This is ‘Fire in the Boots’ – a new content series in partnership with adidas Football – where VERSUS takes the UK’s most talented artists out of the studio and onto the pitch, exploring their passion for football and how it inspired them to be the MCs, producers, or DJs they are today. Football and music own the streets, and this series will find out how and why the two fields share so much in common by talking to the creatives who represent this cultural crossover. In this edition, we kick ball with Joe Black – as one of UK rap’s most eminent lyricists, he also gives back to the streets by running a youth football club that’s given hundreds of young people a pathway to success in and out of the game.
As one of the most gifted lyricists and widely-respected MCs in the UK scene, Joe Black is already a hero in every corner of North London. Since dropping his first project back in 2004, Joe has one of the deepest back catalogues of any rapper from any age – but it’s his work on the football pitch, not the studio, that might end up leaving the most important legacy.
Since establishing his own football club in 2012, Joe Black’s AC United FC – ‘All Cultures United Football Club’ – has become one of the most exciting places for young ballers to play in London. While the original mission of the club was to give young people from neglected communities purposeful activity, the glittering success enjoyed by several age groups has seen AC United become a home for the city’s most exciting talents, with a number of the club’s former players going on to play at a pro level.
Joe Black's ability to spot and develop talent has also seen him earn love from Chelsea, who recruited him as a scout after signing up an AC United player to their academy. Whether it’s a link up with Giggs or Kenny Allstar in the studio – or leading one of the most important community organisations in London right now – Joe Black is shaping the future of culture.
We took Joe Black back to the pitch and kitted him out in the new adidas Copa 19 ‘Hardwired’ boots, where we also discussed falling in love with football, the importance of grassroots sport, and who the biggest baller in UK music really is.
Joe Black is wearing the new adidas Copa boot, part of adidas Football's new Hardwired pack, which is available now at adidas.com.
VERSUS: What do you first remember about falling in love with football?
Joe Black: I was always watching it with my older brother and the first stuff I really remember was the 1994 World Cup, I was supporting Sweden for some reason! I don’t know what it was about that Sweden team, I just liked the kit – that’s probably what it was, a bright yellow and blue kit. Romario was great in that World Cup too with Brazil, he’s another guy I looked up to a lot. I was supporting Arsenal at that time but it wasn’t until Wenger came that I really started to have that love for the club – and I haven’t looked back since.
And bringing it right through to the present day, what’s your relationship with football right now?
I play all the time, man! I play Powerleague with some guys I grew up with every Monday night, I play for a Sunday League team, and I play for a YouTube team…I do some coaching too, so football is a huge part of my life. I never turn down a chance to play, I love having a ball at my feet.
What is it about playing football that still remains so special?
It’s kind of like stress relief – when I’m on the pitch nothing else matters, especially when I’m playing with my friends…it’s still the one thing that brings everyone together. A lot of friends I’ve made in my life have been through football, it’s always the common thread that’s bonded us.
You must play all across London. Where’s your favourite place to play in the city?
I always say Market Road is my spiritual home, it’s a set of pitches in North London and it’s very well known in the grassroots scene. It’s a great place to play.
“I’ve been coaching for 12 years and set up a new club called AC United – it’s been very successful for our community.”
You’ve played your fair share of all-star charity matches, too – the type of games that pit MCs against one another for a good cause. What’s the vibe like in those games?
They’re good! If you’ve got a group of players who just love football and you add a good cause to it, you can never lose. There’s often a friendly rivalry as well between people who might have relationships in music or whatever off the pitch, but for me – and my friends will tell you this – I’m out there to win! I don’t care who you are, if you’re on the other team and playing against me, for 90 mins you’re my opps…there are no friends on a football pitch! It can get heated out there but it never gets too far, it’s all for the love of the game.
Who’s got the best tek in UK music?
That’s a big question! Dappy is very tekky! I’ve played with him a few times. Mercston is a bit of a baller too and I’ve seen clips of Swarmz on the Internet, he looks decent.
Now you also run your own community club – AC United. What’s the story behind setting up your own team?
I’ve been coaching for 12 years or something, I’ve always loved it – and at first it was with a club that one of my old friends was running but he had to fold the team in 2012. At that time, the age group I was managing was very talented and they wanted to keep playing together, so I set up a new club called AC United and it’s grown every year. We keep on getting more players involved and it’s been a very successful thing for our small community. We had a talented group of players so the club grew to be very competitive and we’ve actually got an elite side who we help to move on to professional football, and some players have gone on to play in the pro leagues.
