Fumez The Engineer, the man behind Pressplay’s all-conquering freestyle series Plugged In, is a pioneering figure in UK drill and rap who has grinded his way through since 2012. From making sure the behind-the-scenes graft on our favourite artists’ songs is acknowledged, to championing the voices that the streets truly rock with, the West Londoner’s influence is unquestionable.
A huge part of drill’s expansion from South London sound to global dominance has been the pure excellence of its young producers. M1OnTheBeat, MKThePlug and Ghosty stamped their authority on tracks through their audio tags, but Fumez’s own, instantly recognisable tag predates all that. It was pretty much unprecedented at the time for an engineer—responsible for a track’s clarity and overall quality—to get their flowers, but Fumez changed that by force, ushering in an era where the talent behind the boards is shown just as much love as the rappers themselves.
Fumez’s impact reaches deeper than that. He helped launch Pressplay in 2012—which is now a heavyweight UK music platform with global reach—handled engineering on Link Up TV’s Mic Check and Behind Barz segments, and has produced two of his own projects: The Mixtape 1 & 2. His classy engineering touch has blessed drill classics like KO & V9’s “Andy & Dwight” and CB’s “Take That Risk”, while he’s built beats himself for the likes of Chip and M Huncho.
A product of lockdown boredom, Fumez cooked up the idea for a new freestyle series, separated from its rivals by what he calls “quality control.” Since Plugged In was born, he’s had some of the scene’s most exciting, rawest talents pass through, from Zone 2 and Block 6 to Irish collective A92 (whose freestyle hit the Top 40). In the process, Plugged In has accumulated 100 million YouTube views—and counting. Fumez has carved out a unique lane for himself, on his own terms, and he feels like his time is now.
We caught up with the music connoisseur to talk about his recent success with the platform, how he got started, what’s holding the scene back, drill’s future and more.
“No one wants to talk about how I blew their favourite freestyle series that’s been around for five years out the water.”
COMPLEX: Tell us about the concept behind Plugged In. There’s a load of freestyle platforms out there right now, but what separates yours from theirs?
Fumez The Engineer: When I launched Plugged In, the main thing for me was to just make sure I’m releasing good, quality music, and that there’s quality control so that everything sounds the best it can sound. It was quite a simple task for me, to be honest, because it’s part of my day-to-day job. It was just about putting something out that hadn’t been done before. Obviously, you’ve got to give credit to people like Walkz and Denz & Renz. I was watching their stuff and thinking, “I’m not a push-stop-every-five-seconds-on-a-song type of guy”, but I could see that there was something to be merged there that can sit in its own lane. So I decided to put some reactions live when I’m recording a song, and it just kicked off from there. Now, it’s just a matter of maintaining quality control, because everybody’s got a friend who raps that deserves a Plugged In freestyle.
It’s been a quick rise to 100,000,000 streams too, right?
Lockdown is where Plugged In really started, from being stuck indoors at my mum’s house because I chose to quarantine there. I was bored and didn’t have nothing to do, just playing FIFA and Call of Duty, but I needed something to do. I thought, “Let me start a new freestyle show and see how that works…” I don’t think anyone has done what I did during lockdown, during a period where no one was really trying to get out the yard and make music and labels weren’t trying to support nothing, editorial pages weren’t trying to post too much either. No one knew what was happening from week to week, and that’s when man came through and said, “I don’t know what you lot are on, but I know what I’m on.”
Why do you think it’s popped off in the way that it has?
I’m actually a part of the game. A lot of people just get music and upload it, but I’m actually a part of the process. I’m heavily influential in the studio, and I play a big role in what comes out and how it’s done on Plugged In. I know what I want and I know what’s gonna resonate with my listeners.
The influence of British music and culture has spread out globally over the past few years. What do you think it is about us that people connect with so much?
We’ve got the whole world watching because we’re consistent. Like, in America, there’s a lot of people releasing music, but we don’t know them—even when you look at people who are basically famous. Dusty Locane is a name I heard of like three months ago. He’s already getting 10 million streams on a song, but I’ve only heard about him now? Whereas, in the UK, there are kids with less than 100K monthly listeners, but you know who they are because they’re consistent. We’re really in the streets. We’re not really in the industry. The streets really rock with us! The industry might not take note and the numbers might not reflect, but the streets are really rocking with us. I think that’s the organic side of UK music that everyone’s itching to be a part of. I feel like the timing is right, too. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the world and people are more inclined to relate to the music.
UK drill is leading the way when it comes to that influence, from Brooklyn to Ghana and Italy. Are you going to take advantage of that and get some international artists on your platform soon?
