Talk about ignominious beginnings. When Mikill Pane - more commonly known to his friends as Justin Smith Uzomba - chinned Euan Blair, son of then British Prime Minister Tony in a playground scrap, his haymaker triggered a chain of events that would lead to the ambitious debut album, Blame Miss Barclay. The location for his violent, teenage misdemeanour was the prestigious London Oratory School in Fulham; the results of that one punch have since propelled the Hackney-born rapper onto the brink of radio ubiquity with the most original and exciting British hip-hop debut of 2013.
Unsurprisingly, Uzomba's charge sheet since that fateful beef makes for colourful reading: expulsion followed later and the teenager enrolled at Saint Aloysius' College in Highgate, after discovering hip-hop and the hard rhymes of Mobb Deep and Notorious B.I.G. via his older sister. Meanwhile, the focus on the poetry that had previously won him plaudits at the London Oratory School was turned to fine-tuning the lyrical wit that would inform his subsequent musical creations - a string of critically-acclaimed EPs and high profile collaborations with the likes of folk-pop sensation Ed Sheeran, and dancefloor phenomenon Example.
The guiding light in Uzomba's backstory has since been immortalised in rhyme: Miss Barclay, an English teacher at Saint Aloysius', first spotted the latent creativity in this most frustrated of pupils. During classes, she encouraged Uzomba to exploit his literary streak. With her help, he quickly turned his writing into a sharp blend of satire, comedy and pop rhyme. Uzomba reckons that without Miss Barclay, Mikill Pane might never have made it to the microphone at all.
Uzomba began writing rap lyrics with a hip-hop crew called The T.R.U.E.N.Tz. They soon parted company, and Mikill Pane became his moniker. The reason? "In hip-hop terms, if you're a good MC, you're sick," he says. "If you're sick, you're ill - I was sick on the microphone, or mike, so I was mike-ill; the Pane came from my glasses. I've worn them since I was 11 and I've always felt as if I've been looking through windows. It's a big part of my look".
With his image in place, Mikill Pane set about discovering the lyrical slant that would inform his creative output. He partnered up with Danny Fresh, a Chingford DJ and producer, in 2005. Together, the duo recorded five demos. Lyrically, Uzomba began to sketch out adventures and observational characters ("I present stories so people can make up their own minds about what I'm saying").
The fruits of Mikill Pane's initial demos were awash with record label attention. Amid the hype, he recorded several self-financed EPs throughout 2011 and early 2012, including The Guinness & Blackcurrant EP and The Morris Dancer EP. Uzomba crafted a studio sound that marked him out to be a creative chameleon within the British rap scene. As well as trading in rap breakbeats and pop hooks, he seamlessly straddled a string of guitar-based sounds, including punk, ska and reggae. Mikill Pane even teamed up with the band The Remedies and began performing in a more rock-orientated vibe.
"I have a drummer, two guitarists, a bassist and a keyboardist", he says. "They're not a band I put together, they're friends. It's not like they joined me, because they were already together. It was like I'd joined them. It was perfect".
The big turning point proved to be the You Guest It EP. Released last year and comprising collaborations with the likes of Example, Jakwob and Ed Sheeran, it quickly made radio playlists and increased Mikill Pane's presence on the pop radar. It became the most downloaded release in the history of SBTV, YouTube's urban music video wing. The hard work paid off: Uzomba eventually signed with Mercury Records at the tail end of 2012, having already recorded his debut album.
Recorded throughout much of last year, Blame Miss Barclay originally promised to be a rap opus that followed on from the mood set on previous EPs - the demos arrived with an upbeat hip-hop swagger, though the summery hooks were underpinned by an observational journey set in London and featuring a string of bleak characters "living extraordinary lives". Drug dealers, warring families, lost souls and pensioners on a life-changing mission make up the cast.
Thirty tracks were recorded in the studio process, though the album was later tightened to 15 songs. The story and themes of Mikill Pane's debut remain undiminished, however. "The music's good, the hooks are catchy, but the lyrics are smart", says Uzomba. "In terms of sound, it was all written and all produced with guitars. It has a very rocky edge to it. There's indie rock, ska and punk. It's classic Mikill Pane because the lyrics are full of double entendres and secret messages".
"One track is called 'Life On The Line', which is about the mice
that live on the Tube tracks. Yeah, people think they're little
shit bags but it's kinda cool that they're there. There's another
song called 'Rooftops', which is about a metaphysical experience:
I'm stoned on my mate's balcony and I fall asleep and have this
vivid dream in which I have the power to see what's going on in any
room beneath me, if I stand on a rooftop".
The overall results are an album that should mark Mikill Pane as an artist big on experimental ideas and razor-sharp lyricism. Meanwhile, Blame Miss Barclay feels like a weighty debut with ambitions beyond the flash-in-the-pan success story. Uzomba is keen that his work should be viewed as a whole, rather than a collection of radio-friendly songs.
"I'm not a singles guy, so I want people to think of this as the magnum opus", he says. "I don't give a shit about singles. On Blame Miss Barclay I'm hoping to hark back to the good old days when albums were all quality, rather than three sick tracks and a lot of filler. I want the album to be considered as a body of work - hopefully that will be the case. This album is a story, and I want people to follow it from beginning to end".