In this new feature, we bring some of the best musicians in the UK back to where it all began and explore how they first fell in love with the beautiful game. Music has always been a huge part of football. In the same way that US hip-hop artists dream of playing in the NFL or NBA, UK MCs and producers have an identical love affair with the sport.
The parallels between sport and music culture have never been stronger. We'll explore this relationship in VERSUS Jerseys, taking artists back to their roots while they rep their colours in some of the game's most iconic fits.
Big Zuu is running late. Equipped with a strong bout of jet lag from his recent honeymoon in Mexico and coming straight off the back of a late night rehearsal ahead of his upcoming headline show – followed by a studio session with notorious Lil Uzi Vert hit-maker Maaly Raw the same night – Zuu trudges up to meet us in a tracksuit, sweat on his brow and a frown on his face from being rushed out of bed and into the unusually warm October weather beaming out across West London.
It looks like the last thing he wants to be doing is a photo shoot. But after we pull out a 1995-96 shirt of his beloved team, a smile instantly spreads across his face. “LIIIIIIIIVEEERPOOOL”, Zuu bellows as he sticks it on, and we immediately began chopping it up about the season so far while searching for places to shoot in the area he grew up kicking ball in. Zuu says we’re definitely not taking pictures in front of Ladbroke Grove station, however, “Nah man that’s too bait. I’m not AJ Tracey”.
Once he pulls on the jersey, Zuu begins reeling off the punchlines that you hear throughout his music. ‘Content With Content’, his new mixtape, is of course packed full of them, and harnesses the momentum and energy Zuu has been building up through the years into a package that delivers “certified lyricism but over wavey, current beats” – and fully secures his status as one of the scene’s most important voices.
When it comes to football, everyone knows Zuu gives it the big one. Constantly backing Liverpool to the hilt online and in-person, Zuu followed the team across Europe for the first time last year, and is now fully hooked to watching them play at Anfield. Not just blessed with ability on the mic, Zuu is quick to show off his on-field tekkers at Westway, making it clear why he dubs himself the “fat Mo Salah” by regularly sticking the ball in the top bin while we interview him.
Ahead of the release of ‘Content With Content’ and his first headline show, which is set to be on some “rockstar shit” (he promises no stage dives), Zuu walked us through life in West London and spoke about the game he fell in love with growing up, the state of the music scene he’s now an integral part of, and why the future of our country depends on the new generation of artists, ballers and creatives that he’s making it his mission to inspire.
VERSUS: You hail from West London, so people must ask why you started supporting Liverpool. How did you end up following them?
Big Zuu: It’s because of my dad for sure. I didn’t even live with my dad growing up, he was living in Sierra Leone, but my mum told me he was a massive Liverpool fan so I was like cool, I’ll be a Liverpool fan, too. I started learning about the history when I was really young but I didn’t know what I’d set myself up for. I didn’t know I’d support a team that’s never won the league in my lifetime. But I got to experience 2005 as a Liverpool fan, which was proper unbelievable. It made up for all the bullshit in between.
No-one else around me really supported Liverpool growing up. No-one in MTP supported us. It’s only recently that I’ve been vibing with other Liverpool fans in the scene. Me and Spyro went to watch a Champions League game together last season.
Did you get to watch them play much growing up?
I watched football growing up all the time, but we never had Sky Sports or anything like that growing up so I had to stream all the games. Match Of The Day was an absolute ritual, though. I remember coming back to school on Monday mornings and everyone saying the exact same points they heard on Match of the Day. Football was life man, but I never had the money to travel up to Liverpool and watch games until recently. I was never going to be able to get a train there and back or have my mum drive me up.
You’ve been going to a lot more games recently. What’s that been like?
I experienced a lot of the Champions League games last season, and even went to the final out in Ukraine, sadly. When you go all that way and spend all that money, only to be let down like that is too much though, bro. 14 hour stopover in Germany, hotel, flights…to see Karius do that?! Nah. Not good enough. But yeah recently I’ve done a couple shows there, fell in love with the city, met someone who had a season ticket up there and been watching them a lot more and now I’ve got absolutely hooked on going to Anfield.
What do you make of Liverpool’s start to the season so far?
