Flohio is rap's sonic revolutionary
Tracy Kawalik meets Flohio, the dynamic DIY MC raised in South London who fuses punk and electro into her daring rap music made for big soundsystems
Behind blood-red braids, Lagos-born, Bermondsey-bred rapper Flohio slides into frame. It's 6AM where I'm at, pitch black and the other side of the world, but Flo's mood is electric enough to transcend 4G and give me the proper kick I need.
Off the back of releasing her stamina-defying debut mixtape ‘No Panic, No Pain’, her most ambitious and self-defining music to date, it's no surprise that the rapper's on a high. She's proving to be one of the most relentlessly creative and incendiary voices that UK hip hop has produced to date.
Since emerging on the scene, Funmi Ohiosumah, AKA Flohio, has made inroads into sonic territory that few other rappers would dare to move in. Fuelled by a fierce DIY aesthetic and disinterest to pander to the hip hop normative, she clocked underground clout alongside UK techno-inspired duo God Colony on her pummeling breakout single 'SE16', not only paying homage to her ends but equally shoving a proverbial dagger in the map.
Two pieces by Daily Paper; Gold Chain by Alyx from Flannels; Black trainers by Salomon
Across 2018, she delivered bars at a breakneck pace, jumping on a string of genre-blending singles that ranged from menacing metallic grime to thundering 808s and industrial trap alongside rising London producers HLMNSRA and Cadenza on 'Bands', 'Watchout' and '10 More Rounds.'
Her confidence was building track by track, and colossal critical praise followed. Amid the seemingly endless streams of 'Ones to watch’ co-signs, Flohio began to star on the cover of magazines and was picked out by supermodel Naomi Campbell as one of "10 Rising Female Stars Reimagining Our Future" for a piece in Vogue.
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Not long after, she caught the attention of top-tier Berlin electronic duo Modeselektor. "I was drawn to artists who were making music that didn't sound how hip hop ‘had to sound’. I wanted to do that also. And even prior to God Colony, I was rapping over obscure instrumentals and genres I didn't know had a name. So it's not like I didn't know about electronic music, but where I came from, in my world growing up, I don't know who was gonna come up to me and say ‘Yo listen to this Modeselektor record’ or Check out this Moderat joint’,” Flohio laughs.
Graphic hoodie by McQ; PPFM trousers from HolSales
Flohio might not have been a day one fan, but the trio proved a perfect fit: and alongside Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary, the warped, synth-laden 'Wealth' was born. "I feed off energy. The moment I stepped into the studio with them and put the headphones on, it sounded like some wild galactic shit. I knew I belonged here. When it comes to electronic music they're wizards. They get into the machines. I was like ‘Yo, place me on these beats!' That's why I love rapping over electronic music. It's so empty but at the same time so filled up. There's no space for you, so you have to sort of bully your way into the track."
Flohio didn't so much bully her way on to the scene in 2018; she kicked down the doors. Thrust on a meteoric come up thanks to her blistering blend of club-ready rap, she locked down a relentless tour schedule and gigs that ranged from Glastonbury to Berghain without any label help. A steady drip of arresting singles followed, leading to her lauded four-track ‘Wild Yout’ EP and a spot in the BBC's Sound of 2019 poll.
Unsurprisingly artists vying to work with Flo had formed a queue. New Jersey producer Clams Casino was one, and another eager collaborator was seminal British artist Mike Skinner of The Streets. Having long admired each other's work, Skinner extended an invitation to Flohio to get on his forthcoming mixtape and record a verse with him on ‘How Long It's Been’ live at Abbey Road Studios: it was another hand in glove moment.
Two astronomical years later, and the pressure to live up to the outsized expectations of a full-length release off the back of that kind of hype would be enough to play on most rapper’s nerves — let alone with a pandemic thrown into the mix to send her whole artistic reality spinning. But Flohio's never been most rappers. Rather than succumb to second-guessing, she decided to swerve industry expectations and, in exchange, unleash the most complete manifestation of her artistic vision thus far.
Nike AirVantage Jacket from HolSales; Tie Dye pants from Aries Arise
Set across 10 tracks, ‘No Panic No Pain’ tears off with blistering intensity on the drill-adjacent opener 'FLOFLO!' with the rapper sending a battle cry to her listeners to sum up what lies ahead. From there, she gives a masterclass in lyrical dexterity, wild experimentalism and the organised chaos that's become her signature without coming up for air.
Flohio swerves from braggadocios wordplay to politically-charged bars, while painting her inner most thoughts and personal experiences. On 'Sweet Flaws' she delivers a razor-sharp staccato flow over dystopian mutant rap, then switches gears to rubber band bars reminiscent of her early rap idol Lil Wayne on the infectious bop ‘With Ease’. In between, wavey synths, wicked snares and boombastic kick drums melt behind lush bars on bangers ‘Flash’, ‘Booby Traps’ and the opulent outro ‘Stuck in a Dance'.
