House of Wingz started as a dance school before evolving into a hothouse for all kinds of urban culture. Antonia Charlesworth speaks to the budding grime stars, break dancers and graffiti artists who are flourishing in a studio in Blackpool.
Soph Aspin – Queen of Blackpool – and Josh Tate, aka Little T, might have to bury their rivalry soon. A high-profile London producer is interested in working with the young grime artists from the seaside town and their shared management team isn’t going to let an ancient YouTube videos stand in their way. Both artists reluctantly accept this might have to happen but strongly agree on one thing – collaboration is not on the cards.
“I couldn’t see myself doing that,” says Josh. “She’s said too much shit about me so we’re past that point.”
“Collaborate?” says Soph. “No mate. I could cope with him but I could never work with him.”
“You never know,” encourages their manager Aishley Bell Docherty. “Remember when everyone got on that song when Biggie died.”
Humour is a big part of grime music, particularly the diss tracks – known as sends – that led to the artists’ feud, but it doesn’t mean they don’t take their work seriously. Aishley, along with her collaborator in work and life Samantha Bell Docherty, is charged with making sure everyone else does too.
If making their voices heard in a society that overlooks them was the driving force behind grime music’s East London artists in the early 2000s, then it should come as no surprise that the loud, aggressive and unapologetic branch of rap would resonate with disaffected young people in Blackpool – a town with some of the country’s most deprived neighbourhoods. But a Channel 4 documentary last year portrayed the Blackpool grime scene with sneering derision.
“We’re used to it,” says Aishley with a shrug. “There’s no point being angry about it.”
Instead, she and Samantha are working on turning Soph and Josh’s viral popularity – they have tens of millions of YouTube views between them – into sustainable careers for them.
The couple – known affectionately to all who enter through their graffiti-gilded front door as Sam and Aish – run House of Wingz, a hip-hop enclave hidden on a back street a few roads inland from Blackpool promenade. It began as a school run by dance teacher Sam, and grew when Aish returned to her hometown with a drama and theatre arts degree from Goldsmiths, London. Still with the dance crew at its core, House of Wingz is now home to a collective of musicians, artists and performers who stage their own productions and collaborate on projects such as Breakin’ Convention hip-hop festival. It also has a charitable arm.
“Skool of Street is the bridge between the kids who aren’t able to pay the
£6 per week fees and those who can afford to pay, and it’s a bit of a judgement call for me and Sam to decide who to subsidise,” says Aish, adding that children are often referred to them from the local pupil referral unit and the National Citizen Service. On Thursday nights they are working with hard to reach kids in a project called Grime on the Grange – with Soph Aspin as their secret weapon. Having her delivering some of the content, they say, not only provides a draw for the kids, but gives Soph a sense of responsibility and pride too.
Throughout lockdown Sam and Ash worked had to keep in touch with the young people and the wider community, hosting an online festival and delivering hip-hop themed activity packs to hundreds of children stuck at home. This month they have breathed a huge sigh of relief as they have been able to reopen their doors. Ensuring the school is Covid-safe has been a challenge, they say, but they’ve taken on some of their older crew members as staff – with varying roles from House Manager to Director of Vibes – to help them tackle the extra workload.
“There was a fear that the kids would lose interest,” says Aish, but everyone has been eager to return. “As soon as we came back we had to start thinking about splitting classes because we we’re only allowed 15 at a time.”
Their work with Soph and Josh falls under Wingz Management and the pair have come to them independently but, like many young people who enter House of Wingz, both face their own challenges. Josh has behavioural issues and spent most of his education outside mainstream schools, while Soph is an unregistered young carer for her deaf parents and suffering with anxiety. Neither are in education or training and both smoke cannabis – though Soph says she is
trying to stop on account of it exacerbating her anxiety.
“Every kid smokes it now, near enough,” she says. “No one drinks anymore. We look at smoking weed as a solution but it’s not – it just makes things worse.”
