24 Jan 2018 Interview: 23 Unofficial explains how ‘Ain’t Bothered’ launched his music career
The internet means music can take off in a way that’s previously been unheard of. You can put a song online and soon it could take you from being a rapper who counts video views to one that counts how many people recited his lyrics at live shows. You can quickly go from being another artist trying this music thing to one that can now call it his actual career.
23 experienced that with ‘Ain’t Bothered’, although, less than a year before its life-changing release, he didn’t even plans to launch a music career as such. But frequent studio sessions with close friend, Not3s, forced him into a space where his talent would eventually get recognised, even if he didn’t know what would follow:
“There’s a studio in our area, Hackney, which is owned by my manager actually, and when he used to go the studio, I’d follow him [Not3s] just to see how songs get made. So I went with him one time and he was making a remix for a song, then I just jumped on the track randomly and he said I should take it seriously.
“I went to the studio the following week and recorded a song, and the manager I have now [N2THEA], said he wants to manage me. At first I was sceptical because I hadn’t even released anything, not in a bad way, but because I was going into something I didn’t really know. The rest is kinda history now. He produces all my music. I record all my music in his studio as well.”
After trying his hand at music, 23 again found himself in the studio with Not3s, but now, he wasn’t just taking notes, he was delivering them on a track, with one studio session in particular providing two popular hits:
“Because we’re both from Hackney, we’ve got mutual friends. We’ve got five songs together, but only one [‘Naughty’] is out at the moment. It naturally happened, he was in his session at the time, and I heard a beat that I liked. I got him to speed it up and put his own to jazz to it, which is how the beat for ‘Naughty’ came about.
“When Not3s heard it and said he wanted to jump on it and we literally made the song in like 30 minutes. ‘Naughty’ was made in the same session as ‘Addison Lee’. He dropped that, then I dropped ‘Naughty’ straight after. We’ve got two songs which are better than ‘Naughty’ that are coming out soon.”
Around the time of ‘Naughty’ in February 2017, 23 had released a few songs by this point, including the aptly-named first-ever track, ‘Debut’, only five months before. However, these songs were gaining traction, but none of that momentum was life-changing, until the release of ‘Ain’t Bothered’ at the end of July:
“That song changed my life. I’ll just be real with it, it changed my life. Just from everything that’s happening now, it’s not all been because of that, because songs like ‘Tour’ was doing numbers before, but that was the one that took over and changed my whole aspect on music. I was sitting in my bed one day, and sometimes NA will make beats at random hours of the morning.
“I remember it was like 3’o’clock in the morning one night and he just voice noted the beat to me, and I was like ‘yo, this is it’. I hadn’t even written anything yet, and he was like ‘are you sure?’, and I was like yeah, because we were still trying to find a sound at the time that would allow me to express myself fully. It was working alright in other areas but I needed that one sound that people could know it’s me, so then we went to the studio.”
“I remember it was mad hot outside and everyone wanted to chill but I wanted to go studio, and they were asking why I’m so on going studio to record this one song, but I said I need to go. Then they heard it, and they were like ‘na this is it’, I remember, we were all laughing. We were in the studio, which is kinda small, like 20 of us just cramped up, on a summer day as well.”
Part of the allure of ‘Ain’t Bothered’ is how the first word digests among listeners. As soon as you hear ‘plug’, you’re ready to shout ‘extension chord’ and know that a banger is pending, and much like Krept did when he included his ‘Unless she Rihanna’ lyric in ‘Don’t Waste My Time’, when you know you’re onto something, you know.
“I remember I must’ve been freestyling and before I didn’t really rap like I did on ‘Ain’t Bothered’, but wanted to try something different, so I must’ve just said plug, then extension chord, and he was like ‘keep it like that’, and I wasn’t sure but everyone said it sounded hard. Just that eight bar alone, whatever else comes after that we don’t even care, everything will make sense after that eight bar.
“We didn’t even plan the video or anything, we just ‘yo camera man, come let’s do this’. He was feeling it as well, I remember we shot it randomly that day, over in Angel. I had a show that night as well, that’s where you can see the clips of me performing at Birthdays on the highroad.”
