We chatted last month in the studio they’ve used exclusively since 2013, which was once was Charmer’s dad’s garage until it was converted with Charmer’s student loan and bare hands. In this tiny, dark red painted studio with posters on the walls, sound absorbing materials in strategic positions and an adjoining booth not much larger than a shower, this is still their musical home: “This room has its own sound. As a producer, even if we were to be Grammy nominated and have millions, we’d still come here even as a test room.”
But before all of this, Charmer was a drummer. His forethought about where drumming versus production could take him did him in good stead: “I got kicked off a gig and it was at that point I realized, you have your own thing, you’re better off sticking with that than riding on someone else’s wave. I was like, ‘Do I want to be a drummer or have your own thing as a producer and have a no ceiling income?’ So it was kind of a no brainer.” Turns out, he was right.
Charmer’s beats are born from music across the spectrum, and this level of fearlessness is partly why 808 sound as unique as they do. They agree they are closest to hip hop but don’t subscribe to pigeon-holing: “We’ve got psychedelic rap before. We’ve got everything. We just go, “It’s 808INK.” Asking whether they purposefully steer clear of genres, Mumblez doesn’t think so: “I wouldn’t say we avoid it. One song will have so much variety, you won’t be able to put your finger on what that sound is, or what the drumbeat is, or where it belongs. It can make people feel like they don’t fully understand us, but it doesn’t put them off in general.”
This is where 808’s self-assured energy comes into play. The guys have had success, with their highest streaming track Suede Jaw clocking over 2 million Spotify streams, and a collaboration discography including JD. Reid, Sam Wise, and Kojey Radical. There hasn’t been a defining moment pushing them into the ‘mainstream’, but this is a non-factor: “We’re the forerunners of the future of music. We’re multi-faceted, so you might see us being synced in a chick flick film because of a sad song like Suede Jaw, and then you get synced in one of the hardest gangster films. My thing is two is always better than one, so I don’t see it as a bad thing.”
808 have been signed before, and it’s the only time they’ve tried something a bit different. In 2018, the duo released two connected EPs, When I’m About, You’ll Know (WIAYK) Parts 1 and 2: Charmer admits that they didn’t intend to put out a two-part project: “The aim was to have a body of work that was crossover, mass appeal, radio-friendly, club-friendly, because on tour we were clubbing a lot, performing in really popular and random places. But that didn’t work. We never sacrificed who we were even though we bent a few rules.” The guys don’t seem embarrassed or upset by this experience. In fact, this buoyed their resilience and gave way to WIAYK 2: “After we got out of our situation, we were like okay, fuck the crossover, fuck the radio, just raw. We put out Three Piece Suit and that just went off. So 2 is basically the more rebellious, middle finger, this is us, even though WIAYK 1 was us also.” The second EP is clearly more of the 808INK fans are used to, as if the first was a soft prelude to the main event.
Although 808 have a few collaborations, these are relatively infrequent given the volume of music released. With a producer and a lyricist already in play, one could argue there is less need for external input: “Why we are quite versatile, even just in our vocal performance is when I was making my own stuff and he was making his own stuff, I was always like, ‘I’m not going to wait for anyone’.” Growing tired of the constant back and forth, empty promises and emailing verses, 808 prefer the organic route, even if it’s harder to close: “I’m waiting to be friends with them, because I’ve done the reaching out, I was even supposed to make stuff for Mac Miller before he died. I just don’t think in this day and age networking works. I think if you’re in a party and you go, “let’s work”, it’s not going to happen. One of the smartest things someone told me was “network sideways, then network up”.” Charmer may just be right. With the perceived accessibility of artists these days, it’s very easy for someone to get in touch out of the blue, and for that person to casually agree, but how often does something come into fruition? Surely much less frequently.
For a duo who have been part of the UK scene for the best part of ten years, and stuck to their sound through waves of trends, it’s interesting to hear their take on UK music today: “I feel like a lot of the good stuff isn’t getting enough light. I think meme music has really messed up a lot for our style…They [labels] don’t have to do anything because it’s already being marketed. Whereas an artist who is actually sick and has good content labels actually have to think.”
Something 808 hear a lot is, ‘I bet you’d do well in the States’, and they don’t do too badly. Often visiting New York and Los Angeles, and their song Smile becoming a viral hit in the dance community from a FeFe Burgos routine, they see the appeal of a different market: “Without sounding shady, that’s where everyone’s trying to get to, whether they like to say it or not. I feel like with America, you can have Chance the Rapper, Lil Pump and someone else, all in the top ten. Whereas over here in urban, you’ve got drill, drill, drill, and it’s like, there’s other stuff.” It seems like this part of their vision hasn’t been conquered yet, but by no means are they willing to compromise to achieve it.
Through all the noise, it’s humbling to know that success to 808INK is very simple, to be “happy and comfortable”. They could feel owed, wronged or even underrated, but 808INK wholeheartedly believe that they’re on their way to a happy and comfortable place, and that’s usually half the battle. This year we won’t hear much new music, but they are expanding into lifestyle with a club night and merch, so WIAYK can be felt as well as heard. Whatever the plan, 808INK are committed to themselves and their sound, and there is no second option.