Interview: Doni Rampage on his history in grime, lessons learnt and future focus

Doni Rampage – Rampage; RP; Ruger Rampz – founder of New Dimension Records and HellaHigh Music Group. Welcome to the story behind an MC with history; an artist with vision; a solider with determination; a leader with camaraderie; a man with music.

Raised in Stockwell, this South London native grew in a time when grime flourished; when the revolution from garage was rumbling; and before the 'niceness' of today's technology. He takes us back to his musical past and beginnings; So What Crew; New Dimension Records; somewhat of a hiatus; the creation of HellaHigh Music Group and its future.


"I’m young but I’m good for something,

I’m one of the best ones in this crew."

Can you speak a little on your beginning?
Everyone in my area used to listen to So Solid Crew, but I weren’t really into them. I used to listen to hip-hop. My brother and his mates were doing their little garage thing, and I went school with certain guys who used to listen to Pay As U Go, and stuff like that. One time I heard “Know We” - Major Ace’s verse on that song - and got hooked. So I heard that, I didn’t know what it was but my mate gave me a little Pay As U Go tape. From that I started listening to radio. I heard Ms Dynamite’s “Booo!” and that was it. I think I wrote the whole song down, straight away and just started spitting it to myself. All the lyrics! I did that with the Major Ace “Know We” bars as well.
I found out through that, that they were on Rinse FM with DJ Slimzee. I started listening to that religiously; taping sets, learning bars and about these Pay As You Go guys. Literally I started idealising them. I want to spit but I’ve got no outlet 'cause I’m just a younger MC. My older brother spits at this time and he’s in a grime crew called Infamous. But he wasn’t hearing me.
So at about Year 11, my mate Ice heard me spit. He was in my brother’s crew, and started telling him to bring me through. So I got into Infamous Crew; happy now. After this, a crew called Riddim Riders wanted me to join them; run by Dollar Beats (Typa at that time). We all used to hang around with each other. That crew, Infamous Crew, N Double A all used to hang on the same road on Acre Lane (Brixton). We used to spit in the church once a week, they had decks in there and would let us in. That’s where I did most of my practice, turning into the little mean machine that I was. I think it’s 'cause I was the little brother; I was the youngest. Always getting pushed off as the younger one but yeah, I’m young but I’m good for something, I’m one of the best ones in this crew.

〜 "Startrack Riddim"

Alright, I did Infamous Crew for a bit, and Riddim Riders because I would have gotten more of a front seat than in my brother’s crew. I would have always been the little brother and wouldn’t get to be where I wana be. And these times, I wana be like Wiley; I wana be the conjurer; I wana be the head; I wana control this; I wana make this happen, that happen. I’ve got no say in my brother’s crew. So, went to the other crew, did one rave then they broke up! I just went there, now I’m crewless. I’m a solo MC now – just in Stockwell, doing my bits, doing block. But my boy from school, Bentley, he used to spit 'garagey' stuff and he knew what I was doing so we started spitting together. Me, Bentley and one DJ from around the area started doing a couple sets and getting known around the estate. Making my own name - away from my brother’s area, I’m back in Stockwell now. In my bits, where I’ve grown and parred. So, we buck up with Dirty Dozen Crew (DDC) - they were a big grime crew back in the day. Started doing sets with them guys and that was a boost for me 'cause at the same time I started producing.
[Following this] Killa P starts hanging around the ends again, and telling us how he knows all these Roll Deep guys. Me and Bentley are excited, like “Rah you know all these guys”. He’s showing us all these videos of Roll Deep sets! So, one day, Bentley calls me from the club to come down. Killa’s in the club, he’s like “So What?!”. I’m like, “What?”. Bentley’s like, “So What Crew ennit!”. So What Crew? Yeah, why not, whatever, come let’s do this. That was the beginning of it, that was Summer 2004 probably.

〜 Southern Hospitality 2 DVD; Bentlely at beginning, Rampage third.

[During So What], I had a much bigger hand in what happened. It was only me, Bentley and Killa. He's bringing his Roll Deep guys around. We did a couple sets with D Double [E], and Jamakabi. So, he’s showing us what he can bring to the table. But when did we bring all the guys in? We were at the Country Show one time and saw a bunch of guys from the other side of Stockwell. They spit, the younger guys. There was about seven of them - "Ain’t in no crew but you all spit?!" I made a bold decision - So What; all of you lot. We had the whole of Stockwell, a lot of good MCs, and it just built from there. I was the producer; it was all fun for me, more MCs to make beats for.

