The Artist Who Goes By “23”
The British rapper explains his MJ-inspired name and why he reps the Jordan Future.
Words: Ciaran Thapar
Photos: Christopher Cargill
In a North London music studio on an industrial estate, the artist 23 is sitting next to a padded wall bearing his producer’s logo and decorated, framed plaques. Despite being the hottest British summer on record, the noisy air conditioning is turned off. It’s a small sacrifice to hear the 22-year-old speak, in the comforts of a studio environment, about being one of the fastest-rising stars in London’s blossoming rap scene, as well as a new face of Jordan Brand in the U.K.
If the name 23 sparks curiosity, it’s warranted. As a fan of Michael Jordan, 23 had a revelation when choosing his artist name. “I didn’t want to use my birth name,” he says. “I wanted to choose something that represents me as a person.” As a collector of Jordans from a young age, citing 11s, 4s and 7s as favorites, 23 knows the symbolic power of that double-digit number better than most.
Like others on this side of the Atlantic, 23 discovered Michael Jordan in a roundabout way. “I watched Space Jam hundreds of times as a kid, so I knew Michael Jordan before I knew he was the Michael Jordan,” says 23. “At first, I thought he was just an actor! I just kept learning after that.”
Born and raised in Dalston, a historically troubled yet now-famously gentrified part of London, 23 never planned to be a rapper. After finishing college with top grades, he started writing lyrics in this very studio, where he applied his meticulous work ethic to music. In just two years, he’s become known for his laidback flow on top of R&B, afro-swing and rap-influenced production. Anthems like “Ain’t Bothered” and “Can’t Tell Me” inspire word-for-word sing-alongs at his shows, even before his The Unofficial Album came out last July.
23’s mother provided early musical inspiration, as did his father, a former DJ. His mum played loud ‘90s R&B in the house and in the car; she’s also responsible for his early interest in Jordan Brand. “My mum would buy me Jordan tracksuits and T-shirts before I even knew what they were,” says 23. “Then I found out that Jordan trainers were a big thing in America, so I went to buy my first pair. I’d walk around my local area, and people would say, ‘Those are cold!’ Within six months, everyone was buying them.”
When asked about now representing Jordan Brand in the U.K., 23 replies, “It’s mad, it’s surreal. I’ve collected Jordans all my life. I used to get every pair of 11s that came out. One year, I had every single color that came out. I’ve never looked back, and now it’s like, there are shoe boxes to the ceiling, really.”
Though 23 remains a fan of retros, his affinity for newer silhouettes like the Jordan Future is grounded in DNA. Wearing a black, suede version, he’s quick to note that they’re not only “comfortable as hell” but share the sole of his favorite silhouette, the Jordan 11. He points out some of his prized 11s stashed around the studio in their original boxes, from UNCs to Georgetowns and Space Jams.
When “Ain’t Bothered” was released in July 2017, 23 still had a day job. He typically came in to work after an hour of sleep, having been in the studio or played a show the night before. A few months later, he went into music full-time. When he talks about his musical achievements since then, he does so in athletic terms. “As artists, we’re only as good as what we put in, just like athletes,” he says. “If you’re always on the court, or on the pitch or in the studio, you’re always gonna be one step ahead of others.”
He continues: “Athletes perform for crowds in stadiums and people watching at home, and we do the same thing, but with music. Imagine you’re playing football, and you score the winning goal, and everyone’s watching. That’s how it feels when I’m on-stage with everyone saying my lyrics back to me.”
The Jordan Future is now available at select retailers in the U.K. and Europe.