In Peckham with 454, the Looney Tune of 2020s hip-hop

In Peckham with 454, the Looney Tune of 2020s hip-hop

Above the Rim is a now largely forgotten 1994 film about a talented college kid choosing between his school basketball team and one run by drug dealers. Though it’s cruelly underrated, especially with Tupac Shakur starring in full antagonist mode, a harsh reception from critics effectively sentenced it to life in the charity shop VHS box. But Above the Rim comes with one of the all-time great music-inspired-by-the-film albums: dripping wet R&B courtesy of SWV, Jewell and Al B; a Doggy full house (Nate, Snoop, and Tha Pound on the same track), and a late-career DJ Rogers singing “let’s do it doggie style”.

Among those transfixed by the soundtrack was a young Willie Wilson, now commonly known as 454. Wilson wasn’t born until two years after the film’s release, but around the age of five, he found the CD in his parents’ collection in between The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige’s Share My World. His personal favourite on the CD was “Regulate” by Warren G and Nate Dogg. “That was one of the first songs that I was like damn, I really like this song,” he says. “I think it was the beat. Something about it.”

When we meet, Wilson is sitting on an outdoor table at the Prince of Peckham as the death throes of summer yawn over south London. It’s two days before news breaks that Queen Elizabeth II has passed away, and I’m telling him about the UK’s other national anthem. “Yeah I fuck with Giggs,” he says, confirming his familiarity with Peckham’s most cherished offspring, the closest thing to royalty that you’ll find in these parts. Giggs filmed the video for his immortal single “Talkin’ the Hardest” but a stone’s throw from here. “That’s insane,” says Wilson. “I did not know that.”

He talks in a voice that’s almost as distinctive as his rapping style. His signature is fast vocals, pitched up to an often indistinguishable chirrup. It’s most often accredited to inspiration from Madlib’s Quasimoto albums, but equally reminiscent of Florida’s fast rap scene, the chipmunk vocals of early 90s UK hardcore, and Frank Ocean’s chorus on the Calvin Harris single “Slide”. Although much of the clamour focuses on 454’s cartoonish voice, Wilson is also a gifted producer, a purveyor of fine beats both fast and ultra-slow, touched by influences as broad as cloud rap, jungle, DJ Screw and Curren$y.

After Above the Rim, he discovered Bone Thugs N Harmony. “My parents got me their greatest hits for Christmas when I was six and ah…” he shakes his head. “That CD just changed it all.” TV and video games brought more: through Tony Hawks Underground 2 he got into skateboarding; through Cartoon Network he discovered Looney Tunes and anime; and through Grand Theft Auto III he discovered “First Contact’” by Omni Trio, his first taste of jungle music. “I was like bro this is literally so crazy,” he says. “I love ambient music, so I feel like there’s an incorporation with ambient, and then like clean, fast-paced drums. I think like maybe six or seven years ago is when I really tried to get into making it my own, learning how to do it, diving more deeply into it and seeing Goldie, all the Metalheadz, everybody.” 

These ingredients alchemised as Wilson began publishing music to his friend Tommy’s Soundcloud in 2018, initially under the names Sqvxlls and Lil 454 – an alias chosen to honour his late father, who drove a 1973 Chevy Caprice with a 454 engine. Wilson started doing decent Soundcloud numbers in 2020, first with the single “Late Night”, then Fast Trax, a mixtape/DJ mix of all-original beats and squeaky clean raps. Slo-mo R&B, rapid bars, rave horns, love-soaked lyrics and a Project Pat sample coalesced into a gooey, heavenly syrup unlike anything else on the internet. Melody was everywhere: in the rubber basslines and Nintendo keyboard, and in the vocals, which invariably occupied the highest registers, perhaps altered due to insecurity, perhaps for more creative reasons. It’s like watching an anime battle scene in the sky: there’s no real reason for it to be up there, but there’s also no denying that it gives those punches an added celestial wow factor. 

In conversation, Wilson is every bit as affable and idiosyncratic as he is on record. He even speaks melodically, his utterances peppered with mannerisms like “damn”, “crazy” and “mmhmm” – products perhaps of a southern accent, a weed habit and a bashful charisma.

He grew up in Longwood, in suburban Orlando, Florida, not far from Disney World. When he was 11 his dad was shot. He survived, but the family was shaken up. “I think that was one of the first incidents where it was like ‘Oh shit, everything is not all good right now,’” Wilson says. “Things were a little weird, like very paranoid. We felt like we had to watch our back.” 

[My dad’s death] was one of the things that probably hit me the hardest… I guess you could say I’m struggling with it. But with the music, I try to kind of talk about it… The music definitely helps” – 454 

They moved house, but a year later his dad was shot again. This time he died. “That was one of the things that probably hit me the hardest,” he says. “Even today… I guess you could say I’m struggling with it. But with the music, I try to kind of talk about it, because I don’t really be open much about that. But the music definitely helps, mmhmm.” 

