Big Zuu

Trust your instincts and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – that’s Big Zuu’s philosophy, and it’s an effective one. It’s how the MC went from trainee youth worker to one of grime’s biggest and brightest talents, with his own primetime TV show and unmistakable pop cultural footprint. It’s how he pushed grime forward into empowering and eclectic new terrain, over the course of releases beloved by mainstream radio listeners and sweaty basement ravers alike, amassing massive critical acclaim along the way. It’s also, more recently, how he approached his debut album – the eagerly-awaited next milestone in the career of one of British music’s most exciting rising voices. “This thing is epic,” he grins, teasing the upcoming release. “It’s everything I’ve wanted to do, coming together at once. That R&B side, that grime side, hip-hop… everything. I gave myself no constraints. It’s just me going where the music takes me, being myself. It’s just me. Like, this is Big Zuu.”

Before he was Big Zuu, he was Zuhair Hussain: a video game and football-obsessed university student, making grime heaters in his spare time between studying for a career helping disadvantaged children. When his rap career began to blow up on the back of a string of incendiary self-released singles, he faced a dilemma. “I told myself, if I’m dropping out to pursue this, I need to bring that same goal with me into my music,” says the Londoner. If he was going to hit pause on becoming a youth worker to pursue a career in music, he decided, he was going to bring youth work into his music. “I want to motivate people, give them a positive message, to help them choose a route in life that’s gonna empower them,” he adds. All of which helps explain the sound he’s been fine-tuning ever since: a molotov cocktail mix of energetic beats and needlepoint-precise rhymes that pulse with positivity. It’s a formula that’s brought him huge applause. When Content With Content, his scintillating debut mixtape, dropped in 2018, it was praised for its “ferocious flows” (The Guardian) and “top tier bars, holding his own against mainstays of grime” (Trench). When he released last year’s We Will Walk EP, it was hailed as an “acute analysis of the state of Britain in recent years” showing “an artist willing to expand the parameters of grime” (The Art of Grime). Over the years, he’s had a BBC 1Xtra residency that became unmissable radio, and gone viral rapping about his beloved Liverpool FC on BBC Sport. “It’s been a crazy journey to this moment, definitely,” he laughs.

But it hasn’t all been joyous. In 2017, when more than 72 people were killed in the Grenfell Tower fire that shocked London and the world, Zuu released a freestyle that packed a nation’s frustration and anger into a cathartic three and a half minutes. “I wish I never had to record that,” Zuu says of the Mary J Blige-sampling track, recorded and released in a day (a response time quicker than the government’s). “But the 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 has always cared for his community this way. He 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!” 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 and AJ Tracey. 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 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). On his debut album, he reunites with JME on a track destined to be a fan favourite: Offline, a take-no-prisoners grime anthem that sees the pair link up with grime maestro Novelist. Produced by Sir Spyro, the track came together in an evening at the beatmaker’s Essex pad. “It just sounds like this hardcore bassline grime, man. This is a track that just proves that regardless of what’s going on in the world, grime is always going to give you that same feeling. If it’s done right, it will give you that same feeling in your belly.”

It’s not the only grime banger on the record – Don’t Get Emotional, written on his tour bus – is another rave-ready, 140bpm anthem. But Zuu’s debut album is about more than “Eski beats and Pied Piper, over and over again,” as he puts it. Take Navigate – the Kanye-esque hip-hop call-to-arms that opens the record, or Great To Be, an emotional showcase of Zuu’s singing talents. “That chorus I had to record like a hundred times to get it on point!” he says. “Singing’s one of those things you have to work at. I was never in my yard practicing harmonies, going up and down with my vocals. But the more you sing into a mic, the more you learn what sounds good and what doesn’t. I’ve always been able to write choruses. I just had to learn how to record them. Now when I sing live, I’m able to put my passion into it and put my heart into it.”

Another highlight is Move Right – a natural choice for a lead single for the album, with a music video shot in Sierra Leone. “With songs like Move Right, I needed to explore other sides of my musicality. It’s a happy vibe, Afrobeat kinda track,” he says, before reflecting on his incredible experience making the video. “Going back, being able to see my roots, was powerful. I learned a lot about how beautiful the country really is. I want to work with Sierra Leone people to try and bring our music forward to the masses and this song was like an opportunity for us to do that.”

The album arrives at a time where Zuu has the world at his feet. Big Zuu’s Big Eats, his cooking show on UK channel Dave, has turned the songwriter into a TV favourite, an experience he’s keen to explore further. “It was so fun to do but also it was meaningful. My mum’s a refugee from Africa. She never thought her son would be on national television, representing our culture like that,” he confides. Whether he’s blazing trails on telly or in the booth, no matter what comes next, Zuu will keep trusting his instincts and being himself. “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.” This is Big Zuu, and he’s not done inspiring yet.