“I’ve gone from playing youth clubs, not knowing what I’m doing, to having a conversation with Idris Elba about an album,” says rising rapper Che Lingo, still slightly taken aback at his good fortune.
“It was wild, but I maintained my composure. I think I’m quite good at that.”
The south Londoner only became a full-time musician three years ago, but he’s already established himself as one of the UK’s most versatile MCs, equally at home on a hard-hitting grime track as on a sultry R&B jam.
His star began to rise with the release of 2018’s Charisma EP, whose lyrics explored themes of self-doubt and depression, millennial love and the tough choices facing young people on London’s deprived estates.
It was when one of those songs – Same Energy – was selected for the soundtrack of the Netflix drama Top Boy, that Elba came knocking.
Che, who keeps his real name a secret, signed to the Luther star’s record label in February this year. His first single under the deal, My Block, unexpectedly ended up soundtracking Black Lives Matter protests in London this summer. Some protesters even wore T-shirts bearing one of its lyrics, “black don’t mean illegal”.
“I’m still kind of trying to catch up to that feeling,” says the 28-year-old, months after the event.
The song was originally written about one of his friends, Julian Cole, a sports science student and semi-professional footballer who was left paralysed and brain damaged after being arrested outside a nightclub in Bedford in 2013.
Rather than being taken to hospital, Cole was driven to a police station. Only after police officers noticed he was unresponsive in the van was an ambulance called.
Three police officers were later sacked over the tragedy, after they were found to have lied in statements about Cole’s condition when he was restrained.
“Bro, how can you call that justice?” asks Che in My Block. From his perspective, the misconduct ruling is too lenient – a technicality that doesn’t reflect the impact on Mr Cole, who has yet to receive compensation for his injuries.
“Somebody’s neck was broken. You’re supposed to go to prison for that,” says the rapper. “The majority of us know people who have gone to prison for a lot less.”
Bedfordshire Police have always maintained that there is no evidence the officers were to blame for Mr Cole’s injuries. No prosecutions were brought with two reviews concluding that the test to prosecute was not met.
But Che remains concerned about police brutality and believes that it goes unpunished in the UK as often as in the US, where the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked the global Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year.
“In English culture there’s a lot of etiquette and politeness. So when you when you bring vulgar things into that prim and properness, people have been turning their eyes for so long that, come now, it doesn’t even feel like it’s a problem.
“But it does happen here. It does. And people don’t get the justice they deserve.”
Che stresses that his music isn’t deliberately political. Instead, he writes from a place of emotion – whether he’s talking about his upbringing, his relationships or the expectations placed on his generation.
The rapper was raised by his maternal grandmother on Wandsworth’s Surrey Lane Estate, after his mother and father split up.
Growing up as a child of a broken home, “it was hard to find a foundation in family values,” he says, describing himself as “a misfit” who suffered “a lot of identity crises” over his appearance and his weight,
There was also a tension between home life – where his Jamaican grandmother instilled him with strict morals and a strong work ethic – and the drug dealing and violence he witnessed outside his front door.
“The community was good, but it wasn’t a good place,” he has said. “Sometimes you couldn’t walk through the estate.”
“There was a lot of things going on around me that I wasn’t a part of – and looking back I’m happy that I wasn’t a part of,” he reflects.
His grandmother did her best to protect him from deleterious influences with strict curfews and extra lessons after school. But she also introduced him to reggae and R&B, as a counterpoint to the first wave of grime he was devouring on Tim Westwood’s radio show.
“So you’ve got three very passionate, politically-driven, emotionally intelligent forms of music – and that’s what I liked.”
Music was something he could latch onto to define his character and bolster his confidence. He started rapping in the playground and, in his teens, became “a hobbit in the youth clubs,” so he could learn the basics of recording.
His first efforts were elementary at best, but with the encouragement of a youth club mentor known as “Sugar Ray”, the youngster started to hone his skills.
“There’s two sides to what made me a rapper,” he says. “One was how articulate and clever can I be with the lyric. So, similar to a boy with a football, it’s like what tricks can I do to impress the olders? And then the other side of it was, what am I doing in my real life that can relate to the music?”
He released his first EP, Trillingo, in 2012, with the stand-out track Level Up providing a showcase for his easy-going cadence and lyrical dexterity.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I knew what I wanted it to look like,” he laughs when reminded of the early release,
“I saw myself as somebody with ability, do you know what I mean? And finding out how to cultivate that ability is one whole part of life for me.”
Over the next few years, he studied production skills and improved his flow; shuttling between three different youth clubs to maximise his studio time.
At the age of 15, he moved in with his mother and two step-siblings in Harrow, adding a new layer of complication to his life.
“Suddenly I had to assume a lot of new roles – big brother, little kid – and at the same time, I was still travelling back to south [London] to use the studios.
“Obviously, to do that I had to have money – so I had about 10 part-time jobs. My day would consist of going to work in the morning, going to college in the evening, going to the studio in the night, then getting back home at stupid o’clock in the morning.”
By 2016, he’d signed a management contract and a publishing deal with Concord – which looks after the likes of Daft Punk, Mark Ronson and MIA.
“I paid my rent down for a year, I helped my family get away to Jamaica to see my great-grandma, and then I gave them money to fix the house in Jamaica as well,” he says.
With the money left over, he built a home studio and started working on his breakthrough EP, Charisma.
The opening track, Freedom Is Scary, laid bare the excitement and fear that accompanied his transition into being a full-time musician.
“I’m taking a risk, leap of faith,” he rapped. “It’s frightening going after what you want in life.”
His next release was a more introspective collection – the aptly-titled Sensitive EP – which he described as “a guide through my dating experiences of 2018”.
But it was Same Energy – a sly, funny track that called out the producers and artists who’d ignored him at the start of his career, only to DM him begging for a hook-up when his star began to rise – that caught the attention of Idris Elba’s label 7Wallace.
“Fast forward a couple of months later, and Idris is on the phone calling me a genius and saying his son listens to me.
“I’m like, ‘You’re Idris Elba, bro! This is mad that you’re talking to me, just casually, about how sick you think I am.'”
With the record deal signed, Che got to work on his debut album – The Worst Generation – which was released last week.
Sharp and incisive, it dissects the lessons he’s learned over the years, from the autobiographical opening track, South, to the social commentary of Black Ones, which talks about the “suffocating” pressure of his neighbourhood.
“It’s a day in the life of somebody who’s perceived to be a road man. He’s just the youth that made some bad decisions as a kid. Now he’s grown up, he doesn’t want anything to do with that lifestyle, but he can’t escape it because things are still following him,” he says.
The rest of the album discusses everything from masculinity and vulnerability to the healing power of love. On one song, he jokingly calls himself “the woke rapper” – but the unifying theme is genuinely a “cry for change and understanding”.
The record is delivered “from the point of view of a young black kid that wasn’t a bad boy or a road man or nothing,” he says.
“So it’s from that perspective as opposed to always being from what people perceive to be the ‘worst of a generation’. I love who I grew up with, regardless of what happened in their lives and what hard decisions they had to make.
“It’s coming from a very sentimental place. I just want better for us – and I want us to understand each other in a different way.”