There’s no voice more recognisable in the UK rap multiverse than Giggs’s ominous, rumbling baritone. With enough bass in his delivery to sink a boat, and a knack for turning his experiences into memorable, often darkly funny bars, he ploughed through the mid 2000s landscape of grime MCs and backpack rappers like a juggernaut. In 2007, he dropped a pair of game-changing mixtapes - ‘Hollowman Meetz Blade’, with Blade Brown, and ‘Ard Bodied’ with Dubz. These set out the blueprint for road rap, the UK’s own gangster rap derivative. Giggs didn’t simply carve a lane for himself in music with his trap-influenced sound and fiery street dispatches; he paved the road for countless other rappers to follow.
Giggs has come a long way from Peckham’s Gloucester Grove Estate, grainy hood videos, and selling SN1 CDs hand-to-hand from the boot of his car. When Mixmag catches up with him on zoom, he’s in New York City, celebrating the release of his sixth album, ‘Zero Tolerance’. In Times Square a fortnight ago, Hollowman loomed large like a rap titan above the NYPD substation, courtesy of a Spotify billboard promoting the album. “Yeah I went over there to see it, still. It was sick, man,” he says. Cameras are off, but there’s an aura of serene contentment about him. A hangover is entirely possible too: he’d spent the previous night with Diddy at the VMAs, dressed in fresh white kicks and a suit the same colour as Batman’s. “It’s sick to just be able to be out here and promote my music, because I couldn’t come here before, to see stuff like this, and actually witness it in the physical. But even without work, just being able to travel here is sick in itself. I’m just enjoying the whole experience, all of it. I’m grateful.”
Read this next: The Cover Mix: Best of Giggs
It’s 15 years on since the release of ‘Walk in da Park’, Giggs’s independently released debut LP. The album caused a mini moral panic in 2008, propped up by the stale argument that it glamorised violence. On it, Giggs’s unhurried narrations over gothic, wintry beats paint a dark, vivid picture of life on the roads, in one of the UK’s poorest communities. There’s no glamour to be found; ‘Walk in da Park’ unfolds like a horror movie. And despite the hostile media scrutiny, the album was a success. But what did its release represent for Giggs, at the time? “It was a bit of everything, to be honest. Like, getting off the street. And knowing I can make it happen in music, even though them times there wasn’t a career for rappers [in the UK] really. But it was still like, ‘yeah, man can make it happen!’ Do you know what I mean?” he explains. “I didn’t really have an end goal. But it was time to drop an album. It just felt right, and that was it. So I just went for it. Now, people overthink dropping an album, you get me? Like it’s too much pressure. With me, it’s just about the art.”
Read this next: Ty and the history of UK rap
The legend goes that ‘Walk in da Park’ was recorded in two weeks, at Peckham’s Unit 10 studios. In comparison, ‘Zero Tolerance’ represents two years’ worth of work for Giggs. “That’s mad long, for me,” he admits. “But it was a weird one, because I was working on it on-and-off. I was trying to do different things, but it always led back to that.” He felt he was on to something when he recorded the booming lead single ‘Mandem’. “Because it was just hard, bruv!” he continues, “I knew ‘Mandem’ was gonna be track two. I didn’t have any more tracks, but I said, ‘yeah, this is it.’ And I knew ‘Spiderman’ would be track three. That’s when I knew this was an album.” ‘Zero Tolerance’ is loaded with anthems like ‘Mandem’, shaped in the classic Giggs mould, where he cuts a big, bad brooding presence over skeletal, spacious beats. But there’s artistic risks, introspection and vulnerability too. “Where I’m at now, this mindset is more about growth, do you know what I mean?” he says. “Like, growth in everything. In life, relationships, travelling, work. That’s where it’s at. That’s why it’s ‘Zero Tolerance’, because I haven’t really got the time for much. As you get older, you understand how important time is. And your priorities.”
On ‘Zero Tolerance’, the supporting cast is a mix of UK and US rap heavyweights - the likes of Diddy, Dave East, Potter Payper, Dave, 21 Savage and Tiny Boost. It’s a legacy of the work Giggs put in stateside during the 2010s, despite being barred from entering the country for most of the decade. He bodied Lex Luger beats, had Anthony Hamilton crooning soulful hooks, and sparred with everyone from Styles P to Bun B. Most notable amongst all his transatlantic collabs is the flamethrower of a verse he blessed Drake with on ‘KMT’. In 2017, if you weren’t rapping “Batman, DA-NA-NA-DA-NA,” at the top of your lungs, then what were you doing? But none of the above meant our most influential ever MC was craving approval from his US peers; the relationships Giggs built were based on mutual respect. On the title-track of DJ Khaled’s ‘God Did’ album from last year, Jay-Z raps, “I see a lot of Hov in Giggs,” confirming The Landlord of UK rap’s boss status in the eyes of America’s greatest. “That was crazy, man. That’s a stamp in history, you know what I mean?” Giggs reflects. As he enters the fourth decade of his life, legacy is on his mind. “I’ve listened to mad Jay-Z albums and tapes, where he’s shouting out this person and that person. Now, man’s part of that whole thing. It’s just crazy.”