"We’ve been there, we’ve experienced it. So, I guess, knowing now, how to attack it. And that’s kind of the reason why I came back. I stopped 'cause it was hard times, but we’ll get to that."

〜 "Flow So Hard"

〜 "Stockwell All Day"

Can you tell us your best memory from this time, and one notable lesson?
You know what, I got told this ennit - ‘tell stories’. That was a lesson I learnt - what you talk about. Go easy on what you talk about. Hearing that, I made a lot of stories, I made a lot of singalongs. Everyone used to love the singalongs.
But what was the [most memorable]? Being there in the moment. We had a crew of 10 plus, full crew, it was the livest sets.

You have been prominent on pirate radio since you began, how has this format of MCing moulded you as an artist?
It’s everything. It’s made me appreciate where I am now. Back then I was younger, it was nothing, radio was always there. We took it for granted. Now, I can see some guys taking [music] for granted. They won’t be making the most out of their opportunities - with what they’re talking about, how much tunes they’re pushing out, doing collaborations and stuff like that. I learnt all from back in the day. Now, we’ve been there, we’ve experienced it. So, I guess, knowing now, how to attack it. And that’s kind of the reason why I came back. I stopped 'cause it was hard times, but we’ll get to that.

"If you go from grime to any other genre, you’re gonna stack it up bruv; I don’t care what no one says."

〜 So What Crew.
When I came back, I really felt that I could conjure up and plan my way through this. It’s like a second try. You have to make mistakes, and I made a lot the first-time round. We were just soldiers; but watching and learning how to lead the army at the same time. I always wanted to be leading the army. So, from seeing back then, now I just make the most of it; I appreciate it. Seeing [the scene] now, those guys, they have it nice. I don’t think they realise how nice they got it. Like the P Money tune, talking about them man got it nice nowadays. We couldn’t just do a tune, then post it on your phone straight away. We couldn’t do that – access so many people. You had to be there, on your feet, walking around the ends, giving out CDs.  

This actually leads into our follow question. How would you describe the contrast from today’s grime scene?
Well, P Money did it ennit. He did it with that tune; on releasing music, making links and socialising. You can make links from your home now. You can holla a stranger; just tell them what you’re trying to do. Most people will hear you out but back in the days you had to get in front of someone’s face.
But there’s another angle - the way guys treat radio sets now. It varies to back in the days. Back then everyone was working together on sets. You might get a lot of guys doing indirect bars but everyone was working together in a sense where we’re performing for the listeners, and making sure this show comes out the best. Now it’s more like, he feels like he most important part of the show. I see guys spitting at radio and they’re holding the mic for 6 minutes; killing off the sets - live as well. I think that’s bad man; it’s a lot of bad understanding. It’s like a free-for-all. I’m from the days where when my crew did a set, we’d hear a tune that we all liked, and everyone would jump on it. The DJ didn’t overplay the tune neither, we just rotated it very nice! 8 bars; 16 bars. We had a big understanding – togetherness. Now, it’s just a straight free-for-all. That’s why I did my little team, HMG. You guys run a free-for-all but I’m gonna run with my team. It’s like that, we all go together. It’s like a 5-a-side. The DJ’s the goalie – he’s throwing the ball out; let’s get the goal. It’s not even a reload thing, just let’s make this show bang. Through balls to the mandem. Working together, but no one wants to work together anymore. I see that, less togetherness.

〜 HellaHigh Music Group, PyroRadio Set; Jedah With Doni Rampage, Simba, Aaze, Tintz, Tips, Hoodz & Mischief (12/09/2018)
[We] need to open up this thing a bit more. That’s what I’m trying to do for the mandem round here. East man have always got it, they’ve always been nice. In grime, South man ain’t really got an outlet. Mandem buss in South then go; take it and run. With the exception of Stormzy but he came alone anyway. When I do grime, there’s always soldiers around me man; I wana bring the soldiers.

You founded the New Dimension Records record label fairly early on in your career, what made you take this action? And how did it help?
It was to help the community and to put my stamp down as a leader. Basically, I was learning grime from Pay As You Go, Wiley and them man. So, what I heard was: Wiley producing; Target producing; Danny Weed producing; Geeneus producing - a lot of in-house stuff. These times, I'm sitting down making beats with Dot Rotten, and DJ Steema from DDC – that’s in-house. I started out as Rampage Productions; some little robot voice. It didn’t sit too good, I didn’t like it and one day just said "New Dimension". Everyone endorsed it. It was early on, but I don’t like running around nameless; same reason I started HellaHigh Music Group (HMG). I don’t wana put out music and it's underneath nothing. It’s always ‘Presents…’ or released by someone – it has to have a body. Like Wiley with his Eksibeats thing, this was my thing - New Dimension. It was my sound as well, I had to put my stamp down.

