“I’m a child of the internet,” says Alex Crossan. How else could a 21-year-old who grew up in isolated Guernsey leap into a central spot in London’s dance scene?
Check out the guestlist on the debut album that he’s about to release under his production alias, Mura Masa: Blur and Gorillaz giant Damon Albarn, French synthpop star Christine & the Queens, rap bigwig ASAP Rocky, Kanye West collaborator Desiigner, pop hitmaker Charli XCX – glittery connections that could never have been made without a profile built on laptop uploads and Soundcloud clicks. Crossan has also already appeared on a number one album, having produced the first song on Sormzy’s Gang Signs & Prayer, and two years ago remixed Ed Sheeran’s smoochy ballad Thinking Out Loud, a project that today he seems to feel has dented his cool credentials.
“That’s probably the reason [hip, influential indie label] XL didn’t sign me,” he sighs. “That one was more about making my mum understand what I was doing: ‘Look, Ed Sheeran asked me to do this! You know who he is!’ Mistake? Possibly, but a learning experience.”
We meet in his Camberwell flat, where he makes most of his music and doesn’t disturb the neighbours as he only uses headphones. It’s basically a shrine to Frank Ocean with a ping pong table. He’s lived in London for the last year and a half, after dropping out of the first year of an English Literature and Philosophy degree at the University of Sussex. It sounds like mum needed some convincing that this music thing was going to work out. When people move from Guernsey, Crossan says that the ominous Guernsian term is: “He went away,” which does make it sound like the kind of decision from which there’s no turning back.
He gives me a patient round-up of key facts about the island off the coast of France from which he hails, and where his parents and two brothers still live: population about 60,000, who mostly work in tourism and finance. It’s a 20 minute drive to anywhere on the island. Brexit shouldn’t affect it, because it’s a Crown dependency, not part of the UK or a member of the EU. The man in charge is known as the Bailiff. Crossan won’t speak ill of the place, but it’s plain it was a musical wasteland for a hungry teenager.
“The only memorable people who came to Guernsey in my lifetime were Chali 2na of Jurassic 5 – I swear that was the first hip hop show in Guernsey ever – plus The Hoosiers, do you remember that band? Kaiser Chiefs headlined a festival called Guernsey Live, and Biffy Clyro played there once too, before they were big,” he says. “And I went to none of those shows. They’re expensive because bands and crews have to fly over.”
The only pop festival I can find happening in the area this summer features Queen, Robbie Williams and Madness – all tribute acts, mind. Crossan cut his teeth playing guitar in various punk and hardcore bands, putting on their own shows. Later he began making electronic music with a concept that he has carried onto his album: futuristic, hip hop influenced productions with global sounds, particularly those of the far east, thrown in. You’ll hear marimba, steelpans, Chinese flutes. “Not really since the Wu-Tang Clan had anyone really tried to experiment with eastern culture and traditional Asian instrumentation. Trying to merge [late underground hip hop producer] J Dilla and Japanese koto music was a really interesting idea for me.”
The concept gave him a distinctive identity from the start. He took the name Mura Masa from a 16th Century Japanese sword maker. He talks about “people of my category – Soundcloud or bedroom producers, whatever you want to call it,” but he’s worked hard to stand out, using unexpected sounds on record, and live instrumentation and a singer when he performs live – first Bonzai, who has left his touring setup to launch her solo career, now a newcomer called Fliss.
While still at school, he started emailing his music to small blogs he admired. They invariably shared it on their sites and soon enough his Soundcloud page had 10,000 followers, which is how his manager found him. In late 2014 he put a 14 track collection called Soundtrack to a Death up for sale on Bandcamp, and the music ended up being played by Jo Whiley on Radio 2. Since then he’s been a fixture on Radio 1’s playlists too, with his latest single, All Around the World (featuring Desiigner) currently on the B-list.
This online popularity made some impressive names take notice. He says that it wasn’t that hard to persuade the biggest stars on his album – Albarn, Christine & the Queens and ASAP Rocky – to record vocals for him. “Most of the time it’s just that I’m a big fan of theirs and they’re a big fan of mine.” However, to impress New York rapper Rocky, he hired Abbey Road’s Studio Two, famously home to The Beatles. “He’s an A-list celebrity and we only had a couple of hours, so I wanted to make sure we got an amazing recording.”
With Albarn, it was the older man who got in touch first, to see if Crossan could contribute to the latest Gorillaz album, Humanz. Nothing that he did made the cut, but the pair kept sending ideas back and forth until Albarn opted to sing on Blu, the sweet, calm ballad that closes the Mura Masa album. It’s a neat closing of a circle, given that the first album Crossan ever bought was the 2005 Gorillaz collection Demon Days.
“It was very important music for me,” says the producer. “What I love about that album is it’s an emulation of what it feels like to live in multicultural Britain. There are so many different styles and collaborators on there. It’s like a big melting pot, which is what London feels like. It’s a big, confusing, beautiful thing, and that’s the motivation behind my album too. That’s why I put his song on last. He’s kind of the arbiter.”
Listen closely to his album and there are tiny touches that show that it couldn’t have been made anywhere but London. The very first words are a bus announcer saying: “New Park Road”.
“That’s where my girlfriend lived and where I was first exposed to London. I’ve tried to make it a journey, with these soundscapey textures linking the songs together,” he explains. He’s becoming an important musician in his adopted city, with a massive show at Brixton Academy already booked for the autumn. He’s a long way from home, but fitting right in.
Mura Masa’s self-titled album is released on July 14 on Polydor.
He appears at a Peckham Pop-up, July 14-15, Copeland Gallery, SE15 (muramasa.me/peckhamclub) and Oct 20, O2 Academy Brixton, SW9 (0844 477 2000, o2academybrixton.co.uk)