When Gareth Kelly used to DJ around Bradford, England, in the mid-2010s, he noticed something about his hometown. “It’s the land that time forgot,” he says, with affection and resignation. “Everyone else is up to date, and we’re still spinning a record that’s 25 years old. Certain tunes, like Robin S.’s ‘Show Me Love,’ they still go off in a Bradford nightclub like it’s just come out. And when you start playing the new stuff, they didn’t like it.”
A few years later, he and his friends decided to try something new anyway. It began with a kind of party music that remains beloved in Bradford — a large city in Northern England, hammered by the same kind of deindustrialization that’s hit the whole region — but hasn’t been popular anywhere else in the U.K. in years. Bassline is a harder, faster off-shoot of U.K. garage that originated a bit south in Sheffield and spawned mid-2000s hits like T2’s “Heartbroken”; the sound was all big club beats and soaring pop/R&B vocals, but even though it emerged at a moment when U.K. dance music was flirting more with grime and hip-hop, it was rare to hear anyone try to rap over a bassline track. Kelly (a.k.a. GK), Kane Welsh (a.k.a. Kane), and Sam Robinson (a.k.a Clive, for some reason) — known collectively as Bad Boy Chiller Crew — saw an opportunity in this musical vacuum and grabbed it.
“There’d been other MCs from Bradford that’d tried, and it just hadn’t worked for them,” Kelly says. “When we started doing it, I was saying to Kane, ‘[Listeners] don’t want this.’ And he was like, ‘No, they do. We just gotta stick with it.’”
In the few years since, Bad Boy Chiller Crew’s unexpected injection of life into a largely forgotten sub-genre, combined with their outsized personalities and their penchant for internet Jackass-ery, has turned them into legitimate pop contenders in the U.K. Their 2020 debut, Full Wack No Brakes, showed they could throw a hook, land a punchline, and dodge and weave over the relentless pulse of a delirious bassline beat. They’re now booked to play the Leeds Festival in August, with a U.K. tour following. And their recent single, “Don’t You Worry About Me,” just cracked the Top 40 of the British charts.
Bad Boy Chiller Crew are devoted to the ever-righteous pursuit of having a good time, and they’re breaking at a moment when having a good time is actually possible for the first time in more than a year. They have the commitment and charisma of all great party-starters, as well as the capacity to take something regional and a little retro, and tweak it into something vibrant, fresh, and universal.
“I feel like people are behind us because they used to like all this stuff, and we’re bringing the past out, but we’re putting our twist on it and making it new,” says Kane, the group’s musical mastermind.
“Don’t You Worry About Me” anchors BBCC’s new EP, Charva Anthems, out today, May 14th. “Charva” is a spin on the insulting British slang term “chav,” usually leveled at loud, rowdy lads with an added bite of classism. For Bad Boy Chiller Crew, though, it’s a term of endearment. They are indeed loud, rowdy lads, but as with so much slang, the word carries a strong sense of community and place for them — another way for Bad Boy Chiller Crew to wear Bradford proudly on their sleeves. (In what’s still probably the most succinct definition of their use of “charva,” Clive told The Guardian last year, “It’s like you are one of the boys but you’re also a toerag!”)
Bad Boy Chiller Crew’s boisterous blow-up has raised an inevitable question: Are they serious or is it a joke? In their antics and music, there are hints of Kurupt FM, the pirate radio and grime/garage crew at the heart of the excellent BBC mockumentary series People Just Do Nothing. Going back further, one could spot echoes of Goldie Lookin Chain, a Welsh hip-hop comedy group that managed to score a Top 10 hit in the U.K. in 2004 with “Guns Don’t Kill People Rappers Do.”
The way Bad Boy Chiller Crew see it, there’s no need to make it an either/or. “We are serious about what it takes to succeed in this music,” says the group’s manager, Dr. Google (real name Darren Booth), “but we don’t take things too serious.”
Kane says he understands why the group threw many people for a loop at first: “We were mixing it up, weren’t we? We were doing songs where half of them were jokes and half of them were us spitting bars.” But he thinks the work the group has put in over the past year has clarified their intentions. “That’s how we are anyway — we are idiots, we act stupid,” he adds. “Anything that we do, it’s a laugh. That’s us.”
