A group of young men sit with hoods over their heads in a silver BMW outside a block of flats. The evening is illuminated by the thin sodium glare of street lamps. But there is an extra source of lighting here too — a panel of bright LED lights held by a member of the film crew clustered around the car.
One of its occupants is the up-and-coming rapper Fredo. He is filming a video for a song from his debut album Third Avenue. The title refers to the street he grew up on, which is around the corner from where the BMW is parked. Local references pepper his verses, an obsessively mapped tribute to the small patch of London that Fredo calls home.
By coincidence it is also my home: I live on Third Avenue. When we meet a few days later, the rapper is surprised to learn that we share the same neighbourhood. But despite my familiarity with the places that crop up in his music — the cover of Third Avenue shows him holding the street sign — our experiences of the area are utterly different. It is as though two parallel worlds co-exist in the same space.
“I wanted to dedicate it to where I’m from because I felt like where I’m from made me who I am today,” he explains, sitting in a room in the offices of Sony Records, owner of the Since ’93 imprint to which Fredo is signed. Fredo’s real name is Marvin Bailey; the nickname was given to him in childhood (it has nothing to do with the pitiably useless character from The Godfather). Our shared London postcode, W10, is tattooed on his hand. Hidden by a crisp white T-shirt, a local street name is tattooed on his stomach.
“Everyone knows everyone, it’s like a little community,” he says in a soft voice. “It’s got its own little vibe and its own little things going on round there. It’s just my block, man.”
The block in question is the Mozart Estate, or “the ‘zart” as Fredo calls it — a social housing complex in the northern tip of the central London borough of Westminster. (I live in one of the terraced houses that line the same street.) Although it contains many of the city’s most famous sights and has among the highest property prices in the world, Westminster also contains areas of considerable deprivation. In 2007, when Fredo was 12, the Mozart Estate was identified as having a 100 per cent rate of child poverty.
Now 23, he has spent most of his life in the area. But success in music — last year his collaboration with fellow London rapper Dave, “Funky Friday”, reached number one in the UK singles charts, while his mixtape Tables Turn was a top 10 hit in the album charts — has enabled him to move to Chelsea, a much tonier part of London.
He took up rapping comparatively late, releasing his first single in 2016. His songs are in a style known as “road rap”, a British variant of US gangsta rap and trap music. They depict a grim world of stabbings, shootings, drug-dealing and gang rivalries. The beats have a gothic, steely tint, “cold” and “dark” in his words, while the lyrical tone shifts between boastfulness, documentation and contrition. One track is starkly titled “Survival of the Fittest”. Another extends an apology to his mother for being a “bad kid”.
He had spent his teenage years and young adulthood involved in what he describes as “bad stuff”, and had two spells in prison on remand, in 2016 and 2017, both times for stabbing-related charges that were dropped before reaching court. He has been the victim of an attack himself.
“I got stabbed four times on one occasion. Trying to get my chains and all that,” he says neutrally. The assault happened on the local high street.
“It was me, and it happened, but there are things that I regret,” he says. “There’s a lot to look back on in my life and a lot to think about. Sometimes I’m better at explaining it in music than real life.”
London is suffering an epidemic of stabbings. They made up more than half of the violent deaths in the city last year. “How could you not expect young people to rap about that?” Fredo says.
But the topic is controversial. The sub-genre drill music — related to road rap but stylistically different — has come under particular scrutiny for its violent lyrics. Last month, two London drill rappers, Skengdo and AM, received a suspended prison sentence for performing a song at a gig. According to Index on Censorship, it is the first time in British legal history that such a sanction has been applied.
“Obviously I don’t agree with it,” Fredo says. “You have [violent video] games like Grand Theft Auto and you want to ban drill music? You’re going to have to ban all that stuff, like horror movies and so on.”
The notion of responsibility exists in his music, but only as it relates to representing himself and his background truthfully — a skewed kind of morality amid the criminality that forms a portion of his subject matter. “The only way I can start compromising myself is if I start being a hypocrite and telling people not to do certain things that I’ve done,” he says.
Success has had the odd effect of removing him from his neighbourhood while simultaneously making him a figurehead of it. He visits the Mozart Estate frequently; his mother and younger brother still live on Third Avenue. “I’m out of that trap, but none of my friends are,” he says. “So how far out am I really? When you’re so rich and you’re really out you can bring your friends with you. I’m not there yet.
“Now that I’m rapping, doing no bad stuff and I’m out of the area, if you [ask guys in the area] who do you want to get, they’ll say me. Because I’m the face of it. It makes you a target.”
The place has changed since he was a teenager. “It’s quieter now. Everyone’s got older and the younger generation are not how we were. A lot of people are in jail,” he says. Amid the brutalities, warmth shines through. “It’s just so much memories around there,” he says. “My area’s like my other family.”
‘Third Avenue’ is out now on Since ’93
Get alerts on Music when a new story is published