God Save The Streets: UK rapper Avelino and Sex Pistol Glen Matlock on why rap is the new punk

Avelino with Glen Matlock, Ghetts and BackRoad Gee
(Image credit: Avelino)

Stormzy’s Glastonbury 2019 headline set was iconic on a` number of different levels. With just one album to his name at the time, the 25-year-old grime artist became the first black solo artist from Britain to headline the legendary music festival, and (then) Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn nailed it when he tweeted, “It won’t just go down in Glastonbury history – it’ll go down in our country’s cultural history.”

While the night was a huge personal triumph for the rapper, it was memorable too for the fact that Stormzy paid tribute from the stage not only to artists who paved the way for him - Wiley, Dizzee Rascal, Skepta, Kano, Ghetts, among them  - but also to a new generation of emerging artists who are shaping the UK music scene. On that list, namechecked between Little Simz and J Hus, was Tottenham rapper Avelino,  who first caught Stormzy's ear with his 2014 mixtape Iconic Ambition, leading Stormzy to take him out on tour in 2015. The pair subsequently joined forces, alongside Skepta, for Avelino's 2017 single Energy.

Avelino is kicking off 2023 with a new collaboration: Vex, the second single taken from the rapper's forthcoming debut album God Save The Streets, finds him teaming with Ghetts and the Jay-Z approved BackRoad Gee, plus Sex Pistols legend Glen Matlock.

On February 17, Avelino posted a photo of the quartet on the set of the Vex video shoot in Tottenham with the caption "Rap's the new punk", and so we spoke to the rising rap star and the punk legend about what unites the two scenes, their unexpected collaboration and the enduring power and importance of protest music. 

"Vex embodies my suggestion that rap is the new punk," says Avelino. "In a world where the punk movement is no longer the music of the streets, we’ve taken its place..."

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The obvious first question here is how did this collaboration come together?

Glen Matlock: "Avelino's manager wrote to me out of the blue and asked if I'd be up for contributing to the track, and I said, Well, maybe, let me hear it. When I heard it I thought, This is interesting, what can I do on this?, and I started playing around with it in my home studio. My son, Louis, who's got his own thing called Clarence And The Modern Life, heard it and said, Wow, that sounds good!' and I thought, 'Oh, okay, this has got potential... Cool."

Avelino: "My album is called God Save The Streets, and I drew inspiration from the Sex Pistols: I was looking at the artwork for [1977 Pistols' single] God Save The Queen and the phrase God Save The Streets came to me, and I was like, Yeah, that's my album title. We already had the song Vex, and it had a guitar lead at the end, but it was digital, and obviously the real thing is always better, so I asked a mutual friend if Glen might be up for playing guitar on the record, and here we are. When we perform this at shows there's gonna be carnage!"

Were the Sex Pistols a band that meant much to you growing up Avelino?

Avelino: "Obviously they're super famous, innit, so you know of them..."

Glen: "But you're too young!"

Avelino: "Yeah, but I'm a student of the game at the same time, and I do understand the lineage: the Sex Pistols is part of the journey to what we do now. At the time, punk was working class music, and the music of the streets, before we got here. Maybe it's fair to say now that rap, grime and drill are covering that area now."

Glen: "I know that out of the New York punk scene [of the '70s] came Grandmaster Flash and people like that. I think that music is like a relay race, you're passing the baton on to the next people, and so there's a line, like when the Beastie Boys moved from punk to rap."

There have been discussions in recent years about how the rock scene is becoming the preserve of the middle classes because the expense involved in starting a band, particularly in London, can be prohibitive, whereas advances in technology make rap and grime more accessible to young people: is that where you believe the punk rock anti-establishment attitude now lives?

Avelino: "Yeah, definitely, it comes from that same energy, that same spirit of making do with what you've got. I'm at shows and festivals starting mosh pits, and like Glen said, it's like that process of taking up the baton, otherwise there wouldn't be the same rebellious energy in our music.  

Glen: "Also, with the money thing, that's true, but most people have some access to computers, and GarageBand and things like that: where's there's a will there's a way, and if people want to get an idea across they'll beg, borrow or steal and find a way to get it out there."

Avelino: "One hundred per cent."

Glen, your recent single Head On A Stick suggests that you're every bit as angry in 2023 as you were in 1977...

Glen: "I'm not as angry, I'm more angry. I'm livid with what's been going on in the country politically, particularly with the whole stupid Brexit thing. So much of it is about keeping people in their place, and it's wrong."

Avelino: "I feel like it's an artist's job to reflect the times, and we do that. Vex is part of that commitment."

Glen: "As Avelino says, you've got to reflect what's going on around you. It's an abrogation of responsibility to not do that. I like that we can keep popping away at those in charge and try to get them to up their game or piss off. From what I know of Avelino he's picking up on issues that matter and speaking about them, and that's something we have in common.

"It doesn't matter whether you're making punk rock or hip-hop or jazz or swing music, you might have a different backbeat or different instrumentation, but what matters is the intensity and the integrity that it's played with. And that's part of our connection on Vex. David Bowie once compared making music to paddling in the sea, and said that if your feet are firmly planted on the sand, maybe you should go a little further out to where your feet don't touch the bottom, because sometimes it's when you're on edge and out of your comfort zone that you come up with something better." 

There's a Bruce Springsteen lyric - "We learned more from a 3-minute record... Than we ever learned in school": for both of you, did music have that power to educate you and show you aspects of the world you weren't discovering elsewhere?

Glen: "Yeah, record shops were like a library, and music opened all these different doors. And Springsteen is a good example of someone who's spoken up on behalf of people who don't always have a voice." 

Avelino: "A great record gives you a sense of what that time was like and what was happening, so yeah, in that sense it's educational."

So, Vex is a one-off collaborative single, but can you see yourselves converging again either for more music or for live performances in the future?

Avelino: "I'm one hundred per cent open to it. We're creatives and that's what we live for, so if something comes up..."

Glen: "We'll see. I like a good collaboration and I think we get on well. Even though we're from different backgrounds, it's been nice to see that we're on a similar page emotionally and sociologically."  

God Save The Streets

(Image credit: More Music Records / Oddchild Music)

God Save The Streets is set for release on April 14 via More Music Records / Oddchild Music. Pre--order the album here. Glen Matlock's new album, Consequences Coming, comes out on Cooking Vinyl two weeks later, on April 28, and can be pre-ordered here.

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.