“You might see me in a Lambo,” Lethal Bizzle raps on his recent hit single, Fester Skank. It’s not fantasy bragging. The longstanding grime artist, 31, really is cruising around between London branches of Nando’s in a Lamborghini. He’s done very nicely out of a career stuffed with song titles straight out of a Batman fight scene – from Oi! with his early group More Fire Crew, to his notorious, hyper-aggressive solo calling card Pow!, to Uh Oh!, Go Go Go, Fire, Go Hard, and so on.
But get yourself into the passenger seat of said vehicle, and you might uncover a dark secret. Just occasionally, the man born Maxwell Ansah, who you can refer to as “Biz” or sometimes “Leefal”, is in there listening to Classic FM. “It’s opened up my musical mind,” he confesses. “I’ll put it on, listen to a few things, see if I can get inspired. It makes me not want to do the obvious.”
We can credit this unlikely diversion to his recent appearance at the Proms, where he rapped in the Albert Hall alongside Wretch 32, Krept & Konan, Stormzy and the Metropole Orkest. Today I find him in George Martin’s prestigious AIR Studios in Hampstead, hanging out with composer David Arnold and another orchestra. They’ve been tasked with making a surprisingly listenable grime/classical mashup for a cider promotion.
“For a big brand to be using a grime act, it’s a testament to how far the genre has come,” he tells me. “Ten years ago this would never have happened. It would have been Arctic Monkeys in here.” He’s equally chuffed with Fester Skank being used on an advert for Champions League football, in which a raft of sporting stars hold an extravagant house party to the sound of its infectious chant. He’s right that it wouldn’t have been imaginable a decade ago. When Pow! was first released in 2004, some clubs banned it from being played because the crowd response was too riotous. The NME compared it to God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols. DJ Tim Westwood said it was “like a volcano erupting”.
“I’ll be honest, a lot of our music then, you’d think, ‘Woah, I wouldn’t want to go down an alley with him on a dark night.’ And if you’re giving out loads of negativity, that’s what you get back. It’s very energetic and we just express the surroundings we’re in.”
Bizzle couldn’t keep a straight face for long, though. When then-Opposition leader David Cameron criticised violent lyrics in British rap music in 2006, he wrote an article for the Guardian’s website headlined, memorably, “David Cameron is a donut”. Even his 2007 song Police on My Back, which details an earlier life stage spent dealing stolen cars and a resulting manhunt, is presented as a jolly fence-jumping caper. You may also be aware of his fondness for using the word “dench” to mean “really rather good”, which has resulted in a lucrative clothing line and a remarkable photograph of acting treasure Dame Judi in a “Stay Dench” baseball cap.
Today he’s all smiles despite coming straight from emergency dental work, all in black including a T-shirt that reads “Dench Gang”. He’s friendly, noting that we’ve met before, eight years ago. When reminded that I used to live near him in east London, he spends a long time trying to recall exactly where my house was. He congratulates me on being “still in the game”. As is he. But times have changed for all of us.
“Ten years ago, if you was from Leyton you was Fire Camp – that was my crew. If you was from Bow it was Roll Deep, and it was either/or. If we bumped into each other you never knew what was going to happen. It was touch and go. Now I can call up whoever, and everyone’s cool. We’ve grown up and realised we can make a career out of this, and let’s not fuck it up. Again. We’ve had so many chances and they’re not gonna keep coming around.”
These days young hotshots like Stormzy will call him up looking for advice. “Myself, Wiley, Dizzee, we had to kick the doors down and figure this out. Now the blueprint is there. Stormzy’s followed what we’ve done and implemented his own way of doing it, and he’s running away with the game right now.”
Among his top tips is to stick with a DIY approach. Yes, BBC 1Xtra may support grime, and sometimes Radio 1, but it’s not enough. “Taylor Swift will be on every single radio station in the country, in the world, and that’s who we’re competing against. Social media has definitely helped grime artists to connect to the fans.” So he’s all over Snapchat and Twitter, busy making every day of his life look as much fun as possible. “My image was very dark before. It was holding me back. Showing my personality online, people are relating to me more.”
As regards his music, he knows best. “Some people just want to be the artist and let the label do their job, but when it comes to grime and urban music, there’s not a lot of people in these offices that really understand how to present it well. My songs Rari Workout and Fester Skank, they’re hit records but they’re not the obvious pop hit. So I’m hands-on. Every single meeting, I’m there, saying ‘This is what needs to happen’.”
As a result, he’s a survivor. Towards the end of the last decade, he started edging towards the indie rock world because that was where he had to go to find an audience – touring with The Enemy and Babyshambles, duetting with punk band Gallows and sampling The Clash. “It helped to change the perception of grime. My music wasn’t allowed in the urban clubs, but in the rock venues I could have moshpits and crowd surfers.”
Now his sound incorporates dancehall reggae on his latest single, Playground, as well as going back to pure, aggressive grime on Rari Workout, albeit with a wink this time around. Just try to take the latter’s video, all beefcakes pumping iron and speeding Ferraris, seriously. It’s put him in greater demand than ever, with a university live tour just finished and a club tour coming to London next week. This week he landed two MOBO Award nominations, for Best Grime Act and Best Video, as well. He says he was making more money from his T-shirts than his music a year ago. Now it’s the other way around.
“It’s good times, man. Definitely good times. May it last.” This time, I think it will.
Oct 7, Scala, N1 (020 7833 2022, scala-london.co.uk)