House of Wingz has a zero-tolerance policy on drugs and alcohol but Sam and Aish foster an environment of honesty and openness without repercussions. For Soph and Josh there’s also a recording studio with a dedicated sound engineer to help them produce work to a professional standard.
“I’ll get the beat off YouTube for the bars I’ve written at home,” says Josh, who has arrived at the studio armed with some lyrics he’s written and points sound engineer Phil Thompson to a beat he’s found online.
The 16 year old, who found early notoriety online with his controversial lyrics and baby-faced delivery, is selective about what he posts online now, but says he’s always writing. He regularly comes into the studio to record with Phil, who says he’s noticed a growing maturity in Josh’s lyrics – they recently recorded a track about the futility of knife crime.
“I started in my bedroom and now I work in here. It sounds better in the studio and the support is good, man. They all help me a lot, all of them do,” he says. Today Josh’s lyrics traverse more traditional rap territory – Grey Goose vodka, sex and drugs.
While trying to keep the momentum going with his online profile, he’s still trying to find his voice. For Sam and Aish, it’s about striking a balance between supporting him and giving him the room to be creative, while offering guidance and advice and instilling a good work ethic. They’ve encouraged Josh to explore more mainstream aspects of urban music, to try to reach a wider audience.
“I started off with grime and now I’ve moved off that and more into rap,” he says. “Rap can be played on the radio but grime is raw. I want to make something in life. I don’t want to be in Blackpool all my life.
“Right now I’m just doing my thing. I’m not making any big plans. I’m 16 so I’ve got a couple of years to find out what I want to do.”
But grime still has his heart. “I feel like I had a good thing at the start. I just did my thing and it made me get famous – or at least get views.
“Some stuff I said I shouldn’t have said but I was so young and people were just like: ‘Where’s he getting this [explicit material] from? How does he know what this is?’ I don’t know where it came from – it rhymed so I said it. I didn’t know the consequences. Everyone still mentions it but now I can make a joke out of it.”
Soph too has made some radio-friendly urban pop but grime has been drawing her back in.
“At first I wanted to get away from it but I’m one of the only females on the grime scene so I want to keep doing it. It’s more me and it’s what people know me for.”
At the moment she is drawing inspiration from London grime artist Nadia Rose. “I love her – she’s mint. I like the UK stuff. Rap sounds better with an English accent. It’s more raw and they use words I’m familiar with.”
And sends aren’t Soph’s main preoccupation. She says she’s in a productive place, writing every day.
“I’ve been writing about stuff that’s happening now, in society and how things are – what it’s like living in Blackpool, for example. There’s not much to do for kids. There are not many opportunities for jobs.
“I don’t just sit there and write: ‘I’m this and I’m that and I’m the big
I am.’ I did it when I was younger and when I look at it I cringe. You have to have a little bit of attitude and I’ve got it to a certain extent, but sometimes I just want to chill and relate to people instead of being cocky all the time. I want to have two different sides to me.”
Soph says she’s picky about the beats she uses and Sam and Aish are hopeful that Nat Powers is the answer to develop something perfect for her and with her. The London producer has worked with big hip hop names on the Death Row Records roster and is currently working closely with Idris Elba and Mel B. He’s is keen to start working on an album with both Josh and Soph.
Like Little T, Soph first gained attention on the Blackpool Grime Media YouTube channel. She was just 14 when she had a bigger following than Nadia Rose but her social media accounts were hacked and now she’s building it back up while battling fake online accounts, trolls and stalkers. It’s just one of the many pitfalls of over-exposure at a vulnerable age that Soph fell into – nor has she made any money out of it.
“I didn’t know you could get paid. I just thought it was something people
did because they were bored,” she says. Then there was the TV documentary.
“It was rubbish. It made us look really rough and painted us in a really bad light.” She says the TV crew tried to convince her to meet a music producer she didn’t trust and cut most of her scenes when she refused.
“When you’re doing it on your own it’s like you’re lost, you’ve got no one to turn to. I had no one representing me. I was 14 and organising shows for myself in Wales for a fraction of the price I should have done.”
