Momodou Jallow – known as J Hus (J for Jallow, Hus for hustler) – is standing in a square glass chamber suspended over a pond in the tropical walled garden of a house in south London. It’s one of those extremely urban-futuristic homes; the kind you’d expect Charlie Brooker to use for an opening scene in Black Mirror in which a young and smarmy couple drink Châteauneuf-du-Pape and laugh about society before being overpowered and strangled by their robot vacuum cleaner.
The glass chamber serves as an outhouse, and contains a floral armchair, a navy sofa, and a family of cacti. Beneath, some koi carp slurp around the pond. It’s hard not to feel a bit bad for the carp, trapped in a confined space and expected to just look good for whoever’s passing by.
Half in the sun, half in the shade of an overhanging fern tree, J Hus is statuesque and presidential, perfectly still, one hand rested on the inner wall of the glass chamber. He’s wearing a tan jacket and a patterned shirt. He is alone in the chamber; his reflection bounces off each of the walls and surrounds him.
He looks jaded, but he looks good. As the photographer diligently takes his shots, two rowdy wasps get trapped in there with Hus, and one has the almighty balls to land on his cheek. For a nanosecond we have the National Geographic-meets-ShortList cover photo of the year. Then he swats with his right hand and gestures at the wasp as it flies away, as one would angrily appeal for a foul from a referee.
When the shoot ends, I take him to the only quiet place in the house to do the interview – a second bedroom upstairs with animal furs draped over the bed and an intimidating hog’s head leering at us from the wall. We perch on the end of the bed. He’s changed back into his own clothes: jeans, polo shirt, and Versace glasses. But he doesn’t look any more comfortable. There’s a large mirror in the corner facing us, which means no matter where he looks, he ends up looking at me again.
Hus loves music. He lives, breathes, eats, and shits music. On more than one occasion in our conversation he says the words, “I am music.” His emails are full of beats for his consideration and his iPhone notes are jammed with lyrics written for said beats.
His debut album, Common Sense, was finished rapidly ahead of schedule. It went platinum, selling upwards of 600,000 copies, and has now been nominated for the Mercury Prize. While creating it, he often slept on a single mattress on the floor of the studio. In a recent interview in Music Week with his two managers (who are his childhood friends), they admitted to making concerted efforts to stop him from constantly going into the studio and recording piles of new material they can’t even release yet.
I ask him how he spent album release day – imagining that he might paint a scene of his family at the new home he bought his mum, popping champagne and grinning until it hurt – but he shrugs and says he was in the studio. What about the day it charted at number six? That’s pretty huge for a 21-year-old east London rapper whose first-ever mixtape only came out in 2015. “That day?” he says, looking at himself in the mirror and readjusting his glasses. “I was in the studio. I didn’t do anything special.” Why not? “I’m not really that kind of guy. I do things, and then I move on.”
On record and on stage, Hus is vibrant, ecstatic, and charmingly aggressive, switching between raps that hit you in the chest like a bullet train and elevating melodies that make your head slowly zig-zag through the air. He is everything good about UK urban music right now, all at once. He has the bars and the beats, a me-against-the-world inner-city London grit and a infectious flair for taking the piss out of himself (‘I’m an ugly man making sexy money,’ he sings on ‘Friendly’).
One thing Hus doesn’t love is this: interviews; long, deep chats; leading questions; sitting with someone he has never met and being asked to tell his story. He is quiet, retiring and impressively economical with his voice, creating as little verbal waste as possible.
It’s easy to confuse shyness and introversion. He is quite clearly not shy. Sure, he often stares at his shoes and occasionally grumbles his way out of questions, but it’s not because he fears my social judgement or that he is uncomfortable enough to want the aforementioned hog on the wall to eat him up. It’s not because he’s rude, either – he is courteous and smiling throughout, even when his eyes are saying ‘fuck off’.
“It’s not shyness,” he says, turning to face me for the first time. “This, this interview… This is not how I personally express myself. I’m not in my comfort zone right now. I’m not good at speaking, and my communication skills aren’t the best. I just don’t express myself how you or others do. I’m a reserved and very private guy. I express myself through music; that’s how I talk.”