I’m very much hands-on-deck, meaning I don’t want you to send your verse, or your song—we need to sit down and make it together. That’s one of my things. If you send me something that’s recorded in your own studio, and your mixing engineer’s shit and your recording engineer’s shit and it’s shit from the jump, I’m just not on that. Whereas I can make it lit from the jump, and make it hard when it’s out. It’s just that element of not being able to get face-to-face and in the same room as people. We had a French artist called 1Pliké140. He just hit a million views on YouTube and a million streams on Spotify so that was our first international Plugged In and it was a great success. If you look at GRM, they don’t take international projects because they never do well. Like, it just doesn’t click. But when you’ve got the right formula and you can kind of resonate with what’s going on and what people want to hear, there’s no reason that it won’t do well. I wasn’t ever gonna put myself at a disadvantage like that. It was just a situation of seeing what we can do, and how it will work, then making sure the market is right. I could have done loads if it was a case of filming the video where you are and recording the audio where you are, and sending it to me. But I can’t stay on top of quality control like that. I’m the guy where if your verse is shit the booth, I’ll tell you, “Bro! This one’s weak. You’re better than this.”
How do artists react when you drop it to them like that?
It depends. If it’s for my project, normally they’re like: “Cool. Let’s record something else.” But if it’s their project, sometimes they’re like: “Nah! It’s hard!” Cool, bro, it’s your song. It’s gonna go out and people are gonna tell you it’s shit and you’re gonna say it’s hard. If you want to argue with your fans, that’s up to you.
“For me, the sooner everyone can separate business and road, the better the industry will be.”
Has the word ‘freestyle’ lost its meaning? I think people might hear ‘freestyle’ and imagine guys in a circle spraying bars off the top of their head.
I feel that people are confused about the word ‘freestyle’ the same way they’re confused about the word ‘producer’. I mean, if you’re not fully into the music world, you don’t really get it. But in all fairness, freestyle is quite a confusing one, because a freestyle is a track without structure. And also, a freestyle is off the top of your head. So that’s also about structure, so there’s two different meanings to freestyle.
You’ve been in the game for over a decade now. How did you get started?
I started off as a rapper. But with rapping, it just didn’t make enough sense. It wasn’t about if you can rap—it was about who you know, what you’ve done. It’s a popularity game. Like who’s the most popular kid in school, who’s the kid with the most money, the most jewels, the baddest family. I wanted something that was based on talent and, at the time, the actual making of songs was based on talent but I wouldn’t say it’s so much that now. A lot of people are picking up awards for just being in the room with man and then trying to claim off a man’s success, because it’s a big name brand thing. I had a mentor called Ren. He kinda taught me the ropes and put me in sessions with people like Giggs, Blade Brown, Joe Black, Snap Capone. I’ve known all of those people for years. Certain people won’t remember me because I was very much a little yout. Me and Snap were talking about this the other day. It was a good way to start. I saw that the artists take you in and they care about you when you’re doing good stuff. That was entry level; I was just training. Moretime, they probably didn’t even want me to touch their computer. And at that time, it wasn’t a piggyback thing where you could be like, “Yeah, man’s famous already so let me send a quick tweet and post pictures and claim this thing came out sick because of me.”
Why do you think that kind of thing is happening?
Because guys want to take credit for everything, even stuff they’re not part of. For example, if I take a picture with a BMW and I’m the first one to see the car, or test-drive the car, I can post up and say the car’s a good drive. But then trying to claim I’m the reason why the car is the top seller in the world? It don’t make sense. I know a lot of producers and engineers are doing that. You got guys that are in the charts already, so don’t say he’s in the charts because you work with him. Bandwagon guys—that’s how the industry is.
Is drill able to separate itself from all of that?
Drill’s just the same! It’s just as fugazi as the other genres. You’ve just gotta find a balance and make it work for you.
How much has the censorship and over-policing of drill interfered with what you do?
Feds over-policing drill has got in the way of tracks reaching their full potential. When you have to pull a track and the visuals down before it’s had the opportunity to flourish and reach its full potential, it doesn’t hit the audience it would have hit. So obviously, it gets in the way of things doing as well as they should.
After your ‘apprenticeship’ with the road rap legends, when did you start stepping out and making your own moves?
My career kind of started with Pressplay. I used to manage Danny [Olkhovski]. A lot of people don’t know I used to own the company as well. It was going so bad that I sold my shares back to Danny, in a nutshell. We couldn’t work together then, but we’ve ended up working together now. So that’s where it started. Then I went on to Link Up TV, and had my situations there. Then Danny hit me up and said, “Yo! It’s time now. We can pattern it.”
