Bugzy Malone:
creation story

Grime might be more associated with London but in Bugzy Malone the north can lay a claim to having one of its greatest stars

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“It’s part of the job description to make this look easy. But it’s not easy at all. It’s very difficult to achieve what I’ve done,” says Bugzy Malone, seated at the head of a dining table in the downstairs basement of his large, pristinely kept, marble-floored home, located on the leafy outskirts of north Manchester.

The canopy-covered sports car parked outside, full-size piano in the hallway and numerous silver and platinum record discs lining the walls attest to the 27 year old’s status as one of the country’s most popular grime stars, but they only tell half the story. What’s not visible is the years of struggle, toil and hardship it took to get to get to this point and all that Malone has had to overcome.

“I have locked myself into a plan for nine years and never let that plan go out of my head,” states the softly-spoken rapper, real name Aaron Davis. “When I go to sleep at night I’m thinking about the plan. When I wake up, I’m thinking about the plan – 365 days a year for nine years. There’s been a lot of sacrifice.”

“Four projects in the top 10. Fourth consecutive tour. Nobody else is doing this.”

Although not yet a household name, in the past three years Bugzy Malone has singlehandedly broken London’s iron grip over the UK grime scene to become one of the genre’s biggest names. His last three EPs, all self-released, made the UK top 10 despite little radio support, as did this year’s debut album B. Inspired. He has his own clothing line on sale at JD Sports. In August he played to 50,000 people supporting Liam Gallagher at Old Trafford cricket ground and this month he embarks on the largest ever tour by a grime artist, culminating in two massive shows at Manchester’s 4,000-capacity Mayfield Depot.

“Four projects in the top 10. Fourth consecutive tour. Nobody else is doing this,” he proudly states. “Nobody else is consistent enough to do this. Everybody smokes weed. Everybody drinks. Everybody parties. I’ve trained and lived like a soldier to get this done.”

The roots of the rapper’s determination to succeed can be found in his troubled, impoverished upbringing. Born and raised in the Manchester suburb of Crumpsall, Malone showed an early aptitude for the arts, winning poetry, drawing and story-telling competitions as a child, but a dysfunctional home life dominated by violence and domestic abuse led him to soon go off the rails. It wasn’t long before he was expelled from school, thrown out of home and dragged into the dangerous world of gangs. Salvation came with a short spell in prison when he was still a teenager.

“At the time I was a little bit wild. It just felt like a big youth centre,” he sombrely remembers. “I was only a kid and in that respect I enjoyed the break from the streets because they were getting scary at that point. People were getting shot or killed and I was in the firing line. Prison gave me a place to go away and get back to who I actually was before all the bravado. I remember being in solitary confinement and thinking if there was an earthquake no one is going to come and save my life. I just thought to myself: ‘I’m not supposed to be sat in this room. I’m smarter than this.’”

Upon his release, Malone channelled his energies into boxing but found that he lacked the mental toughness required to become a professional fighter. “My coach saw me as a good prospect but emotionally I wasn’t stable enough at the time to give a consistent account of myself. It served its purpose in my life, which was just to keep me on the straight and narrow.”

Inspired by the first wave of grime stars, he focused on making music, releasing his first mixtape SwaggaMan in 2010. “When I was out on the streets I wasn’t getting used up to my full potential. It’s not very creative out there. So when this grime thing [blew up] that wasn’t looked down on by people from the streets and was an opportunity to be creative, I was all for it.”

First-hand knowledge of the type of life that awaited him if he didn’t turn his back on crime fuelled his determination to succeed. “A lot of it was driven by fear and fear of staying in that place. The only thing that’s coming for you there is death in one way or another, whether it’s premature and you get stabbed or shot, or you sit in a jail for the rest of your life. No matter what lane you end up in, in that realm it’s not ending well. I knew that if I didn’t work hard and get myself out of this particular situation I’m not going to make it or like what my existence becomes.”

