Bugzy Malone is grime’s outsider – a Mancunian who has flourished far away from the genre’s London-centric epicentre to take on the big hitters at their own game.
Armed with little more than a gift for dexterous wordplay, a steely sense of self-belief and a willing work ethic, his first big break came after almost five years of graft and independently released mixtapes. His incendiary Fire In The Booth became the defining moment of the series, and grew to become the first to pass 10 million views at YouTube. Suddenly Bugzy was big business, and his first two EPs – ‘Walk With Me’ and ‘Facing Time’ – both catapulted him headfirst into the Top 10.
Raised by a mother who was born and bred in Manchester with an ancestry rooted in Scotland and Jamaica, Bugzy grew up in a Moss Side ghetto. “That word gets used loosely now but back then it was a real thing with a real energy, with a community of people that were all poverty-stricken and there were criminals that were bringing money in.”
The young Bugzy – then known simply as Aaron Davis – watched the early days of grime emerge from a distance. He found spitting lyrics a cathartic release from his turmoil of emotions, but Manchester might as well have been the moon given the lack of music industry opportunities for him and other local MCs. “We’d spit lyrics the same as the grime artists in London would, the only difference is that was there no industry where we lived. When you’re so far outside the music industry, it’s very hard to find the inspiration to break into it. What’s the point in making bodies of work and repeatedly rehearsing lyrics just for a couple of hundred people to listen to?”
In a locality in which “crime was a job description”, Bugzy – like so many before and after him – got sucked in and landed in prison while still in his teens. Being both smart enough to anticipate the decline of the criminal fraternity and determined enough to stay out of trouble, he took up boxing. The discipline required was key, as was meeting “people who were buying million pound houses and fighting in America and the MGM Grand.” His interest in the sport’s greats – Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson – continues to this day, and underlined the belief that he too could rise significantly above previously low expectations.
Musically and lyrically, Bugzy developed at a rapid rate over the course of his early mixtapes with the concept behind ‘The Journal of An Evil Genius’ being a striking sign of his significant potential. Within a year, Charlie Sloth had invited him to perform his now infamous autobiographical Fire In The Booth and that leap “from being a bedroom rapper to trying to take it all the way to the top” was firmly underway.
“The excitement and enthusiasm I was feeling at the time accelerated the process of making a project,” he recalls about the creation of ‘Walk With Me’, but even then he considered it a stepping stone for greater things. While ‘M.E.N.’ was a brutal warts-and-all love letter to a home city he ardently admires, ‘Pain’ was arguably its most accomplished moment with Bugzy exploring the harrowing emotions of his past: his parents’ divorce, subsequently getting evicted from home, and the death of his younger cousin.
“The lifestyle that I come from, you very much don’t talk about your problems,” he states with the ardour that accompanies almost everything that he says. “I’ve got fans who have changed my life and I’m in a completely different life situation because of them. The least I can do is give them parts of my life and the true version of it. If you’re an artist and you’re giving people propaganda, you’re disrespecting the people that have changed your life.”
“If you’re an artist and you’re giving people propaganda, you’re disrespecting the people that have changed your life.”
The following summer saw Bugzy back in the charts when the follow-up ‘Facing Time’ (released on his own Ill-Gotten Records) debuted at #6 in a Top 10 full of bona fide mainstream stars such as Drake, Coldplay, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber and Adele. ‘Mosh Pit Gang’ offered a moment of fury for his increasingly large (and visceral) live shows, while three other tracks – beginning with ‘Beauty & The Beast’ – were the basis for the ambitious ‘Section 8 (1)’ narrative video trilogy.
“I had a tour coming up and I don’t like the idea of Snapchat, like, ‘Yo guys, make sure you get tickets for my tour!’,” he laughs with a broad grin overcoming his otherwise highly focused nature. He instead invested £15,000 of his own money into the project and spent two long days editing the footage alongside his creative collaborator Kuba before playing a sleep-deprived set, appropriately enough at Amnesia in Ibiza. “I’m an MC by nature, I come from the streets and that’s my original style. But an artist puts a full vision across and that’s me: the artwork, the visuals, the way it sounds, the track selection. A lot of artists/MCs neglect that side of things, and that’s why I’m overtaking them.”
After ‘Facing Time’ was released, Bugzy achieved a long-term personal goal when he performed on Later… with Jools Holland. Not only was it a huge opportunity, but it’s also his mother’s favourite TV show and the moment took him back to when they used to watch the Hootenanny together every New Year’s Eve. “It overwhelmed me and I was getting quite emotional,” he admits. “Tom Grennan was rehearsing in the background, and I attached those emotions to the song that that made with Chase & Status, so that instantly made me a massive fan of his.”
The connection that the pair made that day continued, so when Bugzy started work on his new EP ‘King Of The North’ Grennan became an obvious choice of collaborator for the track ‘Memory Lane’. The EP also features production from Gucci Mane / A$AP Rocky collaborator Honorable C.N.O.T.E on the title track – one of the few American super-producers to diversify into grime – plus Z-Dot, S-X, Toddla T, Shift K3Y and Ali Karam. For Bugzy, ‘King Of The North’ represents the third chapter of a trilogy that charts his life and career to date.
The EP title reflects the nickname that Bugzy’s fans have bestowed upon him. As he explains: “That was something that I felt proud of, because being from the north of England, there’s not been many people that have got the success in the music industry that I’ve had. Without the support of the fans it might not have happened. It’s something I’m proud of, something I stand for, and what I represent.”
It’s the culmination of a journey that’s not only delivered great success for its architect, but that also offers an inspiring example for others to follow. “I am hope,” he emphasises. “If you get good enough at what you’re doing you can break through, and I’m the living proof of that.”