" had to be serious. There was always a label. I knew I had to have my own label...knew that was the way it had to go."

At that time, I created my own ‘studio’. [Going] studio was just too expensive and being young, I couldn’t afford to keep doing that. I seen Killa’s little brother coming from Sunday market with a computer one day; saying he spend 3-4 bills on this whole studio set up, mic and everything. And that was it, I’m done bruv - I'm buying mine as well. From getting that computer, it was always New Dimension.
Having this mindset of housing your content under one body is impressive, especially creating this when you were young. Good for professionalism, business, brand and coming out strong.
Yeah, when I look back, I am like “Rah man was so young”. But it’s just where I was coming from. My Mum used to sing, so I was in the studio from young. I used to be around those WSTRN guys, we grew up together. We were always in studios. So, it had to be serious. There was always a label. I knew I had to have my own label. So young, didn’t know what I was doing, but knew that was the way it had to go.
How did this evolve into HellaHigh Music Group? Is there a contrast between the imprints?
HellaHigh would actually come under New Dimension, but [NDR] was me and the producers; it was the label. Then, when the crew disbanded, I kept NDR going but it turned into hip-hop, bashment; a few grime beats around 2015, and end of 2016, it just got quiet. I stopped making grime beats. I was still making rap and bashment, but it weren’t getting no impact. It felt like I weren’t accepted in the other genres. I think it’s because I was a threat; if you go from grime to any other genre, you’re gonna stack it up bruv; I don’t care what no one says. Go from grime to rap; you’re gonna be better than them other rappers. You’d be putting words together, mad - so fast; sick flows. ‘Cause, I'm not a rapper from the start, there are rappers that been doing it from day, that are gonna expect to get through the rap thing before me. So I said alright, I'm thinking serious; I wana do music; I wana do grime. But there’s no MCs around me. That was when I just started hollering at guys.

"Best on the Planet" | Spotify

I dropped “Best On The Planet”; my debut single and I didn’t want it to come out nameless. I couldn’t do NDR cause that was me as a producer and I didn’t want to just throw [music] out. I did an EP (Tell Dem!) last year and that was my production. But I didn’t feel them that much; I did it to just put something out of my own. [Then came], “Hellahigh”; them man were loving the tune in Stoke - that’s where Hunter’s (Hunterbeats) from. They’re like “That hellahigh thing, hellahigh!”, I'm like “Hellahigh, wah! Man we’re smoking!”. And that’s me all in one, a mad smoker; I love my weed, I just be smoking all the time. But could I push it? They’re gonna say “Ah, he’s pushing weed”. But at the same time, there’s so much worse that people are spitting about, than what I'm spitting about. So then I thought, fuck them - that’s my wave. It’s HellaHigh, and that was it; the bars started coming. Everything’s getting directed as HellaHigh - waved; off your face; lean up; enjoying the sun; and all of that, just gone!

After this, I'm on radio and I’ve met Aaze on DJ Citrus’ show. So we were spitting for about a year - me, Aaze and Nesta; Citrus’ show, to Don City Radio, to Mode FM. Citrus and Nesta were always on to me about putting a team together. Aaze was around me already so it was like, “Just come, HMG”. I told him not to worry, if you don’t feel it down the line then it’s cool, just do your thing, it’s nothing, let’s try this. I did try to make a little squad, Hella Squad, underneath HMG. Guys came and gone; politics, arguing, drama, not turning up to sets. So now, that came down to me and Aaze, and the producers - [Grinz, Hunter, Dunkee, Kalorific]. All my tunes are gonna come from them, other than a couple exclusive producers. All my projects are coming from HMG, and that way my guys are gonna learn about you [producers], your guys are gonna learn about me and they’re gonna see this team; this unity. You don’t need to be all over the place. So now HMG is set up, pushing the brand, pushing the team and that’s it.

〜 DJ Citrus centre; Doni Rampge to his left.

You took a lengthy hiatus from music? What was the reasoning for this? And did you experience a personal or musical growth at all?
Around 2008-09 the crew was in a madness ‘cause Stockwell was really in civil war – and that’s the two sides of So What. Killa had already gone to Roll Deep so the crew just died out. Killa never really left the crew, but when the mandem saw that, they lost a lot of faith. I kind of knew what was going on, but it was a lot for me to take as well 'cause I just saw the whole crew crumbling. It was a lot and I'm done; all this and the mandem’s in beef.