If we don’t win the league this year, we are gonna get dissed. Not losing those extra games against City and Chelsea adds that extra sauce. Beating PSG and Spurs was sick though. Trent had Neymar looking like no-one…like No-mar.
What was it like growing up kicking ball around in West?
I went to school in Kilburn and was kicking ball around there growing up. I used to go football training from early, at primary school, secondary school, all of that. I was a keeper and we used to get battered – but I still found it fun. I still kick ball at Westway now. It’s a very iconic football pitch in West London – it used to be on FIFA Street!
There’s a lot of love for England after their performance in the World Cup. What are your thoughts on this young England team – why do you think they’ve connected with this generation of fans?
Even though we had a wavier squad back in the day we’re sicker now. Social Media allows us to connect with footballers in a different way to footballers than back in 2006, where all we’d hear about them is through the tabloids. You can just scroll on Instagram or Twitter and watch people bang in sick goals, as well as getting a proper perspective on what footballers are like, which is much healthier.
The England team has to be diverse, even though the country doesn’t know what it wants. Even if you weren’t born here or your family weren’t born here you can still represent the country. Look at France. It’s all about unity. France won the World Cup cos they’re all friends, all worth mad money and all just sick guys. France won it cos they’ve got talent all over the gaffe, too.
Do you and the MTP boys regularly talk about football then?
We used to have a WhatsApp but we’ve been mates for too long now, so whenever it’s football smoke it’s just when we see each other innit. I definitely dish it out the most though, cos Liverpool are doing the best. AJ always makes it sounds like Spurs are doing well, even when they aren’t. Ets is a proper football fan – a massive Chelsea fan and Hazard fanboy. He’s absolutely mad on stats. He knows what height they are, what size feet they’ve got…it’s mad. He’s proper in love with what Hazard is doing right now, it’s a serious problem.
“If I knew I could make a difference, I wouldn’t mind getting into politics.”
When did you first start getting into music?
I started doing music as soon as I left school in 2011. I went college, started taking the piss, getting high, putting a little beat on YouTube and then just start freestyling. It was so funny back then though, bars like “I ran into the place like a cat and now I’m wearing a hat”, and all of that. And then my boy told me I should start writing music…
Even after those bars?
After those specific bars (laughs). I was like “yo, fuck it” – and just did it. I was always good at English, but all I spoke was slang. But then all good punchlines and metaphors come from slang, so it was easy to create lyrics with actual meaning. I started building it, went studio with AJ who I met through a friend – before we even knew we were cousins – and then made some tunes and started linking up. He’d been making tunes and writing since he was ten-years-old, so I was later on it than him, but we always pushed each other and had a good competitive energy when it came to music.
Before you got into music, you went to uni at Goldsmiths to study Youth Work. Are you passionate about working with young people?
Definitely. They wonder why people are committing crime when there’s no funding going to the youth, and the youth feel like they don’t have a clear future as a result.
It was mad ‘cos after I did that Chicken Shop Date with Amelia and said that I’d make more youth clubs everywhere, Labour pledged a similar thing to back youth clubs the very next day! They’re definitely watching! Labour just care about young people though.
What would the impact by of more youth funding and having more youth clubs for cities in the UK?
If more youth clubs open, having older people who can guide you in life – someone you can relate to more than a teacher – it’d foster way more creativity. Our economy is based on young people, so our economy will be better if we focus on young people. Stop caring about the old people who voted for Brexit, focus on the young people who are shaping the future.
Would you ever want to be involved in politics?
If I knew I could make a difference I wouldn’t mind that man. I feel with politics, it’s something that feels – to a lot of people – that we’re not a part of. But you’ve got to remember the fundamentals of politics is about people. It’s about creating laws to govern us in a better way. It’s about us being run in the right way. If we don’t have a say in what’s right, then what are we left to do? I’ve always felt obliged as an artist to make people feel empowered and inspired.
Do more artists need to do that?
I used to feel like rappers should feel obliged to do that. Because rap actually came from that – from conscious lyricism that was against the system, “F the people” and all that. Now it’s all about expressing yourself and having fun. But we should always be mindful that music has the power to change people, to make people more politically active.
