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Meet Ryan De La Cruz, the Rising East London Rapper Breaking Boundaries

Ryan De La Cruz is a rising artist in the formative stages of his career, bubbling up out of London Town amongst a new generation of self-realized superstars. It’s something we touch upon in the following conversation, but it truly feels like we’re experiencing a moment of energization within the British music scene, irrespective of genre, but primarily amongst our underground and independent artists. We have so much raw talent and personality within our ranks, it’s become a game in itself for us to try and guess who’s going to blow up next. Amongst the many artists claiming “next up,” Ryan would be a steady bet to actually achieve the levels of success that many dream of.

I first met Ryan on a wintery London evening back in January, although you wouldn’t have guessed it was ice-cold outside from the broad smile across his face as he arrived at our photoshoot location. Ryan’s radiating good energy instantly makes things feel a little warmer as we scrambled to shoot a few portraits before losing the sunlight altogether. Of course, he had good reason to be in such a positive mood that day, as news of his breakout single “Know About Me” being playlisted on national radio comes through just as we finished up the photos. The energy levels are infectious at this point, as Ryan turned to me with a half-smirk to say, “and the video hasn’t even dropped yet, man!”, before waxing lyrical about how he hopes people will react to the slick visual he’s set to drop a couple of days later. This is a perfect example of how Ryan’s mind is wired up. In his world, it’s only ever as cold as you allow it to be.

TOM WINSLADE: Let’s start with growing up in East London. In which ways did those early years shape your character?

RYAN DE LA CRUZ: It’s a bit mad because I grew up in Leytonstone, but we moved around a lot—it was East London predominantly though. I like East a lot because of it’s culture—the people, the community—it’s very different in comparison to North London, even. Growing up there I was exposed to a lot of mad things and I try to reflect that directly in my music. It all stems from very real stories, things that I’ve gone through growing up in East that I wouldn’t have had if I grew up in the West and potentially had it easier. I definitely wouldn’t be the same person today.

You’re a product of your environment. You can hear that in your music, the way the stories manifest on the track.

Fam, it’s real out here. Trust me. East London is very real—but I can’t knock it down, it’s a good place. I’ve got a lot from it. There’s a lot of opportunity here. The music scene is vibrant, and I’ve seen it grow fast. I think there’s a lot to be inspired by.

There’s a certain hustle in East London that I haven’t personally experienced in other parts of the city. Like you said, it’s got culture engrained into the area itself—especially in music, there’s a deep history there.

I feel privileged to be from here, man. I’m actually honoured to be from here. There’s a constant energy.

Talking energy, let’s dive into the latest project—Phase One: Know About Me. Break it down for me.

I wanted to release a project that was vibrant, showing different sides of me and what I can do. I also wanted people to see the progression from my first EP [Pagans] to this. That first release was pretty dark, and I didn’t want to keep people in that space for too long—so this is my first true phase, and the next one will be a whole other level again.

“I’m actually honoured to be from [East London]. There’s a constant energy.”

I think it’s important for artists to be able to show their versatility on their earlier work, especially when there are so many other people trying to come up. Your versatility and your execution is what sets you apart.

I feel like when you do anything, no matter what field it may be in, you need to show your unique selling point. The last project was me rapping, singing, showing off my productions skills—where this one was more about my personality and how I come across. I really want to connect with young people like me and share what I’m going through. Beyond that, it’s just a blessing to be able to hook up with one of the best directors for the video…

The striking new video for “Know About Me,” directed by Bouha Kazmi

Let’s talk about the video man. It’s crazy. How did that all come together?

Shout out my team, man. I had the song ready to go, so we were working through treatments for the video and seeing what we could do with it. Bouha Kazmi had the best vision by far. He directed Zayn’s “Pillowtalk” video and worked on Jay Z’s “On To The Next One“—and he just had this vision for my video that connected perfectly with what I was trying to do. He understood that there were different styles and personalities coming through on the track. I have these little alter-egos and personalities within myself that I wanted to play with in the video, and that’s exactly what we’ve done.

Those visuals really do bring the idea of the track to life. That idea of being a young man at war within himself, wanting to be the good guy but also wanting to turn up—wanting to have fun and be one of the guys, but also wanting to be at the studio first thing in the morning to work on your shit. I get that, it’s a familiar conflict.

As a young guy coming up the game, you just go through these things bruh—especially when you’re really trying to do something. There’s distractions, temptations—it’s just part of life. It’s all about knowing how to manoeuvre. We need leaders to lead us, and I want to do that through my music. I don’t want to do it in a cheesy way, I just want to be real with people.

That’s the real shit that resonates with a listener too. If you keep it 100 like that, with the familiar struggles—your audience will always be down. People want to see their own succeed.

