Photography by Hayley Louisa Brown
It’s a universally observed but always unspoken element of live show etiquette that the back wall of the venue is reserved for the old folks. While the teenagers thrash to find the front row at the opposite end of the room, the few in attendance who are at least a decade older than the average age of the crowd have a safe space where they can nonchalantly lean against a wall, drink in hand, surveying the mayhem occurring in the mosh pit from a comfortable distance.
In late August of this year, Sheck Wes played a sold-out show at Corsica Studios in Elephant & Castle. That space for the elderly did not exist. I arrived around 15 minutes before Sheck’s stage time to find that the assembled mass inside the venue was close to overflowing onto the street, a congregation of teenage kids gathered in South London for 20 minutes of pure pandemonium with their new idol. Six songs later (including the obligatory reload of turn up phenomenon “Mo Bamba”), Sheck’s flock dispersed into the night having a witnessed a visceral, victorious performance.
“Everywhere I go, kids go crazy,” he tells me the following day after wrapping our cover shoot. “There’s a crazy connection between us, because I can relate to them, and we’re pretty much the same age. Even in Europe, I can relate to the French kids because I can understand the language – my mom speaks French, my Dad speaks French. At home we speak Wolof, so I relate to a lot of the kids out here from African families too, because I know exactly what type of house they come from. The whole of Africa holds the same value on respect in the house.”
Sheck has experienced a prodigious rise over the past year, propelled by the runaway viral success of “Mo Bamba”, a studio freestyle recorded in 2017 that exploded in 2018 to the point that The New York Times and Washington Post both saw fit to profile the rise of the three-minute Soundcloud loosie from an underground favourite to a cultural-cornerstone behemoth hit, staking a claim for hottest track of the year. “Yep, it was a one-take freestyle,” Sheck recalls, a year on from that day in the studio with producers Take A Daytrip and 16yrold. As the hundreds of kids packed into Corsica Studios can testify, the song’s crescendo comes when the beat stops abruptly, interrupting the course of Sheck’s flow-of-conscious delivery, before suddenly reappearing right on time as he reveals a newly frantic flow, prophetically exclaiming “Young Sheck Wes and I’m gettin’ really rich!” The moment was completely spontaneous, a moment of inexplicable alchemy. “The beat ended, and I was about to be hot because I was in the middle of my freestyle. I was like ‘Fuck, shit, bitch!’ Then when it came back on and I hopped back on the beat, that’s why I said ‘See how I caught it, ’cause I’m really with the shit.’ It was a crazy session.” In the aforementioned New York Times feature, Denzel Baptiste of Take A Daytrip likened the moment to seeing someone perfectly execute a triple backflip and land on their feet. Even the typically laid-back, unphased Sheck admits that “it was magic.”
“But then, the whole of MUDBOY is going to be a magic trick,” he continues, referring to his debut album released through Interscope Records via Travis Scott’s Cactus Jack imprint and Kanye West’s GOOD Music. “Everyone looks at me like ‘he’s 19 [Sheck was a month shy of his 20th birthday at the time of the interview], he makes lit turn up music, so he’s just like everyone else. Another crazy kid.’ But then people talk to me and realise I’m different. I don’t spend my money on chains or dumb shit. I really feel like MUDBOY is going to prove who I am and what I do: I’m an artist. Not a rapper.” They are lofty goals for a debut project, but observing the energy with which he speaks about the creative process, it would be unwise to underestimate him. After hearing an unofficial preview of the album – unmastered tracks played from Sheck’s iPhone provided the soundtrack to his photoshoot – it’s truly a display of his depth as an artist, lyrically and sonically, and at the time was continuing to evolve; after the London show, he was in his hotel writing new material until the early hours.
“When it drops, it’s going to be missiles, bombs,” he proclaims. “It’s my first project. I feel like it has to be perfect.” I’m compelled to ask if that pursuit of perfection is a result of the added pressure of so many eyes being on him so early in his career. How does he cope with the weight of expectation? With characteristic confidence, of course: “I’m a leader now. As a leader, you’re supposed to inspire people. And praises be to the Most High, I see the impact from the things that I’m doing already.”
