Lethal Bizzle Went From Having Songs Banned to Rocking Stages Worldwide
"Grime is in the best position we’ve ever been in"
If there’s anyone who has seen all there is to see in the grime business, it’s Lethal Bizzle. He’s watched it grow from an underground phenomenon cultivated over London pirate radio to a genre that has dance floors occupied all over the world.
In the past few years, Bizzle released a multitude of hit singles, including one for the expected album Lenox Rd., which he announced this past December. But all signs had been absent since, until last month when he dropped the unexpected EP, You’ll Never Make A Million From Grime. “I was working on the album and I was thinking to myself, there’s about ten songs that I really like and there’s about nine songs that I’m kinda 50/50 about,” he tells MASS APPEAL while seated in his tour bus, sipping on a bottle of mineral water and picking on some chicken nuggets. “So I thought, should I scrap these and start over again? Nah, there’s at least ten strong songs. So rather than pushing the project back and not having any new music from me, I thought let’s just do a mini-album. Choose the seven songs I’m really happy with. And I feel like it could be a good indicator to know what’s gonna be on the album, the sort of styles and sounds.”
It’s a varied project, shifting between harder grime tracks and over to more contemplative songs. “I think it’s important to show diversity, that you’re able to do that as well as make hype songs.” The fact that he’s now pushing an EP after having focused for years on loosies in a genre already more oriented in that direction is a very conscious decision. “The music business has really evolved in that way. And I think to be a smart musician and a smart businessman you have to follow trends, but I felt like the last seven years I’ve kind of been on that wave; single, single, single. I thought this was a good way to reintroduce myself to a new audience who may not necessarily know the other sides to me.”
Now that grime has finally crossed the Atlantic in a big way, it does seem like the perfect moment for a veteran to introduce himself to new listeners. “A lot of the new generation know me for those bouncy, uptempo records, and this EP gave me the opportunity to be like, OK cool, you know me for the ‘Fester Skank,’ the ‘Pow,’ the ‘Rari Workout,’ but let me show you another side you may not necessarily know. That’s where something like ‘Million Pound Dream’ comes in. You can take so much from that song. Coming from a place where—I’m from East London, no privileged upbringing, a very hard, working class family—to go to the places where I am now. I feel like it’s important for me to let people know this could be an option for you. You go to school, you can be a doctor, you can be a lawyer or a football player, and you can be a grime MC as well, and be successful.”
Bizzle’s 2004 single “Pow (Forward)” was banned from clubs and legal radio stations at the time—even the instrumental was off-limits—for fear of the unstoppably energetic track and that its references to “gun culture” would incite violence. British politicians and future prime minister David Cameron publicly accused Bizzle of doing so, to which he replied with an opinion piece in The Guardian, titled “David Cameron is a Donut.” In it, he stood up for young grime MCs and the chances the genre offered them: “They’re not involved in gun/knife violence and have a goal in their life to work towards. How can you say this type of music is a negative thing?” It only helped catapult the already immensely popular track towards the status of a cult classic. Six years ago, it even became the unofficial anthem to the English student protests, which inspired Bizzle to record its sequel, “Pow 2011,” a track featuring about half of London rapping on it.
“They’ve been trying to shut us down for so long,” he explains. “‘Pow’ has gone down as one of the most legendary songs in the U.K., not even just grime. What it stands for, the way people engaged with that song; they connected to it. They can remember where they first heard it. To this day, it gets the same reaction it got when I made it twelve years ago. That in itself shows the substance and the quality of the music we’re making, for it to still be around this long.”
Despite being rooted strongly in urban British culture, the music has gained a lot of recognition abroad in these past few years. “I’ve realized on this tour, every place we go, if not the same, it’s even more turnt, than the U.K.,” he notes with some surprise. “They feel like it’s something new, we don’t get this every day. We might come here once a year, so their mentality is like we’re gonna fucking enjoy this shit from start finish ‘cause we might not get it again in a long time. So the barriers are easier outside of home, which sounds stupid… but I think we kind of have a benefit around the world.”
Words like “we” and “us” are used frequently when speaking about grime because he doesn’t see the milestones purely as his own successes but as indicators of how far grime as a movement and genre has come. “We’ve all grown up. From an artist’s perspective, our understanding’s a lot different. We’re competitive, but we have an understanding that if someone is doing well, we’ve got to support that. We can’t be shooting each other down, because all the resources we use, we’re just borrowing their time. There are no grime national stations, if grime gets played in a national wave it’s probably on a pop station. If it gets played on national TV, it’s probably going to be a different representation of a different culture first, and they’re fucking with us.” Kanye West’s 2015 show at the Brit Awards, where he and a small army of grime MCs showed up with flamethrowers; or Drake jumping on grime records and inviting London MCs onto his own tunes, are prominent examples. “We need to understand this. We can’t beef with each other.”
Those co-signs are an important factor in grime’s international growth, but so is the changing music industry. “After 15 years of working hard in the grime scene, I’ve seen how the industry wants to control every music genre,” he says. “People from the music business, with the expertise of working a record or whatever, I don’t feel they fully understood the whole culture of grime. My stance—and I think everyone’s stance is—we can’t let these people in offices, who are trained to make hit records, dictate what a hit record is for us. If anyone, it needs to be someone within our own scene.”
As a result, grime has a long tradition of being run by smaller, independent labels who recognized the power of social media early on. “Sometimes when you’re independent, the major radios and TV might not wanna take you serious, so social media has been my tool to cut out the middleman and go directly to the fans. It’s a blessing in disguise, ‘cause when you get told by radio they’re not gonna play your song immediately, you’re fucking pissed off. But that made me realize, well I’m not gonna sit here and let these people control my career. I’m gonna find another way to get my music to the people. That’s basically what I did, and what other artists have done, ‘cause we’ve all been through the same thing; knocking on the door only have people say Nah, that’s too grimy for us, we want no part of that. Now we’re here man, and we’re probably in the best position we’ve ever been in.”
“We’ve taken shit into our own hands. I’ve got my own record label, Skepta’s independent, Stormzy’s independent. We don’t need you no more, we’ve clocked it. We can do this shit ourselves. We understand unifying and supporting each other. Your success is gonna benefit my success. That’s one of the keys, where before, it was more about being number one and being number one only, but we need a hundred number ones. Everyone needs to be number one for this shit to keep rolling.”