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Blanco’s Secret Jutsu

The Harlem Spartans member has just released his solo mixtape City Of God. We catch up to talk about crafting his unique style, the best Naruto characters, and his unintentional influence on Australian drill.

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Blanco first burst onto the scene as a member of seminal UK drill group Harlem Spartans, who met growing up around Kennington in London’s Southeast. The group included rappers Loski, Mizormac, Bis, and several others—and with Blanco in tow as one of their most talented members, Harlem Spartans began releasing their unique style of drill music as early as 2015. The group quickly gained a massive cult following with classics such as ‘Kennington Where it Started’, ‘Kennington Bop’ and ‘Call Me A Spartan’ propelling Kennington’s teenage kings of drill to the forefront and setting the blueprint that many would come to follow.

However, being ahead of the curve musically didn’t necessarily equal better opportunities for the Harlem Spartans, as authorities in the UK were cracking down on drill music heavily in its early stages. Music videos were often taken down for lyrical content, and injunctions prevented groups like Harlem from performing live. It’s a shame to think that the circumstances may have been different if the group formed just a few years later, where traces of their influence can still be heard amongst some of the UK’s top-charting artists. Still, unable to reach the next level in their musical endeavours, several HS members, including Blanco, ended up with prison time for various street activities, and others were lost in more tragic circumstances. As of today, the status of the group remains unknown.

Thankfully, late 2018 saw the anticipated return from Blanco after having finished serving his time, with the young rapper releasing new music as a solo artist. Though echoes of his Harlem days remain, Blanco has pivoted in a new direction, heavily inspired by Brazilian baile funk. These days, the drill pioneer doesn’t consider himself a drill artist at all, admitting the foundations he once helped lay have begun to feel tired. But, no blaming him there—it’s hard to fathom the influence he’s had on drill and the life the young artist has already led at just 20 years old. Instead, Blanco’s focus is on creating a unique sound, one that he can own.

His debut mixtape City Of God, named after the 2002 Brazilian film about street violence in a lawless favela of Rio Di Janeiro, is Blanco’s most concise release to date—a deliberate fusion of elements from Blanco’s past and the sounds that influence him today. Blanco’s ability to speak on life in the streets and the violence that surrounds it, over a vibrant palette of Brazillian-influenced sounds creates a unique dynamic that sets him apart from the crowd. But it’s the countless witty one-liners, riddled with references to all things anime, comics, and pop-culture that serve as Blanco’s Hiden Jutsu (secret technique) and cement the young OG as one to watch in the current landscape.

Over a zoom call between London and Melbourne, we spoke to Blanco about creating his new sound, the influence of Harlem Spartans, and his top 3—wait, top 4 favourite Naruto characters.

So your new mixtape is called City Of God—that’s one of my favourite movies, actually.
Is it really? That’s sick. I’ll be honest I haven’t watched it in a few years. I first saw it when I was in year 11 or something. I don’t really like movies with subtitles, but that movie is one I can watch over and over again. They speak Portuguese, which I can understand a bit because I’m from Angola.

In the context of your life, what does the title City Of God mean to you?
I actually made a song that was meant to be called City Of God, but we had the idea to change the title of the mixtape to that because there’s obviously Brazillian sounds on there, so it made sense to call the tape City of God.

I feel like there are similarities between what goes on in the film City Of God and what is going on in the streets of London.
I was actually going to say that, but I didn’t want to — yeah, there’s a lot of similarities, though. Especially just how life can take a turn unexpectedly, especially when you’re around that age anyway.

As you mentioned, there’s also a lot of Brazilian influence on the production you use. Your beat selection and your sound over the last couple of years is super unique. What put you on to rapping over those Baile Funk style beats?
Thank you. No one, you know. I love music; I love good music. And I was on YouTube one time, and I was looking for something new, and I came across the beats originally, but the best ones were all produced by this guy Alexaybeats. I didn’t know him at the time, but as I was going through the beats, I’m thought, ‘Yeah, this sounds very majestic. It sounds so nice. It sounds so pure.’ So obviously, I reached out to him, and we made our first song, ‘Pull Up’.

Right, so from there, you kind of built this sound that you hear on ‘City Of God’?
Yeah, I wish I could have worked with him a bit more. He’s from Brazil, but he lives in France. So if he was in London, but obviously with COVID, I couldn’t really travel, but yeah, I wish I could have worked with him more.

I feel this new project shows how you’ve mastered those sounds and pushed them into new places. It feels very fresh compared to a lot of music coming out from the UK. Do you aim to set yourself apart in that way?
Yeah, literally. That’s what I was born to do — to set myself apart from everyone else. I don’t like when music sounds the same. In America, it’s a bigger country, so they have a wider music taste, so that’s why I like to set myself apart from the rest. I like doing something different.

I guess some people probably expect you to mostly be making drill music still. Do you ever find it frustrating that people want to box you in as a drill artist?
Yeah, that’s annoying because even when I was doing drill, I never said I was a drill artist. I never ever said that once, and I never thought that either. So yeah, that is annoying, bro. Like most drill artists don’t even want to do drill now. It’s like a chore.

Do you think it’s getting a bit tired?

I like the way you can still dabble in drill sounds, but you’ve blended it in with your own style. Is there a track from City Of God that you feel best represents where you are as an artist?
I’m going to say ‘Time Out’ represents me the most as an artist, and it kind of shows growth and the experiences I’ve been through.