Once again, Flohio hooks up with a star-studded cast of production heavyweights. With FRED (Stormzy/Headie One/The xx) she explores new sonic ground we've rarely heard from Flohio on the melodic ‘Roundtown’, and a joining of forces with dance duo J-E-T-S (aka Jimmy Edgar & Machinedrum) produces the emotionally visceral 'Medicine.'
Gold Chain by Alyx from Flannels; Lace tracksuit by Daily Paper; White Air Force 1 by Nike
When it comes to dismantling what's going on in her world (whether it's hard to hear or not), Flohio dives deep. "My music is a big escapism for me. People always ask me, why is there so much rage, I'm not angry, no way. I have a lot of love in my heart, but at the same time, that's not always what I want to showcase."
When pressed to reveal what's been her most difficult song to perform, Flohio opens up. “‘Medicine’, and the other songs that are similar like 'Stuck in a Dance' or 'Toxic' (from ‘Wild Yout’), these are just relationship stories and thoughts that have lingered in my head that I need to get out. Even when I have pain, I still just want to rage, so the balance is needed."
She continues, "Man, I think the most difficult song for me to perform is a God Colony one, you know. I only ever performed it once, and I cried. It's personal simply because I speak about someone I lost about six years ago. The reason it's so painful is that I still don't think my friend is gone. She would follow me to the end of the world and back for my music, like ‘You got a show there, let's go’, so listen out her name. I talk about her a lot in my music."
At the top of ‘No Panic, No Pain’, Flohio mentions battling past the death of her best friend. But when it comes to expressing raw emotions, 'Unveiled' (the initial release from the mixtape, also dropped on her birthday) cuts the deepest. The lacerating track sees a vexed Flohio go in all-guns-blazing on the explosive mosh pit banger produced by the US duo Take A Daytrip (Travis Scott, Lil Nas X), and gets everything off her chest. All before wrapping things up by commanding fans to "Rage, fucking rage!"
Adding more fuel to the fire, the music video for 'Unveiled' is proof that Flohio is levelling up her arsenal to the level of fellow hip hop punks JPEGMAFIA and Rico Nasty while fast-becoming the one of the most daring hip hop exports the UK has seen. Flanked by pulse-racing Krumpers, the cultural significance of both Flohio's frenetic bars and the muscle-bound dancers strikes the screen with titanic fortitude. Back in '96, the fierce spirit of Krumping was a startling new hip hop subculture. The dance form offered an alternative route to gang life for disenfranchised youth in Watts, South Central LA, and beyond, becoming an integral tool for communicating anger, political injustice, unifying vastly different groups, and releasing frustration.
When I tell Flohio about the documentary Rize that solidified Krump's existence and how it mirrors her own ethos, she lights up. "Punk and electro are both kinds of rap, man. That's what opened up my ears; that's what opened me up, opened my third eye. I just feel so comfortable making that kind of music. They've both become a channel for me to plug into. When I perform, there's no way I can be fake. The music forces me to be me 110%. I can't be another way. When I rage through my music, that's where I feel the most alive."
A shy girl with a punk attitude, Flo may be small in stature but her energy on stage, much like her music, is anything but that. At a live show, expect to find Flohio thrashing about the mosh pit as half-empty pints of lager cascade overhead, kicking off her trainers to stage dive and going absolutely wild from start to finish.
"I think I speak for those kids who go out to the clubs but don't want to show out too much,” she considers. “I used to be the one that stood in the corner too. But when you hear music that speaks to your soul, whether your with your crew or not, you don't care who's watching. You're gonna forget everything, get on the floor and just be free to dance." Flohio beams, "When you come to a show, I want my music to force you to dance regardless. It's for the indie kids, the punk kids, the hip hop kids and the shy kids who used to be me. I want my music to give them that push like ‘Just do it man!’ You gotta be on your toes. Whether it gets you doing a little two-step or going ham in the mosh pit, I want you to free yourself. Because that's my message to myself as well when I'm on that stage. I want to share with everyone."
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Flohio's love and desire to uplift her fans is clearly paramount to her. "I don't know what you went through before you came through those doors tonight to watch me perform. I don't know what your week’s been like. All I know is that I want it to end on a high. When you watch me perform, I don't want it to be a downer. I want you to have the time of your life right now! So I just always try to think of that,” she says, adding: "When I write my songs , I write from the place that pain is coming from, but sometimes I want to escape from the place. I want my fans to be able to do that from my music as well. I know for a fact whatever I make, there's 10 people out there who my lyrics are going to speak to directly. And they're gonna have 10 people that they're gonna share it with. That's who and what I'm doing this for."