Bad Boy Chiller Crew began with the fun, dumb things boys do when they’re bored. Kane and Clive knew each other from school and they, along a few other friends, had been posting pranks, stunts, and other comedy videos online. The clips went viral around Bradford, which is how they ended on GK’s radar.
“They were doing these daft videos, which I used to do, before I started DJing,” says GK, who’s a little older than his bandmates (he’s 26, Kane and Clive are 24). “But when I saw these lot doing daft shit, it brought a spark back, so I got back into it.”
None of the three were experienced musicians at the time. GK was a regular DJ around town who’d fallen in love with Bradford’s party scene while watching others spin records at the local pub where he worked as a cook. Kane had started writing raps as a kid after some MCs came by a local youth club and offered lessons, but he stopped after a while when he felt a little embarrassed. As for Clive — who’s the group’s mullet-sporting madman most of the time, but prefers to hang silently in the back for most of this Zoom interview — before he can speak on his own musical background, Dr. Google jumps in with a laugh: “He hasn’t even started yet!”
Kane remembers the group throwing up a couple joke songs on Soundcloud around 2018 or 2019. Technically, their first forays into music were goofy promo tracks for local businesses, like an Afro-Caribbean restaurant and a car wash. Around the same time, Kane recalls GK hawking pirate CDs packed with party tunes; he took one of those old songs — DBX’s bassline remix of Jean Jacques Smoothie’s “2 People” — and had a producer chop it up. Kane wrote a handful of verses to the new beat, and told GK and Clive to join him in the studio.
“That was just me being creative,” Kane says. “That was me trying to think out of a box.” With the London-based grime and U.K. drill scenes dominating British hip-hop, he figured, “There’s no point in us from Bradford trying to do what everyone in London’s doing. It’s not gonna work. So I thought, how can we change it up?”
“I went along with it because we didn’t know what we wanted it to be at that time,” adds GK, who was still skeptical of rapping over a bassline track. “We didn’t know what we wanted to do, either. Life was just kind of shit then.”
“We were just getting by,” says Clive. “I was packing boxes in a warehouse.”
They called the track “Pablo,” and filled it with verses about cocaine, cars, and girls. Just as early bassline hits like T2’s “Heartbroken” spread via phones and Bluetooth sharing, so did “Pablo,” and soon local fans were clamoring for a video. The group scraped together about £120 and filmed filmed themselves partying, playing cards, cackling at the well-hung horses that roam the West Yorkshire region, and driving a ratty car through a muddy field — “just proper Bradford lifestyle,” GK says. The clip, posted on YouTube in June 2019, didn’t take off immediately, but within a few months it had amassed more views than anyone had imagined possible. (It now has over 2.6 million, and while no longer on YouTube for licensing reasons, it’s still up on Facebook.)
After “Pablo,” BBCC kept making music, because, as GK puts it, “We couldn’t not do another.” A string of singles followed, including early favorites like “450” (featuring fellow Bradford rapper S-Dog), “Boys and Toys,” and a proper theme of sorts, “Bradford Crew.” Attention from major U.K. press outlets followed in 2020, and the group soon inked a deal with House Anxiety, an independent label known for aiding artists on the rise (past acts include Courtney Barnett, Zoo Kid/King Krule, and Vagabon). By last September, just before the arrival of Full Wack No Brakes, U.K. pop great Robbie Williams was tweeting out BBCC lyrics.
For a group making party music like Bad Boy Chiller Crew, the pandemic could have been an early death knell. They couldn’t tour, and their songs couldn’t catch on in clubs — but that didn’t seem to matter. Maybe the inability to hear a banger in its natural habitat gave the music an added allure (absences making hearts grow fonder, and such). Or maybe, at a moment when everyone was stuck in one place, Bad Boy Chiller Crew hit because they offered a window into something unabashedly local.
It wasn’t just the beats, incubated in Bradford clubs for a couple decades, or the group’s distinct Yorkshire dialects. Part of the appeal was the way you could watch Bad Boy Chiller Crew on social media boosting local businesses and messing with their neighbors. You could throw on the “Guns Up” video and watch them play a game of pick-up soccer around their council estates, proudly donning the gold-and-red kits of Bradford City AFC — not some super-team backed by sovereign wealth funds or petrodollars, but the local club playing in the fourth division of English football. “I used to go watch them play with my grandad,” Clive says of Bradford City AFC, with whom the group recently did an official promo. “I used to be a ball boy as well.” (At this, GK lets out a cackle, grabs his phone and demands Clive repeat “ball boy” into the camera for posterity. Clive happily obliges).