Exactly. And with the video, it really brings the track to life as intended. It’s a different dimension, very clearly sharing those inner conflicts within myself and battling my own imagination. All those characters are me, in some way.

I think that’s what’s so important about that song, man. Clearly it bangs, but aside from that it is very conscious—you’re tapping into something very real that manifests within a lot of young men. That’s something that strikes me about your music, it’s not just about making bangers—you’ve actually got something that you wanna say.

We’re living in a real world and there’s real situations happening, and as much as it’s fun to turn up and indulge in the nonsense—music is an important platform. Music is like therapy, it’s very powerful. You can stir mad emotions in people through music, and there are certain things that need to be addressed right now. Music is one of the only things that connect with us on that level—not even politicians can do that, not on the same level. Sport can give us relief, as another example, but it doesn’t connect in the same way as music. It’s deeper than that.

“We’re living in a real world and there’s real situations happening, and as much as it’s fun to turn up and indulge in the nonsense—music is an important platform.”

Facts. A reference point I always use is Kid Cudi. If you’re dealing with anxiety, there’s no other contemporary artist more relatable or empowering than him, in my opinion. So if you take that experience of the music resonating with you on a person level, listening on your own at home or whilst driving or whatever, then put that in the setting of a live show—you’ve got a crowd of people who immediately have a common denominator, and that becomes group therapy, in a sense.

It’s exactly that. It’s a vibration, formed in that exact moment. It’s funny that you asked me that question—because that’s something that’s really important to me and my music. I want to discuss those world issues, I want to talk about that real shit. I’m here to talk about things going on in my life, and the struggles of other people too. I’m just trying to open these conversations at the right time.

That brings me onto the universality of music. The way music spreads now, you may release a song that’s about life in East London, for example, but it might reach some kid over in the Bronx just as quickly as some kid on your street through SoundCloud, yet still resonate just as much. It’s interesting how your story might be familiar to his, despite the geography.

It’s scary to me, bro. I’m actually shook by what can happen. I think that’s part of the reason I didn’t go down the Grime route. I still rap with a British accent, but it can’t be boxed in as easily. It’s rap, it’s R&B, it’s British—no one really knows where to place me, and at the same time I feel like it can reach further because of that. I could have gone strictly Grime and kept it super raw and aggressive—or I could have gone straight R&B, singing, soft—but again, that’s limiting. I prefer to sit in my own lane so I can steer in and out of different vibes and reach different people.

Let’s speak on the UK scene right now. It’s continually rising. What’s your perspective on that?

I feel like everyone coming up over here right now has a very strong personal identity. Everyone’s got their own thing, their own vibe. We’re birthing stars, man. It makes me so proud to be from the UK. There’s so much homegrown talent over here. Forget the mainstream, take a look at the underground. There are so many people doing sick things. All it takes is the right push and all of these individuals could be global.

It’s mad when you think about the size of the UK in proportion to how much raw talent we produce. Our country is smaller that a lot of US states, for perspective—whilst the sheer volume of different identities and talent we produce is huge.

And we’ve got some of the biggest artists from the across the pond coming over here to vibe with us. Drake is one prime example of someone who hears what we’re cooking up, hooks onto it and then makes it his own. People like him have eyes on a lot of us coming up right now, and I think that’s a great thing. Relationships like that pave the way for all of us. We’re making moves, especially the youth. I’m looking out and seeing Dave making moves, AJ Tracey making moves, Ray BLK, NAO, Jorja Smith808INK! Man, I feel like 808INK are our N.W.A. We’ve got our own legends. All love to the US, but we’ve got our own scene here and it’s powerful. We’ve got our own platforms too—Link Up TV, GRM Daily, SBTV, New Gen, Radar, NTS—we’ve got so much. What can possibly happen from here? It can only get better.

“We’re birthing stars, man. It makes me so proud to be from the UK.”

Everyone’s got that work ethic too. Everyone is truly on their shit and trying to elevate. Most notably, I feel like there’s this unity right now where everyone wants to help put each other on. With everyone being so different, no one is really stepping on each others toes like that anyway.

Especially the female scene, man. The girls that are coming up in the UK right now are doing a lot. I rate that so much. It’s all love, it’s all music and we’re all helping each other.

Let’s wrap this with the cliche sign off question. Real quick, what’s coming up next for you?

All I wanna say is, get ready to see me playing live some more. I’m in the studio again soon to finish off some bits that I’ve already been cooking up—possibly another EP, potentially an album. More visuals will be dropping throughout the year, more music too. The grind doesn’t stop from here, it just keeps going.

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Words + Creative Direction by Tom Winslade. Photography by Annabel Lake.