"On our last set we knew, driving over there you could see it in both our faces – we knew this was our last set. The team’s finished."

So that happened, and year’s later I try to come back. Trying and trying but it weren’t working. When I finally come back in 2017, I was doing it for myself; no team. Now, I’m flying the HellaHigh flag and its mine and I’ve made all my links. And that was what I learnt. Killa had all the links in So What, so when he left we had nothing to do. On our last set we knew, driving over there you could see it in both our faces; mine and Bentley’s – we knew this was our last set. The team’s finished.

What sparked your interest back into music?
I never lost interest you know, and I never actually stopped doing music; I just went from different genres really. I literally couldn’t do grime because my heart was in So What. That doorway closed - no crew; no station; putting out grime and no one’s listening. Grime was dying down at that point as well, funky house was taking over. That was about 2009 - it was the end of the end and the beginning of the beginning. [Jumping genres], I loved it and feel like I should be doing that now almost. Like rah, if I touch rap it’s a curtain thing; or afrobeats. But I'm here now, to show them where I'm meant to be. I need to finish this grime thing.

How does your new EP, Hellarific, with producer Kalorific, stand out compared with others?
Kalorific is another one of them producers that syncs with my writing style. We linked through Citrus and just started speaking – long conversations; hearing what each other are doing; and just come, let’s do this thing. I had to bring him through, he’s a certy guy and a certified producer. [Hellarific EP was] displaying the power at man’s disposal; HMG presents, Kalorific, Hellarific. That’s his sound. Welcome to Kalorific.

What is your future aim in music? And your unique selling point, so to speak, moving forward?
Now I’ve got HMG, I just want to make that group flourish. I want to be putting out projects [not just my own] from HMG, and eventually take a back seat. I do want to put a crew together, but without me, just off of HMG. Not a ‘youngers crew’ but a crew of new, fresh MCs. I’m older, so the wisdom I could put on to a young MC, could help them better than it could help me. Them being young in the scene and born in this social world, there’s a lot that they can do that I can’t do. They can flex a certain way I can’t - guys like Aaze.
I want to make a brand out of this – nice crew, PR, get clothing lines out, variety of genres, camera team. A proper production company or record label. I just want to see it expand. As for the selling point, we are just trying to be unique. And as I mentioned before about the togetherness, I'm just trying to put a family together. I want people to see our unity, and I want to show others about ‘team’.
It’s been about a year now, and we’re doing a lot. Little Aaze you know, 19! At that age you got your life going on. I’ve seen him have ups and downs, but come back, through having a team and family around him. He’s got brothers (and a sister) now – Grinz, Dunkee, Kalorific, Bonnie (runs the HMG pages) and me there. All in the Whatsapp group, everyone’s there; we’re all active, keeping each other up. When one, or I go ghost for some reason, we hold each other down. But I'm gonna see this family and people are gonna see the strength and unity. It’s mainly a South team, and I didn’t mean it to be like that. But still, I'm trying to bring back some of the joy and love on the scene in South. We don’t get much grime, there’s no love for grime in South right now. I’m from Brixton man, I don’t know none of these youngers that care about grime. But when I'm around them drill youts, I'm like “You man are taking some liberties, talking about drilly drilly. You need to come to some sets bruv”.

Do you have any advice on maintaining a healthy life/music balance?
See me, I’ve got a terrible balance. But it depends how much you want it and what you actually want. ‘Cause really and truly, you have to be an animal if you really want it. And you could probably ask any other MC in the scene.

 "That would be my advice – don’t take it easy."

I work a full-time job, so I barely go bed. Going sleep at 3am and having to wake up at 5.30am for work - making a beat at 1am; recording at 2am; making the dumbest mixdown at 3am. And that’s regular, I don’t sleep. But if you want it, it’s really like that. There’s no time, you have to move like you’re going against the clock; don’t get comfortable. When I was younger, I thought I was ‘there’. But you’re never ‘there’, there’s always more you can learn, more you can do. Just keep pushing and don’t let up on the gas. That would be my advice - don’t take it easy. Go to every radio set; go studio every time; go everywhere someone’s inviting you too - it doesn’t matter what time, just turn up. Put your face everywhere.

Doni Rampage: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook
HellaHigh Music Group: Instagram, Facebook