So Malone got to work, applying the discipline he learned from boxing to his music career. Over the next few years, he released a steady flow of mixtapes, videos and freestyling videos, each one expanding his fanbase and digging deeper into his back story. Extensive touring and appearances at festivals like Glastonbury and Wireless further grew the rapper’s profile, while his raw, autobiographical lyrics marked him out as someone different from the majority of his grime peers for whom boasts of inner city violence and aggression are the norm.

He cites 2015 single Pain, which vividly details the psychological impact of his family being torn apart and the death of his younger cousin, as a track that he still struggles to listen to today. “I remember having an anxiety attack when writing that. I felt very uncomfortable speaking the words and I could feel the pain within me.” Other songs examine his struggles with depression and the lasting trauma of growing up as a poor black man with few positive role models.

“I was showing people things that I wasn’t necessarily proud of or happy to talk about, but because that went well I became more at one with myself. Now I’ve spoken about everything, every issue I’ve ever had, every problem I’ve ever felt. I’ve overcome depression, anxiety, all these things because I was able express myself, which is so important for people to do. Otherwise it builds up inside us and people snap. Luckily I found my medium and was able to get it out of my system.”

In person, Bugzy Malone displays the same thoughtful, reflective temperament that’s at the heart of his most personal songs. Quietly spoken and intensely serious, he gives long considered answers and never once tries to lighten the mood with a joke or a smile. On the one occasion he does swear he immediately apologises for it. Asked what his proudest achievement to date is he says: “My mum’s state of mind. She’s happy and at one point that was a million miles away.”

“A lot of rappers are vulgar,” he later states, by way of an explanation. “I could have gone down that route, but I’ve got a responsibility to inspire and motivate people and you have to take it seriously.”

Looking back to the start of his career, he says that the bravado and swagger he displayed as he rose through the ranks was a partly a reaction to him being an outsider in a scene dominated by London acts. His self-anointed title as the “King of the North” and 2017 release of the same name reflected his immense self-belief.

“In the early days I think people might have found me a little bit obnoxious, but I had to do what I had to do to get their attention. I wasn’t going to be ignored. I believed I was one of the best artists to have come out of Britain and that I deserved a shot. I was doing music for five years before anyone listened so I knew the product I had was good and that gave me the confidence to get in people’s faces.”

Careful not to glorify his criminal past, Malone says his brash onstage persona was shaped by what he saw growing up. “Without beating around the bush, my uncles were gangsters and good gangsters are showmen. So I’ve seen that from a young age. I’ve always been a performer. A showman.”

The title and central theme of his debut album reflect his desire to serve as a positive role model to people from similar disadvantaged backgrounds to himself. “I was inspired as a kid by some of the wrong people, but luckily I was intelligent enough to not go down the exact same road as them. I wanted the album to be inspirational because with inspiration you can achieve anything.”

The same ethos is behind the educational foundation that he’s now in the process of setting up at Collyhurst and Moston Boxing Club, where he still trains. “As children we can’t pick what family we’re born into. If domestic violence is taking place that’s just the card you were dealt. I want to hand-craft something for children that are struggling with their environment, because I was one of them children and it turns out I was intelligent. I was creative. But I got thrown in the bin and I would have been forgotten about if I hadn’t climbed out. Hopefully I can create something for other people that have been thrown in the bin and give them a second chance.”

As for his own career, Malone says his immediate focus is his tour, but after that he’s not sure what the future holds. The financial security that success has brought him means that for the first time in nearly a decade he’s no longer beholden to a strict masterplan.

“I’m interested in rounding off the story now,” he states with an unflinching gaze. “Do I still want to be making music in five years’ time? I don’t know. I’m interested in other mediums and other ways to express myself. I take the responsibility of being an artist very seriously, so there will be creation coming from me. What that is, I couldn’t tell you right now.”

Bugzy Malone’s B. Inspired tour calls at Leeds O2 Academy, 25 Oct, and Manchester Mayfield Depot, 8-9 Nov

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