Beats, grime and strife

Soph Aspin and Millie B – two women who were once girls in the controversial grime scene – talk about how they’re reclaiming their story and their friendship

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Sitting together at the House of Wingz, a hip-hop arts collective in the shadow of Blackpool Tower, Millie B and Soph Aspin are a picture of friendship. As they chat about their children and nights out they’ve enjoyed together, you would never guess that they were once fierce rivals, trading diss tracks to the extent of being once dubbed “the Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth Tudor of the Blackpool grime scene”.

Indeed, in her earworm signature song M to the B, Millie B (short for Bracewell) raps: “Coming in hard with my bars, Sophie Aspin is about to get parred,” before unleashing a torrent of expletive-laden insults that would make a docker reach for the smelling salts.

Bracewell (pictured left) was only 16 when she wrote the Lady Leshurr-inspired M to the B in 2016. The pair didn’t even know each other – but “sends” (response tracks) were how youngsters in the mid-noughties Blackpool grime boom made their name – the more outrageous, the better.

“We had no filter back then,” Aspin winces of their playground pugilism lyrics. “We were both kids and the things we were saying then would probably get us full-on cancelled now!”

M to the B is the track that both destroyed and turned around their lives. The first time it went viral was during the Blackpool grime media-led explosion in 2016, which arrived culturally at an era of Benefits Britain and Jeremy Kyle, when it was still considered acceptable to mock and demonise an amorphous idea of working-class people. So while Bracewell and Aspin were praised by megastars like Stormzy and Ed Sheeran, they were also the subject of sneering, rubbernecking documentaries by Vice and Channel 4.

“It was looked upon as chavvy,” says Aspin, now 20. “It still is now to a degree.”

“Although it was good to have a name for myself, it wasn’t a good name,” adds 22-year-old Bracewell, pulling on the sleeves of her candy floss-coloured tracksuit. “People weren’t laughing with me – they were laughing at me.

“When you’re getting so much hate for it as a young girl, it pushes you away from it and I decided I wasn’t going to rap anymore.”

Unable to weather an avalanche of abuse, both went into “hibernation” but found they couldn’t escape their online fame.

“For a while, it was great,” remembers Aspin, who was 14 when M to the B first took off. “When you’re young, even though there’s hate, you get an ego boost from being noticed. Then you start growing up and it seems like it’s never being dropped and it wears on your mental health. It gave me crippling anxiety. I couldn’t go shopping because I’d think, people will see me – and I couldn’t deal with the hate. I didn’t feel safe. That’s the mindset I was in for a long time.”

Despite its millions of views, Bracewell had only earned £100 from M to the B. She disowned the song and moved on. Then something curious happened when, in August 2020, TikTok star Bella Poarch uploaded footage of herself miming the words to the track. The clip still holds the record as the most-watched on the platform ever, boasting over 60 million likes. Countless tributes followed among fellow influencers like Madison and Chase Hudson. Still, when friends told her, Bracewell was dismissive.

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“I didn’t like the song,” she disclaims. “I wanted to put it in the past, move on and concentrate on being a mum to my daughter.” Nonetheless, her mates convinced her to upload a video of herself singing along to the song – it proved to be the first step in reclaiming her story.

More was to come. This year, M to the B soundtracked a viral “chav make-up” trend on TikTok (both view the fad as a good-natured homage to style trends of the noughties rather than problematic class cosplay), with even Kim Kardashian getting involved.

“Having Kim Kardashian singing along to your song isn’t something you wake up to every day!” laughs Bracewell. “I was shocked.”

Joining TikTok themselves has given them a voice they were denied the first time around.

“TikTok’s allowed us to show our real selves rather than the characters we gave ourselves years ago,” says Bracewell.

Looking back at the treatment of the children – some as young as 12 – in the Blackpool grime scene by some quarters of the media cuts to the heart of what social groups are considered fair game for marginalising. Blackpool is among the ten most deprived towns in Britain, and both Bracewell and Aspin hail from working-class backgrounds.

Aspin, whose mother is deaf, was a young carer. She had spells of delinquency, drugs and running away from home. She attended a school for children with behavioural needs, and channelled her feelings into songs.