What went wrong at Pressplay in the early stages?
A lot was wrong at the time. I was 18, trying to manage kids, like 14-year-olds. We’ve got company offices. We’ve got two cameramen, then we hired a third. Remember: we’re all kids. I’m doing 25-page business plans to get investments of 10, 15, 20 grand and being successful but running up debt in my own name because I didn’t know nothing about flipping company names at that time. And then, boom, I’ve done all of that and no one’s working. Debt is coming out of my pocket. Everyone’s comfy, reaping rewards, but my pocket’s getting now. So it was time to call it a day.
Was that a learning experience for you?
I learnt that if you ain’t got a good track record, I don’t wanna hear it.
How can you tell, though?
You can kinda see. Like, if my man’s been with the same management his whole career, this is someone that’s been loyal to this team. I’ve seen him glow up at the same time his team’s growing up. Or if my man’s been a part of every block that has ever existed, clearly he has a fucking issue. And then there’s my man who’s been doing music but not going nowhere, so his management’s bad but he don’t see it. Or he’s just shit and his management’s trying to carry him and it’s not working. Either way, something’s going wrong. It’s weird because you’re not supposed to judge people, but the reality is we all do.
I’ll hold my hands up: I’ve been judgmental of Pete & Bas. They dropped a Plugged In recently, and I’m not gonna lie: I’m surprised they’re still around and getting love.
They’re easy to fuck with, man. They’re old, innit. There’s no repercussions to affiliating yourself with them, which is what a lot of people are doing. You might not wanna affiliate yourself with a particular artist because you might get repercussions one day in a certain area, on a cold dark street, that has nothing to do with you. But Pete & Bas, you know they’re joking around. You know it’s all bants. But they are actually good! They’re easy to like. They’re just funny old men doing something fun and trying to hold on to their youth. So it’s very relatable and it’s very easy to market. As long as they can get it right publicly, they can be a global sensation for however long they have left. And, hopefully, that’s many years!
How much is the reality of repercussions holding the scene back at the moment?
A lot, because you might not even have an issue with someone. For example, you might need to do an interview with me and it’s like, yeah, I’m cool with you, I don’t have an issue with you—I don’t even know you. Then I find out my man knows ‘Shireen’ and her brother’s this guy and in jail he stole my Twix. Therefore, man can’t do the interview again. Do you get what I mean? And that’s what the industry is like right now. It’s holding the whole thing back. The sooner man can let things go, which I’ve seen a lot of people do… A lot of the olders are telling the youngers, “I’m doing music now, so what?” For me, the sooner everyone can separate business and road, the better the industry will be. Obviously, when there’s been bloodshed, and there’s direct links and all of that, certain things can never be forgotten or forgiven. But it doesn’t mean that weak links between this person and that person need to be fuckin’ looked at.
From our convo, it’s pretty clear that the success you’re enjoying now is very much self-made. How important is independence to you?
Now I’m in my own lane, doing my own thing. My thing was no one’s gonna sit here and tell me, “Yeah, Fumez is where he is because of Link Up, Fumez is where he is because of Pressplay, or because he’s engineered for Headie One or M Huncho or Skepta.” I’m where I am because I built myself. Who else is out there that can say that? I think there might be one other person. The industry don’t take me in like that. Like, if you deep all the support and everything that’s going on, that support is from the streets. I don’t see big artists being like, “Rah! Plugged In has really taken over.” No one wants to talk about how I blew their favourite freestyle series that’s been around for five years out the water. No one wants to talk about how I made man rebrand their whole ting! They just wanna give praise to the guys that are liked in the industry… I’m different.
How have you separated yourself?
When I came into the industry, I was doing things that no one’s ever done. There was no engineer, ever, with a tag. Now everyone’s doing it, and you’ve got people talking about why it shouldn’t be happening. The way I view it is when it’s a team effort, everyone’s credited. If you’re working on a movie, and there’s five writers, guess who’s credited? Five writers.
Why would people have a problem with that?
When I came in, this wasn’t normal. I turned down a lot of work with labels because they don’t understand, or they’ll say to me they want it to sound professional with no tags. But if my tag was Maybach Music, would they still be saying that? They’d probably beg me to include it. So until man’s tag is looked at like that, we’re gonna keep pushing it. But I had to find my own angle. I didn’t want to come up off of no one’s name.
Do you feel underappreciated?
It’s not about being under-appreciated. You can sleep on me all you want, but I’m gonna work harder and when the alarm bells start ringing, there will be no u-turns. No “Fumez, my guy!” Dead that. Keep the energy you had back then. Keep that energy because my time is now. I’ve waited for my time
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