Outside her live prowess, Flohio's dominance on a microphone when her shows are firing at maximum is no better testament to the grind it took to get her here. A beast with bars, Flohio has shelled down male-dominated battles across England. Back at home in the place where it all began today, Flohio reflects on the beginning. "I started writing songs and making music upstairs in my sister's bedroom when I was 13. Then at Salmon Youth Centre here in Bermondsey, I started piecing my skills together, learning how to structure songs by other local MCs, and performing on open mics. I went to Uni and did graphic design as a fallback, but I spent the majority of the time working on bootleg Photoshop designing my own fliers, album artwork or friend’s shows."
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Flohio landed a job at Ninja Tune for a brief stint, working on artwork for acts such as Bonobo before producers knocked on her door and she put an end to office life. "There was a point where I was going from the studio to the club to perform, straight to work. As I was being exposed to this electro world from every direction, it made me want to immerse myself in it even more. Even when I didn't put myself in musical places, something was always gravitating me towards music. So that's when I thought, I can't even escape this shit. It was always there, it never left me, it was meant to be. I grew up with it, I'll die with it."
Flohio packed in a potential corporate life a year later. "I knew I wasn't going to stick to one lane. Even as a kid, I wrote rhymes about aliens and extraterrestrial shit cuz Wayne did. I didn't hold back on back on my bars when other female MCs were because Eve didn't. I liked Childish Gambino and Simz who were on some jazzy shit. Because I knew deep down, I wanted to do that also. I could've heard ‘SE16’ from God Colony, or Modeselektor's beats and been like, ‘what the fuck man, no!’ I didn't know them from nowhere, so I didn't have to be on those tracks. But I knew the music I was destined to make wasn't going to look or sound like anyone else."
That's not to say carving out such a unique artistic identity didn't come without challenges. Offering up advice for the new generation of MCs coming up, Flohio says this: "In those early, rowdy live sets I performed, you might not have known but, I was shy and nervous. I was second-guessing myself that my type of rap wasn't what people were used too, or maybe my light wasn't bright enough. There were so many times I could have gave up thinking shit like ‘Are they going to accept my voice and me for the way I would like them to accept me?!’ There were so many points where I could have quit or compromised. But I knew even with those voices nagging in my head, I wasn't gonna switch up. You just have to stick to it. Don't take no for an answer. No only means no for now, it doesn't mean no forever. So go back, clean up on whatever it is you need to clean up, sharpen your knives, sharpen up your skills and go back in. From that point, the mould just keeps breaking each time. That shy Flo from before, that Flo no longer exists.”
"Before anybody even knew who I was an artist, I'd done maybe 100-200 shows. Performing music is something I've always done. I had that in the bag!” says Flohio, taking a moment to toast her proudest musical achievement yet. “I've never worked on anything bigger than 4-6 tracks. Things got a bit too heavy for me in 2019. Everything just went OTT and I didn't have time. Things picked up pace and the pressure increased. I was touring, I had big singles coming out, features, a lot was happening. Don't get it twisted, I was having the time of my life. But when I released this body of work, and it actually spoke to people and when so much positivity came back from that project, it made me wanna do it again. It opened up my world and my universe up, now I wanna do a two-faced album, like side A, side B. I’m not even thinking on singles anymore. I just want to put bodies of work out."
When it comes to composing bodies of work, Flohio partly has Modeselektor to thank for ‘Unveiled’. "It's actually so crazy, I wrote ‘Unveiled’ on a floor of my Airbnb after I performed a headline set at Mexico City's electronic festival Ceremonia and jumped on stage with Modeselektor. I was coming down from the high from the show, sat down and played a beat like, ‘Yo, let's go’. They bring that kind of energy out of you! You can't replicate the voodoo or magic behind their shows. You don't need to be on drugs or nothing, when the lights come on it's like, 'hit me with it.' Modeselektor are the ones who taught me: ‘If the soundsystem isn't top tier don't even tell me about the festival, don't even tell me about the show.’ I’m forever grateful to Modeselektor. They're amazing guys, performing with them is always a blast, it's so mad even their fans known my lyrics. Every time I go on stage with them or work with them I come back with something I've learned. I’m always getting better.”
In album-mode and buzzing off of what the future has in store, we can't close without asking Flohio what fans can anticipate from the first live gig back? "My music was made for a big soundsystem. The first gig back, wherever it is, is going to sound like bliss. It's going to be everything you wished for for this last year and a bit. Nobody even talk to me about mosh pit! The first mosh pit back I will have left the mic on the stage, lost my trainers. It'll be rowdy as hell! And man, I'll love that so much!"
Vibing off my own euphoric hope to be back in the thick of one of Flo's sweat-soaked pits and hear her latest music live, she stops me dead in my tracks with one final closing statement. "I’m always trying to be better than the last track. ‘No Panic No Pain’ is my proudest moment simply because it made me realise I could do more but THIS.IS.NOT.AN.ALBUM. Don't even put them in the same page, that music is in the works, and trust you won't even be ready for what's coming next!”
'No Panic No Pain' is out now via AlphaTone, listen here
Tracy Kawalik is a freelance music journalist, follow her on Twitter
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