“I wish people asked me about my music more,” he admits while he animatedly discusses the draft versions of some of the album’s tracks that he had shared. “With my story, people always ask me personal questions. But if you just listen to my music, you don’t have to.” Nevertheless, the experiences of Sheck’s first nineteen years are remarkable, and he admits have gone a long way to shaping the man he is today. “It definitely helped me be more well-rounded. A lot of people don’t realise my age because I move like someone so much older.” Certainly in speaking to him, witnessing first hand his drive, level-headedness and self-assurance, he does seem like someone old before his time, something that Sheck recognises in himself. “I definitely grew up fast. And sometimes it sucks, because it’s kind of not my fault.”
For the unitiated, here’s a quick refresher course on Sheck’s back-story: Born Khadimoul Rassoul Cheikh Fall in Harlem, NY, where he lived until he was five years old, when his mother moved to Milwaukee to open a hair salon and took young Khadimoul with her. After a decade splitting time between Milwaukee and New York (during school holidays,) Sheck moved back to Harlem and began fruitful journeys down several divergent pathways in life; a serious basketball talent, he led all of New York in assists in his junior year of high school. Meanwhile, he was scouted by a model agency while riding the subway and was making successful steps in that world. An adolescence spent observing the moves of older mentors in businesses both legitimate and otherwise also led him to sell weed. Unimpressed with some of her youngest son’s lifestyle choices, Sheck’s mother took action, sending him to her home country of Senegal to spend time with his extended family in a bid to straighten him out. Upon arriving and meeting his older brother for the very first time, he was advised to hand over his passport to his sibling so it would not be stolen. It quickly transpired that he wouldn’t see his passport again until he had been rehabilitated to his family’s satisfaction, forcing him to attend a religious institution. Although Sheck explains that his Senegalese odyssey was “really against my will,” he is quick to credit the experience for completely changing both his character and his life’s path.
“Africa grew me up super, super quick,” he reflects, explaining that his daily routine in Senegal was such that it “just didn’t allow me time to be childish.” His schedule was intense: “I went to a religious leader’s house every day. It was a 2-mile trek, with a mile on sand. I would take my books with me and sit there at his feet every day, and he would teach me things. I had to get there after the second prayer and wouldn’t leave until after the last prayer.” Despite his initial objections, Sheck learned to embrace the lessons of his life in Senegal. “As a human being, you don’t want to continue hurting yourself. I was at a point where I’m like ‘I’m not going to make this shit hard for myself; I’m going to accept it.’” Speaking with Sheck of the experience, it’s clear that he’s still deeply moved by the profound impact of that trip (which ended up lasting for four months). He tells me that would love to make another trip to his familial homeland, and that his ultimate ambition is to “build a lot of hospitals in Africa.”
Stepping back into the present day, he quickly explains his other, more short-term ambition: “Also, I want ‘Mo Bamba’ to become a soccer chant. I feel like it would work. I want Liverpool to use it for Mo Salah.” And it’s a fitting illustration of the duality of Sheck Wes – the old head on young shoulders, the noble ambition and intent matched with youthful exuberance and enthusiasm. That vibrant energy is also plain to see on Sheck’s Instagram, a constant stream of Stories showcasing him invariably shooting hoops in a gym, staying up all night in the studio, the occasional emoji-adorned selfie, and a lot of monologues on everything from motivation to the NFL, all recorded from the back seat of various vehicles. With only four songs on iTunes and only a handful of previous interviews, @sheckwes is the access point by which fans can get to know him. The success of his online presence is, of course, no accident. “I really know how to control that shit. On Instagram, you either got to be super cool and people want to look at you, or you got to be super annoying and be doing dumb shit every day to get attention. That’s today’s game, and it works for me – I really connect with my fans on there because they see that I’m just like them,” he tells me. The content he shares online is hardly access-all-areas, though: “I’m not too open with my personal life, about my friends or other people who are artists. I’m not the guy who’s going to be snapping everything.”
“I hope all the kids tell they friends about this - this is my first magazine cover as an artist,” he says, almost to himself, as our time together draws to a close and Sheck prepares to rush off for a radio performance across town. “I already been on a magazine cover as a model. Next I need a cover as a basketball player.” It’s been a long day, following a late night, but he’s suddenly re-energised. “I need to get on SLAM Magazine!” he excitedly commands the assembled record label press team. “I’m going to get in the Celebrity All-Star Game, score 50 points and then get on the cover. I want that so bad. I hope they put Quavo on the other team.” As the final unexpected detour of our conversation comes to a close and Sheck climbs into a van bound for Central London, I look up the date of next year’s NBA All Star Game on my phone – a weekend in February. They should start etching Sheck’s name on the Celebrity Game MVP trophy already.