the new music and the stuff I’m making. Whether they’re part of my playlists or generally in life, because they’re fundamentally just good songs.
“All of the music I’d made up until this point kinda started to look different. I think everything was so soulful up until I started listening to Drake - his stuff was soulful, but it also had another layer of emotional intelligence to it.
“A lyric didn’t even need to be clever lyrically, it just needed to hit you emotionally, d’you know what I mean? Because he’s said some lyrics that, grammatically as sentences probably don’t even make sense. But with the door of context that lyric opens in your own life, you’re like ‘Wow, that lyric hit me’ - and the fact it wasn’t clever and it hit me makes it even more so.
“Headlines” was when I realised that about Drake as a rapper. I thought ‘Yeah this is another thing that I can do, another thing that resonates with the person I am, so I need to exercise this muscle as well.’ Drake’s learnt to hone that skill now and I think it’s one of the biggest USPs with his music.”
“That’s another storytelling song. “Ross Capicchioni” was a rap tale that I heard I don’t know how many years before and had completely forgotten the name of the artist. Even back then it had 4 million views or something and I was blown away by it. Another friend came to my best friend’s house (the house I was at when I first heard the Kendrick track) and was like “Listen to this rap that I found on Facebook”. He told us the name of the artist but we just didn’t remember Joyner’s name after that.
“So then in 2019 I lost my laptop at Glasto’ with all my music on it, all the music I was gonna release. I thought about the fact that I’d researched Joyner Lucas and I’d started to become such a big fan of his music, especially due to that track. I found out that he’d directed the visual for “Ross Capicchioni”, with somebody else, and that everything I’d heard from him up until that point he had also directed. Prior to this point I had written and directed all of my visuals [like Joyner]. So coming up to 2019 now, I’m drawing on that same energy from that “Ross Capicchioni” track that I was listening to in 2015.
“I loved that album he dropped after [508-507-2209], it was all songs that were stories and about different points in his life. That track wasn’t on the album, but it was the catalyst for me to think ‘Wow, everything I’m doing is actually something that would resonate with me if someone else was doing it.’ Like, ‘I can be a fan of myself’ is what that song taught me. Because I was already directing and writing my own videos and I was already telling stories, because I listened to Meek however many years before that.
“When I found that track again and started listening to it and Joyner Lucas more - around the same time I lost my laptop - that was what gave me the motivation to start releasing freestyles. Those freestyles ended up making fans of people like Wiley and Stormzy, they actively followed me when I started releasing this stuff.
"These are freestyles that have less than 10,000 views on YouTube right now as we speak but were such good displays of lyrical prowess and creativity. I didn’t think this was the way that music worked now, but listening to that Joyner Lucas track put me back in my like, ‘You need to impress people - you don’t just need to make good songs, you need to impress them with your lyrical ability and your creativity.’
“It inspired me to forget about trying to put out songs with glossy videos and just go back to directing short little freestyles with short pieces of content that I’d written. Just going back to zero and starting again. It’s a base point for my inspiration, all of these songs are.”