KVRIM: Music producer's extraordinary journey from 'rough' Sheffield suburb to Grammy consideration
Karim, who grew up in Broomhall and attended Fir Vale School, has worked with the likes of Ed Sheeran, Timbaland and Jason Derulo
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Karim Esmail, known professionally as KVRIM, was just 10 when he moved from Croydon in south London to Sheffield. He attended Fir Vale School, followed by King Edward VII School, Norton College, and, briefly, Sheffield Hallam University.
After moving first to Toronto and then New York, he has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the last few years, working with the likes of Ed Sheeran, Timbaland and Jason Derulo.
He produced rising R&B superstar Fridayy's self-titled debut album, which was released in August and soared to number two on the Apple Music Worldwide R&B chart, only being kept off top spot by SZA.
When It Comes to You, from the album, reached number 12 on the Billboard R&B chart, racking up some 30 million streams across various platforms, while Don't Give It Away, featuring Chris Brown, has been streamed around 20 million times.
Its success has seen KVRIM put forward by the Def Jam record label for consideration for the Grammy Awards, in the Producer of the Year (Non-Classical) category.
'I lost a lot of friends to gun violence'
But his ascendancy to the music industry's upper echelons hasn't been an easy one, as he told The Star.
"Every day that goes by I count my blessings that I'm living my dream," says the 33-year-old, whose mum is a maths teacher at Sheffield Park Academy. "I feel all the odds were against me, coming from Sheffield and growing up in Broomhall.
"When I was growing up there it was a rough area and I lost a lot of friends to gun violence, which was tough, but the community was close.
"My friends and I didn't have a lot of money at the time and we would be stopped by police and searched on a fairly regular basis because of where we were from and the fact we looked a certain way.
"Events we wanted to throw or attend would get shut down by the authorities because it was 'urban music'. You couldn't even say 'hip hop' or 'bassline' on certain flyers without being shut down.
"It was frustrating but I never let it deter me from trying to achieve my goals."
Musical path started at Fir Vale School
It's a measure of how far Karim has come that our chat is briefly interrupted when Wyclef Jean from the Fugees calls (I'll call him back, Karim says).
He describes how it all started when he was in year eight or nine at Fir Vale School and an after-school DJing programme was launched there.
"That was the first time I mucked about with anything to do with music," he explains. "I was always a fan of music but that's when I was first introduced to DJing, and that's what sparked my journey."
Karim recalls how the sessions were run by a support teacher he believes was called Michael Aldridge, to whom he is eternally grateful.
He was subsequently introduced by a neighbour to a local rapper and began working with the All Out Crew, who would perform at shows and festivals around Sheffield.
His brother's friend DJ Veteran, who was popular on the bassline/garage scene at the time, introduced him to music production and he started out using the programme Fruity Loops, which he still uses today, some 17 years later.
Left Sheffield after becoming stuck in 'dead end jobs'
Karim performed at in Sheffield at the likes of Plug, the O2 Academy and The Leadmill but at the age of 22 having failed to advance his music career and still stuck in what he describes as 'dead end jobs', working at a call centre and as a lifeguard, he decided something had to change.
He moved to Toronto, where, after struggling initially, he managed to 'fine tune' his sound and throw himself '100 per cent' into producing while working with 'the calibre of musicians who really challenged me and made me better'.
Having failed to get his big break in Canada, Karim headed to New York, where within a month he met his new production partner, Yonatan - someone he says had the same 'hunger' and 'drive' and helped open doors for him with his connections.
When Covid struck, he took the chance to develop his craft, teaching himself piano, and that was when Timbaland's team got in touch asking for some beats to play to the acclaimed producer.
"Once the restrictions started easing, I flew from LA to New York. I took a nap and woke up to hundreds of messages on my phone," he says.
"He'd posted about me on Instagram and invited me onto his show. I played him a bunch of my beats and we had a great session. He was very critical of me but that was fine. I used that as fuel."
Support from Timbaland leads to work with Jason Derulo and Ed Sheeran
Timbaland's support gave him the opportunity to work with some huge names in music, from Jason Derulo to Ed Sheeran. But it was Karim's partnership with Fridayy, which began last year when the rising star was still an unknown, that has proved most fruitful.
"We did a lot of work together and then he really blew up, working with the likes of DJ Khaled, Jay Z and getting three Grammy nominatons for 'best rap song', 'best rap performance' and 'song of the year'," explains Karim.
"He was signed by Def Jam and chose me as his producer for his first album. It ended up with me turning into the executive producer because we meshed so well and created such good music together, and the album's done amazingly."
Despite his newfound success, Karim has never forgotten his Sheffield roots and is keen to give back to the city which helped him take his first steps in music.
"I hope I can be a role model and show the next generation of musicians that you don't have to be apologetic or fall into any sort of social trends with your music," he says. "It's important to be uniquely you and express yourself through your music exactly as you want to."