Big Narstie is the easiest and the hardest interview I’ve ever done. As you try to probe beneath the surface – behind the grime artist and BAFTA-winning persona, hoping to speak to Tyrone Lindo – you’re thrown a curveball. It’s not so much an interview as a following of his words, never quite sure what’ll come next, as his answers flip between the profane and the profound.
Yet there I was, sat in the back of his car, leaning over to glean all I could. Our photoshoot had overrun, so we decided to do the “interview” en route to his next destination: a talk he was giving at a sixth-form college.
After all, Narstie is a man on the move; to talk to him, you have to move too.
The 36-year-old has come a long way since rolling with grime crew N Double A, having utilised grime as a vehicle to showcase something he has in spades, and which comes up time and again as we speak: personality. His is, as they say, larger than life – something Narstie says he knew “when I came out my mum. I’m like the baby in Lion King; it’s like Simon Cowell says, ‘He’s got the X Factor’”.
Although these days he’s focusing more than ever on his business endeavours – including his Jamaican-cuisine restaurant in Tenerife and the first UK CBD steam room, which he launched in 2019 – his first calling was to grime, his bread and butter. Whether or not that was the plan.
“I fell into music,” he tells me. “I wanted to be a bomb disposal [specialist] or a sniper in the army.” But, it turns out, Narstie would get kicked out for stealing, in an incident where he says he was “misunderstood”. “That’s how you music pr***s got stuck with me,” he adds, laughing. “Now I f***ing pay taxes, mother***ers, I’m a piece of society.”
Narstie is more than just that. From his BAFTA-winning TV show with his very own name on it to having collaborated with the likes of long-time friend Ed Sheeran, as well as Craig David and Robbie Williams, it’s difficult to deny him ‘national treasure’ status – especially when the heights he’s reached have come from him being nothing but himself.
Indeed, I admit I came looking for a persona or an act of some sort but soon found my preconceptions were misplaced. With Narstie, the character we’ve come to know is genuine – even if that sometimes lands him in a bit of trouble.
“Everyone who’s always known me has always said, ‘fam, you’re just funny’… I’ve always been this way unfortunately. It didn’t always work out in my favour in the beginning. I’m f***ing fortunate I’m famous. Do you think I could work in a normal industry establishment? I’d be sacked.”
Are you saying music is the only world you could be in, I ask? “No, I’d make a hell of a pornstar; I’ve got a great personality, banging eyebrows and –”, well, I’m sure you can guess. “Do you know Boogie Nights? I’d be like the black Dirk Diggler.”
That said, there is a rule to his ways, a philosophy if you will, which he summarises by saying: “I’m not a prick, so I don’t put out prick energy… Nine times out of ten I get returned the same energy I put out, which is nice vibes…”
And despite the illustrious heights these “nice vibes” have yielded, his proudest moment in grime was having the biggest under-18s event in South London in 2007 at the now-defunct Citizens venue in Wandsworth.
“The line was just touching Clapham Junction; every borough in South [was there], even small ones like flipping Bromley, [we had] all ends: Brockley, Lewisham, Peckham, Queen’s Road, Wandsworth Road, Walworth Road, Camberwell Road, Brixton Road. All the str-ee-eets was there.”
Is he joking? Quite possibly, but I’m learning as we drive not to take everything he says so seriously. That’s another key facet to his principles.
Perhaps foolishly, though, I stuck to the script and ask him a serious question about what he thinks the legacy of the late, great Jamal Edwards is, whose SB.TV platform provided Narstie an outlet to present his personality to the world.
The brief subsequent silence made it seem all too apparent just what that legacy was. “Jamal’s legacy is lit,” Narstie said, stating the obvious. “If it weren’t for Jamal, I wouldn’t know Ed [Sheeran]. Ed wouldn’t be big if it weren’t for Jamal. And me and Ed are just two of hundreds of people who he helped and put on.”
And true to Jamal’s knack for identifying talent one step ahead of others, Narstie says Jamal “was really one of the first people who saw me as more than just a musician.” That said, SB.TV would also be the place for Narstie to lay down his marker as a grime artist, releasing his Pain Is Love mixtape for free via the platform in 2012 – an act designed to get Narstie’s name out there as rapidly as possible.
“With my personality,” he says, returning to that p-word, “I can display it to the world instantly, but with music you don’t have the same privilege.”
We turn the corner, and chat briefly about Narstie’s most recent tune, ‘Groundwork’, featuring New York rapper Papoose, alongside none other than Narstie’s aforementioned mate Ed. Papoose’s addition had come after the pair previously collaborated on Narstie’s ‘Black Is My Colour (Black Pride) Remix’ and the rapper featured on The Big Narstie Show.
It’s an unlikely trio, but then again, it makes total sense with Narstie, who can pull a wide variety of friends and faces into his orbit, bringing them together even on the humble streets of Edmonton, for instance, where the track’s music video was shot.