Harlem Spartans are seen as pioneers of modern drill, and you were definitely ahead of your time when you were putting out music back in 2016/2017.
[Laughs] Yeah.

Now with your solo music, I think you’re a bit ahead of the pack again. I haven’t heard too many people copying your style yet, but I’m sure it’s coming. Do you ever worry that other artists are going to bite what you’re doing? Do you think about where to take it next?
Yeah, thank you man. I have heard some so obviously, my kind of vow to myself is to stay ahead of everyone else and put out more of those types of sounds consistently and establish that it’s mine and really own it.

Is that something that bothered you guys back in the Harlem Spartans days? There were obviously a lot of artists taking influence from you then too.
Yeah. Um, it didn’t really bother us that much actually. What bothered us is that—well, because drill was seen as like, a crime in itself back then—we couldn’t really own it or take certain aspects of it to the next level. We couldn’t even really do shows or anything like that so I think that’s what bothered us the most.

I wanted to ask if you knew about the Australian drill group OneFour? They actually site Harlem as the biggest influence on their music. What do you think of the sound you helped shape travelling to all these different parts of the world?
Yeah yeah, nah I’m a fan of them still. I think they are really sick. It’s crazy, it’s really crazy. My favourite song of theirs is ‘In The Beginning’ it actually reminded me of ‘Kennington Where It Started’ it’s like an anthem for me, yeah that’s one of my favourite songs.

So can you tell me about putting City of God together? Did you approach it differently to when you were working on the English Dubbed stuff?
Well, English Dubbed was kind of like making songs individually and just mashing them together so this one was a bit different. It was definitely harder, it was very long and kind of stressful—well tiring, but I know what to expect now so next time I’m going to go twice as hard.

It was cool to hear you getting Loski on the project after we heard you on his track ‘Anglo Saxon’—what is the process of recording a track with Loski in 2021 compared to back in the Harlem Spartan days?
It’s a bit different because obviously we’re not allowed to be together so we have to record our parts on different days. But it was good, it was refreshing innit. It’s crazy, me and Loski have obviously known each other from time, we’re from the same area and everything like that but we actually haven’t been on the same song together—other than maybe a few that were leaked but we haven’t actually done one that’s been properly released on YouTube other than in recent times.

No way, I didn’t realise that. Do you mind if I ask about MizOrMac? He was released for a short while and then he got recalled — did you have a chance to work on any music during that time?
Yeah, we worked on a couple of songs—fire, fire. A couple of anthems. But obviously with permission from his probation because we’re not allowed to speak to each other. But because of his recall, he can’t really release those songs. It’s a shame really.

Another feature on the project that stood out was ‘Too Late’ with Ama Lou. I think she’s sick, how did you link with her?
Someone actually came to me and said she was really feeling my music—I can’t remember which song she was feeling, it might have been ‘Anankin’—so from there, we got in the studio. I didn’t realise how good she was until I listened to her songs on Spotify but yeah, she’s really good.

I love all the pop culture references in your music—there are always some deep references in your lyrics that serious fans will pick up on.
[Laughs] Yeah.

Do you keep certain ideas for references up your sleeve until they fit? Like is there anything you’ve been wanting to reference but haven’t been able to fit in yet or do you just come up with them as you’re writing?
I feel like it just has to come when I’m writing. Or when I’m watching something. Are you a fan of Naturo?

Of Course.
What’s your favourite anime?

Well maybe not my all-time favourite but I finished Demon Slayer recently and was going to ask if you’d seen it.
Yeah, of course. I really like Demon Slayer still, I think the animation is top tier. It’s up there with the best.

Is there anything you want to reference that you haven’t been able to work in yet?
I want to talk about deeper subjects in my music, but there’s always stuff that I want to reference that I actually have referenced in so many songs that are unreleased!

You also shouted out Dave in your track ‘Magneto’, is that someone you’ve had a chance to meet or work with?
Yeah, I’ve spoken to him a couple of times and I’ve bumped into him as well. I haven’t had the chance to work with him yet but one day, we’ll see. Actually, even back in the day, in the Harlem Spartans days he actually sent me an instrumental that he wanted me to jump on—around 2017, it was like a Nintendo style beat because he knew he referenced a lot of pop culture.

So if you’re Magneto and Dave is Professor X — who do you think would be Wolverine?
[Laughs] I’m not sure you know, it’s got to be one of the greats but I can’t put them as Wolverine if I’m Magneto you know.

Yeah, it’s not quite the same—Magneto and Professor X are the brains, Wolverine is more of a brawler.
Exactly, he’s the brawler so I can’t say. I’ll go J Hus or something.

Yeah, nice. Is there anyone else you’re trying to work with that you haven’t had a chance to yet? Who are some dream artists you’d like to work with?
Yeah, I like J Hus, I like Dave, I like Wretch. I like Ghetts as well—I don’t really like grime but I like Ghetts. I like Skepta. There’s some singers too, I like Mahalia. There are a lot actually.

Ok my last question for you man—with at least 4 tracks on the project named after Naruto. I was hoping you could settle the score on the GOAT Naruto character?
Ah, don’t make me do this! I’d say top 3 is Itachi, I love Nagato and the 3rd one is out of Hashirama or Madara—but I love Itachi, that’s my favourite character

Fuck it you can have 4 [Laughs]
[Laughs] Itachi is still my favourite character. He’s the GOAT man.

Ok Blanco man, appreciate you taking the time man. Congrats on the mixtape!
Yeah, I appreciate it too man. Thank you.

Follow Blanco here for more and stream City Of God here.

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