DEVZ: The story behind the viral 'Who What Where' rapper
When it comes to the internet, the definition of viral is 'circulated rapidly and widely from one internet user to another' and if there's one rapper who defines that word it's Devz.
Born and bred in Leyton, the East Londoner experienced an overnight rise to stardom when his 2016 freestyle 'Who What Where' became one of the most talked about songs on the planet. With instantly recognisable lyrics performed by a hungry and passionate rapper ready to make his mark on the scene, 'Who What Where' was Devz's breakout moment. But despite racking up more than 1.6 million views on YouTube and countless millions more across social media, the truth behind the impact that going viral had on the rapper tells a different story and to truly understand it you have to understand Devz's backstory.
Growing up in the early Grime era, Devz was exposed to the pioneering sounds of his fellow East London artists from a young age. "When I was going to school Grime was popping," he explains, "That was the music we grew up to. Skepta, Jme, Ghetts, Dizzee Rascal, Wiley - that's who I listened to. During secondary school I was writing lyrics but I wasn't taking music seriously. I used to look up to guys like Kano and that; they all inspired me."
After making the decision to pick up a mic and begin rapping whilst in school, Devz made a few songs with others but never got to work with producer Sevaqk [Mist, Dave, MoStack], who attended the same school and was studying music at the time.
Those early years paved the way for a love of music, but it was a passion for acting that would grip Devz in his teens as he began to plan out a potential career for himself. "In college I went on to do performing arts so I was doing acting and stuff from then, but I was still doing my music. Acting was my main thing though until I went onto my last year of college," he tells me, smiling as he reminisces about his younger self. "I was supposed to go to a drama school but I messed up the student loans and took too long, so I thought I'd take a gap year and see what I could do during that time and that's when the music and 'Who What Where' all came together."
Whilst the viral track we know only features vocals from Devz, it turns out that 'Who What Where' was originally recorded by a rap collective that he was part of during his gap year. "I was working a job at the time but there were a couple of guys I knew from my area that used to rap, so I got together with them and we tried to make a group. We did a couple of tracks and everything was going well but not everyone was serious so people went their own ways. I had a connection with BL@CKBOX and I spoke to Lotes (BL@CKBOX Owner) about coming in for a freestyle and he got it lined up for me and that became 'Who What Where'."
"The maddest thing about it was that I already had 'Who What Where' composed from before. When I was on my gap year and going to the studio with the whole group thing, I came up with 'Who What Where' and everyone in the group had a verse on the track. So we'd already recorded it basically a year before the freestyle came out."
Whilst he was hoping that something good would come from his gap year, Devz never imagined he'd become an overnight sensation. "I'd heard from a lot of people in college who did take gap years and were meant to go somewhere that they didn't get to go to and they told me, 'The best thing about a gap year is that the unexpected can happen, especially if you're a passionate person' and that's what happened for me. I wasn't gonna let that gap year slide and work in retail. I was still going to auditions for urban films that were happening, but the biggest thing that happened for me was the BL@CKBOX freestyle."
So what is it like to go viral? Not just having a popular tweet or Tik Tok video, but to be trending on Twitter and widely shared all across Instagram, Facebook and every other social platform you can think of all at the same time in the blink of an eye? Describing his feeling at the time, Devz reveals,"It hit me like a train and the next thing you know my music was everywhere!" But shock quickly turned to frustration as it turned out the reason behind this new found fame was due to a small part of the freestyle flooding the internet as a meme created by online UK tastemaker Abdikarim Abdille aka Abdi TV.
"I was hitting up Abdi TV and asked him to get behind it because the views weren't really blowing up at the time. Somehow, Abdi saw whatever I said to him and he got behind it, but the way he promoted it was in a meme way. At the time I was thinking 'Ah why did he do it as a meme? He should've just done it normally cos I'm not a meme'. People didn't know it was longer than just that 30 seconds and they were confused, but that's how he decided to promote it and it was a good way in a sense, but I still live with people saying Devz is a meme."
"Any promotion is good promotion though and I can't lie a lot of good stuff happened at the time. It was the best of times for me but it was hard because I was new to the game; I was young, I didn't have a clue about the music business, I didn't have a manager, I didn't know anything about labels and what to expect if a track blew up."
Despite his reluctance to be seen as a meme, Devz embraced the viral nature of his breakthrough and moved to sign a deal in order to release the song officially with a record label, however legal issues caused a huge delay in the record's release. "There was a delay with the official release because the producer of the track wasn't happy with the splits and he got lawyers involved," Devz explains. "I was promised a lot of things from the label and nothing was really done for it - that's why as an artist I'm not in the best place where I should be right now."
"People always say to me 'Devz you should be way bigger than this' but it was all false promises from the label. It was an independent label with Jamal Edwards. I don't know if he really had faith in it from the start and a lot of other people came my way from Sony and GRM, but Jamal and SBTV supported a lot of unique music and so I wanted to work with him. The release came but the promotion wasn't there, the radio promo wasn't there and I feel like it could've been bigger at the time. I feel like Jamal did try, but with the lawyer things and everything it was just long."
