Big Zuu has always been about bettering himself and helping to better others. The MC, real name Zuhair Hussain, was at university training to work with disadvantaged kids when his rap career began to blow up on the back of a string of incendiary self-released singles. “I told myself, if I’m dropping out to pursue this, I need to bring that same goal with me into my music. I want to motivate people, give them a positive message, to help them chose a route in life that’s gonna empower them,” says the Londoner. All of which helps explain his latest EP, We Will Walk: a five-song surge of grime energy, eclectic beats and needlepoint-precise rhymes designed to supercharge the self-belief of those who listen. “It’s basically youth work on a bigger scale,” laughs the 23-year-old, already one of the best-loved forces in the UK urban underground. His story, this release makes clear, is just beginning.
Zuu may have titled this release We Will Walk, but the momentum behind him approaching summer 19 is more of a sprint pace. Content With Content, his scintillating debut mixtape, dropped late last year to strong reviews, praised for its “ferocious flows” (The Guardian) and “top tier bars, holding his own against mainstays of grime” (Trench). His collaborators include JME, P Money and Craig David. BBC 1Xtra gave him a residency that’s become unmissable radio. And thanks to a searing viral freestyle about his community’s regret and rage over the 2017 Grenfell disaster, the tower block fire that claimed at least 72 lives in 2017, he arrives at We Will Walk with a reputation for fearless truth-telling: an artist unafraid to speak up for his ends.
“I wish I never had to record that,” Zuu says of the Mary J Blige-sampling Grenfell Tower Tribute, recorded and released in a day (a response time quicker than the government’s). “But reaction was crazy. I had people who were in the fire and who had family in the fire tell me they needed this: they needed to hear a voice asking the questions I was asking. I didn’t want to do it to be some sort of saviour. I did it because I lost a friend in the fire [20-year-old Yasin El Wahabi]. I wanted to represent him and some of the pain that people affected were feeling, what they were going through.”
Zuu grew up the son of a Sierra Leonean mum and absent Lebanese father on West London’s Mozart Estate, in nearby Maida Vale. “My mum always had music in the house. She was always dancing to Michael Jackson, Tracy Chapman, Phil Collins, old school classics. Mum was very positive and always wanted me to do well: more education, more education. The message was to better myself.” Eventually he discovered music: Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP was his first album, before a friend put him onto grime aged 10. “I heard of it, but I’m from west and we didn’t really have grime radio. He showed me Channel U and instantly I was like ‘fuck, what is this?! This is sick!’ Fell in love and the rest is history,” he beams.
The summer between leaving school and starting college was the summer he started trying his hand at rapping himself. It was somewhat accidental, though. “Me and my friends had nothing to do – we were just rolling around. So we’d get rap instrumentals, J Dilla, Alchemist, proper classic US rap beats and spit to them for a laugh: cat-in-a-hat shit,” he grins. Even spitting simple rhymes, friends noticed a natural talent and encouraged him to take it further. He still remembers the first proper bar he penned. “Welcome to my life, and yes I am the host, not too many good times so I guess I can’t boast, but when they ask what do I love most, it gotta be my mum cos she was there at the lowest,” he recites like it was yesterday. “See? I’ve always been on my conscious shit, always an emotional little git!”
Spurred on by AJ Tracey (“my college was next to his college so on break time he’d come link me and we’d stand outside spitting bars”), Zuu sharpened his style, writing bar after bar, recording demo after demo. Soon he was tearing it up on pirate radio stations like Enfield’s Mode FM and a key cog in the MTP collective grime crew, whose members include Ets, Sketch, Wax, D7, General Courts, as well as AJ. A self-titled EP landed in 2017 that made good on the raw promise of singles like 2015 street favourite Shelling Dis Year. Before too long he was rubbing shoulders with the grime royalty he used to worship. “Making a song with JME was crazy. There’s a video of me at a Tim Westwood rave aged 17 going crazy to him with my gun fingers out. Now I’m on a track with him? Crazy, man,” he laughs (Zuu laughs a lot).
We Will Walk is a confident statement that Zuu calls “the epitome of everything I’ve delivered so far. You can’t put it in a genre: people might say it’s rap music, that it’s grime music but really, it’s just Big Zuu.” Sure enough, the five tracks finding him experimenting with melody like seldom before: singing over melancholy vocal samples on the SOULS-produced title track and bringing a ‘90s throwback vibe on Came From The Block (“a celebration of where I’m from and where we can go,” he says). “You can get where you wanna, just depends on where your mind is,” he promises fans on that track.
“If I’m saying something positive, it’s like I’m tricking people into taking that message on board and having a more positive outlook. You’re still vibing. You can still do a little dab. But your subconscious is taking it in. As rappers, we have a chance to make people see differently. Young impressionable kids who won’t listen to their mum or dad, but would listen to their favourite MC,” he says. “Are we as an urban music scene trying to uplift people, or feed them nonsense and make money from it? The rap game for so long has been about selling a lifestyle to people who don’t live it, who’ll never live it.” Of all the people who might listen to a song about wearing a Rolex on their wrist, only 1% may ever experience those kind of riches. Why not say something real, is Zuu’s entire outlook.
“I’m 23. One day I’m gonna ask: what’s my legacy? We all got a legacy, whether what you do is music or cooking or youth work, whatever. I want to look back and say I reached people,” he says. Big Zuu will walk, and there’s nothing that can stand in his way.