Largehearted Boy: Gabriel Krauze's Playlist for His Novel "Who They Was"

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July 19, 2021

Gabriel Krauze's Playlist for His Novel "Who They Was"

Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Gabriel Krauze's novel Who They Was is a powerful debut, as intense as it is eloquent and profound.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"The narrator, Snoopz, who’s occasionally called Gabriel or Krauze, describes the violence, substance abuse, and crime that permeate the battered housing towers of South Kilburn ... Krauze doesn’t offer fresh wisdom on the causes of or cures for the hard life he grew up in, but maybe an insider’s artfully gruesome view can turn the right minds to seeking better solutions. A gritty read for its gore, drugs, and profanity, but possessed of a raw and honest eloquence."

In his own words, here is Gabriel Krauze's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Who They Was:

My autobiographical novel Who They Was covers a specific part of my life when I was lost in a world of crime and gangs. Apart from being a tour through the hard knock life, the book is also a coming of age story set within this world — a world experienced by many across the big cities of the Western world, from London to Paris to New York, Chicago and beyond. One of the main settings of the novel is South Kilburn, a notorious housing project where I lived for almost 17 years. It is a place where children grow up too fast, a place that tourists won’t find in any guidebooks.

Music was an intrinsic part of my life and the lives of my friends as we came up in this environment. The music we listened to often reflected the reality of our existence in the blocks; guns, money, drugs, sex, materialistic ambitions and evading the law. As a lyric-heavy mode of expression that embodied the facets of gangsta life, rap was the only music we listened to, the poetic quality particularly appropriate for someone like myself in that environment who always had writerly ambitions. But aside from how hip-hop shaped our lives, most of my friends and I also wanted to be rappers. That dream didn’t come to fruition, but with this novel another dream of mine has been realized.

Been Thru the Storm — Uncle Murda

Who They Was centers largely around my bond of brotherhood with a character called Gotti, a notorious stick up kid from South Kilburn. In the novel I describe the first time I went to stay at his apartment and how we fell asleep in his bedroom listening to an Uncle Murda mixtape. I could actually fill the entire playlist with Uncle Murda tracks to illustrate the novel, but for the sake of variety I’ve chosen ‘Been Thru the Storm’ as it is the exact track that we drifted off to. I still remember that night. The lyrics, ‘People wanna know what’s the Uncle Murda story/ It’s all about revolvers guts and glory/ My life is far from glitz and glamour/ Fuck picking up the book I had to pick up the hammer’, felt like they were about us.

The Message — Nas

Nothing had a greater impact on making me want to write about the reality of my neighbourhood than legendary New York rapper Nas. When I listened to his album It Was Written at the age of thirteen, his lyrics depicting project life in the Queensbridge Houses were immediately relatable. Some of the most poignant observations on the hopelessness of young men who fall prey to the negative influences of street life are in ‘The Message’: ‘Overnight thugs bug ‘cause they ain’t promised shit/ Hungry-ass hooligans stay on that piranha shit’. The cutthroat mentality of thug life was something I would later encounter in my own life in a devastating way.

Take it in Blood — Nas

Another track from Nas’s second album It Was Written, ‘Take it in Blood’ provides us with a kaleidoscope of vivid imagery that depicts his world: ‘City lights spark a New York night/ Rossi and Martini sippin’/ Sergio Tacchini flippin’/ Mad pies low price I blow dice and throw ‘em/ .45 by my scrotum/ Manifest a do or die slogan’. Those lyrics came back to me years after I first heard them as I stood on the balconies of South Kilburn, watching gang members dressed in Nike and Gucci with guns in their waistbands as they waited to serve crack fiends.

Fire and Pain ft. Sizzla — Styles P

This track was originally referenced in the book but my quoting of the lyrics had to be cut due to copyright reasons. When Snoopz and Gotti go to do a stick up in the chapter ‘The Seekers After Smooth Things’, they play this track on their phones to get themselves into the zone. The lyrics relate to the craziness of their lifestyle, but there is another key aspect of this track: a reference to voodoo. Voodoo was practiced by certain gunmen in northwest London for power and protection, a largely unknown facet of London gang culture which I recount in the chapter ‘Sleeping With Spirits’.

Freestyle 4 (The Ghost In The Machine) — Styles P

Styles P was one of the most listened to rappers in London throughout the noughties. His combination of street philosophy and thug lyricism helped us through a lot of hard times. Another rapper who’s discography I could use to illustrate the entire book, this track is about missing friends who are locked up. Most of us went to prison at some point in our life. Some like myself were lucky enough to only spend a few months inside. Others lost years to the system. This track encapsulates the pain of how wasteful street life can be when the consequence of it catch up.

In and Out ft. Styles P — Sheek Louch

Sheek Louch and Styles P are part of the legendary Yonkers-based rap group D Block, more commonly known as The Lox, a staple of our musical tapestry in South Kilburn. The most notorious block in South Kilburn was coincidentally known as D Block and it features heavily in my story. On ‘In and Out’ Sheek Louch and Styles P go back and forth over the beat with ultra-violent lyrics that embody the energy of Snoopz and Gotti’s ‘fuck the world’ attitude in Who They Was.