As if to prove the point of the different worlds he occupies – the high and mighty whilst never forgetting where he came from – a man from the college comes out to direct us where to park, as Narstie takes a call with one of his show’s producers. He made the incongruousness of the setting – discussing a show that’s had everyone from David Schwimmer and Nile Rodgers to Idris Elba and Pamela Anderson, whilst sitting in a sixth-form car park – seem like the most normal thing imaginable.
And when I say high and mighty, I also mean mightily high. You see, Big Narstie likes to smoke weed. Lots of it. With the casualness of someone taking out some gum, his spliffs seem already to-hand. Not that it fazed him whilst on the phone to his producer, though, who was now on loudspeaker, giving me an unexpected behind-the-scenes into the running of the show.
Listening in from the backseat of the car, I learnt it operates like this: Big Narstie has ideas, and what he’s simply looking for are things he finds funny, things he finds “gassed”. Much like my interview (I felt somewhat relieved to find out), others listen in, trying to catch the gold, as Narstie reels off some thoughts for skits.
Are all his ideas politically correct? No. Does he filter everything he thinks before speaking? Not really. What his team do know, though, is that what Narstie finds funny is often solid entertainment.
In fact, since it first aired in 2018, The Big Narstie Show has proved one of Channel 4’s most popular programmes for young audiences; up 94% on share of 16-24 years old viewers, up 129% on share for BAME viewers and up 144% on share for Black audiences. And whether I was slightly high or not, I can vouch there were some funny new ideas for forthcoming skits.
“That’s so f***ing gassed,” Narstie says, wheezing with laughter over a video he’d just sent his producer. “This is what Black TV needs, ‘cause I can’t stop laughing; and if I can’t stop laughing, we’re definitely onto something.”
But that was enough production chat for now. We had overrun our shoot and were now eating into the time for his college talk. The man who had shown us in, it transpired, would soon be interviewing Narstie in front of a lecture hall full of sixth-formers, and was clearly trying to chivvy Narstie along without being rude.
Once the call ended, Narstie was out of the car and sauntering in through the reception, where he was greeted by a handful of teachers who presented him with a box of Haribo as a gift, which he slowly picked away from like an overgrown kid.
As we waited, a young aspiring grime artist who goes by the name of KIZZIANO was nearby, telling Narstie about his hopes and future releases. “My g, come on,” Narstie said, fist-bumping him. It was a reminder that just as much as his personality, Narstie’s grime MC credentials are appreciated too.
Unexpectedly, here I was given a second chance for an interview; only this time, it wouldn’t be me conducting it, but would be in the safe hands of a sixth-form talk.
In many ways, the lecture hall setup proved apt: we could all be students of Narstie, who at this point had taken his place onstage as more of a sage than a grime MC, having first offered the box of Haribo to the front row of students like some ridiculous communion.
The talk’s main focus was on mental health – something Narstie knows a lot about, and which he dissected on his 2018, full-length debut, BDL Bipolar.
“From young I had mad anger issues,” he tells the audience. “I’d cry for no reason, would make funny jokes when they weren’t supposed to be funny, and get my ass bust for it. But it was my actions, and no one would understand it.
“Back then, no one knew about ADHD, bipolar, dyslexia. All of these things, especially in the Black and Asian communities, were very taboo. If you were seen to be off, you kind of got shunned and left in a corner.
“Our Windrush parents came to England with the same mentality, so they never had things within themselves to deal with mental health [issues]; all they know is hard work and ‘be strong and be tough’.”
Narstie’s mum, he explains, worked two jobs: she was a nurse in the day, and a cleaner in the evenings. Narstie cites a touching anecdote about how she couldn’t afford to buy him a Nintendo as a kid, but would put down whatever she had, bit-by-bit, to eventually get him one.
Seeing him onstage now, bearing his hefty chain and discussing his come up, chimes with what he’d said earlier in the car: “We didn’t know grime was gonna be a financial leverage to get people out of poverty, it was just young kids having fun.”
That’s exactly what he’s done, and still does to this day: always joking, always seeing the funnier side, knowing to never take yourself or the world too seriously. And it’s served him very well indeed. Just like the nickname he was given as a youngster, he’s taken it in his stride and made it a cause for celebration. Narstie, for those who don’t know is natural, artistic, respected, sexy, talented, independent and educated.
When the students are given a chance to ask questions, one asks a great one about the biggest obstacles he’s faced. “My circumstance and my self-doubt,” replies Narstie, as if he’s already given this answer some thought.
“When you’re young, all these bits of self-doubt start becoming like 7-foot bouncers, saying ‘you can’t get in’; after that happens for a while, you start coming up with these fake thoughts in your mind.
“There’s nothing you can do about your circumstance [at first], but the thing you can change in that situation is the self-doubt in your head. And when you clear your self-doubt, the world just becomes lit.”
As the talk ends and people line up to take their photos, I pat Narstie on the back to say goodbye. “A day in the life, cuz,” he smiles back. Sure enough, this is a man who’s mastered his self-doubt and created a world that definitely is lit, for him and those around him; one that’s natural, artistic, respected, sexy, talented and, as I left the college gates, most definitely educated.
With thanks to BSix College.