In recent years, few UK MCs have captured the attention and affections of the British public quite like Big Zuu. He is somewhat of a jack of all trades, an artistic chameleon that traverses the creative fields of music and television with equal ease. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the many hats that Big Zuu wears have resulted in a diverse fan base since everyone can find an element of his character and journey to resonate with.
To the younger generations he is the most loveable grime MC to break out of the scene since it was (arguably) declared dead in the late 2000s. He and his fellow contemporaries such as Kamakaze, Jaykae, AJ Tracy, and Yizzy are rightfully credited with helping the resurrection of the genre. Breathing new life into the scene before it faded into the annals of music history. Today Zuu finds himself at the helm of a flourishing UK grime industry while it enters a ‘British Invasion 2.0’ era as the genre continues to expand across the US and the rest of the world.
To an older generation, he may be more familiar as the host of ‘Big Zuu’s Big Eats’ the smash hit cooking and travel show on Dave. No matter the endeavour, all of his creations are unified by the same gregarious energy and fun-loving positivity that has come to define his cheeky-chappy lyricism and bulletproof beats. Since the release of his last project Content on Content in 2018, the world has been eagerly awaiting to hear the next stage in the evolution of Big Zuu’s artistry. Particularly given Zuu’s reputation as a champion of social issues and the plights of young people in society, a lesson that he hasn’t forgotten since his time as a youth worker in his teenage years.
We sat down to chat with Big Zuu following the release of his latest single ‘Variation’ featuring the legendary D Double E and produced by a heavyweight duo of Joker and Sir Spyro. We wanted to find out a little more about his upcoming album and how his rise to stardom has shaped him and the UK music industry as a whole.
When it’s time to write an album, what does your creative process look like? Are you the kind of guy that knows exactly what you are looking to create in advance or is it more of a process of experimentation once you’re in the studio?
I can’t lie- with the single ‘Variation’ we kind of just got it cracking as soon as we were in the studio in Bristol. The plan was to link up with Joker and then Spyro ended up coming through. We crafted the beat in one session and then I almost instantly hit up D Double to say I had something that I would love for him to jump on. We got it done very quickly.
What about in terms of the album more generally, did you have a lot to get off your chest on this project or were you looking to play around in a different sound? How much did the events of the last few years end up feeding into the project?
I have been working on the album for about two years now, honing the ideas and the overall vibe of it. I spent a lot of the last two years not only working on my sound but also my skills as a personality in the larger entertainment industry. It got me thinking about my journey as a whole. At the time I had finished a project called ‘We Will Walk’ that was very conscious and focused on the struggles of young people in society. So for this album I knew I wanted to still address these issues but also make something fun like ‘Variation’ that naturally just bangs.
What’s sick is that by working on my sound I have created a place for myself where I am able to talk about issues but still have fun with my music. For example, in the chorus of ‘Variation’ I say, “Black Lives Matter, expose the racists, they don’t wanna see the people from ends go make it.” However, because the song itself is just so vibey, it doesn’t come across as a purely political song. It’s kind of a testament to how the times are; the topics I’m covering aren’t so much political, rather they’re just the realities of life. A few tracks on the album talk about society, they talk about the structures at play but from a different angle than how I typically have in the past. In that way, ‘Variation’ does exactly what it says on the tin.
The whole last project (Content With Content) was also solely focused on young people and conscious social issues, so i think some people have been waiting for me to explore new sounds and have fun with music. Obviously I will never forget what my core principals were when I entered the game and my mission to spread a positive message. In general though, I think this album is going to be a new sound that people have never heard from me before.
What atmosphere do you need to write lyrics? Do you like to be left in your own space so you can experiment freely or do you find it helpful to have a full studio with everyone pitching in ideas?
I need the most standard set up. All I need is a producer to run the rhythm and play the track a hundred times for me while nobody talks so I can write my lyrics. When it comes time to write, I don’t like anyone in the session except me and the producers. It’s a different story when it comes to recording, that’s when I bring all my man through to have a good time and to show them what I’ve created once it’s ready. I have been writing for so many years now so I sort of have my process down.
However, I have noticed now that I really rely on that time to focus and zero in on the beat to be able to graft the lyrics out. With ‘Variation’ I was sitting in the studio for a good couple of hours before I found where I wanted to go with it. But once I had the opening lines: “Uh, givin’ the spiel, givin’ the lowdown” it’s like the rest of the words just came out of the beat.
Don’t get me wrong you can do both, like how i have my boys there for the recording session. My studio set up is actually quite helpful for that because it’s split into a living room and studio sections. That way guests can chill in the living room and I can have my space to do my thing. As an artist I do a lot of the work on my own so it’s become more natural for me.
Who were your biggest musical influences growing up? What was playing in the background at home?
I would say growing up I listened to a lot of American rap, artists like Eminem, Jay-Z, Tupac, Biggie. My mum was musical but I wouldn’t say I grew up in a musical household, I never went out my way to find music. It was just me and my mum so there was nobody around me that played instruments or anything like that. Once the internet came along, that’s when I really found out about grime during the earliest days of YouTube.
One of my mates showed me all the different artists that were coming up in different areas and I instantly started following everything that was coming out. When I was 10, grime was really popping off but unfortunately by the time I was old enough to go to raves, grime was considered dead! It was gutting for a kid that had grown up following it. So when i actually became a grime MC i thought to myself “Fucking hell, how have I done this.”
Was Pirate Radio a big influence on you or was that a little bit before your time?