Waltz no.14 in E Minor — Chopin

A necessary outlier to the rest of this list, the significance of this Chopin waltz is twofold. My parents are Polish immigrants and Chopin is the greatest composer from my motherland and a musical icon. Also, I learnt the piano from the age of 4, practising an hour a day until I was in my teens when I got fully sucked into the street life. However, I never lost my connection to the piano and I still play from time to time. Chopin’s waltzes are some of my favourite pieces of classical music.

Dope Boy (Obsession 2) — C Biz

Biz is the biggest rapper to come out of the South Kilburn blocks, an artist who has lived the reality he raps about. For me, ‘Dope Boy’ has some of the most powerful lyrics that relate to the brotherhood of Snoopz and Gotti in the book: ‘Brother to brother, thug to a thug/ Eye for an eye, slug for a slug/ It’s death before dishonour we don’t talk to the judge.’ There is a pain and poignancy within these sentiments that the experiences I recount in my book encapsulate. Brotherhoods formed through the fire of extreme experiences.

Alexys — Freddie Gibbs

One of my favourite rappers in recent years, Freddie Gibbs has a unique, hyper-lyrical flow that doesn’t allow the listener to breathe as he recounts his experience of the hard knock life: ‘My baby momma told me be safe/ Turned around and said, “Fuck safe, I stay dangerous”’.

Forever and a Day — Freddie Gibbs

When I first started getting interest from literary agents, I used to listen to this track on my way to meetings, and later, when I started going to see publishers. Something about the energy of this track and the line ‘I’ma make it even if it takes forever and a day now’, made me feel as though I was finally doing something with my life, finally beginning to fulfil a potential that my previous life had wasted. There isn’t anyone in the British literary scene who has come so directly from the experience of gang culture and criminality as myself, and Freddie Gibbs sums up that origin perfectly: ‘Came up with the crackheads, thugs and the cut-throats/ Bloodshot from the blunt smoke/ Man I'm so high I can't even look my own momma in the eyes’.

Shook Ones Pt.II — Mobb Deep

I couldn’t do a playlist without including this track. Despite how grimy life in South Kilburn could get, my friends and I were proud to say we lived there, wearing the notoriety of the place as a badge of honour. There is no work of art that displays this sense of pride in a dangerous neighbourhood more so than Mobb Deep’s iconic track ‘Shook Ones Pt. II’. Like Nas, the rap duo originated in the Queensbridge Houses. The track embodies the hostility of residents towards outsiders, where the danger and toughness it takes to exist in such a place becomes a source of pride: ‘I can see it inside your face, you’re in the wrong place/ Cowards like you just get their whole body laced up/ With bullet holes and such’.

Many Men — 50 Cent

50 Cent’s album Get Rich or Die Trying was an iconic moment in hip-hop. One of the most memorable tracks is ‘Many Men’. The streets are a hostile place, especially for young men who are often victims of violence, a fact of life that pervades the narrative of Who They Was, an ever-present threat and pressure that creates paranoia, aggression and anxiety.

Euro Step — Westside Gunn

A central aspect of the criminality in Who They Was is materialism. The obsession with designer brands, Rolex watches, Aqua Masters, diamond grillz and gold chains is ever-present throughout the novel. Buffalo native Westside Gunn is supreme when it comes to the depiction of hood-rich excess. Gunn’s surreal movie-like lyrics and unique pitch of voice combine to create a lyrically abstract canvas that could have been painted by Basquiat. In ‘Euro Step’ he raps: ‘Allah willing, I be touching big bags/ Goyard leashes on all-red Saint Bernards’. Before its publication, I filmed my book coming off the printing press. I edited the footage to make a mini movie that I posted on my Twitter and Instagram accounts, all set to the triumphant soundtrack of ‘Euro Step’.

Dr Birds — Griselda

Griselda is the rap crew formed by Westside Gunn with his brother Conway the Machine and their cousin Benny the Butcher. To me, this is the greatest rap crew of the 21st Century without question. (Shout out to Griselda, if you read this, holla at me so I can write your biography!) The extremity of their style and skill is evident throughout this track. Gunn refers to Warhol paintings, Mach 10s and Teslas in the same verse, Conway talks about disposing bodies and nights on street corners in complex multi-syllable rhymes, and Benny the Butcher raps sharply about gold plated guns, Margiela and Givenchy; the cocaine dreams of every drug dealer in the world.

M1llionz — HDC

It’s only right to sign off the playlist with a track that is uniquely identifiable as part of the UK’s hugely influential drill scene. Originally influenced by Chicago Drill, UK Drill is now a completely unique sound, emulated across the world by artists from New York to Paris, Amsterdam and even as far as Melbourne in Australia. HDC by Birmingham rapper M1llionz is about being on home detention, an experience that I write about in the chapter ‘On Tag’. But more importantly, this song is suffused with British street slang and Anglocentric references. In this sense it mirrors the heavy use of London slang in Who They Was that exists almost as a separate language in its own right — a reflection of how impenetrable the world of street life is to most of ‘normal’ society.

Gabriel Krauze grew up in London in a Polish family and was drawn to a life of crime and gangs from an early age. He has left that world behind and is recapturing his life through writing. Who They Was, his first novel, was long-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Booker Prize.

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