Bugzy Malone’s house, on the outskirts of Manchester, is full of predators. There’s a large silver lion statue guarding the baby grand piano in the living room. In the kitchen, four sculptures of heads loom from the windowsills: another lion, a tiger, an eagle and a gorilla. And in the glass-fronted garage outside rests the biggest beast of all: a matt black Lamborghini Huracan, Top Gear’s Supercar of the Year 2014.
“I feel like there’s a comparison in life to the animal kingdom,” he tells me from his place at the head of his long, smoked glass dining table. There are more silver lion’s heads on the backs of the black leather chairs. “Civilization is really like an ocean or a jungle. They’re in a similar struggle to us, in an environment that’s really volatile because they can’t communicate.”
The 27-year-old rapper, real name Aaron Davis, is quite the alpha male himself, biceps straining beneath a tight white Hugo Boss polo shirt. As well as his manager, his publicist and an assistant, his mum’s here today too, doing the cooking because he’s about to go on tour and is in a strict training regime that includes eating a meal every three hours. He’s got to miss this one to do the interview, which may have affected his mood. For this hour at least, he’s one of the most serious people I’ve ever met.
“Life is serious, and that’s why a lot of people come unstuck. They’re trusting in civilization,” he says. “I see people crossing the road without looking, because the lights say that you can. They’re acting as if there’s never been a Police chase, never been someone looking at their phone, or a drunk driver. When I see people like that I can see that they’ve not got survival skills. That’s where me and a few other people differ.”
He has proved his resilience in a music career that began from a lowlier position than most and is already soaring. Tonight he’ll perform to a crowd of 3,000 in south-east London’s new Printworks venue (formerly the home of the Evening Standard’s printing presses), a few weeks after his debut album, B. Inspired, followed his three previous EPs into the UK top 10. In the summer he supported his fellow Mancunian Liam Gallagher at Lancashire County Cricket ground. This is not the usual outcome of a childhood scarred by an abusive stepfather, being excluded from school in Year 9, imprisoned for a year at 16 and effectively homeless thereafter, sofa surfing while he developed the rapping skills that would eventually lift him skywards.
Although there are descriptions of the drug trade on his album, it’s not his past but his present that he glamorises. “I’m about to buy a house with an electric gate/And I got the Huracan sat in black with a private plate,” he raps on the title track, going on to say: “To everybody listening to this, inspired by me/Let me explain right now/Anything is possible, you have to see it and believe it/Even when it seems impossible.”
Now he’s beginning to put those words in action outside his music, too. He has started the B Foundation, a partnership with Manchester College, to assist young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to get their Maths and English qualifications. He has funded the setting up of a classroom, equipped with laptops, in the north east Manchester boxing gym where he has trained for years.
“I took up boxing when I needed something to ground me a bit. It taught me discipline,” he tells me. “This whole thing I was involved in, this culture, revolved around violence and anger. Boxing was a way of participating in that but in a controlled environment, where you don’t get in trouble afterwards. I don’t think it was anger in me. I was just frustrated with my life and where it was up to. I needed that outlet to calm me down and tame me.”
When he talks about the young people he has met in that classroom, he’s talking about himself too. “I’ve been in a couple of times to talk to them and they’re nice kids. You don’t get a choice what home environment you’re gonna be born into. Their homes are violent and domestically abusive and stuff like that, so it’s hard to sit in a classroom full of fully functioning people whose parents are normal, whose issues are quite simple. When you’re from a background where you’ve seen your mum beaten up in front of you, you’re a dysfunctional human being. You deal with humiliation different. You deal with not understanding different. School is a hard environment and you get squeezed out of it. That’s what happened to me.”
However, another element of his background has become his USP. He’s the man who proved that British rappers don’t have to be from London. “0161, Manny on the map,” he rapped on his 2015 song The Revival, referring to his home town’s dialling code. He gave a 2017 EP the title King of the North. On his newer track, Ordinary People, he says: “I’m from a place where no-one expects us to make it/There was The Stone Roses and Oasis/But when they were big we were still babies.”
The shock of hearing his northern accent on radio host Charlie Sloth’s Fire in the Booth, the eight-minute freestyle challenge that has been sorting rap’s men from the boys since 2010, was a major factor in Bugzy’s 2015 performance becoming the segment’s most-viewed video on YouTube (for comparison, Drake’s appearance from earlier this year has been watched 3.2 million times so far, while the Manchester man is fast approaching 18 million).
“I don’t think Manchester is used to having a celebrity of this magnitude,” he tells me with, as ever, no trace of a smile. “Obviously they had Oasis but Oasis weren’t walking through the town centre.” I ask if it’s a struggle to go out and buy a pint of milk when you’re this well-known locally. “I’m a professional with very little time on my hands. I’ve got better things to be doing than buying a pint of milk.”
He says he hasn’t taken a break since his music career began to take off almost four years ago. Yet he’s bought the fancy car and the house with an electric gate, so isn’t it time for a holiday too? “What makes you say that?” he snaps back. “What’s the point in a holiday when I can retire young? I’ll live my whole life as a holiday.”
It seems that, while he already has what looks like success by most definitions, he’s got something much bigger in mind. “I remember getting upset in front of one of my friends, at a time when I had a C63 Mercedes,” he says. “He said, ‘How can you be upset when you’ve made it?’ What’s ‘Made it’? A 50 grand car? ‘Made it’ must be different for a lot of people. I see people who start drinking champagne, dressing fancy, getting the big chains, quite quickly, and they’re the ones who go bankrupt in the end. That is not my intention.”
A rough start in life is a powerful motivator. “I just don’t want to go back to where I came from. It wasn’t nice,” he says. Those animals around him may be his constant reminder that life’s a jungle, but every jungle needs a king.
- Inspired is out now on BSOMEBODY. Bugzy Malone plays tonight at Printworks, SE16. printworkslondon.co.uk