Rappers can be tough to interview — sometimes they’re reserved and hesitant to answer questions and give detail. Big Zuu, on the other hand, is gregarious and engaging from the start to the end of our chat. But, then again, he’s more than your average rapper.
He’s from West London, but not the Made In Chelsea part, Zuu grew up on the Mozart housing estate near Paddington. Despite being named for the Austrian virtuoso composer, the estate was and still is far from harmonious.
“Mozart has had a long history of problems with its surrounding, opposing areas (Ladbroke Grove, Harlesden, Kilburn) meaning regardless of whether you were involved in the beef or not, you had to watch your back just in case things ever got sticky,” Zuu wrote in a 2018 article for Crack magazine.
However, despite a less-than-ideal upbringing, Zuu has gone on to make a name for himself in the UK grime and rap scene, carving out an identity as a deeply skilled lyricist who effortlessly balances frivolity and deadly seriousness. “Imma Fresh Prince when I pop my Belaire / Dem man move like Vivian / But I’m tryna get the belly like Uncle Phil,” he raps on his “No Miming” freestyle for Tim & Barry TV — a veteran YouTube channel in the grime scene.
On the hook for “Variation,” however, Zuu gets on strong with his message: “Black Lives Matter, expose the racists / They don’t wanna see the people from ends go make it.” Don’t think for a second that Big Zuu is another run-of-the-mill grime MC. He also presents Big Zuu’s Big Eats for UK TV channel Dave. Zuu interviews and cooks for other celebrities, finding out what makes them tick and creating eminently watchable TV in the process.
The show was recommissioned for a second series, which is due to air later this year and, for Zuu, it’s far more than another presenting gig. “I think people are finally understanding our impact on the world and how representation is important and that people need to see where the change is going to come from,” Zuu says.
“We can pretend that it’s alright to not have Black people on TV, we can act like that’s cool but people have finally realized that, ‘wait, actually, it’s not cool,’” he continues. “When I made Big Eats, it was definitely before this kind of change in television was happening. The program got commissioned over two years ago and I’m really proud that they [UKTV] took a chance and it paid off, and now that Black Lives Matter has happened more and more people are getting it and understanding it.”
“I was very proud to be a part of the change and, again, I’m happy to see people coming through now,” Zuu says. “I think Big Narstie was the main factor in terms of making a difference because he opened the doors for us and you have to appreciate what he and Mo the Comedian have done on Channel 4.”
But, how does Zuu reconcile his burgeoning TV career with his cult status within the UK grime and rap scene?
“It’s weird, man,” he says. “It’s hard … I am … How can I put it, man? I’m a musician that does TV. It’s a weird one because I feel people are all like, ‘What do you want to do? What do you want to go on to? What do you want to become?’ Like all that shit, I’m just like, ‘Bro, I’m having fun,’ you know?” Zuu is clearly no stranger to having fun, either. In fact, he’s the only person to have appeared on both The Pengest Munch and Chicken Shop Date, aside from the Chicken Connoisseur.
But what does Zuu like to make himself? “In season two [of Big Eats], I made Harry Redknapp an African stew that had scotch bonnets in it and he was like ‘Cor blimey this is hot,’ but he liked it.”
His all-time favorite food, however, is lamb jollof rice. “The Salone way, we don’t blend the tomatoes, we stew them, which is a bit different, there’s a lot of love, a lot of passion,” he says. “We deep fry the meat before we put it in the stew, so the meat is triple-cooked, it gets steamed, then fried, then stewed,” he explains. “So the meat is tender, absolutely full of joy.”
“I’m not dissing the Nigerian jollof but the Salone one is full of joy,” Zuu laughs. While his favorite dish from season two of BigEats was the scotch bonnet stew he shared with Redknapp, his favorite guest was even more surprising at first glance.
“Mel G [Mel Giedroyc] from [The Great British] Bake Off!” Zuu exclaims. “We had amazing people like Maya Jama, Mo the Comedian, James Acaster, Rose Matafeo just to name a few, but with Mel G, she actually grew up where I grew up in Maida Vale — well she didn’t grow up, but she lived in Maida Vale, which is like the hood for me, that’s Mozart, but for her, it’s Maida Vale.”
“We was going back and forth talking about the area that we’ve spent a lot of our years in,” he continues. “But she had a completely different experience to mine, but we were still speaking about the same restaurants, the same butcher, the same cafes. Just connecting with her really showed me that when you bring two people from different worlds together, it really creates a beautiful conversation and it breaks down a lot of stereotypes and it gives people an understanding that you know what? Young people and older can fucking get on, bruv!”
Of course, Mel G and Big Zuu aren’t the only famous faces to arise out of the bit of West London that you don’t see on TV.
“West London’s popping off, man!” Zuu says “It’s getting there, slowly but surely, a lot of people used to sleep on West, they used to say, ‘Oh, who’s from West London?’ You know, the scene was really in East London and South London. West has never really been on the map like that, so with people like Fredo, Digga D, Central C, and AJ [Tracey] coming up and popping off, it’s a good time.”
But how does Big Zuu differentiate himself within such a congested scene? “[My music] is very conscious,” he says. “It’s kind of hard-hitting and I like to be thought-provoking, that’s one of my main things to make people think something. You don’t just hear my song and think ‘Oh, that’s a grime song’ or ‘Oh that’s a rap song’, I have my own flavor.”
“We’re trying to spread the message but also have fun with it,” he continues. “Music is about vibes but the roots of rap is in political messages and for me, it’s about sending the messages that I can and kind of aligning with what I grew up on with Tupac, Nas, Jay-Z, these people had fun with their music but also touched on real-life problems. I want to be able to have fun with my music but also make an impact.”
Zuu’s desire to push the boundaries of UK rap and grime goes simply beyond his music, however. The visuals that accompany his tracks, from “Variation” to “Duppy” and “Great to Be” are equally as impressive.
“With the visuals, I’ve never been the guy like ‘Yeah let’s just rent an apartment and get bare gyal,’” he says. “I’ve always been like, ‘How do I push out the boat?’ and make an impact in a world where music videos are very similar and the only way to not make your music video similar is to have a fucking crazy budget — which I don’t have!”
“I’ve always had to be creative with it,” he continues. “And it’s a testament to the directors that I work with and the effort they put into getting the videos done, and the fact that I’m not really picky, I like to let someone take their idea and let them flex with it. Obviously now I get more into it and I want to direct and I’m getting into that process now but it’s definitely important to me.”
Fortunately for us, despite the UK’s strict and prolonged lockdown measures, Zuu has managed to remain creative — on both his TV and musical projects. “I’ve been really lucky throughout this pandemic,” he says. “Some of my busiest times have been while this has been going on. I’ve been able to adapt and before this happened I recorded a project with my friends called ‘Royal Rumble,’ which we put out and then I also invested in a home studio, so I was really lucky that I preempted a global pandemic!”
“But I think that’s me just wanting to work more,” he says. “And it’s kind of paid off because I had access to a studio and music and could do stuff, I recorded a whole television show — I had a lot of ammo for COVID.”
That ammo should bear fruit soon as Zuu promises a new album this summer as well as at least “a couple of shows.” Given what Zuu has told us, this might be a summer to remember for the Mozart-born, Tupac-raised rapper-cum-chef with a conscience — we’ll certainly be watching his next moves.