Wilson spent a year studying at home through virtual school, giving him time to help his mum raise Pig, his little sister. As they grew up, she looked the more likely rapper. She made music as Pig the Gemini, as heard on 454 tracks like the unbelievable “BOSSALINI”, on which the siblings’ voices alternate and oscillate ridiculously until they’re indistinguishable and irresistible. At the time, though, Willie was more into skating, eventually filming parts for magazines like Transworld. When he reached adolescence he moved to New York with friends he’d met at skate parks. 

It was there he met his girlfriend Mandy. “My girlfriend brought me out of my shell a lot,” he says. Mandy travels with him on his tour, part of a tight team that also includes Tommy Bohn, a skate friend, videographer and the artist behind the Fast Trax cover and its two sequels. The tour opens on the night we meet at Peckham Audio, before shows in New York, Chicago and LA. Apart from a brief trip to Canada while supporting Aminé earlier this year, this is Wilson’s first time leaving the States.

American rappers often struggle to get weed in the UK, but Wilson is already rolling one as I sit down. “Our Airbnb host hooked us up,” he says, an explanation fitting of someone for whom everything seems to come naturally. Though he’s undeniably shy, he’s also magnetically likeable and unwaveringly positive. His lyrics tell of trauma, seeing demons in dreams, losing friends and even vague suggestions of beef, but there’s no detectable anger. “Yeah, so that’s my thing,” he says. “Even with the beat. Before I started putting out music, I wanted to shed a light on some things I went through growing up, but also make sure it’s like… in a positive light. Because I feel like it’s just so much negative, within the industry, everywhere else…” 

Shortly after “Late Night” dropped, a mutual friend passed Wilson’s details onto Frank Ocean. Wilson was a big fan (“I love ‘Nights’ though. When I heard ‘Nights’, as everyone did, the flows on there was just like damn, you don’t hear people flow like that”). They spoke briefly, Ocean offering his thoughts on Wilson’s early releases. Then the connection went dead for about a year, during which time Wilson kept releasing music, including his debut album 4 REAL, featuring “Late Night” and other fan favourites like “Andretti”, “FaceTime” and the incredible “Heaven”, a descriptively titled paean to loved up bliss, the second half of which is about as close as music can get to real ecstasy, a wordless coo section reminiscent of both Kanye West’s “Runaway” and Frank Sinatra singing doo-be-doo on “Strangers in the Night”.

Around the same time, Ocean resurfaced, inviting Wilson to a shoot. “So surreal,” Wilson says. “[He‘s a] very nice person, showed me nothing but love.” Nothing was said about 4 REAL, but “next thing I know someone from his team hit me up like ‘Yo, can we put the project up on the [Homer] website?’ I was like ‘Man, that’s so crazy. Hell yeah.’ I trip about it every time.” 454 became an underground star. 

I’m compelled to ask what the word “cool” means to him. “Cool is just anything that’s original man, anything that’s in its own lane, genuine. That’s really it,” he says. “I’m not really, or I wasn’t really like a social person. I always liked my alone time. I didn’t really go out and do much. So recently I just realised I was really on my individual. And I still am, on occasion.”

If you hadn’t heard of 454 before the Frank Ocean Homer launch, you may have through experimental musician Huerco S – formerly the poster child of a 2010s ambient renaissance, now a chameleonic producer who works with rappers. He’s one of a growing cognoscenti — also including Zack Fox, Danny Brown, Denzel Curry and Redditers on the hyperpop sub — who have taken a shine to the 454 sound.

There’s also the sold-out crowd at tonight’s show: kids with baggy jeans, dyed hair, vapes and tattoos. The west London rapper Lord Apex is both in the crowd and on a billboard outside the venue. 454 plays stuff from 4 REAL, Fast Trax 2 and the recently released Fast Trax 3, including a divine track called “LILO & STITCH” built around a sample of SZA oo-ing in her bedroom. The crowd goes wild and Wilson hangs around outside for at least an hour afterwards, posing for photos with fans and telling each one of them they mean the world to him. 

On Twitter the next day, a clip arrives of Wilson executing a perfect 180 heelflip at the hallowed skate park on the south bank of the Thames. Two days after that, Wilson DJs at a semi-secret party in Stoke Newington, playing everything from footwork to Playboi Carti to unreleased 454 tracks. The event flyer lists him as Gatorface, the latest in a growing alias list belying an instinctive publicity shyness. He covets anonymity: rare public appearances, low social media profile, intimate shows. “I hope we can go on forever,” he says. “I just don’t know like, I don’t know what big is. So I’m just… cooling it.” 

Does he want to be big? “I don’t know man. I don’t think so. I really don’t think so. I just wanted to produce, because I really like making music… and rapping and shit, using my voice was just, something happened.” Like Frank Ocean, he ducks the limelight. “The way he does it is amazing,” Wilson says. “You gotta dig to find stuff. Not really much information. Don’t drop that often. If somehow it was like too much going on, I would definitely be cooling it. I haven’t seen a fan page yet. I feel like when it’s at that point, it’s like oh, something else is happening. Mmhmm.”

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