And as much as bassline music is designed for clubs and festivals, Kane nods to the fact that their genre of choice frequently has more humble uses. “It’s the council estates and not giving a fuck,” he says of the ties between bassline and BBCC’s hometown. “The low-income areas, that’s where it comes from. People haven’t got fuck-all, so they’re partying on the weekend, listening to music. Like an escape. Obviously there’s not festivals every day of the week. People can’t afford to go out clubbing all the time. So they’ll sit at home listening to CDs with party songs and mixes on them.”
Bad Boy Chiller Crew’s mix of hard work and humor is even more refined on Charva Anthems. A big reason for that is their new producer/DJ, Tactics, a fellow Bradford native and longtime friend (he even booked GK for one of his first DJ sets when GK was 17 years old). Equally well-versed in bassline, 2-step, speed garage, and organ house, Tactics has a knack for crafting booming beats and uncovering big vocal hooks like those on “Don’t You Worry About Me” and “Clothes.” Kane, who works closely with Tactics on every song, credits the producer with helping them establish a sound that’s steeped in the classics but not beholden to them.
As MCs, Kane, GK, and Clive are still rapping about cars, keys, shots, birds and ditching cops. References to race-car drivers, MMA fighters, and action heroes abound; when they’re gonna blow five grand, it’s probably not at Gucci or Prada, but the athleisure chain JD Sports. They’re even able to muster a love song, “She’s My World,” for good measure. It’s often coarse stuff, but just clever enough: GK opening his verse on “Forget Me,” for instance, with the couplet, “These lot know I’m a dog like Marley/Drive like Ken and I fuck these Barbies.” Or Clive closing out his verse on the Full Wack No Breaks highlight “German Engineering” with the lines, “Boys sell flake, and that’s on the sly/And we race them pigs on Honda bikes/Used to hit licks on KTMs/And now this streaming money’s gonna pay my rent.”
It’s Kane, though, who’s the typical focal point of any Bad Boy Chiller Crew song, taking a verse or two, maybe even the hook as well. He’s an unassuming frontman, the “masked bandit,” as GK calls him. There’s something charmingly dazed and laidback in his look, but he can talk a mile a minute and on the mic he sounds 50 feet tall. Kane says he can spend up to nine hours writing a song, a dialed-in focus that comes across in his dense rhyme schemes and preternatural ability to shift flows without taking his foot off the gas. Some characteristic Kane lines from “Clothes”: “No lights no plates, full wack no brakes/I’ma drive fast I don’t want to catch no case/No fakes, take chase, switch lanes, got flake/Blacked out to my feet looking like Bruce Wayne/I pull up in that new machine, Moschino tee/I pull it and I feel the speed/You ain’t seen a bad boy like this one/Blocks get torn up roads get ripped up.”
That commitment to craft can have its drawbacks. “He can write bars and spit bars,” Dr. Google says of Kane, “but when it comes to sending an email or doing an Uber Eats, it’s like, ‘Google can you order me an Uber Eats, mate!’”
Following the release of Charva Anthems, BBCC will finally be able to share their bangers in a proper setting when they tour later this year. As Kane jokes, though, there’s lots of work that needs to be done in the weeks ahead: “We’ve done sets where, mate… obviously, we’re all unhealthy, we don’t work out, so we just start dripping sweat! I think we need to start training, especially in summer on them festival stages. Thirty-seven shows, mate!”
Another release for later this year is also on the table, with Kane saying they’ve already got 10 songs ready for the next album (“We don’t mess around, me and Tactics”). The group’s ambitions are clear: consistent placement in the U.K.’s Top 40, and maybe even a higher profile outside the U.K. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, if the steady success of “Don’t You Worry About Me” proves anything. Ahead of a summer that might resemble something near normal, it’s exactly the kind of tune you want to hear blasting from festival PAs, speakers in the park, car radios, or even your headphones, cranked to deliriously high levels.
“We’ll pull up at traffic lights, they’re playing the song and they don’t realize it’s us in the other car,” GK says. “And it’s never just one age group. It could be fucking 50-year-olds, it could be kids. It’s mad.”