There’s also been a lot of recent discussion about grime being dead. It’s a scene you’ve been pioneering in for a minute. What are your thoughts on that discussion?
There’s not enough shows, songs, features…there’s not enough innovation in it. People say music is a cycle, but the only reason grime had a revamp is cos there were a lot of hungry rappers coming through doing their thing back then. Right now, there are people getting on the main stage at festivals after only dropping one song without putting the hours grime MCs have put in.
Ones that actually help the scene are people like P Money and Little Dee. That’s helping the scene. That’s showing grime’s not dead. Nov getting nominated for the Mercury Award is another thing, too. He’d never say his album is a grime album even though he used to be a grime MC and it’s got a lot of grime influence on it, but it’s still showcasing why grime isn’t dead. It shows that grime is sick to get yourself known in the game, but it’s not as good in establishing yourself further as an artist.
What do you think needs to happen to liven grime up again?
People like me need to start killing it more. More Big Zuus… 100 more Big Zuus (laughs). Nah, but we do need more people coming through developing it and creating a new wave. Grime MCs are so much more developed as they’ve had more practice on sets, hundreds of hours of preparation.
For me, as a grime MC and a musician, just because I’m gonna start transitioning into making UK Rap sounding music, it doesn’t stop the fact I’m gonna shell down a Rinse set. For other labels and publications, it’s easier to label us as grime artists but it’s all just UK rap. Everyone thinks grime’s dead cos afroswing and drill are doing well. But it doesn’t mean it’s dead.
Dave and Fredo securing the number one slot with “Funky Friday” was a historic moment for UK rap. Was that inspiring for you?
Ah, it’s sick man. I’ve known Dave for a long time and done bare works with him so to see him represent the mandem in a sick way like that is inspiring. I remember watching Top Of The Pops back in the day, and you’d never see anyone representing you like that. If there was a Top Of The Pops now it’d be Dave and Fredo coming out at the end of the show! That’d be crazy.
You’ve taken to the airwaves on 1Xtra too recently, which is a station you grew up listening to. What was that moment like for you?
My show did bits! Obviously Kenny’s come in for Charlie Sloth but if they asked me in years to come, you know it’ll be flying. Having a real show on a platform I’ve listened to for time is crazy – I’m now just gonna try and boss it each and every time.
It’s gonna be vibes every time. Just bringing the mandem through for some Joints bits and having a good time. Maybe in the future we’ll get some young footballers in and talking about music, too.
You’ve taken elements of your Joints show from Radar. Does another platform need to come through in place now that Radar is gone?
Radar Radio wasn’t bothered about losing money. If they kept going I’m sure they’d have made more money long term. But they gave a space for young people to be creative and get better at mixing and presenting. You could just be an aspiring musician, come in and ask for support and they’d help you. An investor isn’t gonna come in and do that again. That’s why there needs to be more government backing for stuff like that and more youth clubs.
“I’m making new music for this generation, man.”
What are the sonics of your new mixtape like?
There’s little pieces here and there that are inspired by the ends but most of it is just about getting out of the ends and the society we’re in today. It’s new music for this generation, man. Migos and Travis Scott shit in terms of instrumentals, and then lyrically more like J Cole’s ‘K.O.D.’ type shit. Even old school Nas and shit, too. So it’s certified lyricism but over wavey, current beats…so you get the best from both and really hear that connection.
I feel like you can really listen through this project top to bottom and enjoy each and every track. It all connects too – from track 1 to track 10, it’s nothing but flows. I didn’t even mean for it to do that as well, it just happened proper organically. All the different vibes and feelings I was going through over the last six months sporadically have just seemed to link up in a real natural way on this one and it gives you a real good narrative of what I’ve been feeling and what shit’s been making me feel.
What’s the process been like in getting it together in that time?
It’s not been easy, there’s been stress, but we got it done innit. The album is pending. The show is gonna be on some real rockstar shit. No stage-diving though cos I’d probably kill them.
What do you want people to feel with the new tape?
Just to be happy with yourself, to be happy with life. I want people to feel the creative element that I’ve brought to it myself. I want people to understand how I’ve taken myself to the next level in terms of my production and lyricism. But basically, I just want people to have fun with it.
Photography by Danika Magdelena.