‘Addison Lee has shifted over 250,000 copies and been streamed over 16 million times since its release, as well as clocking 8.6 million watches on YouTube. Like 23, that song took Not3s’ career to a whole new level and also like 23, ‘Addison Lee’ was a slow burner at first, mirroring a similar trajectory which ‘Ain’t Bothered’ followed. But traction it certainly got, as 23 found out when he first performed the song live.
“It took like over a month for it to built up. This one didn’t catch on straight away. I remember like in two weeks it touched 100,000 views like two days after it dropped. My manager does a show called ‘Plughouse’ a few times a year, and he must’ve had this show, and Not3s was on the line-up, Afro B, Hardy, ‘Unsigned’ was out at the time and ‘Juice and Power’, so I was thinking ‘yeah I’m just gonna go and perform then watch the bigger heads that are doing their thing at the moment’. All the songs were going off, but it was in Hackney, so most of my friends was in there, so I thought either way it’s gonna be alright.
“That was my first performance, and then I performed ‘Ain’t Bothered’ and it literally went crazy in there, and I was thinking, how does everyone know the song after just two days. It got like five reloads, they didn’t even let me say the first word, literally it was mad.
“Then from there, things started moving, Tion Wayne brought me out for his headline show, which was probably the best show I went to last year, it was like the craziest night. Everyone was there, and that went off, but that was in front of like 1200 people, and everyone was singing the lyrics, so at that point it kinda hit as well. People knew it word for word and it kinda shocked me,” explains 23.
The UK urban music scene is seeing an increasing number of music videos which surpass one million views. But not every one of those heavily-watched pieces of content touches the charts. Some just remain as viral hits, others creep into the realm of being chart-eligible if enough sales are made, which is what happened with ‘Ain’t Bothered’:
“I didn’t even see it myself. None of us saw it. Another producer, who produced B Young – ‘Jumanji’, and he must’ve screenshotted on his Instagram that ‘Jumanji’ was in the charts as well, and from that screenshot I saw that my song was in there as well. Nobody notified or anything and it already been in the charts from a week before.
“Because we haven’t been in the charts before we’re thinking to look into the charts, so I sent the screenshot to my manager, and I was like is it the real charts, and he was like yeah. That was the Single-Breakers chart, and were top 30 in the Independent Chart. So I was like this is actually crazy. Obviously getting millions of views is a blessing in itself, but to reach the charts is like a whole other thing.”
Not content with just one big hit, 23 now has two, thanks to the release of ‘Can’t Tell Me’, which has already clocked up some 600,000 more YouTube views than ‘Ain’t Bothered’ to push its total to a very healthy 4.5 million views.
“We was like we don’t just wanna be known for one song, so we dropped ‘Can’t Tell Me’, and now that’s doing more numbers, so everything is working in sync. I’m just counting my blessings at the moment. It’s crazy because ‘Ain’t Bothered’ gets more reception and turns them up a bit more, but ‘Can’t Tell Me’ is the one doing more numbers. That was the plan anyways, for it to be better than the last. Every song we make we’re trying to make it better than the last.”
‘Can’t Tell Me’ features a lyric which goes ‘used to stress about life and stuff but all of that changed when my price went up’, so when exactly was that price-rising moment?
“Probably like a month or two after ‘Ain’t Bothered’ came out you start realising your worth when it comes to music and what you bring to the table more than what other people bring. Just off ‘Ain’t Bothered’ alone, we went around the whole country in like two months. I had a show every other day, from here to Manchester. Yesterday I got booked for Denmark, so we’re going everywhere now.
23 has made waves in a short space of time, racking up a charting single and over 10 million YouTube views in less than 18 months on the job. There have been calls for a debut project and more live shows, which he plans to answer and then some in 2018:
“There’s a few surprises coming. A few remixes to songs which I can’t mention, gonna drop the EP as well around summer. There’s definitely an EP on the way, we’ve recorded over like 40 songs that are worthy of the EP, but it’s about getting the right ones on there. After the EP I’m looking to do a headline tour, four or five cities, and just give people what they want, because there’s a lot of demand for a project now, but I feel like it’s still early. I wanna put out more content before. You don’t want songs to get slept on. I want every song in the EP to be felt in one way or another.”
All photos by Teresa Brooks. Find more of her work here.