With House of Wingz on her side Soph say’s there’s a completely different vibe now.
“The feeling of being in the studio is great. I don’t feel out of my comfort zone.” Today we’re meeting over pizza and a coke at Dirty Blondes, a town centre bar where Sam and Aish have brought her – careful to not arrange her interview alongside Josh’s. But aside from potentially meeting her rap rival there, she says she enjoys spending time at House of Wingz.
“I know the place and the people and I can just chill out and write.”
For others, like art student Callum Smith, it’s a space to legally practice graffiti.
“There’s that antisocial side of hip-hop but you have to take that with a pinch of salt,” says the 20 year old. “There are reasons kids do antisocial things – because they haven’t had the resources in the places they have grown up.
“When I was in my teenage years I started slipping down a bad road and Sam and Aish saved me.”
Last year House of Wingz applied to the Erasmus programme for him and he spent the two weeks in Berlin doing graffiti with artists from around the world and attending rap workshops.
“I wasn’t expecting it to be as good as it was. I realised I was falling for my passion of graffiti art when I was there. I came back and was like – bang! I love it.”
Now Cal is running his own art night at the studio, called FUBU (For Us By Us) on a Wednesday. He’s hoping to establish a collective between the various graffiti artists in the town, who already loosely know each other, but it won’t be limited to spraying – it will also be open to other aspects of urban art such as make up and fashion.
Sitting on a low sofa in the House of Wingz break room, Cal sketches a design reading “HOW” – the acronym for House of Wingz – before copying it onto one of the few walls that isn’t already covered in spray paint. Thankfully, he says, he’s had a great mentor in local graffiti artist Karl Tsang – AKA Mr Bomb, part of the HOW collective – who has been an inspiration.
“People judge and that makes it hard for people like me to redeem myself, which is what I am trying to do. A lot of the kids here are the kids that would otherwise be causing antisocial behaviour, so this is a place to harness the talent they do have and keep them off the streets.”
But not all the young people who enter House of Wingz have troubled backgrounds. Taking advantage of the studio space is Apex, a young rapper from Blackpool with big ambitions.
“I want my music to go all over the world and want people to see that you don’t have to be from a bad background or to be a bad person to be able to be a rapper,” says the 23 year old, real name Jermayne Deen. “I wouldn’t say my parents struggled. They had just enough for us to be OK and that was fine for me.
“I’m born and bred in Blackpool. It can be a great place and it can be a not so great place – it depends on individual experience – but in here you could be anywhere. Before I started coming here I very much felt like there was nobody else doing the same thing I was.”
In less than an hour in the small but well equipped studio Apex lays down a track called Small Talk with engineer Phil. Having input from the collective has led to some changes in the music.
“I talk about tangible subjects,” he says between takes. “Writing for me is a way for me to process how I’ve felt at certain points of my life.”
Apex’s gentle nature comes through in the finished track – a tightly delivered string of thoughtful lyrics over haunting backing vocals.
“I think in rap music a lot of people think you have to have come out of a certain environment and have had adversity. I feel like a lot of artists these days want to break off in their own individual directions and try and create their own sound but there’s a lot of people in the industry that want to stick to the cliché of drugs, women and all the things that are spoken about time and time again.”
Sam and Aish share Apex’s ambition to challenge perceptions of hip-hop.
“We want people to understand that through this medium we can tell stories,” says Aish. “People think it’s just dark, sweary, and you have to be of a certain class to do it but it’s classless. Sam went to private school, I grew up in a nice area. We have had a girl who goes to private school stood next to a girl who’s not had a bath and there’s nothing in between them, because of the culture they share.”
A version of this article originally appeared in Big Issue North, a magazine sold on the streets by homeless and vulnerable people, allowing them to earn an income. During the Coronavirus pandemic, current magazines are available to read online for just £2, with half the money going directly to a hardship fund to support vendors through a time of crisis. You can access all digital copies on issuu.com/bigissuenorth.
Photos: Claire Griffiths
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