For me pirate radio only became accessible once the old classic sets were put on Youtube. That’s really when I got into channels like DeJa Vu and SBTV. The Westwood Freestyles and Logan Sama sets. That’s more the era I was in. It wasn’t quite pirate but rather had evolved into being mainstream radio. I wasn’t able to hear artists like Dizzie and Crazy Titch perform live on pirate radio but I definitely took it all in after. I spent hours looking for tapes on grime forums, downloading clashes, and watching all of the old Lord Of The Mics. That’s the era of grime I came from.
It sounds like first and foremost you are just a fan of the genre is that a fair assessment?
Big fan bro! There’s a photo of me at sixteen just shelling it down at the front row of a JME concert. I’m almost certain there is a video of that somewhere out there on the internet, you’ll have to dig for it.
When it gets to a point in your career when you can have anyone you want jump on a track, how do you decide who you want to work with? Does it depend on who you’re around or listening to at the time or do you have a list of dream features that you are slowly checking off?
Yer man it’s more about who I’m vibing with and who would be perfect for a track. Although It’s different with every track. With ‘Variation’ I had never really got to know Double like that but we had always shown love to each other, so I knew I just needed to write one that would be perfect. Whereas with JME, I was already planning to link up with him in the studio anyway and we just so happened to end up making bare tracks together. A lot of other times it’s exactly as you said where it just depends on who is around that day and who wants to get involved.
For this album though the features are all very UK, very local to me, and with people that I always fuck with. The whole album has turned out to be a real testament to how much talent there is in the UK scene at the moment. The energy and love that other artists have shown me has always been mad. I have supported Jaykae, Dave, Chip, AJ, and even KSI on tour, so the energy and opportunities that other guys in the scene have given me has been crazy. That’s how music works. It’s all energy and vibing with certain people. I have been so lucky to work with so many amazing artists already. That’s why I want to get the younger generation involved with my work, so I can keep passing that energy forward.
Is it true that before you became a musician you were training to become a youth worker? Why was that the path you wanted to go down and are there any lessons that you learnt in that time that helped shape your approach to the industry?
When I was younger I didn’t really know what I wanted to be. So I spoke to a career counselor and she said that I was good at talking and asked if I ever thought about being a youth worker. I asked, “How can I be a youth worker when I’m still a kid.” She showed me a course that I could do and I started working at a charity that helps young kids and gives them guidance. Half way through my course the music really started to take off so I had to make the really tough decision to stop pursuing youth work. I always said to myself that I would always make conscious music to try and help more kids through my music than I could have done if I stuck with that job.
One of my favorite projects of yours was the Royal Rumble album you released in 2020 in collaboration with Capo Lee, Eyes, & Kamakaze. What made you wanna do a battle style project like that and do you have a dream Royal Rumble 2 lineup?
‘Royal Rumble 2′ without question has to be the same line-up. We ended up with a song on FIFA from that project so we would be mad to change it! What’s crazy about that album is that we made it just before the lockdown. Luckily just before Covid I said to the gang that we all needed to meet in person and make something as a group. I had it all planned out. I wanted all of us to do a full UK tour together with shows in every one of our home cities but I knew that it ultimately had to start off with a project.
So I filled a studio up with producers, engineers, and even a cameraman to see what we could create from there. We came up with the whole concept of the ‘Royal Rumble’ album and all the tracks within the 3 days that we had the studio booked. Then the week before it was due to release Skepta, Chip, and Young Adz put out their ‘Insomnia’ album. It was crazy because here I was orchestrating this whole collaboration project idea and little did I know that at the same time another group of our contemporaries were doing the same thing. It just goes to show how that idea is something that artists should definitely do and can be successful with. When we dropped it people loved it but i would definitely love to do a sequel and really put some more time into the visuals surrounding it.
Does having those guys in the studio with you lend a certain element of competition to the writing process?
There definitely is that competitive nature to it when you are all in the studio together. Even though we aren’t in a clash or going mad on stage, we are all MCs and we know that one day it’s going to come out and be played in that context.You want everyone to hear the best version of you at all times but on a tune like ‘On fire’, where everybody has their own little section on the track, it becomes super competitive. I have to admit, I think Capo Lee won the verse battle on that particular track. I obviously started the track on that one so I was aware that I had to set the tone for where I wanted the guys to take it. So once I laid my verse down I knew, being the punchline kings they are, these guys would see what I had done and say “OK Zuu I see you, now watch this.”
Out of every track you have made, is there one that stands out as being special because of how difficult it was to get done or because of how much fun it was to make?
I would have to say ‘The Struggle Freestyle’ of my last project ‘We Will Walk‘. It was the lead track on the album and it’s a freestyle about my whole entire life. I don’t think it’s very common to see an MC lead their EP with a serious track.Typically artists lead with a track that is easier to ride with and bangs in the club. However, that song now has over a million streams on Spotify. So it was more of a statement to everyone around me that I can strive making the type of music I want to make instead of making tracks that don’t sound like me. I take a lot of pride in that decision and I think it embodies why I am where I am right now.
Following on from that, do you enjoy going back and listening to your old stuff or is new always better?
I do like listening to the old stuff. Particularly some of the classics. Sometimes when you work on a project, you spend so much time with it in the writing and mastering stages that when it’s finished you almost need a lot of distance from it.Then again, certain tracks never get old bro.
‘Big Zuu’s Big Eats’ is coming out June 3rd, the follow up cookbook to your cracking TV show on Dave. Where did your love of cooking come from and how did the show come about?
Honestly, I have just always been a fat guy bro! As for the show, back in the day i always used to film what I was cooking on Snapchat and break it down. That turned into a production company shouting at me asking if I wanted to start a cooking show. The next thing you know, it’s on Dave!
Lastly Zuu, if you could see any 3 bands or solo artists in history play a live show, who would they be?
Easy! Tupac, Bob Marley, J Cole.
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Interview: Chris Kelly
Photography: David Townhill