Bracewell, similarly, loved music from a young age – and attended X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent auditions. Neither wanted to be rappers – they merely wrote bars for BGMedia as a “joke”, with little thought given to the permanence of the videos.

“I still cringe when I look back at those old videos,” says Aspin. “It ruined my life – and I know it ruined Millie’s just as much,” she adds, to agreement from Bracewell. “There were times when I wished I could go back and never do it. I thought: ‘What have I done? I’m never going to get out of this.’ And then it changed overnight to the point where my life’s now great. I used to regret it – I don’t now.”

Rather than a duty of care, they allege certain people were provoking them to be more explicit in their sends.

“They’d say: ‘Why don’t you do a song about this person?’ It was adults telling children to be horrible about someone because of the views it would get,” says Aspin. Worse, she says some of the people around her incentivised her with drugs.

Bracewell looks shocked at the revelation as Aspin continues: “When you’re a child, you experiment and I was in a bad crowd, smoking loads of weed. I was 15 and being exploited heavily. It was very much: ‘Why don’t you film this video and I’ll give you weed or buy you this?’ As a child wanting to be that cool person I just thought: ‘That’s fine.’ Nobody ever said: ‘How’s your mental health?’”

Bruised by their experience, it took Bracewell and Aspin time to trust again. Finding their managers Aishley Bell-Docherty and her partner (both in business and life) Samantha Bell-Docherty in 2018 was their first tentative step in regrouping. The Bell-Dochertys run House of Wingz and Bracewell and Aspin were impressed by its charity arm that teaches skills to and helps feed underprivileged kids. When Grammy-nominated producer Nat Powers asked to work with them he was carefully vetted by the Dochertys. There’s a protective familial feel to their inner-circle.

“I wanted to work with Sophie and Millie because they represent a very important demographic, not only in music, but in the country – single young mothers of a child each, from the North and exceptionally talented individually,” explains Powers, who has previously collaborated with Janet Jackson and the Wu-Tang Clan. “They’re fearless, courageous, and bring a load of energy to the table. I want to challenge them and bring the best out in them artistically, but also safeguard them as young females in the music business where they for sure weren’t very safe before.”

With the renewed success of M to the B prompting them to strike while the iron’s hot, both of their recent singles deal with their enduring social media fame with characteristic Northern wit.

Don’t Take It Serious is Aspin’s braggadocious comeback, lampooning traditional superficial signifiers of hip-hop success.

“When I first started to work with Nat, I wanted to chuck away my rap career. I was worried if I rapped, people were instantly going to call me a chav again, but Nat persuaded me saying ‘You still got it there’ and that I could change people’s perceptions,” says Aspin.

Bracewell’s bass-heavy Meant to Bee, meanwhile, sees her reprise her M to the B look with tongue-in-cheek humour while spitting: ‘Went viral again/This time all the way to Kim K.’

“It’s basically saying everything happens for a reason,” she elaborates. “I’ve gone viral for the third time so it was Meant to Bee.”

Having kids – Bracewell’s daughter is four while Aspin’s child was born three months ago  – has furthered their drive to succeed. And the money has helped. Sony now licenses M to the B, meaning that Bracewell receives royalties – the track has reached 40 million streams on Spotify. Aspin previously worried what would happen when her daughter eventually sees her old videos – a concern now cushioned by the cash she makes through being an influencer and her music career.

“I’ll be able to say, yes, I did say those things but look what I have to show for it. It sounds bad to say, but because of the money, I can now embrace what I did. If I’d only got a quick £100 and told her that’s the cost of her potentially being humiliated through school, it wouldn’t be worth it. If I can tell her we’ve got a house, a car, and I can give her a better lifestyle than I grew up with, it’s worth it. I want her to be proud of me.”

Bracewell and Aspin’s experience is a uniquely 21st century tale of navigating the lasting consequences of instant online exposure at a young age, classism, and ultimately coming out of the other side and owning your past. As they prepare to depart, Aspin sounds every inch the bullish future star.

“Listen, Kim Kardashian knows my name which means I’ve completed life,” she grins. “We started making bars for a joke, then became the punchlines, and now we’re having the last laugh.”

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