The lack of guidance and music industry knowledge around Devz at the time also saw him miss out on some opportunities that, with hindsight, he now wishes he had taken. "There was a show I had at Camden Assembly. Not3s was there, Kojo Funds and Yxng Bane and I also did my first Crib Session with Tim Westwood, but there were some things I turned down," he tells me as he breaks down the harsh realities that a lack of experience can bring a new artist enjoying success for the first time. "Now I've grown, I understand the music business more and if I had the mind I have now I would've gone for everything. I was supposed to have a Chicken Shop Date and I don't even know why I didn't go on there. I just went with stuff I thought would help me out musically."
Whilst his newfound success saw him showing off his acting talents in Krept & Konan's short film 'Ban Drill', it also saw old friends he hadn't heard from in years reaching out to wish him well and show love to the rising star and Devz tells me, "My day to day life switched up instantly. People were calling me and congratulating me. Some people I don't even speak to any more were calling me up, but I appreciate everyone that was reaching out and showing me love in the DMs, on the phone and everywhere. I've never had a buzz like that and it continued for months. I still have people now who show love when I go out and I really appreciate it all."
With shows and opportunities being offered to him on a daily basis and a growing list of famous fans, it was two fellow artists, Big Tobz and late rapper Cadet, who further intensified the popularity of Devz's track as they dropped an unofficial remix, but with legal issues still haunting him and delaying the release of his own official single, Devz had reservations. "At the time I said to them I wasn't on it because I just wanted to get my track out there. After a while I said to Cadet that I would come to the video shoot and he said he'd shout me on the day but I never heard anything and they did their own thing. I still had to balance all the stuff with the lawyers and the label at that time too so it was crazy."
Once the delayed track was finally released after the legal issues had been resolved, 'Who What Where' still saw plenty of plays across streaming services, with more than half a million beng racked up on Spotify alone. As Devz explains, "Spotify plugged me into the Grime Shutdown playlist at the time and the numbers on there are high, but since then I've released a lot of good tracks and put them through the platform and it's not had the same viral reaction. I can't really rely just on 'Who What Where' - it's my foundation but I have to rely on my new music and try to get it to that same level."
"Every new song I release I put my all into because this is my passion. I don't know if everyone knows that but I'm trying to show the world that this is what I do; I love music and it doesn't end at 'Who What Where'."
Attempting to showcase his talents outside of his viral success, Devz released another powerful Drill track in 2020 called 'Vrooo Vrooo'. Over an energetic beat created by renowned producer Chris Rich, Devz displays his gritty flow and strong wordplay to commentate on the rising tensions he sees every day between the police and his local community. Breaking down the track, Devz explains, "There's a lot going on with police and the justice system right now and I didn't wanna speak too much on it but I wanted to highlight certain things that are both going on in the world and in my life. The beat is produced by Chris Rich and I wanted to bring a style that worked together with his style and I feel like that song is strong. I was meant to do a big music video for it but I released it just as COVID started so that stopped things, but I do wanna get something out there when I can."
Whilst his musical catalogue will end up defining his career in the music industry, Devz can often also be found dropping freestyles on social media and at the end of 2020 he released one in support of Marcus Rashford's campaign to end child food poverty. "With Rashford's thing I had to jump on it. A lot of things are going on in the world and people aren't really speaking on it, so if I have the voice and I have the talent to do it then why not? I'll help a brother out and get the message out there even more. There are a lot of kids that like my music so they could listen to that and talk to their mum about what I'm saying and help fight child food poverty. So that's why I thought I'd reach out and help in any way I can because it's needed."
His love for music is clear for all to see and his determination to make a successful career from it that has longevity is evident throughout our interview, but having started out showing an aptitude for acting whilst at college, I'm keen to find out whether Devz would ever look to pursue an acting career? "I haven't really looked into it as much as I could have recently because I've just been so focussed on music," he responds, contemplating the possibility for a second, "but I don't think acting is done for me just yet. If my music takes off then I might even make my own film and act in it because I know a lot of actors and actresses. My main aim right now though is to get my music to the point to where I want it to be. so I'm just trying to focus on that"
With his end goal being to enjoy long-term success with his music, one simple thing will decide whether Devz can shake off that meme label and ensure he achieves his targets: how he defines success. After pondering in deep thought for a second, Devz emerges from his own mind to tell me, "I define success as being able to touch many lives and proving to the people that this is what I'm capable of doing. I wanna be a huge influence on the world itself - young kids, adults, grandmas, grandads I don't care. When I rap I just put love on the track so I wanna help people be clean hearted and motivate them to do the best they can. It's also seeing my family and the people I know be proud of me. A lot of people think success is just getting money but if you're a real artist then touching people's hearts should be your answer."