Giggs emerged from jail in 2005 following a firearm possession conviction with an unswerving determination to turn his life around through music. In those early days, he had to contend with some very foul interference from the Met Police: his shows were routinely cancelled, often at the last minute, courtesy of Form 696; attempts were made to dissuade XL Recordings from signing him; and in 2012, after a gun was found in a car he was travelling in, he was remanded in custody for six months, despite the driver of the car admitting the gun was his. In court, Giggs was cleared of all charges. Considering all that he’s been through, now can he sit back and take in the significance of billboards in the birthplace of hip hop and Hov shouting him out? “Yeah, you think that those are the moments. But when they’re happening, you’re already tryna make something else happen. I try to sit back and think, ‘rah, that was crazy!’ But realistically, a lot of the time you’re just keeping it moving. On to the next step,” he says, emphasising that hard-to-shake ‘Hustle On’ mentality of nonstop work. “It is important to try and take in those moments, though. And enjoy them. I’m tryna do that more now, you know what I’m saying? Instead of thinking, ‘what’s next?’ That’s something that man’s gotta work at. I’m not the best at it. Sometimes I might fall off … but I’ve definitely been celebrating,” he adds, laughing the laugh that earned him his name.
Read this next: Nines, UK rap's humble hustler, is preparing to go global
Some celebrating took place over the bank-holiday weekend in August, when Giggs pulled up to Notting Hill Carnival, as a surprise performer at the Rampage soundsystem. He performed the national anthem ‘Talking the Hardest’, to a sea of charged-up revellers. Sixteen years since it first blasted out of the underground, the freestyle remains just as quotable and “jheeze” inducing as ever. “I don’t know what it is with that song but it just gets bigger and bigger. It’s crazy,” he says. “The energy just goes up and up. So it never really gets boring because the energy keeps rising.”
Of course, the national anthem has a B-side - ‘Pain is the Essence’. The ‘Ard Bodied’ track has an almost spiritual hold over crowds when a DJ drops it in the dance. Pain is universal - we all connect with it - and it’s the fuel that powers Giggs’s art. He raps about all different kinds of pain, too: there’s personal pain on classic cuts like ‘Breathe’ and ‘The Essence’; communal pain on ‘It’s Hard’; even when he’s flexing on ‘The Best’, from 2016’s ‘Landlord’ album, he’s haunted by the memory of dead friends. The pain that surfaces on ‘Zero Tolerance’ is centred around loneliness, relationships breaking down and missing his children. “This [music] is the therapy, init,” he explains. “It helps a lot, to be honest. A lot of people don’t have anyone to talk to, or ways to express their pain. I got music.” Was he tempted to perform ‘Pain is the Essence’ at carnival? “I should’ve done that, too. But it might've gone too, too crazy,” Giggs adds, laughing.
His son ML was there with him, to witness the love that UK rap fans have for his dad. It was his first time at carnival. “He enjoyed it, man. It’s a sick way to have your first carnival, experiencing it in a big way. I didn’t experience it like that!” ML is doing his own thing in music now, and has released a handful of smooth, auto-tune drenched trapwave singles. Last year, he collaborated with his dad on ‘Who I Am’. Giggs has described his son as his biggest critic in the past. Thankfully, he didn’t send The Landlord back to the booth to re-record his verse. “Nah, he was happy with it,” he laughs. “He’s a good kid. Even though he’s my son, he knows his dad is mad busy. So he’s grateful.” And if the time comes when ML ever spins his dad on a track, like Luke Skywalker overcoming Darth Vader, what happens? “Then we’d have to go again next time! And again, and again and again,” he jokes.
On ‘Little Man & Me’, from Giggs's 2010 sophomore album and XL debut ‘Let Em Have It’, he revealed the transformative effect that being a dad had on him. “Before he entered my life, I never had shit,” he raps over a hopeful, warm production. In 2013, on his final XL album ‘When Will It Stop’, he raps about getting deeper into his faith while in jail for the second time as an innocent man awaiting trial. These two things - fatherhood and faith - have felt like anchors in his life and music, keeping him grounded and on the right path. Both themes feature on ‘Zero Tolerance’, providing the album’s most tender moments on tracks like ‘Unlimited Blessings’, ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Shockin’. “Yeah, those things are everything. With fatherhood, it’s not just about you, init. Once you’re a dad, you’ve gotta make it happen, regardless,” he explains, with the conviction of a man who lives what he speaks. “I had my son when I was 20. So from early, I had to get it for my family.” Depending on your circumstances, that can mean taking big risks, in order to provide. In another life before music, that’s what Giggs was doing. Then he had to switch up and burn mics, instead. “And then faith keeps you going. Doing what man does now, following dreams, it’s hard,” he admits. “You’ll have moments where it’s like ‘rah, am I doing the right thing? Is this gonna happen?’ And it might not be happening for years. Without faith in them moments, you’re gonna drown.”
Giggs has long been providing for his children, without having to take the risks he was taking two decades ago. He’s giving them a life that he could only dream of living when he was growing up on the “Gully Gloucester '' in Peckham. “I just feel grateful, man. There’s no other word to explain it. And I’m just gonna keep going, wherever the faith takes me,” he says, reflecting on where his future path might lie. “Because tomorrow everything could change. And I feel like I’ve still got loads to do.”
'Zero Tolerance' is out now, get it here
Robert Kazandjian is a freelance writer, follow him on Twitter