But for me, the club’s mission was always to give kids from deprived areas some purposeful activity. For the kids that don’t go on to play professionally, we offer pathways back into football through refereeing or coaching – essentially getting them to still be around football and helping the next wave rise up. We’ve built a very active and very successful hub where we give young people opportunities via football.
“You can take so many skills from football and apply it to other areas of your life – it’s vital we give people a pathway to play.”
You’ve obviously seen how powerful playing football can be for young people, do you think it’s essential for the game to always be part of the fabric of a community?
100%. It’s an active sport for starters, so it helps to keep our young people healthy – and you get to meet new people, the sort of people you might not always get to rub shoulders with otherwise, so it breaks down social barriers and builds confidence within people. I think you can take so much discipline, and so many skills, from sports and apply it to other areas of your life so I think it’s vital we keep giving people a pathway to play…it’s important for society, man.
You’re obviously a community leader and a role model to a lot of people. That’s a lot of responsibility…
It’s actually made me a better person – because I know I’m in a position where I need to watch what I do and how I act…before I was a bit carefree and not really bothered about anyone but myself. Being involved in football and working with youngsters has given my life a new perspective and I’m definitely grateful for that.
I’ve found out you do some scouting for Chelsea too, how did you end up doing that?
One of our grassroots teams won a County Cup in 2013 – a competition featuring the best teams in London – and a guy who works in football was watching the game, and he wanted to know a bit more about myself and our team because we had an exciting group of players. When he realised we were just a local team, he gave me an opportunity to get into scouting and produce some reports on young players in London. Chelsea signed one of our players in 2014 and I think they recognised I had an eye for talent, so they gave me a job as a scout and I’ve been there ever since. It’s a very talented academy and I think the young players there are about to do great things.
“Players are being more expressive on and off the pitch, and demonstrating a love of what we as artists are doing.”
Do you ever find that football helps inspire your creativity as an MC?
I think football is a great release for me, so maybe it does. You can get rid of lots of stress or negative energy on the pitch and it does give you a clear head, so I think you can write a verse or get in the studio with a new focus.
As someone who’s very much on the frontline in both music and football, how have you viewed the overlap of those two worlds that we’ve been seeing more and more of lately. From rappers launching new kits, players dancing in celebrations, MCs shouting out ballers in lyrics…
I think football is definitely getting brought more into the entertainment industry. A lot of people in the UK rap scene are huge football fans, so I think it’s pretty natural for them to express that in their work – but I don’t think that’s a particularly new thing. I think what has changed is players being more expressive on and off the pitch, and demonstrating a love of what we as artists are doing, which gives the culture a lift and inspires more and more crossover opportunities. Football is definitely entertainment now, not just sport.
I think football as entertainment is an interesting insight. What similarities do you see between football and music?
I think performance and creativity are at the heart of both fields. Both artists and players want to go out and impress with every performance, and to have put themselves in a better position at the end of every game or gig.
“My mantra on the football pitch is look good and feel good!”
Success in both fields is determined by elite training, practice and preparation too. How hard did you have to work to be successful in music?
Preparation is so important. I think some people are just naturals at whatever they choose to do, whether that’s on the pitch or in music, but for the majority of people training is so important. That’s where you build yourself up and I’d probably compare football training to rehearsals, and playing a match to doing a real show. You need hard work and lots of preparation to excel in both worlds.
How important do you think it is to look good and feel good when you play?
That’s actually my mantra on the football pitch – look good and feel good! I always like to be on point and wearing the best of the best when it comes to boots and kit, so I think style on the pitch is very important – it always gives you that extra ten per cent. The players with swagger are the ones that come to the forefront! Confidence on the football pitch is huge. It’s the same in music, actually.
And how are you rating the new adidas Copa boots you’re wearing today?
I always rate the Copa! They’re a very classy pair of boots and these feel good to wear, plus the new colourway makes you stand out on the pitch – you know you’ve got to deliver on the pitch if you’re wearing boots that look this good!
Joe Black is wearing the new adidas Copa boot, part of adidas Football’s new Hardwired pack, which is available now at adidas.com.
Photography by Elliot Simpson.