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City Views: Dom Heslop (The1Devotion) – “I was writing my own rhymes from primary school”

I grew up predominantly in Heeley and went to Meersbrook Bank Primary, which was based on one of the many hills of Sheff and blessed with views and greenery. In the late-90s/early-00s, it felt like that area was just constantly full of kids playing out. It sometimes feels like we were the last of the ‘scabs on your knees, making dens’ generation. We were constantly out and about – just needed some Panda Pops and 10p Cola bottles to keep us going. 

My uncle is renowned in that area because he was the caretaker at Meersbrook Bank for decades. A lot of local people went to that school, so they all knew my uncle, Mr Lee, and I remember him once letting us borrow the school kits so me and the lads could have our own team playing on the Millennium Park with matching shirts and shorts. We wore that strip all summer. It was beautiful, man. 

It sometimes feels like we were the last of the ‘scabs on your knees, making dens’ generation. Photo: Harry O’Flinn (@hofilms)

It was me, my sister and mum in the house. My mum raised us extremely well, always trying to keep the lights on and keep us balanced. Family was everything; my Uncle Carlton’s house and my grandma’s were like hubs for us and our cousins. 

I went to Abbeydale Grange Secondary School and became a sporty, confrontational and opinionated teenager. I’ve always had a speech impediment, and I think having speech therapy for thirteen years meant that when I said something I had to make it count. I knew I might have only one chance to speak, so I tried to make things as sharp and articulate as possible. 

My mum raised us extremely well, always trying to keep the lights on and keep us balanced.

I met my best friends at that school, and it’s because of them that I am who I am today. Not that we were perfect – we had the mouthy one, the one who likes to scrap, the one who’s a bit more diplomatic – but sending me to Abbeydale Grange was the best decision my mum ever made. I’m in love with language, so English was my favourite subject, as well as Sport, Science and Food Tech. I took to anything creative. 

I’ve always had a speech impediment, and I think having speech therapy for thirteen years meant that when I said something I had to make it count. Photo: Harry O’Flinn (@hofilms)

The summer of 2003 was a turning point. I met a chap called Cameron on one of the school inclusion days and he quickly became my best friend. He was a joker with a beautiful smile – charismatic, loud, bubbly. I was probably a bit more shy, a bit quieter and reserved because of my speech. But we just connected. We started making beats on tables in classes, beatboxing, messing around. The big genre back then was grime: Kano, Wiley, Crazy Titch, Skepta, JME, More Fire Crew, Lord of the Mics! Going through school we started getting into a couple of crews where we’d MC, which branched out to other areas around the city where we’d meet other rappers. I was in SBK (Sound Boy Killers), there was NFS (No Fear Soldiers), Thugz, Beat Bandits, TRZ, Scum Fam. All Out Crew, Youth Camp – a plethora of crews making grime, each with between five to ten spitters in there. We were banging tunes out of the phone, spitting bars, clashing with each other. I’ll always remember an event called Word on Road that would happen every October on Carver Street in what is now Paris nightclub. 

So, music became a big thing. My mum thought I was distracted, and by then I was starting to get involved in different things with the people I was meeting outside school; I wasn’t taking stuff seriously, but I was still exceeding in the grades I was being forecast. I was predicted with As and Bs but ended up getting like four A-Cs; I even got kicked out of the English exam for messing about, which meant the result was voided. 

My next step was thinking I was a rudeboy, mostly spent hanging around Bramall Lane (Bramz) and getting up to no good at times. I was straight on the streets, on the kerbs with my mates, finding means to survive because it’s not like you’re being given a fiver every day to get to school. The option was going to college to get EMA, which meant you had to be on time, and around that age you find that your needs change: rather than wanting a can of pop or a McDonalds, you want a new tracksuit or a mobile phone. I eventually went to Norton College to do Media Studies; got kicked out. I did a sports scheme at Don Valley Stadium, which was meant to help get you back into college. The main things for me, though, were music and my friends. 

Photo: Harry O’Flinn (@hofilms) // Tee: Lewis Wake (@steelcityclo)

I was writing my own rhymes from primary school. Around 2003, my cousin Nehemiah gave me the name Roadrunner D; Cameron’s name was Speedy C, and I remember one of the first tunes we made together called ‘Sheff’. We didn’t have the capacity to properly record things, but we’d use Garage Band on Apple Macs at school. Me and Cameron were nuisances, but I think the school saw we had some creative ability, so they sent us down to Red Tape two days a week, which in turn taught us how to work programmes like Logic Pro and do bits of mastering. 

The group of mates started dwindling a bit when we go into our 20s. People took different paths – some in positive ways like uni, others in negative ways like incarceration or sadly even losing their lives. I found myself as one of the few originals left and started asking, what can I do? So, I chose to redirect myself into more creative stuff. 

A mentor of mine, Vicky Morris, who is an exceptional writer and founder of Hive [young writers project], was an artist in residence at Abbeydale Grange and helped the guys who were rapping to make their writing more poetic without losing its rawness. Vicky has always been nudging me, asking if I’d like to do some workshops with Hive, asking what ideas I had, and just making me realise I couldn’t have one foot in what I was doing at the time, and the other foot in my artistry. It had to be all in. 

People took different paths – some in positive ways like uni, others in negative ways like incarceration or sadly even losing their lives… I chose to redirect myself into more creative stuff.

I just started taking steps. I had the idea for Slambarz in 2017 and Vicky approached Off The Shelf, who agreed to help put on the first event at The Hubs that year. We got about 60 people in there, but I didn’t prepare and get it out there enough. We did it again later that year, getting like 100 people in there this time, so it was growing slowly.

Then Cameron died. I lost my brother in 2019. He had a rare form of cancer, a peripheral malignant nerve sheath tumour. Even through that, the guy was still bussin’ jokes, exuding humour, still smiling. His aura was so positive, and he saw every day as a blessing. It’s contagious, man. It gave me perspective and the motivation to start writing again, doing a piece on knife crime which did quite well and not long after being interviewed by Exposed for the first time. That validation helped massively. 

The next big step was Otis Mensah, Sheffield’s Poet Laureate, contacting me to ask how I felt about doing a half-hour spoken word/rapping slot on the stage he was curating at Tramlines Festival. That was 2020, the first one after lockdown, and doing that made me want to do another Slambarz. The latest event we held was at The Leadmill and we had 45 performers and about 300 people in the audience, but we want to keep that progress going with bigger venues and more frequent events. I want to take it back to those Word on Road events when it was rammed and with no beef involved – just good energy and good vibes.

Since launching in 2017, Slambarz has gone from strength to strength.

I’d also started my podcast, Daily Devotion, during the lockdown and it put me in a creative mood; in a place where I wanted to spread the good news about what others were doing. It’s like a vlog and I’ve got a list of artists, entrepreneurs and business owners I want to interview. It’s done its own thing organically and it’s all about information and entertainment. We’ve had some amazing interviewees ranging from Alison Cope [anti-violence campaigner], the mum of Depzman, who lost her son in 2013 to knife crime, to speaking with Sheffield footballer Alex Kiwomya.

We’re just getting started.

As told to Joe Food

 @the1devotion

@slambarz_cic

@dailydevotionpodcast

 




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