Young people are turning to their own business ideas to help them out of a trap of poor quality or precarious jobs
It’s Friday night on an industrial estate in Grays, a small town on the Thames estuary in Essex, and all the units have closed their shutters for the weekend except one.
Uncxt Studios has been open day and night since May 2017. It is the dream of Connor Hammond, aka SmallzDeep, a 25-year-old grime artist who was born in Essex but left school and home when he was 16.
Hammond ended up in the south-west, where he lived on the streets and had multiple run-ins with the police over weapons and drugs offences. After a spell in prison just after he turned 18, he realised he needed to turn his life round: “That’s when all of my efforts went into being a recording artist.”
He began to make a name for himself as SmallzDeep, getting played on Radio 1 and mixing with some of the big names in grime. When he eventually came back to Grays, he found that opportunities for young people had all but disappeared and that violent crime was rising.
- Read an exclusive extract from Wiley's autobiography 'Eskiboy'
- Over half of grime fans voted Labour in the general election
- Why UK grime might save the Labour Party
Knife crime increased by 21 per cent nationally in 2017, while Essex saw a 26 per cent rise in knife crime between June 2016 and June 2017. “Something’s gone wrong for youths to be stabbing each other,” Hammond says.
Grays and the area around it has grown rapidly in recent years as families were displaced from East London during the building of 2012 Olympic Park and as London borough housing associations rehoused families in the district. Between 2001 and 2011 the population of Thurrock grew 10 per cent, with a 6.7 per cent increase in households, making it one of the most populated districts in the country.
The area has no shortage of jobs. Amazon is building its biggest fulfilment centre at a new deepwater port at Tilbury, helping to triple jobs in Tilbury from 4,000 to 12,000 in the next decade. But since the financial crisis, the work available to young people has become more unstable and unskilled at the same time as Government spending cuts have reduced the amount of support available for young people.
— stanzaofficial (@stanza_ec) March 19, 2018
The number of young people in Grays aged 16-24 claiming out of work benefits is 5.5 per cent, compared to an East of England average of 3.4 per cent. “There are jobs out there, but we don’t want to work in a warehouse, or for Tesco, and sometimes a criminal record can make that harder,” Hammond says.
Increasingly, young people are turning to their own business ideas to help them out of a trap of poor quality or precarious jobs. With the right support, entrepreneurs such as Hammond can give other young people a hand up.
Hammond decided to open a recording studio partly to give himself something to do, but also to occupy other young people: “I thought, ‘Why not just open something where youths have a chance to express themselves in a positive way?’”
The biggest problem was getting the money. One day Hammond was watching Dragons’ Den and a man came on with a pitch for a gadget that played a trumpet sound when a child flushed the toilet. He was asking for £40,000.
“I thought, ‘What! This guy wants £40,000 for this?’ I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘If he can do it, I can.’” So he started a Kickstarter.
— Uncxt Studios (@UncxtStudios) March 15, 2018
The Kickstarter, posted in September 2015, reads: “We have started a Kickstarter fund to set up a Recording Studio in the Thurrock area for the whole of Essex and surrounding areas, with 1-2 days a week specifically for the youth of Thurrock and Essex to express themselves via music and keep off the streets completely free of charge, plus running music & creative writing workshops for the less advantaged.”
No sooner was the post online than he got a call from Grays Riverside, a group of residents that had come together to spend £1m in Lottery funding granted to the area under a Big Local programme. They asked him if he would like to take part in Thurrock Soup, a pitching event based on an initiative in Detroit where would-be entrepreneurs compete for a small amount of startup funding.
The residents were so impressed with Hammond’s idea that he won by a unanimous vote, taking home £1,000 from the Big Local and another £5,000 from UnLtd, which funds social entrepreneurs.
Neil Woodridge, a local entrepreneur behind community interest company Thurrock Lifestyle Solutions, stepped in to become Hammond’s mentor. He taught him about accounting, cash flow and how to have a unique selling point. But the first year has been hard on Hammond. “I worked as hard as I could for a year with the youth sessions,” he says. “I was working 18-hour days. I had to do these free sessions, but it has to make money. I was thinking, ‘My girlfriend is going to dump me because I never see her!’”
Just a week before my visit, Hammond hears that he has been provisionally awarded £14,800 from a community fund by the local police, fire and crime commission, to reduce crime in the area. The money will allow Hammond to upgrade the studio equipment and take on his first employee, a local DJ called Tom “Kirby T” Berry, who has been helping him out with social media.
On that Friday night in the industrial park, Hammond shows Berry how to mix as they record Dan Green, aka Stanza, an 18-year-old rapper. Berry had been working in insurance in a call centre, but was recently made redundant. “I was talking to Smallz that whole time and he had the brainwave about training me,” Berry says. “This is going to change a big part of my life.”
Hammond says the idea of the studio isn’t necessarily to make big stars, but to give young people some hope and to let them know that they have options in life that aren’t illegal. “Kirby is a good example of that,” he says. “He put some work in for a year and half and now he has a job. In our eyes that is successful.”
Hazel Sheffield visited Grays with funding from Local Trust, which runs the Big Local programme