When Hus makes songs, he doesn’t plan them. He’s only ever planned one – the overtly poppy ‘Lean & Bop’ – and that’s because his mother demanded he make something his little brother could enjoy. Usually, he walks into the studio, where his longtime collaborator Jae5 will have either produced or executive produced a beat, and then writes lyrics to it. It sounds like a fast-food approach to art, but it’s also what makes his music so special.
Common Sense has an ethereal and unbroken feel about it, special moments frozen in time; Hus in a joyful mood, in an angry mood, telling jokes, crooning hooks, circling the mic in the booth like a cheetah, turning out rhymes like ‘Get dough like we’re obligated, dem man discombobulated’. It doesn’t feel like you’re listening to a studio album on your headphones; it feels like you’re voyeuristically arching your ear towards an overcrowded block party that’s kicked off down your road. Many artists have since borrowed from Hus’s sound, but this is the part they will struggle to replicate.
The day before we met, I spoke to 19-year-old UK rapper Dave in a studio in Shepherd’s Bush. He’s Hus’s close friend and occasional collaborator, a person Hus calls his “little brother”. I asked him what he would ask Hus if he was in my shoes. “Whatever you do,” said Dave, “don’t just talk about violence and the past. It’s all people want to ask him about.”
When I tell Hus this, he begins nodding vigorously from the moment I say ‘violence’ until I’ve ended my sentence. “I can do an interview with someone and say so many positive things,” he says, “but that little violent thing is what everyone wants to know about. That’s the juice.”
Before J Hus became the pioneering east London rapper whose debut went platinum, he was just J Hus: the east London rapper who did two stints in prison, was stabbed five times, and then made gang signs from his hospital bed in an Instagram post. I can see now why he might not like interviews.
There is a certain irony to it all; how a young and struggling black man of Muslim origin – a royal flush of British society’s most vilified – can single-handedly use his talent to build an empire not only for himself, but his friends and family, too, only to find all anyone wants to talk to him about is the crap he escaped.
I had plenty of questions about prison floating in my head. I fully intended to get as much detail from him as possible. Because, to most of us who live relatively sheltered lives, the idea of an artist having a criminal past has always been a turn on. It’s a twisted part of the appeal. But to Hus, it isn’t exciting. It’s really shit. “I come from a place where prison is normal. It’s common. Everyone does it…” he says. “Unfortunately.”
What Hus does want to talk about, however, is his song ‘Spirit’, because it is the melodic antithesis to all this. He doesn’t still classify himself as Muslim, but tells me his experiences with Islam as a boy still inform the way that he thinks. You can feel an uplifting religious positivity in ‘Spirit’, with its simultaneously personal and universal message about how there is more to people than the situations or environments that they find themselves in. ‘Hold your head higher,’ he sings, ‘Bill a zoot, then build an empire.’
I ask him if he thinks he might become detached from the pure and fundamental message of Spirit now that money, fame, and success have come to his door, but he shakes his head. “I’ve come this far and I’ve remained myself,” says Hus. “The people who knew me before this will say I’ve stayed the same. I don’t get scared of all this change. I just think what is meant to happen will happen. I love the same people and hang around with the same people, so I will remain the same person.”
J-Hus isn’t press-trained to within an inch of his life, because he didn’t get into the music game for the attention, the celebrity, or the magazine interviews, and, to be honest, he’d prefer not to have his name plastered everywhere. He got into it because, as he says, “music is in me”.
Last summer, he went to a barbecue in his local area. He arrived in a black Mercedes-Benz, and, at the end of the party, he departed in a white one. Sounds fairly innocuous, but to Hus this was the making of a song. “When things are going well you have to do these things, innit,” he explains, “stunt a little bit.” The incident spawned his monster single ‘Did You See’.
Did anyone see? Probably not, no. Hus tells me he’d be lying if he said they did. Few people at barbecues spend their time noting down the exact specs of each guest’s arrival and departure vehicles. And you can imagine their reaction if they did: ‘Wait, I swear Hus came in a black car not a – What? The chicken’s ready? Oh, sweet!’
It didn’t matter. It wasn’t for them. It was for him. It was so he could realise that he’s now reached a stage in his career he never thought possible. He has reached a point in his life where he can buy his mum a new home, feel safe, spend every hour making the music he loves, and do ludicrous stuff just for the hell of it.
Photography: Alex De Mora
Stylist: Sam Carder
Grooming: Alexis Day
Fashion Assistant: Itunu Oke